My big question after Ep 13 was, if you’ll recall, whether/how Mutant Enemy were going to keep it interesting, now that they’d told us How It Was All Going To End. We get a partial answer right here, which is: by writing tense, fast-moving episodes with interesting character development. This was one, and it kept me glued to my Hulu. But it wasn’t a complete wipe: at the end, when Echo gave her speech laying out her quest, I was brought right back into the world of “Epitaph One,” and I found myself thinking, “yeah, good luck with that.”
So it remains to be seen if the (brilliant, harrowing) vision of the future we were given over the summer makes it harder to watch the present unfold. Harder to care.
Moments. Sierra, programmed to think she’s English, telling Ivy she doesn’t like Orientals: the rich, evil irony of that exchange, and the sucker-punch of the subtext, that we’re all programmed to hate ourselves, reject ourselves, neglect our own best interests, in so many ways. Ballard, thinking he’s using Echo for good, being reminded by her handler that now he’s a client; the short pause while we realize, along with Ballard, that he’s hereby completed his moral fall, even if it is for good reasons. He’s both a pimp and a john now (in a philanthropic way). DeWitt, touching Victor’s scars to check the doctors’ work, then letting her clinical touch turn into a caress without realizing it.
Vows. What vows? The wedding vows Echo takes, in her persona as agent infiltrating the arms dealer’s inner circle; vows that Ballard thinks take her into morally repugnant territory, and that Boyd thinks constitute a dangerous long-term assignment. That’s the obvious one. Ballard and Boyd are both right, of course, which tells us something about how this episode wants us to think about vows.
There’s Echo’s vow at the end to find Caroline, to find “all of them” – meaning, all of the people she’s been? Or the real people that belong to all the other dolls, at whom she’s gazing as she says this? Does she even know?
Then there’s the real killer, the as-yet undefined vow that governs both Topher and Whiskey – she doesn’t know him, and he doesn’t completely know her, that’s the deal, he says – in as moving a moment as this character has given us (at least in the present). Clearly they have some connection, clearly he wishes she could remember it, clearly he’s too scared or bound by his vow to make her remember it, and clearly it’s killing him. And she – as the broken consciousness that we can no longer accurately call Saunders, but can’t quite call anything else – so she’s, what, Saunders/not-Saunders? – knows that to break this vow, to remember who she really is, would kill her. Because she’s not herself. Saunders both is and isn’t whoever Whiskey was, whoever took that vow.
Vows. What are vows? Expressions of will, most of all: not merely a will to do something, but a will to see something done, a will to will a certain desired reality into existence. They’re a kind of speech act. But doesn’t will presuppose subjectivity? Someone to do the willing? A willing someone? If a doll makes a vow, has a vow been made? Can Echo make a vow?
(And dig: there’s a religious tradition in which the Vow is huge. We’ve already noted the Buddhist overtones of Dollhouse samsara; now note how much of a bodhisattva figure Echo is, achieving her own enlightenment, but electing not to enter into nirvana, vowing to stay behind until she’s helped other sentient beings achieve enlightenment.)
Can any of us make a vow? Do any of us have a firm enough grasp on this reality to will another one into being? We’re reminded, with a wicked drip of sarcasm, that nobody’s much better off than a doll, especially (but not only) in a world in which doll technology exists. Ballard tells DeWitt of his suspicions of Boyd, saying he doesn’t know why Boyd is here, though he knows why he himself is there. “I know what I know,” he says. Do you? she says. [it was Topher who said this, not Ballard, you idiot! -ed.]
Do we? “Epitaph One” has already told us that, even if we do now, we won’t for long.
What are we going to have in Season 2 of Dollhouse? The pathos of watching people thinking their problems amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? Of watching people who ought to know better hastening toward their own destruction? Well, maybe that’s not inappropriate right now…