Monday, March 16, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.5 - "True Believer"

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

The Engagement: A senator seeking to bust up a weirdo religious group with the help of a gung-ho ATF agent enlists the Dollhouse to send an undercover Active into the cult's compound. Echo has her eyeballs converted into webcams, and is sent into the lion's den. Meanwhile, at home, Topher notices that Victor is getting erections during D-house shower time, so the nerd and Dr. Saunders roll tape and take notes on inappropriate tumescence. In other news, Agent Ballard gets a lead when he sees Echo on TV, but is not fast enough to do a damned thing about it.



Echo 1,
fidelity of depiction of religious psychology in pop TVtainment: 0.

Chris: That score has always been Zero.

JS: Why do you think that is? Is it an observer/observed problem? That the very minute the cameras roll on these actor/impostors, the undermining has already begun? That the very act of representation, minute by minute, frame by frame, weakens and pokes holes in any authoritarian worldview? (Passion plays and Christmas pageants aside,of course).

Certain religious traditions (it could be argued) encourage critical thought, dialogue, disagreement, engagement with texts, plurality... but these don't screen test as well as KRAZY KULTS. It's not that we're fascinated with the more mundane social/cultural apparatuses of religion as they play out around the world and across time. We're fascinated (and FOX knows we're fascinated) with the sexy, even the more "feminine" elements of religio-wackness... the woozy groupthink, the hidden (and not-so-hidden) eroticism, the intimate touch and speech, the surrender, the mindcontrol... the Wiping? How well did that analogy go over, do you think?

CS: Well, that's a lotta big issues...

Enemigo del Mutante loves to tackle the big quandaries of the human condition, but shies away from two of the thorniest patches: religion and politics. I don't think it is because Whedon and friends are chicken, but have other things on their minds, and maybe know that when they touch those knots, they tend to get tangled worse. Whedon stories cut deep and explore the holes like spelunkers trying to cause as much pain as possible on the way down. Charitably, maybe he realizes the bugbears of politics and religion deserve more thorough discourse than he can cram into an hour. Uncharitably, maybe he's not very good at it? When BtVS tackles major organized religion it is always dealing with zealotry, and tends to bellyflop. Firefly and Serenity dip into some fuzzy global (ahem, galactic) politics.

Seems to me that we're also interested in (read: sickly fascinated by, terrified of) the "masculine" in NutJob Cults: the wrath of a paternal shepherd, the guns and physical abuse, the charisma of Great Man figures, the repressive state apparatus of violence that backs up the ideology like a baseball bat at the ready. Cult stories are interesting simply because they are an inherently sensationalistic real world phenomenon. Extreme human behaviors make for exciting stories, though it is very rare to see a story in which the cult has a coherent internal logic or belief system. The heart of what makes cults tick is boring, complicated or disconcerting, it is not entertaining to go there. Like pop culture's fascination with serial killers, child molesters, gangsters and government "conspiracy", our entertainments about cults rarely slosh about in the mundane reality, instead replace it with a lot of raving, screaming and shooting.

The goose-egg score is not entirely accurate (A Charlie Brown Christmas is very much about yearning for meaning, the comforts of faith both difficult and easy, and the poetics of belief -- note too, it is about the breakdown of a pageant). Is the question why there aren't massive amounts of pop culture actively engaging in religious dialogue? Film and television are called industries for a reason. While they regularly produce art which can challenge us in various ways, there's no money in alienating an audience. This sounds more cynical than I intend it to or believe to be accurate. There is the related circumstance that I think very few TV writers and producers are personally religious, are interested in that part of the human experience, or, frankly, have much to say about it. And what kind of stories should they be telling about religion? Whedon calls himself an "angry atheist" in interviews, and while I'm loath to drag in authorial statement as evidence, he tends to villainize (and on BtVS literally demonize) religion rather than engage in honest dialogue. Too bad, as so many of his other concerns are directly linked to religious problems.

