Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.7 - "Echoes"

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

The Engagement: Josh Fadem goes crazy and runs around a college lab in his socks, because an inhibition-derailing drug has gotten loose on campus. Most of the Dollhouse shows up to try to recover the remainder of the experimental substance for the Rossum Corporation... When the drug proves incredibly transmittable, the entire Dollhouse staff gets really high and freaks out, leaving only the seriously glitching Actives semi-functioning. Flashbacks fill in a directly-linked story of political activist, pre-Echo Caroline breaking into Rossum Labs. Meanwhile, Agent Ballard tries to be a good boyfriend and gets dumped sort of.


CS: Let us leap straight into the nerd trivia here.

Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) is the source of the word "robot", "Rozum" being Czech for "reason" and "robota" for "labor" (this etymological data courtesy of my Penguin Classics edition, though I see the Ministry of Truth, er, Wikipedia, backs me up). It is also the source of the name for the brain-research facility/"evil" drug company introduced in Dollhouse 1.7, "Echoes". More than s-f history inside joke, the bona fide literary allusion might be useful in unlocking the episode. In R.U.R., the robots are more properly artificially manufactured but nearly biological normal human beings, their body functions simplified and brains sapped of unproductive distractions (the R.U.R. scientists see no purpose in endowing the robots with a "soul", that is, the desire to take leisurely walks and play violin). A majority of its genre descendants would go on to ponder the ethics of creating an artificial intelligence, and/or whether such an invention might be considered "human" -- a fruitfully fanciful but, thus far, entirely silly philosophical dead-end non-debate. But like the tale from the ancestral well, Frankenstein (about the sundry troubles of making our own home-grown people), R.U.R. is really about the problems of allowing industrial forces to manufacture people. Where does "Echoes" fall in this continuum?

... and while you're at it, can you get me a juice box?

JS: As a matter of fact, I can, as my roommate orders 27 APPLE AND EVE juiceboxes every week from FreshDirect. I will crack one open for you without her permission. It contains 100% apple juice (filtered water sufficient to reconstitute apple juice concentrate, apple juice made from fresh whole apples), calcium gluconate, calcium lactate, and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C).

So this was Dollhouse's "Band Candy" episode, ne? Hilarious bacchanal with a serious side, commenting on the power exerted by mysterious corporations when they release their wares among us... whether it's candy, pharma, or something else. Caroline's PETA indignation wore a little thin for me, if only because I feel that animalcentric approaches -- while, yes, putting adorable faces on the issue -- take the focus off the even larger menace of scientific-industrial behemoths, their larger aims and objectives. I think we both -- I won't drop the M-word yet, but you can if you want -- have a dread of power consolidated in the hands of the few, of many individual intelligences and wills soldered together into one institution, one machine, one purpose. All those lab meetings, PowerPoints, assignments, directives, jottings in lab notebooks, day after day, week after week... aggregating toward what? What can stop them, or it? Even if it's not Science, but something else being peddled?

Being pure and fruitful is all part of Apple & Eve’s core values. We emphasize honesty, integrity and respect for our fruit growers and employees, and most of all for you, our loyal consumer. We care about the juice and we care about each other. It’s the secret ingredient that puts harmonious flavor into all of our juices.

Mmmyum. Okay, sorry. Anyway, at work the theme of our upcoming issue is "Testing," so we've spent a lot of time making a sort of taxonomy of tests. There are the tests of mettle and character -- inquiries into somebody's particular nature, a mapping of a unique personality. They may even be undertaken with a sense of personal risk -- tests of a friend, a lover. Then there's Rossum, which, according to Caroline, "doesn't care about souls, human or animal." Hers I believe is the humanist/materialist (but not necessarily atheist!) spin on "soul" -- she's talking about means, not ends, the arrangements of morals that allow Rossum to act out of pure utility. She's talking primarily about Rossum's soul. She's talking about whatever makes us forget the sovereignty of our fellow creatures, what robs our ability to make space for them, to allow them to grow in their own way, to share a fate with them rather than engineer their fate for them. It's not that monkeys have monkey perches waiting for them in heaven. It's more that every monkey is, uh, a snowflake.

Argh, I'm distracted again: Can you imagine today’s busy life without juice boxes? Well, before we introduced the first juice box in 1982, families didn’t have an easy, portable way to drink healthy while on the go. Now, for more than 20 years, our 100% juice boxes have been traveling in lunch bags, baby carriages and briefcases around the country...

Unimaginable! I'm sacked out on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, blogging about a teevee show, and there is definitely no baby in my baby carriage. But this brings me around to your question of human-making. These days no one should argue that the only legitimate way to "make" a human is the slot A/tab B way. For example, the longing experienced by infertile parents, translated into the banking of sperm and freezing of eggs and the in-vitro magic, is quite as legitimate to me as the normal M.O. But it seems to me (from a child-free vantage point) that one of the most graceful elements of people-"making" -- which, yes, the Dollhouse does -- is the moment when you cede total power over your creation. Once it's in the world, you voluntarily lay aside control over it and allow it to grow as it will, take its own shape. In the act of creating, you step aside and commit to the wonder and suspense of how this creature will turn out. Topher and Dominic are too stupid to understand this and probably never will. Adelle and Boyd, I think, do understand. And the Rossum Corporation -- run by brilliant people -- certainly understands this, but opts for total power over its subjects/creations, while throwing up a smokescreen of family harmony via cute ads.

The logo, as it appears today, looks very much like the initial design. It reflects our brand values by evoking images of purity and goodness, with just a touch of temptation thrown in to make things interesting. It stands as a symbol of the many fresh and delicious fruit juices we produce. We hope you find our delicious juices a bit tempting and simply irresistible!

Ya still want that juicebox, Chris?

CS: I'm 'a stick with my Garfield mug of coffee, actually.

I think you've gotten close to the bone on Frankenstories: the smart ones know that the crime is not tampering in God's domain, but irresponsible parenting. There are myriad ways in which we play god(s), and we are naturally endowed with the ability to create life. The trouble arises either from ditching your offspring without guidance (Frankenstein), breaching the walls of death (ibid, and Jurassic Park), or trying to hone that baby into a weapon while maintaining absolute control (the Golem story, the first Rambo movie). The Dollhouse has been proven guilty on all counts.

The apple juice logo perhaps brings us right back to two weeks ago and "True Believer"'s allusions to the Eden story, but any creation myth, really. How do the original parents treat the original Actives? And how do the newborns respond? ("God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs..." So, what then?... dinosaurs destroy man. Dinosaurs create God?)

My Garfield mug inexplicably depicts the tomcat mopping up water and sarcastically tossing confetti, caption bemoaning: "being a mom is a party a minute". As Adelle notes partway through her bum trip, "Oh my God, I'm having such a terrible day!" In "Echoes" -- in every Dollhouse -- the 'House's creator mommy and daddy, Topher and Adelle, send their universal robot kids out into the world to live according to godlike dictum that they will spend their brief lives in accordance with a narrow set of behavioral parameters, doing works of labor and service for their creators. Handlers and Security head Mr. Dominic are on duty to guide and reenforce, a chain of command we might compare to Honor Thy Mother and Father, with the implied dictum that the chain stretches back to the gods. The system simply doesn't work very well. Even in a paradigm with omniscient, omnipresent gods, we bump over ten miles of bad road -- why should God make me behave this way? Why doesn't He help? What'd we do to deserve this life? In a possible secular reading (ignore my absurdist hermeneutics if you like), we're sent forth into the world so we can toughen, smarten, fail and scramble and make meaning of ourselves to the point that we outgrow and destroy our need for a creator-god story, repeat it by propagating life, and maybe do a better job than our parent-gods. But the Dollhouse tries to squash that purpose, even if those thoughtful employees Dr. Saunders, Boyd and Adelle DeWitt see the paradox, or feel conflicted at heart. I'm all over the map here. Let me rein it in.

What I'm playing at is that my favorite idea in "Echoes" was that the control-freak parent figures of the Dollhouse are incapacitated and have to rely on the capabilities they have taught their Actives. And it comes to bear, all of it, the special technical talents, the personalities built, the compassion shown, the traumas inflicted. Being a mom is a party a minute.

Young Ms. Caroline seems a little clueless or imagination-impaired. I'm not sure she rails about the caged animals or jarred feti long enough to know much about her conception of a soul; whatever her opinions, she misses the point, that Rossum Corp. "cares" very much about souls, in that they are deeply interested and invested. They are in the soul-making business. They do not "care" about souls in terms of nurturing, looking-after, empathizing, whatever-ing. I'm going nowhere very probing with this, it was just a nicely layered moment, Caroline wailing at the wall of caged animals, but soon she will sign up to join them.

Yes, "Echoes" finds its comedy in some of the same places as BtVS's "Band Candy" in that it gives the cast a chance to act goofy and out-of-character-but-in-character. It has this in common, as well, with the S6 episode "Tabula Rasa" and the Angel S4 episode "Spin the Bottle". Everyone pretending to be stoned is, erm, sort of funny, but it would likely be funnier if we'd had more time with the characters. Surprisingly, the joke is most jarring with regards to Mr. Dominic, because we've never seen him unclench his jaw or anus. Topher already has the perpetual munchies, so no big change, really.

Man, I would've liked to see Dr. Saunders on that wacky-drug. Only Mr. Dominic was inspired to blurt any particularly inappropriate secrets besides the mere fact that they have normal vulnerabilities, appreciate the arts and like junk food. I'm dying to get in that character's brain.

JS: Yes, what does it mean that the far margins of Topher's "loss of impulse control" = raiding the drawer of inappropriate starches, while others go completely batshit? A thoughtful forum post at TwoP pointed out that this is addressed in Topher's opening speech to DeWitt and Ambrose about the range of individual responses to drugs. I actually thought that one of the applications of the Rossum memory drug might be truth serum ("You can't remember where you were that night? Heeere...have a drink.") Storywise, the disinhibiting effects are supposed to show us new facets of every character and expand our mental maps of their personalities -- it's narrative experimentation on live human subjects, conducted for our benefit. But you're right that we don't know everyone well enough to have the richest possible reaction. Boyd plays piano? ...oh. Topher munches... pretty much what we expected (I was hoping for something randier or slyer from him, actually.) I felt that Adelle's antics told me the most about her character, insofar as any of us have a unified "character" to deconstruct. That woman doesn't want to be there. There is somewhere else she'd rather be.

To add another etymology to the pile, I looked up "glitch," and its true meaning is not simply "indeterminate problem" but "voltage surge." In its truest sense, glitching is only a problem for people who would like to keep the waters flowing smoothly, who don't want unexpected spikes of electricity or vitality. Anyone overfull of life or will or unpredictable spazzy energy could technically be said to be "glitching" according to social contracts that require more muted and cooperative behavior. That does raise the unending puzzle, for me, of what Mellie's original personality might be, and whether every Active experience (hers with Paul, Victor's with firefighting) is just percolating in a pool of Everythingexperience -- Active, Doll, free.

