Further thoughts on Dollhouse

Episode six of Dollhouse was widely hyped as the point where the show kicked up a gear, probably so that the fans would hang in there through the opening episodes, which ranged from mediocre to mediocre with a side helping of exploitation cake. And surprisingly, while it doesn’t live up to the hype, coupled with the episode before it does give me hope that there’s something more to the series than I initially thought.

The first four episodes were hampered by a mission of the week which never convinced me that there was any need for a doll, rather than a similarly skilled person who would do the job for a lot less money. I wouldn’t mind an unconvincing scenario so much if it was entertaining. Episode five, ‘True Believer’, was the first sign that there was the potential for something better, with a more convincing need for a doll and a less predictable plot, as well as more scenes with a fully-clothed Eliza Dushku, but it still fell some way short of greatness.

‘Man on the Street’ is another step up in quality. In Joel Myner’s hiring of a woman to pretend, if only for a day, that the woman he loved is still alive and well, we get a situation I can see that someone would hire a doll for, instead of the non-active with the same skills who could do the job for a lot less money and a lot less hassle. It’s even briefly sympathetic, until Ballard punctures it with the difference between his fantasies and Myner’s – however unhealthy his fantasies about Caroline/Echo are, he isn’t using an innocent to make them come true. And the final scene, where Echo returns to complete the assignment cut short by Ballard, nicely conflicts our sympathy towards Myner with the inherent skeeviness of the dollhouses, and guest star Patton Oswalt pulls off a tricky role which could easily have been unredeemably loathsome. (Even if it was distracting when I spent the first scene wondering why he was so damn familiar.)

It’s also the episode where Ballard gets to be more than the cliche of FBI agent chasing the case no one else believes in, even if I suspect some of it is unintentional. It’s clear that while he might be a good investigator, he’s also obsessive about this case, and not afraid to use violence against anyone who he sees as standing in his way, although I think that what I’m supposed to take away from the fight scenes is how enjoyably badass he is, not how much he enjoys a fight. This being a Joss Whedon show, once he got to the happy post-coital scene with his neighbour it was inevitable that something horrible was about to befall her, and while the revelation of her secret active identity is not much of a revelation, I’d rather have that than have her end up dead, and it sets up the potentially interesting conflicts when Ballard realises what and who she is. And is an FBI agent really supposed to reveal the details of his cases to the woman next door, even if she does make him lasagne?

The third pairing, and probably the least satisfactory, is that of Sierra and her rape at the hands of her handler. Despite the red herring of Victor, her handler was so obviously dodgy that the identity of her abuser wasn’t a surprise, and it was deeply unsettling because of both the doll’s downtime personalities being so naive and childlike, and the speedy resolution of how Sierra would be just fine now he’s out of the way. My interest in this development is more for the character of Boyd – I want to see just how a character who feels so strongly about Sierra’s abuse that he punches a man through a plate glass window can reconcile that with working for the Dollhouse, which performs the same abuse on a wider scale, and how he fell so far from his presumably moral and upstanding past as an officer of the law.

The episode also delivers some hints about where the overall plot is heading, with the Dollhouse revealed to be an international organisation which does not necessarily exist just to provide the doll’s services. This makes sense not just because the Dollhouses themselves take some hiding, but because it gives them a purpose beyond the rather unconvincing mission of the week assignments. And there’s a mole in the Dollhouse, which I am hoping will be Topher, if only because I still find him to be creepy and arrogant and not at all funny.

Dollhouse stil has an uphill struggle to get past the problems inherent in the premise – it’s noteable that the best episode so far is one which keeps Echo and her assignment in the background for much of the episode. I still can’t see where it can go in the long-term, because the more they engage with the disturbing nature of the dollhouses, the less I want to watch them try and do a fun personality of the week episode. For now they’ve demonstrated enough potential to keep me watching.

15 Responses to “Further thoughts on Dollhouse

  1. Niall Says:

    The first four episodes were hampered by a mission of the week which never convinced me that there was any need for a doll, rather than a similarly skilled person who would do the job for a lot less money

    I find there’s a correlation between how well-defined the personality of the week is and how willing I am to believe that a doll is the best fit for that role. If you need a hostage negotiator, you have many options; if you need Eleanor Penn, you need the Dollhouse. Or at least that’s what I think they were shooting for there.

