Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.6 - "Man on the Street"

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 to play house with an internet mogul, but their happy moment is disrupted by Agent Ballard, who immediately becomes so flustered that the Active escapes. Busy day for Adelle DeWitt, as she has to cope with the revelation that Sierra has had sex while off-duty and in Doll state, deal with a Handler gone seriously out of hand, and monitor Ballard who is spilling his guts and making out with his neighbor, Mellie. In a flurry of twists, revelations and more confusion, Echo is dispatched to further beat up Ballard but also possibly reveals a mole working within the Dollhouse, "sleeper Active" Mellie gets active in some sexing and violencing, and Boyd punches out a jerk. A news report on the "urban legend" of the Dollhouse frames the events.

DOGHORSE, EPISODE 1.6, "MAN ON THE STREET": Two Guys Checkin' It Out

There are three flowers in a vase... Go.

CS: CALLED IT. I fuckin called it. Mellie and her lasagna are both Actives.

JS: Yes you did! I did not. I was a gasp machine for most of this episode!

So does it mean that a Doll can have simultaneous Imprints (awkward Mellie/streetfighter) or that Mellie is some sort of amalgamated Active - half former-self, half Doll? As you suggested, maybe it doesn't matter. All that matters is that she's under someone's control... and that a certain FBI agent, already terrible at his job, is about to get even worse!

CS: Until otherwise notified, I'll assume Mellie's Imprint just has a sleeper agent mode built into it -- like a real brainwashed spies!

I barely know where to start with this. We generally spend a lot of time discussing theme, story structure and the episode as think piece. Feel free to gush over "Man on the Street" as an entertainment for a little while.

It does truly feel as if Dollhouse has arrived. The episode takes place in the same apartments, offices and Dollhouse set, adding only a claustrophobic Chinese kitchen, a big empty house and the real-live streets of L.A. (don't get me started on the Buffyverse flashback thrills of seeing Dushku doing kung fu in a dark alley). The cast expands but a little. There is markedly less action spectacle -- lots of hand-to-hand combat, but no motorcycle chase, no burning buildings -- than some prior episodes. Yet "Man on the Street" is epic. It seems to announce a new television program.

I like Dollhouse's first four imperfect episodes, and I am not sorry that it took six installments to kick into overdrive. Those first six stories are smaller, somewhat formulaic but necessary. The Engagement-based tales did their work establishing the s-f concepts and the basics of characters and their dynamics... and even the base-level themes and talking points that we've spent a month unpacking. Much as you'd like to cut to the fun stuff, you cannot explode a building that hasn't been built. "Man" shoots tentacles out in all directions.

Also: How motherfucking good was Patton Oswalt?

JS: He was great! I loved how that scene, bookended by all this action, just went on and on, brazenly, unapologetically, and turned into a sort of mini-play. That's something I see as characteristic of JW -- everyone has to have his say, no matter how it interrupts or holds up the action -- you see this on a small scale in BtVS, where everyone uses 10X the necessary words (and the most circuitous route possible) to make a joke, just because the joke has to discharge that much energy -- and you see it in large scale with scenes like this. They could have blown through Mynor in five minutes, but they gave him twenty, and he poured himself a drink, and they uptripped us by making him just the prelude to a whole other pair of stories! I used to be crankier about these "lapses" (I see they're not lapses now) of proportion in storytelling and see them as huge ruptures/flaws, but now I can't get enough of 'em. They knock me on my ass. They show me what I've become accustomed to, the rhythms and contours I'm comfortable with, and then they overturn them, just as Ballard very showily upset that table (and got absolutely no masculinity points for doing so! A few cool fight moves aside, I love how much of Ballard's behavior just seems like a parody of "guy"-ness. He must really know what a bad FBI agent he is, to need to heave over a table!)

So, yes, Mynor. And the little carefully protected flame in Ballard's head, a flame in the shape of a Caroline, an adorable vanilla-candle flame in his head, a fucking fireball in person! It's so annoying when They don't turn out the way you imagined Them! And then our chorus of Angelenos! And the intricacy of Adelle's mind (my roommate and I paused the DVR right before Paul went to the restaurant to argue, for 20 minutes, all the different possibilities Adelle might have in mind - we came up with at least five)! And the loneliness of the Sierra-almost-molestation scene -- mundane, tranquil, repulsive, the way I suspect most of those scenarios play out.

Yes ma'am, the show got rather good! I might even consent to be seen in public with it! (Oh...like I am right now.)

