Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 5: True Believer

I thought the theme of watching and being watched was big in the last couple of episodes, but now I see they were just getting started. This episode’s central conceit is that Echo’s being wired up with a brain camera which will hijack her sight and send it off to the ATF. I am a camera (is this a reference to the line in Isherwood, to the play and movie it inspired, or the Yes/Buggles song they inspired? – in each case, of course, it points to the state of passivity that Echo embodies, and in turn suggests that Echo’s passivity may, like the camera, contain intense observation). Of course this leaves Echo temporarily blind – as Topher so aptly puts it, “Echo herself will see no evil.”

But that’s not all. Look at all the watching we have besides: Agent Ballard watching footage of Caroline given him by Alpha; Ballard seeing Caroline/Echo on TV news coverage of the siege; Langton turning to security-cam footage to unravel the ATF agent’s scheme; and most intriguing of all, Topher and Saunders watching Dollhouse security-cam footage to see what’s up with Victor, which reveals that what’s wrong with Victor comes from watching, too – his watching Sierra.

I don’t want to make too much of this. A certain amount of this emphasis on surreptitious observation is par for the course in a paranoid techno-thriller. But combine all this with the careful geometry of the Dollhouse itself and it’s pretty hard to escape the feeling that all this watching means something.

The presentation of the cult here was extremely careful. I don’t mean cautious, I mean well thought out and meticulously modulated. The story prepares us to assume the worst about them: we’re told that the leader’s an ex-con, that they had to leave their previous compound, that the community and the feds have all sorts of vague suspicions, and that someone has sent a message out that says “save me.” So when we see their cache of weapons, we know they’re nasties, right?

But do we? The show doesn’t give us any further proof that the cult is up to anything illegal. The leader is an ex-con, but we have no evidence that he’s doing anything worse to the cult members than encouraging them to live apart from the world (and dress in an Abercrombie & Fitch version of pioneer duds). It really may be true that they have the guns only because the feds are harrassing them – we know the ATF agent is willing to bend any rule to nail them, and therefore we don’t know if we can believe anything he says. Certainly the cult leader goes nuts at the end, but the question the show wants us to ask is, would he have gone nuts if the feds had left him alone? Did they have any right to intervene?

Old questions in cases of this sort, of course, but here they’re put to a new use because of the obvious paralleling of the cult and the Dollhouse. DeWitt admits that they’re analogous situations: groups of people living in perfect (illusory?) security because they’ve surrendered their egos. The corrupt senator says this can’t be happiness, because for happiness you need self-awareness – but he’s a corrupt senator, so can we believe anything he says, either?

The paralleling goes deeper. The cult calls their compound the Garden. In the Dollhouse, meanwhile, Topher discovers that Victor has started getting aroused looking at Sierra in the shower. This is a problem: the dolls are supposed to be so empty that sexual desire is not an issue for them. When DeWitt finds out she gives a startling speech about how the Dollhouse must be kept a pure environment, free of temptation – she all but calls the place the Garden of Eden. And Saunders as good as names sexuality the Serpent. Lots of interesting questions here. How deep does a wipe have to go to eradicate the sexual instinct in an adult – what Topher calls the “man-reaction”? And why does DeWitt think that once introduced, such a temptation would "spread like a cancer"?

And are we now supposed to see the Dollhouse minders as God and the dolls as Adam and Eve, waiting to be kicked out of the garden? But the fact that the process is repeated suggests less a Judeo-Christian template than a Hindu/Buddhist one, where each doll is an entity undergoing endless reincarnations, going forth from the cosmic oneness into atomized individuality, but always returning to the cosmic oneness again, like the spark that jumps from the fire and falls into it again. This in turn would give an interesting twist to the awakening that Caroline/Echo is so plainly heading toward. A Matrix-like awakening from a dream of commodification, certainly, but also a Buddhist awakening from the karmic nightmare, an escape from the chains of samsara.

Is it time to talk about Eliza Dushku’s acting, since everybody else seems to be doing that nonstop? Here are the issues as I see them. I don’t think she’s one of these chameleonic actresses like Julianne Moore or Cate Blanchett, who are capable of totally submerging their own personalities in a role; she’s more the Hollywood star type of actress, who makes each of her performances an elaboration on her own persona. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Dushku; I think both are valid approaches.

On the face of it, the role of Caroline/Echo/This Weeks’ Girl seems to call for the chameleon rather than the star, because that is in fact what the character literally does: assume a new personality each week. But as we’ve noted, Mutant Enemy is already running a big risk there: viewers want to identify with the main character, but that’s next to impossible when the main character has no identity at all. An actress who was a better chameleon might just make the show impossible to watch. I know it might sound like I’m making excuses for the show, but I think it might have been part of their calculations that allowing Dushku to make each week’s character recognizably Dushku might help offset some of the audience-alienation built into the premise. The benefits, in other words, might be offsetting the risk of people thinking it’s just bad acting.

But it’s weirdly appropriate on a thematic level, too. As we notice with Victor, part of what the show is doing is asking how deep personality goes. Granted the sci-fi premise of the brain-wipe, how far does it have to go in order to eliminate what? When we notice Dushku-isms in Eleanor Penn, in Taffy, in Esther, how different is it from noticing bits of Caroline showing through in Jordan, or Jordan in Taffy – which is what we really want to see, no? And when we wish for a more versatile=chameleonic actress, aren’t we really wishing for someone capable of a more thorough personality suppression – a more complete scrubbing? A better doll?

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