DOLLHOUSE (2009) RE-WATCH 1.05 ‘TRUE BELIEVER’

Previously on Dollhouse, Echo played an amnesiac art critic, Boyd Langton became a film noir protagonist, and FBI PAUL was kind of a meanie to Russian Victor.

BORN AGAIN

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For the second time we open not on Dollhouse operatives but instead the subjects of their activities, in this case smiling, singing members of a cult based in PLEASANT, ARIZONA.  They unnerve the denizens of the town every time they make their monthly bus trip in for supplies, and some jackass mechanic tries to start trouble with one of the men.  The shopkeeper is more alarmed however by the cry for help scrawled on the back of their shopping list, which he only notices once they have already left.  Their shopping list by the way has only 5 items on it: ‘duct tape, packs of nylon rope, bag of corn flour, replacement mop head, 2 bags of white rice’.  The jackass mechanic thinks it’s kinda shady that they want duct tape and rope, but I’m wondering how they haven’t all starved to death already.

Meanwhile at the LA Dollhouse, boss-lady-in-charge, ADELE DEWITT, is visited by a client in her spacious high-rise office of many windows.  The client is the Senator for Arizona, who wants help investigating the cult.  It’s an election year, and his constituents are concerned by the suspicious goings-on at the compound so of course he must be seen addressing their concerns.  DeWitt is uncomfortable with his proposal of working in partnership with the ATF and does not mince her words when saying so: “I don’t wish to be vulgar but one of the many benefits of having you as a client is that you help us avoid entanglements with federal agencies.”  I would love to know how.  You can bet the Dollhouse has many lawmakers and political bigwigs on their client lists.  It would be interesting to see if the Dollhouse higher-ups ever successfully shape policy by utilising these assets.

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When discussing the requirements of the Engagement, the HEAD OF SECURITY, Lawrence Dominic (finally we learn his surname) and DEWITT clash over Echo’s reliability, as obviously she has been chosen as the Active suitable for this task.  It’s in moments like this when the viewer has to just accept the contrived set-up; if Echo is so unreliable (so thinks SECURITY LAWRENCE), then why is she selected for so many important Engagements?  Of course the real world explanation is that she is the protagonist of the show – imagine if it instead focused on an Active who was hardly ever sent out.  But within the world of the show we are never really given any reasons as to why other Actives are not used in Echo’s place.  Why is she one of the most popular dolls? Considering every Active can be programmed with any imprint, it’s not what’s ‘inside’ that counts on any individual basis.  So clearly physical appearance is very much highly valued, which again comes back to my earlier observation that the majority of the Actives – certainly most of the named ones – are homogeneous in their slim, white-skinned appearance.  Presumably first-time clients get to choose from a portfolio which Active they would like for their Engagement – certainly for the so-called ‘romantic’ themed ones this seems very likely.  How often does the Dollhouse make their own recommendations? And in Engagements where physical appearance plays little to no relevance, should there need to be any preference over which Active is used?

DeWitt does have a reason for valuing Echo over other Actives, especially for this particular Engagement: “she’s demonstrated a talent for adaptability.”  However, SECURITY LAWRENCE strongly disagrees that this is anything but a warning sign.  He reminds DeWitt that adaptability is not a trait their empty-minded Actives should be exhibiting.  Their actions and behaviour should be nothing but predictable, a lesson the Dollhouse should have learnt after THE ALPHA THING.  Frankly, even though we care about Echo, SECURITY LAWRENCE is not wrong.  Echo is exhibiting the same “wildly erratic” behaviour that Alpha presumably did leading up to his meltdown.  Ultimately SECURITY LAWRENCE is doing his job, by identifying security risks to the Dollhouse, and advising his superior on them.  Unfortunately for him, DeWitt – for whatever reason – will not heed his warnings regarding Echo.  It is hard to understand for now why DeWitt refuses to see the similarities between Alpha and Echo, but it is refreshing to see that she is not completely cold and clinical as her demeanour might suggest.  She thinks that SECURITY LAWRENCE dislikes Echo, but for him feelings do not come into the matter.  He views Echo objectively, and his analysis is that she is a threat.  He does worry, however, that DeWitt does like Echo.  She’s kind of badass in how she shuts him down (“your objections have been noted”) but she is being pretty obtuse.

