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.