As previously explained, I’ve decided to embark on a re-watch of Joss Whedon’s short-lived 2009 show, Dollhouse. To find out a bit more about my motivations and intentions, see my earlier post.
Now to begin the first episode!
GHOSTS & EMPTY SHELLS
“NOTHING IS WHAT IT APPEARS TO BE” is the show’s opening line of dialogue, and in all fairness, it’s an apt assertion. It’s spoken by Olivia Williams’ character, DeWitt. I think her first name is Adele. Hopefully this won’t be my John Travolta at the Oscars moment.
So ADELE DEWITT is shown on some kind of surveillance footage with Eliza Dushku’s character; they’re both sat at a table in a meeting room. DeWitt pours tea. Dushku is sat casually but does not look comfortable with the situation. We move from a surveillance camera to an over-the-shoulder shot within the room. Thematically this show isn’t really concerned with surveillance, so it’s an interesting choice to start this way and I wonder if it will become relevant later. DeWitt offers a CLEAN SLATE, which anyone with even a basic comprehension of this show’s premise will know means more than simply a ‘second chance’.
“You ever try and clean an actual slate?” Dushku asks, because apparently she has. “You always see what was on it before.” I mean, even I remember enough to know that this is incredibly relevant to her character. Unflappable, DeWitt continues. She calls the other woman ‘CAROLINE’ and tells her that actions have consequences, and I have to admit I do not remember enough of Caroline’s back-story to know what actions they are referring to here. But DeWitt offers an out: “what if they didn’t?” She has a contract for Caroline to sign, detailing a 5 year term. DeWitt says that what ‘they’ do helps people, and may perhaps help Caroline. What ‘they’ do at the Dollhouse is essentially wipe a person’s mind clean until they become a blank slate, and then IMPRINT them with interchangeable personas according to a client’s needs. Considering Caroline is being coerced here, it’s reasonable to assume that many of the others in this situation also did not even consent to no longer being able to give consent, so obviously this is some PRETTY SHADY SHIT.
Already I’m wondering how miserable a person has to be if they’re willing to sign up to such an existence. I mean, I’m 26 and still have no idea what I’m doing with my life, but even I am not desperate enough to sign this kind of agreement. To deny yourself your own bodily autonomy, to give away your right to consent – to anything – it is a scary, scary concept, and opens up so many narrative possibilities. The premise of this show really is rich with potential.
SCENE CHANGE, and obviously a time jump has taken place too, as we are thrown into the middle of a motorbike race through the streets of … LA? One of the bikers takes a tumble, and removes their helmet to reveal adrenaline junkie extraordinaire Eliza Dushku. She loses the race, which ends at a birthday party where all of the male guests are wearing the WORST CLOTHES EVER. “Let’s just dance,” says the birthday boy, and then Lady Gaga’s JUST DANCE plays, which is just so 2009 (like the fashion). You know when you start watching a new show, and a HIT SONG starts playing so you infer instantly what year that episode came out, like JT’s ‘What Goes Around …’ in the Gossip Girl pilot – this is the ultimate example of that. They could not have picked a more 2009 track for the Dollhouse opener. (It was actually released in 2008, and that’s also when this episode would have been produced, but it hit the UK in the final week of that year which is why I consider it a 2009 song.)
Dushku dances happily, wearing an incredibly short dress (but she also had leather trousers on whilst riding the bike so it’s not strictly titillation). They party for hours, and reminisce about bondage a little bit, and birthday boy Matt gives Dushku a necklace (which is pointless but a nice gesture when you think about it). He knows it’s time for her to leave though, because he is a DOLLHOUSE CLIENT. This guy paid for the perfect woman to spend a 3 day birthday weekend with, and that is probably one of the more innocuous purposes a client would render the Dollhouse’s services for. Dushku skips out onto the early morning streets and meets a man in a van, who I already know is BOYD LANGTON, her HANDLER, and hoo boy do I remember something huge about this character.
He returns her to the Dollhouse where we meet TOPHER BRINK, the young, white genius who engineered all of the technology that makes the Dollhouse possible. We’re introduced to our first ‘debrief’ of sorts, where the memories of Dushku’s current persona are removed to a hard-drive, and she is wiped clean (clean slate, clean slate) until she is nothing more than an empty shell. Topher calls her ECHO, but I’m still wondering what the hell kind of a name ‘TOPHER’ is. (Short for Christopher?)
