Thursday, April 16, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.9 - "A Spy in the House of Love"

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

The Engagement: Strobing electricity, extra wiring in the lab, a gunshot and a body forced into the Chair: Doll'd Echo and Sierra witness an ominous scene in Topher's den... A leap back 12 hours in time, and the hunt for the spy in the Dollhouse unfolds with jumbled, overlapping chronology. DeWitt is called away from the Dollhouse, leaving Mr. Dominic with the con. Topher finds an NSA microchip in his equipment. Dominic sends SpyHunter!Sierra into NSA HQ in on a Brian DePalma-riff mission. Adelle liaisons with... British-gentleman-Imprinted Victor for a romantic weekend that ends with crying! Topher sics DeductiveReasoning!Echo on Dollhouse staff, including himself! Dr. Saunders has no friends! A baaaad fate befalls the staff member busted as a spy (i.e.: brain sucked out)! Paul Ballard learns, weeks after everyone else, that Mellie's lasagna cooking skills are not what they seem to be, and it fills him with psychological torment!


CS: Since perhaps "True Believer", but certainly "Man on the Street", I'm comfortable saying Dollhouse is having a stronger first season than BtVS or Angel (though, no, not stronger than Firefly). I am not as sick in love with Dollhouse as the Buffyverse, I do not think it is a stronger program yet, but it currently represents a more thoroughly realized series in its early state, is telling the more compact and heady story. So. All our favorite characters were subjects of gobsmacking narrative sucker-punches this week. That's Dominic for me (and Doc Saunders, though she just gets a small revelation of yet deeper pathetitude); for you, and most spectacularly, Adelle. And the universe's favorite whipping boy, Paul Ballard got strung up by the emotional balls. Let's get crackin' indeed.

Mutant Enemy will occasionally tell us exactly what is on their collective mind, and declare the project's purpose up front; a famous, shivery BtVS moment, for example, announces: "It's about power." "A Spy in the House of Love"'s cold open gives us dialogue that spreads the themes on the table. In a teasing snippet of a scene we will watch from several angles, and not in full till the end, Doll-state Echo and Sierra look up to Topher's lab, where Something Very Bad is going down. And their idiot-child dialogue explains how we will watch the episode:

SIERRA: What's going on?

ECHO: She made a mistake. Now she's sad.

Immediately after/twelve hours earlier, Boyd and Echo-with-a-whip, headed home after an Engagement, suggest useful ways to think about the episode:

B&D!ECHO: Everyone thinks it's about the pain. It's not about the pain, it's about trust. Handing yourself over, fully and completely, to another human being. There's nothing more beautiful than letting go like that.

BOYD: In my experience, that kind of trust always leads to pain.

What's going on?

JS: Well, I'd argue first that even if BDSM-Echo and Boyd are voicing the collective thoughts of the writing crew (and I did just watch the similarly themed and Jane Espenson-penned "Harsh Light of Day"), they're still pushing individual agendas. Dom-Echo has a service to pitch, and it's tempting - a entire world constructed for you, replete with protocols, clear hierarchies, absolute certainty -- um, sounds familiar? She doesn't maintain trust because it's a beautiful thing, she maintains a simulacrum of it because otherwise she doesn't get paid for her services. The really neat flip for me is seeing Boyd take the risk-averse position when, ironically, he himself is the steward of Echo’s own full, complete, "beautifully letting-go" trust. He thinks he's assuring the Mistress (and himself) that he'll never surrender to anyone in that way, but what he doesn't know is that sometimes the one trusted so thoroughly ends up most brutally hurt and bereaved. It hurts to let yourself believe a thing about someone, to lay a small foundation stone, to begin piling other stones on that, and then to watch it all come down. But we recover, and we start to believe other things about others, to build lives around others -- repeat cycle. It's how we're made. Nobody can heed BDSM-Echo's sales pitch or Boyd's warning 100% -- the result is not always beautiful, and it's not always a disaster. The episode is not prescriptive, even if these two are.

