Sunday, October 04, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 2.1 - "Vows"

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

The Engagement: In convoluted and marginally effective plan, Paul Ballard has Echo imprinted as an undercover FBI agent to help him bust an arms dealer that he could never catch through official channels. To pull it off, Echo has to get married! Also she has to get beaten up by both the bad guy and the good guy, but Ballard succeeds in pummeling Echo into glitching... kung-fu glitching, that is! Back at the ranch, Dr. Saunders torments Topher in symbolic ways like showing him film clips of Elsa Lanchester and flooding his office with lab rats, finally breaching his most sensitive personal boundary with inappropriate touching. In the end, identity crisising Whiskey heads out of town, while Paul and Echo decide to team up and locate the brains of all the Dolls.

Chris: Vow: You will not notice Dollhouse budget cuts when there are exploding cars and Elliot Smith songs.

Vow: Topher's lab assistant, Ivy, who we may be worried was off hanging out with Judy Winsow, is alive, well, and gainfully employed at the Dollhouse.

Vow: The oath taken by "Epitaph One" stands solid. Amidst all the vows being taken and broken, the known future hangs like a vulture over a playground. Whatever Senator Perrin is crusading for or against, he's not likely to expose the Dollhouse. Whatever Paul and Echo-mega have brewing, we know it doesn't succeed anytime soon. Wherever Doc Whiskey escapes to, we know she's coming back.

Vow: Alexis Denisof!

Hey Janani, why is this episode really called "Vows"?

Janani: …because Vows come after Engagements?

Hey Chris,

How: did Saunders come up with those weird ideas for expressing her sorrow to Topher, and which one was the most successful? How much did she remind you of Dawn Summers lashing out after learning about the Key? How much did she not? How will she generate meaning now, and will the world outside the Dollhouse provide her the adequate raw materials -- social, intellectual, emotional -- to make it stick? What will drive her back, and will it be related to the fact that what enabled her to leave (free will, ability to oppose) is what brings people to the DH in the first place?

How: Is the show going to survive Amy Ackerless? Until she drove off, I didn't realize how much better she emotes than anybody else on the show! Saunders, please succumb to your phobias and come back!

How: does Whisky’s theory about the fulfillment of rising to a challenge -- working for love, for anything at all really -- sound to an adult baby like Topher? In fact, how do the staff, especially the young ones like Topher and Ivy, reconcile to the fact that, unlike Actives, they’re probably going to be working underground for life? (At the same time -- having worked in there, where would you go from there? Is there life outside the Dollhouse at all, for anyone, Active or not?)

How: are they still allowing glitchety-witchety Echo to still go out on assignments ever? Why was it necessary to create an intermediary detective persona rather than simply Imprint an innocent woman’s mind and then program her to obtain the needed information? How much of a liquid mess was that Marriage Engagement? Even if the title "Vows" frames all wishful attempts to predict and codify our future behavior -- in love and other endeavors -- I thought the show had quit (as BtVS eventually quit) using the Engagements as parallel prosceniums to clumsily flesh out metaphors that would better be treated inside the Dollhouse itself (a la "Spy" or "Needs"). In our "Briar Rose" discuss, you described the 'House as "a 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... womb, nursery, cemetary, cult compound, haven, Eden, home and prison in one episode"; by this point has the 'House itself become the equivalent of an all-purpose black box theater where every human drama from birth to rebirth will be played out? And how does this jive with William's comment (on 1.13) that Topher himself -= a proto-Whedon?

How: does Tempura Joe make human tempura without harming the ingredients? And how has Mutant Enemy not outgrown its nervous-middle-school-giggly approach to even minor sexual eccentricities? They ought to be spanked!

(Very lightly, of course.)

CS: Somewhere in there was a straight answer! Among developing plot tangles, there is a theme, that one of the ways we attempt to Imprint ourselves is to take vows, state intentions, make the plans for our own Engagements, out loud and with solemn promise. That is an apt topic for a season premiere, where in arc-shaped narrative the storyteller is normally setting up the board, foreshadowing and establishing expectations to pay off or defy. Every writer surely understands this act, but Mutant Enemy casts it in the form of a Covenant of the Story-Maker: here are the people and their world, we will not betray a certain integrity of the fiction, this is what the story is about, and we will make it as well as we are able. They try to be their best.

