Saturday, January 2, 2010

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 21: "A Love Supreme"

Alpha’s back. And he’s more fun than ever, now that he’s gone Beau Brummel. And yet it feels like an odd time for him to come back – with only a few episodes left in the whole series, isn’t this just a distraction? Shouldn’t we get on with How the World Ends? And yet again, when he taunts Echo it serves nicely to bring Ballard’s behavior in the previous episode into focus. Was Ballard’s gentlemanly reticence an expression of love? Or disdain for composite humans?

Perhaps Alpha’s recurrence is just a way to shake things up again. Last episode we got a realignment of the key players in the Dollhouse: by the end we had Ballard, Boyd, and Echo on one side, fighting to bring down Rossum, and DeWitt on the other, now committed to Rossum, with Topher kind of caught in the middle. In this episode we get, for a little while, Topher joining Echo’s cabal – but then by the end DeWitt is made aware of Echo’s situation, too. And for a moment we think they’re all back on the same side. But then… The last shot of the episode is a closeup on DeWitt’s face, with some inscrutable expression on it. Where does she go from here?

Pause on the moment when Topher’s brought into the conspiracy. What does he say when he sees Echo calling up an imprint on her own? “I’m obsolete.” He’s speaking as a programmer – but he could be speaking for everyone in the face of the technology he’s helped introduce. The old-fashioned single-minded, single-bodied human is obsolete. And soon to be endangered.

More on the Matrix echoes we noted last time. That series was about hacking the System that keeps us all under control, and then about Neo learning how to hack reality. Dollhouse is about hacking the brain, which is our own individual reality. And it’s less sanguine about the whole idea of hacking than Matrix was: there the hacker was a hero, the anarchist who can bring down the Machine. Here the hacker is all too easily co-opted by the Machine, and the hack is the ultimate means of control. …In this episode we have perhaps the closest parallel yet, when it’s suggested that Dollhouse tech has turned humanity, collectively, into a computer. Alpha introduces a virus into the house’s computer, but it manifests itself in the dolls – they go all Agent Smith on their handlers.

There’s something being said about knowledge here, I think. Topher and Rossum have hacked the brain, i.e., they’ve bashed their way in, to a point where they can manipulate it, make it do what they want. They understand it – they’ve unlocked its mysteries – and that understanding gives them control. But that understanding does something else – it changes, somehow, the object of knowledge. Because somebody now knows how the brain works, and how to work it, all possessors of brains have now become objects of control – we’re no longer autonomous agents, but, potentially at least, someone else’s uncomplaining tools.

It’s a scary-sci-fi trope, right, the Scientist who Delved Too Deep, the New New Prometheus. Topher may have the best of intentions (and sometimes it seems like he might), but in the end his development and use of technology is no less reckless than Alpha’s. But being a truism doesn’t make it any less true. Knowledge is power. Power can be used to help people – but as Adelle reminded us in the last episode, power’s primary imperative is always to gain more power. Power doesn’t serve anybody: we all serve power.

And then, as in Matrix, we have the Hero. In this case the Heroine. Someone who’s learned to transcend the programming, do the impossible – someone who, we know, will lead the freed to a safe zone, a Zion. Is Echo the One? She denied it strenuously in “Omega” – she retains her slave-name, which underlines her status as a double, not a unique entity. But she’s embracing that nonuniqueness as her essence, her own identity. So she’s not the One, but she is the Many – she contains multitudes.

What’s the Love Supreme? Alpha’s obsession with Echo? Echo’s love for Ballard, which prevents her from killing Alpha even though Ballard begged her to? Or is it the unconditional, pure love that Echo is able to give each and every client? She can be what everyone needs her to be – which is one way to think of a Savior.

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