Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "The Public Eye"

CINDY: Remind me why I love you so much.
PERRIN: I'm your white knight.
CINDY: And I'm your beautiful damsel.
PERRIN: Ever after.
Whoa. Whoa! Dollhouse, how I've missed you!

First, I have to alert everyone that I did not see the Perrin reveal coming and merely thought Whedon had decided to play against trope simply by letting us in on the secret of Cindy being the Doll instead of having a Mellie/Angel(us) situation overtake us and giving me a heart attack in the midst of that process. This led to me going, "Oh, Daniel, you're going to be soooo surprised when you find out your wife is a --- HOLY MOTHER OF GOD YOU'RE TOTALLY A DOLL!!!!!!!!!"

That was pretty much my reaction exactly. Luckily, as the Monk series finale was going to be on at 9 and I didn't feel like switching televisions mid-stream, I was alone with my outburst.

Now, let's unpack that one interaction, the one that happens multiple times over the course of the episode(s). Whoa!!! Dollhouse is totally calling out the prince-princess phenom! I'm totally going to try to limit my use of the word "totally" (that may or may not happen)! Let's discuss. Perrin is, literally, a made man. He is, literally, imbued with a cultural mindset regarding princes and princesses and happily ever afters. He is, well, us. All of us. All of us Disney-lovin' folk out here. He is existing within the false consciousness of traditional gender norms, as exemplified by the prince-princess meme! Whoa, I say!

This may be where I should note that at the age of 18 or so, I was completely against the idea of false consciousness in philosophical terms. My mind is my mind, right? What I'm thinking, I decide to think. My thoughts are my own, my feelings are my own, and I am totes an individual. Yeah, not so much with that mindset any more, and I love Dollhouse for exploring that same "awakening", that same idea that we all think we are masters of our own destiny and space - and how we are more than influenced by the world in which we live in. Dollhouse takes it a bit further, what with the whole "actually wiping people's brains and making them other people" thing, but the premise is still the same. And right here, we have the constructed romance portion of our journey; plus, it really highlights how much the White Knight construct has played a part in the journey of various characters thus far. But there's another side to this construct too, and that is the paternalistic nature of this philosophical theory (and, in fact, one of the reasons I railed against it at first):
MADELINE: I almost wish I hadn't seen it. But then I wouldn't be here. And there are still people being held captive by the Dollhouse. They don't even know they need help. So, that means we have to help.
In the world of the Dollhouse, it is easy to see Madeline as someone who once was blind but now sees, just as it is easy to see Echo in that role. It is easy to see how all of the other Dolls - Victor, Sierra, Kilo, etc. - really don't know they need help and who need outside forces to come and rescue them; to open their eyes to the fact they are being used and manipulated and are trapped in the Cave, staring at shadows on a wall. But the question immediately becomes, "Who are you, to tell me I am blind and you can see?" And that question is hard to answer; it is hard to answer because all are blind. Madeline is not free, no matter how much she believes it or Ballard wishes it. She still contains the underlying architecture of a Doll; she is still not truly an actor of her own free will. She is still one who doesn't see the whole picture. As is Perrin; he is a True Believer; he sees himself as that White Knight, that guy who will ride in and rescue the Dolls and lead them back to their true selves. He will be the one to show the world the evils of the Rossum Corporation. But he is not free; he is one who is also being held captive by the Dollhouse, one who doesn't even know he needs help. And so, Dollhouse the show both demonstrates the idea of false consciousness and questions, seriously questions, our ability to find a White Knight who will lead us out of such a situation. Because the White Knight, whomever he or she may be, is just as ensnared as ourselves, except perhaps in a different way. As Ballard says, "Nobody ever really leaves here, do they?" None of us are free of the Dollhouse.

And then there's this:
PERRIN: Listen to me. You've been manipulated. You were probably desperate and alone, and they used that against you. Forced you to be a slave so the wealthy can have a play toy. It's despicable.
BREE: Look, you're very sweet, but you should know - I like what I do. You're not the first john who thinks he can save me.
If Bree really was Bree and not Echo, she could very well be right. That is the problem with a paternalistic approach to an issue. Even if 9 out of 10 people in Bree's exact situation would possibly want to be saved, there is always that 10th Brie out there making an informed decision, and who is in a position she, to the best of her ability, chooses to be in. This obviously goes for sex workers. But it also goes for other things. Paternalism, because it is based in the belief that the actor knows better than the acted upon, limits the ability for the acted upon to say, "Hey, not me! Go save those people over there. I know what I'm doing." And paternalism, the "poor souls" aspect of it, is what offers the justification for the Westernization of nations who were probably doing okay before Europeans or Americans decided to come in, "civilize" the nation, and take as payment a whole host of natural resources. So, is Dollhouse saying we should ignore people's own wishes and instead work off the premise that everyone who doesn't think like us is obviously hideously deluded? I think, no. And I think that, because the show has been rather clear about the absence of White Knights and of the fallibility of those who hold themselves up as saviors. I think that, because of Perrin's reaction to when he discovered he himself was a Doll. And, I think that because of DeWitt's reading of the situation:
With Perrin under his power, Harding controls how far the damage goes. The Senate Subcommittee will clear Rossum of any contact with us. And Perrin will be hailed as the conquering hero who's rescued all these poor souls. He'll have the political capital to pass whatever laws and regulations Rossum's programmed him to.
One where altruistic White Knight impulses are really hiding something much less about saving the victims and much more about profiting. With that, it becomes somewhat more clear that there is no easy "I know best" answer to this question.

