So, I’ve been re-watching Joss Whedon’s 2009 sci-fi show, Dollhouse, which I haven’t seen since it first aired. I’ve already talked a bit about my motivations for doing this, and what I hope to gain from the re-watch, and so far I’ve analysed the first episode and identified some of the key ideas of the show.
Now it’s time to see how the second episode expands the narrative!
THE ALPHA THING
In the closing moments of the first episode, we were offered a tease of a recent setback in the operations of the Dollhouse, as Boss Lady-in-Charge, ADELE DEWITT, asked her HEAD OF SECURITY how they were going to contain a situation pertaining to an ‘EYES ONLY’ file labelled ‘ALPHA’. Nothing more was said of it, but we were then shown a naked man surrounded by the men he had presumably killed as he put together a parcel for FBI AGENT PAUL BALLARD with an instruction to ‘keep looking’. Inside the parcel was a photo of Caroline, the original persona of the show’s lead, played by Eliza Dushku.
So what was all that about? Well, episode 2 starts to explain, as it opens with an oversaturated flashback set 3 MONTHS AGO, alarms sounding throughout the Dollhouse as staff hurriedly usher concerned Actives to their sleeping chambers (and, yo, I said I was going to pay more attention to the background, and here we have 5 Actives: two white females, two white males, one black male). Reed Diamond’s HEAD OF SECURITY (whose name I still have not caught so I’m just going to call him SECURITY REED for now) descends the stairs into the Actives’ living quarters with a team of fully armed security guards. There are bloodied corpses on the ground, and the security team are instructed to secure the exits and take no chances. TOPHER wants a gun, but honestly he looks in no fit state to handle one. “Doc Saunders looks like a jigsaw puzzle,” he says, which I believe is the first time AMY ACKER’s character is referred to by name.
“It appears we’ve had a COMPOSITE event,” announces DEWITT, arriving on the scene. ALPHA is responsible.
“He gets wiped after every Engagement just like all the rest. How can he Composite?” asks SECURITY REED.
Topher doesn’t know what to say. It shouldn’t have happened.
The security guards find ECHO, sitting naked in the shower area, surrounded by dead, naked Actives (white woman, white man, black man with his hand very strategically placed). Echo has blood on her face but is UNHARMED.
It makes sense to discuss the FLASHBACK scenes first, considering they take place chronologically before the present-day Engagement and they all inform the events and revelations that take place in the present.
So next in flashback we see BOYD LANGTON being welcomed to the Dollhouse by DEWITT and SECURITY REED whilst a workman in the background tries to clean a lampshade covered in bloody handprints. Langton comes highly recommended, which perhaps we should be suspicious of considering he claims to have heard the stories of “programmable people made to order”. Are these stories that widespread that just any regular ex-cop has heard of them? Is Langton just your regular ex-cop? We still don’t know enough about the wider world’s knowledge of the Dollhouse.
“In light of recent events, we’ve decided to engage individuals with a more – shall we say – intensive background” explains DeWitt.
Langton as we know is to be assigned as ECHO’S NEW HANDLER, because her previous one – Samuelson – is now little more than the POOL OF BLOOD they’re standing in. Considering there is still blood EVERYWHERE, and Echo is one of the Dollhouse’s most requested Actives, this conversation is most likely taking place only a day or two after ALPHA’s destructive escape. Presumably the faculty are keen for Echo to remain available to clients without delay, hence the need for a speedy replacement in Handler. Does this mean they may have compromised on how thorough their background check of Langton was?
Langton is introduced to their resident physician, Doctor Saunders, AKA JIGSAW PUZZLE, AKA AMY ACKER, who is keen for Samuelson’s body to be removed from her office. The incisions across her face are fresh and newly stitched, sharply rendered in the oversaturated glow of FLASHBACK LAND, but more on that in a minute.
Langton wants to see Samuelson’s body.
“You really don’t,” DeWitt warns, but they oblige, and Langton and SECURITY REED examine the corpse.