“Did I fall asleep?” Echo asks blankly.
“For a little while.”
This interaction gets repeated a lot so get used to it.
LANGTON and TOPHER converse enough to let us know that the former is conflicted about the work that they do, and the latter thinks they are great, misunderstood humanitarians because of the services that they provide.
“Look at Echo: not a care in the world. She’s living the dream.”
Gabriel is next: he’s the main client for the episode, a rich Mexican businessman whose young daughter we see get kidnapped. Then, CREDITS SEQUENCE.
Post-credits we cold-open on DEWITT’S DRINKS COUNTER, which if I recall correctly, makes many a prominent appearance throughout the show.
The Dollhouse faculty refer to missions as ‘ENGAGEMENTS’, and this episode’s Engagement sets up the show’s premise neatly enough without distracting from it. The operatives sent on Engagements, such as Echo, are known as ACTIVES and they are monitored from a safe distance by their HANDLERS. The main takeaways from this episode’s Engagement are what we learn about how an Active’s persona is created: from an amalgam of various other people, including their traits and memories. Obviously this is RISKY FUCKING BUSINESS, and we will definitely see how this comes back to bite TOPHER et al in the ass, not to mention how it affects the Actives themselves. Additionally, mid-Engagement, we see Echo suddenly flashback to a memory of something she witnessed in the Dollhouse – something that shouldn’t be possible and thus begins to set her apart from the other Actives.
On the ground floor of the Dollhouse (which probably is not actually the ground floor at all, as the lack of windows suggests this is all taking place below ground), everything moves at a relaxed pace. The ACTIVES are not so active when they are in their BLANK SLATE mode (tabula rasa, yo) and not on Engagements, and instead they move around like really sedate zombies; friendly, sedate zombies with a 5 year old’s understanding of the world. They wear plain, coloured t-shirts like the people in those sample photos you get when you buy a photo frame, and they float around from one activity to the next, from art class to swimming to physio, without a care in the world.
Echo is getting checked over by the doctor who is AMY ACKER(!!!). Amy has scars running across her face and bristles when Echo innocently touches them to ask who looks after the good doctor. Did I mention it’s Amy Acker? She’s beautiful.
Even in her blank slate state, Echo has a really inquisitive nature, and whilst AMY ACKER arranges a massage for her, Echo wanders up a staircase which you just know the Actives are not supposed to go near. She finds TOPHER in the … well, I’m not really sure what this room is called, so I will name it the IMPRINTING FACTORY. It’s the same room where we saw Echo having her persona wiped earlier. Lying in the chair now is DICHEN LACHMAN undergoing EXTREME ACUPUNCTURE and not enjoying it. This is her first time in the Dollhouse, and here she is having her slate wiped clean, and can we just talk about Dichen Lachman for a minute, because girl needs her own lead actress gig. I remember how this show threw her into the big, wide world, and we accepted her with open arms and tear-stained cheeks and said “DICHEN, you wonderful actress, where have you been hiding, please appear in everything great and good from now on” and since then she has been popping up in badass recurring guest roles here, there, and everywhere, and frequently being killed off. I can’t decide which between her stint on The 100, and her arc on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the bigger travesty (okay, let’s be real, probably S.H.I.E.L.D. because it actually has value, whereas The 100 just turned into a shitshow) but the fact remains she is a brilliant actress of colour who we should be seeing a lot more of. I believe her latest screen credit is on The Last Ship, which I know absolutely nothing about except that Bridget Regan now also stars in it, so if you have a yearning to see more of both of these actresses, maybe check that out.
Anyway, back to Dollhouse. Echo in her basic idea comprehension and sentence-forming ways knows that Dichen Lachman is not exactly enjoying a sweet little nap, and Topher is all ‘yo, Doc, you had one job‘ when Amy Acker comes to retrieve Echo for her massage. The doctor by the way lurks creepily behind the door and it is adorable in a way that only AMY ACKER could make possible. Also we learn that Dichen’s character is called SIERRA.
