Friday, October 23, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 2.3 - "Belle Chose"

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

The Engagement: A weird professor (Arye Gross of "These Friends of Mine") teaches Echo about Chaucer (he is played by Arye Gross of The Opposite Sex and How to Live with Them). Meanwhile, Terry Karrens, serial kidnapper, budding murderer and nephew of a major Rossum backer (whew!) arrives at the Dollhouse in a coma. That Ballard may better question Terry, the killer's mind is dumped into Victor's brain, and he promptly escapes. With all these creepos wandering around, DeWitt has Topher improvise a remote Wipe, which accidentally swaps Vic and Ech's Imprints. Terry-Echo neck-stabs Prof. Weirdo (Arye Gross of Hexed!). Ballard intercepts club dancing, Kiki-headed Victor, causing civilians to believe Paul is gay.

Janani: So, a little background to get started: “Belle Chose”, in addition to being the shortest English sentence to feature any individual named “Belle," is a French phrase used by Chaucer's randiest character, The Wife of Bath, in the Prologue to her section of the Canterbury Tales. “Belle chose” means “pretty thing,” as in “that pretty thing you got between your legs, lady.” The Wife of Bath, who has been married five times (and is usually scouting for the next husband while waiting for the current one to die) does enjoy sex for its own sake, but is even more interested in what her “belle chose” can obtain for her in the way of bargaining power — she does Roma Klar one better with her absolute, openly self-serving, rather refreshing unsentimentality about sex. The Wife refers to sex often and pragmatically as her husband’s “debt” — the more he fucks her, and the more she ensures that he fucks her, the more he must yield to her in the way of household authority, victory in argument, and the all-important SWAG (she is a clotheshorse!). Hence her diligence in banging the brains out of several “good,” “rich,” “old,” barely erectile elderly husbands (Victor/Kiki’s line to the club boys, “As help my God, I laughe whan I thinke/How pitously a-night I made hem swinke,” refers to those exact men, who probably died of heart attacks induced by the Wife’s enthusiastic debt-collection. Victor/Kiki, of course, just wants them to buy a girl a drink).

What does this have to do with Echo/Kiki and her quest for an A? Her professor’s wish to educate a preprogrammed Active about sexual “power” is ironic on its face, also wretched and poignant: the roleplay is ultimately a simple trade of sex for a grade, but he doesn’t want it to feel that way. He wants the seduction to appear to be Kiki's own idea. He wants the experience of falling into her debt, of owing her the grade. He doesn't just want to get off; he wants to feel benevolent while doing it. He is more complicated than your average R client, as well as a natural and interesting successor to Joel Mynor from “Man on the Street”, who set up a reverse transaction, wanting his wife Rebecca to fall into his sexual and emotional debt at the sight of her beautiful new house. Clients who try to manipulate Actives into semblances of autonomous behavior are a step forward for the show; perhaps Terry Karrens' absurd games (structured around women who owe him no sexual debt at all) are an exaggeration-for-arguments' sake, an airing of our very worst fears about R Clients, in fact a writerly response to those fears: not every R client wants a tranquilized husk. In a couple weeks we’ll meet the monster who is contented to make Sierra his slave, but not everyone wants a slave — or at least to be reminded that he’s paying for one; once again Season 2 has opted against a SPY!COP!NINJA! Engagement in favor of an Engagement that complicates client-Active relationships and our own notions of what it means to purchase a "romantic" experience. There’s a reason that the more expensive forms of prostitution, throughout history, have been as much about mental connection, conversation, and ambience as they’ve been about anyone’s “belle chose.”

Lastly, Kiki may have gotten an F for a paper on "The Economics of Marriage," but what are the funniest sexonomics of this episode in general? Probably Ballard getting a bunch of clothes for Kiki, acting out the role of henpecked partner, and getting absolutely nothing in return…sexually, that is. He does get his salary from Adelle, which might make him another kind of whore. Time will tell.

