Saturday, May 2, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 11: Briar Rose

“We’re all functional – interchangeable?”

That’s the million-dollar question this week on Dollhouse. Kepler praises the Dollhouse’s womblike self-containment, efficiency, and security, and says it’s the future. Ballard asks if that means in the future we’ll all be functional and interchangeable. Kepler says we already are. Man.

But Ballard’s not the only character asking that of us this week. Episode 11 is one big game of role-switching and doubling. Even more so than usual, in this world of constantly shifting identities.

Consider the Briar Rose motif. Unsubtle, it seems at first. It’s introduced as a story Echo reads to a troubled girl named Susan, who suffered through a long dark night of her own, awaiting rescue. But of course we immediately think of Caroline’s imprisonment and forced sleep within the Echo non-persona, and how Caroline, too, needs rescuing – more precisely, needs awakening. And then we cut to Ballard, who’s trying to do just that.

Unsubtle – if they’d left it at that. But who’s Sleeping Beauty and who’s the Prince rescuer? Even before we get to the episode finale in the Dollhouse, these roles are blurred, because we have Echo trying to save Susan; and how does she try to save Susan? By convincing her that Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty, actually saved herself: willed the Prince into existence and proximity. And who is Echo in this situation? A persona tailored to Susan’s needs, of course – willed into being by Susan, in a sense. But not just that: as Topher helpfully explains to Ivy, Echo’s persona on this mission is that of a girl just like Susan, but older and more psychologically healed. Echo is Susan here: a projection of Susan’s mind, both in the sense that she’s projected by Susan and in the sense that she’s a projection, by Topher, of what Susan will, or could, be. Either way, Echo is there to save Susan. How? By prodding her into an awakening of sorts: a confrontation with her psychological pain. It’ll be violent, Echo warns the caretaker as she departs. Much as Echo’s own awakening will (we anticipate) be violent.

Echo herself is the Prince. But then, of course, Ballard is too. He comes riding to the rescue, effecting a (surprisingly easy) penetration of the Dollhouse and a third contact with Echo. But this easy identification of Ballard is soon thwarted, as Boyd accosts him and they brawl, and – all of a sudden – we realize we don’t know who to root for. Boyd is still, for all of his complicity in the Dollhouse, a good guy, we sense (and I say it’s some canny casting and subtle writing that keeps us feeling this way despite Boyd’s character being given a back seat in recent episodes), while Ballard, for all his determination to bring down the Dollhouse and extract Caroline, is hard to like.

Boyd was supposed to be Caroline’s Prince Rescuer. And we still feel he might be best suited for the job, and even that he might still be planning to do it, if Ballard doesn’t screw things up. Hell, he even seems like he wants to save Ballard, before Ballard clocks him one too many times. Who’s Prince Charming again?

Neither, as it turns out: it’s Alpha. By the time we realize that, of course, he – by which I mean his body, played by Alan Tudyk – has gone through one identity shift before our very eyes, when Kepler reveals himself to be Alpha. But then Alpha puts Echo in the chair, does something mad-scientisty to her, and she wakes up and kisses him. Exeunt. Who’s the prince now?

But, more importantly, who did he rescue? Physically, Echo. But all this time we’ve figured it was Caroline that Alpha was after: it was clues about Caroline (not Echo) that Alpha was feeding Ballard, after all. But what did he do to Echo when he put her in the chair? Awaken Caroline? Or imprint her with someone else? Who’s really walking out of the Dollhouse with Alpha at the end of this episode?

I gather a lot of fans didn’t think much of the previous episode, but after this episode, I’m more convinced than before that it’s pivotal. It was essential that we have it pointed out to us that the Dollhouse’s technology can revive the dead: can grant a kind of immortality. And it does it by making bodies interchangeable. The Dollhouse’s business makes personalities, identities, souls interchangeable, but the flip side of that is true, too: as the identity of body and soul is canceled, bodies become interchangeable, too. Each is reduced to its basic functionality: a body is just a vehicle for the personality; a personality is just an operating system for the body.

You want proof? When they decide they need to question Dominic, why do they bring him back in Victor’s body? Because they can, and because it’s easier that way. Presumably the attic is somewhat inaccessible, they’re in a hurry, and for their purposes, they don’t need Dominic’s body, just his mind. So they put it in Victor. Dominic has been reduced to his component parts. When they need his body, they can use it; same with his mind.

And then there’s Dr. Saunders. I can’t take credit for this insight (I read it on the intertubes), but consider this: Dominic/Victor, in his panicked state, looks at her and says, “Whiskey.” Is he calling for a dram of Glenfidditch? Or is he addressing Dr. Saunders by a doll name? Whiskey would be the correct W-name for the NATO alphabet code the Dollhouse seems to be using. Then, too, Alpha confronts Saunders first of all, and asks her if she’d always wanted to be a doctor, and when she says yes, he tells her that’s a lie. What if Saunders is a doll permanently imprinted with the doctor persona? Why? Because in his last visit Alpha mutilated the doll Whiskey so badly that she couldn’t be sent on engagements? Maybe he even killed the previous doctor? Maybe the Saunders persona was the previous doctor?

“We’re all functional – interchangeable.” Except: does Alpha (as opposed to Kepler) really believe that? He marks his victims – with what? is it too much to think it’s an alpha? - whatever it is, he tells Saunders that it comes out unique each time. And that it's a gift. Is he making the dolls individuals? (If Saunders is a doll being used as Dr. Saunders because she’s too damaged to be useful otherwise, then the end result of Alpha’s assault is that she’s given a permanent identity, even if it’s borrowed.) Is he a radicalized version of Ballard’s revulsion at the idea of people being reduced to interchangeable functionalities – revulsion at human commodification?

Should we be rooting for Alpha?