Heroes and Villains: Dollhouse Thoughts

Dollhouse in its second season was not at all the same show it was in its first.  As far as the internet is concerned--or at least that infinitesimal portion that watched the show to its end--this is very much a good thing, and there's no denying that from a technical standpoint the show was massively improved.  The first season's tedious and contrived personality of the week stories quickly gave way to major upheavals in the show's premise as it raced towards the post-apocalyptic future glimpsed in the tantalizing, unaired first season finale "Epitaph One."  Still, I find myself missing first season Dollhouse.  I didn't like that show, but I thought it had the potential to tell an interesting SFnal story.  The second season tries to tell that story, but does so in a way that is so rushed, so heavy-handed, and most of all that so thoroughly tramples the creepy ambiguity of the first season's character work, that it hardly seems worth the effort.  The improved plotting--which anyway is well below what I've come to expect from Joss Whedon, and mostly copied, none too elegantly, from better works like The Matrix and The Manchurian Candidate--doesn't do nearly enough, to my mind, to compensate for how thoroughly Dollhouse bungled its central concept.

When I wrote about Dollhouse last summer I quoted Sady Doyle's reading of the show as a metaphor for 'rape culture'--the notion that women are victimized not by evil, sexist individuals but by the culture as a whole, which encourages or forces them into roles defined and limited by their femininity, and treats their bodies as a public commodity (see also Doyle's follow-up post about the second season premiere)--but noted that "Epitaph One" weakened this reading.  How, after all, can one talk about rape culture, or culture of any kind, when civilization itself has been brought to its knees?  Dollhouse's second season bears out this observation.  Though it addresses rape culture--the college professor whose seduction technique involves persuading Echo's imprint that being defined by her sexuality is empowering; the psychiatrist imprinted on Victor who notes that being a doll frees Echo to be both virgin and whore while Adele is forced to renounce both roles; the Priya-centric episode "Belonging"--in the second season this is no longer Dollhouse's point, if it ever was.  Niall Harrison's reading of Dollhouse as a "story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow)" is probably closer to the mark, but as I say in the comments to that post, I like the show he describes better than the show we actually got.  It may be that Dollhouse was intended as a story about the construction and destruction of identity, but in its second season that story is drowned out by the need to sufficiently set up the "Epitaph One" future, and then advance from that future to a too-neat happy ending.

What's lost from Dollhouse once the second season gets into gear is the sense of complicity, the recognition that all of the characters, victims and victimizers, evil and righteous, are part of the system that makes the dollhouse possible--Doyle's rape culture expanded to the commodification of self, regardless of gender.  Dollhouse's first season showed us the rationalizations through which ostensible villains like Topher and Adele tolerated and even justified their monstrous actions, drawing pencil-thin lines between different shades of rape and slavery in order to be able to place themselves on the right side of those lines, while alleged good guys like Ballard and Boyd, who claimed to abhor the dollhouse, ended up enabling and participating in it.  The second season sweeps away this complexity, dividing the cast into heroes and villains (though perhaps the initial failure was in the transition from a story about people who are cogs in the machine to one that has heroes and villains to begin with).  Ballard's obsession with Echo, which the first season painted as disturbing and slightly pathetic, becomes romantic.  Boyd's deluded image of himself as Echo's protector and father figure is given credence by Adele and by Echo herself (and then he turns out to be the Big Bad).  Adele, after a brief but interesting interlude which pointedly questions the ideals she claimed to hold in the first season by having her sell them out to further her ambition and self-preservation, turns out to have been playing a deeper game and becomes the general of the side of light.  Topher gets the closest thing the second season offers to a genuine progression towards moral awareness, but even in his case there are lapses--his self-righteousness when he believes that Adele has sold out to Rossum is never punctured--and most of all I distrust it.  Topher is the type of character Whedon has written many times before, usually as an audience identification character, and as Doyle notes it was one of Dollhouse's main accomplishments in its first season that it made him so thoroughly unlikable.  His woobification in the second season thus feels less like character development and more like the writers working less hard against their ingrained habits.