Chris: We're interested, then, in the Prof's reading of the prologue to the Wife's tale. A quick jaunt through the archives confirmed what I suspicioned: it takes a scholar of narrow agenda and wishful thinking to interpret the prologue as an undiluted story of female power. The relationship between Kiki and Gossen hints at the hoops one must jump through to get there (you cant be brainwashed into empowerment), but he's pitching a twisted Foucauldian version of "power" at best, while Chaucer actually wrote a ribald satire of gender authority, marriage customs and medieval sexual politics. The goofy fantasy at work is also of enlightening someone into wanting to have sex with you, of being such a good teacher that you awaken that inspiration. The professor schools Kiki in a rather shifty interpretation of a jaundiced text, essentially emphasizing the qualities of the story that sound good and appealing to a modern college girl and inspire imitative behavior, thus, ironically, canceling out today's Chaucer lesson. A funny bit that Gossen skips over is that among the Wife's talents is the ability to quote Scripture to her own ends, which is not unlike the game Gossen is up to. As always: doesn't matter, she's programmed to be convinced by any argument he makes; the belle's got no choice.

Conversely: who knows how self-aware a lit teacher can get, but the convoluted lesson plan and fantasy framing the professor's Engagement are just a gilt lily version of what is already inherent in the Active/ R Client relationship. He's getting sex, she's getting paid. He "needs" her to be there, just as much as the Dollhouse needs a cash flow.

The A plot, of wretched Terry Karrens and his problems with the ladies, strongly resembles the shape of Tim Minear's great Angel episode "Billy". That black beauty was also about a serial killer of women, protected by the money and influence of powerful relatives, and whose psychosis proved frighteningly infectious (I mention this as esoteric Mutant Enemy lore more than as a discussion point — I don't wanna spoil that episode for you). The pop culture serial killer is a difficult monster, named after the real world species but possessing little psychology in common. While they are fascinating creatures, for example, I think we learn precious little about serial killers from Hannibal Lecter or Dexter Morgan (whose program used to be haunted by Liza Lapira, our own Ivy!); they have other functions to serve, are too valuable to waste on the banal and repulsive realities of serial killers. Among Terry's functions in "Belle Chose", perhaps the most interesting is the climax as Terry-Echo is placed in control of the psycho's victims, mini-Dollhouse (wait, dollhouses are already miniatures... aw, forget it). She flickers in and out of Caroline-ness, trying to sacrifice herself to set everyone free, effectively playing out a fractal repetition of her larger story yet again.

JS: Gossen also leaves out the long section where the Wife's tedious fifth husband reads aloud, for "teaching" purposes, a catalog of "wicked wives" — dozens of misbehaving and man-scourging women from history and literature. The Wife gets so mad that she tears up the book, and then husband and Wife punch each other out! It's better than Springer! I bring this up not only to hook into your point about Gossen's self-serving interpretation of the Tale (any discussion of the Wife's power games must also address her handicaps), but to recall the other Dollhouse character and Tim Minear creation who interpreted an ancient text to his own ends — Jonas Sparrow of "True Believer". In both stories, the Doll who is supposed to yield to the pedant's authority ends up malfunctioning, going bananas, and destroying his painstakingly developed world.

It's a variation on what seems to happen to Topher every single week — and a metaphor for Caroline's weekly emergence — but it also made me think about the Dollhouse's own apparent lack of a creed or guiding "text." A manual of persuasion, to get people to do their jobs correctly, even to make them respect their jobs. Adelle glides without a hitch from one apparent revelation of policy — "We are working to reunite a desperate family with a wayward loved one" — to another — "Bradley Karrens is a major shareholder in our parent organization." The Dollhouse is a moneymaker, but per Adelle it's also a do-gooding organization, per Topher it's an R&D playground, and aside from the soothing words spoken to Actives, there's no sense of a pervading ideology or "party line" that must be taken in order to work there. No indoctrination. No totalitarian dread. Little tyranny to speak of (unless you're Lawrence Dominic, who I hope comes back to settle with Adelle). Langton reads on the job. When I think back to my expectations at the very beginning of the show, I can't believe how loosely the place is run. Imagine if Terry Karrens ran the joint! That's the whole point of him and his ilk, though...he'd do a terrible job.