When these people wake up, they are going to be pissed.

(Looking back to something I said after episode 1, I'm finally getting a sense of the show's stance on "personhood" and "authenticity." It seems to acknowledge a basic split between being someone's bitch (Actives) and acting on your own power ("listening to yourself" as Alice does when refusing treatment). It assumes there is a core self, a core set of experiences, implicit memory (muscle and procedural memory) that take over even when explicit memory is Wiped, that cannot be purged. Caroline cannot be rooted out. But there's an infinite regression there. Alice/Echo may be "listening" to Caroline, but Caroline isn't some goddess. Caroline is just a woman. Who was she listening to? Who taught her, who programmed and influenced her? Why make war on animal testing rather than Guantánamo? What tripped her guilt switch? There are pre-Carolines, and pre-pre-Carolines... in the end we're all a mixture of influences.)

What about Caroline? I found her flat. I was disappointed, after all this excavation, to find that Echo's predicament may be more interesting than Caroline's.

CS: Yes, Caroline is a bit of a drag. Agree with the politics or not, activist types tend to bore and depress me. As the girls in Ghost World put it, "it's not like these are just groovy, concerned people who actually CARE about humanity... it's like the same as when guys are really into sports!... or computers!" It is interesting that Caroline was already adept at reading blueprints for access tunnels and designing her own recon missions. She was an action-adventure hero before she was contracted by the Dollhouse. The snippet of the Caroline/DeWitt seduction/entrapment scene in the first episode seemed to hint that Caroline had gotten herself in a heap of trouble, that DeWitt had some dirt on her, perhaps Caroline had a life of crime to scrub clean. That scene is vague by design; I wasn't just projecting onto it the forms of Faith Lehane or Angelus Ensouled. Here we learn that Caroline Saw Too Much, was in the Wrong Place and transgressed against the Powers, but all for virtuous cause. Her biggest crime, legally speaking, was probably breaking and entering and trespassing. I can't say I'm too disappointed, but admit an unfortunate predilection for redemption drama.

Hey, re: strictly plot-based developments, I've been poking around fan environs to see what topics of speculation are stirring imaginations, and a popular theory seemed to be that Adelle is an Active (the logic being that the person best qualified, most trustworthy to run the Dollhouse, would be Imprinted as such). Assuming Topher's evaluation of Yellow Drug N-Whatever is correct, "Echoes" indicates that we know the following are not Actives: Dominic, Langton, DeWitt, Brink.

I'm in fundamental agreement that Dollhouse thus far seems to be saying that an implicit Self exists, fights back, finds a way to emerge. This says a funny thing about teledrama, that the notion of continuous character refuses to be suppressed, even on a program supposedly about the flimsy reality of the self. I can't say I agree with Dollhouse, though, and I don't know that this idea will stand. The mechanics of the hundreds of ways Topher is twisting Dolls' minds are thankfully vague enough to leave the metaphor open. Key information we got this week: Actives do get their lives/personalities/memories back after their five-year mission (or... so they say), and it may not be so much that the phalanx of beeping machines can "Wipe" memories/personalities/"souls" as much as "inhibit", repress and "block" them. So maybe Caroline is still there, albeit under some thick concrete flooring... but only because Topher and Adelle ALLOW her to be there? See, if we push literally at this, it problematizes the metaphor; if we don't look at the plot details, it can derail the reading. This tension is what keeps good fantasy from becoming editorial screed. It seems directly related to my favorite impossible puzzle in Buffyverse stories (no, I will never shut up about this), the nebulous rules of vampires, their "evil"-ness, their personalities as related to who they are in life, and the mystery of the nature of a "soul". So Caroline pops up to help out Alice on this side of the looking glass, but Doll!Sierra's rape trauma also emerges to further damage CFDC!Sierra. November glitches into remembering Mellie, regardless of who she may have been before November. I would like to see Caroline freed from the prison of her own chemically walled-in mind, but ideal would be if she can drag along the experience and lessons of her weekly Imprints -- she signed the paper, she does the work, she deserves the rewards.

"Echoes" is largely about how the past is past, inaccessible for alteration or omission, cannot be Wiped because it reverberates into the present. The choices you made in the moment -- the ones Adelle groans about while chomping on crisps -- the ramifications eventually find their way into your hands again. They may give you a map to follow, bear you on swift wings (Echo lucks out this week, thanks to Caroline's misfortune), they may be so heavy a burden you cannot raise your arms (poor Mr. Dominic, it seems, worries about these Dolls far more than he can deal with). History screams back up at us from the memory hole, a sound impossible to push back down to the incinerator. The past echoes.

All right, what do you make of the sad case of Suspended Agent Ballard and Mellie? Is this guy bad at life, or what?

JS: I'd say life is being kinda bad to him. I know we like to razz this guy, but week after week, he persists against what we know to be impossible odds. His rescue-quest mirrors Caroline's own, but there's a patient, dogged, head-down quality to him that there we didn't see in Caroline (or haven't yet. Maybe we will in upcoming flashbacks). It's not the "act" in activism that bothers me -- we all need to figure out a way to act and live on behalf of our principles. It's the "ism," it's the preening. If a phantom Caroline motivates Ballard, it's a phantom Caroline, too, who motivates Caroline... a vision of a better self.

Wait till he finds out his girlfriend's a Doll, though. I wonder if he'd react the way I would -- that is to say, hide in the bathroom and cue the uncontrollable weeping. Nobody on this show has a true friend or confidante. The Echo:Sierra headshake is long in the past. Even the fondness (Boyd:Echo, for example) is one-sided. Intimacy and vulnerability are dead in the water. Even if you go in 100% willing to reveal yourself to someone, there's no one there to respond. Come back, Mellie! And I mean that in every possible sense of the words!

That said...what happens when monsters do escape? The section of Frankenstein (the novel, I haven't yet seen the movies) I still think back to is the monster assimilating all this new sensory information for the first time. He grapples with sounds, he peers into houses, he's plunged in confusion... nothing makes sense to him.

From the preview, I kinda doubt that next week's "awakening" episode will skew this way. Too bad. I almost wish it would.

CS: If/when Paul gets the note that he has no friends who are not robots, my guess is he's used to having his shoelaces tied together and can right himself, collecting some new manly battle scars as the trophy. If anything, relocating his rescue-fetish object onto Mello-tron may strengthen his resolve. We all hate to see a good cowboy become domesticated pet, which is why we love John Wayne walking away from the house at the end of The Searchers.

But hmm, Dollhouse is shaping up to be about finding one's inner strength, developing a workable sense of self, navigating and negotiating without sacrificing your power, free will and humanity. All three prior Mutant Enemy programs have been concerned with these problems, but part of that negotiation equation is the -- how do I put this without sounding like a cornish game hen? -- value of friends, found families, community. How, indeed, is anyone to find friends in the Dollhouse?

I missed the trailer for next week because my DVR thing was full of Antiques Roadshow and Judge Judy, so I had to watch DH on Hulu. Let me go lookit the commercial.

[Watches episode 8 commercial.]

What happens when your monster babies escape is that they haven't been nurtured and they lash out. Frankenstein's creature is even more as newborn than, say, remote-Wiped Echo in "Gray Hour", or anyone in Doll-state. The Creature is pre-lingual, and it goes through swiftly portrayed psychological development without hands-on parenting. I know it is a weird reference point, but the Rambo movie First Blood grapples with the consequences of honing and brainwashing a perfect warrior, then asking him to rejoin society, and the torment it causes to the thing-person you have made. These monsters either learn to resent their parents or hit a roadblock where they have not been taught how to love.

Looks like next episode the Dolls are waking up as their own previous adult selves, and in a prison environment where their basic needs are being tended (er, most of the time). So, like Neo yanked out of his bio-pod, first you freak out. Then you get royally pissed off.

JS: And then you begin the most difficult post-liberation work of all: constructing a world with its own foundation, its own integrity. Not just a refuge for the Dollhouse-wounded, a place to cower, but a place to put down roots.

Although, damn...I'd miss those massages too.

CS: Though I am not enamored of the character, some of the nicest "echoes" in this episode are the dramatic irony of Caroline shifting from activist to Active, and the attendant opportunities she may have to right social and political wrongs at her new job; free-thinker indeed may do more good while free of will. Campus hippie Caroline would not have been able to bring down Jonas Sparrow's cult, and indeed failed to stop Rossum Corp. where Alice/Echo/Caroline were able to at least curb the spread of their latest poison. The ultimate guinea pig is going to be one who learns to open her own cage.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Caritas Lost, Caritas Found

Andy Hallett

1975 - 2009

From the moment Angel enters the demon karaoke bar Caritas, in Season 2's opening episode "Judgment, the series is transformed. A watershed episode for several reasons, spreading new hues across the palette of the series' story imagination, from this moment forth, it erupts into philosophical full color.

The proprietor -- The Host, later named Lorne, Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan by birth -- reads auras via the subject's singing. And he is lime green, gay-coded, possessed of a lovely tenor and unquenchable thirst for sea breeze cocktails. Andy Hallett played Lorne with patience, kindness and a love of humanity that fairly bled compassion through his red contact lenses. Too often relegated to comic relief, Hallett would not let Lorne become catty or abrasive, and imbued his character's gabby, pop-music fixated patter with something that hoisted it beyond sass -- he communicated a sense that Lorne babbled in showtune references because he revered the beauty he had found in even the glossiest manifestations of human culture. Though new to our dimension, though younger than his vampire friend, though not even human, when it came to matters of the heart, Lorne was the wisest and most humane of Team Angel. And he was the only guy who could call Angel "Milk Dud".

On Angel, Hallett had a difficult task, an enormous amount of conflicting character to assimilate and convey, and very little space in which to maneuver. But he sang, carried simultaneous notes of humor and sadness, built this demon with a song in his heart (and his heart, er, in his butt) as a creature too generous toward everyone but himself.

Andy Hallett died of heart failure on March 29, 2009. He was 33 years old. So to Mr. Hallett -- to Krevelornswath of the Deathwok Clan, to the Host of Hosts -- raise a sea breeze. And please: fresh grapefruit juice. Which requires a real live grapefruit. One you must cut and squeeze, not pour from a can.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Active Engagement Casebook: Who's That Girl?

