DOLLHOUSE (2009) RE-WATCH 1.03 ‘STAGE FRIGHT’

So you’re still reading these? Glad to hear it. Do you remember what happened in the previous episodes? First we met Echo and some of the key figures in the Dollhouse. Then we learnt about THE ALPHA THING, a recent event in Dollhouse history which caused everyone to lose their shit. Let’s keep going.

FREE-DOOM

Last episode I warned FBI PAUL to watch out but it seems he wasn’t paying attention because boy did he get into some BIG TROUBLE in this latest episode. We know DEWITT has taken steps to ensure he gets no further in his investigation into the DOLLHOUSE, but we don’t know what those steps are, and this episode’s biggest revelation only serves to muddy the picture. Remember: NOTHING IS WHAT IT APPEARS TO BE.

We OPEN at a small, intimate pop gig, with a young black woman making her way from a prop cage to front of stage as she sings a song called ‘Superstar’.  There’s a bunch of pyrotechnic equipment which everybody is comfortable with until one of the back-up singers CATCHES FIRE.  It’s v dramatic, and the POP STAR CHICK is quickly ushered off stage. Everyone looks concerned or scared, except for some CREEPY PASTY-ASS WHITE DUDE who looks very NOT SURPRISED by this turn of events.

Echo helps Sierra

CUT to ECHO and SIERRA on treadmills in the Dollhouse, and – like me – Sierra feels a bit dizzy when she dismounts and nearly stumbles but Echo is there to catch her and it is ADORABLE.  “Friends help each other out,” Sierra comments with that blank intonation the Actives use when in their tabula rasa state.   They both glance back at a staff member who has been watching them.  It’s subtle, but important.

Doctor Saunders AKA JIGSAW PUZZLE AKA AMY ACKER is scolding Langton for removing the arrow that the JACKASS shot through him last episode.  Langton wants to be certified fit for duty so that he can get back to protecting Echo, and he wants the good doctor to call him ‘Boyd’ because really who would not want to be on first name terms with Amy Acker.  Saunders certifies him against her judgement, but the jury’s out for now on how she feels about his name.

Some shady fella is striding up the hallway towards FBI PAUL’s apartment.  We’re supposed to think he’s shady because he wears his HOOD UP INDOORS, but that could just as easily mean he’s having a bad hair day, or maybe his ears are cold.  He tries to break into FBI PAUL’s apartment, which I will admit is kind of shady.  Oh, it’s RUSSIAN DUDE! Apparently his name is ‘Lubov’ but we prefer ‘Russian dude’.  How does he know where FBI PAUL lives? What does he want from the apartment? FRIENDLY MELLIE from across the hall catches him and you can tell she distrusts him because otherwise she would be offering 7 dishes of lasagne.  Look you guys, Russian dude is just so cute.  He’s meant to be a douchebag, and he’s connected to child trafficking Russian mobsters, but he’s played by Enver Gjokaj so all I see is a puppy who wears his hood up indoors.  RUSSIAN DUDE has a message for FBI PAUL to meet him somewhere where his mob bosses won’t be hanging around ‘cos it totally cramps his style having the Feds show up everywhere he goes.

ADELE DEWITT strides into her office to greet a client, who is also from England, and – as any English person would be – baffled by the sunshine.  I’ve forgotten to talk about this before, but DEWITT’S office is actually the only room we’ve seen in the Dollhouse that has windows.  She takes it to Rachel Duncan extremes, with almost floor-to-ceiling panes of glass across a whole side of the room, and judging from the other tower blocks visible outside, her office is pretty high up.  I postulated before that the Actives’ quarters of the Dollhouse (and by extension Topher’s office and the IMPRINTING FACTORY) may be underground as there is no view of the outdoors from these rooms.  I suppose the other possibility is that they are simply deep in the bowels of a building, with exterior-facing rooms such as DEWITT’S office surrounding them.  Considering the Dollhouse is technically meant to be a secret enterprise, it stands to reason that the faculty would not want passers-by on the streets, or window-cleaners, or helicopter passengers (or security cameras) to see what is going on inside.

