Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 2.2 - "Instinct"


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

The Engagement: Echo is imprinted as a young mother. Topher is thrilled at his own work on this project, having physically altered a bunch of glands. The rush of mom-hormones causes Echo to flip out, and she steals the baby, believing she is protecting her child. Then she gives it back when the dad changes his mind about having an Active au pair/wet nurse. Meanwhile, Madeline Costley doesn't want to go back to the Dollhouse for a medical exam. But then she does. She tells Paul she is "not sad" and he may or may not believe it.

Janani: Upfront, I gotta say...that was one fug baby. I'm sorry, baby. You looked like plastic. But I still believed in Echo's devotion to you, as I did in the obligingly stormy weather in her final scene with Nate - everyone knows that angry mothers go Q'ABOOM!

Madeline's baby must have been made of plastic, though, for her to be so completely over its demise. The two parallel Ballard/bereaved mother conversations undermine her claims that she's fine - if, as the episode argues, (synthetic) maternal devotion is so powerful, even unWipeable, no Dollhouse emo-modifications, let alone the "Needs" cemetery expedition from last season, will heal maternal grief completely. Madeline's a zombie, asleep-er than Echo herself, though I'm surprised that the Dollhouse provides outpatient services and something more along the lines of an anesthetization than a total memory-wipe - Madeline witnessing the Echo-freakout was pretty damn compromising. Madeline and Echo will surely experience a parallel reawakening this season, Echo within the Dollhouse, Madeline without...and that Paul and Madeline are not finished by a longish shot. This would confirm and elaborate on a suspicion we've had for awhile now - that you're never completely done with the Dollhouse, and it's never completely done with you. The decision to enter it remains an indelible entry in your mortal itinerary.

(We can discuss in a bit the wisdom of using generic "maternal instinct" as a plot device, as for more unfortunate babies the instinct [instinct for what?] can swing other ways. All they're trying to argue that the homo sapiens body is and always will be more powerful than Topher's gland-handing, and this could have been demonstrated using any number of commonly accepted "drives".)


Chris: Besides just returning Madeline to the fold of this story, "Instinct" begins to go several places we've specifically wanted Dollhouse to go. What Topher does in the upstairs room is fiddle with body chemistry. Though the writers have not put the words in anyone's mouth, it always has been this way, so it is rather silly that the reality has not occurred to Topher until just now -- particularly since he affected Echo with hysterical blindness in "True Believer". Senator Perrin is quicker on the uptake than the boy genius, and immediately upon skimming the Dollhouse dossier, he recognizes that Rossum Corp. could have cured his mother's Alzheimer's disease. If the chair allows full synapse control, Topher should, yes, be able to cure cancer, cure Apserger syndrome, epilepsy and migraines. The troubling/fascinating Buffyverse tendency to discuss body/mind/soul as discrete units is being rapidly demolished by Dollhouse.

The episode features a client who not only questions the effectiveness of employing an Active after a disturbing glitch in the plan, but realizes the entire Engagement was a terrible idea. Poor Daddy Nate also breaks what one assumes is client protocol #1, and tells Echo directly that she is not who she thinks she is, a conversation starter that, given human nature, should be irresistible to every client every week. When paired with an earlier scene of Emily-Echo discovering family photos of Nate's deceased wife, the feasibility of the Dollhouse program is called into question in another way. There are reasons Engagements are short-term affairs, linked to Dollhouse's self-imposed limitations on fantasy science. While other nefarious person manufacturing conspiracies of vaster resource, like Tyrell Corporation or the Machine society of The Matrix, set up watertight backstories and plant physical traces of the imaginary life lived, the Dollhouse just plugs the personality data into the brain and hopes for the best. Again, very trusting of the Dollhouse to count on clients not blowing their cover and short circuiting the Active hardware, but the methods tell us something about the epistemic strategies and assumptions of the Dollhouse, and maybe of Dollhouse. Though the episode is about "instinct," the plot swings on Emily receiving information from outside herself -- observation of Nate's interaction with the baby, the cache of photos, the overheard phone call, etc. Feelings, self-knowledge and body-memory aren't the sum of reality, we also rely on external data to confirm our reality. And sure enough, though Echo necessarily has misinterpreted all that information, the inborn (well, Imprinted) drives win out.

On the slapstick ethics lesson front, the knee-slapper scene in "Instinct" is bloody-nosed Topher marveling that "I outplayed myself! It's like chess!," and Paul countering that it is "not 'like chess,' like 'Echo is in pain and may be in danger.'" Delight with his own skill is par for course with this kid, as is framing a situation gone impressively awry as an achievement (an experiment with results is of vital interest, even if the result is not as predicted). We've seen Topher here before in another way, back when he "corrected" Ballard that the human brain is, indeed, "like a computer." Maybe he did not get proper closure on the Whiskey situation, but certain lessons about mad science's consequences for the human soul have not gotten through to the supposed genius.

"Instinct" is also proof that the foundation of the Dollhouse concept is not inherently unsound. It is an engaging, rich Engagement of the Week story, even if it hinges on the Baby in Peril, a suspense device older than D.W. Griffith and Edison put together.



