Dollhouse Episode 2.1

AAAAND WE'RE BACK! Coverage of Dollhouse Season 2, long promised, is finally ready for broadcast.

In a conversation about a week ago, my infinitely wise friend over at Shark Attack revealed that the final season of Angel had to be watched THREE TIMES before the love could grow. You shudder at the thought... but it's kinda true -- Whedon shows require work if they are to be fully appreciated. I understand that better than ever now having emerged from my THIRD viewing of 'Vows' this week. This episode was dense, and unpacking it is probably something best left to more capable Whedon scholars. But I'll start my own exegesis over here, because there's no way I can shut up about this Dollhouse business. Rule one of the blogger's code: ignorance is no brake on enthusiasm.

Some notes:

A bit like the episode itself, we should start with the funnies and the techie stuff. First off, Tempura Joe. Love that! Second, Sierra vs. Ivy. And the nuff HAS BEEN SAID. Also, the tracking shot following Toph from bunk to HQ is pretty Battlestar, is it not? In fact, the lighting as a whole has gone from blasting hotel-lobby gold to chilly, space-station blue. A welcome change, Imo. Team Whedon must have taken a good hard look at 'Epitaph One' and thought... yeah, that's cool. Also, hey arty dissolves on the dance-floor! And hey arty sex/isolation mashup montage! Cinema! Marvelous!

Now to the substance. Let's attack the Saunders breakdown, which is pretty much what made this episode so difficult, and so incredible. Tough, because we are dealing with three characters on top of each other (real person, Whiskey, Dr. Saunders) and because there's a whole false consciousness metaphor on top of THAT. The mind is left rather boggled.

Well, actually, turns out Whedon sums it up rather brilliantly in the first exchange between Saunders (you designed me) and Topher (if you're losing it, it's your fault). Saunders has discovered she is a doll. She is not privileged like she thought. She has also been constructed by that sociopath in a sweater-vest. Even when you have power, you can't escape your gender, your objectification. Saunder's reaction is to deny responsibility -- I can't change because I'm built that way. Boyd is the first to tell her that EVERYONE is poorly constructed, and that defeatism is just an excuse.

But it's Topher that hammers the message home. Saunders wants him to confess to being a sick, evil pervert -- that he designed her to hate him so that he could win her around and have true love. The hatred she feels for her maker, the Big Brother, the ruling Male, would not be her fault. But Topher does not comply. I don't know you, he says. When constructing Saunders, for practical reasons Topher wanted a real person. Which means she chose to hate him. She IS privileged, even if she has been moulded by forces she cannot abide. She can recognise them, and fight them, if she chooses to. But that would mean going out into the world, which is scary as hell. Toph tries to comfort -- that fear means you're human. Don't flatter yourself, Saunders shoots back. She doesn't say it, but by the end of the episode we know what she's thinking: I'll MAKE myself human.

On to Ballard. The end of the first season left us hanging on what in the seven hells he was doing. But DeWitt is there to explain. He was done with Mellie, but he still wants something from Echo. Ballard admits he strives to do what's right, but he doesn't know what that means anymore. He's compromised -- his fantasies of righteousness involve using Echo for his purposes. Where does helping end and getting off on helping begin? A tension perfectly exposed in the climactic scene where Ballard's verbal and physical assault on Echo is cut up with flashbacks of all the times he's promised never to hurt her. He tried to get her out and free, but he didn't. The dual motives go further -- while Ballard is trying to make Echo snap, there is something genuine being uncovered when he talks about trading his life, betting everything, and not getting anything in return. As he confesses afterwards, he wasn't his best. Fantasies have dark sides when they remain unfulfilled.

Finally, Echo. DeWitt is aware that she is evolving, and is comfortable with letting the experiment run. But Echo's moments of lucidity are dangerous for the Dollhouse. She doesn't take too long in telling Saunders that no one is their 'best' in here. You can't help glitching when you are confronted with so many lies. That's what Ballard is after when he's slapping her around. At the end of the episode she remembers everything, and everyone she's been. But thoughts of Caroline, the person she was, turn quickly to finding her other selves. I'm all of them, she says, but none of them are me. She's not going to be able to go back. The Dollhouse has imprinted too many roles over her personality for Caroline to remain uncorrupted. Wiping doesn't work. There is no blank slate left. Echo will have to build a new identity with what her oppressive environment has given her.

And who does she turn to? Ballard, who has broken so many vows already, whose fantasies can harm as much as help. But who else is she to trust? And will the 'wedding' at the end of the episode end as disastrously as the one at the beginning? We'll have to wait and see...