I do feel some of the divide between Engagement stories and behind-the-curtain Dollhouse drama has been healed. They will always parallel, double, rhyme with or invert one another in some way, which is the way Mutant Enemy tells its multitracked tales (to be honest, it is the way most ensemble cast, arc-oriented drama operates, ME is just makes more elegant television than Desperate Housewives). I don't know that the characteristic is a weakness at all, and late period Buffy the Vampire Slayer like "Same Time, Same Place", "Sleeper", "The Killer in Me", etc. continue using fantasy conflicts as enlargements of Inner Character Drama (gag! and yes, I picked three junked-up episodes on purpose!).

"Vows" makes a particularly good fitted join between Ballard and Klar, a right angle with Echo at the corner. Most pointedly, Klar is fake-bound in a desecration of marriage while Ballard ends up taking the sacred oath of the Handler. Railroad-switch studies in men for whom ends justify means, their pivot points are scenes in which they bash Echo in the face. We can't possibly feel unconflicted just because Ballard has his version of noble intentions. His arrangement with the Dollhouse is already failing Ballard. There is no way to use the resources without serious ethical compromise, and Ballard, in roughly increasing transgression, enacts vigilante justice, slugs a girl in the head, brainwashes a person, and pimps her to a criminal, leading to violence on her person (and, depending on our charitability, cooperates with slavers). He does not even catch Klar himself. You can't make a golem without getting some clay on your hands. Among the highlights of smooth construction: that ending in which Whiskey exits, in New Age parlance, to Find Herself, while Ballard and Echo bond and agree to find everyone else.

Ballard and Klar meet in the middle. The story on the opposite side is Topher and Whiskey. Along their edge, Topher makes a vow of negation: they will not know each other. He swears off knowing Whiskey, but they move uncomfortably close together, meanwhile Ballard and EchOmega swear to team up to fight the good fight, while he essentially talks himself into the value of forcing her to be someone else.

A bloodstain which it is nice to see Topher forced to recognize on his hands via Whiskey, though the idea hardest for him to choke out is that her Imprint is designed to disagree with him because -- gasp! -- he might be wrong.

A few nicely mingled related topics, then, of plot contrivances and ways those holes may be filled. It should seem equally easy for Topher to strap Whiskey in the chair and hose her down with an upgraded Saunders 2.1. Related, is Adelle's explanation that she is indeed interested in the unique case of Echo, and that observing Active behavior is as much about research (for Ambrose, surely R&D) as it is the current service. While collecting the data is proving harrowing for young Master Brink (and he's probably going to be deep double stuff with DeWitt after the doctor bugs out), he is observing Whiskey in a similar way. There are finely motivated reasons why he isn't simply fixing her Imprint, namely that as Topher talks Whiskey through the act of losing and reconfiguring herself, she's forcing him to do the same. The crucial exchange is when Whiskey says she feels like shit, Brink explains/brags: "You're human," and she shoots back a skunkeyed "Don't flatter yourself." Topher's right in essence, but so is Whiskey, insofar as she means/can mean that her humanity is not Topher's accomplishment to boast about.

I'm glad it is relevant this week, because I intended to bring it up regarding "Epitaph One", and it moves straight into the tease about Senator Daniel Perrin: are there reasonable, positive, beneficial applications of this technology? It does seem that Dollhouse policy expressly forbids what I imagine would be the most popular uses -- a Rain Man Active for defrauding casinos, an immortality vessel (model in development stages!), and any variation on Lacuna Inc. services. The closest to unconflicted use of Topher's lab that I can come up with is that he should be able to eliminate severe mental and behavioral disorder (I still find this pretty problematic). Unless I miss my bullshit-guess about how the equipment works, Rossum should be able to cure Alzheimer's disease (that, I do not find problematic).

