Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).
The Engagement: On a charitable Engagement, Echo hangs out at a group home for wayward youth, and assists a traumatized girl with her personal life, using a storybook of "Sleeping Beauty", which frames and informs the episode. Paul Ballard seeks out Steven Kepler, the man who designed Dollhouse, and Ballard forces the agoraphobic architect to help him break into the secret facility. Adelle and Topher drag Mr. Dominic out of the Attic and into Victor's head, to investigate the contents of a spooky flash drive... which reveals that Alpha is posing as Kepler. With Alpha as his guide, the unwitting Ballard finally makes it into the Dollhouse, where he is promptly emotionally shattered, beaten up... and finds that Echo has no interest in being rescued by him.
JS: Saturday morning: check.
COFFEE FROM HELL: check.
Medicinal carrots germinating on windowsill: if only!
CS: Don't put that on the windowsill, unless you want someone to see it.
Here are some people who score bonus points in "Briar Rose".
a) Jane Espenson, here flying solo and sparkling, where "Haunted" contained dull bits possibly the doing of Joss Whedon's brother and sister-in-law.
b) I like Alan Tudyk as much as the next guy but the standout performance is the few minutes of Enver Gojokaj playing Victor imprinted as Mr Dominic. Gojokaj was just on best-supporting fire in these moments, channelling Reed Diamond so well it was like watching Dominic wearing a Victor mask.
c) the entire writer's room and their attitude toward Paul Ballard. Through much of "Briar Rose" I increasingly grew concerned that the world's most screwed-over detective was actually making some sort of progress, the greatest coup of the last act being that Ballard has fucked up worse than ever before.
JS: Victor waking up as Mr. Demonic was one of my top moments of the entire series, a) structurally, since we're so used to the image of the peaceful or Activated wakeups and b) topo-emotionally, because how often do moments like this erupt through the show's slick surface? We've seen the next worst thing -- Ballard watching his own betrayal unfold in the form of Mellie's message -- and now the worst thing, a creature in pain, aware of his pain, powerless in his pain. Mr. Volcanic indeed.
Speaking of waking up (and this episode is full of wakeups), did you know that that this episode is a shoutout to Sleeping Beauty? I hope you didn't miss that.
CS: Ha. Oh, okay, we'll go straight There.
ANGEL: This isn't some fairy tale. When I kiss you, you don't wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.
BUFFY: No. When you kiss me I want to die.
-BtVS, "Reptile Boy"
There are ways in which to invoke folk tale, myth and fairy story which simply draw parallels, underline various points, or imbue proceedings with a fated, classical feel. This, whether you are Joyce writing Ulysses or Chris Carter writing The X-Files episode "Post-Modern Prometheus", may be done gracefully or in hackneyed fashion. It is not inherently a tacky technique. It is value-neutral. Grabbing randomly from my brain files, compare the cornball jagoffery of A.I.'s invocation of Pinocchio and Hard Candy's Little Red Riding Hood motif to, say, Suspiria's loose Snow White model, and the subtle accumulation of references to Arthurian legend in Twin Peaks. "Briar Rose" does not invoke a fairy tale once and let the issue slide, leaving us to suss out analogues with the Sleeping Beauty story, but increasingly draws graphic parallels, illustrating with match-cuts between book illustrations and characters, locations, uses the fairy tale to narrate external events via voice over. The cross-cut commentary makes no overtures to subtlety...
... yet I don't think it is all that's going on. In "True Believer" several Biblical stories are invoked, and as I proposed, actually mulled over and given sympathetic/subversive readings that differ from dominant culture's readings of the same. "Briar Rose" does something similar, and openly discusses the issue of interpretation and purpose. We watch "Briar Rose" talk through the problem with Briar Rose. First, Echo as "Susan, Too" provides an unadorned read-through of Sleeping Beauty, then we listen to the protests of the young girl Susan, a hard luck case and abuse victim who finds the story's wait-to-be-rescued scenario disempowering. Echo then proposes a more sophisticated reading of the story, based less on literal plot events than meditation on genre structure. The episode has a built-in critical analyst in Echo, but another in Espenson and director Dwight Little. Susan and Susan2's discussion is spread out enough that it allows Ballard's mission, homing in on the location of the Dollhouse, to unfold beneath the auspice of the Sleeping Beauty deconstruction; while the story initially provides analogues for the prince and cursed princess in Echo and Ballard, it is the criticism which provides the stronger throughline. The easy parts of this game are obvious as soon as Susan2 reads a line from the story. The complications begin when the first match-cut is between a torn and crumpled illustration of the storybook prince and the emotionally damaged Ballard. The reality and positivity of Ballard's mission falls under indirect fire through Susan's criticism. While we want to be free, its value and meaning is directly linked to our own agency in the matter of freeing ourselves. Susan2's rebuttal is complex. She begins by stating aloud the biographical parallels that Susan is reading in the story, and, unawares, paints her Echo-self as Briar Rose:
SUSAN2: You really hate that she didn't save herself, don't you?... Of course, she was 15. That's pretty big. If she was littler, say six or seven or eight--
SUSAN: You can always run away.