Liberty Before Liberalism

Following on from this post about the value of history, I am now slightly less ignorant of Quentin Skinner's position, and thought I should clarify what he says.

The impression left by the last post is that history's message is essentially negative -- it gives us an appreciation of "how far the values embodied in our present way of life ... reflect a series of choices made at different times between different possible worlds", and so ensures we are not "bewitched" into believing that those values are absolute.

But Skinner puts a positive spin on this negative outcome: although "our society places unrecognised constraints upon our imagination", history can help free up that imagination -- our ability to see through present values, and perhaps consider new values beyond them. Perhaps restoring those of the past? As Skinner concedes, political, philosophical and moral questions may not be "perennial", but there must be "some deeper level" which links past and present values if his argument for history's utility is to work. In a footnote he dismisses the notion that he is pleading for "the adoption of an alien value from a world we have lost", but Liberty Before Liberalism's final rhetorical flourish ("did we choose rightly?") almost but not quite suggests the opposite. The 'not quite' hinges on the distinction between "adoption" and "imagination" -- we cannot transplant past solutions wholesale into the present, but perhaps we can be inspired by them.


The Social Network

The facts are the problem. Here's Jezebel on the film, and the points stand. If the origin of facebook wasn't what The Social Network suggested, why did Sorkin and Fincher make those calls? Why make a "digital hate fuck" Zuckerberg's motive? As this piece suggests, the film should have gone in a different direction, focusing on what a "canny and receptive cultural reader" Zuckerberg is, and in doing so could have said more about what facebook is, and why it took off so spectacularly.

Anywayz. Taking it as it is -- as a film, as fiction -- The Social Network is brilliant. Built around the irony of a creator of a networking site who cannot maintain friends of his own, the film does a fine job of showing the full range of arseholery Zuckerberg is capable of. The descriptor 'asshole' bookends the film, delivered by two different ladies, and Zuckerberg goes from 'is' to 'trying to be'. Rather difficult to read what that's about. The next step, I guess, would be 'trying not to be', and the final image is both cruel and hopeful on that score.

Fincher keeps the talky-talky action, you know... active. Impressive, really. While the pace of Sorkin's dialogue gives the film a certain drive, Fincher's montage sequences are just as important to the energy of the thing. I didn't know internet start-ups could be so exciting! Sorkin is indeed at his erudite blabber-mouth best. Watch out for the chicken and the principle. And Jesse Eisenberg's robotic nervous confidence was captivating. Give him awards, I say...

In sum: a perfect package, if not for the heap of lies it's built on. Not trusting it means I cannot love the film, but there is a lot to enjoy if you leave your scruples behind.
"M-m-master, when I was on the Quasar I had a paracoita, a doll, you see, a genicon, so beautiful with her great pupils as dark as wells, her i-irises purple like asters or pansies blooming in summer, Master, whole beds of them, I thought, had b-been gathered to make those eyes, that flesh that always felt sun-warmed. Wh-wh-where is she now, my own scopolagna, my poppet? Let h-h-hooks be buried in the hands that took her! Crush them, master, beneath stones. Where has she gone from the lemon-wood box I made for her, where she never slept at all, for she lay with me all night, not in the box, the lemon-wood box where she waited all day, watch-and-watch, Master, smiling when I laid her in so she might smile when I drew her out. How soft her hands were, her little hands. Like d-d-doves. She might have flown with them about the cabin had she not chosen instead to lie with me. W-w-wind their guts about your w-windlass, snuff their eyes into their mouths. Unman them, shave them clean below so their doxies may not know them, their lemans may rebuke them, leave them to the brazen laughter of the brazen mouths of st-st-strumpets. Work your will upon those guilty. Where was their mercy on the innocent? When did they tremble, when weep? What kind of men could do as they have done—thieves, false friends, betrayers, bad shipmates, no shipmates, murderers and kidnappers. W-without you, where are their nightmares, where are their restitutions, so long promised? Where are their abacinations, that shall leave them blind? Where are the defenestrations that shall break their bones, where is the estrapade that shall grind their joints? Where is she, the beloved whom I lost?" - The Book Of The New Sun


Arrested Development

Comedy gold, which should be enough. But me being me, satisfaction eludes. I have problems, both within my psyche, but for present purposes, with the show itself. Because comedy isn't enough, as Scott Pilgrim found out. 100-carat comedy gold needs a PURPOSE.