    Relatedly, one of the things I liked about “Man on the Street” is that it clearly tabled the question of how “real” the created personalities and their experiences are. I think it is potentially a valid and coherent philosophical position to assert that the personalities Topher creates are real, and that their subjective experiences are real; which is to say, although “Mellie” is a doll, there is a person called “Mellie” and she is falling in love with Ballard, even if she was built that way and can be switched off. Which is to say, if the doll is wiped, Mellie is killed.

    Ultimately I don’t think that’s where the writers want to go — I think that at some point they’re going to unambiguously assert that the original personality is the “real” one, that “Mellie” doesn’t really exist (and that Ballard therefore raped the doll, albeit unknowingly). But I’m glad they’re at least thinking about alternative interpretations. Relatedly, I liked what this post has to say about the activation of Mellie.

    I was also struck that the episode asked not just what makes individual experience real or meaningful, but what makes connections between individuals, shared experiences, real and meaningful. Or at least how people delude themselves into believing that a shared experience is real and meaningful. Ballard and Millie; Ballard and Echo; Hearn and Sierra; Victor and Sierra; Mynor and Rebecca. Even Ballard’s connections are compromised and challenged by the end of the episode.

    (Even if it was distracting when I spent the first scene wondering why he was so damn familiar.)

    Who is he?

    And there’s a mole in the Dollhouse, which I am hoping will be Topher, if only because I still find him to be creepy and arrogant and not at all funny.

    Well, he is creepy and arrogant. I don’t want him to be the mole for precisely that reason; the Dollhouse is an ugly organization using ugly technology, and it should contain ugly people.

  2. Liz Says:

    Relatedly, I liked what this post has to say about the activation of Mellie.

    Ooh, I like the idea about the greater purpose of the Dollhouse to unlock latent abilities and how it fits with the existing story. I’m also hoping they won’t go in that direction, because the attempts to explain any of the “science” involved in making the dolls are sketchy at best, and I don’t know if they can pull it off.

    Who is he?

    He’s the voice of Remy in Ratatouille, which is possibly what the “Bouncy the Rat” gags are aiming for.

    (I don’t really want Topher to be the mole, I just want him to go away. DeWitt and Hearn and Boyd and Nameless Security Guy will do me for ugly. )

  3. Eric Says:

    I think it is potentially a valid and coherent philosophical position to assert that the personalities Topher creates are real, and that their subjective experiences are real; which is to say, although “Mellie” is a doll, there is a person called “Mellie” and she is falling in love with Ballard, even if she was built that way and can be switched off. Which is to say, if the doll is wiped, Mellie is killed.

    I hope you’re wrong about the writers’ ultimate direction. It seems to me *these* are the questions with some meat to them, and they could make for genuinely difficult SFnal dilemmas. What will/should Ballard do if given the opportunity to restore Mellie’s original personality?

    I’ve thought all along that the premise was inherently flawed, but “Man on the Street” did a great deal to address those concerns. I’m glad the Dollhouse is more than a rather impractical business model. I’m glad Ballard served as the viewpoint character rather than a B-plot. And I’m glad we have Mellie, a doll character with a consistent personality, to reinforce the sort of questions Niall raises above.

  4. Abigail Says:

    One of my problems with the idea of doll technology from the start is that it’s always made more sense to me as a long-term thing. Think of the ubiquitous helper characters in fiction – the Alfreds and Mammies, and other less subservient characters who nevertheless have nothing better to do with their lives than to help and take care of the protagonist. Most people are, quite rightly, too wrapped up in their own issues to ever dedicate themselves so wholeheartedly to another person, which strikes me as a more believable kind of niche for this technology than prostitution or midwifery. I think there’s even a recent interview with Whedon where he says that he envisioned dolls taking ‘life coach’ roles, and Mellie and Ballard’s romance has that aspect to it – she’s the perfect girlfriend who believes in him and cares about the things he cares about.

    Of course, this kind of use doesn’t gel with the assignment-of-the-week format, so I’m wondering how often we’ll see any of the dolls, much less Echo, being put to it.

  5. cofax Says:

    And there’s a mole in the Dollhouse, which I am hoping will be Topher, if only because I still find him to be creepy and arrogant and not at all funny.