ENGLISH MAN helps himself to a tipple from DEWITT’S DRINKS COUNTER which combined with their easy-breezy conversation is how you know that they’re old friends.  ENGLISH MAN is apparently a regular client, who often takes ‘the twins’ out for a spin (and yes I kind of hate myself for writing that).  He also turns out to be the MUSIC MANAGER for the young pop star we saw earlier, and he’s certain that pyro-malfunction was no accident; “someone’s tried to kill Rayna”.  Apparently it’s not the first time such an attempt has been made in recent times.  She needs protection from somebody who is not obviously a bodyguard, and who has a credible reason for suddenly appearing in Rayna’s life.

Echo & Rayna sing about freedom

CUE Echo who goes by ‘Jordan’ auditioning as Rayna’s new back-up singer.  She’s all “I TRANSFERRED FROM LOS ANGELES. YOUR SCHOOL HAS NO GYMNASTICS TEAM. THIS IS A LAST RESORT”.  Wait, that’s Eliza Dushku in Bring It On, but actually she ain’t half bad here either, and Rayna approves of her song choice, which is about FREEDOM.  They harmonise for a bit, and then Jordan gets the gig! AWESOME, OH WOW, LIKE TOTALLY FREAK ME OUT, I MEAN RIGHT ON. Ahem.

POST-CREDITS, Doc Saunders is concerned by the high risk on the Rayna gig, considering she had Echo flagged for “romantic or altruistic engagements only” (apparently nobody ever reads her reports).

“Her last romantic Engagement turned out to be extremely high risk,” TOPHER points out.  “Maybe her Engagement with Rayna will turn romantic.”  He grins as he realises the implications of what he’s said.  Look here, TOPHER: there is many a woman out there who came to realise a few truths about themselves after seeing Eliza Dushku as Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they would like to tell you right now that you are being very distracting with your talk of sapphic Engagements.  We’re trying to watch a TV show here, thanks.  AMY ACKER – who has had her own share of sapphic engagements on Person of Interest (CUE: my tears) – shuts TOPHER down for us and so he explains the difference between PERSONA and PARAMETER as they pertain to Echo’s current mission.  Though ‘Jordan’s’ persona is that of a struggling singer who has just made her first big break, the parameters of her mission are to instinctively protect Rayna at all times without realising it or knowing why.

“Who do you want – someone who’s paid to protect you or somebody who wants to protect you?”

"See, even as a foetus they would be scowling"

Doc Saunders points out that if the job goes south ‘Boyd’ is not ready to face physical exertion in the field just yet and yes she called him BOYD.  Not to worry; SIERRA is being sent in as back-up, and we briefly spot her Handler, Joe Hearn.  Sierra wasn’t in the previous episode.  HEY GIRL.  We missed her.

FBI PAUL meets RUSSIAN DUDE at a fancy rooftop bar with swimming pools and views of pretty lights.  As instructed, RUSSIAN DUDE has been asking around about the Dollhouse but so far coming up with ничто (that’s ‘nothing’ in Russian).  He’s also done some digging on FBI PAUL, who has a lot of trouble closing cases.  Paul now has the one case that can’t be screwed up because it seemingly goes nowhere.  Look, FBI PAUL is pretty much your standard white dude law enforcement character, fighting for answers, married to the job blah blah.  It’s never an exciting role because it exists in EVERYTHING, and yet white male writers and creators love to keep using this character archetype because they don’t realise that everyone else is bored of it.  Nonetheless, Tahmoh Penikett gives it his best, and it is his investigation after all that is driving the story forward, even though that story is mostly just him not knowing what’s going on.  Despite what RUSSIAN DUDE says, FBI PAUL is still convinced the Dollhouse technology exists and therefore the Dollhouse exists.

“We split the atom; we make a bomb.  We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is destroy, manipulate, control.  It’s human nature.” Okay, so FBI PAUL is kind of a pessimist.  He leaves RUSSIAN DUDE totally bummed out.  RUSSIAN DUDE is so bummed out, he goes to get some … treatment.  As in the kind that Echo goes for when she’s completed an Engagement.  YES THAT’S RIGHT, RUSSIAN DUDE IS AN ACTIVE.  The reveal is pretty shocking ‘cos TOPHER is just blabbering away over the earpiece with Langton, trying to get the inside scoop on pop star Rayna, and all “you just can’t trust people anymore.  You think you know someone …” with tight framing and careful mid-shots and then the camera pans down to reveal RUSSIAN DUDE all tabula rasa-ed up, sat in the IMPRINTING FACTORY chair.  His name is VICTOR, so it’s a good job I didn’t start calling him ‘Lubov’.  I remember when I first watched it, this was a MAJOR SURPRISE, and of course it has big implications for FBI PAUL’s entire story-line.  Remember Adele DeWitt mentioned previously that necessary precautions had been taken to ensure FBI PAUL got nowhere with his investigation? Well you can bet your bottom Russian ruble that VICTOR is a necessary precaution.  Are there more? Well obviously I know, but that would be telling.