CS: Whedon recently gave a press-conference-call, basically promising that Dollhouse would get funnier but to please stop wanting it to become hilarious, as it is "not that show." And that sounds right to me. The B plot of "True Believer", revolving around Topher's sputtering reactions to the realities of sexual biology, is comic in the moment, but ominous as a plot development. It feeds into a thematic darkness hanging over Dollhouse, where BtVS might be its opposite number -- you have to convince a new viewer that the sunny, charming concept is treated with an earned gravitas. Agent Ballard's grand masculine gestures, surface to core -- predisposition to fist fighting, furniture abuse, shrugging off of physical injury, White Knight complex -- have a similar function, and likewise evolve out of some of Whedon's greatest strengths. Angel constantly played a similar beat, loving to give the viewer a hero shot of Angel doing something impossibly cool then stumbling and whining. Mutant Enemy's tendency with how they treat their male heroes, undercutting the Hero He Wants To Be by pulling back the veil on the neurotic worrywart beneath, besides being funny, is not about condescension or humiliation or revealing all well-meaning men as frauds. Personally I find it encouraging and humanizing, and in breaking apart genre myth figures we are given more relevant and useful models and reflections of ourselves. I mean, you know how torturous, guilt-racking and maddening it must be to be Superman?

If "Man on the Street" is where the Whedon Voice supposedly emerges, I hope it is becoming clearer to people (critics? viewers? network execs?) what that means. I think explanation of what that voice "is" gets reduced to cutting but jokey, slangy dialogue and propensity for stories about young women doing jump kicks. It is more about an uncanny knack for reversing expectations in genre plotting, experimenting with the pace and structural possibilities of television serial narrative, ability to conjure scenarios that draw out unexpected emotions we rarely see articulated. Yes, "everyone has to have his say," and moreover, Whedon is one of those rare writers who actually understands that crucial Rule of the Game: Everyone has his reasons. The motivations may be withheld until it is right to reveal, but I never have to question if it is worth discussing why Langton or Topher or DeWitt would work for the Dollhouse; it is self-evident that no character is operating under vague assumption that they are Villain or Hero or serving a plot function.

So everyone in "Man on the Street" gets their say. Seems to me, since it is the title and all, that this is one of the things the episode is about, perhaps? A series of voices loud and small, informed and not, weighing in on the purpose and value and perils of the Dollhouse. Whose voice rings out most clearly in the end?

JS: Hmmrr. Whose voice did ring out most clearly? We had a range of reactions, we saw some extremes of defensiveness and vulnerability, we got to watch people (that is, actor people playing "real" people performing versions of themselves?) look inside themselves and manufacture some moments of candor for us. I think the Street clips served a few functions:

1) Frame/chorus/collage: they interrupted the linear plot-machine the way choruses do, for the reason choruses do: to hold up a mirror to the action, to alchemize the particular into the universal. They're outside the time-stream, they're looking on, and they're observing and lamenting something much larger and encompassing than the plotlines of a few particular people. (Of course, this chorus doesn't *know* it's a chorus, which makes it even more interesting. As individuals the interviewees are somewhat dumb, but collectively they hit on a larger truth.)

2) the clips expand the roster of the show from a few rival agencies/individuals to the larger public, acknowledge the world outside, recast the Dollhouse not just in terms of profit and criminality but in terms of its presence on everyone's myth-horizon...

3) they implicate us all, put the kibosh on Good v. Evil, Us v. Dollhouse, and turn it into the war between Us and Ourselves - this isn't just about Dolls and their jailers/exploiters, but the great mass of us who acquiesce to and bow to institutional and individual power (or would like to wield it over others)... we see some people give "correct" answers ("it's human trafficking!") but we see others take the chance to, essentially, disrobe on camera. The voice that rang out most for me was the teenager-ish girl who talked about love and said "[a Doll] could be lovely" (or something to that effect). The "where's the dotted line" girl was brassier, but didn't seem to be thinking it through; she was bitching more about her current situation than she was conjuring, imagining, make-believing a Doll. The "lovely" girl still kinda haunts me, actually. She seemed a-glaze, as if her mind were more experimental, more permeable, more open to inhabiting the fantasy and surrendering to it than the others were.

Onward. Another good point you made about masculine performance: in "breaking apart genre myth figures we are given more relevant and useful models and reflections of ourselves." I wonder if this operates in the same way for masculine and feminine icons. It seems to me that much myth-deconstruction involves taking men down (from their heroic pedestals) versus building women up (from their...zero-ness? from the void? from the scarcity of truly immortal and incandescent ancestors in fiction and onscreen?). It may be more interesting to watch a weakened man onscreen than a weakened woman because, female-action-hero series aside, strength and heroism seem more often to come packaged in male bodies and personae. But that also bounces off material in BtVS' S3 "Helpless" episode in which, her physical strength drained, Buffy has to improvise and gather her wits in a way that I also found very gratifying to watch. There it's not so much "female action hero" being taken apart as it is "action hero" and "action" itself.

