Saturday, April 11, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 9: A Spy in the House of Love

First things first: “We’re pimps and killers – in a philanthropic way.” Best line of the series so far.

Re that, I love how they keep offering us new metaphors for how to think about the Dollhouse. Echo as dominatrix, in full regalia, talking about how beautiful a thing it is to surrender yourself to someone else’s power – to trust someone that fully. Well, isn’t that just what Caroline herself did when she signed up? I mean, beyond the idea of stepping outside the mainstream to fulfill people’s deep-seated, unspoken needs (a Dollhouse function that Dr. Saunders defends eloquently in this episode), it also speaks to the deeply religious idea of surrender. Submission to a higher power, submersion of self in the service of others, sublimation of desires in the search for transcendence. The dominatrix is a guru.

Needs. Despite last week’s title, this episode was the one that focused on needs. We got Ballard’s ego-crush when he realized that he was responsible for creating Mellie (a payoff set up in Episode 6 when the internet mogul pointed out that this whole thing was Ballard’s fantasy as much as his). Mellie only exists – that is, the doll we know as November was only used in this way – because that’s the kind of person Ballard was seeking. Does the very act of wanting someone impinge on that person’s free will? Can you be in a relationship without molding your partner or threatening your partner’s identity?

Langdon’s needs: he needs to take care of Echo. As DeWitt points out, he no longer needs to – but that’s not what Langdon was talking about. The dolls are programmed to trust their handlers, but trust, it seems, leaves an imprint on “normal” people, too. You can’t just turn it on and off; when someone trusts you, it affects you. Neither, it seems, can you completely erase trust: Echo’s still looking at Boyd when she says, “with my life.” And DeWitt is more shaken than she’ll admit by Lawrence’s betrayal.

DeWitt’s needs: a little loving, a little company for her lonely heart. Her fantasy is both touching and disturbing: she wants, among other things, a touch of the classy English life she has (I guess we’re meant to assume) left behind. But she also, one guesses, had the hots for one of the dolls. How different is that from what Sierra’s handler was doing? A lot, maybe; Roger could consent. But Victor can’t consent to being Roger. But DeWitt would say he did, when he joined the Dollhouse… I’m still not sure we have a handle on DeWitt. She displays not just firmness but actual cruelty in her treatment of Lawrence – and the way she struts around in the later scenes with that foil is, I’m sure, meant to remind us of the way Echo held the whip in the early scenes. But we’re continually reminded that DeWitt believes the Dollhouse has a higher purpose. Is she just being zealous in defense of that? Does she even know?

Lawrence Dominatri- whoops, Dominic. The last person we’d suspect, so of course it had to be him. But isn’t it interesting that they won’t let us sympathize with him? We do sympathize with Ballard, but Dominic – he tried to kill Echo. And, let’s not forget: he doesn’t want to bring down the Dollhouse. He wants to bring it under government oversight. What would that mean? We watch him go under the wipe with mixed feelings at best.

And Saunders. She keeps getting more and more intriguing. Her exchange with Langdon, where she points out that her discomfort with the Dollhouse isn’t the same as Langdon’s. Well, what does she think he thinks about it? What do we think she thinks about it? What this line of dialogue tells us, I think, is that (a) she feels queasy about a lot of what the Dollhouse does, (b) she recognizes a similar feeling in Langdon, (c) she knows that this queasiness should make her disapprove of the Dollhouse in toto, (d) she thinks that this is precisely what Langdon thinks because he’s an all-around stand-up guy, but (e) she feels that she, herself, isn’t ready to completely give up on the Dollhouse. Note: it’s now formally established that she almost literally has no life outside the Dollhouse. What is it that she needs that the Dollhouse has?

Last things last: the title. From the Anais Nin book? Or from any one of the many songs that borrowed that title? I vote for the Doors song “The Spy” – “I know the dream that you’re dreaming of / I know the word that you long to hear / I know your deepest secret fear.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 8: Needs

Big mind-fuck episode. “And it was all a dream…”

But in a good way. After the last couple of episodes I was almost starting to think the show was moving too fast, and then when Echo led everybody into the light I was starting to actually worry. Did the show get canceled without me knowing it? Was this a rush-job series finale? Of course not. It was a reset. And now we don’t know what’s going on. Is this really going to neutralize all of Echo’s progress toward an awakening? I can’t imagine we’ll be going back to straight monstrous-client-of-the-week episodes, but who knows?