So what'd you think of Victor? Not only has another common Tech barrier broken down, bringing us closer to the world of "Epitaph One" (Topher can now do remote Imprint switches as well as Wipes, across genders, treating the collective Active mind as one unified field), but we got a prancing Enver Gjokaj. The show owes this fella a debt of its own. He needs to get a hell of a lot more storylines.

CS: The "Epitaph One" Tech does seem to be in place, all that is missing is a compact version of the Chair and an iPhone app version of Topher's Imprint building software. The blanket signal "the Chinese" laid down by telephone (in, a pal reminds me, not-so-veiled echo of Stephen King's novel Cell) doesn't even require a hardware interface in this case. Frankly, I'm kind of skeptical of that one — I'll buy the the biometrics readouts, but that they can relay a signal impulse should be an obvious danger zone.

Dushku does bubbly coed and jaded wiseass very well, but we are treated in "Belle Chose" to further demonstration of inability to be subsumed by a character. As in the hero/foil body-swap Buffy episode "Who Are You", Dushku and a stronger actor (Gellar there, Gjokaj here) are both asked to play the same character, and Dushku flattens her characterization while the gifted mimic soars. There is none of Terry's posture or inflection emitting from Echo, while Victor is a spot-on recreation of the killer's tics and clench-jawed glower. And maybe, just maybe, this works to Dollhouse's advantage: Caroline cannot be submerged.

The shell game at work in "Belle" is of playing with human dolls, its final shuffle I've already touched on. The show is always about this, but the episode is explicitly about playing dress up with object-people. If "Belle" understands one thing about serial killer psychology, it is this, the void of empathy, inability to see people as anything but things (Dexter's failure and masterstroke being that its Everyman/Killer thinks he is emotionless but understands people's feelings disarmingly well). Echo's Engagement begins with a hilarious round of dolling up the Dolls. The Handlers, tough and serious boys — and the staff most likely to bond with the Dolls — want nothing to do with picking out clothes and doing makeup, though the gay Dollhouse fashionista repeats Topher's declaration that his works is "art". Prof. Gossen only wants to perform if his dolly has thoughts and feelings and the ability to interpret medieval literature, counterpoint to Terry who is equally deluded but can only perform if he can pose and speak for his dolls entirely. Are these men opposites, or flip-sides of the same principal? If we are tipped to believe that Gossen's feminist reading of Chaucer is ironic at best, bullshit at worst, then Terry's games are the argument against, an extreme form of patriarchal domination in which the dominated subject has no latitude for resistance. His victims are exerting power only in that their very bodies make Terry feel helpless... a pretty useless "power" they would hold even if they were dead.

I missed him this week, but last seen, Senator Perrin was concerned that murder may be among the Dollhouse's crimes. In "Belle Chose", DeWitt is particularly concerned that Victor is being used as a vessel for violence. Guess she's only okay with murder if she gets to pick the target.

JS: Bring on the serial-killer knowledges. Does Terry even qualify — yet — as a serial killer, rather than a simple kidnapper? He did murder one woman, but murder doesn't seem to be a fetish or a carefully thought-out part of his ritual; it's more like a kid pulling the head off a doll. Even Ballard didn't think he'd go so far as to kill even one Aunt Sheila. I had trouble with his sudden transition from simple misogynist (as Victor) to rampaging loon (as Echo) — why did he stab the professor? Was he so far gone as to believe his devious dolls had actually turned him into a woman? (That would make Aunt Sheila even more powerful dead than alive.) It's quite weird to watch Terry and Kiki settle so quickly and unquestioningly into their foreign bodies — Ballard hints at possible gender dysphoria with the klutzy line "Is any part of [Terry Marion Karrens] a boy's name?" but Terry is pretty clearly attracted to women, and his instant comfort with becoming one is probably just plot magic — and begs the question of when we'll see more cross-gender Imprintations.