You mentioned to me that "True Believer" reminded you of an X-Files episode. Doubtless you are thinking of the season 4 atrocity "The Field Where I Died". I believe you've seen me do my X-Files party trick: within 5-30 seconds of seeing any scene from any episode, I can give you the title and a plot summary. Anyway, "True Believer" was written by Tim Minear, Mutant Enemy's second greatest writer, whose Angeland Firefly episodes give Whedon a run for his money. Before that, Minear served as executive story editor on The X-Files, and while he didn't write the Branch-Davidians+past-life-regression love story "Field Where...", he has certainly seen it. He did, however write the X-File "Mind's Eye", which is about a blind woman whose sightless eyes are receiving images relayed from the retinas of a serial killer; a sort of inside-out take on "True Believer"'s s-f rewrite of the spiritual visionary.

Though Minear is reworking plot elements yanked from the files of his old job, "True Believer" is more entertaining and has more sophisticated things to say than "Field" (X-Files, though it jabbers constantly about faith, truth and belief, slathers on Christ-metaphor like marmalade, demonstrates no understanding about any of these things). So I know we're both interested in myth, this episode deals with some personal favorites, and grapples with meaning and application in ways I find exciting (i.e.-- this may be a long one). Minear has upped the ante for how deep the intellectual game of a Dollhouse episode can go, how funny it can be, and-- wow, there's just something sharp in every scene, and a thematic symmetry either lacking or arch in previous episodes.

Re: the last, I think it's less about the Wipe than the Imprint... The crux of the issue is why this episode is called "True Believer".

JS: Sure. Re: Wipes, though, I was struck by the blatant superimposition of the Senator/Adelle's hypnotic cult-descriptions ("they're ignorant, innocent, blissful, etc.") over images of Dolls doing their calisthenics. It seemed like a Teaching Moment to me, perhaps network-inserted or -influenced? Dollhouse has a strange relationship with its own gravitas, with the seriousness of the story it's telling and its particular crusade on behalf of The (female) Individual. It's obviously got a big heart and conscience, and a lot of love for the character(s) it's redeeming, but it can't furrow its brow too hard, or it'll get eyebrow cramp. As you predicted a coupla weeks back, it seems finally to be turning into a Joss Whedon show. I let out several ecstatic snorts during this episode, and the comedy of Topher balking at searching for boners on tape fits seamlessly into a larger horror-comedy arc of Topher realizing what the hell he's doing with human bodies, wills, "souls." If comic distress ends up being Topher's escape hatch or jolt to the conscience, putting him on the road to redeemage, I'm definitely sticking around. As I write that, or think about the cute scenes between Ballard and his coworker, I recognize also the function that humor seems to play in BtVS (though I'm only three seasons in) -- even when it's digressive, it's never beside the point. It provides texture and it uncorks serious emotions and traumas that mightn't find their way to the surface otherwise.

All of which is to say: the most serious and seeking episode thus far also has the best jokes!

CS: Indeed, the whole B story is a comedy plot (remarkable if only because Dollhouse has not been very funny), the squeamish tech nerd teamed up with the matter-of-fact physician. Dr. Saunders is also coming into focus as a woman conflicted about the duties of the Dollhouse (wonder how deeply?) but seems to find several (rationalized) reasons to show up for work; her duty is to look after the individual bodies of Dolls, while Topher is delighted with the work in abstract but loses his cool when confronted with the people in his care as individuals. So great comedy, this scientific Abbott and Costello fast-forwarding and hunting for erections as if documenting wild creatures in their habitat.

Yes, I'd forgotten the direct correlation drawn between the brainwashed and the Dolls. Because every Minear and Whedon scene seems to do at least double work, I was overwhelmed during much of "True Believer". Tracing another strand through this, the same comparison draws together the central Garden motif, paralleling the Pier One nest of the Dollhouse and the chain link fortress of the cult compound, both supposedly idyllic havens populated by innocents. I can talk Gardens, Serpents and exile all day, so stop me if you've heard this one before...

JS: Have you heard this one? A serpent went into a bar and bought this woman an appletini. Everyone got kicked out!

Okay, forget I said that. So I just watched the eppo again and, like you, am reeling a little thinking about all the Saviors and attempted Salvations (by the Senator, the ATF agent, Ballard, Dominic, Langton, Sparrow, Esther/Echo), all the different gods/loyalties/worldviews working at cross-purposes, the parallels between Apostle Paul and Apostle Esther/Echo, questions of Sight v. Perception, who's Watching whom...and, of course, your question of what makes a True Believer. Who won the sash for Truest Believer this week? What did (s)he Believe in? What proved the strength of that Belief (a question I've often wanted to pose to religious friends) -- consistency, unswervingness, keeping all philosophical bases covered, or the commands of the "heart"? Commitment to mission (ATF agent might be the most committed of anyone)?

