Disclaimers/subject-position confessions: as Joss Whedon fans go, I’m a Tanuki-come-lately. Just finished watching Buffy and Angel about a week ago, and haven’t watched Firefly yet. But as a happy denizen of the Buffyverse I was excited to see Dollhouse, and even more excited to find I could watch it on Hulu, because even I have enough of a life that I can’t always tune in on Friday nights. Further disclaimers: I’m only a few years younger than Joss, and if the pop-cultural references on Buffy are any indication, I was only a little nerdier than he was in high school. When Giles and the rest are playing D&D on the last episode of Buffy? C’est moi. And Mutant Enemy? We shall certify. So that’s where I’m coming from.
Dollhouse is not Buffy, and Echo is not Faith. But Caroline, in the prologue to Episode 1, may as well be Faith. She’s done something – "actions have consequences" – and now she needs to disappear. But more than that she needs redemption. And that’s what DeWitt is offering; others in the show think DeWitt believes this, that what the Dollhouse does is good, and she may indeed believe it. We’re not supposed to, not a hundred percent, but the idea is there, thanks to this prologue. Losing yourself – quite literally – in serving others. Heady subtext for a Fox show.
But this is a pretty heavy show for Fox all around. It looks and feels like a Fox show at first, with its fast motorcycles and short party dresses, its glitzy production values and pulse-pounding action. A lot of people, myself included, are wondering if this means Whedon is under pressure to make a Fox Show, rather than whatever he originally had in mind. Maybe, maybe not. We can only judge what we have in front of us, and so far – and I mean from the perspective of Episode 4, when I’m writing this – I think he’s managing to make all this Foxosity work for the show.
Take this episode: it’s really quite a tight little action drama. You have a kidnapping scenario, a tough negotiation, a botched handover, and a shootout at the end. It’s told with a lot of suspense, a lot of cool visuals and cooler acting – it works as an action show.
But at the end they pull the rug out from under it. None of it matters. We’ll never (probably) see Divina or her father again; we’ll never see Eleanor Penn again; in fact, the person whose experiences make us care about “Eleanor Penn” is already dead. It matters to the Dollhouse as an organization, but only because they made a profit from it.
But it doesn’t matter to us, because what we really want, as viewers, is to understand more about Echo – about Caroline. Since none of this happened to Echo, it’s meaningless to her, and therefore to us.
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty wicked little metaphor for your average dumb TV action show. You tune in, you watch a bunch of stuff happen, but in the end, nobody learns anything, nobody grows, so you can tune in same time next week and see it all happen again.
In short, I think Joss is playing with our expectations of a “Fox show.” He’s daring us not to get hypnotized by slick surfaces, asking us if we’re really immune to all the machinery that manufactures thrills. ‘Cause let’s face it, this is thrilling stuff.
If we do think he’s daring us to look beyond surfaces – to resist getting interested in Eleanor Penn – then that means we must believe there’s something there, some sort of ghost within all that machinery (or in the shell). And of course they’re playing with that, hinting that Echo is developing a subjectivity, recovering Caroline.
But for the most part, there is no there there. Echo is not a subjectivity. She’s not a character, even though she’s the main character. This makes for a severe narrative challenge – a lot of critics have noted that it’s difficult to sympathize with Echo, and therefore difficult to get into the show.
That’s what I find most fascinating about the show so far, though. She’s a complete void at the center of the show (like the emptiness at the center of the sleeping chamber – all the actives’ beds radiate from it like spokes from a wheel, but there’s nothing at the hub). From a narrative standpoint, I’m looking forward to seeing how Mutant Enemy deal with this, but more than that I find it a really provocative concept. It brings up all sorts of questions about consciousness and what constitutes it, about personal autonomy and social construction, and it does it in such a way as to really implicate the viewer. If you enjoy seeing Eleanor Penn triumph over the Ghost, how do you then deal with the wiping of the Penn personality and the restoration of Echo, the blank slate, who triumphs over nothing?