Regardless, it has already been decided that Echo will be sent on the Senator’s Engagement, but first this will require some extremely risky surgery, and so DeWitt visits their resident doctor, the WONDROUS AMY ACKER, for a run-down of the procedure.  Doctor Saunders was sadly missing in the previous episode, but her absence is almost made up for here with a comical sub-plot about bodily functions.  But I’ll get to that later … For now, Doc Saunders is advising DeWitt on how dangerous it will be to attempt the experimental, highly invasive eye operation that will temporarily blind Echo and turn her into a human camera.  Yes, you read that right; Echo’s eyes are to be used as lenses which will broadcast to the ATF everything that she ‘sees’ once she is inside the cult’s compound.  I don’t know which of the show’s writers came up with this idea but it is actually pretty cool.  Doctor Saunders however does not think they should endanger one of their most prized Actives so:

“There have been instances of this technology causing aneurysms, and in one case death.  It’s possible one good sneeze could bring on a seizure.”

“Or even worse,” suggests Topher: “a sneezure.”  So many props to whoever wrote that joke.  I’m pretty sure the only reason TOPHER is in the room with them is so that he can annoy the doctor with comments like this.

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Once again DeWitt reminds everyone she’s the boss, and overrules the doctor, deciding that the risks are acceptable, and so they go ahead with the surgery.  It’s certainly not for the squeemish, with a menacing rack focus that draws our attention from Echo to the needles in the foreground of the shot before one is picked up and injected into her eye.  We also get a better look at some more of Topher’s tech, including a big glass screen that he pulls out, which compared to his other computers, doesn’t yet look completely dated 7 years later.  Something that I didn’t catch straight away is that when creating the imprint for Echo, Topher includes sensory memory of a specific man’s face, that man being the cult’s leader who is the subject of the ATF’s investigation.  When Echo first meets him and feels his face, she recognises him, despite their never having met, and so it is perceived as an act of God.  How the Dollhouse acquired a full face scan of a notoriously elusive man is not so clear, but it’s pretty cool to see the technology they have at their disposal and the possible uses for it.

There’s no point in me getting heavily into the plot surrounding Echo’s Engagement, as much of it bears no relevance on the wider story, but the basic rundown is that the cult leader, a man who goes by the alias of Jonas Sparrow, is suspected of gun-running (based on past form) hence the ATF’s involvement.  He also has a history of human trafficking, and is generally a nasty, manipulative dude.  Thanks to the ‘SAVE ME’ note on the shopping list, a judge has allowed 48 hours for the ATF to show cause for further action, so in goes Echo, now going by the moniker of Esther Carpenter, a blind woman, and a believer, who allegedly was told by Sparrow IN A DREAM to find him at the compound.  When we first meet her – being driven by her Dollhouse handler, Boyd Langton – we learn that she has been hitch-hiking, though it can’t have been for very long as I doubt the Dollhouse would have allowed her to travel all the way from LA by herself especially WHILST BLIND.  Boyd and Esther have a friendly chat about blindness and it does make me wonder about the people whose memories and personas were used to form the Esther imprint.  Eliza Dushku is uncharacteristically subdued in this role, and demonstrates she has a greater range than she is often given credit for.  Instead of relying on her usual physical dynamism, she convincingly portrays a confident, friendly woman who has been visually impaired from a young age, whose faith in God has not wavered, and whose quality of life has not suffered.  The narrative avoids an ableist framework by refusing to suggest that blindness is an insurmountable obstacle for this woman; her life is not worse than that of a sighted person’s; it’s simply different.  And although Echo’s experience of blindness is not permanent, Esther’s is and can be again, because she is the collection of memories of an actual blind woman, an imprint that can be used again.  In fact, if anything, Esther finds comfort in God’s decision to take her vision: it places her in esteemed company.

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“Saul of Tarsus made it all the way to Damascus after he was struck blind and he became a new person,” she tells Langton.

“You want to become a new person?” he asks.

“More than anything.”  Little does she know that’s what’s happening to her almost every day.  Langton glances at her as though he has recognised the depth to her words that she does not realise exists.

Unrelated but thoroughly entertaining is TOPHER & DOCTOR SAUNDERS’ side story, which sadly does not really service their characters, but certainly sets up one of the show’s most important relationships: that between Victor and Sierra.  It’s worth remembering that the Actives all shower in the same communal area, regardless of gender, and that this usually does not cause any problems.  But when Sierra joins Victor in the shower and tells him how much she likes the warm water, he realises it’s not the only thing that ‘feels nice’.  Topher is on a call, with the surveillance feed from the showers on the screen before him and as Sierra bends down, he notices Victor’s reaction to watching her wash.

“I gotta go,” Topher tells the other person on the call.  “Something came up.”

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He rushes to Doctor Saunders’ office in a panic and in typical Topher fashion, flusters over how to explain what he saw.  Eventually the doctor catches on.

