Saturday, January 16, 2010

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 25: "The Hollow Men"

“You guys are my family.” I’m convinced that one of the reasons this show never took off was because a lot of Whedonites wouldn’t embrace it in the absence of a Scoobyesque, Fireflyesque ad hoc family at the center of it. That’s what they wanted: but this show was never about that. It was never Us Good Guys Against the World: it was always about What Is Us, and How Do We Know? And if you never got that, here’s Joss to give you another chance. The bad guy is the one who doesn’t want to save the whole world, just his family. Us Good Guys. It sounds so sick when he says it…

First things first. The episode felt rushed, there’s no denying. A lot of the season has, as every so often, and increasingly after the cancellation, they woke up and realized, shit, we’d better move things along here. All along there have been developments – not just in the characters but the tech, the ideas – that I’ve felt could have used whole seasons to incubate properly. But we didn’t have that time. Given the constraints they were working under, I’ve felt that generally Mutant Enemy has done a fine job of unfolding the concepts and deploying the characters for maximum s/f mindfuck effect. This episode was no exception.

So Echo’s blood is what’s so special about her? It’s her spinal fluid they need, not her mind? Yeah, this one could have benefited from a half-season arc to set it up. My initial reaction was a “hunh?” But this was immediately followed by a “well, but.” Well, but it does fit in quite nicely with the show’s themes. The most basic question it’s asking, or debating, or having its various interests debate, is identity. Where does it come from? How deep does it run? Rossum believes that personality is severable from the body; it’s duplicable, manipulable, and transferable. The ongoing evolution of Echo was a challenge to that: her existence gave us hope that identity ran deeper than a wipe. But why? How? Did we really want to believe it was just a matter of willpower? That Echo was able to overcome the tech because Caroline was just so cool? Maybe we do want to believe that, but I think it’s a cop-out on the serious questions. So situating her specialness not in her will but in her body: that works for me. It addresses the identity question – not just identity in the sense of “hi, I’m Caroline,” but identity in the sense of sameness, that body and mind are inseparable. It works that in the end it’s the physicality of Carolinecho that matters. (At least, if Boyd's right. And he may not be: and that ambiguity, as well, is a good thing right here.)

(Not to say that this doesn’t introduce some problems. For example, if it is the body and not the mind, then what about Alpha? Why aren’t they making the vaccine out of him? And why does Mellie suddenly sprout the ability to overcome her sleeper programming – that’s presented as an act of pure will.)

That vaccine business. Pure Joss Whedon, in the way it crumbles the moral ground from beneath our feet, even as we’re jumping up and down on it for joy at the triumph of our heroes. It’s evil for Boyd to take away Carolinecho’s freedom so he can harvest her spinal fluid (and what an awesome horror-movie contraption he straps her into!). But isn’t it just as evil for all of our heroes to thwart his efforts to make a vaccine that will – it’s not wrong just because he says it – save everyone? I suppose not – if they/we really believe that they could destroy all the tech by blowing up a Boyd grenade (a deeply satisfying moment, to be sure). But if they believe that, they’re deluded, as Joss immediately made clear.

There are still loose ends, and I don’t know if we’re going to get a chance to pull them at this point. Whiskey’s background/her ties to Topher. Alpha. November’s background. We’re getting the big questions answered, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain if we don’t get everything tied up. But that’s what I want.

The Eliot shout-out in the title: a not-inappropriate nod to a high-cultural context. Technology introducing new kinds of hollowness to contemporary life (there seems to be no end to the ways in which we can make things worse for ourselves), and of course the show has imagined a way in which people can be made almost literally hollow. Was it not a deeply existential shock, as well as a great emotional payoff, when Topher remote-wiped Boyd? Boyd goes from being the Big Bad, a dangerous guy with dangerous ideas and the will to carry them out, to being – nothing. Mentally hollowed out. Was I the only one to feel a little bit sorry for the guy when they rig him with explosives and tell him to kill himself? What are they punishing there? Boyd’s gone – does it make moral sense to mortify his empty flesh?

Apropos of not much of anything, here’s another bit of high poetry that I ran across recently and thought might apply to the Dollhouse. Here’s what Macbeth says to the doctor when his wife shows signs of madness:

“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?”

Rossum’s answer:

“Why, yes, we can.”

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