Monday, March 9, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 3: Stage Fright

This episode might be my favorite so far. The engagement, as bodyguard to a pop idol, is rich with ironies that the writers are careful to exploit. In fact, the parallels between Rayna’s situation as a manufactured star and Echo’s as a “lab-grown” personality are brought out in some daringly on-the-nose dialogue. And the metaphorical dimensions of Echo are expanded even further. That she’s a stand-in for the general exploitation of women is confirmed here, but in this episode we begin to see how the show is exploring both the more specific exploitation of starlets and the more general exploitation of workers.

Does that sound too ivory tower (“she seemed so earthy with Katie Couric”)? Well, how about this? Don’t most jobs require some sort of suppression of the personality in order to please the boss and/or the customer? Some sort of sacrifice of what you want to do in order to do what you have to do? Some sort of filling your head with things that are irrelevant to your life outside work? In this light, isn’t Echo the perfect employee? She knows what you want her to know, and forgets it when you want her to forget it. And once the job is done you can forget about her: she’s a temp.

And, come to think of it, isn’t there a bit of personality-suppression in most relationships, too? In healthy relationships, it’s just a matter of learning to accommodate your partner, balance his/her needs with yours. But how many relationships are healthy enough that neither partner takes advantage of the other? And how many of us, deep down, would rather not accommodate the other at all? Of course this is why Echo’s the perfect girlfriend – she’s the perfect prostitute, willing and able to be whatever the customer requires.

(So what’s the difference between a prostitute and any other wage-slave?)

Topher: another in a line of Joss Whedon geek-boys: Xander, Jonathan, Warren, Andrew. With all of the above in line, at the moment he seems closest to Warren: he’s genius enough to be able to create a perfect woman, and sick enough to define “perfect” as “completely pliable.” But the show hasn’t told us to hate Topher yet; we’re still torn between finding him charming (or at least annoying/charming), pitiable (if anything goes wrong, it’s always his responsibility in the end), and creepy.

I liked the final scene of this episode. Langton and Saunders on the balcony, discussing what Echo – not any of her programmed personae, but Echo, the woman in her untutored state – is capable of, while the subject of their conversation does arts ‘n’ crafts below. The architecture of the Dollhouse is highly symbolic, I think; we’ve already noted the curiously centripetal sleeping arrangements, and I’m not sure we know everything about what they mean. Now we notice how the actives live their lives in what amounts to a pit, with handlers and controllers above. The power differential is obvious, but it’s not just a question of height. It’s about observation, vantage point. It’s the panopticon model of power differential. Echo is like the subject of an experiment (inquiries into what human capabilities are left when you strip away a subject's subjectivity?).

Being watched is, of course, a big theme in the series. Langton is there to “handle” Echo, which means to watch her (he’s her Giles). But of course he’s being watched, and not just by DeWitt and Dominic. As Dr. Saunders avers, there’s always someone else watching. In this episode, the watcher-watched dynamic is underscored by the obsessive fan/hemmed-in star idea. And notice how we viewers are consistently implicated, too: in three episodes, how many viewscreens have we been confronted with? Alpha watching yearbook video of Caroline, Rayna and “Jordan” watching webcam footage of the Fan tormenting Audra, and of course all of Topher’s and Langton’s readouts of Echo’s status. We’re often watching someone watch someone else.

The endpoint of all this watching? Echo and the other actives. And Echo knows this: that’s why, at the end of this episode, she has to signal Sierra not to let on that they recognize each other. They’re being watched.

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