“Victor had an erection?”

“I prefer ‘man-reaction’.”

Why?” says Saunders.  It’s so rhetorical and so well delivered.

The Actives should not feel sexual arousal when in their tabula rasa state, but Saunders has warned in her reports that something like this could happen.  Victor has just returned from his eighth Engagement with ‘Miss Lonely Hearts’ and as far as Doctor Saunders is concerned, imprints should not be repeated in the same dolls.  We’ve had the occasional suggestion that repeat customers use the same Actives for their Engagements, and presumably with the same imprints.  This is the first hint that that may not be such a good idea.  But as Topher says yet again – nobody reads her reports.  I would imagine that at the very least DeWitt does, but we have already seen that she is willing to ignore advice, though her angle is still not clear.  The doctor gets Topher back for his sneezure joke, however, by making him look through three months worth of shower footage and identify every other occasion when Victor has exhibited a ‘MAN-REACTION’.  What ensues is this show’s funniest scene thus far, as the two of them stand in front of a large monitor, cycling back and forth through surveillance footage, Topher embarrassed and reluctant, Doctor Saunders amusingly keen and analysing every frame with objective enthusiasm.

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Amy Acker is generally better known for her dramatic work, but let us not forget she is equally adept at comedy, both physical and situational.  In Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, her sharp-tongued Beatrice is directed to endure numerous pratfalls to comedic effect, and many of Person of Interest‘s [fleeting] lighter moments come from the incongruous scenarios her hacker/reformed assassin-for-hire, Root, is placed in.  Here it’s no different, as Doctor Saunders constantly circles round Topher, inching closer and closer to the monitor, making declarations such as “I believe I spotted a tumescence at 3:21:04” with absolute clinical sincerity.  Fran Kranz for his part convincingly plays the role of a straight man who has seen far more of another man’s erections than he ever desired.  When Saunders asks him to freeze a frame, he indignantly responds “I will not!” He also begrudgingly acknowledges Victor’s semi, with a resigned “it ain’t oak, but it’s on its way to wood”.  There is some very enthusiastic sound mixing in this scene, with the quite tangible noise of physical tape being wound as Topher rewinds and fast-forwards the footage – a strange choice, given that the video they are watching is digital.  It also must be noted that there is burgeoning chemistry between the two characters, thanks in equal parts to Topher’s stolen glances at the good doctor, and the dialogue which – depending on where the show takes them – possibly parallels their relationship with Sierra and Victor’s.  Of course it may just be that Amy Acker manages to have great chemistry with everyone she acts opposite …

In the end Topher suggests that he burn the footage for her to take home.  Saunders has already reached a conclusion to her study, however: the cause of Victor’s bodily reactions is not residual imprinting from his Miss Lonely Hearts Engagements, but rather his own response to Sierra’s presence.  She is the new element that has been introduced to his environment and has somehow enabled him to counteract his programming.  As we well know, the Dollhouse does not like their Actives to exhibit such individualistic behaviour, especially when it is behaviour that is supposed to have been subdued by their technology.  As such, DeWitt has strict instructions when Topher and Saunders inform her of their discovery: “once any temptation is introduced it will spread like a cancer and all will be infected.  Victor must be scrubbed and monitored closely.”  Her use of religious allegory is not surprising in an episode filled with biblical references.  Topher and Saunders look like scolded schoolchildren, and it’s hard to say for now where their allegiances will take them in the future.  Victor and Sierra are not seen again this episode, but this established attraction – certainly on Victor’s part – lays the groundwork for a deeper relationship to develop between the two beyond just exchanging innocuous greetings at lunch.  Victor too now appears to be developing an immunity to the Dollhouse’s programming.  It seems likely that he will begin to exhibit more behaviours similar to Echo, and Alpha before her.  Is Sierra set to follow down the same path? What do they all have in common that enables them to do this? Or does the fault lie with the technology itself? Perhaps the effects of Topher’s imprinting and memory wipes are only temporary, although if that were the case, the Dollhouse likely would have seen more such Composite events akin to THE ALPHA THING, and their reaction to Alpha’s bloodbath suggests it was a one-off event.  That being said, we don’t know how long the Dollhouse has existed for.

