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I Like My Scars: The Dollhouse Recaps Begin

Say, does anyone remember that one Dollhouse post? Because: I sure do! Jesus! It was all over the place. At the time I wrote it, it was just a little thing about a sure-to-be-cancelled show that I thought was quite a bit smarter than most people gave it credit for. Now, it’s one of the more well-trafficked, well-known things that I’ve done. Oh, and also, Dollhouse is still on the air! And I am recapping it, as promised.

Now, I, of course, take total credit for the fact that the show was renewed for a second season. But there is no need to thank me! Because the eminent Mr. Joss Whedon has already attempted to thank us all. By providing us with some of the WORST EPISODES OF ANY OF HIS SHOWS EVER, INCLUDING THE FIRST SEASON OF “ANGEL.” Oh, yes. I went there.

The season opener, “Vows,” was solid enough, with Ballard continuing his creepy rescue-fetish routine by actually becoming a client and pimping Echo out in order to bust noted sexy British arms dealer Lee Adama. It contained some really fantastic character work (more about that later) but the plot itself was disappointingly by-the-book, and saved only by the fact that I just now realized Jamie Bamber is an attractive man. Yes! Even with the John Edwards hair! Which he still has, and which is terrible! But, for once in my life, I was able to actually look at his face without him opening it to make that terrible Lee Adama noise about wanting to put the entire Space Robot Nuclear Holocaust on the back burner so he can discuss the fact that his Space Dad never tossed a Space Ball around the old Space Yard with him and instead he made him be a stupid Space Pilot in the stupid Space Robot Nuclear Holocaust and he DIDN’T EVEN WANT TO and do you know what his dad never showed up to ANY of his ballet recitals, not ONE, and he wanted to DANCE! To DANCE!!! Let me tell you: a Bamber who does not utter the word “DAAAAAAaaaaAAAAD” at any point in the hour-long television drama in which he appears is a Bamber vastly improved. And yet! After the first half of Season One, which put the Charlie’s Brainwashed Angels concept on hold and focused on creating believable characters and a variety of very exciting and provocative ethical dilemmas, it felt like a less than perfect debut.

Oh, and then there was “Instinct.” Dear God, I hated “Instinct.” Here’s a thing that I have never actually liked about Joss Whedon’s shows: the way he tends to use his Monster of the Week plots for big, obvious, hit-you-in-the-head-with-a-sack-of-hammers Metaphors. This week, we got a metaphor for… post-partum depression? Wife abuse? Those promos for “Changeling” where Angelina Jolie kept shrieking “I WANT MY SON BAAAAAACK?” I don’t know, GOD. Probably all of those things!

Here’s one thing I’m pretty certain of: it sucked. It went like this: Echo is programmed to be some tiny baby’s mom, because his Actual Mom is dead. Echo is weirded out by the whole situation, because the kid’s dad really doesn’t like her and/or the kid that much. Echo overhears the dad planning to send her back to the shop and give the kid away, runs off with the baby, is apprehended, does the “IIII WANT MY SONNNNNNNNNN” thing for approximately forever, and then has her mind erased. But! Even after her mind is erased! She still wants her son baaaaaack! Because the Maternal Instinct has magical science-defying powers of undying devotion which are purely biological and not at all circumstantial or different from woman to woman, which is why all moms love their children in precisely the same way and there have never been any abusive, neglectful or indifferent mothers anywhere ever. (The show’s explanation: she has a bond with the child that cannot be erased, because she is lactating, and boob glands are more important to establishing a person’s priorities than personality or memory or context. Yes,  they LITERALLY SAY THIS. Dear Joss Whedon, thank you for your interest in Feminism, but we cannot make any hiring decisions at this time.) The paternal instinct, meanwhile, is apparently so weak that a stiff breeze can annihilate it, but Prostitute-Hiring Mood Swing Dad ends up with the kid eventually, and this is heartwarming, because he’s decided that he “loves” him. For now. We’ll see what happens the next time something goes wrong; I predict he drops him off at a Little League game and never comes back.

(Oh, and also, Alexis Denisof is on the show now. Hi, Alexis Denisof! Missed you! Here is a fun fact about Alexis Denisof: although he is from the States – I know this! I have Googled! – he has, for some reason, the most unconvincing American accent I have ever heard. Brit it up, Wesley! You know you want to!)

You know what? Let’s erase “Instinct” from our memories, everyone. Much like that one episode where Echo was a blind Jesus person (oh, no! GLITCHING) it never happened. Did you fall asleep? Yes, for a little while. We all did. Let’s focus, instead, on what has been good about this season.

