Season Premiere: Dollhouse – “Vows”

dollhousetitle

“Vows”

September 25th, 2009

“I am all of them, but none of them is me.”

I never thought I’d be writing this post.

No one gave Dollhouse a chance of succeeding when its first season debuted to pretty abysmal numbers at midseason, and when it showed little signs of life on the ratings board when it concluded. It was a show that never found an audience, on a network that had done Joss Whedon wrong before with Firefly, setting everyone up for the inevitable letter writing campaigns when the show was canceled. Not only that, but to some degree people weren’t convinced the show deserved a second chance: it only late in the season discovered anything close to an identity, and even then some believed the show would be let down by some miscasting or the battle between procedural and serial proving too much for the show to handle.

So when the show got a second season against every oddsmaker, it was kind of surreal. On the one hand, as someone who liked what the show did at the end of the season, I was excited to see that Joss Whedon and Co. would have an entire summer to figure things out and put themselves in a position to really deliver some great television. However, on the other hand, I wondered if the end of the season was just a fluke, and that its premise and its star were just never meant to carry this show forward.

And then I saw “Epitaph One.” And then, in that moment, I realized that the premise was not going to be the problem, and that the show’s real challenge was how it will get from Point A (its rather auspicious start) to Point B (a science fiction thematic goldmine). “Vows,” of course, doesn’t entirely answer that question, but what it does indicate is that the ramifications from the end of last season haven’t ended, and that this is still a show capable of delivering an hour of television which treats this subject matter with the right balance of philosophical investigation and narrative procession. It is not a perfect premiere, by any means, but it confirms what I think we were all hoping when we heard the show got a second season: the growing pains are over, and a new life has truly begun for Dollhouse.

“Vows” is cheating, in a lot of ways. To overwhelm my critical cynicism, they bring in another Battlestar Galactica alumnus (Jamie Bamber, who played Apollo on the SciFi show); to quell criticism of Eliza Dushku’s performance in the episode, they largely leave her on the periphery and make Echo more interesting while limiting her scenes to sex/violence/confusion; to give us Topher haters less to complain about, they let Fran Kranz transform him into something pitiable, if not likable; and, to top it all off, they give one hell of an episode (perhaps a final one, at least for now) for Amy Acker’s Dr. Saunders (aka Whiskey).

If this episode had just been about Paul Ballard using Echo in order to complete an FBI job he was never able to do from the inside, avoiding due process and having Echo seduce and marry an arms dealer, then it wouldn’t have worked. And even in execution, that storyline at times felt a bit ungainly, like the show didn’t really know how to handle explaining what was going on. We’re not entirely clear on what deal Ballard struck with the Dollhouse, and having us jump right into the mission felt like a cheap stunt to confuse us as opposed to really giving it any heft. They tried to sell this as if it was a huge ethical shift in the job, like it was even stranger than someone who wanted to be rolled in flour, but that seemed like a strange way to introduce the storyline. This wasn’t Ballard’s episode, and the start felt a bit unorganized.

Really, the meat of the episode is in the story of Dr. Saunders, now fully aware that she was once Whiskey, the “Number One” active who was cut up by Alpha and was repurposed as the doctor. When we start the episode she is messing with Topher at every turn, hacking into his computers and putting mice in his office. She’s doing it because she in some way blames him for what happened, blames him for putting this lie inside of her as her creator. On top of this, she discovers that Adelle is spending large sums of money to fix Victor’s facial scars from Alpha’s attack, something that was never done for her (at the time their top draw), so it’s one more drop in the bucket of discontent boiling up inside of her. We know that Adelle’s decision is driven by her use of Victor as a lover for her own purposes, but for Whiskey it is another example of how she was wronged.

And yet that scene with Topher and Whiskey in his make-shift bedroom in the Dollhouse is the kind of thematic lynchpin the show needed earlier on in its lifespan. While questions of the morality of the process are one thing, the show has always needed someone central to the story who isn’t just showing signs of remembering but who fully understands the process that has been done to them. When she’s trying to seduce Topher, she’s trying to perform like an active by her own free will, trying to prove to herself that she’s right about this process and that her mind is a play thing that can be overwritten and controlled. She’s attempting to get to what she believes is at the core of Topher’s programming, believing that he created her to hate him so that one day she might love him. She’s got into her mind that Dr. Saunders is one of Topher’s creations designed for a singular purpose, and that everything she’s lived has all been a lie.

But while the scene starts with Topher being Topher, talking about being aroused by Fozzie Bear and ignoring the minority vote of his manhood, suddenly we see a completely different side of him. We see him delving into his many insecurities, and saying something quite telling: he didn’t stop at making her a simple and caring doctor, he gave her the ability to question. What made him so difficult around Saunders (the two have never gotten along) is not that he knows she is an active and thus doesn’t care what she thinks, but rather that he programmed her to question the world around her and in the process she decided that she despises Topher and hates everything he stands for. Dr. Saunders Version 2.0 looked around the Dollhouse and considered Topher a mad scientist, when in fact her very existence confirmed that when it came to programming a real person as opposed to a Roomba he did make some sort of a differentiation.