Recent fan speculation on the Dollhouse episode "Man on the Street" has it that one of the more compelling interviewees in faux-vérité framing sequences also appears as an unnamed Active a scant five minutes later. Perhaps brains are simply whirring into burnout due to an excessive number of plot revelations. More pertinent questions are the identity of the mole working within the Dollhouse (it's Dr. Saunders, duh, runner up being Topher's lab assistant), or whether such a person even exists or Agent Ballard is simply trapped in a 24/7 snipe hunting expedition. Nonetheless, if anyone can resist the subtleties of Whedon's grandmaster play and fun of a good conspiracy theory, it is not I. Exploding Kinetoscope offers screencaps for assistance.

These aren't the droids you're looking for. You can go about your business.

Move along.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.6 - "Man on the Street"

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 Engaged to play house with an internet mogul, but their happy moment is disrupted by Agent Ballard, who immediately becomes so flustered that the Active escapes. Busy day for Adelle DeWitt, as she has to cope with the revelation that Sierra has had sex while off-duty and in Doll state, deal with a Handler gone seriously out of hand, and monitor Ballard who is spilling his guts and making out with his neighbor, Mellie. In a flurry of twists, revelations and more confusion, Echo is dispatched to further beat up Ballard but also possibly reveals a mole working within the Dollhouse, "sleeper Active" Mellie gets active in some sexing and violencing, and Boyd punches out a jerk. A news report on the "urban legend" of the Dollhouse frames the events.

DOGHORSE, EPISODE 1.6, "MAN ON THE STREET": Two Guys Checkin' It Out

There are three flowers in a vase... Go.

CS: CALLED IT. I fuckin called it. Mellie and her lasagna are both Actives.

JS: Yes you did! I did not. I was a gasp machine for most of this episode!

So does it mean that a Doll can have simultaneous Imprints (awkward Mellie/streetfighter) or that Mellie is some sort of amalgamated Active - half former-self, half Doll? As you suggested, maybe it doesn't matter. All that matters is that she's under someone's control... and that a certain FBI agent, already terrible at his job, is about to get even worse!

CS: Until otherwise notified, I'll assume Mellie's Imprint just has a sleeper agent mode built into it -- like a real brainwashed spies!

I barely know where to start with this. We generally spend a lot of time discussing theme, story structure and the episode as think piece. Feel free to gush over "Man on the Street" as an entertainment for a little while.

It does truly feel as if Dollhouse has arrived. The episode takes place in the same apartments, offices and Dollhouse set, adding only a claustrophobic Chinese kitchen, a big empty house and the real-live streets of L.A. (don't get me started on the Buffyverse flashback thrills of seeing Dushku doing kung fu in a dark alley). The cast expands but a little. There is markedly less action spectacle -- lots of hand-to-hand combat, but no motorcycle chase, no burning buildings -- than some prior episodes. Yet "Man on the Street" is epic. It seems to announce a new television program.

I like Dollhouse's first four imperfect episodes, and I am not sorry that it took six installments to kick into overdrive. Those first six stories are smaller, somewhat formulaic but necessary. The Engagement-based tales did their work establishing the s-f concepts and the basics of characters and their dynamics... and even the base-level themes and talking points that we've spent a month unpacking. Much as you'd like to cut to the fun stuff, you cannot explode a building that hasn't been built. "Man" shoots tentacles out in all directions.

Also: How motherfucking good was Patton Oswalt?

JS: He was great! I loved how that scene, bookended by all this action, just went on and on, brazenly, unapologetically, and turned into a sort of mini-play. That's something I see as characteristic of JW -- everyone has to have his say, no matter how it interrupts or holds up the action -- you see this on a small scale in BtVS, where everyone uses 10X the necessary words (and the most circuitous route possible) to make a joke, just because the joke has to discharge that much energy -- and you see it in large scale with scenes like this. They could have blown through Mynor in five minutes, but they gave him twenty, and he poured himself a drink, and they uptripped us by making him just the prelude to a whole other pair of stories! I used to be crankier about these "lapses" (I see they're not lapses now) of proportion in storytelling and see them as huge ruptures/flaws, but now I can't get enough of 'em. They knock me on my ass. They show me what I've become accustomed to, the rhythms and contours I'm comfortable with, and then they overturn them, just as Ballard very showily upset that table (and got absolutely no masculinity points for doing so! A few cool fight moves aside, I love how much of Ballard's behavior just seems like a parody of "guy"-ness. He must really know what a bad FBI agent he is, to need to heave over a table!)

So, yes, Mynor. And the little carefully protected flame in Ballard's head, a flame in the shape of a Caroline, an adorable vanilla-candle flame in his head, a fucking fireball in person! It's so annoying when They don't turn out the way you imagined Them! And then our chorus of Angelenos! And the intricacy of Adelle's mind (my roommate and I paused the DVR right before Paul went to the restaurant to argue, for 20 minutes, all the different possibilities Adelle might have in mind - we came up with at least five)! And the loneliness of the Sierra-almost-molestation scene -- mundane, tranquil, repulsive, the way I suspect most of those scenarios play out.

Yes ma'am, the show got rather good! I might even consent to be seen in public with it! (Oh...like I am right now.)

CS: Whedon recently gave a press-conference-call, basically promising that Dollhouse would get funnier but to please stop wanting it to become hilarious, as it is "not that show." And that sounds right to me. The B plot of "True Believer", revolving around Topher's sputtering reactions to the realities of sexual biology, is comic in the moment, but ominous as a plot development. It feeds into a thematic darkness hanging over Dollhouse, where BtVS might be its opposite number -- you have to convince a new viewer that the sunny, charming concept is treated with an earned gravitas. Agent Ballard's grand masculine gestures, surface to core -- predisposition to fist fighting, furniture abuse, shrugging off of physical injury, White Knight complex -- have a similar function, and likewise evolve out of some of Whedon's greatest strengths. Angel constantly played a similar beat, loving to give the viewer a hero shot of Angel doing something impossibly cool then stumbling and whining. Mutant Enemy's tendency with how they treat their male heroes, undercutting the Hero He Wants To Be by pulling back the veil on the neurotic worrywart beneath, besides being funny, is not about condescension or humiliation or revealing all well-meaning men as frauds. Personally I find it encouraging and humanizing, and in breaking apart genre myth figures we are given more relevant and useful models and reflections of ourselves. I mean, you know how torturous, guilt-racking and maddening it must be to be Superman?

If "Man on the Street" is where the Whedon Voice supposedly emerges, I hope it is becoming clearer to people (critics? viewers? network execs?) what that means. I think explanation of what that voice "is" gets reduced to cutting but jokey, slangy dialogue and propensity for stories about young women doing jump kicks. It is more about an uncanny knack for reversing expectations in genre plotting, experimenting with the pace and structural possibilities of television serial narrative, ability to conjure scenarios that draw out unexpected emotions we rarely see articulated. Yes, "everyone has to have his say," and moreover, Whedon is one of those rare writers who actually understands that crucial Rule of the Game: Everyone has his reasons. The motivations may be withheld until it is right to reveal, but I never have to question if it is worth discussing why Langton or Topher or DeWitt would work for the Dollhouse; it is self-evident that no character is operating under vague assumption that they are Villain or Hero or serving a plot function.

So everyone in "Man on the Street" gets their say. Seems to me, since it is the title and all, that this is one of the things the episode is about, perhaps? A series of voices loud and small, informed and not, weighing in on the purpose and value and perils of the Dollhouse. Whose voice rings out most clearly in the end?

JS: Hmmrr. Whose voice did ring out most clearly? We had a range of reactions, we saw some extremes of defensiveness and vulnerability, we got to watch people (that is, actor people playing "real" people performing versions of themselves?) look inside themselves and manufacture some moments of candor for us. I think the Street clips served a few functions:

1) Frame/chorus/collage: they interrupted the linear plot-machine the way choruses do, for the reason choruses do: to hold up a mirror to the action, to alchemize the particular into the universal. They're outside the time-stream, they're looking on, and they're observing and lamenting something much larger and encompassing than the plotlines of a few particular people. (Of course, this chorus doesn't *know* it's a chorus, which makes it even more interesting. As individuals the interviewees are somewhat dumb, but collectively they hit on a larger truth.)

2) the clips expand the roster of the show from a few rival agencies/individuals to the larger public, acknowledge the world outside, recast the Dollhouse not just in terms of profit and criminality but in terms of its presence on everyone's myth-horizon...

3) they implicate us all, put the kibosh on Good v. Evil, Us v. Dollhouse, and turn it into the war between Us and Ourselves - this isn't just about Dolls and their jailers/exploiters, but the great mass of us who acquiesce to and bow to institutional and individual power (or would like to wield it over others)... we see some people give "correct" answers ("it's human trafficking!") but we see others take the chance to, essentially, disrobe on camera. The voice that rang out most for me was the teenager-ish girl who talked about love and said "[a Doll] could be lovely" (or something to that effect). The "where's the dotted line" girl was brassier, but didn't seem to be thinking it through; she was bitching more about her current situation than she was conjuring, imagining, make-believing a Doll. The "lovely" girl still kinda haunts me, actually. She seemed a-glaze, as if her mind were more experimental, more permeable, more open to inhabiting the fantasy and surrendering to it than the others were.

Onward. Another good point you made about masculine performance: in "breaking apart genre myth figures we are given more relevant and useful models and reflections of ourselves." I wonder if this operates in the same way for masculine and feminine icons. It seems to me that much myth-deconstruction involves taking men down (from their heroic pedestals) versus building women up (from their...zero-ness? from the void? from the scarcity of truly immortal and incandescent ancestors in fiction and onscreen?). It may be more interesting to watch a weakened man onscreen than a weakened woman because, female-action-hero series aside, strength and heroism seem more often to come packaged in male bodies and personae. But that also bounces off material in BtVS' S3 "Helpless" episode in which, her physical strength drained, Buffy has to improvise and gather her wits in a way that I also found very gratifying to watch. There it's not so much "female action hero" being taken apart as it is "action hero" and "action" itself.

In terms of the authority figures, I find Adelle fascinating -- she's supervisor to the Handlers and Topher, liaison to the clients, not so much motherly as GOVERNESSY to the Dolls (English accent helps) -- and what's with "fantasies may be what we sell, but they are not our purpose?" That in itself reveals far too much ambivalence about the mission. Maybe Adelle is Alpha's insider...

And as for taking apart and complicating the notion of "female victim," I found myself chokey watching both Sierra (previously seen as shitkicking Taffy) as doormat...and Mellie struggling pre-Activation. During our 20-minute DVR pause, we discussed how likely it was that Mellie was about to be brutally killed (and possibly raped beforehand) - a) whether it would happen, and b) if it did, how quickly the killer would be run over by a car or otherwise made to pay by the Storygods, Narrative Vigilantes. The rescues are perhaps overly neat: Sierra reads a book, Mellie gets her phone call; but, as you pointed out when I complained of "Earshot" in S3 BtVS, I'm sure these stories and experiences will rear their heads again, no matter how diligently Topher tries to erase them. Especially for Sierra.