Meanwhile, I did not buy Dushku as a bubblehead; she was not written at a consistent level of stupidity. Women like that are often a lot shrewder than they appear, performing stupidity to their advantage, but Dushku seemed to recite the lines without having decided whether she was playing self-aware or not. Little microseconds of Faith-ful knowingness kept flashing through. She was less cartoony in the office hours scenes, but overall I have to condemn both Gossen and Ballard for their extremely bad taste in female objects (Ballard, rendered jellylike by schoolgirl knee socks, must have already forgotten the much sexier and more grown-up Roma Klar!) I take your point about the indelibility of Caroline, though. Caroline has already had her intro to Evil and her brush with advanced Evil; she's too attuned to its presence to crack convincing jokes about it. Dushku — in career history and persona — is too established as ass-kicker and female action icon to pull off even one second of that clichéd, curdled femininity. Once again, she puts a rusty archetype in quotation marks.

Speaking of which, we haven't yet mentioned the actual tale told by the Wife of Bath — the tale of a knight sent to determine "that which women desire most." He ends up forced into marriage with a hideous old woman who asks whether he would prefer a wife ugly by day and beautiful by night, or vice versa. He answers, correctly, that the choice belongs to the woman alone: "I put me in your wyse governance; cheseth yourself which may be most plesance, and most honour to yow and me also." As you've pointed out, the story was later retold featuring Sir Gawain, one of the knights of the Round Table. "Belle Chose" doesn't explicitly refer to this Wifely contribution, but myriad plot nuggets — from the (forced) beautification of Echo, to the schemes of Gossen and Terry, to the sufferings of Terry's victims — outrage the original story and make the events of "Belle Chose" more bitter inversion than tribute to the Wife's empowering yarn. I'm especially interested in how Ballard (whom you've tagged as a potential Gawain-figure) intrudes on the choices of the women in his care; restoring Madeline's ability to "choose" effectively deprived Mellie of hers (by terminating her); Madeline has no reason to know who he is. And when Caroline's power of choice is restored, she may not choose him either. But as Echo gradually realizes her sexual power over him, she may start to using it... to surprising ends.

Maybe she will force him to go dancing!

CS: Terry may or may not fit an FBI profiler's definition of a serial killer yet. Ballard's judgment aside (it's Ballard, after all), and discounting any unconfirmed killing Terry may have done in the past, we see him kill twice in "Belle Chose" with a requisite cooling off period and in the end is on his way to massacre the remaining girls. Third time's a charm. Some killers we know full well fit the profile and think of as serial killers don't actually qualify. Topher's brain scan, while dubious evidence should Terry have been brought to trial, is presented as a way of confirming the shorthand for the audience without going into gruesome detail: this is a serial killer. Ballard should have pegged him as a mixed organized/disorganized killer type. Appropriately for Dollhouse, the abduction and abuse ritual is about control for Terry, while the murder occurs in a frenzy when the center, inevitably, does not hold.

Various things ring false about Terry, but for me it is mainly the outrageously silly, colorfully weird but still TV-friendly staging of his afternoon croquet fantasy and his baby talk dialogue. If I haven't mentioned it before, Mutant Enemy's writing voices for crazy people are kind of grating and off key, though Terry is spared from one of their favorite cringey tropes, the lunatic who speaks in poetic non sequitur koan. It is not a blanket requirement, but killer's of roughly Terry's profile nearly always rape their victims to enact physical dominance, which I have no interest in seeing on Dollhouse but would have unified Terry's story with the matter of the Wife's tale. (If you are interested in horrible crimes, visit your local library to learn more! Of the one billion books available on the subject, Dr. Eric W. Hickey's Serial Murderers and Their Victims is the most valuable, well researched, becalmed and, er, expensive) The Wife also includes a discussion on the reality that men born of high station have no inherent predilection to moral virtue, so maybe someone should mail Terry's uncle a copy.