1. Topher is no longer the creepiest person on the show.

Oh, no! That title now belongs to Ballard. In last season’s finale, he “saved” November from the Dollhouse by giving her the freedom to leave it, but kept Echo there. And this wasn’t – as Adele notes – because he cared more for November than for Echo. It’s because he has a fantasy about “saving” Echo, and that fantasy requires her to need saving. He needs her to be powerless so that he can rescue her. And, in the meantime, he’s more than willing to put her at risk. Obviously, this theme – that men who want to rescue you are just men who want you powerless, turned inside-out – was a big part of last season’s finale. But I’m glad that they’re continuing it into this season.

Did everyone catch the line about needing to check Echo’s “plumbing” after the Bamber engagement? Yes? It added an entirely new dimension to the creepiness of the Dollhouse: Echo, if programmed to believe she is in a relationship with someone, could very plausibly be having unprotected sex, with all the attendant risks. All of the Dolls could, and most likely do, on occasion. And this was, apparently, cool by Ballard, as long as he got to live out his fantasy of having Echo as a crime-fighting “partner.” Yeah, he’s a prince. A freaky, paternalistic, lady-fearing, vulnerability-fetishizing prince. And, toward the end of “Vows,” we see him actually beating the ever-loving shit out of Echo whilst screaming about how he’s done SO MUCH for her and she HASN’T REPAID HIM and WHY won’t she just DO WHAT HE WANTS and etc. He was trying to trigger her self-defense mechanisms, it’s true. But I fully believe that he was actually also expressing exactly what he felt. Consider: if beating her up was just a part of the act, why did he need to apologize for it later? Why did he, himself, say that he “wasn’t his best?”

2. “I like my scars.”

In my original post on Dollhouse, I praised it for its use of the “false consciousness” metaphor. What I did not mention is that “false consciousness,” as an actual political theory, often drives me a wee bit insane! The idea that there is some true, pure self, untouched and unconstructed by the Patriarchy, which you can have access to by reading the right books or attending the right classes or being subjected to enough terrifyingly condescending consciousness-raising and/or personal judgment by ladies who Know What’s Good For You (I’m just gonna call them Ballardettes. That cool?) is incredibly naive and incomplete: it ignores the fact that we are all informed by cultural context from day one, and will be for the rest of our lives. Dollhouse is, undeniably, a story about the journey from lack of agency (being so totally shaped by the cultural context that you have no power to resist it) to agency (defining who you are on your own terms). But it’s not about going back to who you were before culture. It’s not about being outside of culture. There is no outside, there is no before. Caroline doesn’t live here any more.

But Echo does. She’s gaining agency, even within the context of the Dollhouse: she remembers everything, she “is many people” – but, she says, “none of them are me.” She isn’t regaining her “true” self; she’s creating a new self, out of all the roles she’s ever had. And this is a far better metaphor for “false consciousness” than just becoming Caroline again. There is no false consciousness, only incomplete consciousness. You don’t get to escape into some realm of culture-free authenticity in order to claim your own power. You claim it starting right now, right here. From where and who you already are.

And consider, for a moment, Dr. Claire Saunders and/or Whiskey. She’s just found out that she’s not a member of the privileged class: she’s a Doll, a fake, a girl like all the others. And MAN OH MAN is she ever in a Dworkiny place about it. But even she doesn’t want to go back to being Whiskey, or whoever Whiskey was before she was that; she’s Claire, she doesn’t want to stop being Claire. She’s just realizing that “Claire” isn’t who she thought she was – and that there are more possibilities for her than the ones she’s been programmed to fulfill.

In both “Vows” and “Instinct,” we have scenes where men try to “rescue” Dolls by telling them that their pain doesn’t have to be permanent: they could turn themselves over to the doctors again, get it all fixed up. Boyd tells Claire her scars don’t have to be permanent; Ballard, who promised to “help” Echo in “Vows,” tells her in “Instinct” that it might be easier for her to have everything erased than to live with the pain the engagements cause her. (Oh, and both men seem to think that the key to “rescuing” these ladies is to date them, because DUH, doesn’t having a man make it all better, Princess? Only Claire points this out and/or gets salty about it, because she’s apparently decided to be my favorite.) Both men are refused. Echo would rather have a self in pain than no self at all. And Claire likes her scars.

3. “I didn’t make you hate me.”