I did find myself a bit Mellie-choly to learn that our sweet neighbor was remotely manipulated. I guess I was taken in by the niceness. Note to self: there's another archetype to watch out for: THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. She's achingly nice, she's great in bed, and she carries a baking tray at all times! (Except, uh, when she's in bed. Or in combat. Or otherwise Engaged).

CS: I keep hearing Sierra's handler, bound to a chair and bloodied, and demanding of DeWitt, who does not give a proper answer, as she is not required to: "Did you think this wouldn't happen?" He has his perspective on the Dollhouse, and it is a convincing argument that his violation of Sierra while she is lodged in some sort of vague pre-sexual, certainly inexperienced, developmental stage is not terribly different in spirit from the paid services administered to Dollhouse clients. The majority of the Men on Street interviews with men ended or began with sexual fantasies (unconscious homosexual wishes or personal Ida Lupino [!]), so how frequently do clients request an Active programmed as totally passive or even resistant, anyway? (This takes us to an icky place, huh? I'm not so sure the 'House would get that much sex business. The thrill is in the pursuit, the gamble, the dance, right? Dancing with robots is no fun.) Perhaps there is, after all, a fundamental difference between being an Active and being an unImprinted sex worker. The sex worker makes a series of choices in a series of moments, even if she perceives those as limited options bouncing off the walls of socioeconomic circumstance and bound up in her self-worth. This moment with Sierra's Handler hasn't been granted special privilege, but it resonates off the talking head interview with Institutionally Approved Expert Man, who concludes that if the Dollhouse is real, "we, as a species, are finished." This means Dollhouse activities, while we can draw parallels, are very different from prostitution or slavery: those practices are where we begin as a species. How, indeed, is it that Handler/Doll abuse has not occurred before? Or the lab techs not Imprinted an army of assassin Actives that will answer only to their respective Tophers? (Not Topher specifically. He seems to love the work and would not wish to jeopardize his fun.) How would this technology not become appropriated for creating supersoldiers, worker drones/slaves, or puppet governments? How could anyone expect this power not to end in species holocaust?

This is the literal problem of the s-f story of Dollhouse, but its larger "purpose", as DeWitt might say, is to illustrate that this is always-already how the world works. Adelle's dark explanation that fantasies are the business but not the Dollhouse's purpose is at least triple folded; 1) "shoes" are what Adidas sells, but "shoes" are not its "purpose" either, 2) teaser that Dollhouse HQ has some big scary design and that Engagement contracts just provide cashflow, 3) from the meta balcony, it sounds like the fantasy of these adventure stories is not truly the purpose of Dollhouse itself, though I admit to spending too much time on this particular balcony.

"People always need slaves" comes with the conflicted addendum about voluntary enslavement -- what does that Woman on the Street's protest mean, exactly? That no one would voluntarily sign up for Doll duty? Maybe so, it appears in episode 1 that DeWitt has coerced Caroline into signing on. All the DH employees are surely otherwise unemployable or forced into service. That all slaves are, at least in a sense, complicit in their enslavement? Or that we, one and all, are enslaved by our pre-birth hailing, born into the Matrix, rats in a maze with no designer? Surely Woman on Street did not mean this, but perhaps Mutant Enemy means this.

This is Paul's episode, as we might say "The Target" was a Boyd episode, a story of what the Dollhouse means to Ballard, though he is not self-aware enough to vocalize it. For me it is Mr. Joel Mynor's moment of having his say that sings out the loudest, for he has the longest solo and his plaintive note ends the episode. Mynor does not say it expressly, but for him, Dollhouse activities are beyond good and evil. In any extant ethical framework, the Dollhouse is "wrong", the wrongness of imposing one's will upon others; meanwhile, any extant ethical framework imposes itself on every man, on every street. Dollhouse exists, Mynor finds a use for its services, and he uses it. Ballard, Mynor argues, has a need for Dollhouse as well, it exists, so he has to stop it. Once we see through the thin paper of our social contracts, this is not about right or wrong; we just open the Dollhouse and learn about urges.

I spoke to another friend, who agreed that the final moments were moving -- Mynor's Engagement being completed, aching ballad on soundtrack, slow-mo hand-holding between a widower and Echo Imprinted as his lost wife -- but was concerned that the episode plunged into serious exploration of body politics, power relationships, existential paranoia, then copped out in favor of sentiment. And I admit, I more than misted up at that ending. Not for the poignancy of a brief reunion between parted lovers, but the far too human frailty of an empty man trying to fill his heart back up, even if it is with fantasy. If Buffy once pleaded to Giles "Lie to me," and found no comfort there, Sartre would explain the problem. You cannot really lie to yourself. Might not work if you ask someone else to do it for you, either.

JS: Nicely said. To weave all this back into the discuss from last week, "True Believer", with its collision of half a dozen different beliefs/compulsions/rescue missions at the cult compound, also did its part to present Dollhouse's world -- and our world -- as a centerless mêlée of opposed interests, purposes, goals...and ferocities. Realpolitik writ large and small. Everyone is self-interested, yes, even Boyd and Ballard. I did find myself wondering about Adelle's "purpose" in reprimanding the Handler, especially given the accusation by Dominic, last week, that she "likes" Echo a little too much -- either she's the plant, the secret advocate trying to bring the place down, or it's just pragmatic, a matter of control -- she's setting a precedent, laying down the law. Sending him to be killed by Mellie isn't vindictive -- it's just efficient, ingenious. Like using up all the ingredients in the fridge. No leftovers . And, as you say, the whole world is like this, Dollhouse's and ours.

Now, what I'm about to say is not to detract from the wonderful fantasy storytelling on BtVS (and I haven't yet seen any of Angel). But do you think that where this show might break new ground, represent a real refinement and synthesis of JW's favorite themes, is in the fact that there is no need for Demons with a D here? Every demon has a human face, or lurks behind the facelessness of an organization. You and I have both seen a version of the "look in this box" joke -- you at that museum in San Francisco, I in a little restaurant in Germany. Mine said "look inside to see our greatest treasure," yours said "look inside to see a horrible monster." We both looked in and saw mirrors reflecting our own faces. The angels and demons won't be coming to visit from the outside this time. They're already here.

Non-segue to a a note on Ballard and Caroline: one of the highlights of this episode was Mynor's accusation that Ballard is fixated on a pliant imaginary woman rather than a real woman made of flesh and will and opposition and, well, all the problems that human beings pose to each other. Mynor accuses Ballard not only of fixation but of sexual interest in her, but it really strikes me as more of a courtly quest, the thought of Caroline honing his sense of purpose to a laser pinpoint (of course, it's true that certain people's exteriors awaken us to our purposes more readily than others'...) As with most quests -- releases of urge? ways of gathering and directing our energy? the longing to combine Isak Dinesen's two prizes, "feeling with absolute certainty that you are doing the will of God" and "feeling a surfeit of strength"? -- fantasy and libido and ambition and the conscious need for meaning are all mixed up.

Aside: I wish it were already possible to watch Dollhouse on DVD, sans commercial, with no Fox logos, no sexy voice whispering, "Dollhouse will be back in 90 seconds," no Mountain Dew commercials in between -- although, damn, that Lincoln-Douglas one is funny. But maybe it's fitting that the show itself, as we're experiencing it even on DVR, is part of this larger visual/technological mosaic being sold to us, seared into us, shined into our eyes.

CS: Save that last thought for later.

Buffyverse stories, for as often as they traffic in making metaphor of their beasts, always do eventually peel back the protective layer, expose the bleeding heart. And they, too, have stories with all-too-human villains and heroes, but I won't step on your spoiler-toes. Dollhouse does still need its s-f trappings, conspiracy thriller paranoia and action setpieces to explore its human-scale problems.

That's funny, I was also thinking that in his Hannibal Lecter Sees Through Clarice scene, Mynor may not have pegged Ballard entirely. Or, rather, he's projected his own fantasy, or pushed into his imagined Ballard a little too far... he's not necessarily correct about everything (the Japanese had the Zeroes, after all). The agent's quest never seemed obsessive enough to be an ultimately sexual fantasy, even a sublimated one. It has reminded me of similar fate-bound FBI agents' missing persons hunts on Twin Peaks and The X-Files, also about courtly love, familial love and/or spiritual love. It was plenty insightful of the little man to simply belittle the rescue fantasy that is driving Ballard... though what, really, is wrong with that? Mynor is right that Ballard is silly, outmatched, his fists and guns tactics impotent against invisible enemies, but the placement of a personalized face on atrocities too large to comprehend is a powerful thing. Mynor may or may not be criticizing Ballard's motivation, even weighing it against his own, the quest of courtly love is nobler than wallowing in nostalgia. But he's banking on it wounding his opponent.

But something else happens after the interrogation in the empty house, and this is where Mutant Enemy and Whedon's hero-men are more than just emasculated or deconstructed or objects of fun. They are often "really" on difficult missions to come to terms with their feelings, a battle to come to grips with a new form of manly sensitivity (and special thanks to the Mutant Enemies for ensuring that Tahmoh Penikett must go on this journey without his shirt on). Ballard goes home, he tells Mellie about his day, and he kisses her. She blurts out/half swallows a plea: don't kiss me and think of Caroline. But "I wasn't," Paul says, and it appears to be the truth. I believe he was thinking of Rebecca Mynor. He was thinking of Joel Mynor's lost moment, and trying not to miss his own. Mellie and Paul -- poor suckers, perhaps, or maybe, just maybe we are all broken -- but even DeWitt has to admit, however tinged with dramatic irony: they're in love.

A Doll can be lovely after all... but it helps if you didn't pay for the privilege. Surely this problem will cause the neighborly neighbors no end of turmoil. Nobody can say they missed their moment.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.5 - "True Believer"

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 senator seeking to bust up a weirdo religious group with the help of a gung-ho ATF agent enlists the Dollhouse to send an undercover Active into the cult's compound. Echo has her eyeballs converted into webcams, and is sent into the lion's den. Meanwhile, at home, Topher notices that Victor is getting erections during D-house shower time, so the nerd and Dr. Saunders roll tape and take notes on inappropriate tumescence. In other news, Agent Ballard gets a lead when he sees Echo on TV, but is not fast enough to do a damned thing about it.



Echo 1,
fidelity of depiction of religious psychology in pop TVtainment: 0.

Chris: That score has always been Zero.

JS: Why do you think that is? Is it an observer/observed problem? That the very minute the cameras roll on these actor/impostors, the undermining has already begun? That the very act of representation, minute by minute, frame by frame, weakens and pokes holes in any authoritarian worldview? (Passion plays and Christmas pageants aside,of course).

