December 4th, 2009
“Everybody’s got a past – it’s the future [viewers] care about.”
Writing about Dollhouse is like riding a bike – the show has never suffered from a lack of ideas, making even its weaker episodes (once it got ahold of its identity) fascinating to discuss. However, there’s something inherently unsatisfying, in theory, about getting back onto that bicycle when you know that you’re about to run out of road, and in a very short period of time this bike is going to be absolutely worthless to you. So much of what I do here at Cultural Learnings is about contextualizing episodes in the past, present and future of any particular series, and in the world of Dollhouse that future has become a swift cancellation which could come as soon as early next week should the ratings from tonight’s two-hour block of episodes be so disastrous that FOX is willing to risk the wrath of fans as opposed to the wrath of advertisers and replace the show with reruns.
And yet, there is something about where this show finds itself mid-way through its second season that I find far more compelling than I should. I know this show is going to end, and yet there is something about the show’s view of the future that has turned its futility into an asset of sorts. It’s almost as if we’ve already reached the end of the road, but instead of a sheer drop the show is offering a lengthy kill on which we can simply coast down the hill with our hands off the handlebars feeling the wind in our face and taking those last moments to think about what was, what is, and what will (or would) be. It’s almost as if cancellation has freed Dollhouse from certain expectations, and what we get from this point forward is about what we take from the material rather than what the material necessarily says in and of itself.
As such, “The Public Eye” and “The Left Hand” are both really great hours of television not only because they’re well-executed in terms of basic plot and character, but also because through the wonders of a DVD bonus feature we as an audience are perfectly situated to understand the ramifications of what is going on here at levels that go beyond the immediate to a future that we might never be able to see but that we are able to vividly imagine in ways that allow the show to survive beyond the certainty of its fate.
Senator Daniel Perrin felt like a strange character to introduce into this universe back in October when we first met the man. He seemed like a waste of Alexis Denisof, an effort to set up an external threat to the Dollhouse in a way that seemed like a distraction. As such, it’s not too surprising that “The Public Eye” fundamentally deconstructs any notion of Perrin’s externality, revealing that he a unique sort of doll. In the process, the show manages to take the concept of the Dollhouse and apply it quite savvily into the world of politics. It’s as if Perrin is a third son, passed over for the first son and ignored when compared to the second son, left to waste away his existence as a 30-something frat boy until someone realizes that third son or not his name has potential. And as opposed to hiring a speech writer, an image consultant, and perhaps a big-money P.R. firm, the Rossum Corporation simply eliminates some attributes and adds others, creating a super-politician who can help clear the way for their master plan.
Dollhouse is often as its best when it takes things which happen in the real world (like, say, prostitution) and effectively turns the dial up to 11, shifting the purpose of the engagements in such a way as to challenge our preconceptions. Many politicians (including, most famously, George W. Bush) were built from the ground up by a political war machine, and in some instances were placed there by corporations. In the world of Dollhouse, though, that corporation is doing this not out of corporate greed but out of twisted self-preservation, understanding the immoral underpinnings (heck, pinnings (does this make sense? I don’t know, but it’s fun to say. Pinnings!) for that matter) of their actions and working to clear the way for them to continue heightening their power. When our intrepid protectors of a moderately less corrupt image of this process at the Los Angeles Dollhouse get into Daniel Perrin’s head, they discover that Rossum had plans to create a President – plans that have been altered by their actions, but that could just as easily continue to change this world in the future.
And yet, for some characters this idea of a future is almost impossible to imagine. Bennett Gulverson is, as is the case with nearly every character that Summer Glau plays, beyond any sense of real understanding. I’m still not entirely sure what she is: is she some sort of weird doll/human hybrid (hence why she wasn’t affected by Topher’s disrupter), or is she someone who was meant to be a doll but who lost her arm and thus lost her ability to “do her best” as part of the program, and who worked independent of programming to develop the skills necessary to help those who are what she can never be. Either way, the point is that this is a character who is stuck in the past, who spends each and every day trying to focus on the present long enough to do her job but whose job is treating and preparing those who are living the life she was supposed to live and that at least some part of her wanted. The moment where she realizes that Topher finds her pretty isn’t just a ploy, in my eyes: yes, she’s playing him as much as he’s playing her, but just as he is legitimately smitten with her she is legitimately overcome with emotion at the idea that he would consider her to be a doll because of what that represents in her twisted memories of the past.
Echo, in turn, is forced to live the past through her own present, losing the use of her left arm and struggling to figure out where Echo fits in with Caroline (her own past) and her future, which is far more indeterminate than the show’s. Because this show isn’t about simple characters, there’s no sense that closure is ever an option here: to “close” Echo’s character, you would need to resolve every bit of Caroline’s identity, every shred of identity inherent in Echo’s wiped state (which we know to be more sentient than any other), and every bit of what role she is eventually supposed to play in this grand conspiracy. For Perrin, his end goal is shockingly clear, a prime directive. Echo, meanwhile, is not wired for any one particular goal, which means that in a wiped state she’s trying to find her own purpose despite having no idea where to begin. Echo wandering around in the world is not so much dangerous for her physical self (as we saw in “The Public Eye,” provocation is capable of bringing out memories from previous engagements as a result of her glitching of sorts) as it is for her mental self, exposed to a world that will do very little to help the problems going around in her head.
