Thursday, March 12, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.2 - "The Target"

Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).

The Engagement: Echo is Engaged for a weekend sex-and-camping romp which turns unpleasant when Richard, the psychopathic client, starts hunting her with a bow and arrow. Handler Boyd Langton attempts to extract his charge from the chase, but when he is wounded, his assigned Active has to call upon her own strengths for salvation. Meanwhile, it turns out that Alpha probably set the whole thing up. Plus bonus flashbacks of the massacre of Dollhouse staff at Alpha's hands after he went bonkers. Elsewhere, Agent Ballard makes zero progress.


DOLLHOUSE 2: "The Target"

So. My normal way of watching, the normal trust I place in a show or story, is kaput. Not all narrators or depictions of events are trustworthy, of course. But I do like to look at Sarah Michelle Gellar's face and know that, barring unwholesome possession or Hellmouth hijinks, "Buffy" is there for me. She's a constantly changing Buffy -- to maul the Heraclitus quote, you can never step twice on the same Buffy hiding in the bushes on patrol -- but she has continuity...and now we have Dollhouse, whose very premise complicates the notion of someone being There, There to invest energy in, care about, relate to, follow from week to week along a satisfying continuous throughline. My default feeling about Echo is curious but cold. Very blank. She feels removed by several degrees of interference, refraction, craft. She feels several prisms away.

"Target"'s plot appears crafted to seem moronic and arbitrary. Echo flails through the woods for thirty minutes, and I don't really care, because no one's There; it's like watching an animal run. I feel vague, unspecific sympathy. I thought at first that this would turn out to be a Human story with a Buffylike twist, that maybe the escaped psycho-imprint had hopped from Alpha's to another body, that now it sought vengeance on the IMPRINT inhabiting Echo...another showdown between ghosts, another "I Only Have Eyes for You," (BtVS 2.19) a little reincarnation riff (bodies may be traded in but souls live and war on...etc). Then it turned out not to be Alpha but a hired goon, and I realized my hypothesized story would have been predictably neat. There is no larger purpose or resonance or clever plot-engineering going on with Richard himself. He's just an asshole playing his role. Then I sort of tested your thought from last week - "They're all playing roles, right? And the show knows this?"

Watching Echo run and be hunted feels dumb, artificial, cliched. I'm watching a character be put through her paces, follow diagrams drawn on some writers' chalkboard...which she IS. THIS IS ARTIFICE, TAKE A GOOD LOOK, the show seems to say. And then larger issues of authorship and storytelling start rolling in -- the surveillance occurring back at HQ, Topher's role in creating Alpha, Adelle's orchestrations, even decisions like keeping the Actives ignorant of self-defense -- all about control, shaping, parenting, metaphorical authorship, and commentary on our comfort with TV. We know there's another episode next week, we know Eliza D. isn't going anywhere, we know Echo won't die, so all that was formerly urgent and suspenseful and riveting in another TV era becomes purified and distilled into and presented as Pure Idea or Pure Concept - Wilderness Adventure Fun Time, Peril In The Woods, Drama, Deathmatch, etc. It's like Dollhouse is purging our heads of all that's come before, nodding to old storyforms and clearing the way for something new and puzzling. (Mirrored, of course, in the way Dollhouse procedures market Character, turn it into a nameable, describable, packageable thing - "You've seen these people a million times.") I keep thinking (hoping) this distancing must be deliberate, a consciously chosen effect implemented that something else might take root underneath it, behind it. One curtain of deceit being woven so that something else can incubate in peace behind it. Certain viewerly assumptions are being shot to hell so that new ones can grow.

But at other times the show seems to shoot for conventional, cheesy effects - Echo sees Carolines in the woods? They keep her from getting killed? Aww. That's nice and reincarnational too, former selves boosting you even when consciousness of continuity is lost. But I prefer this vagueness and cloudedness that I feel right now, like the business on the screen is just the tip of what's going on.

One more thought, also related to how the show problematizes storytelling and invention - every personality of Echo's that we see onscreen will, miraculously, make Good TV. Echo's never going to play a wallflower or an introvert or a mute or take on any characteristics close to "weak" or "retiring" - or that don't film well. (Not that clients would request them anyway). The very realities of TV and scriptwriting and acted drama and viewerly theory of mind demand that her Imprints all be highly extroverted. Already her field is narrowed. So there, too, something Larger than the world Of the show is engineering the show. (Note, 3/11/09: previews for Episode 5 seem to prove me wrong about this.)

* * * * *

Y'know, dreaming about Dollhouse, during the months before it premiered, part of the excitement was over the very possibility of it all. The infinite flexibility of the premise, in a perfect financial vacuum, means that one week it could be Mission: Impossible, the next week it can be My Dinner With Andre. I'm not privy to dispatches between FOX and Mutant Enemy, but I wonder if the program will be in perpetual action-adventure mode as it pushes forward.

"The Target": Life Worth Living, Story Worth Telling

That scene of Agent Ballard turning down his lovestruck neighbor's lasagna, I bet you $10,000 pretend-bet dollars that's a Joss Whedon scene. And it's the best one in the episode.

Here's the build diagram for Whedon shows. Two of them anyway (Firefly, didn't last and Dollhouse is too young, but seems to conform). OneStory split into season arcs which are organized with invisible chapters as mini-arcs. These take the shape of plot events and character drama dependent on the individual beast, and within those arcs, micro-story episode plots which are devised to highlight whatever the characters are going through in this arm of the macrostructure. Both Dollhouse #1 & 2 have had standard-issue genre episode plots which aren't, of course, either the real hook or what the master planner is up to in the big game. We think of the tale of "Buffy vs The Master" as BtVS S1, we don't focus on "Teacher's Pet". Not to sell the merits of the OneStory anyway.

