Dollhouse – “Getting Closer”

“Getting Closer”

January 8th, 2010

I was talking (okay, tweeting) with The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias this weekend, and he classified “Getting Closer” as a fine example of a time when being hired to write immediate responses to television is not only inconvenient but downright confounding (to paraphrase).

It’s a great way to classify the episode, because a few days after watching it I still don’t really know what to say about it. I can say that I was surprised at various points where the episode wanted me to be surprised, and in a way which reflected emotional response rather than complete confusion. I can say that I saw the conclusion to Tim Minear’s script coming before the show made it explicitly clear, but what’s most interesting is that despite predicting the ending I still have absolutely no idea how it works.

“Getting Closer” is a fantastically entertaining episode of television, but its twists and turns depict a moral ambiguity which makes it almost entirely comprehensible. Tim Minear’s script is not so dense that we can’t comprehend what we’re seeing, but rather neglects (on purpose) character motivations to the point where the war which is supposed to pit one side (good) against the other (bad) has instead become more complex than anything in the Attic could ever be.

Which is yet another fascinating development in a second season that has been nothing if not compelling.

The science of Dollhouse has always been a complete enigma for me, but I’m starting to understand the idea of Active Architecture enough to understand that it holds greater meaning for the show as a whole than for its characters. If we consider a television show as a brain, it is healthy when it first begins: however, over time parts of it become damaged, and the producers need to assess the damages and reassign functions to the parts which remain healthy. The show might never be the same again, because the scar tissue will remain from the damage done by network meddling or creative/performance roadblocks, but it will have a chance to succeed so long as it uses all of the healthy brain remaining. I feel as if this process is able to explain both why Paul Ballard was able to be resurrected by Topher’s technology, and why Dollhouse as a series has been able to remain alive and even compelling despite a disastrous start.

What we’re seeing as the show heads towards the finish line is Whedon and Co. pushing the rest of that brain as far as they can, sending the entire series into a chaotic overload rather than trying to protect the show from any further harm. An episode like “Getting Closer” is fearless in a way that indicates the show has no intentions of holding back, which is good considering that the show has as of today been officially cancelled (not that there was any real question of that before). However, it also might be pushing the show too far, trying to handle too much with a show that even with some great episodes as of late hasn’t established its world enough to make these events feel entirely earned. The show ramps up for war while simultaneously filling in parts of the show’s past, and murders characters while bringing the allegiance of other characters into question, and while Tim Minear is a gifted writer something about it seems more sudden than it ideally should.

I’m not suggesting the show should stick to simple battles of good or evil, but rather that the big moments in “Getting Closer” raise questions that are built around out knowledge of this world. With a few minutes left in the episode, with everything building to the discovery of who is the “man at the top” of Rossum, I decided that it had to be Boyd, and yet I’m still not sure why: yes, at that point we had seen Dr. Saunders kill Bennett Halverson, so we could presume he was part of that scheme, but the ramifications are not so much confusing as they are confounding. We know that he is somehow the head of Rossum, but so much of the “why” is either scientifically unexplained (we’ve only seen this level of consciousness-sharing in “Epitaph One,” and we don’t know how far back it stretches) or left vague for the sake of creating dramatic tension. And while I understand the latter point, and will give the show some slack on the former considering its damaged architecture, I feel as if the combination means that speculating what this all means is almost impossible: Dr. Saunders murdering Bennett could be jealousy stemming from her attempts to seduce Topher, or orders from Boyd, and the show hasn’t given us any evidence in either direction.

I understand that this is the point of the cliffhanger, which has Boyd (who we presume would be working with the people invading the Dollhouse) breaking one of their necks and standing before Echo, who has just completed uploading Caroline into her system. It’s an odd cliffhanger that is not just a question of what happens next (whether Echo can harness Caroline, for example) but also on what the frak just happened, and while I understand that certainty on the latter might damage the former, the show’s inevitable end makes cliffhangers seem somewhat less engaging as they might have had the show been close to renewal. Part of me feels like the show should be focusing on its ideas rather than its plot, that it should be more focused on making us think (rather than guess) about character motivations as opposed to anticipating the next episode. However, since the show was made in a bubble, this is an unreasonable expectation – they’re making the show they wanted to make, and we’re just along for the ride.

It’s a ride I quite enjoy, and one I want to get off only in order to try to consider its ramifications more carefully – however, even a few days out, it seems like the episode is one big question waiting for Friday’s answers, so I’ll leave it to Whedon and the writers to figure this all out.

Cultural Observations

  • Really liked the interactions between Topher and Bennett, especially their musical theme, so I’m sad to see her die.
  • That said, I also really like seeing more of Amy Acker, so I can’t entirely complain about seeing her tap into her crazy side once again.
  • The flashbacks are an interesting exercise in terms of reframing the story from Caroline’s point of view: what we saw from Bennett indicated that she felt abandoned by Caroline, so to learn that she only felt abandoned in terms of leaving her to remain Rossum’s puppet adds a new layer to their relationship that we’ll never see played out both because she’s dead and because the show is getting cancelled.
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2 Comments

Filed under Dollhouse

2 responses to “Dollhouse – “Getting Closer”

  1. Tausif Khan

    I believe the ideas are driving the show which might be what is causing problems for viewers. With Adelle she is already complex. She is a strong leader but in terms of dating she has problems. Twists in her character are as you say earned. However, with Boyd we know next to nothing. We know that he is an ex-cop (that could be an alibi). However, if you go back and look at what his character has done we as viewers question what we saw. Boyd was the one who explained to the audience who Daniel Perrin was. Boyd laughed when Topher presented moral issues. We originally thought it was because he was the moral center. We now know it is because he knew Topher and brought him in as a part of a plan.

    This all goes back to the central question of Who are we? Is what we are essential?

    The focus on making sure the plot points are made on to the show has kept us from getting more character development and therefore as an audience I think we feel gilted. However, we are left with the interesting task of looking back at the character’s previous interactions and see how they change now knowing what we know.

  2. neil

    good call on the topher/Bennett theme.

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