In terms of the authority figures, I find Adelle fascinating -- she's supervisor to the Handlers and Topher, liaison to the clients, not so much motherly as GOVERNESSY to the Dolls (English accent helps) -- and what's with "fantasies may be what we sell, but they are not our purpose?" That in itself reveals far too much ambivalence about the mission. Maybe Adelle is Alpha's insider...

And as for taking apart and complicating the notion of "female victim," I found myself chokey watching both Sierra (previously seen as shitkicking Taffy) as doormat...and Mellie struggling pre-Activation. During our 20-minute DVR pause, we discussed how likely it was that Mellie was about to be brutally killed (and possibly raped beforehand) - a) whether it would happen, and b) if it did, how quickly the killer would be run over by a car or otherwise made to pay by the Storygods, Narrative Vigilantes. The rescues are perhaps overly neat: Sierra reads a book, Mellie gets her phone call; but, as you pointed out when I complained of "Earshot" in S3 BtVS, I'm sure these stories and experiences will rear their heads again, no matter how diligently Topher tries to erase them. Especially for Sierra.

I did find myself a bit Mellie-choly to learn that our sweet neighbor was remotely manipulated. I guess I was taken in by the niceness. Note to self: there's another archetype to watch out for: THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. She's achingly nice, she's great in bed, and she carries a baking tray at all times! (Except, uh, when she's in bed. Or in combat. Or otherwise Engaged).

CS: I keep hearing Sierra's handler, bound to a chair and bloodied, and demanding of DeWitt, who does not give a proper answer, as she is not required to: "Did you think this wouldn't happen?" He has his perspective on the Dollhouse, and it is a convincing argument that his violation of Sierra while she is lodged in some sort of vague pre-sexual, certainly inexperienced, developmental stage is not terribly different in spirit from the paid services administered to Dollhouse clients. The majority of the Men on Street interviews with men ended or began with sexual fantasies (unconscious homosexual wishes or personal Ida Lupino [!]), so how frequently do clients request an Active programmed as totally passive or even resistant, anyway? (This takes us to an icky place, huh? I'm not so sure the 'House would get that much sex business. The thrill is in the pursuit, the gamble, the dance, right? Dancing with robots is no fun.) Perhaps there is, after all, a fundamental difference between being an Active and being an unImprinted sex worker. The sex worker makes a series of choices in a series of moments, even if she perceives those as limited options bouncing off the walls of socioeconomic circumstance and bound up in her self-worth. This moment with Sierra's Handler hasn't been granted special privilege, but it resonates off the talking head interview with Institutionally Approved Expert Man, who concludes that if the Dollhouse is real, "we, as a species, are finished." This means Dollhouse activities, while we can draw parallels, are very different from prostitution or slavery: those practices are where we begin as a species. How, indeed, is it that Handler/Doll abuse has not occurred before? Or the lab techs not Imprinted an army of assassin Actives that will answer only to their respective Tophers? (Not Topher specifically. He seems to love the work and would not wish to jeopardize his fun.) How would this technology not become appropriated for creating supersoldiers, worker drones/slaves, or puppet governments? How could anyone expect this power not to end in species holocaust?

This is the literal problem of the s-f story of Dollhouse, but its larger "purpose", as DeWitt might say, is to illustrate that this is always-already how the world works. Adelle's dark explanation that fantasies are the business but not the Dollhouse's purpose is at least triple folded; 1) "shoes" are what Adidas sells, but "shoes" are not its "purpose" either, 2) teaser that Dollhouse HQ has some big scary design and that Engagement contracts just provide cashflow, 3) from the meta balcony, it sounds like the fantasy of these adventure stories is not truly the purpose of Dollhouse itself, though I admit to spending too much time on this particular balcony.

"People always need slaves" comes with the conflicted addendum about voluntary enslavement -- what does that Woman on the Street's protest mean, exactly? That no one would voluntarily sign up for Doll duty? Maybe so, it appears in episode 1 that DeWitt has coerced Caroline into signing on. All the DH employees are surely otherwise unemployable or forced into service. That all slaves are, at least in a sense, complicit in their enslavement? Or that we, one and all, are enslaved by our pre-birth hailing, born into the Matrix, rats in a maze with no designer? Surely Woman on Street did not mean this, but perhaps Mutant Enemy means this.

