Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.8 - "Needs"

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

The Engagement: Five Dolls awake in their sleep-pods with their pre-Dollhouse personalities restored, but memories missing. After "Mike" is nabbed for inability to blend in with their Wiped fellows, our four lead Dolls escape the compound. Once outside, they attempt to piece together their lives based on scant clues and deep, nagging feelings. Victor accompanies Sierra to confront the man who sold her into Dollhouse slavery. November seeks her absent daughter. Echo sneaks back into the Dollhouse, determined to free every prisoner, and confronts Topher and DeWitt. The situation is revealed as a therapeutic curative exercise proposed by Dr. Saunders, letting the "priority case" Dolls find "closure" for emotional "open loops". Meanwhile, Paul Ballard has a sex dream that makes him feel bad, finally finds Dollhouse surveillance equipment that has been hidden in an obvious place for a long time, then can't figure out how it works.

JS: Did. You. See. That.

Holy sheeeeez.


CS: Yes, I saw that. Where do you want to start with this one? I'll go straight into praise, for Dollhouse told an excellent story this week, dense of theme and plot, and that I think actually dared to go new places with both. "Man on the Street", an episode that both meditated on what came before and shoved the season arc into Drive gear, pushed this show into full-being, declared itself in a voice familiar and strange. There were some hiccups last week with "Echoes", partly the doing of Craft and Fain, who I peg as Mutant Enemy second-stringers (they wrote acceptable but inelegant Angel , and DH weak-link "Gray Hour"), partially due to having to follow Whedon's "Man on the Street". We should do a writer's-round-up at the end of the season, perhaps?

Weeks later, I'm still thinking about "Man on the Street"'s best scenes, plunging into the simple and the utterly uncanny: Ballard and Mynor's long, uneventful playlet in an empty kitchen, and November being activated by creepy answering machine message. "Needs" has a lot going on, including the appearance of a frenzy of exciting plot developments which actually turn out to be a closed-circuit game/test/trial, and a knowing examination of the hoops serial television goes through to maintain a status quo of plot and stuntting of character growth. Got a favorite scene, line, look, detail or performance?

JS: So, so many. I also don't even know where to start. Since we weren't able to do a dialogue for "Needs", I'll just lay it out in one chunk this week. Here it go:

Something about how the show resets every week, brings us back (ostensibly) to zero, feels like the shaking of a snow globe, and whatever way the particles drift down and settle = whatever narrative experiment will be perpetrated on these docile subjects for the week. It doesn't feel linear, it doesn't feel as though we're Traveling anywhere in the sense of traditional geometry - unless something bigger comes along to shatter the globe itself - and something will. But in doing so, it'll have to shatter Adelle DeWitt, the god and steward and master storyteller of this little world. She is far more powerful than I had thought. This episode was about the melancholy and watchfulness and hubris of an expert story-engineer - granted, the stories she oversees tend to go haywire every week, but her genius lies in her nimble responses to crises -- cloning a Taffy in "Gray Hour", her manipulations in in "Man on the Street", or going in to face a gun-wielding and unstable Echo in Topher's office. Did I ever think I could outsmart this person?

I am Adelle DeWitt, and I am responsible for this facility and everyone in it.

We've spoken some about the "three flowers" trigger phrase -- it's intimidating, absolute, world-shaping. THERE ARE X. ONE OF THEM IS Y. It's not just that the agent picks up an isolated word or phrase out of the aural fabric and responds to it. The trigger is in itself a little decree, a statement about the world, and enunciated in that DeWitt-voice -- I believe it. I can see the flowers and the vase. The power of her pronouncement overwhelms the thought at the back of my head -- "uh, whatflowers?" Her day-to-day confidence, poise, authority -- auctoritas, authorship -- compel and persuade. We've already chatted some about the meta-narratives unfolding here, narratives about storytelling and story design, all the layers and layers of watchfulness and machination (Adelle watches her screen, we watch Adelle on our screen, who-knows-who watches us... ad infinitum). "They need real adversaries and real obstacles... freedom must be earned," she says, or "Don't be melodramatic," or "I've made my decision." Could just as well be a writers' meeting, couldn't it?