Pity or not pity, but I don't personally need to see another "Most Dangerous Game" riff (short here, for "rip-off") in this lifetime. But the action-adventure program will eventually go there, just like the s-f show will eventually lapse into Killer Computer episode. So in today's episode of Eternal Re-Hash of "The Most Dangerous Game" we highlight gender politics and power dynamics in hunter-prey relationships, and the related stalk-and-slash horror genre plays peekaboo through a gauze of Been Here Before. Stop along the trail to note that the '09 version of Zaroff proclaims that this violence is meant to illustrate something about the victim's will to live and worthiness to exist, and that this stated motivation seems in indirect conflict -- is at least complicated by -- his psychosis. Richard tries to objectify the girl and succeeds, at least to the point that she is stripped down to animal essence, made Thing to hunt, made object that must justify its own presence in Richard's world. We note this, and then with the running and chasing. Okay so we've seen this story, too many times, so in this chase the story prods us again: what's it mean that you've seen this story so many times?

Reading the newest Stephen King short story collection, Just After Sunset, there's a punchy feminist suspenser survival tale (woman duct-taped to chair by psychopath --> protracted chase sequence) that draws up two of my favorite King tropes. a) The fascinating speed at which we can revert to primal survival instinct when faced with physical danger. This is reassuring and terrifying. Polite people do not like reminder that they are animals or that society, social nicety and normative behavior are constructs. On the other hand, the clean fuel-burning feeling when faced with fight-or-flight drama is exhilarating and life-affirming. b) Vivid walkthrough of a practical problem. How would you do it in real life? How would you get out of being taped to a chair (you have no leverage and the chair legs are taped down)? If monsters attack the grocery store, what weapons do you have? What physics dilemmas are involved in burying a Cadillac in the road?

The horror and action templates dictate a necessity for character delineation and plot-based "stakes" mainly to rope in a degree of Why You Should Care followed by throwing it out the window for primal chasing and fighting. The Gettin' to Know You phase of a story is a social nicety perhaps, because whether it's a beefy Action!Man or a screaming teenage girl, Scumbag Drug Dealer or Masked Killer, in the moment of the chase they are the archetype of Hunter and Quarry. We talk about what it means and why they run, but in practice: the runner runs, the chaser chases. Dollhouse seems to ask if the archetype still holds water when we only have theoretical water to test it.

The other twist in the "Dangerous Game" retell is that this is actually a hired hit ...? I guess? Baroque, impractical, risky, if Alpha did, in fact, orchestrate this one. That seems a little sloppy and convoluted an assassination attempt. Why, indeed, did he not kill Echo when he had the chance? Suspicion being that: Alpha's goal as such is to force Caroline back into being. Alpha is only subjecting Caroline to these slings and arrows to "kill" Echo, but moreover to give Caroline a chance to be born again. Alpha sets up Richard for a fall. Knowing something about Actives or Echo or Caroline (if, again, that's her, and not a misdirect); rogue Active gone nutzo on an aimless murder spree is surely not the game here. Whedon people do not have motivations like that.

So whatever. Echo being a cypher with no clues, I let the OneStory unfold in its own time. BtVS and Angel are named after Buffy and Angel, and while ensemble dramas, are ultimately about and framed by Buffy and Angel. This one holds Echo at center but is not called Echo's Adventures , but Dollhouse. Our Lady of the Perpetual Tabula Rasa will fill out in short order. In the meantime we may cling to the supporting players. "The Target" is designed to peek under the skin of Boyd The Handler, the Handler/Active relationship in general and Boyd and Echo's in specific-ular. I still don't know this guy, but that he has extreme discomfort with the Dollhouse in concept and practice gives me foothold (and the constant stream of dark, critical remarks and disgust in his eyes makes him an unlikely company hire). The whizbang heart of the episode for me is that Boyd feels natural human revulsion to the Dollhouse, pities un-activated Echo's shell, tries to see her as Thing... and once he's on the inside, immediately connects to her, feels paternal, feels she's real, makes himself into protector through the power and self-inflicted Bad Faith of Echo's gaze (that's existentialist The Look, not feminist objectifying Gaze). Compare this phenomenon to anthropomorphizing a pet (or a doll [!]), to coping mechanism to complete a horrifying task (can you imagine the cartoons on the break room fridge at the city coroner's office?), or to the rationalization of anyone Just Following Orders...

But "The Target" proposes a golden scale; on Echo's end, the drive to survive is not something we can activate or train ("You don't have the proper Imprint!... You don't have the proper training") or have the option switch on and off. Find it icky or ugly, but the brain function that makes you eat food in the morning is the one that makes you kill or be killed, and that part is muscled, beautiful like a tiger, makes Echo strong. On Boyd's end, the social animal cannot help itself, sees the pattern of a relationship based on the most minimal of signifiers, needs Echo to need him so that he can be a Handler. That part, the finest, civilized, caring part, it damages him, sickens his heart, it makes Boyd weak.

Echo imprints on Boyd? Maybe not, friends. Boyd imprints on the girl. Maybe their prints are all over each other.

As for Mr. Topher, who insists this is not an oil change, this is Art, I know this one thing, which is an unknowable rhetorical question: so goes my favorite lump-in-throat line from Watchmen, "Who makes the world?"


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