Saturday, May 09, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.10 - "Haunted"

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

The Engagement: Adelle's wealthy, horse-loving friend Margaret dies. As per her pal's request, DeWitt Imprints Margaret's mind on Echo, that the deceased may spy on her loved ones for a few days. Margaret soon finds herself tangled up in much intrigue, as her family does not like her as much as she thought, and one of them may have killed her. With four suspects, the fate of expensive horses in the balance, and scant days until her will is executed, Margaret scrambles to solve the mystery. Back at the Dollhouse, Topher imprints Sierra to play video games and laser tag with him. Also Paul Ballard hate-fucks Mellie, feels bad about it and takes a shower.

JS: Are you ready? Get ready.

CS: We're far enough into the 21st century that it is time to stop marveling at popular postmodern culture's propensity for genre blending/hopping/smushing/blurring. It happens, and it happens with smart auteurs and stupid garbage alike. Nonetheless, I'm still taken by Dollhouse's setup, which lets it completely immerse characters in story templates from far-flung genres with little familial relationship to the show's high-tech espionage/ s-f base rules. In "Haunted" we're set up for something like a classical drawing room mystery -- Who Killed the Bitchy Rich Lady? -- but it comes off rather more like a cyberpunk episode of Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice. As high, weepy drama and intrigue among the wealthy and assholic, fueled/framed by screwloose write-as-we-go mystery, this A plot is better than Dallas, but not quite Agatha Christie.

Genre diehards will recognize a few other hoary favorites either played out in full or hinted at: the ghost-story-with-no-ghost (perhaps exemplified by Rebecca; the overwhelming, powerful sense of a departed woman's presence becomes eerier than a supernatural specter), and the return of a ghost that it may investigate the murder of its own body. As for the second one, "Haunted" is not even particularly bizarre; Sunset Blvd. is famously narrated by its own dead hero, but that's nothing on Remember Me, Christopher Pike's trashy 1989 teen horror noir thriller romance novel -- fondly remembered by a generation of ex-adolescent girls and gay boys -- in which a murdered girl, you know, returns to investigate her own murder and fall in love with a teenage ghost boy. If this trainspotting is going anywhere it is this: "Haunted" covers some plot territory adjacent to Espenson's Angel episode "Rm w/ a Vu". You're welcome!

The seriocomic pitfalls of incognito attendance at one's own funeral are, I think, best covered in The Adventures of Tom Sawyerand Dan Clowes' short comics story "My Suicide". If there is lesson to be learned from these and "Haunted" too, it is that while it may stroke/stoke one's ego to see loved ones weeping your loss, it is not helpful or instructive for anyone to disrupt the natural mourning process. At the very least, as Margaret -- maybe? I hope? -- "learns," nobody quite acts like themselves or in a conventionally readable way while they are grieving. Funerals are not a great place to find out what people really think of you. If Margaret is able to face her death with some peace that her husband loved her... well, bully for her, but the rest of us don't get a do-over. We get one chance to do the life part, one chance to get ready for death, and one shot at dying.

If anything beautiful happens in Margaret's story in "Haunted", it is that she still has to die, and maybe realizes that her few days in Echo's body amount to little more than score-boosting bonus level. But maybe she doesn't. She dies again either way. A few characters fret over the moral implications of granting perpetual life -- that central scene in Adelle's Olympian office, Boyd spouts off, indignant and scared about the core philosophical queasiness of putting Margaret's mind in Echo's body. So this is a story about what we do -- and don't do -- with knowledge of our mortality. And it is a story about "reaching out". That is what the big speeches are about, anyway.

JS: Let's have a moment of fond remembrance, shall we?
Most people would probably call me a ghost. I am, after all, dead. But I don't think of myself that way. It wasn't so long ago that I was alive, you see. I was only eighteen. I had my whole life in front of me. Now I suppose you could say I have all of eternity in front of me. I'm not sure exactly what that means yet. I'm told everything's going to be fine. But I have to wonder what I would have done with my life, who I might have been. That's what saddens me most about dying - that I'll never know.

Don't sweat it, Shari Cooper. Things could be worse - you might have ended up like Margaret! But looking over that opening paragraph of Remember Me makes me think about the age gap between Shari and Margaret - one a young girl whose life has barely begun, the other an autumnal woman with a life's work to conclude. Arguing for a moment that any ghost is, in effect, an Imprint - a data recovery, a consciousness reconstituted and able to see and think as it did in life - what is special about the way a ghost experiences the earth-world?