SUSAN2: Really? I couldn't. [...}
Simple enough, as she uses the drama of the story as a therapeutic tool. But here is the transcendent power of criticism, as Echo spins straw into gold:
SUSAN2: Hey, you know this story? Read it again, okay? But this time think of yourself as the prince.
SUSAN: I didn't save anyone.
SUSAN2: Hey, remember what you said. Prince shows up at the end, takes all the credit. That means that Briar Rose was trapped all that time, sleeping and dreaming of getting out. The prince was her dream. She made him. She made him fight to get her out.
Sounds to me like Echo was also imprinted with a couple classes in feminist lit, comparative mythology and narratology. She proposes that Sleeping Beauty calls out in a secret feminine language, that birthing ones savior makes one a savior too, that female resourcefulness and the manifestation of will are acts of important agency. We still are not discouraged from paralleling Ballard and the prince, but he is removed of some self-possession. Ballard is still brave and persistent, but so is Echo, though one swings fists and guns and one lays prone in a box; we're invited to understand that just as Ballard has had his personal life and professional mission manipulated by invisible hands in an invisible building, so is his personal, deeply-felt quest directed by Echo.
Here is a vital sidetrack: this idea of Echo's is not new. I've previously placed Ballard in the company of Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dale Cooper, all FBI men hearing the siren call of a victim, all feeling it lead them in bizarre, mystical directions. While Ballard spends most of his time as a Mulder -- driven paranoiac being spun about in investigative Blind Man's Buff -- "Briar Rose" borrows one of the more esoteric and poetic threads of Twin Peaks. (Everyone may feel free to space out on this, if inclined!) The deceased Laura Palmer seems to begin the series as a MacGuffin for drawing together the cast, but this most voiceless of Sleeping Beauties has called out from beyond the divide and summoned forth Agent Cooper as her avenger; a fated couple who, through temporal fluke cannot be united on this plane. Laura is fully re-empowered in Fire Walk With Me, exploiting the time and space wonkiness behind the curtain of the cosmos to find unite herself with Cooper. The world takes her angels away, so Laura summons one to her side herself.
Ballard, of course, is not the shining and brilliant Dale Cooper. Further into the thorns, the possibility is mounted that Boyd Langton is the prince Echo needs... and in the fireworks spectacular finale, of course, the nasty, delightful revelation that none of these would-be alpha males is the summoned prince at all.
JS: I also found those cross-cuts a little basic and bombastic, and wondered what was up. It was the same feeling I had early in "Gingerbread" another Espenson story from BtVS S3. I knew a classic story was being rewired -- here, Prince Ballard was obviously headed for trouble -- but why did the wiring have to be so explicit? In retrospect, the clunky cross-cuts -- "behold the hero's ascent to yonder tower!" -- are an ironic prelude to the total self-destruction of the clunky Sleeping Beauty narrative itself; it turns out that they wired that shit to explode, and I couldn't be gladder. If anything needs to be blown to pieces, it's this most odious of fairy tales... but it's also insubstantial enough that when the pieces are picked up, storytelling magics can reconfigure them for any occasion.