The humanity of the dolls has always been at the heart of the show: it was Langdon’s first observation upon entering the Dollhouse, and it’s a question that Ballard has been asking ever since he really understood what the Dollhouse was about. And yet, when Whiskey sits there talking about her fears about dying, losing a life that isn’t even her own and isn’t even a life still proving too much for her to be able to handle, Topher tells her that she’s human. It’s ultimately a false observation, as Whiskey points out he shouldn’t flatter himself, but isn’t he to some degree right? She wasn’t programmed to hate Topher, she was programmed to observe her surroundings and judge as she sees fit. When she explains to Langdon why she isn’t able to go out into the outside world, she lists off the excuses (fear of just about everything that exists in the outside world, including sunlight), but are those things she was programmed to fear (to ensure she never left) or things she convinced herself to fear in order to avoid going outside for some other reason. In Whiskey we have someone who is now balancing a traumatic experience working as an active and an implanted personality which she has had for so long that she owns it, and that has become the equivalent of life to her if not the equivalent of human life.

The reason Whiskey drives off at the end of the episode is because she decides she is out of excuses, and needs to try to find herself while she still can. It’s not clear how much of her journey we’re going to see, as this is as much a way to get Acker out of the picture while she works a full-time gig on a new ABC series as it is a story point for Whiskey. But in that conversation with Topher, the show was stronger than ever when it comes to delivering on its premise in a way which feels as emotionally powerful as it does intellectually stimulating. When talking to Langdon, probing him about his sudden interest in her, Whiskey says that there is no judging in the Dollhouse. This is, of course, a blatant lie, but so much of that judgment takes the form of self-judgment as opposed to judgment of others. Yes, Saunders and many others judge Topher for his role in streamlining this process, and Ballard judges DeWitt for letting the whole thing go on, but the Dolls (who aren’t supposed to have any sense of what they’re doing) are often the ones who worry about being judged, and who speak most often in questions (just trying to do their best, after all). It’s a place where everyone is supposed to avoid judging others based on their behaviour, but it is human to judge, and the dolls although devoid of many distinct qualities of humanity are clearly capable of doing things which aren’t programmed, and observing and judging accordingly.

When the show spends time with Echo, we remember that she was what started this all for Ballard, and that amongst the existing actives she is the one whose sense of self-discovery has the potential to be the most damaging. With Saunders, it represents a single life form evolving out of the process of imprinting to form its own identity independent of any prime directive, so to speak. With Echo, it is the process breaking her down, the various imprints formerly in her head all fighting against one another for place inside of her. While speaking with Whiskey, she remembers an engagement in which they were lovers. When her head is banged against a table, she flashes back to another wedding entirely, forgetting who they made her “this time.” When Paul sees that she is in trouble and her handler has effectively left her to die (convenient, if implausible), he plays into this potentiality by reminding her of past identities, waking them up until he finds the one which was both aware of who Ballard was and capable of kicking some ass (the one from the Chinese Restaurant that told him that he had a friend in the Dollhouse). When we learn at episode’s end that she can sense all of them inside of her, and that she wants to find both the real her (Caroline) and each of them individually, you realize that what Echo wants to become is her own database.

In many ways, Echo and Whiskey are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The imprint given to Whiskey made her more human, giving her a sense of an identity that she now finds almost uncanny. For Echo, however, the imprints have made her even more of a machine, and her efforts to reconnect with her own identity is surrounded by a desire to see into the rest of them. DeWitt knows that something is wrong with Echo, and that Ballard wants to use it, so she doesn’t put her into the attic because she wants to see where it’s all going. With mention of the Rossum Group (the parent organization of the Dollhouses), and the idea that the Dollhouse is as much about research as it is about making money, it feels like the show has finally hit on it: the question isn’t about the ethics of making money from this process, or the ethics of taking away people’s identities, but what happens to those people themselves. And by letting an actress like Acker tackle the humanity side while Dushku handles the sort of mechanical drive of discovery that defines Echo, the show feels like it has found its perfect fit, allowing each character to take part in a larger question of how humanity and programming intertwine to become one and the same.

For those who have watched “Epitaph One,” the DVD/Online 13th episode from the first season which catapults the show into the future and reveals a dystopic endgame for this technology, this episode is probably slightly more interesting if not wholly different in its focus or anything. From “Epitaph One,” we know that Dr. Saunders eventually returns to the Dollhouse, perhaps waiting until Acker’s show is canceled and she can return full time. When we see that Topher has his bedroom inside the Dollhouse itself, and see him begin to already feel the ethical ramifications of his work as his own creation judges him for it, we know why he’s living inside one of the sleeping chambers and reduced to dementia when we find him years later. And when we see Echo starting to discover that the imprints are not a quick and easy process and that it’s even possible for them to be tapped into by various cues, you see where the technology could eventually lead to very different applications in the hands of the Rossum Group.

