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...

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