And yet, and yet...what's her Need? "You're not as important as you think you are," barks Echo, and Adelle flinches, which I believe was meant to signal dismay... but deep down I don't believe her to be power-hungry, I don't believe that she lusts for Importance -- I would attribute that sooner to Dominic. I simply believe that she likes things to be in order, to occupy their rightful places, to do her job well and to a "turn." Deep down, I think that all she really wants is a cup of tea and to kick off her (very, very tall) shoes. If she could be accused of any hubris at all (which I have above, so I'd better explain), it's a creator's pride in her creation, her pleasure in its perfect structure and crisp vertices and gleaming symmetries, the satisfaction of restoring a house "out of balance." This is no tyrant. Her sensibility is curious, comprehensive, ironic, intrigued -- "no harm in letting this play out" -- and she's already proven that she's agile and ingenious at responding to crises, and the only person who can make her crack is Caroline - and then, not even the sight of Caroline breaking into Saunders' office, but watching the electricity (a higher "power" than DeWitt even) switch off. I believe the writers even made her a little more shortsighted than she'd have been -- of course Caroline would do something like this, DeWitt would have seen it coming, and given what a menace Caroline was to the Dollhouse originally, I'm surprised that even the lesser gods, Topher or Saunders, didn't see it coming through their panopticon (which, by the way, is the worst ever designed -- isn't the point of a panopticon that the surveyees can't see you back?)

DeWitt is as much of a god as a human character can be (part of a chain of gods, at any rate). Nobody will leave the House until she says they can, and nothing will break her, or our Doll Snow House Globe, except DeWitt having her mind Wiped... or falling in love... or simply deciding she's had enough of this job. None of which I am ruling out.

As for the others? Topher (as usually, totally unable to comprehend his role or place on a larger ecology, willfully disowning his effects on others) treats it all as a science project; he wants his juice boxes, and, in direr moments when an Active holds a gun to his head, he wants to live. In a few hours he'll want juice boxes again. Dominic thinks of the Actives as pets; Saunders disavows the "pet" approach but seems to think of herself almost as a compassionate veterinarian maintaining the stock. The arcs she constructs for them are modest, adequate. We find out enough, not too much: November is probably at fault for her child's death; Sierra agreed, somehow, to be enrolled in the Dollhouse of her own free will (and that her collapse in Viktor's arms signaled that what closed her loop was not confrontation but the experience of trusting a man again). The mainstream culture already knows the vocabulary of Need, both individual Need and collective, and we all have our own motives for "healing" each other, especially those who'd benefit or profit from seeing us lead more orderly lives. I was touched, also, by seeing each Active's Need boiled down to one irreducible thing -- a name, a wish, a location -- one set of coordinates, one thing out of myriads, one guiding image, touchstone, point. Not unlike Paul's fixation on "Caroline"...

I remember a mountain. Somewhere peaceful, beautiful. I feel happy there. I wanna go there. Is that real, or is that part of your test?
How come it's there, if you didn't give it to me?
-It's coming from you...it's what you need.

Here was my gasp! moment, and I read two meanings into it. I know that this week's Actives are recovering memories - names, locations, etc. -- so there's a possibility this mountain is a real peak somewhere, but... I'd be more excited if it were pure symbol encoding something else, something Echo's mind assembled out of raw desire-scraps into a mountain-image... is Freeing the People equivalent to her mountain retreat? Long ago, when we discussed Buffy's relationship to violence, I remember suggesting that Slaying and asskicking < creative acts, generative acts, acts that set things in motion rather than simply avert slaughter in the moment. Echo imagined, planned, carried out her metaphorical desire, was allowed to be creator and narrator until forced to hand storyreins back... and the image of Echo falling at Adelle's feet was haunting and beautiful to me because it seemed to crystallize and conjoin both of their needs -- Echo's for rest and liberation from her Messiah urge, and Adelle's own Need for control, closure, the power to resolve, to complete, to have the final say. The author's power to say, "The End."

In contrast to all of these, Ballard's Needs seem pretty basic. I liked his tiny plot this week, watching him learn that he's watched just like everyone else (it's an Adelle-watching-Actives story, Paul-imagining-Adelle-watch-him story, us-watching-Paul-imagine-Adelle...) I even liked his dream-meeting with "Caroline," whose name, incidentally, is a derivative of Charles, whom semi-reliable (not scholarly, I'm afraid) sources tell me means

free man.
* * * * *

CS: "NEEDS": Why is this episode called "Needs"?

It is one small word, but the title gestures toward one of Mr. Joss Whedon's most beloved advices to writers/statements on the craft. It goes, roughly: it is not an artist's job to give the audience what they want. The job is to give them what they need.