Certain religious traditions (it could be argued) encourage critical thought, dialogue, disagreement, engagement with texts, plurality... but these don't screen test as well as KRAZY KULTS. It's not that we're fascinated with the more mundane social/cultural apparatuses of religion as they play out around the world and across time. We're fascinated (and FOX knows we're fascinated) with the sexy, even the more "feminine" elements of religio-wackness... the woozy groupthink, the hidden (and not-so-hidden) eroticism, the intimate touch and speech, the surrender, the mindcontrol... the Wiping? How well did that analogy go over, do you think?

CS: Well, that's a lotta big issues...

Enemigo del Mutante loves to tackle the big quandaries of the human condition, but shies away from two of the thorniest patches: religion and politics. I don't think it is because Whedon and friends are chicken, but have other things on their minds, and maybe know that when they touch those knots, they tend to get tangled worse. Whedon stories cut deep and explore the holes like spelunkers trying to cause as much pain as possible on the way down. Charitably, maybe he realizes the bugbears of politics and religion deserve more thorough discourse than he can cram into an hour. Uncharitably, maybe he's not very good at it? When BtVS tackles major organized religion it is always dealing with zealotry, and tends to bellyflop. Firefly and Serenity dip into some fuzzy global (ahem, galactic) politics.

Seems to me that we're also interested in (read: sickly fascinated by, terrified of) the "masculine" in NutJob Cults: the wrath of a paternal shepherd, the guns and physical abuse, the charisma of Great Man figures, the repressive state apparatus of violence that backs up the ideology like a baseball bat at the ready. Cult stories are interesting simply because they are an inherently sensationalistic real world phenomenon. Extreme human behaviors make for exciting stories, though it is very rare to see a story in which the cult has a coherent internal logic or belief system. The heart of what makes cults tick is boring, complicated or disconcerting, it is not entertaining to go there. Like pop culture's fascination with serial killers, child molesters, gangsters and government "conspiracy", our entertainments about cults rarely slosh about in the mundane reality, instead replace it with a lot of raving, screaming and shooting.

The goose-egg score is not entirely accurate (A Charlie Brown Christmas is very much about yearning for meaning, the comforts of faith both difficult and easy, and the poetics of belief -- note too, it is about the breakdown of a pageant). Is the question why there aren't massive amounts of pop culture actively engaging in religious dialogue? Film and television are called industries for a reason. While they regularly produce art which can challenge us in various ways, there's no money in alienating an audience. This sounds more cynical than I intend it to or believe to be accurate. There is the related circumstance that I think very few TV writers and producers are personally religious, are interested in that part of the human experience, or, frankly, have much to say about it. And what kind of stories should they be telling about religion? Whedon calls himself an "angry atheist" in interviews, and while I'm loath to drag in authorial statement as evidence, he tends to villainize (and on BtVS literally demonize) religion rather than engage in honest dialogue. Too bad, as so many of his other concerns are directly linked to religious problems.

You mentioned to me that "True Believer" reminded you of an X-Files episode. Doubtless you are thinking of the season 4 atrocity "The Field Where I Died". I believe you've seen me do my X-Files party trick: within 5-30 seconds of seeing any scene from any episode, I can give you the title and a plot summary. Anyway, "True Believer" was written by Tim Minear, Mutant Enemy's second greatest writer, whose Angeland Firefly episodes give Whedon a run for his money. Before that, Minear served as executive story editor on The X-Files, and while he didn't write the Branch-Davidians+past-life-regression love story "Field Where...", he has certainly seen it. He did, however write the X-File "Mind's Eye", which is about a blind woman whose sightless eyes are receiving images relayed from the retinas of a serial killer; a sort of inside-out take on "True Believer"'s s-f rewrite of the spiritual visionary.

Though Minear is reworking plot elements yanked from the files of his old job, "True Believer" is more entertaining and has more sophisticated things to say than "Field" (X-Files, though it jabbers constantly about faith, truth and belief, slathers on Christ-metaphor like marmalade, demonstrates no understanding about any of these things). So I know we're both interested in myth, this episode deals with some personal favorites, and grapples with meaning and application in ways I find exciting (i.e.-- this may be a long one). Minear has upped the ante for how deep the intellectual game of a Dollhouse episode can go, how funny it can be, and-- wow, there's just something sharp in every scene, and a thematic symmetry either lacking or arch in previous episodes.

Re: the last, I think it's less about the Wipe than the Imprint... The crux of the issue is why this episode is called "True Believer".

JS: Sure. Re: Wipes, though, I was struck by the blatant superimposition of the Senator/Adelle's hypnotic cult-descriptions ("they're ignorant, innocent, blissful, etc.") over images of Dolls doing their calisthenics. It seemed like a Teaching Moment to me, perhaps network-inserted or -influenced? Dollhouse has a strange relationship with its own gravitas, with the seriousness of the story it's telling and its particular crusade on behalf of The (female) Individual. It's obviously got a big heart and conscience, and a lot of love for the character(s) it's redeeming, but it can't furrow its brow too hard, or it'll get eyebrow cramp. As you predicted a coupla weeks back, it seems finally to be turning into a Joss Whedon show. I let out several ecstatic snorts during this episode, and the comedy of Topher balking at searching for boners on tape fits seamlessly into a larger horror-comedy arc of Topher realizing what the hell he's doing with human bodies, wills, "souls." If comic distress ends up being Topher's escape hatch or jolt to the conscience, putting him on the road to redeemage, I'm definitely sticking around. As I write that, or think about the cute scenes between Ballard and his coworker, I recognize also the function that humor seems to play in BtVS (though I'm only three seasons in) -- even when it's digressive, it's never beside the point. It provides texture and it uncorks serious emotions and traumas that mightn't find their way to the surface otherwise.

All of which is to say: the most serious and seeking episode thus far also has the best jokes!

CS: Indeed, the whole B story is a comedy plot (remarkable if only because Dollhouse has not been very funny), the squeamish tech nerd teamed up with the matter-of-fact physician. Dr. Saunders is also coming into focus as a woman conflicted about the duties of the Dollhouse (wonder how deeply?) but seems to find several (rationalized) reasons to show up for work; her duty is to look after the individual bodies of Dolls, while Topher is delighted with the work in abstract but loses his cool when confronted with the people in his care as individuals. So great comedy, this scientific Abbott and Costello fast-forwarding and hunting for erections as if documenting wild creatures in their habitat.

Yes, I'd forgotten the direct correlation drawn between the brainwashed and the Dolls. Because every Minear and Whedon scene seems to do at least double work, I was overwhelmed during much of "True Believer". Tracing another strand through this, the same comparison draws together the central Garden motif, paralleling the Pier One nest of the Dollhouse and the chain link fortress of the cult compound, both supposedly idyllic havens populated by innocents. I can talk Gardens, Serpents and exile all day, so stop me if you've heard this one before...

JS: Have you heard this one? A serpent went into a bar and bought this woman an appletini. Everyone got kicked out!

Okay, forget I said that. So I just watched the eppo again and, like you, am reeling a little thinking about all the Saviors and attempted Salvations (by the Senator, the ATF agent, Ballard, Dominic, Langton, Sparrow, Esther/Echo), all the different gods/loyalties/worldviews working at cross-purposes, the parallels between Apostle Paul and Apostle Esther/Echo, questions of Sight v. Perception, who's Watching whom...and, of course, your question of what makes a True Believer. Who won the sash for Truest Believer this week? What did (s)he Believe in? What proved the strength of that Belief (a question I've often wanted to pose to religious friends) -- consistency, unswervingness, keeping all philosophical bases covered, or the commands of the "heart"? Commitment to mission (ATF agent might be the most committed of anyone)?

And who won the sash for Truest Doubter?

CS: Ha, I love that Dollhouse seems to just reduce us to listing out puzzling questions! Okay, I'll bite the apple, but it may induce more questions. It is not completely uncommon for pop entertainment to nab names, half-baked symbol and plots from world mythology and religion, which makes people like me scribble down notes, muttering "Significant!", but it rarely coheres. "True Believer" plays a tricky game vis-à-vis religious mythology. A half-dozen Thrilling Tales of the Tanakh are invoked, some play out to the end, but the point is a dialectical wrestling match. And, as always, I think Echo comes out on top on both counts, as the true believer, the true doubter, the faithless, the faithful, and the one who acts in accord with what would most please the gods. Second place goes to... Dr. Saunders?

There's a lot of saviors here, but there are a lot of Serpents. Most of those two lists are comprised of the same names, but tack on Sierra (or the co-ed Dollhouse showers, or maybe just Victor's penis) to the roster of potential Snakes. To halt all the coyness, I do love the Eden story because I read it as a tough-love acknowledgment that human beings are fuck-ups, sex maniacs, idiots who find learning irresistible, curious, mischievous, disobedient and destined to forever make themselves miserable. The way I read Genesis -- and I'm not alone in this -- God has clearly set us up for a fall, and the snake is His insurance policy. We're getting kicked out, one way or another. Which begs a few (thousand) questions: why give us Paradise to which we cannot return? Why demonize the Snake? Why evict us from Eden at all? Why is God always saying one thing, doing another, asking the impossible, instilling in us ridiculous compulsions that cause us to fail Him all the goddamn time?

Insofar as this is what "True Believer" is about -- snakes aiding in causing havoc in Gardens -- we've got Jonas pegging Esther/Echo as a snake for disrupting his tranquil compound. What he thinks this means is: Eve, bitch, you're ruining everything. He's right, at least in that Echo's presence helps bring the wrath down on his paradise. But the thing is the raid is orchestrated by powers larger than Echo, and so is Echo. Like the Snake, Echo's a tool, the servant doing the dirty job someone had to do: it is not on the Snake's authority that we leave the Garden. So bless these Snakes for saving us from this paradise, even if sometimes the fruit works and sometimes they have to punch us in the face and drag us out. Because clearly God does not want us there forever. He's yelling through these serpent-servants: MOVE your ASS. And why? If you stay in here, you're going to die.

In the flaming cult compound, the sheep will burn alive. In Eden the death is not literal but spiritual... hmm, maybe less "death" than a non-starting life. We'd be in perpetual Doll State. No thoughts, with nothing to think about. No growth, no potential to realize, no art, no human adventure. With no pain, there is nothing to make us appreciate a state of grace. The Gardener's motivation is unknowable (so is Adelle DeWitt's!) -- maybe He loves us enough to let us suffer, maybe He selfishly wants to be appreciated more -- but the result is the same. We can't. Stay. Innocent. And in the second Eden of "True Believer", neither can the Dolls, pointedly illustrated by Victor's erections. It's nobody's "fault", there's no error but the presumption that a paradise can be constructed and maintained.

