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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dollhouse, Season Two

Last night, I stayed up too late again. I wasn't watching Dollhouse this time - I finished that a couple of days ago. But I did spend a bit of time watching Joss Whedon and Tahmoh Penikett at NY ComiCon in 2009. There were a couple of quotes from that that really helped me formulate some of what I'd been thinking about the show since finishing the 2nd season, so I've sprinkled them in here.

"I'm such a bitter, sad man...and this is my bitter, sad show - welcome to it!"
I wish I'd watched those clips before I watched the show—especially Season Two. It might have changed my expectations. My first, brief review was that it was better than I'd been led to expect, albeit rushed, and with unnecessary cruelty at the end. I stand by that.
In response to that, AJC wrote the following:
Anchored by a weak actress, Friday night death-slot, and couldn't decide if it was about "Human depravity/redemption/identity" or "corporate plot as big bad to take over world."
In reply, I’d say that, especially given the way Whedon works, I don't think the "depravity/redemption/identity" and "corporate plot as big bad" are mutually exclusive—I think, in fact, that those pieces could have fit together just fine, given the time to actually build that story with the proper care.

"I got so turned around [... that it was like,] 'I don’t know what this show is...'"

But the early floundering and the less-than-stellar acting are not the way to buy time to tell a complex story. The floundering is obvious in the first season, and I think it lost the show some valuable narrative-building time. On the acting, my praise of various people still stands from the first season. I'd also add that Enver Gjokaj is fantastic, and Fran Kranz really grew on me. I don't think it's fair to pin all of the issues on Dushku, but I've said my piece about that. This time around, I'm sad to say that I have to downgrade Penikett, whose delivery was just painful at times. I'm much madder, though, at whoever was writing Paul Ballard at various times: the character became completely superfluous, ridiculous by the end of the present-day action, and nothing more than a plot device by “Epitaph Two.”

That said, I still think Season Two was, in some ways, better done than Season One. The story seemed more directed, more coherent. Much of it was compelling. But that, too, is problematic. Now that I've seen the whole thing, I realize that I have problems with the premise, with the story itself (especially where it goes), and with my participation by watching.

I wasn't expecting an easy end, or an unqualified happy one, but the ending that I got set off major alarms for me, largely because it highlighted what I’ll call the narrative sadism of the series. For some reason, the cruelties of Buffy's narrative arc (1-7, since I haven't finished the season 8 comics yet) were balanced, sometimes even overcome, by both a large-scale hopefulness and a sense that the characters did sometimes get meaningful pieces of happiness, even if they didn't get to keep them. Dollhouse never balanced out for me, and while there is a sense of hope at the end, it’s somehow not enough.

Why sadism? Echo is tortured, physically and emotionally, throughout the season. Starting with “Instinct,” we focus on just how painful the emotional rollercoaster of imprinting and Echo's inability to purge the imprints is. Ballard (he's still that character at this point), of course, offers to save her from it by turning her in, but Echo embraces the pain because it's better than feeling nothing. This is nothing less than we’d expect from one of Whedon’s “Strong Female Characters.”

One of the other things I watched last night (for the 2nd time) was Joss' Equality Now speech from 2006. In it, he responds over and over to the (hypothetical) question that people keep asking: "Why do you write these strong female characters?" He writes them, he says, because his mother was a strong woman, because his father and stepfather appreciated strong women, etc. It’s a good speech, and I buy it, but I have to question it as well, largely because of the narrative sadism with which he treats this most recent strong female character.

So, there's the increasing emotional pain. By episode 6, we've added literal torture to the mix, with extensive scenes of Bennett (a character who—given the time to develop normally, instead of at cancellation pace—could have been great) torturing Echo. This is as punishment, we find, for Caroline having abandoned Bennett in the wake of the incident that got her (Caroline) put in the Dollhouse in the first place—another potentially compelling component that never works as well as it might have, given more time. This is problematic, of course, because in addition to the fact that it's torture, Echo is not Caroline, according to Dollhouse's inner logic, so Bennet is not even torturing the right person.

And then there's Echo's time in isolation (in pain, of course), as DeWitt torments her to get information about her time away from the Dollhouse. DeWitt abd those writing her reach what seems like the height of her character's cruelty when she sends Echo to The Attic - all torment, all the time. But we see—and I wonder if this is somehow supposed to help?—that DeWitt isn't "just" being cruel. She needs Echo to go through this to get information on the Rossum Corporation. So it's torture, but for a good cause? Well, that makes it ok then. And while Echo isn't really given a chance to refuse, we assume that she wouldn't if she'd been allowed—because she's a strong female character, and if being put into a computer that runs on nightmares is the way to get things done, then that's what she'll do.

And then there's Ballard. Ballard/Paul/Golem/Plot Device Paul.