Naturally, in this episode about everyone becoming the things they hate, the Chair is for making Sierra gripe that she's uncomfortable with Asians. Meanwhile, Paul Ballard finds the most convenient tool for helping Caroline help herself is to punch her over and over.

I'll tell you how the show can survive with minimized Amy Acker: Alexis Denisof!

JS: I heard Rossum has a clearance on Alexis Denisof Imprinted with Winona Horowitz ca. 1988, if you’re interested.

So let’s talk about how we like to punch Ballard over and over. Anybody who has followed this essay series from the beginning (HI JORDAN) will have noted that Ballard gets a straight-up pants-down whipping from us almost every week! Reasons why: the show sets him as an Everyman whose obliviousness to his own moral inconsistencies becomes a fairly regular teaching point; unlike the Dollhouse, he has no secrets from us (his surprise and ours are synched up); and it’s honestly just really fun. But maybe it’s time to give him a hand up.

A guy or gal turns off the flashlight, tucks it in a waistband, and ventures into the unknown. Does every such explorer of the dark sport a tissue graft from Agent Mulder? Ballard is not as smart or intuitive as that fella, and he has a patent distaste for mystery for its own sake -- as we saw during his skirmishes with Topher in "Omega", he attacks intricate moral dilemma with simple, cloddish tools. "Man on the Street" and "Briar Rose" have exposed his save-the-girl quest as a cliché, but intimate comments and jealousy push-ups aside, this isn't really about the girl anymore, and I wonder if it really ever was. I watch Ballard struggle to translate murky urges and fantasies of effectiveness (heroism? gallantry? world-healing potency?) into a sequence of fruitful acts on a timeline, I laugh at him for jogging after arms dealers (while you nabbed him, Paul, another dozen are preparing to set up shop in his place), and yet... his arc seems irreversible, even forgivable. There's no returning aboveground (you could argue, even, that life's arc is itself an irreversible odyssey underground). Where else is he supposed to go? What's more exciting, provoking, or subconscious-engaging than the place he's in right now? "Man on the Street" also framed the Dollhouse as a mirror of one's own deepest needs, an abyss staring back into you with an occasional morbid wink; you learn a lot about children from how they treat their dolls, whether they serve them tea and cookies, saw them in half, scream for more dolls, embark on a quest to visit the doll manufacturer and demand an end to sweatshop sweatin’. In the case of Paul Ballard, he puts them in a chair, turns out the light, and waits for them to speak. For hours. Days. Months.

I think a part of him likes the silence.

I think a part of him likes the blindness.

He's not a Dominic, not a Mynor, not a Klar, a Brink... no, not even a Langton. He is more interesting than Langton. And anyway, he’s here; he’s trying to get something done with his hours. He’s a motherfucking masochist for placing himself near the woman-body he’s attracted to, in situations where she’s going to be romancing others -– I enjoyed watching Roma sass him about that and give us a different female take than the conventional one -- and it's telling that a romantic Echo Engagement, over and above a sexual one, one in which the Imprint herself is feigning emotions, is the one that ruins his evenings. But it's still not a love story. In an echo of "Where's Kepler" -- where's Caroline? Where is the Caroline you hope to know? Do you really want to find out? Will living in possibilities for so long enable you to restore her unified, ineradicable personality when the time comes? Flash to the parallel situation with Whiskey and Topher, Topher’s words…”You don’t know me. That’s the contract. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Not fully, not ever.”

In the CONTRACT? Does this mean Topher is contractually required to program in some uncertainty? Does it hold only for Whisky, or for everyone, even his birthday-friend Sierra, even Echo herself? What does go on in the dead of night at Topher’s console -- do principles seep into his work at first recreationally or aesthetically (“this would make a better character, a better work of art”) or did he bring those to the table when he began -– in which case I’ll have to reconsider the manchild from his very first scene?

I wonder, too, about Topher's relationship with uncertainty.