For the first time in all of Dollhouse, the focal point of a story is not Echo/Caroline's sneaky irruption into and interference with the Imprint. This time, both stay the hell out of the way. Every single one of Echo's Imprints thus far has been that of a young woman -- not only chronologically young, but whose whose youth and vitality and sense of invincibility are essential to her mission as law enforcement/bodyguard/warrior/master operator (Eleanor, Jordan, Taffy, SpyEcho, disoriento Caroline) or love interest (Target, Rebecca, Alice), or ingenue infiltrator (Esther). Every one of these Engaged ones, factual past notwithstanding, perceives her "life" as spreading before her, perceives the future as a thing to seize, shape, and master. Every one perceives herself as free, unburdened, un-"past-ed. Even the thinly blocked memories -- Eleanor's abuse, Caroline's career -- are not vortices of regret or guilt, experiences that paralyze their hosts with brooding and the "what-ifs" -- both women are eventually released into action, loosed from the string. Margaret, on the other hand, has arranged her entire mission around her past, and in watching her embark, we see that no previous Imprint has as many corrections to make to her personal story, none has accumulated as much regret as Margaret has simply by existing for more decades, digesting more life, feeling the ebb and flow of relationship over time.

Although every Engagement is a learning experience that stays in Caroline's body, only one or two thus far have proven to be truly epiphanal, body-chemistry-changing breakthroughs in self-knowledge, true revisions of a point of view, true reassessments of relationships. No Imprint has learned more about herself than Margaret. They've learned some things: Eleanor met her attacker and confronted old demons, Taffy meditated on some paintings, Alice revisited Rossum... but by placing Margaret's consciousness in Echo's body, Adelle is not just giving Margaret the chance to finish her own mission (and to try to leave an Imprint in her family in the way any grandiose matriarch might, moving her pawns around in the final stretch, scheming that they may remember her). Adelle gives Echo's shell the chance to experience, through Margaret, something that no young person can know before her time -- the palpable and inescapable burden of lived life. Of staggering and settling under the weight of so many thousands of days. Of having more to look back on than to look forward to. The past feels very different to a twenty-eight-year-old than it does to a fifty-whatever-year-old, and again to an eighty-year-old. If Caroline got to remotely experience one, somewhat infantile kind of closure two episodes ago, she now experiences a different closure via Margaret -- a true epilogue, a true closing of the book. What's done is done -- no more editing allowed. There's actually some comfort in that!

This was also an exceptional mission in that it wasn't a work assignment -- it came from within the Imprint herself, from her own desires to play out and finish her own story. Was Echo even necessary for this one? Why couldn't it have been Sierra or November? Here I thought "Haunted" faltered in putting old vindictive Margaret inside pretty young Echo, because, thanks to Eliza D.'s somewhat limited acting skills, we pretty much just saw... young pretty Echo. (A similar problem we saw when Buffy and Faith switched bodies -- next to Sarah Michelle Gellar playing Buffy/Faith, Dushku was a husk). She had some nice scenes with her husband and son, but as with every stand-alone Dollhouse episode, it's hard to care that much about secondary characters introduced from scratch, unless they're given as juicy a role as Joel Mynor or Jonas Sparrow. I honestly didn't give a fart about Margaret's family -- they were incidental. This episode was about her journey.

As for Adelle, I submit that this episode is also "Needs''s twin-isode in the sense that Adelle, too, still enjoys the authorial control, the storyteller's control, of being able to send people benevolently forth into Imprintation and then bring them back. I know you didn't see her gesture to Margaret as very necessary (or even financially sensible -- you've pointed out that Adelle could have just left her dead), but I doubt DeWitt could resist being anyone's posthumous executor -- or, in the case of Dominic, living executioner.

CS: Ooh, from a personal viewership investment stance, I don't even particularly care about Margaret, or any of the Mystery on Racehorse Ranch! plot mechanics. At least wonderful character actor and Brian De Palma (and Whedon) favorite Gregg Henry is on hand as alcoholic ne'er-do-well brother William, sliming his way through the depletion of Margaret's booze supply like a sponge squeezed into a greasy suit. Other critics, more focused on evaluative opinion, have been lambasting Dushku's performance all season. She is better than commonly given credit -- it's not like she is ruining the show -- but is more suited to the defensive haughtiness and sassy self-possession of the underprivileged Faith on BtVS than the icy smarm of the idle rich in "Haunted". Just watch her in the funeral scene. She doesn't register the difference between these distinct modes of snottiness.

