Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.12 - "Omega"

Dollhouse Season One debuts on DVD and Blu-Ray disc in one week. In celebration, Exploding Kinetoscope presents the season-finale-proper installment of "Active Engagement" (held back to artificially create excitement and demand!)...

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

The Engagement: Get out your knotcraft manual. Alpha has left with an Echo Imprinted with an old Whiskey personality. They play Mickey and Mallory Knox, kidnap a girl called Wendy, and retire to Alpha's lair. Alpha pumps Caroline into Wendy's head, causes a Composite Event in Echo by cramming in all her Imprints at once. Knighting the composite as "Omega", Alpha's convoluted Nietzschean plan is supposed to end with Omega blasting brain out of Wendy-cum-Caroline: Echo has to kill her weak former self to ascend to godhood. Meanwhile, Agent Ballard grudgingly assists the Dollhouse in locating the escapees, and the 'House grudgingly explains Alpha's backstory (quick: he was insane prior to Doll-ing, remains insane), and Dr. Saunders has, like, the shittiest day of all. In the end, Ballard sort-of triumphs in saving a girl, but mostly sells his soul. Whatcha' gonna do?

DUTCHOVEN 1.12 - "Oh My God --"

Janani: -- because we have a Hawaiian president...

because that Beck song enhances memory retrieval no matter which story you are in...

because 38 personalities blended together = a) Faith? and b) a new self and a new life, no matter what Echo says, and the Caroline-wedge should have shattered on the pavement...

because man, that was some silly acting all around except for ...


who walks off with the entire show in her lab coat pocket,

not because she knows who she is,

but because she's decided it.

for now.

Chris: Yes, I say... Bravo.

And I am delighted that Mutant Enemy spent so much of their music budget on a Beck song. They usually only spring for unsigned and indie artists (usually, yes. BtVS highlights were Cibo Matto, Aimee Mann, er, Sarah McLachlan). "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime" was, pointedly, last heard on the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack.

Knowing full well that the season would end with slow gliding pans across each character in isolation and pondering what we have all just been through -- a Whedon classic, though given the producers' better taste in music, The Sopranos may trump our boy on this one -- I'd been hoping for weeks that the song for this inevitable montage would be:

Actually, readers should just keep playing this as they skim this conversation and shrug their shoulders.

JS: Nobody will shrug once they see this graphic for the ages!

Echo may reset at zero each week, but every imprint interacts with the previous ones in ways unknowable, every imprint represents an irreversible enlargement of the world, every imprint strays beyond the boundaries expected by the Dollhouse and, later, by Alpha. And at the end we have this seashell-like aggregate - an abstract (also "crapstract") rendering of the brain of PolyEcho.

You hoped long back that Echo would learn from her various personalities, that she wouldn't shed them but carry them with her and find them useful. Looking at this, I realize that PolyEcho is wrong when she says, "none of these is me." Individually none may be, but collectively they are her -- and they're no less legitimate than the single Caroline lifeline preceding them! Of course, in the blending of imprints, the more brash and athletically inclined ones won out (didja see Esther in there anywhere? or Alice? even Margaret? oops) -- but, after all this, how can one return to being a mere Caroline? I was creeped by the sight of Madeline Costley returning to her "life" minus a clue, and Caroline should not do the same. What struck me most about Ballard rescuing the Caroline-wedge was the fact that that wedge now seems... impoverished. Seeing Ballard save it was like watching someone lunge for an old cassette -- sentimental value, sure. But the songs are dated and it's time for something new.

CS: The Dollhouse "self" is a mystery on par with the Buffyverse "soul". And too, this central philosophical question is used as a nearly identical plot device. Angel's detachable soul, like Caroline's wedge of consciousness in "Omega", gets waved around and endangered as a truly strange and disconcerting suspense device all the time. Topher sneers at Ballard's accusation that "you steal their souls": "Yeah. And then we put 'em in a glass jar with our fireflies." (Mutant Enemy has, in fact, captured souls in jars, and what is Firefly but nine souls in a jar hurtling through space?) But... but...

We've back and forthed about the degree to which Echo's Imprints are in/valid experiences. We seem to have our ladders against the same wall on that one. The show is even more preoccupied with their authenticity, but concedes to no definitive answers. We weren't in Echo's Imprint-glutted head, nor Alpha's, so it is impossible to say what that felt like -- were they all of those composited people? None of them? Their self-selves with added fighting prowess and radio static? An all-one super-empathetic creature or a sucking void of identity: Universal Mother or Nowhere Man? As Alpha is nuts and Caroline is overwhelmed, I doubt their testimony is fully trustworthy.

