Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "Belonging"

This episode could have been subtitled "What Makes the Nice Guys® So Dangerously Evil". And it was good. The angst, the origin story, the societal implications of demonstrating the horribleness of Nolan, Topher - it was all so good. And, I think it may have had a little something to do with the lack of Echo and the abso-fucking -lutely brilliant performances by Fran Kranz, Enver Gjokaj (of course!), and last but certainly nowhere near least, Dichen Lachman. Oh man. Sierra rocked.

But, since I consistently end with Topher, I'm going to start with him this week. What makes Topher so fascinating is that we are watching him "wake up". We are watching him make up his own moral system. More than watching those figures with compromised morality - Adelle, Boyd, Ballard - or watching those with an established morality - Echo - watching Topher evolve is a brilliant thing. That is partially because there are so few chances to actually watch someone come to morality. Usually, people we watch on television start with a moral code: they falter, they fall, their code shifts to encapsulate new data. But there has always been a code there. Topher has generally been proud of his lack of code, and was able to maintain that lack of code by a lack of contact. He could think of the Dolls as "hot chicks" or "toys". But once contact has been established, once he is pulled from being Science Guy, following orders to the person who has to think and explore and establish right and wrong for the people under his care, Topher runs right smack into morality. And he runs into seeing the Dolls as people, not simply as objects. When he tells Boyd Echo is the one who brought him the painting, tells Boyd that Echo has always been "mother hen" to Sierra, and Boyd asks pointedly if that is something Topher should look into, it flies right past. Because Topher is no longer thinking of Echo as a thing to be fixed but a person with reasons for acting. He is no longer thinking of Sierra as a potentially malfunctioning Doll but as a person with a problem - a problem he is complicit in continuing and one he is determined to solve.

Topher is as asleep as the Dolls wandering the halls. Topher is as able to "wake up" as the Dolls wandering the halls. And Adele's House mostly depends on both Topher and the Dolls not doing that. It isn't like this House is particularly free of the trials and tribulations of compromised engagements, mostly stemming from Echo. But it most definitely depends on the Dolls not evolving into self-aware entities, or Topher getting ooky about sending these people he now sees as people out on engagements. And Topher is getting ooky specifically because there is no one there to play that ooked out role for him now that Dr. Saunders/Whiskey has exited the building. In her, Topher created a safety net, a person who could have and act upon the moral code he lacked. He did it because, as he said, "If you agreed with everything I said, then we would miss something and someone would get hurt." But also, I think, because it allowed him to continue down his amoral path, unthinking of the consequences of his actions because he made sure someone else would be. The burden of being moral, of being vigilant, of caring, was placed on someone else's shoulders so that Topher wouldn't have to carry the load. With Saunders having now absconded with herself, Topher is alone with morally compromised people or immoral people. When he tries to reach out, to provoke some moral stance from one of his counterparts, he's not given what he needs. Instead, his lack of morality is met with the exact lack of judgement he doesn't need and can't work with or through:
TOPHER: You can't let them do this!
DEWITT: They're not going to do it. We are. And when I say we don't have a choice, know that I mean it.
TOPHER: Aren't we supposed to care for these people? Dr. Saunders would never have allowed...
DEWITT: Which Dr. Saunders would that be? (TOPHER RECOILS) The avuncular physician so brutally cut down not five feet from where you were standing? Or the last woman to whom you gave a permanent imprint? The other wounded flower you restored by offering her a new life? Who apparently found you so unbearable, she had to flee the city. Is it that one?
TOPHER: How can you expect me to do this?
ADELLE: You'll do it because you must. The cold reality is that everyone here was chosen because their morals have been compromised in some way. Everyone... except you. You, Topher, were chosen because you have no morals. You have always thought of people as playthings. This is not a judgement. You always take very good care of your toys. But you're simply going to have to let this one go.
And so he, rustily, having never done it before, starts to develop as the counterweight. And we all know (at least, those of us who watched Epitaph One) exactly how well that works out for him.