This is Paul's episode, as we might say "The Target" was a Boyd episode, a story of what the Dollhouse means to Ballard, though he is not self-aware enough to vocalize it. For me it is Mr. Joel Mynor's moment of having his say that sings out the loudest, for he has the longest solo and his plaintive note ends the episode. Mynor does not say it expressly, but for him, Dollhouse activities are beyond good and evil. In any extant ethical framework, the Dollhouse is "wrong", the wrongness of imposing one's will upon others; meanwhile, any extant ethical framework imposes itself on every man, on every street. Dollhouse exists, Mynor finds a use for its services, and he uses it. Ballard, Mynor argues, has a need for Dollhouse as well, it exists, so he has to stop it. Once we see through the thin paper of our social contracts, this is not about right or wrong; we just open the Dollhouse and learn about urges.

I spoke to another friend, who agreed that the final moments were moving -- Mynor's Engagement being completed, aching ballad on soundtrack, slow-mo hand-holding between a widower and Echo Imprinted as his lost wife -- but was concerned that the episode plunged into serious exploration of body politics, power relationships, existential paranoia, then copped out in favor of sentiment. And I admit, I more than misted up at that ending. Not for the poignancy of a brief reunion between parted lovers, but the far too human frailty of an empty man trying to fill his heart back up, even if it is with fantasy. If Buffy once pleaded to Giles "Lie to me," and found no comfort there, Sartre would explain the problem. You cannot really lie to yourself. Might not work if you ask someone else to do it for you, either.

JS: Nicely said. To weave all this back into the discuss from last week, "True Believer", with its collision of half a dozen different beliefs/compulsions/rescue missions at the cult compound, also did its part to present Dollhouse's world -- and our world -- as a centerless mêlée of opposed interests, purposes, goals...and ferocities. Realpolitik writ large and small. Everyone is self-interested, yes, even Boyd and Ballard. I did find myself wondering about Adelle's "purpose" in reprimanding the Handler, especially given the accusation by Dominic, last week, that she "likes" Echo a little too much -- either she's the plant, the secret advocate trying to bring the place down, or it's just pragmatic, a matter of control -- she's setting a precedent, laying down the law. Sending him to be killed by Mellie isn't vindictive -- it's just efficient, ingenious. Like using up all the ingredients in the fridge. No leftovers . And, as you say, the whole world is like this, Dollhouse's and ours.

Now, what I'm about to say is not to detract from the wonderful fantasy storytelling on BtVS (and I haven't yet seen any of Angel). But do you think that where this show might break new ground, represent a real refinement and synthesis of JW's favorite themes, is in the fact that there is no need for Demons with a D here? Every demon has a human face, or lurks behind the facelessness of an organization. You and I have both seen a version of the "look in this box" joke -- you at that museum in San Francisco, I in a little restaurant in Germany. Mine said "look inside to see our greatest treasure," yours said "look inside to see a horrible monster." We both looked in and saw mirrors reflecting our own faces. The angels and demons won't be coming to visit from the outside this time. They're already here.

Non-segue to a a note on Ballard and Caroline: one of the highlights of this episode was Mynor's accusation that Ballard is fixated on a pliant imaginary woman rather than a real woman made of flesh and will and opposition and, well, all the problems that human beings pose to each other. Mynor accuses Ballard not only of fixation but of sexual interest in her, but it really strikes me as more of a courtly quest, the thought of Caroline honing his sense of purpose to a laser pinpoint (of course, it's true that certain people's exteriors awaken us to our purposes more readily than others'...) As with most quests -- releases of urge? ways of gathering and directing our energy? the longing to combine Isak Dinesen's two prizes, "feeling with absolute certainty that you are doing the will of God" and "feeling a surfeit of strength"? -- fantasy and libido and ambition and the conscious need for meaning are all mixed up.

Aside: I wish it were already possible to watch Dollhouse on DVD, sans commercial, with no Fox logos, no sexy voice whispering, "Dollhouse will be back in 90 seconds," no Mountain Dew commercials in between -- although, damn, that Lincoln-Douglas one is funny. But maybe it's fitting that the show itself, as we're experiencing it even on DVR, is part of this larger visual/technological mosaic being sold to us, seared into us, shined into our eyes.

CS: Save that last thought for later.

Buffyverse stories, for as often as they traffic in making metaphor of their beasts, always do eventually peel back the protective layer, expose the bleeding heart. And they, too, have stories with all-too-human villains and heroes, but I won't step on your spoiler-toes. Dollhouse does still need its s-f trappings, conspiracy thriller paranoia and action setpieces to explore its human-scale problems.