Can we just go ahead and say that Claire Saunders is basically second-wave feminism? Can we just say that? Unlike Echo, her third-wavey counterpart, who is gaining agency organically, by becoming aware of all her roles and distancing them from her true, self-created reality, Claire has only ever had one role that she knows of. And it consists of taking care of everyone, tending to their emotional needs, and never leaving the House. She’s been forced, by trauma and violence, to realize both the essential falseness of that role and how very much it limits her. It comes all at once, and it’s huge, and it’s awful.

And so, she starts to take it out on the one person that she knows she can blame: Topher. He made her this way. He’s the reason for her pain. He’s responsible for everything about who she is. So, from tormenting him to trying to fuck him (because isn’t that what he wants? Isn’t that what they all want? Isn’t that the only use anyone has for her?) she’s trying to claim her power by giving him all of it. Blaming someone for who you are gives them all the credit for who you are. And: I have been in this place! I do not judge this place! This is a pretty much entirely understandable place to be!

But, oh, the scene where Topher breaks it down for her. “That’s the contract. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Not fully. Not ever.” Which: this basically is the contract, yes? The one between ladies and dudes in Patriarchy? Neither of us knows the other  – not fully, not ever. We’re not allowed to. Oh, but also, this: “I made you question. I made you fight for your beliefs. I didn’t make you hate me. You chose to.” There’s not a question in my mind that Topher deserves all the anger and contempt Claire feels for him. But, there it is: power. Choice. One part of her that Topher isn’t responsible for. It doesn’t feel great. But it’s a start. Now, she just has to find other parts of herself that are hers alone. Or create them.

25 Comments

  1. A'Llyn wrote:

    Yes! Love the recaps and commentary. I like the show itself, but half of my enjoyment is reading the discussions afterwards.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  2. Gnatalby wrote:

    Oh man, I haaaated the bad mom episode of Dollhouse. It seemed so profoundly anti-feminist to me.

    Ladies are crazy! Ladies will do anything to get babies! Their boobs told them to! A woman without a baby is sad, incomplete, yearning.

    Gentlemen, watch out. If you give a lady a baby she’ll be cutting off your electricity and standing over you with a knife within 42 minutes.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  3. CLD wrote:

    Sady, your recaps are better than the shows themselves. Thanks for posting them!

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  4. debbie wrote:

    Great recap! Have you seen Epitaph 1? It was supposed to be the Dollhouse pilot, but Fox scrapped it. It’s included on the DVD, and it raises many, many interesting questions about the future of the dollhouse, and the implications of the technology they are using.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  5. napthia9 wrote:

    I make it through the crazy baby episodes by assuming that the Dollhouse staff are geniuses, but are also incapable of interpreting the results of their crazy mad science experiments accurately and without bias. Because c’mon- Topher’s not a reliable narrator when it comes to the purpose of the Dollhouse or what life as a Doll is like! Just because his job is to operate the science doesn’t mean he’s the best authority.

    On the other hand, I think this interpretation runs into the same problem one of the Bitch blogs mentioned re:Mad Men. Topher’s so often in the position of explaining how the science works that we get used to him as an authority figure and it takes active work to ask ourselves if he’s right or not- even when, as we saw in Instinct, he’s never done anything like the experiment AND he’s been wrong about why the Dolls are behaving oddly before AND Echo has done odd things because of her growing self-awareness before. (There’s a similar problem for casual viewers w/Boyd and Ballard and their paternalism/heroics.) It’s very hard to not treat Topher as the scientific authority figure, simply because that’s the role he plays- even when his judgments are flawed.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink
  6. Stephanie wrote:

    Your original Dollhouse post is what introduced me to the awesomeness that is Sady Doyle and Tiger Beatdown. This one is brilliant and hilarious as always.

    I think I’m going to have to watch Firefly tonight and reminisce about the good old Joss Whedon days.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  7. William wrote:

    For those who, like me, unaccountably missed that one Dollhouse post, it is here.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  8. Storywh0re wrote:

    Thank you, Sady. I have not watched this ep yet, because I could tell just how failtastic and essentialist it was. I am not disapointed.

    Ironically, only small chaneges would be needed to make it better, or even subversive. Make the kid just too old to nurse, or unable to nurse; then you can’t ascribe the connection to nursing. Then it becomes the OPPOSITE of essentialist. Or–here’s a concept–make the client female and make Victor the active!