What I'm getting at is that Esther and Jonas work their way through this story, the cult leader reading the tale one way, but Echo manifesting it in a different, more productive way: the Snake as Savior. Or if not quite that, she at least sets the clan on the road they must travel. What are they going to do? Where will we go? I dunno. But you have to move your ass anyway. In Whedon's reckoning -- and, I confess, in mine too -- there is little difference between cosmic salvation and being ordered to change, move, be free. So Echo wins the trophy for Best Serpent of God.

So yes, we've also got Paul. We've got Esther. And we've got three boys who did not catch fire, and their angelic companion. As Artie Johnson sort-of asked on Laugh-In: Very interesting? Or stupid?

JS: We'll talk about that fire in due course! My roommate and I have been chattling about it for the last couple days. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes on Jonas's part, especially given how painstakingly he's set up. I was actually driving at Jonas perhaps being the truest Doubter, the most forlorn and haunted Unbeliever, in the episode. How many times does he doubt and test Esther? Three - in his first encounter with her outside, in the interrogation room, and at the moment of the raid when he strikes her. (Okay, maybe I love my triads a little much!) He's a man of little faith...and many guns. In fact, this contributed oodles toward developing my sympathy for him - I was moved by him and his commitment to his Garden (regardless of how many, ahem, Seedlings he must have been tending in his old Garden.)

To add to/recapitulate the Snake/Savior discussion in my own way, I revisited your commentary on Episode 2 and your conviction that Ballard is being led a merry dance by the Dollhouse, thence to our exchange about Descartes and Deceivers. As you hint, everyone in this Dollworld is someone's chump: the ATF agent Deceives the agency and Langton, Mellie and Alpha (who I now believe are in cahoots) Deceive or at least manipulate Ballard, Dollhouse/Esther/ATF Deceive Sparrow, Esther's own brain Deceives her as to the source of her visions, Echo has little (conscious) notion of the powers that encircle her, etc. And this leads into some of the epistemological problems lurking in this episode, questions of Sight vs. Perception vs. Insight, of How to Know and what's worth Knowing, and who, in this tangle of surveillance and facial scans and evidence collection and data-entry (Team Science???) and dream-vision and Bible-consultation and miracle-engineering (Team Religion/Mysticism???) comes out on top.

I'm not cool with the science/religion dichotomy as it plays out in macrodiscourse, and become quite tired whenever I hear it trotted out. But the more I think about it, the more I see Esther's unblinding as a sort of mini-...Enlightenment. As in the Enlightenment we read about in school. A sea change in the way Western culture processed new information, interpreted evidence, distributed attention, honored experiment, reached conclusions... these issues, to me, lie at the core of understanding the so-called war between "scientific" and "religious" viewpoints... and in negotiating the "unblinding" of Esther.

To develop this, let me bring in the man Esther mentions in the car, Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St. Paul, otherwise known as St. Killjoy... sorry, Paulie. Paul of the Bible is a brave, resourceful, perseverant workaholic and I gotta respect his balls, even if I have no use for his advice. Anyway, there are superficial parallels between their stories: both experience temporary "blindness" (Paul's is three days long, Esther's lasts decades), both have their sight restored, both strengthen the faith of the various communities they encounter. What really blindsided me (har har) were the differing results of their "illuminations." Unbeliever Saul lodges his belief in a deity, Jesus, becomes His instrument, becomes the exemplar of the lone, charismatic, renegade, (crackpot?) preacher asking people to believe in what lies beyond the visible, the tangible, even the imaginable or fathomable: "...we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man" (Acts 17:29). In testifying of his own conversion -- an experience only he had access to -- Paul leads people deep into themselves, to a place wholly insulated, pre-rational, deep into their own subjectivity, to a place untouchable by reason. He leads them to the place already inhabited by Believer Esther - who, although sweet and intuitive, is still a bot, still uttering seductive speeches programmed into her. At last, with Jonas's strike, she has true Sight, not just retinal sight but Understanding battered into her - and what does she see? What does she smell? What does she sense?

Fire. Fire all around her. Danger. Physical danger. Mortal danger. Not the promise of heaven, not the consolation of the angels (Langton is the only "angel" she'll see), but the danger of this one and only mortal life coming to a close, not only for her, but for the people around her. The time for tuning out the senses, tuning out earthly life, refusal to engage with matter and with physics, with earthly life and existential challenge, refusal to use her cerebral cortex (in conjunction with her brainstem, of course) is over. Saul leads his audiences out of their wretchedness to new "life" In the omnipresent and invisible phantom menace, Jesus Christ... Esther/Echo leads people out of different flames into a different kind of life altogether. Though she claims that "God brought her with a message...she doesn't think God let her see again so she could just watch..." (an echo of Paul's "I do not account my life of any value or as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course..." Acts 20:17) -- the truth is, as Jonas rightly said, she's leading those people into a world hard, cold, violent, challenging. A world where they will lack the protection of a god, where they'll have to develop their intelligence, grow themselves a new purpose, a new way of getting through the day. Where pure mysticism just won't cut it. Where other faculties will have to be developed, other philosophies embraced.

Esther still uses God-words, but hear them for what they are. God no longer rules that woman -- not completely, anyway. He's already losing his hold on her... as the Dollhouse is losing its hold on Echo. Gods are dying all over the place. Some are already kaput.

CS: Yeah, it is impossible to know exactly where Jonas is coming from. He's written as a canny leader, and it is reasonable for him to test Esther as a potential law-of-man-enforcement mole. Hauling her into the midst of the weapons cache and shoving a gun in her face is not, of course, the wisest or sanest course of action, however (or most practical; good chance that Esther, with her heightened senses, would know perfectly well that she's in danger and flinch anyway). Whatever the case, however sincere his faith, Jonas falters when he sets fire to the barn. In his stated motivation, Sparrow tries to summon the angel that saves Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego -- that is, he tries to "force a miracle". Miracles are God's last ditch effort in extreme circumstances, but faith precludes the requirement of miracles for confirmation. On the other hand, if Sparrow is a complete sham, then he sets the fire to kill himself and punish his flock, knowing full well that God will not intervene. Third possibility, since we know nothing of the cult's theology, Sparrow may simply not believe in an interventionist God at all, but believe he is still doing God's work -- taking a roundabout path back to an unsullied paradise. In any case, his faith falters, he fails as True Believer. Too bad, because before his freak-out of the fiery furnace, it was rather interesting that in a rare stance for pretend TV cult leader (or a real cult leader!), he did not claim supernatural messianic powers or divine revelation.

And what's the Senator's request? What does Langton say is Esther's amazing skill?: she's a True Believer. It plays as a kind of satisfying and smart-ass joke that Echo's pre-programmed faith is greater or equal to the (presumably) programmed faith of the cult members. This is the latest in Dollhouse's unyielding string of questioning, question being "What's the difference?" The answer is that there is no difference. Religion is a social construct, and understanding this can be impossible for the faithful but also drive the faithless away from the mother's heartbeat of the power source; "True Believer" seems to point the way back. This is where I think it may be actually useful that "True Believer" is about an extremist group, because it underlines the difference between the law systems of religion and the rainbow-with-no-end of engaged spirituality. If the avowed angry atheist will not deign to engage with the myth because of how others have read it before him, he misses out on the alchemic gold of Story... as does the fundamentalist. The only follow-through is to turn your back on all gods and all their stories, and the gods that live in all stories (that one, I suppose, is Promethea?). So Sparrow has his dogmatic reading of the Eden story (Garden=good, Snake=Devil, exile=punishment), but Esther/Echo shows him another interpretation -- that while we're in this world we need to Engage with it.

I was puzzled for awhile what Paul's blinding revelation, Shadrach & Friends escaping Nebuchadenezzar's bonfire, and the Biblical Esther have in common, or why "True Believer" invokes them. We needn't get into messy details (and I'm sure we both have some, er, issues with Paul), but they're all game-changers and liberators of a sort. They are also all persuader figures. Paul hammers away as dogged preacher, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stand their ground and their salvation is a vision unto itself, and Esther... Esther is able to incite positive change and demonstrate heroism because of her special position as a woman with intimate proximity to the king. Are we glimpsing the fore-shadows of Echo leading her people out of the Dollhouse?

Ignoring the details of Paul's teachings, the parallel is nice because in his gift of de-visioned Vision, he teaches that it is not the biography of the historical Christ that is important but the teachings: don't get hung up on the literal, but listen to the beat of the story... Then Dollhouse flips St. Paul's script, as rather than faith alone saving us, the Imprint of faith, wherever it comes from, is being used to force our hand. You can fall into madness or despair when confronted with the thin skin of reality, realize how much your world runs on construct, fairy tale, Imprint and bullshit. Like the Bible, it's all make-believe and metaphor, but that doesn't mean it's not useful in a pinch. Doesn't mean our world is invalid for being built on stories we tell ourselves.

Whew, we've shortchanged Esther, but what'cha gonna do? When the flames clear, there she is, safe and sound. Her name's different. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were renamed, too, and Boyd isn't an angel, but what's the difference? Esther was never that hung up on faith and impressing a god, though like Paul confronted with Artemis, like Shad, Mesh and Abed, like Nebucchadenezzar learned, sometimes it's good to know which gods are too tough to fuck with. Esther dug deep in the moment and saw that some human beings needed help, and she could help.

Like getting a boner when you look at Sierra, some things may just be our default settings.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.4 - "The Gray Hour"

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

The Engagement: The Greek government contracts the Dollhouse to swipe back stolen hunks of the Parthenon from shady art smugglers. During the art heist, Echo is remotely Wiped via cell phone, erasing her identity as smart alec safecracker Taffy, and leaving the Active barely active. Imprinting Sierra as a second Taffy does little good. Topher waves his hands around and yelps, but Adelle gives him a promotion and reveals that Alpha is still alive. This is not a surprise, because we saw him in the first episode. In a parallel subplot, Agent Ballard spins his wheels.


Chapitre 4
"The Gray Hour"

Shorter, more theme-based letter this week, on the difficulties of converting a reservoir of potential into a fait accompli. It's hard, isn't it? Hard when you know you have talents and abilities, and impossible when, like Echo...you don't know. Watching Echo go to pieces in her soon-to-be tomb, and spend her last minutes retiring into the alternate worlds presented to her via painting, image, mirage -- watching her float, untroubled by a strong will to survive -- made its grain of sense. Echo has no abilities (that she knows of) to "prove" in her hour of death; I suspect that even many people who possess them lack the will to use them, would have folded up and died. Rather than pick up a gun, they would have allowed their comrade to shoot them.

So who "performed" best tonight under pressure? Whose special (Imprinted, Innate, what's the diff?) abilities bore up?

1) TOPHER: I tremble to imagine this child as a child. Like Faith, with her quasi-magical thinking about her Slaying gift, Topher has the normal wunderkind problem of defining himself in only one language - of success, breakthrough, triumph. Failures do not compute, aren't even part of the plan... which makes him useless in crisis. "We've woven more than one thread of unflappable in there," he says, but he didn't spare a thread for himself, or the foresight to anticipate problems. Of course, worrying about Echo's welfare would be too out of character for him to even imagine.