It's interesting that Doll-state speeches are usually framed as blunt truths from the mouths of babes ("you make people different...she's sad") while Active-speeches could easily be framed as "lies" or "programming," could easily be used to parody and send up the half-baked, lazy things we tell ourselves in real life. Anything coming from an Activated mouth has automatic quotation marks around it, is being displayed to us as a behavioral artifact. And yet -- when BDSM-Echo whip-checks that Handler and says, "It's love. Show some respect" -- is it double ironic quotation marks, or the real thing? "It's love." Is it? Is it anywhere to be found? Or do we have to invert all our thinking, marking every explicit statement as false and corrupted, and marking only the implicit, concealed, furtive (Victor/Sierra) as "real"?

(Quick aside: the Shirtless Ballard plaque of the week goes to DeWitt, whom the FCC will not permit to be depicted shirtless on my television screen, but whose arms make me need to jump into a very cold mountain spring, of which there seem to be few in Brooklyn. (I'm also too much of a wuss for cold showers.))

CS: I meant to propose that the M.E. card-showing is more simply boiled down to: "It's about trust." "Everybody ready? This is an episode about 'trust'." And characters immediately begin ruminating on that buzzword/theme. I might put up a fight to extend the mission statement further: "It's not about the pain, it's about trust". This is certainly bigger territory than the participants of the van conversation realize. Mistress Echo is talking about sex, Boyd secretly talking about being a Handler, both understand that the issue transcends the specific, but only a viewer gets the multiple-angle vantage of linking the theme to all four Imprint mini-games. When relationships, romantic or otherwise, go awry due to betrayals or kept secrets, we tend to focus on the personal misery inflicted. Natural response, that -- make a mistake, and now you're sad. But the grievance in question is trust violation; drama and comedy are both always about the pain, so fair enough, we're asked to consider co-mingled issues of trust and pain in "Spy". Thus far, no, Dollhouse has not stooped/risen to sweeping statements about how to conduct oneself. It presents a scattergram of responses to situations. Just a few episodes ago we witnessed Joel Mynor lost in nostalgic reverie with Echo his dead wife, and in "Spy" Adelle finds her own escapist fantasy running out of gas.

Very funny moment, regarding those wacky, unaware things Actives say, as Victor-Imprinted-as-Roger insists his situation is not ironic, and (in writerly pronouncement) bemoans that "everyone always gets that wrong", which very nearly blows his bedmate Adelle's mind with pressurized layers of dramatic irony. 'Cause here's the thing about the quotation marks. They're around everybody, all the time. Dollhouse makes a project of pointing it out, but they encircle us all, as haloes, as devil horns. Besides concerns over application for weaponry, enslavement, control, etc. (that's a big "besides" and big "et cetera," huh?), those infinitely nested quotation marks around "love" and "real" are the things "Man on the Street" may have suggested would end us as a species, should Rossum Corp. technology be invented. As an idea, as a thought-model for how the world runs, it already exists as philosophical movements that pull the very floor out from under the rug and leave the rug questioning its reality: post-modernism, post-structuralism, existentialism. Some things cannot be put back in the box after their name has been spoken. Once we've grasped/invented those ideas, they are impossible to outrun; they are quicksand philosophy, in which everything sinks, there is no footing, and they go all the way down. Once you know there is a Dollhouse, you'll cover the wall trying to map its location. It's not a place, but the map itself. I'll be very curious to see what solutions Caroline invents to reconcile these problems.

Speaking of Victor (you know, back there somewhere), I've seen all the other heavy-hitter Dollhouse actors before, but Enver Gojokaj is a great find. He snaps in and out of Active character with his whole body, and there's no mistaking his bewildered, wounded Doll-state for his swaggering NSA man in "Echoes" or sophisticated, patient Roger in "Spy".