Now listen up, because I swear Joss Whedon got a little distracted here and started daydreaming, because he basically penned a LOVE LETTER to Battlestar Galactica and inserted it in the middle of this episode. We are introduced to FBI AGENT PAUL BALLARD, played by Tahmoh Penikett, and from the get-go, Joss was never shy about his man-crush on Tahmoh and the fact he wanted to cast him ever since he watched BSG. From the top of this scene the score is like a softer, less intrusive version of the percussion that always accompanies Caprica Six on Battlestar. The music, the oversaturated flashback intercut with the present, Tahmoh in a boxing ring – it’s like Joss Whedon had a fever-dream after a binge-watch, and decided to film it. And this re-enacted nerdgasm is how he introduces his straight, white male lead. I don’t know what that says about him. (Edward James Olmos also gets name-checked in the following scene. FOCUS ON YOUR OWN SHOW, JOSS.)
FBI PAUL is getting a bollocking from his superiors because he keeps compromising other cases in the course of his investigation into … THE DOLLHOUSE. His superiors would rather the investigation be dropped, but FBI PAUL knows that their superiors have a special interest in the case, and I’m certainly interested to see how this pans out. Are the top dogs acting altruistically or do they have an ulterior motive in wanting the Dollhouse exposed? Joss engages in a little show-don’t-tell here, interspersed with all the tell, as we see flashback!PAUL refuse to give up in the boxing ring contrasted with present!PAUL telling his bosses their order to back down won’t be a problem. Instantly we know IT GONNA BE A PROBLEM. It’s a neat story-telling technique that also gives us some characterisation.
Like I said earlier, we start to learn about how an Active’s persona is crafted; in the case of ‘Eleanor Penn’, Echo’s current identity, she is a highly experienced hostage negotiator who is also near-sighted and has asthma. Boyd wonders why Topher would handicap her in this way, but it’s not intentional; “achievement is balanced by fault”, and considering the imprint of the highly skilled negotiator came from a real person, her ‘faults’ came along for the ride too. Echo is not literally imposed by near-sightedness when she takes on this persona, but Topher is able to play with the neural pathways to her eyesight to make her brain think her vision is blurry. Is it just me or does that imply that it was optional to do so? Maybe it wasn’t worded right, or maybe I’m misunderstanding.
“Everyone who excels is overcompensating,” he says, watching AMY ACKER. “Running from something. Hiding from something.” This is all rather pointed, and although I remember the reveal about Amy’s character, I’m excited to see it all play out for a second time. By the way, Topher is wearing the absolute WORST SWEATER-VEST in this scene. Amy on the other hand is always wearing a really fancy lab coat. That is one finely tailored doctor. I’m kinda worried she doesn’t have any other clothes though.
Remember we were shown that FBI PAUL was not going to give in so easily? The next time we see him, he is sat at a bar watching some Russian dude who has a lady on each arm as he complains about his visit from Immigration to anyone who will listen. FBI PAUL pulls out his FLIP-PHONE and takes a pic of Russian dude before making a call to … somebody. I’m not sure if we ever find out who.
Russian dude makes a visit to the men’s room and pisses all over his shoes when FBI PAUL holds a gun to his head. Russian dude is ENVER GJOKAJ! As with Dichen Lachman, this show introduced the world to Enver who we discovered is DELIGHTFUL. The guy that he plays here is not so delightful, considering his connections to child traffickers. FBI PAUL wants him to put out word on the Dollhouse to see who bites. “Okay, Dollhouse, Dollhouse, Dollhouse, is fun to say,” Enver says nervously and to be honest it’s just adorable in his fake Russian accent.
As for the A plot, it turns out Echo’s persona has a connection with one of the kidnappers involved in her Engagement, and this is where some of the darker ideas of the show are exposed; one of the people her persona is comprised of was kidnapped as a child by one of the same men she has now been hired to deal with. Langton and Topher dig a little deeper and discover that although the woman eventually escaped her abductor physically, ultimately she was never free from him and years later killed herself. Langton is furious that Echo was given the memory of an abused girl and then placed face-to-face with her abuser, but because ‘Eleanor Penn’ is willing to continue the Engagement, he’s determined for them to save Gabriel’s daughter, despite the Dollhouse’s desire to pull Echo out. ‘Eleanor’ refers to her childhood abductor as a ghost, and the same moniker would easily apply to the Actives, considering how they are almost surgically extracted from people’s’ lives once their Engagements are over. This is something that FBI PAUL is going to learn quite soon.
Ultimately Echo resolves the Engagement, with a little help cleaning up from Sierra, who shows up guns blazing, looking BADASS AF. When I first watched this 7 years ago I actually had an adverse reaction to Sierra’s attitude in this scene, which is just laughable now that I remember it. It’s also worth noting that ‘Eleanor Penn’ leaves without her glasses, which fell off in the firefight.