Samuelson was attacked with a single, non-serrated blade, approx 10-12cm in length, first at the tendons and extremities to disable him. Langton surmises that the attacker must have taken their time to target areas that would cause the most pain and damage, but SECURITY REED’s timeline allows for only 8 seconds. Nobody could carry out such a methodical attack so quickly without experience and training – unless they were imprinted with the persona of somebody who could. Langton slowly realises what is being said; one of the Dollhouse’s own Actives carried out this attack. Although ALPHA should have been in his blank slate mode, he was somehow able to access multiple imprints at the same time: a COMPOSITE EVENT. The question everyone is asking is why did he slaughter everybody around Echo but leave her alive? The other question that we should be asking is why was Doctor Saunders slashed across the face but otherwise left unharmed and alive? DeWitt dismisses her as “more fortunate” than the others, but there is a lot more going on here and this is all setting up quite a JUICY REVEAL.
Next, Langton meets Topher who crudely refers to him as “the new Samuelson”, and introduces himself as “the man behind the grey-matter curtain”. Langton knocks him down a peg or two by observing that he’s responsible for ALPHA going rogue. He wants to know if the Actives slaughtered by Alpha even fought back.
“They wouldn’t know how. Not without an imprint.”
Langton’s proposed solution: to default the Actives with ninja skills. It turns out THEY TRIED THAT ONCE. It didn’t go well (see: ALPHA). I don’t think we’re supposed to take this entirely literally, but obviously something about ALPHA was different, whether it’s how he was programmed, or how he was able to fight back against his programming. Topher calls him an anomaly, but soon the Dollhouse is going to realise they have another Alpha in the making, and that does not bode well for Echo.
Speaking of Echo, we get to see her first interaction with Langton in what I have dubbed the IMPRINTING FACTORY, as Topher puts them through their HANDLER/ACTIVE IMPRINT, which requires a direct line of sight.
“From this point on,” he explains, “Echo will always trust you without question or hesitation, no matter what the circumstance.”
Obviously the Dollhouse should want to ensure that the people they hire as Handlers are worthy of that trust, considering the delicate nature of this bond. There undoubtedly are people willing to abuse their positions of power, and this is definitely something that DeWitt needs to watch out for if she cares at all for the safety and wellbeing of her Actives. Of course it would be very easy for a Handler to game the system and take advantage of the technology in the course of taking advantage of their Active. Again this all comes back to the Actives’ inability to control what happens to and with their bodies, and it really is one of the darker elements of this show’s premise.
Langton is handed his script and he obviously feels very uncomfortable about the whole scenario, but Topher pushes him to hold Echo’s hand. “Tactile proximity enhances bonding protocol,” he explains. There is a beautiful low-angle shot looking up at Langton through a gap in the chair with Echo’s head haloed in the purple light emanating from it. It’s interesting to see that the light has a different colour depending on what purpose the machine is being used for; purple for bonding, blue for imprinting. I wonder if we will see other colours.
“Everything is going to be alright,” Boyd reads from the script. He looks surprised by Echo’s instinctive response: “now that you’re here”.
“Do you trust me?”
“With my life.”
In the present, there are three characters who we focus on; Echo and Langton on their Engagement, and FBI PAUL who remains uninvolved in any of the Dollhouse’s business, but would certainly like to be all up in it. He turns up at the cabin where Echo rescued the young kidnap victim in the previous episode, which is now an active crime scene on account of all the DEAD BODIES & BULLETS. MARK SHEPHARD is there because he is contractually obliged to show up in every sci-fi show. FBI PAUL knows that the evidence doesn’t add up on account of SIERRA gate-crashing the party and wiping down Echo’s prints. Sierra wasn’t thorough enough however, as ‘Eleanor Penn’/Echo’s glasses are still there, and FBI PAUL finds them. Sierra, you had one job.