JS: The way you phrased it up there, it seemed like you were separating out the logical-mathematical outrage of trust violation ("you said you were A, but you turned out to be B, how can it be, this is an impossibility!") from the abjection, the misery, the "NOOOO!" part. One is an intellectual shattering -- worldview in pieces, chessboard in pieces, nothing as it seems, all the rules have changed, time to reevaluate assumptions. The other shatters the sense of gut-safety, shatters the heart. But there's no real heart/brain binary, so I see these as symbiotic traumas that mirror how we digest betrayal in real life: stretches of intellectual questioning followed by stretches of writhing face down on the floor. (At least, facedown is my preferred position; perhaps you're more of a supine griever?) But to return to the binary, some people are more consciously thinky and others more consciously feely, and betrayal brings out different behaviors in them.

Adelle (I am preening ever so slightly at having called an Adelle Love-ocalypse before it happened, although given the plot twistiness it's really not that much of an accomplishment) appears to need to readjust her thoughts not only about Dominic ("three years, Mr. Dominic") and allies but the place of love and fantasy in her tightly circumscribed life in general. I don't think she was in love with Dominic, but the shock of his collegial betrayal intersecting with her self-loathing over her Lonelyhearts engagements must have created an unbearable equation in her head: "Letting my guard down caused this. Feelings, camaraderie, caused this. I must be weak no more." Her response to the dual intellectual/emotional blow seems to be to retreat into her intellect entirely; that woman will feel no more. Shoot her in the side and she won't feel; beg her for your life and she won't feel. Shatter Adelle's trust, and she'll put it somewhere safe where you can't get to it anymore.

In the cases of Victor/Adelle and Paul/Mellie, I feel less clear about whose trust was violated and how. In theory, Victor, a Doll, trusts Adelle, his superior, not to use and abuse him. But Doll-trust isn't the same as reasoned adult vulnerability, it's not chosen trust -- a thing that copes with doubt, a thing willfully renewed, ebbing low sometimes and peaking at others, a decision made by a fully present brain: "I will merge with you. I will put a part of myself into your safekeeping." Doll-trust is child-trust, lacking so much as a particle of doubt. You can't truly trust anyone unless you can doubt, assess, and make the conscious and humble decision to overcome the doubt. Victor can't do that. Paul can do that, but his is not a two-way street of trust and betrayal -- you also can’t really deceive or betray anyone without, deep down, knowing you’re doing it (per your affection for the Sartre formulation about not being able to lie to yourself). So Victor is used sexually by Adelle, and Paul (weirdly, brilliantly, sickeningly) manipulated into using Mellie sexually, and Paul especially got a sphincter-tightening surprise (I was screaming for most of Mellie's robot-monologue). But he wasn't Mellie's victim... just a victim of his own judgment. Since there was never any two-way traffic between anyone anyway... maybe you can unpack this one.

Poor Paul. What a way to, as you put it sometime back, "get the note that he has no friends who are not robots."

CS: Oh, what a great trap of emotional agony the writers laid for Ballard! It would've been sufficiently cruel to simply break Ballard's heart by finding out about Mellie (that's the primary trust violation, checkmark), and into acting out a pantomime of his own life has already been set in motion, but forcing his knowing participation in a twisted parody of human affection... That's a real writing coup, and I don't have much to add but applause.

Well, if betrayals of trust didn't cause pain, they would not be an issue. If trust weren't difficult to give, it wouldn't be worth anything. DeWitt's central trust betrayl issue in "Spy" is with Mr. Dominic, not with Victor... but Victor is not irrelevant. Dr. Saunders hints at this early in "Spy": "having a desire you're ashamed or afraid of expressing can be terribly debilitating." DeWitt seeks out her holiday with Roger/Victor because she's ashamed or afraid to express any desire. A Doll's trust issues do not extend much beyond basic care and feeding. Roger neatly summarizes the value of an Active's trust. It is freely given, should it be requested, as it only exists as a behavioral parameter a client has demanded or not, and thus, Adelle begins to find it valueless. Though if Saunders is right, DeWitt should be prime Dollhouse client material, but just lands DeWitt in a rowboat somewhere in the vicinity of Paul Ballard. Difference being DeWitt has oars, and Paul's currently being held captive by robot pirates. Adelle's shot at escapism fails, and this happens to coincide with Dominic's unmasking as an NSA agent (one wonders how much worse off the security head is because the boss had a bad weekend), but also her placement of added responsibility in Dominic's hands. Everything that happens under that roof is her fault, and she entrusts Dominic, as Neil Gaiman says, to "be me for awhile." There's ample dramatic irony in DeWitt's relationship with her second pretender, too: goddamn knows what the NSA wants with the Dollhouse, but nobody besides DeWitt cared more or tried harder to protect the company than Dominic. She did what she had to do, but sacrificed her best employee in the process.

