Dollhouse – “Man on the Street”

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“Man on the Street”

March 20th, 2009

Airing against the epic scale of the final episode of Battlestar Galactica and CBS NCAA coverage kept it from gaining any ratings momentum, but the much-hyped sixth episode of Dollhouse’s first season has come and gone with solid traction. Or, more accurately, it has come and stuck around in a way that no episode previous had really done. There is nothing procedural about “Man on the Street,” nothing that feels as if it will be wiped away and considered a drop in the bucket, nothing that makes us feel like we’re watching this show through a lens that is constantly changing.

What’s strange is that it’s not like it’s rocket science: the elements present in this episode missing from others were not found in some sort of secret potion, or a high-profile guest star (although I do love Patton Oswalt), or in some abstract framing structure that we’ve never seen before. The episode wasn’t even that surprising, its twists either fulfilling earlier speculation or rather deliberate staging mechanisms. Joss Whedon is a strong writer of television fiction, and the episode was littered with some strong humour amidst its plot development, but the strength of this episode wasn’t in its subtleties.

Rather, it was in the fact that the majority of its development was entirely independent of the actives themselves, and as such is development that has a profound effect on the actual universe of the show. By narrowing focus onto Paul Ballard, and by expanding our knowledge of the Dollhouse institution and how it operates, we are finally gaining information that can be logically tied to what we’re seeing on screen. While the philosophical morality of the Dollhouse has been a central point of contention in the series, it never really hit as well as it did with the street testimonials, real people reacting in real ways, or in the misuse of trust we saw displayed in the episode. The show, and its very premise, felt far more real in this instance, and as a result far closer to its original potential.

It makes one wonder why this wasn’t the show’s pilot, as any logic to keeping it this far back seems to be countered by a fairly logical argument that this foundational structure would have been even more rewarding.

First and foremost, I do think we have to note that this episode could have been stronger because Eliza Dushku’s Echo was sidelined for the majority of it. I don’t necessarily have this vendetta against her that some critics seem to, as I think she’s a serviceable actress who is very good at playing the action hero imprints and, more importantly, that sense that she is always in some way imprinted. No, for the sake of the engagements, Echo shouldn’t seem uncomfortable, she should seem to be able to move into every new skin with ease. However, for us as viewers, we need to be able to get the sense of some internal identity we’re missing, and Dushku provides this.

The reason this episode was stronger without much Echo is that everything wasn’t wiped away in the end – when Echo begins speaking to Ballard, revealing that she has been imprinted with a clandestine message, it’s something related to Dollhouse that can’t be taken back, that Ballard isn’t going to forget when he goes into a chair. Dushku’s various missions have been telling us things indirectly, but they are strongest when we get not just a piece of a puzzle we don’t understand but when we get to see how characters are interacting with this environment. While I watched episodes four and five directly before getting to this one, nothing really stuck with me – Reed Diamond’s head of security character is a threat, Alpha is still evil and all-powerful, but there was nothing that made me rethink anything about this world.

The second episode of the season did that, primarily because it went from “Oh, that’s sort of interesting” to actual development of Boyd and Alpha’s relationship – rather than this slow exposition of what the Actives are capable of (Sierra taking on Echo’s imprint and trying to use it in order to help the wiped Echo complete the job), it was about creating a relationship through flashbacks that transcends that sense of discovery and will continue to transcend every single imprint wiped away. Harry Lennix was the show’s saving grace in those early moments, but he’s not alone anymore; this very fact allows for “Man on the Street” to greatly expand how the show operates.

Paul Ballard, free of the strings of the FBI and with a “sleeper active” (I won’t complain since any connection to the show that left us Friday is a good thing, but that’s a little too close for comfort) in his bed, is a far more interesting character than the laughing stock FBI agent incapable of closing a case. His conversation with Patton Oswalt’s software billionaire was the most compelling piece of reasoning for someone hiring an active yet, his desire to recreate the moment he was robbed of when his wife was sideswiped by a garbage truck three blocks away from the house he bought them resonating with me as a viewer, and Ballard as a human being, in a way that none of the others would do. For Ballard, it made him into an honest to goodness human being, who immediately decided he needed Melly as some sort of human connection, that his involvement in this case was because of similar identity issues to the ones that drive people to become clients of the Dollhouse.