"Sleeping Beauty" is full of possible, yawn-worthy morals: all good things come to those who wait, it is darkest before the dawn, hold out for the Right Guy, the spindle prick of original sin is absolved by a Redeemer's kiss. (Or, if you're the princess in the original Italian tale, "Sun, Moon, and Talia" -- lock your door). But Susan/Echo shoves that sleeper awake -- "think of yourself as the prince." Be your own rescuer. What if you are literally powerless, can't physically break the lock or climb out the window? The advice still holds: Be your own rescuer... by protecting and nourishing the dream of rescue, for sleep gives birth to dreams, dreams are the last stronghold of desire, and desire helps us endure the next moment, and the next. Other trapped heroines have extra recourse (Rapunzel has her 'do, for instance), but Sleeping Beauties, tied to their beds, have no option but to conjure, to commit imaginative fraud, to forge angels out of the air itself... to make fiction their weapon. And so in Susan2's hands, "Sleeping Beauty" becomes a consolation for the powerless, those for whom the only movement possible is mental travel -- it's fictionmaking as a means to stay fit in captivity, ready for the door to swing open. (Surely someone has tweaked this tale into a narrative told, or dreamed, by the S.B. herself, during her 100 years of uninterrupted writing time).
As for the idea of a summons, I don't quite understand your suggestion that Sleeping Beauty "calls out in a secret feminine language" to her prince -- the idea that a trapped and victimized creature can "summon" an outside party seems dangerous -- how do you distinguish her will from the claims of the rescuer himself? And who is the right rescuer, pray tell? Ballard, too, may need a lecture from Maleficent, a reminder that "Sleeping Beauty" is, above all, a cautionary tale for princes (of any gender) and their susceptibility to illusion, hubris, to projecting their fantasies onto distant princesses (of any gender), to following their obsessions every last inch to their dreadful conclusions. (Aside: Princesssss Aurora kinda looks like a goldilocks Eliza Dushku!) Joel Mynor already pointed most of this out to Ballard in "Man on the Street", but forgot to add that "Sleeping Beauty"-like rescue-stories are not about one captive and one rescuer... they're about one captive and hundreds of rescuers... after all, how many princes died in the thorns before the Man of the Century came along and hacked his way through? Juliet doesn't always receive one Romeo, or Madeline one Porphyro. How many guys have heard the "siren call" and proceeded independently and autonomously toward their goal, and how much misguided heroism/other endeavor has been based on the thought, "because she wants me to"? "Briar Rose" actually undermines the idea of the summons, because in the end, as you pointed out, there is a princely pile-up of every last idiot-child who thinks Echo/Caroline needs him. The Sleeping Beauty narrative implodes beautifully by driving the concept to its logical conclusion -- too many princes show up, the princess is unsure of her loyalties (and sabotages Ballard), her previous SOS (Caroline's phone call) goes forgotten! And everyone's most cherished illusion -- Ballard's quest, Langton's paternal affection, Topher's creator-power (he is, after all, the first face most Dolls see when they wake up, a parody of the hovering prince) -- goes down the shitter. Not every girl (or Dominic!) taking a nap wants to be woken up.
Question for you, which will probably be answered in "Omega" -- does Alpha win it all? If anyone summoned anyone, it seems like Alpha summoned Ballard to the scene, heaven knows why. Seems like it would have been faster to get Caroline out himself. Alpha certainly gets the girl, but it's because he's smart, strategic, and methodical, not because he's a Prince or Hero. At least some"one" in the Dollhouse -- or at least one very specific Imprint -- was waiting for him... to say nothing of "W is for Whiskey" Saunders (thanks to cleverer viewers than I for pointing that one out). (In a sadder twist, little Susan is probably now waiting for Susan2 to come back, which she never will).
But no one was waiting for Ballard... because nobody ever is.
CS: Man, they tricked us into talking about the fairy tale frosting on the cake, which I suspect we both "get" anyway. You're free to take Susan's side re: Sleeping Beauty. As much as I enjoy subversive argument, the Perrault version was written to endorse specifically the values that Susan is complaining about.
But you're still taking a literalist stance to Echo's interpretation of the story, though we are, to a degree, both putting words in Echo's mouth. I don't necessarily buy Susan2's reading either, because like Joseph Campbell's monomyth, it is a porous, widely applicable idea, not specific to the text in hand. By way of elaborating the subtle voices we use while imprisoned: the theory being that Briar Rose calls a man through the power of dreams -- intuition, psychic linkage and mind-control being historically female-linked. This is all Echo's reading, not my own. Though the real-world result may be the same, there is a difference in dreaming someone into being, wishing, praying, and begging to the wall: Echo says "she made him". Dollhouse means these things figuratively, though as for Twin Peaks, I meant it literally: Laura Palmer and Agent Cooper have access to a trans-temporal conduit, via the mystical Lodges in the woods outside Twin Peaks. She can call her own rescuer -- they even psychically intuit one another before her murder -- and when he doesn't arrive in time, she even finds a complicated way for them to be together anyway.