Dollhouse also seems to believe strongly in an unshakable Core Self, alterable perhaps through life experiences but untouchable by Topher's Twinkie-smeared fingers. Ballard calls it a soul and says that it can't go away, Topher says "their whaaat?" and that he can erase that, DeWitt says it is "not relevant." I'm not sure I am inclined to agree with Ballard, Topher or Mutant Enemy on the matter of where consciousness stems from. It seems to me that consciousness is such a specific byproduct of how ones personal synapses fire, individual body-chemistry, the accidents and choice-chains, the developmental history that leads us to the moment... you can't stick a developed personality in another brain for the same reason you can't replace a Chevy Vega engine with a baboon heart. The hardware can't process that information, right? This isn't me being unwilling to suspend disbelief -- it's that the fantastic premise diverges from the stem in such a way that it may not be able to provide answers to its own question. Yet in the end I get the feeling that perhaps Dollhouse knows this, and hints at such.

In the moment, 1000-Imprint-Echo is wrong -- the voice saying "none of these is me" is being generated by the "me"s, but she's right, none, nor the composite girl is Caroline as she existed before entering the Dollhouse... and the wrong-embodied Caroline is now altered by witnessing the events.

Topher and Ballard's arguments are particularly wonderful, and I love the way Tim Minear writes them not so much in disagreement with one another but talking past each other; they aren't defining their terms or listening. Ballard insists "I still don't believe you can wipe away a person's soul" but means "who they are at their core." All Topher hears is a traditionally spiritual/mystical term and shoots back "good luck with that God thing," though no one has mentioned God at all. Topher scoffs, but only because he does not call those things "souls." The Buffyverse Soul is a physical aspect which can be captured in glass jars and sent to Heaven and Hell, but that wispy glowing thing is just a metaphor for (an aspect of?) consciousness. Its function is never fully explicated but seems to be some gut-level instincts of humanity, specifically a tendency to feel remorse and empathize with emotional pain. The soul Ballard is talking about seems to simply mean the incorruptible spark of Self, and Topher does worry about those -- he stores them on circuit boards. He knows/believes they can be eradicated, both by Chair (and death?), but can't force himself to admit that if he needs equipment and process to make it go away, that means it is there.

There is a problem with much speculative fiction that prods at its own What If? for moral lessons, in that they often do not follow through. Two Spielbergian examples: Minority Report asks what is dangerous about preemptively punishing crimes which have not yet occurred but will occur. Answer: the system might be wrong, misinterpreted, or sabotaged. BZZT. Wrong. The question was supposed to be "what's dangerous when it works perfectly?" Jurassic Park tries to adapt Crichton's allegory about what happens when human minds try to grapple with chaotic systems and come up short; instead of a black comic allegory of the limits of an ambitious species to intervene in the complexity of nature, we just wonder if the park would've worked if a jerk hadn't sabotaged it. JP The Movie still delivers a fine story about the sanctity of death and robust vengeance of nature, but the What If? is off balance.

Dollhouse and "Omega" give forum to a lot of loudmouthed opinions and perspectives, but the final say is given to the quietest voice, whispering to herself, unheard by others but curious and confident: Dolled Echo in bed tells herself "Caroline." Nobody else was 100% right, and it seems acknowledgment that the premise is not possible and that consciousness is existence's central mystery. What If you could erase a personality from a body and give it a new one? Well you can't, because the personality is a function of the specific brain and therefore reliant on its specific body, the body a product of experiences accumulated by the mind. We have witnessed many brainwashings, deaths of minds and bodies, backups of selves placed on disc, and Imprints gone without incident... yet the last moment of the season resists postulation of a mind-body duality, and the hour is absurd existential brain-in-jar slapstick that may/may not agree. Third option, too, and my favorite, least tied to politic, theology or science, is Dr. Saunders 2.0, who looks at her cards, grimaces at the hand dealt, and plays it as best she can: "I know who I am." She's not whoever-she-was-before, she's not Whiskey, she's not Crystal, can't even be nice Dr. Saunders. Her past circumstances washed away, simply by being made aware of them: the first step in navigating a maze is knowing you are in a maze. Given no solid foundations, Whiskey is free to rebuild how ever she damn well pleases.