And who won the sash for Truest Doubter?

CS: Ha, I love that Dollhouse seems to just reduce us to listing out puzzling questions! Okay, I'll bite the apple, but it may induce more questions. It is not completely uncommon for pop entertainment to nab names, half-baked symbol and plots from world mythology and religion, which makes people like me scribble down notes, muttering "Significant!", but it rarely coheres. "True Believer" plays a tricky game vis-à-vis religious mythology. A half-dozen Thrilling Tales of the Tanakh are invoked, some play out to the end, but the point is a dialectical wrestling match. And, as always, I think Echo comes out on top on both counts, as the true believer, the true doubter, the faithless, the faithful, and the one who acts in accord with what would most please the gods. Second place goes to... Dr. Saunders?

There's a lot of saviors here, but there are a lot of Serpents. Most of those two lists are comprised of the same names, but tack on Sierra (or the co-ed Dollhouse showers, or maybe just Victor's penis) to the roster of potential Snakes. To halt all the coyness, I do love the Eden story because I read it as a tough-love acknowledgment that human beings are fuck-ups, sex maniacs, idiots who find learning irresistible, curious, mischievous, disobedient and destined to forever make themselves miserable. The way I read Genesis -- and I'm not alone in this -- God has clearly set us up for a fall, and the snake is His insurance policy. We're getting kicked out, one way or another. Which begs a few (thousand) questions: why give us Paradise to which we cannot return? Why demonize the Snake? Why evict us from Eden at all? Why is God always saying one thing, doing another, asking the impossible, instilling in us ridiculous compulsions that cause us to fail Him all the goddamn time?

Insofar as this is what "True Believer" is about -- snakes aiding in causing havoc in Gardens -- we've got Jonas pegging Esther/Echo as a snake for disrupting his tranquil compound. What he thinks this means is: Eve, bitch, you're ruining everything. He's right, at least in that Echo's presence helps bring the wrath down on his paradise. But the thing is the raid is orchestrated by powers larger than Echo, and so is Echo. Like the Snake, Echo's a tool, the servant doing the dirty job someone had to do: it is not on the Snake's authority that we leave the Garden. So bless these Snakes for saving us from this paradise, even if sometimes the fruit works and sometimes they have to punch us in the face and drag us out. Because clearly God does not want us there forever. He's yelling through these serpent-servants: MOVE your ASS. And why? If you stay in here, you're going to die.

In the flaming cult compound, the sheep will burn alive. In Eden the death is not literal but spiritual... hmm, maybe less "death" than a non-starting life. We'd be in perpetual Doll State. No thoughts, with nothing to think about. No growth, no potential to realize, no art, no human adventure. With no pain, there is nothing to make us appreciate a state of grace. The Gardener's motivation is unknowable (so is Adelle DeWitt's!) -- maybe He loves us enough to let us suffer, maybe He selfishly wants to be appreciated more -- but the result is the same. We can't. Stay. Innocent. And in the second Eden of "True Believer", neither can the Dolls, pointedly illustrated by Victor's erections. It's nobody's "fault", there's no error but the presumption that a paradise can be constructed and maintained.

What I'm getting at is that Esther and Jonas work their way through this story, the cult leader reading the tale one way, but Echo manifesting it in a different, more productive way: the Snake as Savior. Or if not quite that, she at least sets the clan on the road they must travel. What are they going to do? Where will we go? I dunno. But you have to move your ass anyway. In Whedon's reckoning -- and, I confess, in mine too -- there is little difference between cosmic salvation and being ordered to change, move, be free. So Echo wins the trophy for Best Serpent of God.

So yes, we've also got Paul. We've got Esther. And we've got three boys who did not catch fire, and their angelic companion. As Artie Johnson sort-of asked on Laugh-In: Very interesting? Or stupid?