2) TAFFY (as embodied by both Sierra and Echo): "A quiet, head-down kinda life." Combines thorough training and intelligence with necessary detachment - doesn't connect "potential" to omnipotence, understands that in every showdown with the world, with physics, with time, with circumstance and with contingency, there are no guarantees. On a metaphorical level, during the transfer of expertise from Sierra-Taffy to Echo -- during the alchemy of potential into Action -- things didn't go right, because things don't always go right. Sometimes potential goes unrealized. Sometimes it doesn't yield the results it shoulda. In the end, ability is no more than probability that you'll make things better and master the situation. (Adelle, for all the recent disasters at the Dollhouse, seems to understand this, and, insofar as she's able to bring out the best in her underlings, seems to be a levelheaded boss).

3) ECHO - The tabula rasa can learn mantras ("I'm Taffy and I know how to get us out of here...I know how to open the door"), she can listen to instructions, she has animal instinct (a long shot which doesn't work out so well for antiquities-guy or bloodthirsty comrade #1), and she does, it turns out, have a distinguishable self, a collection of tendencies and preferences and biases that ebb and flow in time. She has enough sense of "rightness" to say, "[Woman in painting] doesn't look right," the sensitivity to say "I have a different name [in the painting]," the wit to perceive that someone is "broken," the imagination to be disturbed that there is no sky in prison. We get to learn a little something about our girl for the first time. And action, when it finally stirs in her, is not self-interested (was this her Altruistic Engagement after all?)

In the end, Echo's not actually relaxing in a peaceful womb-tomb - even Wiped, she's still poised at the center of a situation where she's about to let a whole lotta people down. She may not understand this consciously, but the bleeding man at her side is enough of a kick in the butt. The needs of others, with their insecurities and their bleeding torsoes, can be a huge pain in the ass; they can also be magnets that draw from us our greatest performances.

* * * * *


"The Gray Hour": Security System Down

There is a major sandtrap built into the cautionary s-f fable. Too often an excellent non-dystopian thought-experiment story is set-up, we are shown a marvel of the future extrapolated from possible present, then asked to ponder the moral implications. "What is wrong with this picture?" is the game. The mistake made by weak writers is to imagine that the technology could be fallible, and it goes haywire and kills people. Don't invent things, because they'll go crazy!

Now, that sounds like a certain Modern Prometheus, I know. Sounds like, but only in the shallow read, and in the movies (though I dearly, dearly love those movies). The real sin of Victor Frankenstein is being a deadbeat dad. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, abandons his child. Depending on our interest in theological speculation, it may be God's real sin as well, but this is neither here nor there.

Things that sort of fall into this trap: movie of I, Robot. Westworld. 2001 (?). Myriad Killer Computer episodes. Movie of Jurassic Park. Most Frankenstein movies. Minority Report. Etc.! If there is a plot element of Dollhouse that strikes me as weak (some others are merely cliched!), it is the frequency of the question "what happens when the Imprint/Wipe system fails?" It leads to exciting story possibilities, but the from thinking point perspective, the harder, more intensive probing happens when the question is "what goes wrong when the Dollhouse does its job correctly?"

But hmm, I'm speculating on DH as speculative fiction. That means it is working, because it is making me dream out in different directions!

Dollhouse really uses the fractures in Dollhouse protocol to explore the ideas inside the dolls and the house. You know, Crichton's novel Jurassic Park isn't just about punishing science for raising the dead or a sick joke about evolution, it is a speculative exploration of chaos theory, and that is why Things Fall Apart. Arc significance -- surely we all figured it was Alpha who engineered the modem-screech brain sweep. He did it to clear a space for this little chamber drama.


If this is Art, this science of brainWipe and Imprint, as Topher insists, then what kind of artist is he, in the options explained in "The Gray Hour"? Is he the kind that paints what he sees? Or paints what is? (Barf!)

Thing is, that art-crit coming from the heist expert was sort of nonsense. There is potential truth in the sheer labor of classicists, master or not, as represented by the what-I-presume-was-a-fake-Maggiotto (?) boy with a recorder. The bullshit Faux-casso was distracting, but them's the breaks. Real problem is that Picasso's Synthetic Cubism is about trying to capture the whole, not the broken; the totality of the subject, analyzed and united from multiple perspective. I do wonder then, if this is the point. The partially accurate evaluation by a wounded man who is about to give up says this is about a shattered girl, a life to which violence has been done, frozen in irreparability and forever sliding apart. But contained in the same frame is a girl refracted but complete -- extra-complete, even -- mathematically multiplied into more forms in more locations, flattened only into the picture plane of our single-perspective vision. Because there's Taffy striding through the vault with the other works of art, there's Rasa!Echo splattered on the floor, and there's Taffy2, too, calling across the mirror to help.

Whose ego is bruised here? We've corrupted the concept of the Ego, of course, into the colloquial "self-importance". But Ego proper is the main thing Topher takes pains to remove in the Wiping process. Let us assume that this pinch leaves a mark. And who, then, saves the day and should feel good about herself? Why, it's not Taffy1, who is prematurely disEngaged, nor Taffy2, who gets her untraumatic birth just a little too late. It's not Topher, who spends the episode running around also Ego-bruised, nor Boyd, Ballard or DeWitt, who all want to rebirth the girl as child to protect, victim to assist, and in this week's adventure, tool of the state (Operation: Steal Art for Greece!). It's Echo saves the day and should be proud. Echo, who may, it seems, just be Caroline with some personality suppressant clamps on her neural pathways. If not that, then "Gray Hour" says an even kinder thing about the default settings of human nature.

So what "is" the vault, when it is not a tomb or a womb but a performance situation? Well none of the above, it's a big safe full of art. Whatever the motivator, I think you've made a good catch; this is about the performance opportunity. The performance here is the Art part, to form the vault into one or the other. Either, Or or Neither, thinking, like the prince says, makes it so. The gray hour may be the shapeless mists of dawn from which meaning might materialize, or the obscuring haze where meaning goes to die. It is going to be up to Echo what to do in that gray hour: emerge or fade.

Fresh born and unImprinted Echo (who migrates naturally toward bodies of water, curls instinctively into fetal positions) is confronted with options; immediately upon birth, she's given the choice to start doing violence to others in the name of self-preservation. Or she can surrender, either to prison or to premature death. Simple drive to live motivates a refusal to suicide or jail, but something finer in her resists the shooting. Perhaps, and I hope it is true, Dollhouse suggests we have to be properly imprinted to do that kind of violence. She chooses to finish the job, all right. Not the job Taffy started, but the job Alpha sets up for Echo: getting born. She was tired of hanging around that room anyway, slips through the tunnel, and emerges, linebacker shoulders and all.

His methods may be unconventional and leave the doctor with scars, but let us hope Alpha's Lamaze classes eventually give us a healthy, bouncing baby Caroline.


Active Engagement: Dollhouse 1.3 - "Stage Fright"

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

The Engagement: When pop diva Rayna is subject of assassination attempts by an obsessed fan, Echo is Imprinted as Jordan, a talented backup singer. While unconsciously acting as Rayna's bodyguard, Echo uncovers a strange symbiosis between the singer and stalker. Can our favorite Active save a suicidal music star, rescue Sierra ("undercover" as a naive Australian fan), and possibly recover a small chunk of Self even after her identity wipe? You bet! Meanwhile, Agent Ballard's scumbag informant turns out to be an Active, which he doesn't know because he is dogged but none too clever. Then he gets shot.

Part the Third:
"Stage Fright"

Ja, so I made fun of this last week after seeing the preview, but it ended up sending several ripples through me.

The moment the portal opened for me was during the songy moment. Western cinema and TV still use storysong so sparingly, so sheepishly, and under such specific conditions ("it's a MUSICAL, people!") that it signifies worlds to me when it does happen. I believe the lyrics were about Freedom at that partic moment (I can't remember exactly), which speaks obviously for Rayna/fame and Echo/Dollhouse and less obviously, and more poignantly, for characters stuck and clawing the walls in the narrow corridors of Plot itself. The singing (beautiful, by the way) suspended the moment, story stopped, persona/parameter/"character"/character/plot/viewer merged, and it didn't matter if the pipes belonged to Jordan/Echo/pixel-Eliza/real-Eliza. Individuality disappeared, identity disappeared, everyone dissolved into and was absorbed by something grander than herself. Who said that the only time you can truly believe characters is when they're singing? I don't remember. I don't actually know if I believe that generally. I'm just more credulous when it comes to songy moments.

Hey, cat. Get your feet off my notes.

So what also reverbed for me during songy moment were larger issues of relationship and trust - this is the first time we see Echo making nonhierarchical connection with other women (Dr. Scarface doesn't count, Adelle doesn't count, both wield power over her). Although Jordan/Rayna experience a tinge of what could be called traditional "girly" bonding, their dynamic seems, overall, far more androgynous (and yes, they sneaked the lez joke in there). In the dressing-room + dance studio confrontations there's primarily and primally the ring of two vigorous, martial, territorial (masculine?) urges clanging off each other, asking the Big Questions (via clumsily written dialogue), interrogating death's meanings, culminating with chair to head, which...well...Echo has her habits. Maybe she should break some of them. Two warriors, operating on different frontlines. It's not wombtime or nestytime anymore -- girls gotta face the world, grapple it, be bruised by it. Does Rayna's wish for annihilation -- "they love to see me die" -- mirror Echo's actual annihilation at the end of each episode? I liked the tension in this relationship, but in the end, I'M NOT SURE Echo was acting exclusively according to her parameter. I will bet you maybe 150 pretend-dollars that she was acting, unconsciously, to protect not Rayna but Sierra in Audra's guise. I can't read that excruciating scene of Audra singing for the camera in any other way than as an appeal for help, as unconscious appeal to Echo that bypasses/penetrates both Sierra's and Echo's programming, that invokes the oldest nonhierarchical bond, the bond that makes feminism strong and gives it pulse: Help a sister out.

Regarding the headshake at the end of the episode: I've been thinking a lot lately about secrecy in relationship, invisible intimacies, little private languages evolved with other people. It can feel like holding hands with them underwater. They're delicate little agreements that can be easily upset. Echo/Sierra were just getting acquainted - it seemed. They communicated via video-song - maybe. Now they can communicate in headshakes - the polar opposite of the extroverted songbonding moment with Rayna. Something about headshake felt too soon, storytellingwise. Was it? Did WhedonCo blow it? I can't decide.