RUSSIAN DUDE is sucking face with a blonde chick whilst he drives when he gets a phone call from his new best buddy, FBI PAUL. He also has a FLIP-PHONE by the way. If there is one way to see how much a TV show has aged, it’s to look at the phones. FBI PAUL reminds RUSSIAN DUDE that he is meant to be finding out about the Dollhouse. I think he called him ‘LUBOV’ but personally I prefer ‘Russian dude’. More importantly, FBI PAUL has received his CARE PACKAGE from MYSTERY NAKED MAN WHO I’M 99.9% SURE IS ALPHA. There’s no address on the envelope, which means it has to have been delivered by hand. Surely FBI PAUL could check CCTV? Anyway, inside he finds the photograph of Caroline, Echo’s original persona, so now he has a face to put to his investigation.
Later when he gets back to his apartment, we meet FBI PAUL’s friendly, young, wholesome looking neighbour. You know she’s friendly because she greets him with a singsong “hey neighbour!” and she offers him her lasagna leftovers. The camera pans down to reveal the dish is COMPLETELY FULL. Caught in her overly friendly act, she’s all ‘oh, ya, I compulsively made about 10 dishes ‘cos that’s TOTALLY NORMAL, how many do you want?’ and then she spots FBI PAUL’s photo of Caroline because he is incapable of keeping his FBI paperwork confidential. FBI PAUL calls his neighbour ‘Mellie’ and reveals to this REGULAR CITIZEN that he has already run facial recognition on the photo and the database had zero hits. This reminds me of a really terrible episode of The Flash, in which the writers apparently forgot that facial recognition software searches faces for a match, not names (I mean truly terrible; the entire conceit of the episode’s subplot precipitated on this).
Given this, I would be more sceptical of FBI PAUL’s failed search, were it not for the likelihood that the Dollhouse would scrub any evidence of their Actives’ original personas from existence. (Saying that, why was there still a photo of Caroline in existence? Where did Alpha get it from?) It is very very plausible, given the highly secretive (and illegal) nature of their services, but it does make me wonder how they choose their Actives. Is it like with 00 agents, where friendless orphans looking for a cause to believe in are considered the most suitable candidates? I can imagine the Dollhouse targeting some very vulnerable people, and that certainly seems to fit with what little we saw of Caroline in the series’ opening scene, in which she looked pretty much at the end of her tether. Either that or they fake a lot of deaths to ensure no loved ones go looking for the newly minted Actives. I would still love to know how Paul’s bosses first got wind of the Dollhouse – are rumours abound because there are too many unexplained ‘deaths’ or missing persons? Are there too many unusual cases where the evidence doesn’t add up and witness statements point to additional persons of interest, just like with the young kidnap victim in the cabin? Or is it because, as I’ve suggested before, Paul’s superiors already have a connection with the Dollhouse, either as past clients, or competitors, and have a vested interest in seeing it brought down? Maybe there are people who were originally involved in its inception who were either scorned or got cold feet.
I really don’t remember any of this, which I’m actually quite pleased about, so I’m very interested to see where it goes. Either way, for now FBI PAUL is determined to find out who Caroline is or was, and promises himself/FRIENDLY MELLIE that he won’t stop looking. That’s probably not going to end well for him. It turns out the Dollhouse is aware of FBI PAUL’s investigation and while SECURITY REED thinks he’s a threat, DEWITT is more dismissive. “Agent Ballard has been groping blindly for quite some time now,” she says, and like Jon Snow, HE KNOWS NOTHING. SECURITY REED thinks he should be neutralised, but not even DEWITT would so cavalierly sanction a Federal Agent’s assassination. He may be a dog with an irresistible bone, but the appropriate measures have been taken. WATCH OUT, FBI PAUL!
MEANWHILE, Echo and Langton are on their ENGAGEMENT, and unfortunately for us all the client in this episode is a real JACKASS. He has a name, but I am not going to use it. I have never forgotten this JACKASS. Somehow, over these past 7 and a bit years since I first watched this episode, my memory of him has been so abiding, I think it must have been the result of an extreme reaction to his misogyny and the creepy trials he puts Echo through. Let’s start from the top.