(Hang on, I'm reiterating these points that you already made to go somewhere new.) What happens in "Spy" is, indeed, DeWitt's fault, but there was no way to avoid the problem. And she may or may not know it. It is a reality of command positions that when things go wrong anywhere on the chain of command below, it is the commander's responsibility. The specific, unbusinesslike reason for her absence causes an added burden to her conscience, but DeWitt's backed into untenable position. For anyone invested in an important job, this is bound to happen. At some point, one person cannot do everything, and responsibilities have to be delegated. If you don't get out of the office, and if you do not take care of yourself...

... You turn into Dr. Saunders. And Adelle is paralleled with Saunders in this way, two women with vastly different approaches and demeanors but, perhaps, similar attitudes toward their responsibilities. We learn that Saunders has not even left the Dollhouse in months, hiding from the world, always indignant and defensive with coworkers, and this only serves to deepen her wounds. DeWitt has been theoretically "outside" pretty frequently, but utterly unable to leave work at work. If there were any doubt that we're watching how DeWitt might be retracting into a similar hermit crab shell as Saunders, Roger gives DeWitt a single flesh wound during a recreational fencing match. Y'know, whatever they're doing to these "volunteers," the staff just might be taking worse licks overall. Wonder if it'll leave a scar.

Boyd says he prefers Engagements that aren't about some deep, dark sexual need. Saunders replies that she "believe[s] the system is flawed. Maybe irreparably. But maybe not for the same reasons you do." I'm reading that as Boyd being concerned about what it means about people who would hire the Dollhouse, while Saunders is anxious about the well-being of the Dolls. Funny, I hear similar conversations about pit bulls, including passionate defenses from owners who have been mauled.

JS: I haven't said much about her, but I'm with you in feeling pretty curious about and invested in Doc Saunders. We're closing in on the end of the season, and there's still a lot of work to do on her. I know you're not terribly interested in plot speculations, but... a la my Adelle-thoughts last week, what is going to coax Dr. Saunders from her shell? With Adelle's transmutation into demigod at the end of "Needs" (I still can't quit the image of her standing over Echo, like Athena gloating over fallen Hector), she was due for a fall, and how she fell. But she still wields power, she still moves and acts and interacts with a wide circle, and it's easy to craft plot developments for her. Dr. Saunders, I can only assume, spends her downtime curling her hair and hiding under her bed, she has no internal motion or impetus to change -- and I think we'll see her leaving the Dollhouse on Echo's back, led into a world she can barely withstand. It would have to be EXODUS THREE for Echo -- #1 occurred in "True Believer" (successful), #2 in "Needs" (unsuccessful), #3 in... season finale? That is my predict. If I'm a writer and rotating the Dollhouse in my head, probing it for weak spots and potential nodes for demolition, wondering about the most satisfying outcome for the season... I think that big fancy building is going to be quite empty come autumn. (Hopefully it will not be due to show cancellation but to an imaginative leap -- you don't really need potted plants and saunas to make a Dollhouse, just some electricity and a place for Topher to put his chair.)

