“The Hollow Men”
January 15th, 2010
“This world is for people who can evolve.”
We’re going to be waiting two weeks until Dollhouse concludes its troubled two-season run (although scheduled to finish next week, the cross-network Haiti Telethon is taking over primetime on the 22nd), and it’s going to be interesting to see the kind of anticipation that builds around the show’s series finale. “The Hollow Men” is an engaging hour of television that features a strong performance from Harry Lennix, but there is every sense that this is transition episode and little more: the scale of the “war” is at this point still so small that the episode feels more incidental than perhaps it should.
The show has spent much of its second season implying that events which seem small are going to eventually seem very large, aided by the presence of “Epitaph One” as an image of the world’s future dystopia, but the real trick is trying to actually make those small events seem large in the context of a single episode. The work done in “The Hollow Men” is not inelegant so much as it is hampered by the “rush” towards a conclusion, and at times the episode feels like a “greatest hits” collection of the show’s finest moments as opposed to a culmination of ongoing storylines. The episode spends a lot of time talking about characters as a family, which is a fine idea but which fails to capture the evolution these characters have gone through: while the show’s relatively short run precludes the kind of depth that the final episodes of Lost or Battlestar Galactica brought to the table, there is still a sense that the way Dollhouse made its way towards its finale kept it from having the dramatic impact it perhaps could have.
It does nothing to make me less intrigued about how the show wraps up its run next week, but I definitely am not connecting with the ending as perhaps some others might be.
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 Public Eye” / “The Left Hand”
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.
March 27th, 2009
We make choices, and then we live with them. And then we die with them.
After undoubtedly its finest hour last week, “Echoes” has a lot to live up to, and for the part it succeeds – no, the episode doesn’t reach those heights precisely, but what it accomplishes is something different in a way. Whereas last week did a lot of strong work in regards to establishing Paul Ballard’s purpose and emphasizing the moral grey area for the Actives being used in various ways, this week returned to what last week’s episode really didn’t delve into, the wonderful irony in Echo’s name in particular.
We saw in the season’s second episode that Echo is experiencing her former life, or something aspects of her past identity, in a way that the other actives are not, but in this episode a mysterious toxin created by a mysterious corporation with mysterious ties to Echo’s past life as Caroline emerges which creates this effect in every other active. The episode has some balance challenges, as the humans who receive the drug replace traumatic visions with hilarious lack of inhibition and dominate parts of the episode, but for the most part there’s a good combination of light-hearted fun and a more serious tone.
Still, the above quote captures the very idea of how people are recruited into the Dollhouse: they are given a chance to live for five years without consequences for their choices, that part of their life wiped away for the police or the courts, and then a promise that they won’t even have to live with their choices once they finish their five-year term. It’s a complicated process that I don’t feel we’re supposed to trust, and even if the episode didn’t make me care about Caroline, it at least made me really interested about what she represents in this story.
And that’s still a good bit of momentum, which keeps me engaged with a show that had lost me a few episodes in.
February 20th, 2009
When Joss Whedon first introduced the concept of Dollhouse, the show had potential largely based on its philosophical ideas, examining who these actives were, who they are now, and who they could potentially be in the future. In the show’s ostensible pilot of sorts, “Ghost,” we only really dealt with these questions on a surface level: we saw an example of the kind of job that Echo could be given, and a small glimpse into who she once was. But that middle question was left more or less unanswered: while we got some sense of complications with the actives and potential hazards, the philosophical questions (morality, ethics, all of that jazz) were never really investigated.
This is the reason why I’m not sure why “The Target” wasn’t the show’s pilot, because with a little bit more introduction to the key values this is a far more interesting hour of television. Not only was Echo’s “case of the week” far more interesting to watch, but the stakes were higher, and more importantly the people whose lives were at stake were people that we were supposed to care about. This episode, using Boyd’s first days at Dollhouse as a framework, show us a side of Dollhouse that is morally questionable, that raises some important questions both about the security of this process and the transparency of Dollhouse’s leadership, and does a lot more to make me excited about this show and its characters than last week’s comparatively pedestrian offering.