Echo is not piecing together textual clues that Briar Rose literally "made" a prince materialize. She is not articulate enough to say it, but the way we write stories is this: the presence of a rescuer is necessitated by the existence of a damsel in distress. He cannot Be unless she Is first. This meditation on meta-tations is what I was mostly getting at. The argument here is that all characters in narrative fiction have good reason to feel that the freeway of their existence goes in one direction, one lane, no exits. But don't sweat it. Neither Susan1, nor 2 has final say on Sleeping Beauty. Neither Ballard, Boyd or Alpha have arrived as mechanical effect of Echo's having dreamt, called forth, summoned or prayed for. There aren't gods, psychics or supernatural entities in this hard s-f world.
So hmm, does Alpha win? The whole of the Grimm and Perrault fairy story collections remain socio-normative and gender-politik straightjacketed. They also retain something of the weird Old World power of their source stories; however diluted, it cannot be washed away. That weirdness and tingly sanguinity gushed forth when Alpha emerged. I have made very few guesses at Mr. Alpha (or Mr. Whedon's) master plan, but damned if his outbreak of confident strutting, slashing, and expressiveness didn't bring a sudden jolt of joie de vivre noir to the Dollhouse world of repressed, tortured, injured and sleeping souls. We only saw him being "him" for a minute, but he was alive, and he knew what he was doing, and it looked like it felt good.
JS: It's a good pointo about perhaps taking Echo/Susan too literally. I was just digging into that specific, very plausible situation of an adult mentor trying to help this kid find some refuge -- even a role model -- in what is basically a very demoralizing story. If, figuratively, her misfortune and distress are what birth the rescuer -- if his birth is simply a consequence, a domino's fall -- then how do her agency, resourcefulness, or positive manifestation of will matter at all? They are probably only to be found in hindsight, as Echo helps Susan "edit" the book of the past, endowing past-Susan with a more active/generative role in the chain of events. It's still a compassionate deception, and I am droning. Anyway, we lose track of Susan halfway into the episode, so perhaps she's less important in and of herself, more important in terms of serving as another educational encounter on Echo's Grand Tour.
I am reasonably sure that the tingly sanguinity unleashed by Alpha signals the rush of blood to a thousand fangroins.
CS: I hope more than 1000 people are watching! The groins say "Hooray, the Arch Enemy showed up, with only an episode and 1/5 to go!" This is a new and interesting build for M.E. story structure. It has been very happily doling out dozens of unsolved plot mysteries while answering a few at a time, but unlike mythology teases Lost and The X-Files, Dollhouse maintains forward propulsion. It hints and foreshadows but does not spin its wheels. I don't even feel the need to guess at the big hot questions --Dollhouse's "Who killed Laura Palmer?," "What is the island?," "What is the goal of the secret government conspiracy" is "What is the Dollhouse's purpose?" -- because it is plain that the show has a better answer than we can come up with.
Yet, regarding that question, and back to the Susans in a more general sense, I kept waiting for the explanation of who contracted this Engagement, kept wondering where the money was. The answer came all right, but it seems to be a charity mission initiated by Topher. Whether this was just an opportunity for the labmaster to try out strange new twist on Imprinting technique (Echo as Susan "if" she grows up healthy and strong -- this begs the question of how Topher got a brain scan of Susan), it appears that the Dollhouse is willing to do pro bono work for the purpose of... what? Making the world a better place? Testing their limits and skills to provide a wider variety of paid services? As Angel would put it, helping the helpless? Notice that DeWitt constantly maintains the company line, that the Dollhouse provides a beneficial service, even when speaking internally to employees who she has no reason to snow. Misguided perhaps, conflicted, certainly, but is it possible that like the X-Files' evil Machavellian Consortium, they do have benevolent or survivalist intention and believe the importance of the work outweighs and justifies the vileness of the means?