But for me as a viewer, it was just so much more effective at providing justification for the existence of this idea. The street testimonials were real people who were giving their opinions, but for the most part their questions have been elided or ignored. We’ve just been told that the actives are there for when people require something precise, simple – what we saw in the pilot, meanwhile, was the simplest of sexual encounters and a scenario (a kidnapping) where hiring an actual professional should have made far more sense. While last week’s episode presented a scientific justification for the actives, being able to blind Echo, this week’s episode was emotional: she was becoming his wife in a way that was keeping him connected to her, that part of her. Her emotions were not programmed to create the right sex drive or the right aggression: she was becoming Rebecca.

We needed to see more of this earlier in the series, primarily because it creates a disconnect: it’s not that the Dolls are without purpose or function, but rather that their actual use differs from what the Dollhouse intends for them. The corrupted imprint told Ballard that the higher ups have something bigger planned, that their “dolls for hire” business is actually a front for something else. This explains the sleeper active, and it explains how they would have the ability and willingness to send Echo after Ballard independent of any actual client. It is not the very idea of Dollhouse that is problematic, since it is not fundamentally corrupt if people are volunteering; rather, the real problem is how they are being used, and whether there’s something happening behind the scenes we don’t understand.

These are the kinds of things we needed in the pilot. Yes, I understand that Sierra and her handler’s storyline needed a bit of time to build, and that the reveal of Victor as an active wouldn’t have worked, and there were definitely parts that relied on our previous knowledge of Ballard or Mally, but leaving this episode everyone has a purpose. Ballard, especially, transforms from a nosy agent into someone with legitimate cause and personal reasoning for going after the Dollhouse – if that’s in the pilot, perhaps the episodes in between wouldn’t have felt like it wasn’t going to matter, that the higherups were going to keep Ballard from getting anywhere with his investigation.

It’s not that this episode needed to just magically transform into the pilot, but its messages needed to be clear: questioning the way in which actives are treated through Sierra’s rape, Ballard being given a personal reason to go after Dollhouse, we as the viewer being given a better sense of the moral ambiguity which feels far more satisfying. Five episodes of philosophical meandering may have made parts of this episode stronger, but if it had been expanding on existing knowledge we had from the very beginning, serving as an escalation more than an introduction, Dollhouse would be a better series for it.

As it stands, Whedon has created a new benchmark – if next week goes back to the episodes of nothingness just going to be wiped away, and we have to wait another five episodes before getting to something that feels this tight, I think Joss is doing it wrong.

Cultural Observations

  • The fight between Echo and Ballard was really well staged, with some strong camera angles and a sense of urgency we haven’t really seen – the direction (by David Straiton) gave it some strong angles, and the different locations were able to provide enough justification for a scene that didn’t really make sense: where did the Chef go?
  • Some great humour in this one, a lot from Oswald but also a bit from Dushku: her insistence that her husband was involved in porn was charming, and a better use of her talents than we’ve seen in a while. Oswalt’s “Judge’ll throw the Kindle at you” was bordering on too cute, but I love geek humour.
  • We also have our first really compelling mystery, in that we have a mole behind the scenes at Dollhouse. There’s two clear suspects, both of whom we know have some experience working in the area: Topher’s new assistant sure knew a lot about how he could potentially piece together the imprint for this mission, and was in the area at the time, but Amy Acker’s Dr. Saunders has a bit more history with the dangers of the Dollhouse and seems the most likely to reach out to Ballard.
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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Dollhouse – “Man on the Street”

  1. The episode was the best of the series so far and I agree with most of what you’ve said here, but I still want to know why Ballard initially started investigating the existence of the Dollhouse. I get that he started getting info on Caroline/Echo and developed a sort of connection to finding her and now has personal reason after the attack on Mellie. But, what made him believe there was a Dollhouse and continually risk his career trying to find it. This is the element of Ballard’s character that has been missing all along and something will still not feel right for me until I get an answer.

    Mostly, I think that there has been elements in each episode that if introduced in a two-hour premiere would have made for a solid base to have built the stories we have seen in the previous episodes and others going forward on.

    While FOX seems like they are going to be patient with the series and we’ll get to see all 13 episodes, I thinking their meddling and wanting “standalone” episodes has potentially ruined what could have been a really great series from the beginning. As you mentioned above, hopefully the show will build from here and not revert back to previous form.

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