So VICTOR presumably debriefs Adele, and then gets sent out on Engagement again because we later see RUSSIAN VICTOR call FBI PAUL to tell him about an ABANDONED HOTEL BASEMENT where he might find answers.  Cut to some more nifty location shooting, all shadows and dust motes and stained mattresses on the floor and- UH OH.  Russian gangsters! It’s a SET-UP.  I TOLD YOU TO BE CAREFUL, FBI PAUL.

The Russian mob aren’t too happy about the FBI poking around in their human trafficking business, so they SHOOT PAUL in the GUT.  He still takes them down anyway (remember FBI PAUL in the boxing ring FLASHBACK in the first episode? He just can’t back down) and it’s some brutal choreography, though weirdly scored as tense.  Even as he’s bleeding out, FBI PAUL keeps asking about the Dollhouse except nobody knows what he’s bloody chatting on about. Later he’s in a hospital bed – alive but looking like he just remembered that humans built the atom bomb.  We see FRIENDLY MELLIE outside the door, probably with a Tupperware full of apple pies, but FBI PAUL’s security guard won’t let her in.

Any REGULAR AGENT might be discouraged from the investigation after this set-back, but not FBI PAUL.  He’s used to his cases falling to shit.  He still has that photo of Caroline/Echo, so he knows there’s something to be investigated, and you can be damn sure that he’s not gonna give up so easily.  He’s down but not out, and maybe the DOLLHOUSE better WATCH OUT next time!

MEANWHILE, ‘Jordan’ and Rayna are on tour, and joined by Rayna’s no.1 fan, CONTEST WINNER AUDRA AKA SIERRA, who has flown all the way from AUSTRALIA, which means that yes, we get to hear DICHEN LACHMAN use her Aussie accent.  She is so effing excited, which Jordan finds hilarious.

“If she [Rayna] wanted you to take off your clothes and run down the street right now, just for kicks, would you do it?”

“With or without my undies?” asks AUSSIE AUDRA. Oh Dichen.

According to HANDLER HEARN, the previous Sierra “got the job done”, which presumably means she fulfilled her five year contract, but is it really so simple as that? Once you’re done being an Active, can you really just go back to your life like nothing happened? Surely everybody who you knew before now thinks you’re dead, and that may well be best case scenario.  Or do most Actives live the rest of their lives out with a new identity when they return to the real world? Thinking about it, it would actually be very easy for the Dollhouse to abuse the contract the ‘dolls’ sign, considering Actives would be none the wiser if it was extended for say another 5 years.  With their minds wiped, they are incredibly vulnerable.  Where does Adele DeWitt’s dubious morality draw a line? Where does Topher’s? Where does Boyd Langton’s? What about the good doctor? (Just kidding; I totally know what’s going on with Doc Saunders.)  The entire operation exists within a very MORALLY GREY AREA, so it would not be surprising to see some individuals fully taking advantage of the system, just as it would also make sense to see certain others begin to question their work and the Dollhouse’s activities.

Anyway, back to ‘Jordan’;  she finds out that Rayna has been keeping ‘fan mail’ from her stalker and considering the stalker is pretty fucking obvious about it all, quickly realises that Rayna will be targeted at that night’s show.  Rayna already knows this, and she actually welcomes it.  Basically, she wants to be FREE.  The pressures of constant scrutiny, obsessive fans, and the 24 hour news cycle have proved too much for her, and she embraces the threat of death, thinking that it will give her fans the ultimate show to remember if she is killed on stage.  Guest actor Jaime Lee Kirchner does a great job in the role, and TOPHER would be glad to hear there’s chemistry between her and Eliza Dushku, but the writing is not wholly sympathetic to her, which strikes me as irresponsible considering she is clearly mentally unwell.  The entire storyline makes me think of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2014 film Beyond the Lights, which is also about a young, black pop star, Noni, who’s crushed by the pressures of fame and the demands of those around her, to the point where she attempts suicide.  Just like Rayna, Noni wants to be free but the narrative doesn’t judge her for the choices she has made.  The film stars a compelling Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni, surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, and with a sparkling script from writer/director Prince-Bythewood.  It’s funny, heartwarming, and poignant – and went straight to DVD here in the UK.  It wasn’t until the Bechdel Test Fest secured a few screenings that the film finally got its London Premiere (complete with discussion panel) almost a year ago, and I was lucky enough to attend, having purchased a ticket. Seek this film out; it will NOURISH YOUR SOUL.