Back to the task at hand. Come to think of it, "Haunted" belongs to another genre, the fantastical conversion narrative, in which a deficient or troubled mortal is given the chance to correct their mistakes by means of supernatural plot device. The sub-sub-genre we've already named: brief reincarnation to solve some mystery, turns out the thing that needs solving is personal relationships that went sour. For some reason, movies like to make this reincarnation into the bodies of small dogs (Oh! Heavenly Dog, Quigley). So Margaret sees the aftermath of her death: some people love her, some are confused, some misunderstood her, and some were not sufficiently loved in return. That's how life goes, and Margaret gets to say a few things it had not previously occurred to her to say, but when she leaves only a small justice has been done. I have difficulty empathizing with the inhabitants of this dull and glittering world, but that stuff's not the key to "Haunted". Though Margaret has the epiphany that she and her beefcake trophy husband really-truly-for-reals loved one another, this is a small revelation next to the crushing knowledge that she shoulda-coulda-woulda better handled all these familial relations in life. The grace note remains that she slips away again anyway, must realize the futility of chasing immortality, and with her small triumphs in Echo's body, does not beg to return and live in this corrected version of her life. What starts as the selfish romp turns into angel-of-mercy mission; in the end Margaret makes a gift to her family. Perhaps a gift even to her gambling addict/murderer/animal abuser son, who now has a shot at rehabilitation at which the overly-monied rarely arrive under their own power.

"All we have to decide," as we're told by the Giles to Frodo's Buffy, "is what to do with the time that is given to us." On Dollhouse one of those decisions is what to do with the Actives given to us; we've looked at how Margaret uses her time and her Active/self, and the parallel stories are of Topher's time and Ballard's. Seems to me that Margaret learns -- too late, but learns -- to reach out to family, lovers, friends, while Topher is trapped, yearning for the connection but walled in by the Dollhouse and whatever deficiencies lie within himself. It is telling and touching that Topher does not program a companion for erotic adventure or romance (he does not even seem to require a Doll of any particular sex), but a friend. He does not even desire a sycophant or someone he can best in all games of leisure and intellect. His constant posturing and bragging about his own scientific prowess indicate a specific kind of insecurity, might lead us to speculate that his ultimate fantasy would involve a good deal of ego massaging. Turns out what he most desires is an ego cool-down, space to breathe, room to relax and play, freedom to be goofy, unproductive and unjudged -- conversely, Margaret begins with extreme interest in how she is judged.

So Ballard, during his shame-shower, after a self-loathing round with the Mellie Coitus-bot 9000, brands himself a "customer" of the Dollhouse. Is he? Seems to me that Ballard is simply keeping himself alive (i.e. - he has to continue sleeping with Mellie, to keep up appearances that he is not aware of November), though the cost of his physical well-being is taking a toll on his soul. If anything, since he appears to play the game by 'House rules, and secretly plays by the Inside Man's rules... he's not a client but a painfully self-aware Doll. I am sure we all hope Mr. Ballard's anguish continues, causing much soul-searching in the shower.

JS: I'll first address the issue you raised of whether Margaret's return is worthwhile. You raised a similar issue back when we talked "Needs" and you argued that the "closures" experienced by the Actives were temporary and perhaps without much value: "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 yet they have existed -- people have done "what they can with the time that is given to them," and I find this kind of story not so much melancholy as hopeful, if only because it triggers an imagination into considering its own unfinished business. With luck we'll intuit more of our own unfinished tasks before we die, and avoid the Trip Back, which, without the benefit of Topher's chair, is probably significantly more unpleasant than Margaret's. Especially if you don't like boats.

We haven't touched yet on another pissed ghost and his own quest to resolve unfinished business, although his is not so much a whodunit as a Coen-worthy comedy about entrusting important tasks to the very wrongest people. Over the years I find Hamlet Jr. funnier and funnier -- love the mismatch between the father's urgency and the son's inchworm pace. I get big laughs imagining that ghost fuming away like a boss watching a lazy employee on a surveillance camera (as I was once watched, incidentally, for an entire evening by a furious president of the company...) Fault Margaret as much as you will, for the hubris of thinking her will had been Done vis-a-vis horses, husbands, and children and discovering that she really isn't, as Echo once accused Adelle, "as important as she thinks she is" (no wonder Adelle and Margaret are friends...?). Margaret may have "gone to her reckoning with all her sins on her head," but at least she comes back to do her own work rather than fobbing it off on someone else!