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  9. Nymeria815 wrote:

    I agree completely. The first episode was decent enough, if not a little underwhelming, but the second was awful. Your show got a second season Joss Whedon! Try harder! I hope it picks up the pace from here. I’d hate it to repeat the whole “Well, the first 4 episodes are kind of bad but WAIT UNTIL YOU SEE 5!” (It may have been six)

    Anyway, I love reading your recaps of this, and I’d love to see it continue throughout the series.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  10. petpluto wrote:

    “Have you seen Epitaph 1? It was supposed to be the Dollhouse pilot, but Fox scrapped it. It’s included on the DVD, and it raises many, many interesting questions about the future of the dollhouse, and the implications of the technology they are using.”

    Minor correction – Epitaph 1 was supposed to be the wrapping up of the season/series, back when Whedon wasn’t aware he was going to get a season 2 and wanted to have an ep that could function as both a jumping off point and a coda. It is awesome.

    The unaired pilot is also on the DVD set, and it is also awesome, mostly because Echo starts out from a place of working toward gaining her own agency and specialness instead of merely having all of her freakin’ personas dumped in her head by freakin’ ALPHA! Ahem. Sorry.

    Anywho, I love the review.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  11. al_zorra wrote:

    It’s weird or not weird, considering my love for BTVS, despite the despites, but nothing last year or this year has prompted the least urge to request season 1 of Dollhouse from netflix.

    Love, C.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  12. Roxie wrote:

    OMGOSH WHY IS ALEXIS’ ACCENT SO WEIRD?! I just don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish. Is he trying to sound Midwestern? Californian? It just takes me out of it & I too wish he’d just go Brit!

    @AlZorra, episode 6 was really, really good.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  13. Oh! oh! But the really wonderful thing, I thought, about Claire’s experiences are when Topher offers to ‘fix her’ by erasing who she is, and she confesses that even though she knows she’s ‘made up’ and it makes her v. unhappy, she’s still profoundly attached to being Claire. To me, it really gets that the complex interaction of the anti-essentialist line with the experience of identity; that is, that even when we know our identities aren’t expressions of some inner essence, they’re still us, and still precious to us. And that can count for particular kinds of femininity, too (to make the metaphor explicit here).

    With you on the weird ‘her glands made her do it’ line, although I’m honestly a bit relieved to have them actually talking about the blurred line between body and mind (since I am not a fan of Descartes).

    Lovin’ your work, as always. And nice to see you return to the topic that had me find you in the first place :-)

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  14. I didn’t think 2.02 was that bad (actually liked it better than 2.01: I am not comfortable with Ballard beating Echo up).

    It’s a little unfair, maybe, to say that the show is saying teh boobs make womenz crazy. Echo was programmed to be an insanely devoted mother, so she was: the lactation and all that was more just to give a new twist on the tech and make it even more ridiculously total. If anything, I’d read it the opposite way: in order to tweak Echo’s neurochemistry to the point where it was intense enough to trigger lactation in opposition to her natural biology, they had to turn the dial up so ridiculously high that yeah, she can nurse a baby normally, but she also becomes a crazy knife-wielding maniac.

    I don’t necessarily believe this enough to argue the point strenuously, though. I’m more interested in why every episode so far (except two: 1.08 “Needs” and 1.09 “A Spy in the House of Love”) has felt so rushed / incomplete / superficial / wrong to me. I’m a Whedon fanboy and will watch until the bitter end, however bad things may get, but the show ought to be better than this by now. Is it just me?

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
  15. ChelseaWantsOut wrote:

    Well, it may have been heavy-handed and obvious and like, “Hey, feminists, I’m still your friend, look!” but I liked how the the police officer/detective whatever was like, “So many women just think they’re over-reacting, you’re lucky you got out when you did, etc!” (Yes, she said etc.; I thought it was weird, too) and then immediately afterward she and the rest of the police were like, “Oh, of course we believe this dude because he is not a ladyperson and therefore he is totally reliable, unlike the babechicks who are unreliable in every way!”

    Also I hate sea urchin; it’s pretty much the only food I don’t like, so I enjoyed Topher’s repeated references to the gag-inducing qualities thereof.

    In conclusion, this post is just like the olden days when I first started reading your blog, Sady, only now I’m reading it from home and not a hellish fluorescent den of misogyny. Having graduated from college FTW!!

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  16. Aeryl wrote:

    Totally with you on Instinct, Sady.

    I was all screaming when I saw the preview after Vows. “OH YEA! ANOTHER SHOW BOUT WOMENZ AND THEIR INABILITY TO BE REASONABLE ABOUT THE BABIEEZ!”