JS: We'll talk about that fire in due course! My roommate and I have been chattling about it for the last couple days. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes on Jonas's part, especially given how painstakingly he's set up. I was actually driving at Jonas perhaps being the truest Doubter, the most forlorn and haunted Unbeliever, in the episode. How many times does he doubt and test Esther? Three - in his first encounter with her outside, in the interrogation room, and at the moment of the raid when he strikes her. (Okay, maybe I love my triads a little much!) He's a man of little faith...and many guns. In fact, this contributed oodles toward developing my sympathy for him - I was moved by him and his commitment to his Garden (regardless of how many, ahem, Seedlings he must have been tending in his old Garden.)

To add to/recapitulate the Snake/Savior discussion in my own way, I revisited your commentary on Episode 2 and your conviction that Ballard is being led a merry dance by the Dollhouse, thence to our exchange about Descartes and Deceivers. As you hint, everyone in this Dollworld is someone's chump: the ATF agent Deceives the agency and Langton, Mellie and Alpha (who I now believe are in cahoots) Deceive or at least manipulate Ballard, Dollhouse/Esther/ATF Deceive Sparrow, Esther's own brain Deceives her as to the source of her visions, Echo has little (conscious) notion of the powers that encircle her, etc. And this leads into some of the epistemological problems lurking in this episode, questions of Sight vs. Perception vs. Insight, of How to Know and what's worth Knowing, and who, in this tangle of surveillance and facial scans and evidence collection and data-entry (Team Science???) and dream-vision and Bible-consultation and miracle-engineering (Team Religion/Mysticism???) comes out on top.

I'm not cool with the science/religion dichotomy as it plays out in macrodiscourse, and become quite tired whenever I hear it trotted out. But the more I think about it, the more I see Esther's unblinding as a sort of mini-...Enlightenment. As in the Enlightenment we read about in school. A sea change in the way Western culture processed new information, interpreted evidence, distributed attention, honored experiment, reached conclusions... these issues, to me, lie at the core of understanding the so-called war between "scientific" and "religious" viewpoints... and in negotiating the "unblinding" of Esther.

To develop this, let me bring in the man Esther mentions in the car, Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St. Paul, otherwise known as St. Killjoy... sorry, Paulie. Paul of the Bible is a brave, resourceful, perseverant workaholic and I gotta respect his balls, even if I have no use for his advice. Anyway, there are superficial parallels between their stories: both experience temporary "blindness" (Paul's is three days long, Esther's lasts decades), both have their sight restored, both strengthen the faith of the various communities they encounter. What really blindsided me (har har) were the differing results of their "illuminations." Unbeliever Saul lodges his belief in a deity, Jesus, becomes His instrument, becomes the exemplar of the lone, charismatic, renegade, (crackpot?) preacher asking people to believe in what lies beyond the visible, the tangible, even the imaginable or fathomable: "...we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man" (Acts 17:29). In testifying of his own conversion -- an experience only he had access to -- Paul leads people deep into themselves, to a place wholly insulated, pre-rational, deep into their own subjectivity, to a place untouchable by reason. He leads them to the place already inhabited by Believer Esther - who, although sweet and intuitive, is still a bot, still uttering seductive speeches programmed into her. At last, with Jonas's strike, she has true Sight, not just retinal sight but Understanding battered into her - and what does she see? What does she smell? What does she sense?

Fire. Fire all around her. Danger. Physical danger. Mortal danger. Not the promise of heaven, not the consolation of the angels (Langton is the only "angel" she'll see), but the danger of this one and only mortal life coming to a close, not only for her, but for the people around her. The time for tuning out the senses, tuning out earthly life, refusal to engage with matter and with physics, with earthly life and existential challenge, refusal to use her cerebral cortex (in conjunction with her brainstem, of course) is over. Saul leads his audiences out of their wretchedness to new "life" In the omnipresent and invisible phantom menace, Jesus Christ... Esther/Echo leads people out of different flames into a different kind of life altogether. Though she claims that "God brought her with a message...she doesn't think God let her see again so she could just watch..." (an echo of Paul's "I do not account my life of any value or as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course..." Acts 20:17) -- the truth is, as Jonas rightly said, she's leading those people into a world hard, cold, violent, challenging. A world where they will lack the protection of a god, where they'll have to develop their intelligence, grow themselves a new purpose, a new way of getting through the day. Where pure mysticism just won't cut it. Where other faculties will have to be developed, other philosophies embraced.

Esther still uses God-words, but hear them for what they are. God no longer rules that woman -- not completely, anyway. He's already losing his hold on her... as the Dollhouse is losing its hold on Echo. Gods are dying all over the place. Some are already kaput.