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Somebody who knows even less than we do is FBI Agent Paul Ballard, a hapless lone agent who is trying to bring down the Dollhouse, and who has not felt the touch of a woman for some time.  That’s not me passing judgement – he all but says as much when trying to charm a co-worker into helping him.  Loomis, played by Aisha Hinds, has a higher clearance rating, which gives her access to agency databases other than the NCIC.  FBI PAUL is still trying to find a match for the photograph of Caroline/Echo that he was mysteriously sent some episodes ago, which hopefully means that he has now accepted the Russian mob are irrelevant to his investigation.  His insistence on that line of inquiry was starting to get tiresome.  “Did I mention that I was shot?” he says to Loomis, flashing a smile.  It’s kind of cute, but you just know she only gives in because she pities him.  It matters not, anyway, as there are still no matches for Caroline in any of the searches that Loomis runs.

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The imposing FBI building is presented to us in an establishing shot that is frustratingly unsymmetrical.  It looks so lazily photographed, and it may just be stock footage, but I hope we never see these frames again.  Inside, FBI PAUL is visited by his neighbour FRIENDLY MELLIE, whom he has asked to bring his medication which he is still taking for his gut-shot wound from two episodes previous.  So kudos for continuity, I guess.  FRIENDLY MELLIE is dressed to impress with her lips glossed and cleavage out and OF COURSE she has also brought some LEFTOVERS, and by ‘leftovers’ I of course mean a FULL-TO-THE-BRIM DISH of manicotti, which the Internet informs me is a quite delicious Italian-American dish.  I don’t even need to exaggerate anymore about all the food Mellie carries around with her.  Her actions are hyperbolic enough.  She hands over another seventeen dishes to Loomis (okay, I couldn’t resist), and gives FBI PAUL an envelope from the mailman.  It’s in the same style as the one containing the Caroline photograph, and Loomis confirms that the handwriting on both envelopes is a match.  For some reason it never occurs to FBI PAUL to check the building surveillance footage to see who gave the envelope to the mailman (there’s no address so it must have been hand-delivered).  Honestly, I would make a better investigator than FBI PAUL.  Inside the envelope is a CD, containing the footage of Caroline from her college yearbook that we saw the MYSTERY NAKED MAN watching at the end of the first episode.  FBI PAUL practically flips out at seeing a living, breathing Caroline on video, and starts scribbling down notes.  FRIENDLY MELLIE senses that she’s lost his attention and reluctantly leaves, and he barely notices.  This is probably why it has ‘been a while’, mate.

The next time we see FBI PAUL, it is actually very much connected with Echo’s cult compound shenanigans.  Once the ATF has seen evidence through Echo’s eyes of Sparrow’s small arsenal of weapons, they surround the compound but manage to set off a tripwire.  Realising the Feds are at his door, Sparrow herds all of his people from one building to another, by which point news crews have arrived and begun to film the standoff.  And who should show up on the news footage, but ‘Esther’, who has now regained her sight (“I was blind but now I see”), and whose appearance almost bowls over FBI PAUL with shock when he catches the news report.  So finally FBI PAUL has found Caroline in the present, and actually has a substantial lead to chase up.  Knowing his luck, that won’t last long.  It’s actually interesting that we see Paul’s reaction to the rather public exposure of Echo but not the Dollhouse’s.  Surely there would have been some damage control required? At the least, DeWitt probably needed to pop a Xanax upon hearing the news that her most prized Active had her face plastered across the news, even if most of the public did not realise her significance.

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Prior to this, Langton had contacted SECURITY LAWRENCE to request permission to extract Echo, knowing that the ATF’s presence could compromise or endanger her.  SECURITY LAWRENCE instantly assumed that Echo was “glitching on a government job”, and denied the request but his involvement did not end there.

Sparrow asks his most trusted/suggestible cult member to SET THE BUILDING ON FIRE with the rest of the people inside it, whilst ‘Esther’ is told to read the Bible passage beginning at Daniel 3:19:

19 Then Nebuchadnezzar lost his temper, and his face turned red with anger at Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. So he ordered the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual. 20 And he commanded the strongest men in his army to tie the three men up and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So they tied them up, fully dressed — shirts, robes, caps, and all — and threw them into the blazing furnace. 22 Now because the king had given strict orders for the furnace to be made extremely hot, the flames burnt up the guards who took the men to the furnace. 23 Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, still tied up, fell into the heart of the blazing fire.
24 Suddenly Nebuchadnezzar leapt to his feet in amazement. He asked his officials, “Didn’t we tie up three men and throw them into the blazing furnace?”
They answered, “Yes, we did, Your Majesty.”
25 “Then why do I see four men walking about in the fire?” he asked. “They are not tied up, and they show no sign of being hurt — and the fourth one looks like an angel.”