Echo/Caroline/whoever-she-is does seem to grow more stable from week to week. Imprint her all you want, but Eliza D.'s screen presence, for me, has an impregnable consistency and integrity - she seems always to embody a whole person, not a composite of lines and blocking. The question of what % is the "imprint" and what % is Echo "herself" brings up, for me, the question of influence itself - other people get inside us all the time, and most of the time we are just repeating their words, their tics, their mannerisms... certain behaviors do outlive their original host bodies, find new hosts, endure. Although this is the third time in a row Echo has acted unexpectedly on a mission - spazzing as Eleanor Penn, wobbling in the woods, taking a fake hostage as Jordan.

It just occurred to me (weeks later than it should have!) that Echo's technically a sex worker. Has the show has moved past old conventions of prostitution-horror (women defiled) and hit on the real horror - the simple, voracious rhythms of supply and demand? I'm looking forward to finding out what "Special" means.

* * * * *


"Stage Fright": Sing for Your Supper

Hooray for a Dollhouse landmark! For "Stage Fright" is the first episode that made me cry. Just a little bit. BtVS, circa seasons 3-6 I'm bawling or shouting in disbelief at every episode, so this was bound to happen.

First things first, that Rayna lady would never, ever play the Music Box at the Fonda Theater. At the biggest, they book big-deal indie bands, maybe Modest Mouse. Pop dance divas: no ways. Plus Boyd is right, it should not take 40 minutes to get coffee, since there's a coffee shop directly across the street.

So, girl locking herself in the cage insists: "I just wanna be free." Point. Counterpoint. Synthesis. Sure.

So, girl, who has had her brain scrubbed and remapped, is overwhelmed by the glamour of being waited on/ tended to/ fawned over says to Object Of Adulation: Is it always like this? You can tell them what to do and they do it?

Now, as St. Aretha asked: Who's Zoomin' Who?

Mr. Whedon claims he doesn't actually know anything about existentialism, he just read Nausea and it clicked with him. On some DVD commentaries he fails at attempting to even explain or define basic concepts of the philosophy, even while his stories are demonstrating the principles in moving talking pictures. Firefly is about how we conduct ourselves when faced with the void of meaning that is the universe, concerned with factility. BtVS and Angel about making your way, building yourself, dealing with it all; BtVS concerned with freedom, Angel with angst. And Dollhouse so far is obsessed with the existentialist notion that the Look of others bricks up the foundations of bad faith: how others see you makes you what you are, limits your perceptions of freedom and possibility.

In a good Mutant Enemy tale the theme plays out in variants for all the characters. So Rayna plays Rayna based on how "Rayna" is supposed to be, and bad faith reaches a terminus. She chases her tail into deathwish. CrazyFanGuy plays sycophant, just like the cocktail waitress and Sierra/Audra, but to the extreme. His moment-to-moment definition of self entirely based on what Rayna supposes he should be. Witness his pinballing motivation on the catwalk in the climax, bouncing around in desperation as Rayna keeps changing her mind. They do what she tells them to do. Meanwhile, Boyd frets and glowers based on supposition that he is to be Echo's Jordan-- her bodyguard -- but keeps being thwarted. Agent Ballard is locked in Angel-like cycle as Guy Who Cannot Close, now fully trapped in Catch-22, assigned to the case that his superiors believe does not even exist. He plays the illusory game of cat-&-mouse with Russian Mob Guy because that's what they're supposed to do, that's how you play this finite game, until someone gets bulletted. That's the supposed rules, but they're both set up for a fall with the beautiful revelation that Ballard and the human traffickers are currently pawns moving one space at a time on the Dollhouse's invisible board.

Topher, facing off with security head Mr. Dominic, wins the argument by reminding the muscle of their respective self-roles: one of us is the Genius, one is the Security Guard. Topher is a genius all right: at defining roles and inflicting his Look on others. Straight to the brain.

Now, Caroline too, plays Echo plays Jordan based on how Topher supposes she should be. But she doesn't. She manipulates the programming loophole, saves the day on technicality that Rayna is her own worst enemy. In videogaming, we'd say she exploits the glitch. This isn't the same as breaking the rules, or in the philosophical branch of games theory, neither is it redefinition of the rules. She takes what she's given and works with it. That, as the man says, is impressive, but Echo still doesn't think outside the grid, she just moves sidelong. A good start, but she'll need another skill before she's through. The first step to playing the infinite game: when you hit a wall in the rulebook, you reconfigure the wall. [Sidetrack: the loophole here is the same as the logistical oversight in Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. Robots have to protect humans no matter what the circumstance. Human vanity makes a mistake: the human race being the greatest threat to the human race, to physically save all people is to have to enslave them so they cannot hurt each other.]

Sidetrack II is the tree-falling-in-woods one. During a funny, corny glamor shot of BackupSinger!Echo, I realize there's more than a little Matrix in Dollhouse. The chunk of The Matrix that asks how you know who you are, sure. But also the quandary posed by The Matrix's Steak Scene, which goes: I'm eating a steak, I know it doesn't exist, and I'm still getting the brain impulses that say it is delicious. Now, make me into "someone important. Like an actor." (! Genius.) The great dramatic irony/ series hook moment that closes the first episode goes: I want all the adventures, fun and intrigue that human imagination can muster, even when one would seem to preclude another, CowgirlAstronautLoverSpyPhysicistDushku, I want it all. Whedon to Audience: Yay! You get to have it all, Dollhouse is a bag of Mutant Enemy Every Flavor Adventure Beans! And sure, tragic irony, she eats the Beans but neither remembers nor gets the personal enrichment of the experience. Might as well have been watching a TV show, but for the occasional bruising.

Cypher has a good point (or two) in The Matrix, it's just not a nice one to hear. 1) Given that some circumstance is going to limit your potential choices, might we not as well pick and choose our mode of enslavement and make some contractual demands?, 2) given that our only confirmation of our reality and circumstance is our own consciousness, what's the fuckin difference if the steak is "real" or not? Objectivists please ignore this question (and really, Objectivists fuck off and die). Jordan looked so happy singing backup! It was the most fulfilling day of Audra's life! For that day, those consciousnesses had an experience, even if it evaporated. They all evaporate, eventually.

Of course, for Echo and Sierra, exchanging a different look, we can assume it didn't evaporate yet. They know each other, they know something about the players around them. And thanks so much Mutant Enemy for not talking about this out loud, but giving us a song and that look, because that's the first A-grade Dollhouse moment, head and heart. Why did that look make me cry? Because I read it as "I think know you. I think I care about you. Bury it in your pocket right now. But keep your hand around it."

Yes, I think you're spot-on about the webcam serenade -- the results have a surface resemblance to Topher's imprint, but it's Sierra calling to Echo more than Jordan worried about Rayna. And too about the diva's admittedly arch and bizarre speech about the Reaper's embrace. Clunkily written scene with nice idea in it, that the girl with everyone's dream life is pleading the merits of oblivion to the set of ears most qualified to argue that hey bitch, personality eradication is not all it's cracked up to be.

I've had long chats with other viewer friends about the creepy men of Dollhouse, and how repellent and depressing much of the show has been. Mired in stories of extreme-case men with fucked-up sex problems who need to be soundly murdered, somehow Dollhouse doesn't feel as productive, encouraging, or honest as Buffy Vs. Monster, though BtVS is more steeped in fantasy metaphor. My answer is that here is a plain case for the truth and beauty of fantastic fiction.

Obviously planted tell-us-more! question of the week: WHAT'S THE ATTIC?

2: Please show me a Friendship or Altruistic Engagement and soon.

3. I did not address your questions about who said that thing about singing actors or if Dollhouse has tapped the horrific vein of body commodification. No, I did not.

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I haven't seen any of the Matrices, but Rainy-Day-cartes has been on my mind lately (we're running a piece about Descartes' Evil Deceiver problem in our current issue [... of Cabinet magazine! - Ed.]. RD bricks himself into a little, fearful, doubtful corner, right, where the only redemption = "God is good, He Who Makes The World wouldn't do that to me?" For those without a God-fallback, the reckoning with the daily Deception, and the will to manufacture meaning in spite of it, end up playing out on a grueling case-by-case basis.

Yes, the men on the show are mostly worthless. It's hard to watch. Does it bother you on a story-level or a deeper gender-level? It seems unfortunately to be part of the mechanics of the show - it's action/adventure, Echo needs to be endangered in each episode, and the most time-honored antagonists of women are...men. (It does make me wonder, offhand, about Oz's sageness on BtVS - he glows! he soothes! he's always right! he's the embodiment of Dharma itself! - and whether that, in itself -- though incredibly uplifting and wonderful to watch -- is a satisfactory depiction of a teenage boy. I guess I'll have to stick around.
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Don't worry about The Matrix in specific-- that's why I explained the scene sorta-- but you should see it at some point. The premise is, indeed, the same as Descartes' hypothetical demon. The solution is, in The Matrix, resoundingly different (the directo-writer Wachowski Brothers drawing from/interrogating more world religion and philosophical traditions than you, I, or any lowly movie critic can keep up with). Descartes makes a lot of mistakes, first of which being the choice to make the simulacrum-verse the malevolent work of a demon and then forget that hey, that was the b.s. setup for a thought experiment, not a moral tale.

More to the problempoint, he is brave enough to decide that should we eliminate all doubtable beliefs we are left with a handful of nothing... Problem being "1: I think, therefore: 2: at least I know that I am." (it wrecks his "proofs" but feel free to strikeout the other part "and everybody knows that God Is."), but waiiiit, back up, 1: what? You can prove nothing like "I think". It would, however, be an impressive futurist leap for Descartes to imagine a neurologist poking a brain in a jar or Topher zapping you with an Imprint. So I chalk up his failure to Christian chicken-out or simple limitations of human imagination.

Descartes doesn't have any fun with the idea, just asks "how do I know this thing I made up isn't true?" The Matrix asks: "What would it mean about life it were true? Would it matter? Wouldn't that mean you could do anything, like a lucid dream?" And more. Dollhouse asks of its similar sitch "What would that mean for the 'I' in 'I think'?"

Brainflash in the shower this morning. Kick me if it doesn't come true.

Agent Ballard's Lasagna Girl neighbor. She's an Active.

She's gotta be.

Ballard's whole life is going to prove populated by Dollhouse agents. This makes him the photo-negative variation of an Active. Walking around on missions with his native-brained birthrighted imprint, but surrounded by actors pushing him, pulling him, lying and truthsaying but leading Ballard through the maze sure as if he'd been Topherized. There's more than one way to Imprint a cat.

And if this turns out not-true? They missed the boat, and should have hired me to write their story. THE END!

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RD probably took his armchair freakout as far as a seventeenth-century Catholic could be expected to go.

That's an interesting hunch about Lasagna Girl (the Internet tells me her name is "Mellie"?) although it also puts a twist on her hallway interaction with Russian Mob Guy Lubov.