Coming around to the question of what we request in Actives, I agree that Topher's choice of Imprint was touching, maybe more honest than the obvious salacious choice. There are times when friends, or ghosts of friends, are more nourishing than lovers. As for Ballard's devouring of his Doll, it seemed a pretty inevitable course given his complete lack of headway in other parts of life -- of course that doesn't excuse the very singular kind of rape committed by Dollhouse clients, but I can imagine that, seeing no clear way to any other goal, frustration would take itself out on the nearest "willing" creature. My guess, though, is that he won't be doing that again. Sometimes just putting a memory in your body, searing your eyes with a picture of how you behaved, is enough to kill the desire ever to repeat an action again. Getting your way completely, experiencing perfect omnipotence, is not actually that exciting over time, if only because it's short on suspense and variety! Hell, you brought up an interesting point in an email: "Wouldn't a vast portion of Dollhouse business be from major corporations who just want super-efficient genius R&D people? Wouldn't Actives be frequently employed to just, say, do a few weeks work in a lab or designing software and weapons? Wouldn't corporate clients just ask for Einstein's brain with a patch to bring him up to date on current theoretical physics? I MEAN COME ON. This version of the show would be extra-boring."

Good point. Limits make life interesting. They give you things to bonk against and hate and work around and exercise your wits on. Sometimes the Dollhouse's cornucopia of Imprints seems ridiculously unlimited -- they just happen to have a horse expert on hand? They just happen to have myriad NSA imprints? You mean the show can really address any scenario, anywhere? (They haven't addressed time travel yet, but maybe they will?) The only obvious limit seems to lie in what Mom, I mean Adelle, is inclined to give -- or to withhold. But the thing is, Adelle is strongly judgmental and has no trouble saying "no." She would probably make fairly astute calls about what would be advantageous or harmful to the DH, probably wouldn't even do business with powerful R&D people? She would give them one look and ice them right out of her office. She is the gatekeeper preventing this from turning into a boring, undifferentiated id-fest or R&D fest. And there's also another limit on what you can request -- a limit on inventory! How much of an Imprint consists of externally acquired knowledge (knowledge that makes Sierra a Superspy, for example) and how much is pure, not-from-concentrate personality-juice itself? What if you can order your Nobel Laureate physicist, but you wind up with Richard Feynman's Imprint and he ends up doing everything his own damn way and picking everyone's locks on his downtime and playing his bongo drums in the closet? Maybe you can't actually order whatever you want, since it all comes in imperfect human packaging enclosing other human packaging. Eleanor glitched, Taffy glitched, Echo-personality intersects routinely with Imprint-personality. (But that falls apart when you look at SpySierra, since she was a completely obedient trained machine. Lesson: request NOT-Echo for the projects you actually wanna get done!)

Technical question: prior to this episode I was under the impression that all the original Imprints were dead? Isn't that the condition of the Imprint extraction -- that you're already dead or that they fry your brain á la Dominic and make you dead... or make you an Active? And now here's Margaret, who had her Imprint extracted while alive. Boyd wasn't so bothered about everlasting life when Echo was Imprinted as an Eleanor or an Esther -- or maybe it took ten weeks for it to occur to him.

Either Boyd's an inchworm...or I am.

CS: Certainly the lineage of ghostly murder mysteries is long and deep-nested; revenge-seeking ghosts are the far thicker branch on the family tree. Though mystery fiction's roots do extend as far back as One Thousand and One Nights, Hamlet may appear to contain no proper "mystery" by the standards of modern detective fiction; yet it contains several dozen mysteries, and one of those mysteries furthers its kinship with "Haunted": Hamlet plays games with what a ghost "is." Surely neither of us wants to enter debate on whether there is a literal supernatural spirit in the narrative; the Ghost both Is and Is Not (here: Hamlet as early David Lynch narrative). He is two men with the same name pushing and pulling at the same dilemma, deepening its resonances and scope until the question of how to avenge one death becomes the lynchpin to the meaning of human existence. The Ghost is both earthbound specter and psychic projection -- in 1980, Jonathan Pryce terrifyingly portrayed both roles simultaneously, spouting King Hamlet's lines from the Prince's body in guttural Tom Waits imitation, a brilliant blurring (and bizarre performance) of literal ghost, man possessed and man gone mad. But as in Stanley Kubrick's Ghost... Or No-Ghost? problem play The Shining (also 1980!), a similar puzzle has an identical un-solution: it does not, strictly, make a "difference" in what occurs in the narrative. Either way, Prince Hamlet manufactures a mystery to stall for time, requiring of himself "proof" of King Claudius' regicide, when the continuing sin of the royal marriage may provide "just cause" for Hamlet to avenge his father. Margaret in "Haunted" does not have to invent a mystery... Or does she? For whom is she seeking justice? It pains us to know it, but the dead care nothing justice. Hamlet and Margaret both seek out murder confessions by means of elaborately staged play-acting games, and each of these is, perhaps, infinitely nested: Hamlet guest-directs The Mousetrap while already feigning/claiming-to-feign insanity, while already under orders from a Ghost of dubious reality, while simultaneously coping with the dawning awareness of existence's thin reality. Margaret's detective costume is just as layered in narrative overcoats (though, obvi, they are not quite so richly embroidered). Nice sentiments about love and horses aside, it still seems to me that Margaret plays a zero sum game, and I think she realizes it by the time she reclines in The Chair... Hamlet does these things as well -- while the fate of nations rests on his actions, his torment is ultimately cosmic -- though with far more bitching and moaning. And yes, it is all very funny, the blackest of comedy (The Shining, Psycho, Sunset Blvd., The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, All About Eve, De Palma and Lynch) being indistinguishable from not just tragedy but horror.