ADELE DEWITT meets with the JACKASS who complains about how women always turn out to be liars and disappointments, and DeWitt looks like she’s this close to turning him into a JIGSAW PUZZLE.
“In their resting state, our Actives are as innocent and vulnerable as children,” DeWitt tells him, and then she refers to it as ‘tabula rasa‘ or ‘blank slate’, and I already beat her to the punch on that when writing about the last episode. Tabula rasa is a millennia-old epistemological concept, and considering I haven’t studied Philosophy in over 8 years, I think I might have to brush up on my reading as I feel some of the key ideas may complement the show quite nicely. Unsurprisingly quite a few sci-fi & fantasy TV shows like to explore this concept; amongst others, LOST, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Stargate Atlantis all have an episode named ‘Tabula Rasa’. It’s often connected to the so-called nature vs nurture debate and obviously this show is going to get heavily involved in exploring some of the questions that throws up.
I’ve mentioned before that I can see Dollhouse as a thematic pre-cursor of sorts to Orphan Black, and I feel it is in this area in particular where it really laid a lot of the groundwork that Orphan Black builds upon. That show is so heavily pre-occupied with the effects of nature and nurture – particularly in its earlier seasons – and its science consultant, Cosima Herter, has written before about the reductionism of attributing simply ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ as solely responsible for determining complex characteristics, such as sexuality, when the reality is that both have an important role to play. This is all somewhat tangential, but as I said, this show is soon going to delve into these ideas a lot more and DEWITT’S little insights are all laying the foundations for this. She also mentions her employers for the first time in this scene, and although it is not surprising that she is not at the top of the food chain, I am wondering how high up this entire enterprise reaches.
Eliza Dushku continues doing a bit of everything in this episode, which includes white-water rafting, rock climbing, practicing with a bow and arrow, and generally running around quite a lot. You see, the JACKASS wanted an adventurous woman who could keep up with him in the Great Outdoors, but that was all just a pretext for something a lot shadier. Echo’s persona in this episode is called ‘Jenny’, and the JACKASS teaches her all about his DAD’S GREAT PHILOSOPHY of SHOULDER TO THE WHEEL, complete with shoulder-slap. Essentially, Daddy thought that people had to prove they deserved to live, through grit, determination, and hard work. If you were able to bring down something bigger than yourself with just the bow and arrow, then you proved yourself. I’d have pegged this guy as more of the MOMMY ISSUES sort, but there we go. I know none of this sounds important but it actually feeds into the biggest character growth moment Echo has yet, which for a blank slate is pretty huge. So the JACKASS teaches ‘Jenny’ how to use the bow, and then a shooting arrow becomes a SCENE TRANSITION, straight into TENT SEX with the JACKASS. God, why? Then almost instantly, the JACKASS kicks ‘Jenny’ out the tent, gives her a head-start, and then begins hunting her down. You see, he wants her to prove she deserves to live. It’s so gross. He missed the memo that she isn’t bigger than him. You’re twisting DAD’S GREAT PHILOSOPHY, JACKASS.
There’s a lot of beautiful location shooting in this episode, showing off whatever Californian National Park this is, and it certainly serves as a nice contrast to the static interiors of the Dollhouse and FBI PAUL’s office & apartment building.
LANGTON is not so keen on being out in the woods, as he and a RED SHIRT monitor Echo from their nondescript black van.
“Everything looks beautiful from here,” says Topher’s disembodied voice over the earpiece, and although he’s not playing with toy dinosaurs at his console, it feels very much like a Firefly nod.