"Briar Rose" climaxes with so much information that the cliffhang feels like a two-parter -- perhaps why we're drawn to analyze a fairy tale instead of the episode. I did get two scenes that I've been dying to see for weeks, and they are not action events but emotional beats, personal revelations. That the finale is a week away may have made us timid about jumping on these things [NOTE TO READERS: Janani and Chris actually refrain from watching new episodes until discussions have been completed, if you can believe that! - Ed.]:
-Ballard wide-eyed with horror to discover Victor in the Dollhouse, and an audible clunk as his stomach hits his pelvic bone. Could not be better timed that a few moments later, Echo herself pulls Pauls feet out from under him.
-Let us assume that Dominic-in-Victor's exclamation at Saunders means what we know it means. Let us assume that Alpha's taunt that she didn't "always want to be a doctor" means the same. Whiskey! That poor scarred Whiskey is shuffled into behind-the-scenes duty recalls the way Disneyland employees with acne or large bodies are kept in maintenance and janitorial duties. Topher's enigmatic contemplation of the doe-eyed doctor in "Ghost" becomes so much more aching and wistful in retrospect. Let us hope that Victor's mirrored face-slashing by Alpha does not mean we will see less of my favorite of Echo's bunkmates.
And: That Dr. Saunders is not required to shower frequently and behind plexiglass is a total rip-off.
JS: Amy Acker is a one-woman heat wave, frying my Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As Snakes on a Jackson said in Do the Right Thing: "Children, this is the cool-out corner."
Among other things, the Susan imprint hinted to me that Dollhouse writers are designing the one-shot plots backward, starting with a provocative concept -- "what if an older self could literally counsel a younger self?" -- and filling in the gaps. (As opposed to, "I loved Black Beauty - can we have horses please?" Wait, you mean shows aren't written that way?) Starting at the end is fine, as Topher's science is always served with a side of fudge brownies. My own curiosity about the larger story structure is leading me to think of the whole thing not as a linear story so much as a story cycle or a grab bag of interrelated fables, almost half of which can be appreciated out of order. To me the the forward propulsion hasn't felt as urgent; Ballard's quest is the only straight line, perhaps the axis around which every other story forms, just as (fudge alert) an electric current generates a magnetic force field around its axis:
The only Echo assignments that seem to have a fixed place in the chronology involve Echo-Ballard intersections, as in "True Believer", "Man on the Street" (because of her warning to Ballard), "Needs" (a response to several weeks' worth of glitching and with Caroline's call to Ballard) and "Spy" because of the Dominic business. Every other piece is movable, a little independently functioning unit (and not unlike a folk tale in terms of its turning a young person out of doors to try her luck in the world). So does this mean... oh my gawd... does this mean that the Engagements and soul/personality dithering were auxiliary concerns, and that all this time the real core story has been Dollhouse: The True Hollywood Story of Paul Ballard? Alpha is Paul's fellow saboteur, but, as you say, he's not so much an individual as an elemental force blowing the doors off the place. In any case, maybe the contrivance of the Dollhouse is just an excuse to talk about human response to Dollhouses (presaged in "Man on the Street"); in Paul's case the doomed curiosity of an outsider, in Alpha's case the treachery of an insider...
"Briar Rose" represents another death blow to the script idea I told you about last week, about a rival organization that smuggles out a Doll for observation. The idea grew much like the victim/rescuer symbiosis you suggested, the Dollhouse by virtue of its very existence sprouting a nemesis -- but how sick and wonderful is it that the enemy turns out to be one of their own? That the seeds of the Dollhouse's destruction lie in its very origins, in the very setup that was supposed to work perfectly? Has all of season 1 really been about the End Times of the Dollhouse, its last act, the calm before the storm, the impossibly intricate fractal proliferation that precedes the last act of Jurassic Park (the novel)? Is the Dollhouse under siege by this guy?
I've read mentioned that JW planned a complete one-season story arc in case of cancellation, and from what little Whedon storytelling I've seen I wouldn't put it past him to blow the place to bits (like he did Sunnydale High!) and start season 2 on a completely different footing... which would put even more topspin on Adelle's delicious line to Ballard -- "You think you can walk into the Dollhouse when it doesn't even exist?" This wouldn't be such a misfit with the True Hollywood Story, because... it doesn't really. And it does. It's everywhere, and it's nowhere.