Dollhouse is inconsistent or unfocused about how it assumes the human psyche is constructed. "Needs" proposes that a core personality could exist as "yourself, without your memories." I don't know that such a thing is even possible (most amnesiac fiction supposes the memory-damaged person becomes tabula rasa'd via global amnesia or dissociative fugue -- both extremely rare in real life), but I do not wish to call the premise out on weak science, for Dollhouse flies in uncharted skies of speculation all the time. I point this one out to illustrate one of the merits of the show's insistence on retaining the mysteries inherent in issues of selfhood, personality, developmental psychology, and et cetera. The important thing to me is that no matter what Topher sets out to do to a brain, it always carries unintended consequence. It never works how he wants or needs it to, whether through biology ("life finds a way", I once heard, not unakin to Nature Abhors a Vacuum), technical limitation (to avoid complete vegetative state in Dolls, they are only scrubbed "as much as I can" to stave off permanent damage), or the unknownable magical workings of consciousness itself. Topher boasts that the brain is not so different from a computer, but whatever accounts for the sliver of difference seems to make all the difference in the world.

What do Dolls want, what do they need, what do they "want" or "need"? Not known. Insufficient data. For-sure oversight in the system, as noted by Dr. Saunders and played out as educational field trip for the semi-Dolls in "Needs", is that they need "closure." Then they will settle down, stop glitching back on specific, particularly traumatic memories. That is the hope. Matrix territory again, in unglimpsed backstory it is explained that prior Matrices failed because they were modeled as conflict-free utopias, and the human brain rejected the notion. "Needs" gives us a chance to watch that Utopia Matrix story play out, watch it fail, watch the Architects experiment with refashioning the construct.

And we may wonder, as the Dolls head into the wide world, if they will instinctually hunt down the things they need? Maybe they will set a course for the things they want.

"So what'cha want?... You think that you can front when Revelation comes? Yeah, you can't front on that!"
-Beastie Boys!!!

We don't yet know if the full-immersion therapy exercise works or not. I seriously doubt it, as from the writer's room panopticon, Echo's freedom fighting instinct fuels the narrative, and is not to be cured but integral to the mission. There is more of that fine weekly naval-gazing in this story about how the human brain seeks resolution to major events; if Mutant Enemy makes a concrete statement about how the mind works, it is that we demand narrative cohesion. Human beings fall apart when robbed of stories. Which is surely a convenient and understandable position on human nature for storytellers to take.

Saunders makes a miscalculation, too. "Closure" is a process, not an event; no one involved finds it, perhaps never could. Saunders assesses the self-assigned Engagements, and fails there as well. Sierra, painted as perpetual victim of sexual abuse, faces off with a nasty misogynist bastard and gets nowhere on the vengeance front. Dollhouse Official Evaluation is that she needed to confront this man, but as you point out, is lucky to have her path intersect with Victor's. She didn't need to knock someone's teeth in or get an explanation for What He Did, but become truly empowered and devictimize herself. Did Victor need to find "love" as we are told? Whether V's army-man flashback in "Echoes" was an engagement or not, his deep-seated drive is to Serve and Protect with compassion. He manages to make Sierra feel safe, to trust him, and, ultimately, kiss him. Does November need to grieve for her lost child? She probably does, and so finds a grave, breaks down and weeps.

But these things are not closure. We do not leave November in a healed state, but very early in the stages of the mourning process. One kiss is not love. Leading your people out of Egypt is not a mission accomplished if everyone passes out before they reach Sinai.

The melancholy air of "Needs" comes not from watching these poor souls' personal tragedies played out anew or witnessing the difficult moments of triumph that the Dolls do manage to accomplish. The kiss happens, the bonding happens, the grave-location happens, the exodus happens. And then they disappear. The tragedy is that these 3D life lessons -- or near-approximations -- are shadow plays. There is a mono no aware beauty in their fleeting existence. And there is a mortal terror that This Is Just a Test and we are now returning to regularly scheduled showings of Dollhouse .

Genuinely difficult to cope with, this awareness that no matter the strides forward taken, your personal Greek tragedy, comedy or satyr play drags you along scripted path, circled by an audience. This Engagement was, as they all are, for someone else's benefit.