Ballard is an FBI agent whose mission is to take down the Dollhouse. Even when he initially began working for the Dollhouse, that's who he was. At some point, he began to become Paul in my mind, as Special Agent Ballard receded and, with him, the character's purpose. He became more important as a person – Paul – tricked into loving a doll, forming a connection with another doll. But as this Paul character blundered through the second season, it became hard to believe that he was ever Agent Ballard. Sadly, while this could have been an interesting character shift – from FBI agent to, I don’t know, pawn in the dollhouse - it also becomes hard to believe that Tahmoh Penikett is any better at acting than Eliza Dushku. And it becomes impossible to believe that someone - several someone's, in fact - got paid to "write" this character who almost completely ceases to be compelling. He doesn’t just stop being a good FBI agent, he stops being a good (well functioning) character.

But, as the Paul character fades away, he becomes more and more important to Echo, which means that he is still a strong enough part of what's happening to supply the last thread of punishment for our strong female character. My problem isn't really Paul Ballard's death. I'd have been upset, I'd have done it differently, but it wouldn't have made me reconsider whether having this show in my head was worthwhile. My problem is Paul Ballard's repeated death, which feels not so much like the arc of his character, but like another arc of pain for Echo.

When Alpha wipes the character's brain, he's still Ballard, and I still sort of care about him on his own merits. Mostly, though, it's a terrible blow for Echo, who has been rejected (albeit nobly) by Ballard, but who also "has a connection" with him, relies on him, trusts him. She also has the knowledge that he didn’t reject her for lack of interest, but out of a (justified, I think) sense that it would be wrong to take up with her, knowing as he does how little of "her" is clear. They share a connection, we’re told (and, at least a little bit, shown); this ends with her cradling his brain dead body.

And then, hooray—we can rebuild him! Ah, but only by excising that connection, the slim ray of light in Echo's otherwise pitch black world. So now he's there, but not all of him. I started thinking of him as a Golem around that point, one who just happened to look like Paul Ballard, but not really because of his Dolling. Perhaps there was simply no time to devote to keeping Ballard a compelling piece of the puzzle once it became clear that the show was on its last legs. “The Hollow Men” is a good example of what I mean. We almost care what's happening between him and Mellie. But Penikett walks clumsily through his lines, which are few and largely feel like filler. He conveys convincing pathos for Mellie, then plays idiot boy for Boyd—I let out an audible sound of disgust for “What did I miss?” Nothing, Paul. Just stand there and look hot.

But then there's “Epitaph Two,” in which it becomes clear that Paul (the intrepid FBI Special Agent Ballard being long gone) has recovered his connection to Echo, much as Victor and Sierra seem to hold on to their attachment. This happens in the space we don't see, and it's never really addressed. We're told, though, that he's "been knocking for 10 years" and that Echo “still hasn't let [him] in, except for a couple of times when she was sure they would die." Intriguing, if not surprising. "And what happens," Paul asks, "if you're sure we'll live?" I realized from that line that they would not both live to the end, but I honestly thought Echo would die in some final heroic self-sacrifice. That honor goes to Topher and, I would argue, to Whiskey/Dr. Saunders. And, as I waited for Echo to open up (right before she got offed, natch), Paul took a random bullet to the brain—the one thing even The Chair can't fix (when Bennett meets the same fate, a grief-stricken Topher says they could map her, only to be harshly reminded by DeWitt that there’s nothing to map).

I often feel like those sudden shocker deaths are cheating, and this one certainly needed to be earned, narratively speaking, more than it was. It’s shocking, but the real pain comes not from the loss of Paul, who we’ve already lost to bad writing, but in what we know the loss will do to Echo. In what was actually a pretty well-executed meltdown, Echo angrily confesses her love (too late) and her contrition. Wait, what? Ah, because, of course, she blames herself for not expressing her love to Paul, for not opening up to him. This asks us to ignore the fact that the show pretty much hinges on Echo being a train wreck—emotionally, mentally—and on how little of her emotional life is her own. Not to mention how busy she is saving the world by the end of the season.

And then it's the end. Topher has reset the world and Echo is left—alone, in effect, but victorious—to hang below until it’s safe to go topside without fear of being reset to Caroline. (I did actually sort of like the way that the show shifts our allegiances. I went from wanting Caroline to get her body back to wanting Echo to be free of the Dollhouse. A neat, though not entirely unproblematic trick.) This ending would have been unsatisfying to me, but I don’t think it would have bothered me as much as what happened next.

As Adele takes her leave, ushering those to be reset topside, she tells Echo to dismantle all of the tech, starting with The Chair (this at Alpha’s instruction, and, no, we’re never really shown how Alpha goes all Zen and becomes a good guy). Ah, but there’s a surprise waiting there, and Echo's final (we assume) imprint is Paul Ballard.

My initial reaction to this was, "EW!" and I think I stand by that, too.

