Sunday, March 22, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 6: Man on the Street

I like, guardedly, the idea of interspersing the action with clips from “man on the street” interviews with Angelenos about the “dollhouse” urban legend. I imagine the writers sitting around brainstorming this episode before the season started, and fantasizing that by this time Dollhouse would be a hit, and water cooler/common room conversations across the country would be centering on the ethical queasiness of the show’s central concept, so that when people tuned in and saw these interviews echoing what they’d been saying, it’d be cute. Unfortunately, the show isn’t a real big hit, and I have my doubts many of those conversations are actually happening; these fake interviews now seem like wishful thinking. But I still think they’re cute, and they do represent a pretty good array of views of the show’s premise. Positive, negative, all points between. If you’re still trying to figure out how you feel about the Dollhouse, I think they have you right where they want you.

This was the week that Stuff Started Happening. Mellie’s a doll. Ballard gets confirmation of the Dollhouse’s existence. Ballard leaves the FBI. Somebody inside the Dollhouse is, we think, working against them. The Dollhouse has a hidden purpose.

Well, now. We kind of suspected Mellie was a doll; we weren’t sure whose (there was some speculation that Alpha had programmed her), but in any case we’re not too surprised that she turns out to be one. What I like about this development is that they played with our emotions about her being a doll. For five episodes we’ve become more and more emotionally invested in Mellie’s crush on Ballard: it’s seemed like the only truly innocent thing on this show. If she’d been revealed as a doll last week, we would have been crushed. This week, though, they send Ballard away, and put Mellie in mortal danger, so suddenly we’re hoping against hope that she really is a doll, because how else is she going to survive this? And of course, she is a doll, and that’s how she survives it, and now how do we feel about it? Her love is not innocent; but then again, she’s alive.

What made Caroline become a doll? Are we going to be saying the same thing about her someday? Her love is not innocent, but then again, she’s alive?

Who’s the mole? Is there really a mole? I think so. On first viewing, I wondered if everything Echo told Ballard was disinformation, part of Topher’s program, but watch again the sequence where Boyd interrupts Topher’s programming. Topher puts the cartridge in the Nintendo, Boyd comes to complain about being benched, Topher ushers him out of the room so they can talk, we become anxious that his cartridge has been left unattended, and then Topher goes back to get it. The other door to the room is now ajar: it wasn’t when Topher left. Therefore, we’re supposed to think that somebody snuck in and out while Topher was talking to Boyd, leaving the door ajar. I.e., maybe there really is a mole.

Maybe not. But assuming there is, who is it? The only person we’ve met who we think could even begin to program a doll is Topher’s cute assistant Ivy, who “lives to serve lunch.” For skills and opportunity, she’s the obvious suspect.

For motive, though, at the moment it’s Dr. Saunders who sticks out; she’s clearly uncomfortable with a whole lot of stuff that goes on, and there’s a hint that she and Topher don’t get along personally. Remember when they were both assessing Victor, and Victory says something about Sierra being beautiful, and Topher wisecracks that they’re all beautiful, that’s kind of the point – notice how right then he looks at Saunders, at her scars, and she gives him a dark look back? What’s between them?

If it’s Saunders, is she acting alone? What about Boyd? Could he be in on it? We’ve seen him and Saunders bonding over the dolls a number of times now; they certainly seem simpatico in their sympathy for their charges. And who was Topher talking with when the program was modified? Boyd. Maybe that’s a coincidence, or maybe the mole was seizing an opportunity. But we already have Boyd utilizing misdirection in this episode to catch Hearn; it would very much fit his profile if he was employing the same tactic to get word out to Ballard.

Ballard. I’ve avoided saying much about him so far, because I think he’s the least interesting character on the show. In fact, I’ve been hoping he would turn out to be either a doll or perhaps even Alpha himself (and he may yet), because otherwise, he’s working purely as a narrative convenience. A suspense-builder. And until this episode, he wasn’t even building much suspense. He was a narrative thread that was just hanging out there, waiting to be pulled.

This week they pulled it, and suddenly he got a lot more interesting, on a lot of levels. As a narrative device, now I think he’s going to be useful: he’s out of the FBI (at least temporarily), and he’s made contact with a mole. So he’s in the process of switching organizations, it seems, out of the FBI and into one that looks to be even shadowier than the Dollhouse itself. We’ll have to see where they go with this, but he looks to be our entry point into the vast conspiracies that the show seems to be setting up. If so, cool.

On a personal level, he’s beginning to come into focus. As I say, so far he’s been uninteresting as a character: he’s Mulder, but without Mulder’s endearing nerdiness, his dark obsessions, his entertaining outlook on life. The only hint we’ve gotten of an inner life in this guy is in the first episode, when we learn he does kick-boxing in his spare time. We have no idea why he’s so obsessed with the Dollhouse, what it means to him personally. We don’t know why he cares, so we don’t care about him.

His conversation with Miner this week puts it all in a new light. Our hero the internet geek points out how Ballard is using Echo for his own wish-fulfilment fantasy, and we know it’s true. We don’t know why yet, but we can begin to speculate; we can begin to suspect, therefore, that he does have an inner life, and motivations of his own. In short, we’re no longer being asked to see him as the white knight. We’re now being encouraged to see him as just another fantasist exploiting Echo. Just another pawn who wants to be a player.

That makes him more sympathetic, in my Kindle.

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