    But I actually liked how it ended, aside from the boring claptrap about not knowing how much you value something until it’s taken from you, because Echo reasoned her way out of her maniacal motherhood. Which is actually the exact opposite of the setup, at least to me.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  17. LSG wrote:

    Oh dear, perhaps I was trying too hard to see this in a feminist light. I didn’t like “Instinct,” but I thought that they were deliberately trying to show that (as Napthia9 says) Topher doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I was strongly under the impression that Echo now always remembers her assignments after she’s been wiped, and Ballard knows it. This particular time, the only thing that was different is she decided to act on what she remembered, not so much because she was a mother but because she’d been ripped away from the assignment, that the situation wasn’t finished playing out. Importantly, I thought Ballard was saying “GLANDS DID IT” not because the glands actually did it but because he was trying to cover up the fact that she was remembering, as she always remembers.

    My optimistic feminist reading was that the show was trying to call attention to the fact that everybody, especially Topher, was quick to believe that a woman was controlled entirely by her body (especially, of course, her breasts), her mommy instincts, and by the men who programmed said breasts. Their essentialism made them totally miss the fact that she has a mind and is becoming an aware, dangerous force they can’t control. So yeah, I saw it as harking back to the false-consciousness idea than actually being essentialist. But perhaps I’m indulging my optimism too far.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink
  18. muz wrote:

    LSG, I saw it the way you did.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  19. Brooke wrote:

    I read it as LSG did too, I’ve pretty much been taking Topher not-very-seriously each time he explains what’s going on. Because he’s operating from assumptions that aren’t true, and the audience knows that they’re not true. Epitaph One really demonstrated that he has no handle on this technology.

    And I have to say, I really liked season 1 of Angel! It was Angel season 4 that was the worst season of anything Whedon has ever done!

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  20. @Brooke:

    It was Angel season 4 that was the worst season of anything Whedon has ever done!

    Are you forgetting the second half of Buffy 6, with the raping and the magic addiction and the endless Buffy speeches about not being able to see Spike anymore because she was just using him?

    Or for that matter, Buffy 7, with the endless Buffy speeches about needing to cowboy up and fight the good fight even though it was hard?

    Angel 4 was a mess, true, but c’mon.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  21. Brooke wrote:

    @Mr_Subjunctive – I liked season 7 of Buffy an awful lot, although I felt like the parts (episodes) were greater than the whole. I also liked season 6, even though I thought the magical addiction was heavyhanded. But Angel season 4 makes my brain leak out my ears. I’ve been driving a semi truck through its incomprehensible plot holes for years now, trying to make sense of it all, and I will take endless Buffy speeches over Connor angst any day.

    Not to turn this into a derail about non-Dollhouse Whedon shows – I was just really surprised that Sady picked on Angel season 1 out of all the choices!

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  22. whatsername wrote:

    While I had mixed feelings about “Instinct” my understanding is that this whole season is basically revolving around “Epitaph One” (read that in an interview somewhere with Joss) and in that context I think the idea that Topher would start messing around not just with the brain but with other processes of the body was important. Was it the best storyline within which for him to do that? I dunno, like I said, mixed feelings, but there were a couple things I liked about it, as others noted: the ending.

    Neither of the first ep’s were spectacular but you hit on two of the three things that have me pretty much riveted: Claire and Echo and their development of agency. But also, how did we get to the state of the world in Epitaph One? Because I think that’s what this season is building to.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  23. Melinda wrote:

    I maintain that Ballard has ALWAYS been the creepiest character on the show. His weird Caroline-rescue obsession was prominent all through season 1.
    I think Topher is meant to never be taken too seriously, so we won’t be surprised when he screws something up (a la Epitaph One). He also never really thinks about the consequences of what he’s doing because he is too interested on the “how” of it all, whereas Ballard knows he’s using Echo in his own weird fantasy.

    Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink
  24. DavidC wrote:

    @LSG (etc.):
    I was strongly under the impression that Echo now always remembers her assignments after she’s been wiped, and Ballard knows it. This particular time, the only thing that was different is she decided to act on what she remembered, not so much because she was a mother but because she’d been ripped away from the assignment, that the situation wasn’t finished playing out.

    I think it’s later that we find out, but we know now that Echo mostly remembers things with her notebook. (Which is a neat part of the agency metaphor– the kind of effort that developing agency takes.) Would she have had a chance to put the relevant memories in the notebook? I doubt it.

    Hehe, Ballardettes.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  25. Chris wrote:

    When can we expect more Dollhouse recaps from you, Sady? I am curious what you thought of the ending.

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

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