DEWITT and Reed Diamond’s HEAD OF SECURITY character have mixed feelings about how the Engagement was resolved, but mostly they are concerned about a very foreboding file, which is opened to reveal the word ALPHA. If you know your NATO phonetic alphabet then it doesn’t take much to infer that Alpha is or was another Active, like Echo and Sierra. DeWitt wants to know how they are going to contain the situation, which suggests that whatever went wrong happened RECENTLY.
The episode ends with a naked man sat on a table, watching college yearbook footage of Caroline as he prepares a package addressed to FBI PAUL. On the floor around him are MURDERED PEOPLE. I’m 99.9% certain my memory is serving me well and that the naked dude is ALPHA, and I think in all fairness this episode does a decent job of setting up this mystery whilst also establishing the rest of the universe in which ALPHA and the other Actives operate(d). At some point I would be interested to watch the unaired pilot, probably after this re-watch of the show to avoid any confusion.
So that’s the first episode of Dollhouse, and honestly I think a lot of the early criticism was uncalled for. As a first episode it establishes nearly all of the key players, even if the exact roles of some of them are still obscured (remember: NOTHING IS WHAT IT APPEARS TO BE). We get a hint of how things can go wrong with the technology the Dollhouse uses, and we get a tease of what has gone MAJORLY WRONG in the Dollhouse’s recent history. The main drama within the episode is character-driven (and poignant in the case of ‘Eleanor Penn’s’ desire to rescue the latest victim of her childhood abuser) and there’s enough ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ to ensure the more expository scenes aren’t simply info-dumps.
As a woman and a feminist it’s extremely unsettling to think about the wider consequences of the show’s premise. Knowing that the Actives are used as the playthings of the highest bidders in town, it can be hard to watch the scenes where Echo is seen in intimate scenarios with her client/s. There are no two ways to look at these scenes, and it is alarming to see how many faculty at the Dollhouse seem to be okay with or complicit in the rape of these men and women. And yes it is important that the pool of Actives is comprised of both men and women. I think quite a different message would have been sent out if the Dollhouse used only women to fulfil their clients’ needs. There is something that feels less exploitative about women not being the only victims here, which I realise seems like a contradiction. What is interesting to think about is how the names are assigned to the Actives. Is perceived gender important here? Should ‘Juliet’ be a female Active, and ‘Mike’ and ‘Victor’ male ones? Considering the majority of the terms in the NATO phonetic alphabet refer to concepts or inanimate objects, are there rules to be followed in how they are assigned to genders? Also, considering there are only 26 names available, does that mean there are only a maximum of 26 Actives at any one time? Echo sleeps in a room of 5 chamber pods, so how are the other 21 distributed? I don’t know if the show ever answers these questions, but I’ll keep an ear and an eye out.
Something else that I will try to do from now on is pay more attention to the background Actives. Of the Actives we have met so far, one is a white woman, and the other is a woman of East Asian descent, and of the other Actives I can recall who have yet to be introduced none of them are persons of colour. While I don’t think this show’s use of race is intentional, I think that does actually say a lot: about the show, about how our society values whiteness, and on a micro scale about how the TV and film industry deems whiteness to be the default standard and forces people of colour to impress twice as hard to even be considered. It says a lot if, subconsciously, mostly white, conventionally attractive, slim actors were chosen to portray the most desirable toys LA’s Dollhouse has to offer, and if it wasn’t subconscious then there needs to be more commentary on this within the show. In 2016, racially diverse representation within media is a ‘hot topic’, even if it still mostly feels like all talk and no action; in 2009, though these discussions were undoubtedly taking place, they certainly did not command the same attention they now have. So would things be different if the show was being made today? Possibly not, but I do think more criticism would [rightly] be levelled at it if it chose not to engage with either representation or commentary. Of course when it comes to women of colour, there is already an awful lot of real-world historical precedent of rich, white people using their bodies for pleasure and gain or as a means of control, whether it’s the black slave trade, or the US Government-mandated forced sterilisation of Latina women in the 20th Century, or any number of the other atrocities women of colour have endured at the hands of white people. To not engage at all in this conversation is a great disservice to these women and it will be frustrating if Dollhouse ignores it.
So, let’s see where the next episode takes us.