    I think it’s unlikely to be Topher because the episode pretty clearly set it up that the cassette with Echo’s agent personality was the one that Topher walked away from when he went to speak with Boyd. Which makes me think the mole is the woman scientist/assistant, possibly working with Boyd.

    I’m with Niall and Eric: I think the legitimacy of these implanted personalities is one of the major questions of the series. Is Mellie’s personality her original personality, and the sleeper the only construct, or is all of her “fake”? And if so, how long has she been in place? How long can such an implanted personality last? How well does it develop? Can she change, or is she locked into that template?

    I’m far more interested in this show after this episode than I was a week ago, I must admit.

  6. Liz Says:

    I considered whether Mellie’s personality is her real personality with the sleeper construct added, but I’m betting it is a total fake. She seems too much the perfect girl next door to be unaltered, and it doesn’t seem like something the Dollhouse would do – why leave the imperfect original personality in there, when you can wipe the whole thing and make it perfect?

  7. Nick Says:

    “you can wipe the whole thing and make it perfect”

    Don’t they say in the first episode that they can’t make them perfect? Hence steely hostage negotiator Echo having asthma and crippling nerves? Or have they forgotten about this now?

  8. ianras Says:

    > Which is to say, if the doll is wiped, Mellie is killed.

    Isn’t that overstating it a little? A mind wipe is essentially controlled brain damage.

    I also suspect that Whedon’s going to assert that the original personality at least contained the core of the real self; I’m pretty sure he’s a Sartrean existentialist and if Dollhouse goes on long enough, we’ll see Echo’s ‘becoming’. Which will yield a messy story because its philosophical underpinnings are a mess.

  9. Abigail Says:

    A mind wipe is essentially controlled brain damage.

    Damage that erases the memories, experience and personality of the person in question. It’s obviously one of the show’s goals to ask what’s left when all of these things are removed, but I think it’s fair to say that whatever it is, it’s not the original person. More importantly, Mellie is an entity distinct from the original personality of the doll currently playing her, and from the doll’s personality in its resting place. When the imprint is removed, she effectively ceases to exist, though the fact that characters have spoken of repeat engagements suggests that there may be retention of memories and experiences within the imprints, which can be restored upon re-imprinting.

    Which, of course, leads me to speculate that at some point the Mellie imprint will be loaded onto a different doll, perhaps even Echo.

  10. Arnold Bocklin Says:

    Remember, by the sixth episode of Buffy it hadn’t even been revealed the Angel was a vampire. Dollhouse is just beginning, and if previous Whedon shows are a guide, it will change profoundly – I’m expecting it to look like a completely different show by the end of the season.

  11. Niall Says:

    Which, of course, leads me to speculate that at some point the Mellie imprint will be loaded onto a different doll, perhaps even Echo.

    Oh, now that would be disturbing. But of course you’re right, that’s a definite possibility; Mynor could be foreshadowing.

  12. Hannah Says:

    It’s even briefly sympathetic, until Ballard punctures it with the difference between his fantasies and Myner’s – however unhealthy his fantasies about Caroline/Echo are, he isn’t using an innocent to make them come true.

    Isn’t he?

    (Aside from the part where he can’t seem to get his hands on the “innocent” in question…)

  13. Eric Says:

    Isn’t he?

    Well, no, I don’t think so. Not yet. Not unless you want “use” to encompass such a broad range of meaning that the word is rendered meaningless.

  14. ianras Says:

    > Damage that erases the memories, experience and personality of the person in question. It’s obviously one of the show’s goals to ask what’s left when all of these things are removed, but I think it’s fair to say that whatever it is, it’s not the original person.

    I think it’s fair to say it’s a changed person. I know that may sound like a distinction without a difference but were a person to suffer a stroke and lose memories, speech and the ability to draw circles, we wouldn’t say the original person had ceased to be; we’d say that it was the original person who had lost memories, speech and the ability to draw circles.

    > More importantly, Mellie is an entity distinct from the original personality of the doll currently playing her, and from the doll’s personality in its resting place.

    I think Mellie is a distinct personality, not a distinct person. Mellie is something that has happened to the Miracle Laurie active and when she gets wiped, there’ll still be a continuity between Mellie and the blank state doll.

  15. ianras Says:

    That last ‘it’ my first paragraph makes me sound like a serial killer. ‘She/he’ rather.


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