[I'm officially way off-subject. As a grace note here: the Shakespeare-loving Mr. Whedon provided the Buffyverse with its perfect Hamlet in Angel, its Fortinbras in Spike.]

The rules and limits on ordering an Active are going to remain vague until Mutant Enemy publishes a Dollhouse company brochure and deems it canonical. I later realized that my proposal about industrial applications of Actives probably hinges less on the problem of "would it work?" than the practical question of what the Dollhouse could gain from renting out its property for someone else's profit. Even the sole (paid) thieving Engagement in "The Gray Hour", in which the Greek government sought out stolen art objects, was to recover artifacts of cultural and historical significance, of largest value to their rightful owner, and, as it happens, not a private individual but a nation. Morally muddied territory to be sure, but profiteering seems to be disallowed (even if electioneering is not). Straight-up murder-for-hire seems to be a no-no, and military application is (I'm speculating!) out of the question. Surely, if your Active ends up bungling or lazing about on the job, you get your money back.

All three of your topics above tie together after all, in the question of what makes Margaret's Imprint and Engagement different than all the others. While the elements in the Imprint pick 'n' mix come from dead people, Topher theoretically selects only the pieces that will be useful at the time -- Eleanor Penn's childhood trauma just happened to be intrinsically linked to her hostage negotiation skillz, we're told. "Haunted" indicates strongly that Adelle's indulgence of Margaret's vanity is in likely contradiction of Dollhouse S.O.P. Boyd's protest in "Haunted" seems to stem from an entire in-tact personality being uploaded by request, into a new set of hardware. Anyone approximately my age knows exactly where this is going:

Thus far, if Boyd or the DH Official Position on Moral Issues don't recognize the continuity between their daily grave-robbing and the self-willed resurrection in "Haunted", they're not paying any attention or know something we don't. And what is truly causing all these glitches? Echo or Caroline is written as "special", just as Spike is written as "special" on BtVS; they are allowed to violate the established rules because they are central characters. One hopes there is a forthcoming textual reason/excuse for Echo to continue glitching all over the place (aside: did Taffy glitch? She was remotely Wiped, before we could find out if she'd screw up on her own; as it stands, though, Echo is the only Active suffering this problem. Everyone in "Echoes" is pardoned, being effected by wacky drugs). In this episode about the sorts of personal connections one chooses to forge to make the most of one's brief life, Caroline is nowhere to be seen, though she is always right in front of us.

There is one more fantasy subgenre I want to invoke, a nameless one, in which a benevolent otherworldly being visits a troubled household and heals a tumultuous domestic situation (Pasolini's Teorama, Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, Spielberg's E.T., Miike's Visitor Q). Echo is a vessel for this kind of activity in "Haunted" specifically, but she performs the service in principal all the time: in "Ghost", "Stage Fright", "Gray Hour", "True Believer", she assists in solving internal strife while on mission to resolve external conflicts. Caroline is not currently in full control of where she lands in the time given to her. She has to play it as it lays, though she did not take the shot. She dies anew almost every single day (but only, y'know, for a little while). But she uses those mini-lives more effectively than those whose brains she is borrowing, and in "Haunted" does this thing better than Topher or Ballard, provides Margaret a better ride than on her first go-round. Somehow she's taking these lives and working them for all they are worth, and I hope these pieces add up to a whole Caroline. In "Ghost", Topher sassed some of Hamlet's lines at Boyd, but they constituted a reasonable personal Topher slogan. Were he picking one for Caroline, he couldn't do better than:
It will be short: the interim is mine;
And a man's life's no more than to say "one."

JS: Indeedy, and come to think of it, wouldn't Fran Kranz make the best Osric?

CS: Sure, assuming the director wants someone who waves his hands around a lot to punctuate every line of dialogue.

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