"I know who I am"? Sure, Whiskey. But consider that the proper chaser -- for anyone at any time -- may be "I know who I am... Whoever that is."

JS: For me this episode was not only about "whoever" but about “wherever," ringing vividly in Ballard’s question


which is really a metaphysical question:


Gone, Paulie, gone. Untraceable and irretrievable not only in physical coordinates, but temporally too. Time swallows identity; again and again we feel the flush and satisfaction of certainty about how we are, who our fellows are -- and, just as reliably, its fade (even Echo's whispered "Caroline" seems like a brief flare to me, no more). Ballard's “you can’t wipe away who someone is at their core…” talk dissolves in the air -- which someone and when? whose is theirs? can someone have multiple cores? And by the time we watch Omega/Echo/Caroline face off against Alpha/Alpha/Carl vs. Carolined Wendy, the usually helpful markers of "me," "you," "us," "ours," "mine," "yours," "not yours" have been exposed for what they are: the weakest of struck matches, the rottenest of basement steps in the dark. The episode cracks several great severed-mind jokes ("baby, meet yourself" and "I'll blow your brain out" and "your head...which is my head" being among my favorites) and by the climactic lair-battle has blown to bitsy pieces the promise of a secure, uniform, integrated, indivisible, monadic Self -- hey, what if a self is a crowd? You mean a man is not an island but an...archipelago?

One of your great loves in Buffy and in JW storytelling in general seems to be the practice, the discipline, indeed the ethic of immediately problematizing any idea or motto that has become too stable and comfortable. Dollhouse blows raspberries at "I have control of my body," it confounds "I belong to my body," it stomps all over "I belong to my brain and my brain belongs to me and I alone control my brain"...it even recognizes the overemphasis on Wendy's body as the repository of Caroline's Self and, before Omega gets too confident in that correspondence, the show puts a bullet in Wendy's throat. As fast as a certainty can begin to form, it gets shot down. (Note of appreciation: while watching I had to pause every 15-20 seconds for notes, and just to keep track of all the former strands being woven and hyperbraided, threads pulled from everywhere, all the ends tucked back in.) In the end I'm left thinking -- even if Omega + Wendy + a wedge = a problem of three minds and two bodies, even if nobody's parts are stuck where they should be... are we really worse off than we were before?

So... this is what the famous Composite Event is all about. We've seen Dominic fret about Echo resembling Alpha before his Composite Event -- whether occurring naturally or by wild teevee coincidence/SYENCE MISHAP, Compositing presents something to fear, something creepy and unmanageable. But Dominic needn't have feared Echo cutting up a bunch of people (it seems that you have to hone the knifework before you get Dolled). Nor does it seem strictly necessary to have 30+ voices roaring in your head. To have truly Composited you need to comprehend 100% that you are a Doll, in the Dollhouse, who receives Imprints -- a creature with history who acts, will act, and has been acted upon; you need to grasp that you have not only a present but a past, a future. You also need to experience a definite separation from, breakage from, confrontation with your past-self - how you conduct yourself toward that self, that person who is no longer you, says worlds about how you're going to tackle the future; and so Alpha smashes Carl, Omega tries (maybe too hard) to save Caroline. It's especially interesting to me that Omega revives from her Composition in extreme rage, waking up on the wrong side of the chair, so to speak. How did the anger kick in so quickly -- how did she know, almost with an infant's basic animal intuition of distress, that Alpha "wanted her to kill herself," translated to "YOU WISHED ME HARM?" Does Composition rejuvenate the emotions as well as the intelligence and pipe-handling skills? ("Omega, you hit me with a pipe!" is probably my favorite line of the episode...)

But WAIT! Alpha's "I understand hell now" and Echo's "Now I understand everything" are not the only wakeup utterances, they are not the only ones aware and observant of the people swarming through them and the complexities of their newly crowded "selves." As you hinted, Whiskey's "I know who I am" is also the rueful footnote to a successful natural Composite Event. Maybe not according to Topher's specs -- she may not be in conscious dialogue with a million other Imprints, she hasn't handled and destroyed her own wedge, she hasn't gotten to stand face to face with her "self" and wipe her "own" mascara-loused cheeks... but wait, she sort of has. On a computer screen. And it makes her ask: WHERE IS THE SAUNDERS I KNOW? The answer is: right here. Topher and Langton are both righter than they knew -- the transformations they effect are childbirth and dying rolled into one, one self dying to make way for a new. There is no going back to being Pure Carl, to Pure Caroline, or Pure Amy Acker. Ballard may have been partly right -- "you can't wipe away who someone is" -- but he was also partly wrong -- you also can't wipe away EVERYONE ELSE THEY ARE AND HAVE BEEN. “I can slip into them... they slip into me… they hollowed me out… there’s no me. I’m just a container," says Omega... but it's not true. Omega's not just-a-container any more than Saunders II, handing out lollipops like her "father" before her. These new selves may not be superior, but they are, in fact, larger and ampler than the selves that preceded them.

