Key scene: Paul takes Echo to wardrobe, and has to sit in the waiting room reading magazines with another handler. Any boyfriend or husband recognizes the feeling: killing time outside a dressing room in the women’s wear department, trying not to look totally emasculated among the silks and satins. What magazine is the other handler reading? Lock and Load. And what does he say to Ballard? I’d never do this for my wife.
Let’s not forget to notice that this is a joke. And this episode has a lot of them. This joke happens to be, oh, just a little sexist. But of course, that’s the point of this episode. Paul in the waiting room whistling dixie is a throwaway moment, but then again it’s also setting up the central question of this episode? What is it that makes (some) men do things for women they don’t want to do? More to the point, what is it that makes (some) men feel they have to do things for women they don’t want to do?
Ask these men (as this episode does, this episode in which Joss and company say, screw it: sex is what we’re talking about, so let’s talk about sex) and the answer would be…well, something like the title of this episode. La belle chose. Google it. “Pretty thing.” Chaucer’s term for the vagina. The thing women have and men want, and because women know men want it they have power over the men. Eddie Murphy had a routine about it; some men have worked it into a counternarrative to feminist critiques of the phallocracy.
But Dollhouse isn’t interested in decrying vaginal tyranny. Nothing’s that simple. Dollhouse is interested in looking at what happens when some men start to resent the power they perceive the pretty things to be exercising over them. You react to a loss of control by trying to assert control.
Terry feels emasculated by the strong women in his family. There are hints of abuse, but they’re ambiguous: what’s important is that in his mind, he’s not getting enough attention or cooperation from the women. They have something he needs and they won’t give it to him: he can’t control the means of meeting his own needs, meaning he can’t control those needs themselves. So he tries to simulate control by abducting women, drugging them, dressing them, and posing them. Making believe. Playing with them like dolls in a…
Dollhouse, of course. Just like the slightly smarmy dresser in the Dollhouse, who asserts that his power to mold external reality is mightier than Topher’s power to mold internal reality. But more importantly, just like any (male) Dollhouse client. We’re getting right down to the nitty-gritty here of sexual power dynamics. Insecure men seeking the feeling of power, paying through the nose (old phallic symbol there) to get what they want in such a way as allows them to pretend it’s being given freely.
The professor (btw, as someone in academics, I have to point out how ludicrous it is to think that a professor in the humanities, a Chaucerian of all things, could ever afford to hire a Doll – or was this one of Adelle’s pro bono things?), as much as the serial killer, takes us there. He wants to sleep with one of his students, but either can’t make it happen or is afraid of the consequences, so he hires a Doll: skeevy enough. But the skeeviness goes deeper. He’s the client: it’s his fantasy. He could have made Kiki a brilliant budding medievalist who genuinely (thinks she) has the hots for middle-aged intellectuals. Instead he makes her an airhead, and worse, an impressionable one – a teachable bimbo, who laps up his talk about the self-aware Wife of Bath who knows what she wants and how to get it. He wants her not only to be willing to sleep with him for an A, but also to feel that by doing so, she’s empowering herself. What’s in this guy’s head? Does he really believe any of this? Is he trying to avenge himself on campus feminists? Is he indulging a fantasy of himself as a true educator? And, more importantly, does this mean that everything he says about the Wife of Bath and female sexual empowerment is bullshit?
Terry would say it’s women who have the power. The prof would say that too, or at least say that Chaucer says that. What does Dollhouse say? Dollhouse would say (I think) that that’s the wrong question, because it posits an unreal situation. Look at the end result: Terry’s killing women, the prof is sexually exploiting them. If la belle chose has a great potential incentive power, in the reality men react to this by asserting real and coercive power in the form of red pens and croquet mallets. Not to mention money. So in the end who’s really in control? (Terry still blames the victims, though: she made me do it.)
All of this has been floating around in the miasmic subtext of Dollhouse since the beginning, but never has it been crystallized so clearly, or so much around the idea of the male id. This one was really calculated to make the fellas feel uncomfortable.
(And what does a fella do when he’s made uncomfortable? When his manhood is threatened? He does what the guy in the club tried to do to Kiki/Victor. But Dollhouse can always sucker-punch faster than you can. That’s why I love it.)
So this was one of the two or three best episodes of the series so far. Real suspense, deep ideas, oddball humor. Starting to link up to the future in interesting ways – we’re rooting for Topher to invent a new way to do a remote wipe even though we know this is precisely what will destroy the future.
And: Ballard. Finally, finally, finally I’m starting to see him make sense in a Dollhouse context. He’s a Quantico-trained cop, a good guy, law and order all the way. But look how naturally he takes to the new rules of interrogation. He can do whatever he wants to the bad guys. He can threaten to kill a suspect. He can kill a suspect – he can switch off Terry’s life support. He’s free. It’s evil, but it’s an evil he can live with. And how scary is that?
As scary as the fact that we know switching off Terry’s life support won’t do a damn bit of good. Terry’s in Echo now, in the matrix – he’s immortal. He’s the ghost in the shell. A serial killer is now part of Echo’s mix. “Goodness gracious” is right.