Ostensibly, the point of Arrested Development is the clash between responsible adulthood and unrestrained delinquency -- order and chaos. And while the show usually positions us behind the straight-man (in every possible sense of the word) Michael Bluth, you can't help but be won over to the opposite point of view by his disturbed, infantile family, who burn through money and pursue the most insane and inchoate projects. Actually, irresponsibility is more fun. It's the spice of life. Granted, Michael's family are all frustrated in some way. Lindsay and Tobias are in a loveless marriage. Gob envies the respect his brother receives, and seeks similar approval. Buster doesn't want to leave his mother's wing. His mother desperately does. Maeby wants real parents. George-Michael wants Maeby. But the frustration of keeping this pack of clowns together is greater still. You start to wonder if Michael really is more fulfilled trying to control the uncontrollable.

That's all great. My problem is, there are three (more like two and a half) seasons of this. JUST this. We leave the Bluth family pretty much as we found them, and I wanted something more. Why couldn't these characters have GOT somewhere -- better, worse, different? Couldn't the non-stop jokes lead to something, some small thing, that was earnest, moving, gods forbid... unfunny?

The comparison I would make is with The Office, probably the finest comedy of the last decade. And it was genius precisely because it went that little bit into the realm of drama. Brent's moments of generosity. Tim and Dawn's snatches of intimacy. Hard-earned, through all the idiocy and horror, but all the more satisfying for it. Arrested Development ran away from that. It's a great show, one of the most inventive comedies America has produced. But I think it could have been even better. It could have been perfect.


The Second Sex

Finished it last night, or rather this morning. Exhaustive, but never exhausting. Some may complain that Simone De Beauvoir takes aaages getting to the point, and when she gets there, spends aaages going over and over it. Some may complain that there isn't enough structure to her argument -- too little linear unfolding, too much exploratory circling. But actually, I liked that approach. For me, The Second Sex isn't just valuable as theory, it's brilliant literature as well. Its real treasures are its characters, hundreds of them, used to illustrate personal and inter-personal problems ranging from the most intimate to the most public: sex, love, family, work. The breadth of human experience explored in the second part of the book actually has the effect of challenging, warping, even undermining the central philosophical position set out in the first. Beauvoir spends a lot of her time trying to bend her theory around her characters, to the point where I started asking myself: can theory really capture life in its entirety?

There is breadth, but there is also depth, to her characterization. People's ideas and emotions are analyzed with great focus and detail, frustrations and neuroses are revealed and explained. For me, the conclusions arrived at are not as important as the method. This endless questing into the bowels of your psyche will dredge up interesting aspects of yourself. Things you may not like, perhaps, but being confronted with them is the first step towards acceptance and self-control, perhaps even transformation -- that transcendence that Beauvoir is so facinated by. We shouldn't run from ourselves, but instead appraise our personalities honestly, and find answers to questions like: why do I feel this way, why am I unhappy, what makes me happy, how do I do that thing that makes me happy. Marx wanted to change the world, but first he needed to understand it. Same goes for the individual.


The value of history

It often happens this way. You think something, and then you find that others have thought similar things, and have expressed them with a clarity and a beauty that you yourself were incapable of. In this particular case, my gratitude is extended to Quentin Skinner, whose essay on meaning and understanding in the history of ideas I've had to read this week.

Being a history graduate, I've been asked several times what the point of studying history was. My response always centered on dispelling the idea that historical knowledge can somehow help you avoid the mistakes of the past, for there is no guarantee that a solution that worked in one context will work in another. Rather, it is the skills you acquire as a historian that are beneficial -- being able to understand how a particular social context works, the way power (politics), distribution of resources (economics), social structures (sociology), ideas and culture interact. The advantage is you keep your finger in different social science pies, and so you will be able to view the present day in a more holistic fashion.

But more than that, the historian tracks the way contexts change through time. And here I'll give the (paraphrased) word to Skinner. Possessing historical awareness, as opposed to just knowledge, means appreciating the variety of viable moral assumptions and political commitments human beings are capable of. Present day arrangements are not timeless, but contingent and local. Skinner argues that such a perspective has a moralizing effect. I take this to mean that understanding the relative nature of our values will ensure we avoid condescension -- it will make us more empathetic. A corollary I would add is that history allows you to stress-test ideologies such as religion, nationalism, socialism, even patriarchy, and so will teach you to be wary of their simplifications and distortions. Skinner is talking in particular about intellectual history, but I think his conclusions can be applied to historical study as a whole. Social structures as well as values are contingent and local. There are other ways of doing things. That is history's most obvious, and most valuable, lesson.