Speaking of Firefly, Langton and the RED SHIRT soon run into a spot of trouble with a Park Ranger who sounds THE SPIT of Nathan Fillion. Even his dialogue is a little Mal Reynolds-esque and it’s frankly uncanny. He catches them trespassing but luckily Langton has convincing fake ID to go along with his cover. However it turns out that FAKE MAL is actually a FAKE RANGER and he whips out a silenced pistol and starts shooting! The RED SHIRT dies, living up to his name. Langton soon overpowers FAKE RANGER, however, and boy can this guy take care of himself. Some swift, unforgiving interrogation reveals the FAKE RANGER was hired over the phone to stall the response team when Echo became endangered. Which means somebody who knows Dollhouse protocol and Handler procedures is responsible. HMMMMM.
Echo comes across the Park Ranger’s cabin, and the REAL RANGER falls out of the cupboard, DEAD. Suddenly his walkie crackles, and it’s the JACKASS, radioing her! The FAKE RANGER is an accomplice of the JACKASS! The JACKASS wants Echo to prove she’s “not just an echo”, which is definitely a hint, and a reminder: NOTHING IS WHAT IT APPEARS TO BE. Also, he has spiked her water. JACKASS.
Echo begins to hallucinate, and she sees Caroline. She falls into the river, and when she’s unconscious she is ‘back’ in the shower at the Dollhouse, surrounded by the other Actives that ALPHA murdered. ALPHA is stood behind her, blood dripping off his surgical knife, and actually the use of light in this shot is really neat. ALPHA is cast in shadow, so we can’t see his face, but the knife glints menacingly. Echo awakes and Langton comes to her aid while the JACKASS tracks some GRAVEL.
“Everything’s going to be alright,” says Langton, and then he gets ARROWED.
Echo doesn’t understand why but she trusts Langton, and most importantly, she tells him about the visions she’s had, of the dead bodies in the shower, of the man standing over her.
“I can’t see his face. I don’t think he has one.”
Langton clutches his side and tries the bonding dialogue again:
“Everything’s going to be alright.”
“No it isn’t.”
Echo flips the script: “Do you trust me?” she asks. Langton is stunned. The cheek of it! He can’t really move though, so he has little choice but to give her the FAKE RANGER’s gun.
To cut a long story short, Echo defeats the JACKASS (hooray!). In fact, she KILLS HIM (whoa). WITH HIS OWN ARROW (hell yeah!). She keeps seeing Caroline, and other versions of herself like it’s an early screen-test for Orphan Black.
“He was right about you; you really are special,” the JACKASS says as he’s DYING. Then he does his SHOULDER-SLAP one last time, because he really did just want ‘Jenny’ to prove herself to him. Jeez, some guys. But back to that line for one hot second, because the JACKASS doesn’t reveal who the ‘he’ is, but obviously it is somebody who knows (or claims to know) Echo. And remember: the JACKASS and his FAKE RANGER accomplice were hired by somebody with knowledge of the Dollhouse and their operations protocols. So who is this mystery figure who loves playing with everyone’s favourite doll?
Even though the Dollhouse carried out a background check on the JACKASS, it turns out his persona was completely fabricated, and when the rescue team gets to Langton’s nondescript black van, they find the FAKE RANGER is DEAD, even though Langton left him alive. JIGSAW PUZZLE AMY ACKER analyses the corpse and finds new wounds caused by a single, non-serrated blade, approx 10cm in length; precise, almost surgical lacerations. Langton recognises ALPHA’s handiwork.
“That’s impossible,” AMY ACKER tells him. “ALPHA is DEAD.” As far as she is concerned, the Dollhouse tracked him down and put him down. But at the end of the previous episode, we saw DEWITT talk to SECURITY REED about how they need to contain THE ALPHA THING, and if he was already dead then that would be contained just fine surely, so we know they’re lying but who else is in on it and who else is being lied to? Also, why is Dr Saunders being kept in the dark? Understandably, talk of ALPHA makes her very uncomfortable, so is the intention to make her feel safe? That seems uncharacteristically nice of DEWITT and SECURITY REED so there has to be something more to it – either something to do with ALPHA, or something to do with Saunders, or perhaps something to do with both of them. As I mentioned before, Langton is missing what’s right under his nose; he recollects that ALPHA left Echo unharmed 3 months ago, but he doesn’t think to consider why ALPHA also left Dr Saunders the way that he did. “It all leads back to Echo.” But, yo, Boyd, what if some of it leads back to AMY too?