The knight in the Wife's tale is a rapist whose quest is a weird form of test to determine his punishment. I never saw that movie What Women Want, but I can only assume it plays out exactly like the Wife's tale. Just for comparison laffs, the version of the Wife's tale as retold in "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle", the quest is a challenge to Arthur, who sends Gawain out for recon on ladies' desires, with no inciting incident of sexual violence. Though his zealous virtue and devotion to the good guys is pretty funny in "Ragnelle" (the knight marries the hag not to save his own neck, but his BFF, Arthur's!), Gawain's intense honor and apparent purity get in the way of his effectiveness across several tales, and (it is dangerous to psychoanalyze medieval literature) mask his hang-ups and illusions about women. That's why I think he's a good match with Ballard. Anyway, in Chaucer the knight is unnamed, and in "Belle Chose", it's actually Topher (on DeWitt's orders) whose screw up gives the women in the narrative their "choice": will Echo be Kiki or Terry or a blank Doll? Thanks for the options, but she will be Caroline.

Like Prof. Gossen, as the Wife is telling her story, to support her argument, she pulls in aphorisms and anecdotes from other literature (Juvenal, Dante, etc.), or has her characters do it. The lengthiest sidetrack is supposed to illustrate that women can't keep secrets, she invokes Ovid and retells the end of a King Midas story. Having had the bad judgement to play Simon Cowell at a music contest between Apollo and Pan, Midas is punished with ass ears by Apollo. As the Wife would have it, Midas tells his embarrassing secret only to his wife, who tells it to the water... and if you want the rest, the Wife of Bath tells us to go to Ovid. So, though none of our models plays out in perfect parallel, I don't know that we're chasing our tails here. If you do check Ovid, you'll find that the Wife is stacking the deck. As Ovid has it, Midas' affliction is known only to his barber slave, not his wife. Wanna know how it ends? The barber digs a hole in which to tell his story, reeds grow in the dirt, and the secret is scattered to the wind. A preview of sorts for both how the Dollhouse falls and the consciousness of Dolls may survive (The X-Files may have kept it in mind, with a motif that the Truth refuses to stay buried).

Between this episode and "Spy in the House of Love", Dollhouse's idea of literary allusion is stacking up as damned bizarre.

JS: And they know we will Google those allusions to the ends of the Internet. Don't forget "Briar Rose" in the list of shout-outs. TV fictions are always mining the news for crime and doctor stories, but it seems rarer for them to engage with other fictions in the way Dollhouse does (unless they have clearly literary roots, e.g. Merlin, which has a huge cache of satellite stories to work with) From the meta tower, it looks awfully as though Dollhouse's ghost-themes of storytelling/plotting/showrunning are in fact solid enough to take on the creative theme of adapting and reinventing source material, making "Belle Chose" and other "literary" episodes stories about telling stories about how we tell stories about stories. You said something similar regarding the narrative nesting in Inglourious Basterds (whose very title is a shout-out to an earlier story!), and maybe Dollhouse can be seen as the expanded serial-drama version of that experiment. All Whedon needs to do is change the series name to "A Doull's Hoose" and we're set.

(And speaking of adaptation, Terry's delivery of those croquet lines was just self-conscious enough that he, too, seemed as though he were channeling a story he'd seen elsewhere... perhaps on TV, perhaps onstage in some comedy of manners. He was clearly taking pleasure in imitating someone, repeating a script he'd heard and deemed appropriate for his family outing. And even if he was improvising, I find that many improvisers do this too — the family scenes they act out are often more like reruns of fifties sitcoms than of contemporary life. Even more interesting an improvisation was Echo's lapse into storytelling as, freed briefly of Terry, privy to his "source material" (memories) yet able to refer to him in the third person, she narrated the stalking of Robin.)

Basta! Enough of this episode! It's almost 9PM and I hear that Topher's match is finally here. I have to go and meet her.

CS: Y'know, the old calypso standard "Ugly Woman"/"If You Want to be Happy" is probably the most succinct and hilarious retelling of the punchline of the Wife's tale proper. The narrator in that number knows that even when you give a pretty girl a chance to be faithful, even if she chooses not to be Kiki, the world is full of Prof. Gossens and Terries, and man, it just ain't worth the grief.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Dollhouse last Friday.

Yep. Have fun with that one.