The four actives’ “needs.” A cunning device to tell us more about how a couple of them, at least, became dolls, and thus to tell us more about the Dollhouse itself.

November’s looks, as Boyd says, straightforward: she needed to grieve for her daughter. So it seems we’re to assume that November became a doll to escape the unbearable truth of her daughter’s death. But is that all? Something about the way her visit to the grave was framed made me wonder if there’s more going on there – like maybe November killed her daughter. Either way it strengthens the Dollhouse-as-refuge thesis.

Sierra, as Boyd says, needed to confront the man who exploited her. This is a huge revelation for those of us still trying to figure out how uncomfortable to feel about the Dollhouse. Sierra, we’re now asked to think, was essentially sold to the Dollhouse by a guy who wanted to hurt her for rejecting him, and who now rents her for revenge. The Dollhouse to him is like a really expensive date rape drug. Weakens the Dollhouse-as-refuge thesis. Puts DeWitt in a bad light, certainly - if she was aware of it.

Echo’s is the least surprising, because we know the most about her. As Boyd says, she wants to free “all of us.” Interesting choice of words, there. It seems to point back to her activist past. On a thematic level this is the most intriguing of the four dolls’ needs, because of how easily the Dollhouse manages it. Caroline/Echo’s deepest need or desire is not precisely to free everybody, but to feel that she’s freed everybody. Once she feels that, her psychological need is satisfied and she can go to sleep again – it’s completely irrelevant to her subconscious that she hasn’t actually freed anybody, that it was a set-up, a lie, a dream. This goes right back to the show’s original critique of capitalism/mass society. Our corporate masters know the system breeds discontent, so they let us think we’re taking action with our Shepard Fairey posters and Rage Against the Machine cds, our Matrix movies and angry blog posts, because once we’ve expended our energy on them, we’ll calm down. If they can make us feel like we’ve smashed the machine, they can keep us from actually doing it. All in a day’s work, really.

What about Victor? He’s in love, as Saunders says. This in itself is a reiteration of a question they previously threw out there, of how deeply embedded what aspects of our psyches are. But does it, like the other three’s needs, also tell us something about how he got to the Dollhouse? His flashback to a military situation seems to suggest a trauma that he’s running from. But notice that shot – we saw it last week too – when Sierra’s flashing to a memory of a guy on top of her? That’s not the handler who raped her: wrong hair. It may be Nolan, the guy she confronts this week. But (and I didn’t think of this: I saw it in a comment on the Whedonesque blog that I don’t know how to link to): what’s if it’s Victor? What if he’s atoning for something, as well as running?

I like how they carefully moved Dr. Saunders out of first place in the Who’s-the-Mole sweepstakes. It may still be her, but the fact that she’s the one who came up with the plan to neutralize (we think) Echo’s progress toward awakening is a big black mark. They’re being very tricky with her. She could be doing this to prevent worse violence being done to Echo instead, such as being sent to the attic. But maybe she believes in the Dollhouse as much as DeWitt does, in her own way. Remember her last speech about the big bad scary outside world and how she was protecting the dolls from it?

As Boyd notes: we don’t know her very well.

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 7: Echoes

So what do we think we know about Caroline now? Last name Farrell. Graduated from Fremont College, where Rossum, the Dollhouse’s parent corporation, has a lab. Was an activist, raided the lab to expose animal experiments. Discovered human experiments. Fleeing the lab her accomplice and boyfriend was shot, probably fatally. Caroline was hospitalized, DeWitt came to visit, Caroline fled. At some point after that, Caroline and DeWitt have a conversation over tea in which DeWitt says they’ve been dancing around the issue for two years, and offers Caroline the Dollhouse contract, promising oblivion/atonement/her life.

What don’t we know? Why Caroline was in the hospital. What happened between her visit to the lab and the hospitalization. What happened in the two years between her fleeing the hospital and her joining the Dollhouse. Why DeWitt, in the present, thinks Echo is trying to punish her.

Among other things.

This was in a lot of ways the most Whedonesque episode so far. It made use of an unusual extraneous influence (the drug) to make everybody lower their defenses, allowing them to reveal their inner humanity to the audience and strengthen their quasi-familial bonds with each other. Think the memory spell episode of Buffy.