My pick for most poignant detail in "Needs" is the headstone marking the grave of November's daughter. The inscription: "In God's Care". All four escaped Dolls might as well be lugging one of those around. Pre-Dollhouse November surely believed in some model of a benevolent Creator. Everyone on Mt. Dollympus has differing opinions on how and why to pull the strings, all understandable, none entirely defensible.

Laurence Dominic Is My Shepherd... Mr. Dominic's attitude toward his duties is variously presented as hard-assed or fully morally repugnant, but frankly I find him touching and woefully human. Presuming that no one works Dollhouse security unless they've committed some other grave error in life, or have been forced into duty, Dominic's workday coping methods can be hard to watch. He condescends to Actives, insults Dolls to their faces, dehumanizes the people he has to protect because his job is not to love them but shepherd them. Treating his charges as objects, animals, Other Things keeps him on a forward path. If he did not adopt this attitude, he'd end up like Boyd: shot, stabbed, beaten, sick at heart, and on enforced vacation. We have all witnessed the wartime propaganda strategy of dehumanizing the enemy. Harder to accept is that we do this to a degree all the time. Do we really want to know how cops talk about citizens on the police band? "Echoes" proved that indeed Dominic's deep-down heart is troubled by how tough this love has to be, as he hysterically begs Echo for forgiveness for attempting to murder her. Whatever his motivations (fear? guilt? satisfaction of a job well done?), Dominic's task is Dollhouse Security, he attempts that maintenance at any cost, even heavy individual casualty. He is the rod and the staff. Echo, Sierra, Victor, November? Sheep. Pets. Does it matter what attitude the gods take toward you, when their job is to keep the house in order? The Dolls cannot take away anything from this exercise. They're going to be Wiped, the hope against hope being that it alters some primal spot that Topher's chair cannot reach; but Dominic does get what he needs: to see these people, briefly, as people, and that he may only protect the world insofar as the boss lady allows.

DeWitt, I think you've covered nicely. And yet... there's something beyond her Needs and her Wants at work. "Needs" itself is elegantly structured, and pulls off a writing trick that Mutant Enemy has attempted several times, and in my estimation always fudged: purposefully omitting a scene with crucial information so that the majority of an episode plays out with an air of head-scratching mystery, then flashing back to the missing information. I know that is a vague description; the most egregious example is the BtVS episode "Showtime". "Needs" wisely makes an early reference to the Dolls' escape as a training exercise for Dollhouse staff, then expands the purpose with Saunders' closure-mission suggestion. But there's another thing happening as Adelle watches a simulation of her house crumbling, her slaves revolting. She witnesses a vision of her own doom. And this, too, is something she may not want to see, but needs to see. When it goes down, this is how it's going down. Here is the impossibility of an omniscient chess-playing God: why make a protection pact with a species that cannot hold up its end of the deal? Adelle DeWitt is in control right now. But you think that she can front when Revelation comes?

Topher is granted that fine little two-person chamber drama with Echo -- the props a man, a woman, a gun, a chair -- and here he is yet another god, also unfeasible, also given what he needs to get, but least-wants. Back up halfway to Descarte's demon deceiver, but make a three-point turn; if Topher's made you in the image of whatever he pleases, then he is surely responsible for anything you do. And should you meet your programmer and discover he is just a gee-whiz idiot, marveling at what he can do, unconcerned with what he should do... The only experiment left is to threaten him with his own chair, and find out how much human frailty he has left in him. WHAT IF GOD GOT IN THE CHAIR?!?

Dollhouse's ruminations on DeWitt-and-Friends-as-Gods, if you're tired of my harping on this, are finally about erasing that very metaphor. If the world is a stage on Dollhouse, in "Needs" the writer, director, stagehands get a jolt of What They Need, and find that they are also players on a stage. Certainly Paul Ballard, previously under delusion that he could find the secret theater, punch out the ticket taker, sneak backstage and bust up the production, discovers that not only has he got marionette strings of his own, but has been in the show all along. There's a spy cam in your air vent? Don't worry, Paul! That just means you're In God's Care!

DeWitt okays this caper, as it is for the benefit of the Dollhouse, not the Dolls. But it is Dr. Saunders' idea. The test in "Needs" ends how all our tests end. You get as much closure as you can, then you fall on the ground, gone. And the poor, lovely thing who cares about the captives more than anyone, more than herself, comes up with a plan that only proves a truth that every laid-open heart must eventually face. You cannot solve peoples' problems for them. You cannot cure human beings of the human condition. Don't need to. Maybe shouldn't want to.

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