Returning to Alpha, I did wish for more coherence in his story and in the ongoing murmurs about "being one's best." Really, what do the Dolls mean when they say this? Do they even have the ability not to try their best, to sabotage themselves? What does not-best mean to them, and if they don't experience jealousy or self-loathing or the basic ability to compare themselves to others, does it even matter? Are they kept on a sort of gentle cruise control, urged mildly to use all their capabilities, to Keep Trying? In the end, the BESTEST ECHO also seems to be Alpha's creation, a fantasy as thin as Lars's or any other Dollhouse customer's; in a way he's the last customer of the season, although he grabbed her for free and does his Imprinting in-house. (It's also not a long step from Alpha and his penchant for "art"work to Topher and his wedges -- when you think about it, those represent hundreds of hours of careful crafting.) And so the artist raves at his muse, "I thought you were exceptional..." an exceptional what? Exceptionalism is its own reward, it seems. When he lectures Omega about Ascending and Perfecting, he's pretty much ceased to see her at all, and by the time he's threatening endless clonings and killings of Carolines, he seems to be improvising madly, or at least considerably off his intended script. I wish he hadn't unravelled so, but he didn't know that he gets thirteen more episodes to torment Adelle and Co., so maybe he'll roar back next season saner and more lethal.

CS: Like the man says, "Wherever you go, there you are." You "are" who you are in the microsecond of self-evaluation, in whatever chamber you make that stock check. Even when the history that leads you there includes passages of not behaving "like yourself" or, say, total memory wipes. Whether we like the circumstances or not, choose to move the ball by hand or alter the landscaping, the game is always, as the golfers know, to play it where it lays. That can sound nice, can serve as a center from which to muster strength, but as Dr. Saunders Mark II demonstrates, it can be awfully cold comfort. Except...

Except -- as we rotate the board -- you may be frozen in place in someone else's perception, memory... conception. The on-screen evidence is that November gets her pre-Dollhouse self back, unscathed. She gets to go back. Who's to say if her "who they are at their core" ever went away, but she is evidently unscathed and unchanged by the experience; time will tell if that sticks. Whiskey/Saunders begins to understand this too, in her shell-shocked confrontation with Topher. He built her not only as a reflection/repository of his self-loathing, but with the talent via computer skills and psychiatric training to eventually throw it back in his face. It is not so odd as Whiskey supposes that Topher's means of coping with the moral struggles of the job is to unload his doubt and pain into an Active. What is odd is that he builds her as a self-untying knot.

And too, many convoluted logical hoops are conjured, set aflame and leapt through to illustrate that, for all his multi-'Print megalomania, Alpha is still Carl At Heart. His belief in a core self "soul" belittled at every turn, Ballard is rather validated in the sickest, least reassuring way. Once a mentally ill face-slasher, forever a mentally ill face-slasher. Which, of course, begs a question you have also begged for: "soul" means "who they are, at their core"... so what does that mean? Carl's psychosis is his core? Echo's is the spirit of resistance? What's Topher's? Wait, I know:

We may both be falling into some logical and emotional traps, avoiding others. Any potential homily (at worst) or grand, definitive statement (at best) is given a counterweight, contradiction or, yes, stomping, smushing, tearing. Dollhouse thwarts deterministic message-seeking critics and, thus far, the more didactic tendencies of the artists themselves. I admit to erring in that direction sometimes. On an auto-reactive level we may want to agree with the ultimate conclusions of the work, but that does not always happen, and Dollhouse sets everybody up for a perpetual fall. I mean, who thought they could walk right in, when everybody knows the Dollhouse is invisible? We are both normally high minded about this, but Dollhouse is designed not just to baffle our assumptions about from whence identity stems, but to unsettle. No matter one's pet philosophies, favored neuroscience reports or abiding faith, Dollhouse has something to flap your unflappables. It is a Voight-Kampff test designed to get you to flinch and blush. Moving into the flinch and blush, then...