CS: It looks like Topher's private quarters are... in the heart of the computer hardware? It looks like he sleeps inside HAL 9000's brain. Jimi Hendrix used to sleep with his guitar. Having lived in one-room apartments with nothing but a mattress, a computer and a drafting table, I can attest to the romance and benefits of this kind of living situation for an artist. For other sorts of work, I imagine this would be claustrophobic and torturous, but for the creative person the sort of sloppy, perverse variant asceticism forces you to get intimate with your equipment.

Surely everyone's favorite chuckle of the episode is Whiskey's lament that "my whole existence was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest." But the scene is about how this dilemma is and has been forcing Topher to empathize with her. His entire job being to understand human nature as well as possible, Topher may be an asshole, is certainly a twerp, and his default setting (or, depending on one's sympathy, his coping mechanism) is glib amorality. But he's not a sociopath.

Another goat-getting accusation comes from DeWitt, who suggests that Ballard's choice to free November is a form of throwing her away after he's used her up. Likely this is easy for Paul to brush off as a gross cast in ugly light his decision to work against the Dollhouse from inside. But it does emphasize that with his choice, Paul continues to use Echo, and subjects her to no small indignity and abuse in the process. He's long ago become uninterested in simply returning Caroline to her civilian life. He could just walk out the door with her and hold a press conference. The Vow they make in the end is not "Paul swears to help Caroline escape" but to work together to "find them all." So he has a self-flagellating pedestal-placing crush on Echo? Well duh, but one can imagine worse partial motivations. While the staff likes to rib Ballard about what they perceive as futile sexual obsession with Echo, the funnier joke is that Paul-as-Client lives out multiple want/needs at once. His private Engagement is set up so he can pretend to be a heroic G-man, and finally close a case! DeWitt may or may not recognize how sharply Ballard is feeling the pain of his compromised posture, but the richest irony of the agreement is that when DeWitt explains she is allowing Ballard these crime fighting Engagements in the name of scientific observation, they are both doing research on how to best annihilate one another.

Speaking of contracts and vows, those mutating refrains, the scripts between Imprinter and Doll, Handler and Doll, etc., have the empty vessel quality of Beckett dialogue, the simplicity of pop culture catchphrase and a primal viscerality like "Mommy and I are one." Front-loaded with meaning, they also mean something different every time they are repeated -- what about a "Hush"-like experimental episode in which the only spoken dialogue is variants on Imprint scripts?

JS: That would be terrific, although I wonder also if every Dollhouse season will insist on taking some time to settle into its morose, Engagement-of-the-Week routine before bringing on the variants.

I'd also love to see:

-an episode exclusively from a blank-Active POV
-an episode with non-omniscient voice-overs, either as punctuation or as full-on braided monologues
-an episode where every Active is mobilized a la "Echoes" (maybe they were already in "Vows"? is that how they filled out Echo!Roma's wedding party at her fake wedding?)
-an episode where we watch the process of Imprint harvesting and creation (way past due)
-an episode featuring the role-scrambling and -redistribution BtVS did on a regular basis. In "Echoes" we already got a sneak peek of this, but don't tell me you wouldn't die to see an Adelle-Imprinted Topher or a Topher-Imprinted Echo! Or even the thing that every lead on BtVs got to deal with, and that we saw briefly in "Grey Hour" -- a double! Topher vs. Topher! Caroline v. Caroline! Caroline vs. several Carolines! Get me three tofu dogs and a nacho trough, I wanna settle in for this one!
-in the same vein, an episode where Paul Ballard meets Paul Ballard, gets confused, gets in his own way, beats up his own self, and cocks up another brilliant plan... again.

In fact, that seems like a natural next phase of complication and storybuilding: computerizing and liberating the minds of the current staff from their own bodies. Topher has probably backed his precious self up somewhere, at the very least to take over for him on days he's sick. I'd be surprised if Rossum hadn't required it of him, or at the very least insured his skull for millionbillions.

That's a question we've never really gotten into: how does Young Master view this technology in relation to himself and his prospects? We're beginning to sense his self-demarcated limits, the places he won't go, the things he won't do or regrets doing, and we've seen his lack of enthusiasm in the face of Clive Ambrose. Regardless of how that scene did play out, maybe Topher is not and will never be the type to download himself into ten bodies and be happy about it.* That could be rich material to explore - the likelihood that, left to himself, the perfector of this technology is himself too attached to the idea of the One Topher, the One genius, to create a wedge for himself.