After attempting to prod Topher into looking further at Echo's problem-solving, art-interpreting, mother-henning tendencies in this hilarious scene (already discussed from the Topher Angle above):
BOYD: Is that where your hunch came from?
TOPHER: Yeah. It's Sierra's. Echo brought it to me. She was going on about a bad man. He's the blotch here, is what I'm getting.
BOYD: Echo brought it to you.
TOPHER: She's always been Mother Hen about Sierra.
BOYD: Should look into that.
TOPHER: I am! And so far, Echo's given me way more than you have.
Boyd decides to do some investigating himself. What he finds and how he reacts is one of the reasons I like Boyd, and yet don't trust Boyd. Boyd goes the same route of "If I don't do it, I am absolved" in the case of figuring out if the Dolls are beginning to evolve. Sending Topher after the intel wipes Boyd's hands clean if Topher comes back with an evaluation leading to a cleaning of Echo's slate or a more permanent home in the Attic. But if Boyd himself is forced to confront the reality of his former charge becoming more and more nascent, then his moral response shifts. He then responds with something more akin to protectiveness and solidarity, because he is forced to face the Echo he is protective of, the Echo he sees as a person, as extraordinary. Of course, I could be reading Boyd completely wrong and he could be the biggest backstabbing asshole in the world. It's up in the air at this point.

As for Echo, well, her lack of role in this episode made her brief moments kind of enjoyable. She had to do nothing other than be a semi-aware blank slate, so I'm sure that helped. But her evolution and her pushing others to evolve is actually - wait for it! - interesting.
BOYD: Echo, when did you learn how to lie?
ECHO: Am I in trouble?
BOYD: Not from me. But there are people who would be very upset if they knew what you were doing.
ECHO: Reading?
BOYD: You brought the painting to Topher. You're pushing. The Actives, the staff... What you're doing could have consequences you can't predict or control. Some people are not ready to wake up.
ECHO: I don't care. Something bad is coming, like a storm - and I want everyone to survive it. They need to wake up.
Maybe it is because Echo is treading upon familiar territory to Whedonites, the person (woman) pushing the story forward. It isn't exactly new ground, and yet it is familiarly comforting. It is where Whedon and his acolytes tend toward their most righteous, and I tend to agree with them. It is in the idea that we are all existing in Plato's cave, that we have to see the shadows for what they are and deal with the fact that the sun shining in our eyes hurts. Because the opposite is to remain chained to UnReality, and that leads to things like entire planets being decimated in the name of a Greater Good and creating monstrous cannibals or beautiful people being commodified in houses so the rich and powerful can pay to play in their own personal Utopian fantasies. And that? Isn't so great for the poor, unconnected individuals who have to live in that world with those forces.

And now, Sierra. A while ago, Emily at See Emily Blog wrote about George Sondini, and Kate Harding's No More Mr. Nice Guy article. Why am I bringing this up? Because one of the first scenes in Belonging is:
NOLAN: Sneaking out?
PRIYA: I was just looking for you to say goodbye.
NOLAN: Why are you so eager to leave? I mean, everyone is here to adore you.
PRIYA: Enjoy the painting, Nolan.
NOLAN: Come on, come on. Stay a little longer, Priya.
PRIYA: The painting's yours. My job here is done. I'm going now.
NOLAN: Why? So you can give it up to some guy you just met?
NOLAN: I've pulled out all the stops. I mean, this is our big night. We've, we've, we've -
PRIYA: No, this isn't our night.
NOLAN: We've planned for this.
PRIYA: There's no we.
NOLAN: No, look, I have - I've offered you everything. What else do you want?
PRIYA: I want to walk out the damn door.
NOLAN (stopping her from walking out the damn door): Hey. What did you expect, huh? Day after day, just dangling it in front of my face, seducing me.
PRIYA: Seducing? You're crazy, Nolan. It's all in your head. Get off me!
NOLAN: I'm sorry. I'm not going to take no for an answer. Alright? I'll do anything.
PRIYA: Stop it! You disgust me. Nothing in this world could ever make me love you.
And the tension I felt, sitting on my couch, just praying (figuratively, of course) Priya wouldn't be quite so wonderfully assertive, wouldn't be quite so open and honest with her very own Nice Guy®, stems from what Emily writes, namely
In the times I’ve been alone, I definitely don’t want to risk making the man angry, or having him come after me in any way. I’m sure few, if any, of these men were capable of violence, but it wasn’t a risk I was willing to take, even if some of them deserved a firm “leave me alone right now.”
Being assertive, being unwilling to smile demurely and go along with the uncomfortable levels of attention and uncalled for expectations of ownership, sometimes takes a horrific turn. Not that every girl ends up pumped full of anti-psychotics and then mind-wiped and brain-washed, but the threat of violence, of retaliation and retribution for something you haven't done is very real. And it is there. And every time a guy goes to the equivalent of, "But I did X,Y, & Z, so why didn't she fall into my bed?" it demonstrates the idea that women can be bought, can be controlled, and can be persuaded to stay, to love, and to give a lot of sex to people they Just. Aren't. Attracted. To.