(No, wait, I've got it: Dollhouse deals in fantasy, but its purpose is to get Chris's blog updating regularly again after a certain comic abducted him for a year! We're all Dollhouse pawns, every last one of us...)
CS: DeWitt's taunt to Ballard is suitably sinister and suggestive (perhaps not as bad-ass as Cigarette Smoking Man's rejoinder to the first time Mulder shoves a gun in his face: "Don't try and threaten me, Mulder. I've watched presidents die."-- truly one for the ages). Secret hideouts are one thing. The base of operations with official policy that This Location Is Not Here is another. The Dollhouse is in the real world subterranean sub rosa company of Mount Weather, Area 51, Bohemian Grove, the DARPA facility that may not be photographed. If architecture is frozen music, then the Dollhouse is a see-through crystallization of a shortwave numbers station. I'm interested, as metaphor-plumber and story hacker, in the way Dollhouse allows meaning to flow through its core elements. In "Briar Rose" the Dollhouse is compared to the fairy tale castle, the castle turned dungeon, a self-contained ecosystem, and finally an invisible place where one can walk and yet not be walking. It has been womb, nursery, cemetery, cult compound, haven, Eden, home and prison in one episode. The same multiperspective applies to all characters, relationships, missions and struggles, always. Mutant Enemy sets up the board and, as the game progresses, turns the pieces and board itself around in its hands, every vantage equally possible. Dollhouse's symbols are empty pitchers as eager to be filled with water as whiskey or Great Bluedini Kool-Aid: you can put anything in these people.
DeWitt is also reminding Ballard that the the conspiracy of denial is so deep and elaborate, the smokescreen so thick that there is truly nothing behind the screen but more smoke. There are no first-hand sources for urban legends, no central hub in the web of paper and string on Ballard's wall, no license plates for vehicles from the State of Mind. The Sleeping Beauty Castle that lies at another vital hub?
Know what was inside this one in 1955? Nothing. It's a facade.*
What if we get into the sewer and find a giant alligator? What if you locate the subterranean city of mole people in abandoned NYC subway tunnels? What if you get into the Dollhouse? What are you gonna do about it? Ballard's "truth" (like, well, Mulder's) is not going to give him any comfort, any real confirmation: "It is real!" he nods and pats himself on the back-- then spots Victor and... Poof. He can't arrest anyone, couldn't even if he were still an acting FBI agent. If he had any proof, anyway, he's trumped by the NSA. And what is the crime? What is the legal crime that Ballard believes is being committed, and which he can bring to legal justice? We know of a few, all easily whitewashed, and of which Ballard has no proof. Engagements of dubious legality (repossession of stolen property, meddling with law-enforcement, prostitution), violence by Dollhouse security staff (potentially defensible), and the non-consensual violations of The Attic. The Dollhouse is in constant, bizarre violation of the Nuremberg Code, and it appears very much that staff and Doll alike have come aboard under ulterior coercion.
But they all signed contracts. Why are there contracts? What is in this contract? In a hard-line, legal sense, are these contracts binding?
I am hesitant to map out the structure of a Mutant Enemy show that is not complete. What looks like stalling, dead end or tangent on a Whedon show often turns out to be the engine going about its quiet work. If there's one thing this team is good at (I can think of a dozen things, but...) it is complex structure. I found this notebook attempt at diagraming the surface structure of BtVS and Angel as a series of nested and knitted arcs, abandoned when I realized it required supplemental rings, mirrors, helices. Cannot do on paper. May have done better by photocopying the dragon fractals out of the J-Park. Star Trek may be the show that has 3D chess, but Mutant Enemy shows actually play 3D chess.
That might be one to ask me after "Omega". The shape of the season is likely being determined by exactly what kind of gambit Alpha has been running -- whether he stacked the deck, or played his hand exceptionally well.
*(There are things in it now, but for most of history and in grand park metaphor, the Disneyland castle is a shell).
JS: That diagram looks like a berserko version of my AP Physics notes ca. 1999, speaking of which -- my remote is starting to look irresistible.
Shall we Ω?
CS: Oh my multitude of gods, yes, onward to the finale, please. My DVR box is doing a shuffling jig like it has to urinate.