In terms of other applications, a lot seems to turn on the issue that it is dangerous to Imprint a non-Wiped mind. All these minds need bodies to walk around in, like that beastie on Angel who leaps from host to host, but they have to drive out the existing consciousness first. That could lead to exploitation of naturally Wiped minds; I could see more unfortunate Alzheimer's and Huntington's patients -- or even people in coma states - becoming commodities for Wiping and recruitment into an Active corps, unless they were considered too old or damaged. Also, regarding the issue of labor and manpower: the Tech can create the perfect person for a job, and it can make as many of them as are required. Were the technology to become widely available and affordable, companies would never need to do job interviews again; they could just create specs for an "ideal" employee and keep recycling it through several bodies' worth of hirings. (I'm behind, though -- this has already happened, in terms of the amount of human work that can now be done through computer magics).

There could be recreational applications: spend a week as a guy! spend a week as a Nobel Laureate! Great Minds could be kept around forever for their input (creating a natural caste system of those-worth-backing-up vs. those-unworthy), but they'd still be confused when they woke up into a strange world. We might see the works of authors who had hundreds of years to complete their oeuvres rather than a few decades. I could go on.

Anyway. I wanted to return briefly to the issue of Dollhouse stage-ness. Haven't we talked before about the possibilities of adapting Dollhouse for live performance? Maybe I thought about it but forgot to bring it up. Truly, the show is so little about the big Engagement/field trips that go KABOOM, and so much about those intra-Dollhouse dynamics; the Dollhouse interior itself is practically a two-tier stage. I can easily see the different zones onstage: the Chair, the Office, the Attic, The Outside, scenes rotating between each setting; nothing about it would be naturalistic, of course, it would have to rely on the motifs, refrains, and choruses you mention, perhaps even incorporating a chorus. What do you think?

Finally, an aside on the performances of that odd, flat in-House dialogue: I used to have a disease where no dialogue sounded sufficiently serious unless voiced by someone several decades older than me with many garlands of theatrical training (preferably the likes of Sir Ian or Sivaji Ganesan [an elder of Indian cinema]). That is some serious age- and class-based chauvinism on my part, but it was still weird for me to watch American-accented people our own age -- Amy Acker is a couple years older than you, Fran Kranz a couple months younger than me -- throwing themselves into that wrenching "don't flatter yourself" exchange. To my ears, Acker totally owned it -- she always has, and has been a grave ballast for the story for quite some time. Kranz, I think, continues to go belly-up like a kid in a student play. This surely requires not only better and subtler acting on his part, but my outgrowing my fuddy-duddy notion of who gets to play a Beckett-esque role - which faces and personae can convincingly interpret those Classics of moral anguish + mystification + existential bafflement.

*Yes, I am sure I will be proven wrong about this. My physics class in college was full of them!

CS: Since we're early in the season, speculating and the writers are taking their vows, the material I would really like to see -- the most glaring gap in the show -- is any kind of personal history and extracurricular lives of the non-Doll cast. No one of taste and distinction likes the word "backstory," but that is what was missing in Season One. Backstory doesn't need to be Origin Story and Full Biography, but some further context for any of these people would be useful. I believe the first season used this eerie lack of character exposition to murky-clean establish of the Dollhouse staff (Ballard's story was eased into more traditionally), allowing the audience to discover them without history or outside lives, facing the characters like a newly Wiped mind rising from the chair.

Whaddya know, the one week they show us a clip from a Frankenstein movie is the only week I don't talk about Frankenstein

As for the actors, well, I guess you're not invited to Shakespeare reading night at the Whedon homestead. I wonder if Charisma Carpenter ever played the real Cordelia...

While Fran Kranz is busy gesticulating, Tahmoh Penikett is, mathematically, twice as hilarious by playing a man with no sense of humor and no reason to smile whatsoever. Acker's (surely temporary) departure is a huge loss, and if the image of Whiskey driving off to wherever the road takes her is affecting, it is at least partially because we will miss the performer.

