Saturday, April 25, 2009


First off, I have to apologize for my extended hiatus away from writing. Unfortunately, real world affairs intervened. There was a funnier joke there, but it seems to elude me right now.

I decided to write a brief entry particularly because I am interested in thinking a bit about last night's episode of Dollhouse, "Haunted." I'm starting to wonder if I should just rename this blog to "Espensonwatch," since last night's episode was co-written by Jane Espenson. To disclaim, the decision to write about this episode is in no way influenced by that, although I'm starting to see that there is often a good bit of academic work that can be done with these episodes.

In terms of the larger structure of the show, after the deconstructional turns of the last few episodes, this episode admittedly feels a little dull. "Haunted" is quite good, but I wonder if this is the problem of doing the construction/deconstruction of the series premise within a short amount of time: inevitably, the juice runs out, and the premise must be reestablished so that it may eventually be torn down again in surprising fashion. That isn't to say, however, that a reset button has been pushed on the show. Certainly, both the characters and the premise are in different places now, and the episode is written to reflect that in subtle ways.

One of the large complaints addressed to the show is that with its main character, Echo (played by Eliza Dushku) playing someone different every episode, it is difficult to get attached to the show. I both agree and disagree with this. I believe that while Echo is the main character of the show, she is not the "star" of the show, per se. Rather, it is the dollhouse itself that is the star of the show; as "Dollhouse" runs the course of its first season, what we appear to learn is that the dollhouse is a real entity, and the people that exist in it, even those who are not Actives, are all dolls. The actions that they take not only build up the mythos of the dollhouse but also inscribe the dollhouse as a dynamic entity whose presence and purpose permute as the series continues. In this sense, although Eliza Dushku is the star for purposes of ads, ratings, and the fact that her character Echo appears to play a "special purpose" within the Dollhouse hierarchy, at least for the first season, we should hesitate to assign her the role of "star" as we would conventionally imagine it, as a vessel for the audience to insert their subjectivity. I'm sure that as the show develops (if it is hopefully allowed to do so), Echo will become a more conventional "star" character; however, for right now, we can only see the hints of that presence in the sequences that depict the unimprinted Echo. This may be either to the benefit or the detriment of "Dollhouse" itself.

In this episode, though, Echo assumes the identity of a woman who has died, and who decides to solve her own murder. Unlike past episodes, where Echo's identity is purportedly a mish-mash of various character traits and skills, this time her identity is that of a real person. This added layer of identity has the effect of further estranging the audience from the character for this episode. Since it is assumed that this character is fully formed, having had an entire life rather than being made up of assembled components, it is more difficult than usual for the audience to enter the character than usual. I think that this is why the episode takes pains to establish the character's strong relationship with Adelle. However, this seems uncharacteristic of Adelle, which I will discuss later, and the effect feels almost purposefully shoehorned as a way to create an opening for the audience.

That being said, despite the dominance of the A-story for the majority of the episode (especially in light of the structurally interesting previous episode), I believe that the further estrangement of Echo from the audience in this episode is because the real developments of the episode take place in the B-stories. They are markedly shorter than usual, but I feel that we might think of the A-story as a heavyhanded red herring, one that emphasizes the character development of these small subplots by presenting an interesting story yet denying the audience full entry into the narrative space of that story. In "Haunted," the subplots appear to continue on the theme of the main story, which is the notion of "coming to terms." The most disturbing of these subplots is Paul Ballard's resignment to the fact that Mellie is a doll, and moreover to the notion that, perhaps indirectly, he too is a customer of the dollhouse, one that he realizes both mentally and physically. We also see Boyd's adjustment to becoming the new head of security at the dollhouse and the consequences that it has for his ability to protect Echo.

Perhaps the largest character moments are reserved, as they should be, for Adelle. In the last episode, it is revealed that Adelle used the Dollhouse herself to cope with loneliness, and in the end she decides that she will stop using it. The consequences of this decision play out throughout the episode. For example, the entire Topher subplot, which might at first appear to be a development of the Topher character. Topher programs Sierra for a "diagnostic test," only to turn her into his fantasy woman. This subplot certainly develops the character for the audience, but it is important to realize that inherently, the character himself does not change. Topher has been carrying on these tests "once a year," perhaps on his birthday, and this has been an activity that has always been going on. The Sierra imprint is not a way for Topher to achieve great revelations regarding his existence or his purpose. What is particularly telling, however, is the last scene involving Topher and Sierra, where it is revealed that Adelle has been watching the two of them from her office. Her commentary on the characters, about how loneliness leads to detachment and sometimes those who most need to reach out are the ones who can't, not just applies to Topher, but also herself as well. It reflects her personal revelations from the last episode and also continue to develop them, noting a problem that seems to plague all the staff of the dollhouse, but particularly herself, since she is in charge and must deal with the loneliness that her position brings. Joss Whedon once wrote about Buffy, the main character of his other show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," that his plan every season was to strip everything away from her over the course of that season in order to show how she could overcome and emerge into power and responsibility. In a sense, this can be paralleled onto Adelle's character even more than it can be onto someone like Echo (whose life is naturally spent in this state). However, the message that Adelle appears to be sending is much different than the one that Buffy sends, so it will be interesting to see what happens as the rest of the episodes play out.

Another area where Adelle's concerns regarding the dollhouse centers on her interactions with Echo in this episode, and they lead to issues of memory and subjectivity which were of particular interest to me this time around. Once again, we see Adelle acting naturally with another personality, although this time, rather than just a programmed Active, it is with Echo, who carries the personality of her dead friend. As I've stated before, I found this interaction uncharacteristic: I'm not sure that Adelle would have become friends, more than casually, with a woman who is a dollhouse client, and one who it is made explicit that she met only in that capacity. I'm pretty certain that the friendship was shoehorned in, but nevertheless, I think it is a commentary on Adelle's own loneliness and the difficulties she has escaping the dollhouse herself.

Adelle's interactions with the Echo character, this time a wealthy woman named Margaret, are particularly interesting because they appear to point to a blind spot the episode has in regards to its premise, but one that is pivotal in the premise behind the entire show. What does it mean to imprint an actual person's body of memory onto an Active? What defines subjectivity? To Adelle, it would appear that Echo, whose Margaret imprint is defined by being a collection of all her memories, might ostensibly make Echo Margaret for all intents and purposes. However, and I think the episode either attempts to make this message too subtly or it is missing entirely from the episode altogether, the events of the episode may be read as an attempt to destabilize this notion. As much as the Echo imprint may have all the memories of Margaret, she is not the Margaret who died. There is something missing, something undefinable. It manifests in certain character moments, such as when the Margaret imprint gazes at herself during the funeral, or the final scenes of the episode where her husband talks about loving her, not the Margaret imprint, but the actual Margaret person. Arguably, I believe that it is this revelation, not the resolution of the mystery of the A-story, that is the impetus that brings Echo back to the dollhouse. A person may be defined to others in terms of the way that they act, or what they can remember, but what causes subjectivity to identify itself? Are memories enough to constitute the self, or do they serve only to create a ghost image, one that can only haunt, but can never truly be the same? I wish that the episode had raised this question more overtly, as I believe that this is one of the central premises of "Dollhouse," and I feel like it was lost on viewers this episode.