CS: Yeah, it is impossible to know exactly where Jonas is coming from. He's written as a canny leader, and it is reasonable for him to test Esther as a potential law-of-man-enforcement mole. Hauling her into the midst of the weapons cache and shoving a gun in her face is not, of course, the wisest or sanest course of action, however (or most practical; good chance that Esther, with her heightened senses, would know perfectly well that she's in danger and flinch anyway). Whatever the case, however sincere his faith, Jonas falters when he sets fire to the barn. In his stated motivation, Sparrow tries to summon the angel that saves Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego -- that is, he tries to "force a miracle". Miracles are God's last ditch effort in extreme circumstances, but faith precludes the requirement of miracles for confirmation. On the other hand, if Sparrow is a complete sham, then he sets the fire to kill himself and punish his flock, knowing full well that God will not intervene. Third possibility, since we know nothing of the cult's theology, Sparrow may simply not believe in an interventionist God at all, but believe he is still doing God's work -- taking a roundabout path back to an unsullied paradise. In any case, his faith falters, he fails as True Believer. Too bad, because before his freak-out of the fiery furnace, it was rather interesting that in a rare stance for pretend TV cult leader (or a real cult leader!), he did not claim supernatural messianic powers or divine revelation.

And what's the Senator's request? What does Langton say is Esther's amazing skill?: she's a True Believer. It plays as a kind of satisfying and smart-ass joke that Echo's pre-programmed faith is greater or equal to the (presumably) programmed faith of the cult members. This is the latest in Dollhouse's unyielding string of questioning, question being "What's the difference?" The answer is that there is no difference. Religion is a social construct, and understanding this can be impossible for the faithful but also drive the faithless away from the mother's heartbeat of the power source; "True Believer" seems to point the way back. This is where I think it may be actually useful that "True Believer" is about an extremist group, because it underlines the difference between the law systems of religion and the rainbow-with-no-end of engaged spirituality. If the avowed angry atheist will not deign to engage with the myth because of how others have read it before him, he misses out on the alchemic gold of Story... as does the fundamentalist. The only follow-through is to turn your back on all gods and all their stories, and the gods that live in all stories (that one, I suppose, is Promethea?). So Sparrow has his dogmatic reading of the Eden story (Garden=good, Snake=Devil, exile=punishment), but Esther/Echo shows him another interpretation -- that while we're in this world we need to Engage with it.

I was puzzled for awhile what Paul's blinding revelation, Shadrach & Friends escaping Nebuchadenezzar's bonfire, and the Biblical Esther have in common, or why "True Believer" invokes them. We needn't get into messy details (and I'm sure we both have some, er, issues with Paul), but they're all game-changers and liberators of a sort. They are also all persuader figures. Paul hammers away as dogged preacher, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stand their ground and their salvation is a vision unto itself, and Esther... Esther is able to incite positive change and demonstrate heroism because of her special position as a woman with intimate proximity to the king. Are we glimpsing the fore-shadows of Echo leading her people out of the Dollhouse?

Ignoring the details of Paul's teachings, the parallel is nice because in his gift of de-visioned Vision, he teaches that it is not the biography of the historical Christ that is important but the teachings: don't get hung up on the literal, but listen to the beat of the story... Then Dollhouse flips St. Paul's script, as rather than faith alone saving us, the Imprint of faith, wherever it comes from, is being used to force our hand. You can fall into madness or despair when confronted with the thin skin of reality, realize how much your world runs on construct, fairy tale, Imprint and bullshit. Like the Bible, it's all make-believe and metaphor, but that doesn't mean it's not useful in a pinch. Doesn't mean our world is invalid for being built on stories we tell ourselves.

Whew, we've shortchanged Esther, but what'cha gonna do? When the flames clear, there she is, safe and sound. Her name's different. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were renamed, too, and Boyd isn't an angel, but what's the difference? Esther was never that hung up on faith and impressing a god, though like Paul confronted with Artemis, like Shad, Mesh and Abed, like Nebucchadenezzar learned, sometimes it's good to know which gods are too tough to fuck with. Esther dug deep in the moment and saw that some human beings needed help, and she could help.

Like getting a boner when you look at Sierra, some things may just be our default settings.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Dollhouse 1.6.