Comparisons aside, Rayna struggles with her identity, and feels like it has been stripped away from her.  “I don’t exist,” she tells ‘Jordan.  “I’m not a real person; I’m everybody’s fantasy.”  Obviously this story presents Rayna as a PARALLEL to the Actives in the Dollhouse.  I just don’t get why the writing has everyone around her be so rude to her even once they find out how badly messed up she is by it all.  ‘Jordan’ is less than sympathetic, and ENGLISH MANAGER slaps her once he realises what she has done.  Because, you see, everything goes a bit wrong.  The LAME-ASS CREEPY WHITE DUDE we saw at the start is unsurprisingly the STALKER and he smuggles a gun into the show inside a pair of crutches like it’s The Day of the Jackal, and then takes two shots and misses fucking everything because he is so lame.  ‘Jordan’ literally shines a spotlight on him, there’s pandemonium, and Rayna is furious that her plan to die on stage fell through.   AUDRA gets kidnapped by CREEPY WHITE STALKER DUDE who just gets far too much screen-time to be honest.  His scene alone with Sierra does nothing for the story or either character (and his is not the sort of character that needs any embellishment anyway), and simply feels like it was written to pad out the episode.

The Dollhouse sends a team to extract Sierra, but Echo goes off-book and kidnaps Rayna to offer her as a trade for ‘Audra’ because “friends help each other”.  That’s right, Echo remembers Sierra’s earlier words to her.  There’s a lot of neat cinematography in this episode especially in these later scenes, involving mirrors and shadows, and honestly it’s a tone the show should adopt permanently, considering the themes.

We get another indication that Echo is really starting to draw unwanted attention to herself; SECURITY REED gets all up in Topher’s grill about how Echo is working off-task, and surprisingly TOPHER pushes back: “You’re in my house, Lawrence! Of the two people here, one of us is a genius, and the other is a security guard in a very lovely suit.”  LAWRENCE?! So now we know SECURITY REED’s name.  Nonetheless, TOPHER admits that Echo’s behaviour does seem to fall outside the parameters of her current programming.  The last time this occurred at the Dollhouse, THE ALPHA THING happened, and that was not a fun time for them.

‘Jordan’ arranges her meet on the rigging above the stage in the gig venue, which is a bit strange but for aesthetic purposes is totally awesome.  She says she doesn’t care if Rayna dies and I’m honestly not sure if she’s bluffing.  CREEPY STALKER DUDE wants Rayna to die, and supposedly Rayna also wants to die, so they will all get what they want if the CREEPY STALKER lets ‘Audra’ go.  Audra, adorably, wants Rayna to stay alive, but Jordan pushes the pop star off the rigging anyway.  Don’t worry, she’s tied to a rope! Jordan answers my prayers and lays some serious smackdown on the CREEPY STALKER, then rushes to help Audra.  She holds her up just like how she caught dizzy Sierra by the treadmills.  When they head back for their ‘treatment’, HANDLER HEARN is disgruntled to see how chummy his Active is with Echo, which probably spells trouble.

Trade-off

Similarly, SECURITY LAWRENCE advises DEWITT that Echo’s off-mission behaviour is a risk they can’t afford to ignore.  He doesn’t seem to have any humanity, but he is doing his job and this is exactly what he was hired for.  He thinks Echo should be put in THE ATTIC, which he mentioned rather ominously at the end of the previous episode.  DeWitt on the other hand either has a soft spot for Echo or has forgotten about all the blood she had to clean off her Manolos after THE ALPHA THING because she’s impressed with how ‘Jordan’ managed to act in the best interests of both the client and another Active even if through unconventional methods.  As far as DeWitt’s concerned, Rayna’s greatest threat was herself, and Echo’s extreme actions made Rayna realise that she didn’t want to die after all, thereby removing the threat.