JS: In general it is a good idea to come to the aid of Imperiled Babies, and thank goodness we still lack the technology to confirm whether a baby will grow up to be [insert notorious jackass]. (Although some benign variant might have helped predict the Alpha-slashings.)

It's a good thing you went on vacation, because it took me time to warm up to this episode. Emily’s sprinted, oxytocin-fueled arc through Los Angeles cut the most spectacular swath, but I've been thinking more about how space-heart-time was lacerated in the process of bringing her back at all. To add to your point about the necessary short-termness of Engagements, almost all the Engagements we've been privy to before Season 2 have required little to no social orchestration. Actives are often out and about in public, but they've mostly interacted directly with clients (Richard Connell, Joel Mynor, Adelle) or with those they're programmed to beat up or intimidate in the line of duty. We've mostly been shown 100% romance or 100% work. To the world at large they are anonymous faces, corps of NSA agents or other aloof professionals (though this does beg the question of whether Dolls' friends and families ever see them on the street and, if so, how the hell they react). If they do have to penetrate a social world, make friends and allies, they can begin from scratch, introducing themselves as strangers (Esther, Margaret, Mellie). Kellies - conveniently placed best friends, social buffers/safeguards - haven't really been necessary.

"Vows", where Roma Klar waited out a courtship and engagement of at least a few months' duration, floated the question of friendship and social networks - were all those "relatives" at the wedding Dolls too? But “Instinct”’s Emily is being reintroduced, if not exactly reintegrated, into a world which has already mourned her and moved on. (At least ghost-Margaret knew to watch her step; to jump to another show for a minute, resurrected Buffy was luckier to live in a world with a more flexible definition of “death.”) The puzzle of Emily's re-incorporation draws attention to something that may thwart the Dollhouse as surely as Perrin or a rival lab or any limitation of physics: the resiliency of human webs, whose nodes and spokes usually grow out of shared history, accretions of interactions, small judgments, minute gestures of trust - hard to build, hard to destroy, hardest to repair after a node is ripped out. You can’t just plop people back into the world – they have to be woven back in. In Nate's case, leave aside the macro problem of concealing a recently dead woman from her neighbors; even leave aside the problem of bonding her with a strange baby, which Topher sort-of solved. By the time you bring Rebecca or Margaret or Emily or Buffy back from the dead, their survivors, no matter how hard they try, are no longer the same people who mourned at graveside.

Non-Imprinted brains are beyond Topher’s sphere of control, and the show’s fresh acknowledgement of this, via Nate, feels like a clear transition to larger ambitions. Season 1 dealt largely with the adventures of atomized individuals in the field, people who could be Engaged briefly, retrieved, and made to disappear without baffling and wounding more than one or two people. Just two episodes into season 2, I think we're on the road to more complicated enmeshments, impostors at higher social tiers with far more people to deceive, Imprints whose actions affect not only paying clients but the tilt and rotation of their social spheres. Surely we’ll soon see artists resurrected to complete unfinished lifework and guarantee grander legacies, or heads of state temporarily impersonated to avert political meltdown. We’re already seeing this on the antagonist-front too - last season we had lone cats Ballard/Alpha as antagonists/infiltrators, and now Perrin, with all the glory that’s his to lose.

And what about the epilogue that wasn't: Mellie’s seamless withdrawal, now Madeline’s ambivalent return? Things look good on the material end, but otherwise her reintegration looks like a soulless flop. Don’t her friends have a few questions for her about where she's been, or where all the money came from? One of the pleasures of this show is watching its almost limitless latitude strain against these mundane concerns. If the writers are near-omnipotent Tophers and Adelles, churning out spies and scientists and singers and Dushkubots at will, realworld logic keeps throwing a lot of interesting obstacles their way.

Speaking of Adelle. That speech to Nate about parenting was interesting. The woman is so full of melodious reassurances! I mean, she of all people should know what happens when a baby grows up without a mother. Sometimes he tries boldly to go where no baby should go:



CS: First things first, there does seem to be a story problem with the company policy of keeping Actives in the area from which they were recruited. It is baffling that Echo would have been sent to Caroline's alma matter in "Echoes" (an idea that flits through the episode but is not addressed as a plot hole) or that Mellie lived a virtual 9-to-5 on the city streets where she used to walk as Madeline. Los Angeles is big and relatively impersonal, but it is nothing like anonymous -- on a day out, I'm bound to bump into five people I know by name, two dozen I recognize by face.