But what I like about this is, well, how clearly it lays out the whole Nice Guy® thing. Becoming makes it absolutely clear Nolan is someone who, actually, doesn't like women very much. And that's highlighted by the Confrontation Scene:
PRIYA: I'm not your lab rat any more, Nolan. I'm free, clear-headed. It feels good.
NOLAN: What, and you uh, came here to get revenge for a year of loving every minute of it?
PRIYA: Did I love it? Must not have been very memorable. I remember you poisoning me, locking me up, but I have not a single memory of the year where I apparently liked you.
NOLAN: Oh, we-we had some good times.
PRIYA: Mmm, I got filled in on all the details. Brainwashing. Talk about desperate. You know, they even programmed me to think it was endearing how quick you were.
NOLAN: You were mine.
PRIYA: I'm sorry. I don't think I was faithful to you.
NOLAN: Yeah, I let them whore you out to anyone.
PRIYA: No, it's something else. It's someone uh, someone I trust. He helps me. He thrills me
NOLAN: Yeah, I know, see, it worked. You told me that you love me a hundred times. I changed you.
PRIYA: No, it's not you. I managed to fall for someone else.
NOLAN: You think this is cute?
PRIYA: It's absurd. I don't remember meeting him or even spending a moment with him. But I can feel it stronger than anything. I'm crazy about him! I love him so much more than I hate you.
The vitriol Nolan spews at Priya when he says, "Yeah, I let them whore you out to anyone" is not the typical statement of someone who loves women, or even a specific woman. It is someone who thinks you can dirty a woman by making her have a lot of sex. It is someone who thinks that victimizing a woman somehow demeans and delegitimatizes her. It is someone who is very clearly not a nice guy; instead, he's just a guy who is willing to spend a lot of money on objects for someone he considers his own object. Kind of like buying outfits and accessories for your Build-A-Bear. He - and those Nice Guys® like him - fancy that they are bringing some pleasure to this person they want, that the pleasure they supply somehow gives them power and control over that person, and that if the person rejects the gifts or rejects the man after accepting the gifts, she has not followed protocol and deserves to be punished. Because, obviously, the very act of lusting after a woman means that she (a) intended you to, and (b) you have an implicit right to her - her attention and her body. That person? Is the epitome of not a nice guy. And watching Priya, being made to see the world and story through Priya, makes it clear exactly how not nice a guy, how creepy, that guy really is.

Things of Note:
  • Dichen Lachman is incredible. Going from Priya to Wiped Sierra, there was palpable change on screen. I'm still on the "Yay Ra-Ra Enver Gjokaj" team, but Dichen is quickly creeping up on the Whoa Factor.
  • What in the hell was Priya thinking, in the whole not tying Nolan up first before confronting him?
  • "We gotta run. We gotta run. We've gotta get out of here." Was Topher preparing to run completely away with Priya? If Boyd hadn't shown up, would there be three members of the Dollhouse "going rogue" (sorry, I couldn't help myself) this season?
  • Topher on telling Adelle about Priya: "We gotta tell her. She's gonna flip her biscuits. Unless she already knows..." In the beginning, Topher declared you couldn't have a conspiracy theory while in the employe of the conspiracy (per the unaired episode). I guess those days are gone.
  • So many backward references! Awesome!
  • Sierra and Victor's love! Aw!
  • I'm impressed if anyone made it this far into the post.
And, done.

Grade: A+

Quote(s) of the Episode:

PRIYA: Am I allowed to have beer in here? Or is this my last one?
TOPHER: No, you're allowed. On special occasions.

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