By using the procedural storyline in order to delve into Echo’s malfunctions, and by highlighting these thematic discussions with Dr. Saunders, the show remains in the same creative high on which the first season ended. The episode wasn’t perfect, jumping into the Ballard story too quickly for example, but what it lacked in a graceful entrance it gained in an exciting exit, and the end result is the kind of premiere that makes me glad I never had to write a single letter on behalf of this fine series.

Cultural Observations

  • The episode title obviously refers to Echo’s false wedding vows in the context of the engagement, but it really makes the most sense when you consider the script/vows being recited when Ballard becomes her handler, and separately from that the vows they make holding hands beneath the stairs planning out their strategy. It wasn’t actually very subtle overall, but I will say that it’s effective, if not convincing me that Saunders wasn’t the far more interesting part of the episode.
  • Interesting that Whiskey’s note was written as “I am running out” followed by “of excuses” below. The first is a short note about leaving for a short period of time, saying that you’re running out for a few minutes, but the second is far more interesting. Again, not entirely sure how long she’s leaving for considering how often the show can get her back, but Acker was so great in this episode that I want to see her back as soon as possible.
  • Alexis Denisof (who worked with Whedon on Buffy/Angel, and who is married to Alyson Hannigan) appears here as a politician who suddenly takes an interest in the Dollhouse as his pet project. Langdon summed him up as a privileged individual who chose ambition over coasting through life, and who chose the Dollhouse/Rossum as an easy target as part of his health care crusade. His argument is interesting though, in that it’s about Rossum keeping secrets as opposed to about Rossum breaking any sort of laws. It echoes the shift of Epitaph One to the large-scale ramifications of the research as opposed to necessarily the short-term ethical questions of prostitution and the like.
  • Topher might have appeared more vulnerable and human than we’d seen him before, and Fran Kranz deserves a lot of credit for making me believe that, but I do like that Topher is still silly enough to use the word “frenemy” to describe Ballard. Silly Topher is fine in small doses, after all.
  • Victor and Sierra are given one scene each (Victory, wondering why DeWitt is touching his face, and Sierra showing up for a treatment without her handler and making sexual comments about Ivy), and then a final scene holding hands in the end. They’re one destiny that the episode didn’t really get to touch on, but both have now experienced traumas (his scars, her rape) while they were in their resting state which makes them interesting case studies in their own right.
  • Nice throwaway joke about the Jonas Brothers being clients – while it’s easy to jump to the most disturbing potential applications for the actives, I’d actually be curious to see what a celebrity would need an active for. A chance to talk to someone who doesn’t know they’re a celebrity, perhaps?
  • Dear show: get a new theme song.
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Season Premiere: Dollhouse – “Vows”

  1. imdoinggreat

    What a wonderful, thoughtful post, especially considering how quickly you got it up! I agree with almost everything you’re pointing out — mostly I’d argue that Topher doesn’t come across as “pitiable,” but I like Topher and didn’t really ever find him annoying. If we had all been able to see his brilliant explanation of how we’re all programmed, from the unaired pilot, we might have approached the character differently.

    I’m particularly impressed by your paragraph of analysis on the Whiskey/Echo duality — that hadn’t even occurred to me, but you’re right that they’re both on a search for humanity and identity, while starting from practically opposite points. What a shame the show can’t center around both of them!

    The core of the episode was definitely the Saunders/Topher “seduction” scene, which I’d call some of Joss’ best writing ever. Practically every line is a gem, but I think the most important moment is Saunders saying that she doesn’t want to die — even though she knows she’s in someone else’s body. That raises all the same questions that Epitaph One did — who has a right to that body, the original owner (even the original soul, if you wish), or the human who has lived in it and developed her own personality and feelings and hatreds? Does a personality automatically have a soul? What happens when you have too many personalities, all clamoring to be alive, but not enough bodies?

    That’s what was so fascinating about little-Caroline’s final line, “I hope we find me alive.” Yes, it’s good writing, and yes, it’s evocative, but what will happen when they do find big-Caroline? Little-Caroline will have had all kinds of formative experiences along the way, they won’t be the same person any more — so we’ll have two versions of Caroline and no version of the original owner of the little girl’s body. It’s a possession-rights nightmare.

    God, I love this show!

  2. AGNELLO

    Awesome review!!! Thank you very much, I enjoyed reading it. I agree with you about how Dr. Saunders and Echo are opposite ends of the spectrum in their journey of self discovery.

  3. Waterland

    Great recap—I agree that Fran Kranz did a good job at bringing some redemption to a generally disliked character and yes, yes, yes “dear show—get a new theme song” is right—before all the loyal viewers gouge their ear drums out or go mad from exposure to that awfulness.

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