It was cute: Topher in his skivvies, DeWitt getting the munchies, Boyd playing the piano. All of these are endearing moments. The difference is that, with the exception of Boyd, we don’t particularly want to be endeared to any of these people yet. No matter how adorable Topher gets (and he got really adorable in this episode), he’s still a borderline sociopath in his behavior toward the dolls. No matter how vulnerable DeWitt reveals herself to be underneath, she’s still in essence a slaver. I’m not sure we needed a Whedonesque moment with these characters at this time.

But as with previous series, the Whedonesquery here is at least partly a smokescreen to cover what’s really going on, which is what everybody recognizes now as Echo’s ongoing awakening, her fumbling toward a composite event, as it were. This development has several virtues: it increases the tension, gives us something closer to a heroine to root for, and allows us to understand a little more of the back story. This is the arc.

What fascinates me is that it still doesn’t make things any simpler on a moral level. We begin to see how DeWitt is not above a little blackmail in recruiting dolls – threats or bribes, a Faustian bargain either way. At the same time, though, it’s still possible that the oblivion she offers is what these people want. The first time in this episode that Boyd asks Echo if she wants a treatment, she says no. The second time, after she’s recovered more of her memories, she says yes.

Freedom and captivity is the game here. Where do we start this episode? Owen opening the bugs’ jar and telling them “fly be free,” just before breaking his own head against the window like an insect in a specimen jar. Then we have Echo satisfying a client’s bondage fantasy. Then we have Caroline wanting to free the lab animals.

For Echo, regaining her memory should be freedom, freedom to be herself again. But look at what memory does to the rest of the dolls. It debilitates them. They can’t function. Maybe Echo’s not so wrong to want a treatment. Maybe forgetting is freedom.

Erik Larson: The Devil in the White City (2003)

It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve devoted my life to the study of fiction. But that’s not to say that I have anything against non-fiction; more precisely, I’m not one of these literary scholars who’s determined to police the borders of literature in such a way as to keep non-fiction at bay. True crime, popular history, memoir, and all the other myriad forms of non- or quasi-fiction can all provide reading pleasure, intellectual depth, artistic excellence, up there with the best novels. Sometimes more: truth is stranger than, etc. I don’t follow any of these genres as enthusiastically as I do certain types of fiction, but every so often I’ll read a non-fiction book that will make me wonder why I bother with fiction at all.

This is not quite one of those, but it’s pretty good. I picked it up in O’Hare on the way back from Chicago last week. It’s about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and it focuses mainly on two men: Daniel Burnham, the Fair’s chief architect and visionary, and Herman Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, a murderer who preyed on visitors to the Fair.

It’s a fascinating book. The 1893 Fair is one of those grand 19th-century events that are not only forgotten today, but almost incomprehensible to the modern mind: in these days of easy entertainment it’s hard to imagine anybody investing that much time and money in constructing something like this, something you have to go out to appreciate. And it’s even harder to imagine it having anything close to the same impact.

Larson makes a good case for that impact, on areas of modern life as mundane as breakfast and as all-encompassing as urban planning. He also fills the book with fascinating detail about the personalities and challenges involved in staging the fair, and, in the parallel story, about Mudgett’s activities.

What makes the book so fascinating, or perhaps more than just fascinating, haunting, is that parallel story, the rich irony Larson has hit upon that the Fair – the White City, as it was called, because all the buildings were painted white – embodied all the best aspirations of the art and technology of its day, even while it harbored a man who epitomized the worst in human evil.

Unfortunately, that irony is one that’s pretty easily captured in a book jacket blurb or an NPR story, and I was a little disappointed on finishing the book to find that I wasn’t any more moved, actually having read the book, than I had been on first reading about the book. I’m not sure quite what that means. Was there more Larson could have done within the pages of his book to expound upon this irony? Then it might have seemed like overkill, though.

This overkill actually happens, for me at least, with one strategy Larson does adopt to accentuate the story’s literary qualities. He narrates it as if it were a novel, telling us what characters are doing and thinking in moments for which we don’t (and in the case of thoughts, naturally can’t) have any definitive evidence. Looking through his footnotes, it sounds like these are all plausible, responsible recreations, and he points out that this strategy has a respectable lineage (he invokes Truman Capote), but it still nags at me. However plausible his conjectures, they have the perverse effect of undermining his case, because we can’t escape the fact that they’re fictional. Whatever Mudgett was thinking as he killed Anna Williams, we at least know it wasn’t what Larson says he was thinking, because Larson made that up.