I suspect that what was supposed to come next was, "Oh, he's in her head now, so they're finally together!" But that doesn't work for me. Plot wise, it's not the way the imprints have worked before (at least not that we've seen). The imprints do not interact with Echo - Echo calls them to the foreground when she needs what they can do. And then she puts them back, wherever that is. While that process seems to become more seamless, and while it seems - though it’s never really made clear or explained - that she can eventually access what they do without "becoming" them, none of this implies that she interacts with them the way she would interact with Sierra or Victor or anyone else with their own existence. And Plot Device Paul has already told us that Echo's "got a hundred people in her head and is the loneliest person [he] knows." How, exactly, is personality #101 going to make her less lonely? It would require a new paradigm for how she interacts with the multiple imprints - Paul's imprint would need to maintain its Paul-ness in a different way that other imprints have maintained their integrity, because she'd need to relate to him, rather than slipping in and out of being him, or marshaling his skills.

More problematically, and in a way I can't quite articulate, the, "Oh, he's in her head now, so they're together" ending ignores the fact that the beauty of a significant other is they are, in fact, other. I don't really know how to expand on that, or to articulate it any more clearly. What I can articulate is that I felt cheated.

My question for Joss Whedon is not why he wrote this strong female character, but why he punished her so cruelly for her strength. He spoke in the ComiCon clips about really wanting to tear characters down and put them through their paces, and I guess that does happen to male characters, but there seems to be a special level of cruelty reserved for the heroine. Even if she perseveres, something about the need to, and the nature of the things she endures, tacitly reinforces the idea that punishing strong women somehow makes sense. In the ComiCon clip, Joss worries about the objectification of women that Dollhouse engaged in, saying that it could come across as an empowering story of a woman's search for her identity, or as "We're objectifying them, but we're talking about it, so it's ok - let's objectify them some more!" I'd say that applies not just to the objectification inherent in the show's premise, but to the emotional pain that Echo is consistently confronted with. "We're hurting her, but she's strong and she can take it, so let's hurt her some more!"

And that's not something I can be comfortable with.

It took all that happened over the course of the show for me to come, really and truly, to that place of discomfort. “Epitaph One” made me rethink the first season, what it had meant, and where the show might potentially go. “Epitaph Two” made me rethink the whole show, how it had gotten to that point, but also my experience of watching it. I do think that, in many ways, the second season was better than the first. The show seemed to have more direction, it was more coherent, and other members of the ensemble were given a chance to carry some of the weight Dushku's acting couldn't. But the coherence came with what felt to me like an ever-increasingly sadistic streak, and the direction was often "wherever is worst, most painful, for Echo." What does it mean that Whedon found that compelling to write, and that I found it compelling to watch?

"The audience comes away as unclean as the people in the show - everybody is compromised."

Again, I wish I'd watched those ComicCon clips before I watched the show - especially Season Two. It might have changed my expectations. Maybe I'd have felt less wronged at the end if I'd realized that his main goal was to tear Echo down, even while holding up her strength in repeatedly reconstructing herself. Maybe I'd have paid more attention to what I was accepting as narrative drive if I'd known from the start that Whedon was out to implicate me.

Season Two was rough, but “Epitaph Two” was the final straw for me. It didn't bring me any satisfying sense of narrative closure, and its problems far outweighed for me the "hopefulness" of the worldwide reset. The up side, I suppose, is that the direction it sent my thoughts in did help me figure out some of the things that bugged me all along about the show. As I said, I felt cheated. More importantly from the viewing standpoint, I felt Echo had been cheated, and I felt that maybe I'd done myself a disservice by investing time and emotional energy in a show that would cheat its heroine in that way.


  1. "the beauty of a significant other is they are, in fact, other"
    I'd say "word," but then I'd sound like someone else we know.
    Instead I'll just nod and say "that's beautiful."

    Oh, and you don't even touch Mellie who is somehow Tara all over again...
    Women are punished for softness as well as strength.


  2. Yeah, I had lots of thoughts about poor November, but went on such a rant about the rest that I let that slide. I hadn't thought of her as Tara, pt. 2, but that's spot on. And a lot of my objections to Tara's treatment had to do with the fact that she stopped feeling like her own character and started feeling like a plot device - as true for November as for Paul, in my opinion. And Tara is, indeed, punished for her softness, which was also a convenient way to push Willow's buttons. And the ultimate button pushing, her sudden shocker death, is exactly the one I had in mind when I mentioned that cheat. Mellie's death at least felt more organic to me - tragic, but organic.

    And after the breakup scene, which was BRUTAL, I figured that she was getting thrown under the bus. When it became clear that she was coming back, I assumed that all future appearances would either be convenient sleeper ninja November - certainly a death warrant - or tragic punching bag Mellie. I wish they'd proved me wrong on that one.