The second season does build on the first season's character work by focusing more on the dolls, and stressing the fact that, as with Echo and Caroline in the first season, these characters are often more appealing as blank slates than as the flawed people who got themselves in such dire straits to begin with.  I particularly liked the fact that November's original personality, Madeline, was written in such a way that as to recall Mellie, but with a core of hardness--especially her willingness to erase her grief over her daughter's death--that made her humanly unappealing where Mellie was inhumanly sweet.  But as the buildup to the brainapocalypse speeds up, these stories are rushed past the point of comprehensibility.  By the end of the season Madeline is shunted aside in favor of Mellie, whose realization that she is an imprint, acceptance of that fact, and proof-by-suicide of her personhood are so lightning-quick as to be almost unnoticeable (and anyway, both Mellie and Ballard's struggles with their doll state are dwarfed by Claire's similar but more nuanced struggle in the season premiere, which is itself undone by Whiskey's transformation into a plot device in "Getting Closer" and "The Hollow Men").  The Tony-centric "Stop-Loss" takes the character through so many transformations in a single hour--no sooner is he out of the dollhouse than he signs his personhood away to another shady organization, and no sooner has he done that than he's backed out because of his love for Priya--that they become meaningless. 

None of these characters, however, fare quite as badly as the show's ostensible heroine.  There's been a lot of griping about Eliza Dushku's acting ability or lack thereof, and it's true that she isn't the chameleon that Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, and Amy Acker are, but ultimately I don't think she needed to be.  The writing for Echo should have stressed the core of self that made her so dangerous both to Rossum and to the people who get swept up in her crusade, but instead the writers did a lot of telling and very little showing.  When Echo says that she is all her previous imprints but none of them is her, what does that mean?  When she swallows Caroline's original imprint with nary a ripple (after an entire episode that made so much of the danger of reintegrating them), what are we to make of her?  Dushku may not have Olivia Williams's presence, but in the scenes like Echo's breakdown in "Epitaph Two: The Return" she proves that she can sink her teeth into meaty material, and yet for most of the second season the writers do little more with her than make her into the worst and least interesting kind of superhero--the kind whose awesomeness is expressed by using her McGuffin-derived powers to swat aside the McGuffin-derived hurdles the writers set before her.

A lot of the problems I've complained about here can be blamed on Dollhouse's compressed running time.  Except inasmuch as he made the show he made, and that he made it for Fox, Whedon can't be blamed for having so little space in which to write a satisfying ending to his story, and unlike Firefly, which could be capped with the chapter-ending Serenity while still leaving room for a lot more story, Dollhouse was hobbled by the existence of "Epitaph One."  No ending that didn't address the coming apocalypse would have worked, hence the need to vault over the steps leading to that apocalypse.  Even if we take the second season as nothing but the blueprint to the show Whedon would have written had he been given his leisure, however, I'm not sure I would have cared for that show.  "We split the atom--we make a bomb.  We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is destroy," Ballard tells Victor-as-Lubov early in the first season.  This is true, but the unstated corollary is that for all the piles of science fiction stories about nuclear war bringing about the end of the world, in reality what happened is that the world changed.  Some of those changes were terrible and deadly, but humanity and human civilization marched on (so far, anyway).  This is an overgeneralized distinction, but I think that one of the reasons that written SF is so much better than the filmed kind is that there are more SF authors who get that it's so much more interesting to imagine how technology changes the world than to simply end it (which is why I like to recommend Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon to disappointed Dollhouse viewers).  Last summer, I was so excited by the fact that "Epitaph One" laid out a clear direction for the story Dollhouse wanted to tell that I let myself ignore the clearly spelled out end point of that story, which marked Whedon out as the less interesting kind of science fiction writer.  And once you get to apocalypse, you can really only tell the plucky-band-of-survivors story.  These can be fun in the right hands, but in Dollhouse's case what we got was "Epitaph Two: The Return," a cluttered, perfunctory hour whose indifferent plotting only adds insult to the injury of the reset button ending it tacks on to Dollhouse's story.

In the end, what's worst about Dollhouse's second season is that its final episodes rob the show even of the dubious honor of being an interesting failure.  I don't, ultimately, know what kind of story Whedon was trying to tell with this show--the critique of rape culture, the story about stories, the tale of technology dismantling our understanding of personhood--and I don't know what kind of show he would have come up with in a perfect world in which television auteurs are given free reign to create whatever they like (though his own comments about the changes Fox mandated to the series aren't promising), but if "Epitaph Two: The Return" is any indication of where he wanted to get to, I'm rather glad I was spared the ride. 