But don't worry!...


William B said...

I got a mention! What fun.

Re: why was Echo programmed to be an FBI agent playing a wife, rather than a wife programmed subconsciously to get the infor she needs? I think the answer to this question is the following, and I think one of the most interesting aspects of the episode.

I think it's Ballard trying to resolve for himself the contradictions of being a client while objecting ot the DH overall. So it's wrong to brainwash the dolls with false information about themselves and their clients, so they will consent to sex (and deep, emotional love). Ballard resolves this by adding an additional layer of Echo being an FBI agent, who then consents to sex because it's not a big deal for her. It's less wrong to brainwash someone into using sex as a weapon in an arguably empowering way, than to brainwash her into loving an arms dealing sociopath, right? Maybe not, but I think that's what's motivating Ballard. He is not casting Echo as a victim, at any rate.

(I've read someone comparing the plotline to Notorious as well, which makes sense. But does it make Cary Grant a better person if he chooses to make Ingrid Bergman not care about her virtue when she's screwing Claude Rains for information?)

I think that while the best episodes are the in-House ones, many of the best episodes have used engagements-of-the-week to probe the show's philosophical core. True Believer is probably the best (mostly) all-engagement-of-the-week example, and Man on the Street and Briar Rose used engagement subplots very effectively to tell a greater story about the characters.

Hey Chris, what do you mean by "junked up," re: the season seven episodes you mention? Does junked up mean bad? My slang understanding is not so much.

Janani said...

That's a very good point re: Ballard's guilt; unfortunately he didn't manage to shield Echo from !SPOILER! meltdown and bereavement in "Instinct." This seems consistent with previous Handlers' (especially Langton's) hand-wringing over being able to interrupt, but not veto, Engagements.

It seems as though Handling should gross Ballard out more than the Klar Engagement - he's effectively signed off on Echo being brainwashed to love and trust *him*. Sounds junked-up to me!

GregM said...

an episode where we watch the process of Imprint harvesting and creation (way past due)--yes.
-an episode Adelle-Imprinted Topher or a Topher-Imprinted Echo!--yes to the first. Don't know Dushku could pull it off, but Dichen Lachman has already demonstrated she could, and Enver Gjokaj, in his astonishing recreation of Reed Diamond's Dominic, would also be excellent at this.

This is such a smart, well-written conversation. I'll have to make a point to follow your series.

Jordan said...

::spit takes Yoo-Hoo onto computer monitor::


Mel said...

Acker will be back for two other episodes--she has a midseason replacement called Happy Town she is working on now, because Fox wouldn't pay for her to be a regular.

Chris Stangl said...

Hey William -- Sorry for losing any momentum, but I was on vacation.

The junkiness of Season Seven BUFFY is complex, varies episode to episode, but permeates the entire story. I just intended to indicate that the cited episodes were botched in some major way, a signal that the show was getting lazy and not moving forward with confidence. I do believe my examples are particularly egregious missteps, but even the best of S7 is necessarily flawed by being part of a muddy story arc, in addition to individual episode-specific miscalculation.

"Same Time, Same Place", "Sleeper", and "The Killer in Me" are prime examples of episodes that both throw off track the central character's arcs and cover territory that has already been trod more effectively. Those pitfalls are precisely the ones that BtVS at its strongest (S3,4,5,6) is particularly admirable for leaping with imagination, care and dexterity. More dire examples of those sins can be found in the aimless "Him" and the series' single worst episode, "Help."

William B said...

Chris - Oh, fair enough. It's true that the season had a sense of aimlessness and redundancy (not helped by the series' uncertain relationship with its own history and the "back to the beginning" revisiting-of-old-plotlines-from-an-older-perspective idea that only occasioally came off) and that these episodes had this to a degree. I mostly like "Same Time, Same Place" and "The Killer in Me," though. "Sleeper" I haven't much to say about one way or another, besides having that silly "One bite stand" line.