“Echo took the mission parameter,” she says …

…”and did even better” Langton finishes, watching Echo from Topher’s balcony with Dr Saunders.  “She seems to have the ability to think outside the pieces that we give her and create.”

“Create a new approach to the problem,” agrees Dr Saunders.

Langton thinks that Echo is special rather than a powder-keg about to explode but Doc Saunders suggests that may not do Echo any favours, which is what I’ve been saying all along.  Langton is skeptical.

“DEWITT’S a businesswoman.  Is she really going to harm her best Active?”

“Echo wasn’t always the best.”

“You’re talking about ALPHA?”

YO, THIS CONVERSATION.  Doc Saunders neither confirms nor denies, and I really cannot wait to get to the meat on these bones.  Langton exposes a whole load of bias when he calls Echo the ‘best’ Active, and he is definitely in awe of her.  DeWitt might not be the threat to his Active, but he definitely ought to keep an eye out for who else is paying close attention to her.  SECURITY LAWRENCE may well take actions into his own hands if nothing is done about the danger he perceives.

The closing montage is covered by Rayna and ‘Jordan’ singing ‘FREEDOM’ again:

I’ve gotta find the freedom
that’s promised me;
freedom from our struggles and our misery;
freedom is all we need
to heal the pain of history.

Each day when the sun shines
upon my eyes,
it fills me with love,
makes me feel alive.
I’m saving it up
for a rainy day,
when there’s no light to guide my way.

Again I’m wondering what happens when an Active fulfils their 5 year contract with the Dollhouse.  Are they granted freedom? Or are they doomed to a half-life, all their previous bonds severed, haunted by what they can’t remember? The show’s opening scene suggested that Caroline was running from something before she signed the contract to become Echo and it’s possible that many other Actives were coerced in this way.  If their lives before the Dollhouse were full of struggles and misery, does that mean the life as an Active is the freedom they sought? It’s certainly sold to them as a freedom from burden, but it comes at a steep price.  Yet maybe for some ignorance is bliss.

Caroline is shedding her ignorance, however.  More and more, Echo is remembering phrases and actions from both her time as a blank state Active, and from prior Engagements.  In the final scene, she shakes her head at Sierra to discourage her from approaching, and we realise she is aware of HANDLER HEARN watching her.  She only met him briefly before, when she was still ‘Jordan’ but she already distrusts him, and as she becomes more self-aware, she knows that she and Sierra should not be seen grouping together, or certainly not under his scrutiny.  This is something I will continue to look out for; Sierra and Echo seemed to recognise they were being observed early in the episode, and they are both drawn to each other, whether it’s because they remember one another as a friendly face, or because they are bonded at a deeper, more intrinsic level.

Echo

I’ve ended up re-capping more than analysing with this episode and it does feel as though there was a lot less development this time around.  After the blast of back-story we received in the previous episode, this one definitely feels like it’s stalling the pace.  The biggest reveal we got is that Victor is another of the Actives, but all he ends up doing is hindering Paul further.  As viewers, we want Paul to get the answers he seeks, because it means that we too will learn more.  If Paul hits stumbling block after stumbling block, the audience grows tired of seeing the story stay in the same place.  Because Echo’s character growth is taking the softly-softly approach, we need to see developments in another area, and at the moment, FBI PAUL’s not achieving much.  Of course this is understandable considering all the obstacles that have been put in his way, and at the end of the day responsibility for the slow pace comes down to the writing team.  There was always talk surrounding this show of network interference in the early months, and the word put out was that the show comes into its own from the 6th episode on.  As I said of the previous episode, there are certainly serialised elements even in these early installments but the push from the network to adopt a more episodic approach to start with is a hindrance to the show.  Unfortunately it’s not at all unusual for television networks to push this kind of narrative style, even when it makes absolutely no sense to; CBS enforced it for the fifth season of Person of Interest, despite knowing it was the final season and thus any drop-off in audience figures caused by confused casual viewers would have no adverse effect on the show.  It’s frustrating but there’s nothing we can do about it as the audience except to trust that there was a vision for this show, and that we will eventually experience it.  I can see the light at the end of tunnel, and I’m looking forward to whatever accelerated changes episode 6 may bring.

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