Also, major strengths acknowledged, it's just a weird show, isn't it? It's overpopulated, it's bursting with plot, it's still unclear exactly where it's going (going off my sphere-image from last week, it seems to be expanding radially, in every possible direction), it wobbles from Engagement-of-the-Week to large-arc stories, and yet... somehow... yes, it's improving. It manages to pack in everything from love madness to Sierra's great spymovie parody to workplace comedy to existential migraine to conspiracy-theory migraine to surprising character drama... this amplitude, this abundance and overflowiness, which I see and appreciate on BtVS, seems to have seeped over here, and now that we're 3/4 of the way to the end of S1... care to make any stabs what the show, as a whole, is about?

(I know, I know. "Trust No One.")

CS: Hmm, yes, well, and lessee. My Internet got distracted looking at pictures of Amy Acker.

These things are written to Arc, so put on your welding mask. Dr. Saunders may be naturally inclined to whimper and write reports nobody reads and no drive to right her situation, but what she does have is a one-on-one history with Alpha. Unless some super-pressing issue with Whiskey or Hotel arises, I'd wager that after next week's Jane Espenson-penned (row of exclamation points) murder mystery caper it is time for Alpha to step out of the shadows and make clear his intentions. Pending notice on details of Alpha's plan:
a) If Alpha moves to do further damage to Dollhouse staff -- or even Actives -- I'd like to see Saunders pressed into ethical Kobayashi Maru, where she has to weigh the options of self-sacrifice and killing/helping kill Alpha, thus breaking her own code, failing to help an Active and crumpling her soul a little more.
b) If -- and I suspect this is the If to pick -- Alpha's goal is liberating the Dolls and forcing Caroline to self-actualize, I'd like to see Saunders horrified to find herself sympathizing with and assisting the rogue Active. Build the story right and you could have all the above.

All that said, I still cannot shake that look Topher cast at Saunders in the first episode. Suspicion, puzzlement, vexation, or just checking her out? Nah, strike the last. He only checks out girls who are holding Little Debbie cakes.

Dollhouse is extremely weird. The characters can be compelling enough to jerk tears, the action can be fun and exciting, and after the first few rote plots for Engagement-heavy episodes (and even in those, but in B & C plots), the story whirls and darts with surprising, thrilling developments and tight-crammed plotting. But Dollhouse is perpetually chasing itself around in its own head. Everything is "about" what it is about... no moment passes that is not an allegory for itself or a puppet-theater sketch of the world. I don't quite have the words for this. It is never not-stoned. BtVS, Angel and Firefly are rich, deep, dense, chocolatey texts too, but Dollhouse is like an art installation about a hundred cakes under domes and you can't eat any. ... And this is all kind of cool; not necessarily compliments, but in no way complaints (I'm currently loving it, but fully understand why others may not). At first it seemed to be a slightly head-tripping Mission: Impossible, it has gotten so much stranger and loftier, I think Dollhouse's closest TV relatives are Blake's 7 and The Prisoner.

What's It About?... is a lot of things. The stuff we've been talking about every week! But, I mean, what's BtVS about? Broad to narrow: living in the world --> growing up --> Female power, having it, celebrating it, sharing it. What's Dollhouse about? Living in the world --> how identity is constructed --> finding freedom with/in/from that. So: identity, power and freedom. Which, on a basic level, all Mutant Enemy shows have been about. But that is nearly too broad. Topher joked about it in the first episode, the devil quoting Hamlet to his own ends. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so... and, therefore, every thought may easily turn into a prison. Dollhouse is about the potential for terror and liberation in learning how much of your world is built on construct. Perhaps even the world itself, perhaps even the notion of "you".


CS: !!!











JS: Chris...everything all right? You look weird.

CS: Uh. Yeah. Um, there's a guy that seems to want you to get in his van. Maybe you should go with him.

Hey, wait, we didn't talk about Anaïs Nin...

1 comment:

ben said...

How is it that no one has commented yet? I stumbled into your midst through the wonderful world of Google and now I'm quintessentially hooked. Way to analyze the episode with intellect and intrigue, as well as making with the funny.