I said before that the Dollhouse has another ALPHA in the making, and we really get the first strong hint of that at the end of this episode, when Echo in her blank slate mode emulates the JACKASS’ SHOULDER SLAP (I told you it was important). She is starting to recall things from her imprints, which we now know is called ‘Compositing’. The moment the people around her start to notice this, she is going to be in danger. SECURITY REED already seems to think she’s more trouble than she’s worth, and threatens to put her ‘IN THE ATTIC’, which actually is exactly what you do with a doll you don’t like. Even worse: he’s willing to kill her. Of course, Echo is hella tabula rasa-ed right now, so she doesn’t give a fuck what he says. But it can only be a matter of time before she starts remembering more and more and her survival instinct kicks in for good.
Echo isn’t just remembering things, however; she is also starting to fight against the Dollhouse’s programming. They imprinted her with unwavering trust in Langton, but although she does trust him, she defies the parameters of the imprint. When he tries to direct her behaviour with the dialogue prompt, Echo fights against it. We haven’t seen Langton mention this to anyone yet, so it’s probably safe to assume nobody else knows about it, but whether that is out of naivety or because he has motive to keep it secret is unclear for now. Both ECHO and ALPHA have proved able to unlock memories that should have been inaccessible, and they both potentially have an immunity to the Dollhouse’s technology – an immunity that develops over time, which opens up the possibility that other Actives will also display this eventually.
Although this obviously will have repercussions for the Dollhouse itself, there is one person in particular who will be especially affected by this revelation: Topher, the GRAND DESIGNER, who prides himself so indiscreetly on his achievements. Though he masks it well, he clearly has some concerns about the apparent failure of his technology. I think if Echo begins to more publicly display her rebellious streak, and the Dollhouse higher-ups admit that Alpha is still out there wreaking havoc, we will likely see Topher carrying out his own side-project in determining what went wrong and how and if there’s a way to fix it. Topher may come across as an irreverent, narcissistic nerd with an office full of kooky toys, but as THE ARCHITECT he actually holds the most power, and thus stands to lose the most if the shit really hits the fan. It’s his narcissism that means he won’t suffer on a materialistic level, but rather psychologically. It’s important not to underestimate Topher, considering he knows who is and isn’t an Active, created all of their potential identities, and has access to their original personas too. I know I’m jumping the gun a little bit here because I’ve watched all of this once before, but I like that fact that I only remember so much and still have to speculate and guess on the rest.
It’s safe to say this episode has really opened up the Dollhouse, and offered us a peek inside. It delivers on the ALPHA tease from the previous episode rather than dangling it just out of reach with no development, and through flashback we get to see what recent events really have the Dollhouse faculty on edge in the present. It would be easy to say that the A-plot with the JACKASS client indulges in too much set-up with very little payoff, and maybe it would seem that way on first viewing, but actually with some patchy hindsight I can see that it opens up a lot of different elements. I know a lot of criticism of this show focuses on the ‘case of the week’ formula of the first 6 or so episodes, and obviously I am only two episodes in so far, but I feel such a criticism is inaccurate. Yes, on the surface level, there is a formulaic nature to these episodes, but your generic cop show this is not because simply put episode two does not exist within a narrative vacuum.
The other main criticism I am aware of is that Echo as a protagonist is difficult to root for because she is effectively an empty shell of a person. I’m going to have to call a little bit of bullshit on that, because I don’t understand why you would not root for a woman who has had her ability to choose who she interacts with and what she does with them taken away from her. She is the ultimate innocent victim who you want to see TAKE BACK her autonomy and her ability to consent. Echo is changing, and I can see that in just the two episodes that I have watched so far. Let’s see what she does next.