 

Actually, in Esther’s translation it is “the fourth looks like a son of the gods” and I had to spend a long time looking all of this up as I honestly do not know one Bible verse from another.  The truth is, the first time I heard the name Nebuchadnezzar was when I watched The Matrix at age 14, and for years after I still thought it was just a cool name for a hovercraft.  Obviously it means more to the cult members and Sparrow hopes that this passage will convince his followers to stay in the burning building rather than surrender to the ATF:

“Those flames won’t hurt us; they’ll protect us.  Only the unrighteous will be consumed.”

Unfortunately, the smoke inhalation is of course likely to kill them before the flames ever reach anyone, and like Esther says: you can’t force a miracle.  So she knocks Sparrow out and addresses the others:

“The blind girl is looking you in the eye.  Do you know what that means? It means God brought me here.  He has a message for you, and that message is MOVE YOUR ASS.”  It sounds like something I would write if I was asked to make a religious speech.  Before Esther can flee the burning building herself, however, SECURITY LAWRENCE shows up and KNOCKS HER OUT COLD.  Fed up with DeWitt not taking his warnings seriously, he has clearly decided to take matters into his own hands.  He leaves Echo for dead, but moments later Langton shows up and gives her his oxygen mask.  The only person consumed by the flames ultimately is Sparrow.  What was that he said about the unrighteous?

There’s a nice dichotomy in how both Lawrence and Boyd enter Echo’s field of vision, both centre-framed but each accompanied by very different music cues and lighting.  The former steps out of the smoke and shadows, his face still unidentifiable until he pulls off his mask, continuing this show’s theme of suggesting hidden or altered identities through use of faces (see Alpha, Dr Saunders, and the Picasso painting Echo was admiring in the previous episode).  In contrast, though Boyd is wearing his mask, his face is cast in light from the flames so that Echo can see who he is instantly, and she thinks she recognises him, even though he tells her that it’s not possible.  “I thought you were an angel,” she says.  He is your GUARDIAN ANGEL, Echo.  Boyd also gets a pretty epic hero shot, as we see the silhouette of him carrying Echo out across the compound.

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When FBI PAUL shows up the next day, he finds the burnt-out building husk swarming with ATF agents and firefighters.  But by this time, Echo has been whisked away, leaving the trail cold once more.  You came so close, FBI PAUL!

DeWitt knows that SECURITY LAWRENCE requisitioned a company jet to Arizona the previous night, but not that he made an attempt on Echo’s life.  Lawrence reiterates to her the threat that Echo poses and as I suspected “[she] has been exhibiting the same signs Alpha did before his Composite event”.  Lawrence advises that Echo be put in the Attic, which has had a few ominous mentions so far, but has not yet been shown.  DeWitt tells him to take the stairs.  This clash between Echo and SECURITY LAWRENCE will come to a head soon, with the potential to result in a power shift.  This Dollhouse ain’t big enough for the both of them.

Echo is wiped post-Engagement and a concerned Doctor Saunders inquires about her eyesight.  Echo breaks out into a routine of Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ as she dances out of the IMPRINTING FACTORY.  No, just kidding.  I wish she did.  She actually looks down at the Actives’ living space where SECURITY LAWRENCE has paused (possibly plotting how to bring her down).  “I see perfectly,” she says.  I think I can hear the Kill Bill siren.  How soon ’til they square up to each other?

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This was the last episode of set-up before the much publicised ‘Man on the Street’, which is expected to really push the narrative ahead more than any of these first five episodes have.  We still don’t know much about the wider world’s knowledge of the Dollhouse, but we do now have confirmation that at least one politician is aware of its existence (and employs its services).  In fact it was our United States Senator who introduced an interesting parallel between the Dollhouse and other unconventional social subgroups.  When describing the disposition of the cult members, he recognised that his words also applied to the Actives:

“This is something quite apart from happiness.  Call it a kind of bliss.  An unquestioning serenity.  True happiness requires some measure of self-awareness.  We’re talking about people here who have their very wills taken away,” he tells DeWitt. “The irony of bringing this to you … is not lost on me.”

The episode continues to draw these parallels throughout; one scene ends with Jonas Sparrow telling a follower that they “must keep the garden pure”, and cuts to Victor in the shower as he is joined by Sierra, his great temptaton, and later DeWitt returns to this metaphor when instructing Topher and Saunders how to deal with the situation.  The delineation of hierarchy in the Dollhouse is less clear however in comparison with that of the cult.  Whereas Sparrow has formed his own splinter community and closed off most contact with the outside world, we already know that the LA Dollhouse is not alone in its operations, and DeWitt most certainly is not the person calling all of the shots.  Hopefully we will soon see more of the other forces exerting pressure on the Dollhouse and get a clearer picture of the organisation’s position in the wider world.

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