Onto Topher, who is, of course, my favorite. This week, what makes him my favorite comes mostly in the second part of this two-part episode extravaganza, but he still has moments of note here in the first act. Most notably,
It'll knock out any Doll in a ten-foot radius, including a pesky Sleeper like Cindy, without actually harming real people like us.
Which is a bit of privilege harboring there that is still present in Epitaph One, the idea that there are real people, Actuals, and then there are fake people, those people who have had the misfortune of becoming a Doll - or a victim of errant and randomized Doll-making technology. And it is troubling. We know he listens to Echo and worked to protect Sierra when she was in trouble. We know that he has referred to the Dolls as people in the past. But are these (Sierra, Echo) flukes, the "I have a friend who's a Doll" of Topher's life that allows him to think he thinks of Dolls as people because he interacts a few that he does see as people? Or does he actually see Dolls, as a whole, as "real people", and this bit of "real people" is just a bit of unconscious "I haven't had my architecture Activized" privilege seeping through? I tend to think it is more of Column A than Column B, and that is partially why I like Topher. He's a person, and he has prejudices and biases, and one of the interesting aspects of Dollhouse is watching Topher evolve.

Now, for some issues.
ECHO: She's not right.
TOPHER: We got that the first time, Echo.
BALLARD: She doesn't mean Madeline.
Why does no one see this, that Echo can sense or tell or reason out in just a glance when people aren't right, as a problem? Isn't that bizarre? Shouldn't they all be going, "oooo"? But no. These three guys just accept that Echo can do this, and go on their merry way working on the assumption she's right. Which is good, because she kind of is. But it is bad, because (a) they didn't ask her to elaborate ("Not right, how?" would have been my first question), and (b) obviously the wheels on the controlling-Echo train have come completely off. I guess I can explain this one away by it being Ballard and Boyd and Topher, with one person who knows exactly how much Echo is evolving, one person who is aware Echo is evolving, and one person who considers Echo a friend and because of that seems to accept Echo's evolution implicitly - but it still seems like something that should generate some sort of pause for one of them.

Also, why are there books around for the Dolls to find and read? I mean, really. If you don't want your Dolls to start developing, why put around things that will help them develop? If you don't think your Dolls will ever be able to retain, why shove something out there into their world that requires retaining?

I have to geek out about a few things as well. First, the fight between Cindy Perrin and Echo-Bree. It was pretty cool how the scene kept jumping to previous instances of people attacking Echo, and to see her respond.

But foremost is this: Summer-freakin'-Glau. Summer Glau is one of my favorite Whedon-actors; that is, she is among my favorites who have been in various Whedon projects. Alan Tudyk is up there as well, but I think Glau is number one on the list. I'm so happy to see her. And I love Bennett, in that weird "I really shouldn't but I do" way.

Grade: A

Quotes of the Episode:

ECHO: I'm on your team!
PERRIN: I love her.
ECHO: I know. (Hits Perrin) But I don't have that problem.

PERRIN: You want to take me to them? They're all bad guys, Bree!
ECHO: I think her bad guys are badder than my bad guys!

BENNETT: I assumed we'd fill him with travel memories - a layover in Milwaukee, some turbulence. And something to explain any dehydration or disorientation. Bad shrimp or... or a film with a dog.


Anonymous said...

As always, loved your post on Dollhouse. I nearly stood up and cheered when you mentioned the "Disneyfication" of us all. Yeah, WHOA! All along I have felt that Joss' intent was to make us realize that we are all Dolls, at least to some degree. Check out my comment here: before the shows aired.

One of my favorite quotes from the show was Topher's "I'm all alone here." He was riffing on something and noone knew what he was talking about.

I laughed more during these shows than in the whole first season. Not that the tone of the show was humorous, but even though Joss didn't write it, there were so many "funny" lines and scenes throughout.

I have to say that I despised Topher until a few eps back. I couldn't stand that he treated the Dolls as inanimate objects, much like lab rats are treated in research. But again, I think that's the foundation of this show - we mere mortals are nothing more than lab rats to the uber wealthy and powerful. Feudalism is alive and well, we just call it something else in America.

Thanks for sharing your insightful perspective.

Connie Graham, Orlando, FL

petpluto said...

As always, loved your post on Dollhouse. I nearly stood up and cheered when you mentioned the "Disneyfication" of us all. Yeah, WHOA!

I'm so glad!

ll along I have felt that Joss' intent was to make us realize that we are all Dolls, at least to some degree.

Exactly. I thought the show was always about exploring who we are and what influences cause us to be. How much any of us are really "real". Except, he chose to do it more squickily, because that's what offers more in the way of philosophical examination.

I have to say that I despised Topher until a few eps back. I couldn't stand that he treated the Dolls as inanimate objects, much like lab rats are treated in research.

I'm sure if someone other than Fran Kranz had Topher, I wouldn't have liked him nearly as much. But from the beginning, I was left with the impression that it wasn't Dolls v. Actuals for him, but that since he was wholly without a moral code, he'd use anyone for any purpose. And that character interested me, and how Joss made me like him interested me. What made me love him was his evolution, and the fact that once he had to object to things, he began to grow.

we mere mortals are nothing more than lab rats to the uber wealthy and powerful.


Thanks for sharing your insightful perspective.

Thank you for reading it!

Anonymous said...

One final comment: like you, my two favorite writers are Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin. Thought provoking, intelligent and writers who take us on emotional rollercoasters. Who could ask for anything more?