A lot of “The Left Hand” is built around a clever device, as Topher (in order to be in both Washington and L.A. at the same time) imprints Victor with, well, Topher. The gag has its moments, most of which come from Enver Gjokaj playing the mimic yet again (between this and Reed Diamond, Gjokaj was built for this role), but it also helps to emphasize (albeit in a comic fashion) the sort of snowball effect of this technology. In his rivalry of sorts with the legendary Bennett Gulverson (who has also heard of him), you realize that this is like any other scientific field: one piece of technology (in this case Alpha’s remote wipe technology) turns into a useable device by one technician, while the other one finds a way to turn it into something else entirely. It creates a chain reaction effect which results in legitimate tension (Topher punching Bennett out was a highlight) and also a constant reminder that some day in the future, this technology is going to be mean the end of the world as we know it, and when that happens Topher Brink is going to be a complete and total wreck. In this episode, Topher enlists his own help in order to complete the task, but more minds only takes things that one step too far, where the technology goes from an emergency aid to disrupt the Actives to a device which can attack any architecture and even alter it from afar.
It’s a moment that refers to a future we have seen, a future that through “Epitaph One” has been hanging over this entire season. The idea that the series finale will be a sequel to that story of the survivors of an apocalypse stumbling upon the Dollhouse years after it has helped engineer the end of humanity as we know it is exciting not because I expect that we’re going to get substantial answers but rather because I want to see more. That one glimpse has created new complexities to everything we’re seeing, taking story elements which could feel like they’re moving too fast and making them feel like mere drops in the bucket. It’s a future that constantly asks us to reconsider the present, and here had my mind spinning from the very beginning. Both episodes played around with our expectations, slowly unveiling that what seemed like one thing is in fact another, but in some ways the entire show has become that: it is a show about how bad things are going to be, and yet where all of the characters but one believe that this is all about a sense of progress and the great future ahead. To some, the actives are being protected from lives that could have seen them killed or sitting in a jail cell; to others, the actives are purely being exploited, left with the architecture in place for them to eventually lose their identities all over again when imprinting over the air becomes a blight on society.
The one person who stands against it (actively – I think Boyd and Echo are on the same page, just not as active (ugh) on the front) is Paul Ballard, who could have saved Madeline from her fate of lying in Bennett’s chair if only he could have bought into the party line and firmly believed that Madeline was making a mistake going through with her plan to testify against the Dollhouse. But Ballard has convinced himself that he’s working the Dollhouse from the inside, working with Boyd and Echo in an effort to take it down from the inside. Now, the episodes clearly started to separate Adelle from the other Dollhouses (including the always great Ray Wise in Washington) and from Rossum (the similarly great Keith Carradine), but at this point Ballard can’t trust anyone, and even if our group in L.A. is the lesser of the evils they are nonetheless complicit in these acts. And as a result, Ballard is forced to believe what he says: if he wants the dolls to go free, he needs to be willing to accept the decisions they make, as trying to force her to make a different decision (even one inherently smarter for her future than the one Rossum wants her to make) is turning into one of them.
The two episodes really drive home the point that we are in the same position: we know enough about where this goes to feel icky about some of what happens in L.A., but we are also able to see in a character like Bennett (played with such a perfect level of crazy from the always dependable Glau) the true endgame here. Topher may border on the annoying on occasion, but he is involved in this because science fascinates him and because it’s what he knows how to do. Bennett uses the same technology to gain revenge, and whereas L.A. operates the Dollhouse as morally as possible within its inherently immoral premise it’s clear that Washington has somewhat of its own rules. And that Rossum has its own ideas entirely. And that we know just enough about all of this to see a situation like the one depicted in these two episodes and look beyond its cultural relevance and its fine writing/acting and see a future that the show will never be able to fully construct but that it has mapped out just enough to keep us filling in the gaps at 3am when we should be getting sleep instead.
I’m going to miss that bike.
- I enjoy the idea that each individual Dollhouse has taken on elements of its location: from what we’ve seen, Los Angeles is interested in a sense of almost romance and fantasy, whereas what we heard of the engagements at the Washington dollhouse (like the long-term engagement with the closested congressman, and Perrin) seem to have that sense of subterfuge and political corruption inherent in them. It makes sense that it would be Washington that coordinates the Perrin effort, and one thing I will miss about the future is the idea of visiting other Dollhouses and seeing what they would have to offer.
- I find my tolerance for crazy Topher is entirely dependent on who is on the receiving end of the crazy. When it was his awkward interactions with Bennett, or even conversations with himself on that subject, it worked. And then it was Boyd standing there not sure how to respond to VictorTopher, it was brilliant. It worked less when the show was just letting the crazy sit there with no purpose, which was scarce enough for the storyline to work for me. “Glasses on a Chain FTW” was just fantastic, although Glau was fighting with fire with “Your skin is like a pig.”
- I probably won’t be able to review these episodes as easily together in the future, as not every two-hour set of episodes will probably act as a literal two-parter (these might as well have been considered “The Public Hand, Parts 1 and 2,” which throws us back to Jaime Weinman’s argument from the other day). I might end up just choosing the best episode to “review” in those instances, but we’ll see.