That's funny, I was also thinking that in his Hannibal Lecter Sees Through Clarice scene, Mynor may not have pegged Ballard entirely. Or, rather, he's projected his own fantasy, or pushed into his imagined Ballard a little too far... he's not necessarily correct about everything (the Japanese had the Zeroes, after all). The agent's quest never seemed obsessive enough to be an ultimately sexual fantasy, even a sublimated one. It has reminded me of similar fate-bound FBI agents' missing persons hunts on Twin Peaks and The X-Files, also about courtly love, familial love and/or spiritual love. It was plenty insightful of the little man to simply belittle the rescue fantasy that is driving Ballard... though what, really, is wrong with that? Mynor is right that Ballard is silly, outmatched, his fists and guns tactics impotent against invisible enemies, but the placement of a personalized face on atrocities too large to comprehend is a powerful thing. Mynor may or may not be criticizing Ballard's motivation, even weighing it against his own, the quest of courtly love is nobler than wallowing in nostalgia. But he's banking on it wounding his opponent.

But something else happens after the interrogation in the empty house, and this is where Mutant Enemy and Whedon's hero-men are more than just emasculated or deconstructed or objects of fun. They are often "really" on difficult missions to come to terms with their feelings, a battle to come to grips with a new form of manly sensitivity (and special thanks to the Mutant Enemies for ensuring that Tahmoh Penikett must go on this journey without his shirt on). Ballard goes home, he tells Mellie about his day, and he kisses her. She blurts out/half swallows a plea: don't kiss me and think of Caroline. But "I wasn't," Paul says, and it appears to be the truth. I believe he was thinking of Rebecca Mynor. He was thinking of Joel Mynor's lost moment, and trying not to miss his own. Mellie and Paul -- poor suckers, perhaps, or maybe, just maybe we are all broken -- but even DeWitt has to admit, however tinged with dramatic irony: they're in love.

A Doll can be lovely after all... but it helps if you didn't pay for the privilege. Surely this problem will cause the neighborly neighbors no end of turmoil. Nobody can say they missed their moment.


Morgan said...

The voice that rang out most for me was the teenager-ish girl who talked about love and said "[a Doll] could be lovely" (or something to that effect)... The "lovely" girl still kinda haunts me, actually. She seemed a-glaze, as if her mind were more experimental, more permeable, more open to inhabiting the fantasy and surrendering to it than the others were.

On a forum I read a couple of posters swear blind that this person is an Active. I just looked at the ep myself and can't decide either way - look at her interview (22.53ish on my copy) and then see someone who looks like her walking with sierra (27.04 on my copy). If this is true, then it clearly undermines the difficulties of her interpretation about how it could be 'beautiful' - but hiding this away as an easter egg puts yet another spin on things.

Of course, if they're just two performers who look kinda similar, then this don't mean anything :-)

Janani said...

Hi Morgan,

Thanks for sharing! I'll have to go back and check that on the DVR. My first reaction is to pray she isn't an Active - I interpreted the interviews as being of a different substance altogether than the main Plotstory, suspended in and occurring outside of time. I like that they widened the exploration of power, fantasy, and surrender beyond the walls of the Dollhouse to the human horde; if this girl crops up later as an individual with a name and history, it'll feel too, hmm, narrowed and literal for me? It doesn't always take an actual Dollhouse and a Wipe to turn our minds into oatmeal.

Then again, who knows? To the DVR!

Chris, any thoughts?

Chris Stangl said...

Okay, okay, I vowed not to play armchair detective too much with DOLLHOUSE, primarily because I am bad at it. In the episode, the Maybe Beautiful Girl is speaking the universal that Joel Mynor is telling us in the specific; that insofar as Actives are the ultimate hired help, designed to perfectly fill a need in the moment, that there is a poetry and elegance to that. The job perfectly well-done. This is self-evidential, and Morgan's right, it muddies the water if she's an Active.

See post directly above this, however, as I don't believe this matters too much!

J -- The only way for the Man On Street interviews to intersect with DH plots proper would be revelation that the reporter himself is an Active. The purpose, I suppose, would be to propagate public perception that the Dollhouse is located somewhere on the reality map between the Bermuda Triangle and Area 51. Basically the con-job the X-FILES Consortium pulls on Mulder for a decade.

Thing is, in in-world plot terms, sending an Active in for the job = too much effort for the same result. In thematic terms it sorta undoes the purpose of the OTF interviews, which confirm that the average person sees a use for services of the Dollhouse.