It only now occurs to me that one of the spooky ideas floating around in Dollhouse is that any of us could have signed up for a five-year mission and no longer remember it. What may have happened to or been committed by any of us in those pockets of life we do not recall? Plot fact acknowledged: Actives apparently do remember the act of signing their contract. Which, gut-level again, I would suppose makes matters far worse. Associated Horrors, Inc.! Imagine waking with this knowledge. I admit, pushing aside all theory and politic, the first unshakable question would be "who had sex with me?" We cannot pretend in some abstract realm that this does not matter -- we would not dare tell the Active's real-life equivalent that the experience does not matter because she blacked out. And yet, this one might fade, with the larger, if less traumatic, issue: what did I do in this world, and am I responsible?

It is difficult as well to reconcile the problems of Caroline The Ideal, the Body, the Wedge and the Omega. We can intellectualize it, but the girl should by all rights fight for her mind back if it is available. Whatever silliness, useless protest rally and Phish concerts may be stored in that wedge, Caroline worked hard to accumulate that collection. She oughtta be attached to it. And whether I think it is "possible," I rather like uberEcho and disembodied-Caroline's attachment to Caroline's body, beyond just the obvious, "soul"-deep and likely near universal desire for your consciousness to remain united with its body while still alive and on the planet. Contrast with Margaret of "Haunted", who was all to happy to be shed of her body, never sinking in that her identity was being damaged, bent or just changed by Echo's shell. Not in a biochemical sense -- Dollhouse hasn't yet gone there, though I would love for them to take that trip -- but in every social interaction. Topher doesn't make Dr. Saunders out of Whiskey. There is Old Doc Saunders in there. There is a community of Dolls in need that make her a "doctor". There is the circumstance of Adelle's approval of inmates as Actives, and Whiskey's scarring by Alpha that put her on in-house duty. It takes everyone's help to make a You!

Ooh, Alpha's plan. I'll 'fess up to what was either a bad call or a reaction to a strange set-up. It looked all season like Alpha's plan was to aid Caroline in self-actualization. Not totally off-base, but a little to the left. Alpha wants Echo to Become. More to the point, rather than Dollhouse becoming a cautionary tale of how all this brain-futzing leads to the inevitable creation of a terrifying Übermensch, it leads to the creation of a beast too nutzo to predict. Alpha's plan looks less like a season-long perfect storm than a series of jabs and dodges. He's definitely playing Xanatos Speed Chess by the middle of "Omega", if not all season. This makes Alpha's approach to Dollhouse-infiltration and Caroline-rescue not unlike Ballard's, though Alpha lands blows while Ballard lands only on his face.

But look at that. Agent Ballard saved the Girl. Not through punching. Not through good police work. His biggest action hero success of the season is standing beneath Echo and catching a circuit board. In that moment, he is receptive. Oh, he is dogged, persistent, strives to be noble -- and by these standards does rather well, the rescue even less impressive than refusing to interfere in the life of Madeleine Costley*. So note again, Agent Ballard saved the Girl. Not by busting in, gun blazing, badge flashing, no prince with sword drawn.

He makes a deal with the Dollhouse.

*er, this is not gonna go well for Maddy.

JS: He'll have the summer to think about that. As will we. Until July 28th and "Epitaph One"! Thanks for letting me blog with you, Topher.




Uh...all of them say thanks too.


Jordan said...

Yay! Finally! Great work. Now you and Janani can finally start that Buffy episode by episode blog I heard so much about from myself in my dreams!


Janani said...

That is Chris and Arlen's job. And that way Chris won't have to cough all those "Angel" spoilers into his black coughee.

Jordan said...

I am 4 episodes into Angel. SPOILER: I like it.

The Nonaviator said...

Y'all seen the retardedly awesome "Epitaph Part One" or the weird unaired pilot yet? I foresee a fascinating discussion on all the ways the pilot's good parts found their way into the season proper bit by bit.

Chris Stangl said...

To all (three) readers of this column, we will surely be getting to "Epitaph One" soon. Probably once it is no longer relevant or interesting to anyone.

Jordan - Now that you and Janani have both finished BtVS, I feel more freed-up to write about the show without wrecking anything. Look for a long essay on the movie, probably next week.