Once again we see Topher inventing, for the best of reasons, tech that we, having seen Episode 13, know will bring the worst of consequences. This time it’s the psychic raygun that temporarily immobilizes dolls. He calls it a “disruptor,” and hastily points out that it’s a Star Trek reference – TOS, to be exact. A little in-joke for the Whedonites, perhaps: if you’ve watched the interviews on the Firefly discs you know how insistent Joss was that his space opera was a reaction against the later Star Treks – “no holodecks,” he points out, more than once. Joss seems to hold that particular TNG innovation in particular scorn.
On the other hand, what’s the Dollhouse but a twisted, flesh-and-blood inversion of the holodeck idea?
But enough with elaborating the subtext. This episode is about moving forward with the plot, hurtling toward a summation. And not a moment too soon, because in the month between the broadcast of Episodes 17 and 18, Dollhouse was cancelled. How I feel about that should be easy to guess: bummed, not surprised. Glad we got a second season, but apprehensive that ending after two seasons might actually make the show feel more truncated than ending after one… We’ll see.
So a lot happens here.
We find out that Perrin is a Manchurian candidate. No huge surprise there; but it’s nice how they’ve made him a little dig at a recent real-life politician who was also the scion of a powerful political family, but a screw-up in his personal life, until suddenly he got serious and became, look at at that, a president who many nevertheless thought was merely a puppet, a front for shadowy forces.
We find out that not all Dollhouses are necessarily working toward the same goal; we also find out that other Dollhouses have different internal dynamics (not to mention décor schemes). We meet the programmer of the DC house, Bennett (who has always wanted to meet Topher’s tech – she says, fondling his disruptor). It’s nice to see Summer Glau rejoin the Whedonverse, as Bennett – she gives Topher’s opposite number a mysterious, not to say neurotic, aura that promises great things, and interesting parallels and counterpoints to Topher himself. Remember Joss’s fascination with the Dangerous Geek – she’s one, too. We end with her torturing Echo/Caroline – revealing the sadism inherent in Dollhouse technology.
We find out that November does indeed have residual programming. “No one ever leaves here,” accuses Agent Ballard. And then he does – nice move. We can see that he still hates himself for sleeping with Mellie even after realizing she was a doll. Madeline accuses him of being a Dollhouse client – “So that was your fantasy? I was your Girl Friday who you slept with the other six days?” – and he denies it, insists he didn’t know she was a doll. But that’s only partially true; and surely he also realizes by now that even if he never asked November to be programmed to do what Mellie did, the Dollhouse programmed her that way because they knew it would work on him. And it did. November was Ballard’s fantasy, even if he didn’t know it at first. And now Madeline forces him to confront his complicity in the whole thing. That’s why he leaves. And now, at long last, the potential in the character of Ballard is being realized. They even made the kick-boxing training, with which they first introduced him to us, pay off in this episode.
Payoffs. That’s what it has to be about from now till the end of the series. You get the feeling that a lot of these characters are like sleepers, preloaded with programming that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Boyd. Whiskey. Victor. Alpha. And now Bennett. And, still I think, November: she doesn’t know how she’s going to live with the knowledge that she killed a man. Sierra said that last time. Did November say that once before?
Why do people become dolls? With Sierra’s first stint we have one answer: they’re manipulated into it. That’s the subtext to the conversation between Perrin and Echo/Bree in the car, where he says she’s been manipulated into serving the powerful and she thinks he’s talking about her job as a prostitute, and she assures him she likes her job. We know he’s right, and even if she wasn’t a doll, but only a prostitute, wouldn’t he still be right? But with Sierra’s second stint we have another answer: they might choose to become dolls to avoid living with guilt. Is that November’s story? Caroline’s?
And are we supposed to sympathize with the desire to escape self-recrimination at any cost, or condemn it?