Perhaps the terrible pull of Instinct itself, rather than the client, is closer to being a villain in this story. Papa Nate is both the catalyst for the problem, having commissioned the perpetual baddie, the Dollhouse -- their sin this time out being the gall to toy with the forces of maternal instinct -- and the solution. Refreshingly, "Instinct" doesn't make a case for that instinct as either the noblest quality of the species or a primitive, animalistic drive mucking up human logic. It is just a fact of parenthood, one among several elements that cause us to be effective parents. In a lengthy teardown of Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (dude, with a title like that, you're asking for it!), Pauline Kael touched an idea pertinent here (she was using it to combat film theorists' reductivist tendencies):
"It is like the old nonsense that man is what differentiates him from the other animals -- which is usually said to be his soul or his mind or his ability to transmit information from one generation to the other, etc. But man is also what he shares with the other animals. And if you try to reduce him to some supposed quality that he alone has, you get an absurdly distorted view of man. And the truth is, as we learn more about animals and about man, the less we are sure what differentiates him from other animals, or if it's so very important."

At Adelle's tea party with Nate her duty is to placate him and steer him away from blaming the Dollhouse for their errors (numero uno of which might have been, yet again, taking this job at all). Among the techniques are simultaneous guilt tripping and flattery of the client, and comparison of adoption to kidnapping. Between Emily and Adelle, Nate does recover his capacity to parent his child, and discusses it rationally in the denouement, a climax that is all conversation (albeit with a baby held at knifepoint) and no kickboxing. Perhaps his "instinct" kicks in when the child is in danger, but that is not what it sounds like. Nate expresses disgust and regret at his own selfishness, a temporary failure of nerve via grief-induced blindness, and seems to realize he can love and care for his son just fine. The episode is structured as such that in the first half Emily's maternal drive is the finer thing than Nate's awful logic (i.e. I can't love this baby + the baby needs love = make a fake mom! and this isn't working --> get rid of them both), while in the second half Nate's better judgment rules while Echo's berserk biochemistry places the kid at hazard. Rather than make a Nature or Nurture argument about proper parenting, "Instinct" would indicate that we cannot be so schematic, and, really the answer is "Both."

Though the guest star story is about a dad accepting his role, it is largely about mothers, and not really a "Dad" episode. "Instinct" does not make obvious parallels (maybe Mutant Enemy is sick of them already) to Dollhouse's inbuilt father metaphors: Handler/Active relationshps (the Bear Father), Topher (the creator father, the father who frames your morality and belief systems) or Clive Ambrose (the Founding Father, the tyrant, the destroyer). It may, however, offer Adelle as flip-side to Emily's rampaging instincts. Master smooth talker and keeper of the house rules, we see her mother Madeline, convincing her to get a check-up, and nudge Nate into accepting his parental duties through cajoling, reassurance and (that powerful tool of salespeople and moms alike) making it seem like it's his idea. After meeting resistance, Adelle practically gets Madeline into the office by saying "I'm the mom, that's why."


JS: It may be that every interaction between two people of unequal status, where the more powerful one takes an intense interest in the less powerful/experienced one, can be tagged as "parenting." We touched on this in our discussion of "Echoes", but at root parenting is about influencing another creature's progress, whether as a remote navigator or a hands-on coach or a saboteur (roles available to both genders). (And the mothering models of good cop, cajoler and/or diplomat are just a few of many alternatives to going feral.) I'll go ahead and say it, and welcome criticism/testimony from any EK readers with children: Emily doesn't yet qualify as a parent, just a guardian. Her baby is still an extension of herself. The episode puts "instinct" and "young motherhood" in its own version of quotation marks, hugely exaggerating and perhaps even satirizing the feelings glibly predicted for young mothers and endlessly rehashed in Not-Without-My-Baby narratives (where young men are mostly left to map their own rituals, ethics, and emotional parameters of fatherhood, reweaving and reintegrating themselves into the family web). We're disturbed when fictional or real women can do without their babies, but I've known women as ambivalent about their infant children as Nate is, and Emily is a cartoon in a (tragically) cartoonish story; as such, her story is not about the true challenges of parenting but about the enormity of Topher's design miscalculation. At root, he Imprinted her with an attachment and drive that made her run like hell to save an unfathomably precious object. What she doesn't know is that she's run this course before.

There are many chase and pursuit scenes in Dollhouse, but I can recall two times that Echo ran that fast or far or singlemindedly to save a human "life": a) in "Omega", to save her wedge and b) in "The Target", to save her own skin from Richard Connell. (That forest run, though, is probably the only one where she experienced anything like Emily's level of anguish and fear). "The Target" could have been titled "Instinct" to different effect - the survival instinct of Caroline overcoming the girlfriend Imprint of Jock Girl. Not Nate, not Instinct, but Topher is the villain of this week, but I still have to wonder whose "nature" intervened at the moment when Emily decided to return the child. (Which would also be the moment in which, making the best decision for a child not her own, she truly became a parent.) If implanted "instinct" is too strong for Topher to control, and too indelible to Wipe, what is strong enough to neutralize it?...is it the equanimity and altruism of Caroline, at last identifying a situation where it's better for her to back off? Caroline is not known for her restraint, and her Rescue Mania is as strong as any drive we've seen on the show. But maybe it's being tempered by an increasing (unconscious) awareness of when to let go.

(Just don’t let go when wheels are involved!!!).


CS: Agh, don't show me things like that. I didn't like seeing Dushku waving a prop knife around a baby's head, either! It must be some kind of... INSTINCT!!

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