Anders said…
While I might have had a more favorable view of Dollhouse season one than you I wholeheartedly subscribe to this analysis. My own conspiracy theory is that Whedon & CO became so enamored of the fan response to the mediocre "Epitaph One" that they decided to simply make that show. Dollhouse at its best was not pure entertainment and exhilaration like "Firefly", but rather when it made you uncomfortable, almost complicit in the exploitation seen on screen. But the fandom wanted something more easily digested like "Firefly" or "The Sarah Connor Chronicles", and Whedon gave in. Season 2, especially the last half, just gave up any ambition of artistic integrity and became sci-fi fanservice of the worst kind.
Anonymous said…
I personally adored season one of Dollhouse (from about episode six on, anyway) and agree wholeheartedly with this. I was ridiculously excited for season two, thinking it was going to delve deeper into and improve upon the moral and philosophical underpinnings that made season one so compelling, but it instead became a different show entirely, almost like a watered down 'Buffy' with it's lead-up to the apocalypse and clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys". (That worked spectacularly well for Buffy, but it didn't work for Dollhouse at all, in my opinion.) All the characters were stripped of the complexities and moral ambiguity that originally made them so fun to watch. It was quite a disappointment, and while I've made great use of my season one DVDs, I don't even think I'll be buying the season two ones.

Thanks for posting this -- the only responses to season two I've seen have been overwhelmingly positive, so I was glad to see someone else who was less than thrilled.
Anonymous said…
Very interesting analysis. My thought several days after watching the finale was - the entire show felt a little like Joss Whedon writing and show with one hand tied behind his back.
Matt Hilliard said…
"...Whedon can't be blamed for having so little space in which to write a satisfying ending to his story..."

Really? To me, this is what he can be blamed for more than anything else. At this point in the development of serialized television, creators and writers ought to know they need to be flexible. The past couple decades are littered with serialized shows suffering from unplanned actor departures, studio interference, and, of course, premature cancellation. Even if Whedon didn't learn from the example of other people's shows like Babylon 5, he ought to have learned from his own experiences on Firefly. Considering Whedon was, by all accounts, as surprised as everyone else to get a second season, it's not like the end of the show snuck up on him.
Anonymous said…
topher? unlikable? really? huh.
Anonymous said…
I agreed with everything you said except for when you compared Dichen to Amy and Enver.
Anonymous said…
i decided to watch the season 2, this week, mainly because the season 1 last aired episode, wich in my opinion was the worst in the season (hehehe maybe the "beyonce" episode)...

season 2 has his cons and pros, but i believe if u have to blame someone blame fox... the only stuff that didn't worked well, in my opinion were

Bennet's death
Boyd's betrayal
caroline's return
melie's death

but they didn't worked cuz they don't really got time to make it right like Tara's death on Btvs

in the end i'm actually liked the season two, like reallyyyyy liked xD
they managed to bring a closure to most of the characters thing they never got a chance to do on serenity... plus they managed to have really cool characters (boyd, topher, echo(last half season), lovelly Dr. Saunders(season 1), mess up Dr. Saunders (season 2), viktor, Sierra)

long live to Echo..
Anonymous said…
Man this is harsh...but I think entirely fair. (And I say that as a season 1 Dollhouse fan.) Joss Whedon has an annoying habit of introducing moral ambiguity and then quickly running away from it. Ballard was the worst casualty in my opinion (I much prefered him as a satire on the white knight), but I simply don't understand HOW the other Dollhouse employees suddenly became "the good guys". Not only is it almost completely unexplained, but it's SO uninteresting. Furthermore, even though the storytelling would have been better if there had been more time, I still think that this story would have been dissapointing if it had developed over 5 seasons. (I mean, someone had to TELL Joss that he was using a rape allegory.) I'm so upset that Dollhouse managed to waste so much promise.
Being a hardcore, uber-fan of Joss Whedon, I loved Dollhouse and all of the questions it posed. I believe that it was the Fox network and the struggle for ratings that doomed the show. Not many people want to watch a show that is complicated and makes you question the world around you. Fox's solution to that was to ask for more action and simpler story lines. However, Joss likes to take a looonnnnngggg time to develop his stories and he usually casts out many threads for several story arcs during a season. As the story goes on, he ditches the storylines that don't seem to be going anywhere in favor of the better storylines. By forcing Joss to add more action and simplify the story because of time constraints, he was forced to pick a story line and stay with it, instead of allowing the story to grow naturally and organically from the characters, like he usually does.
That said, I still LOVED the show, and it was, and remains, a million times better than any of the other shows that were airing at the time.
Just one of the many awesome themes of the show is whether it's memories and experiences that make a person who they are, or is it hardwired into their genetics. In otherwords, is someone born evil, or are they made evil by their experiences? Are our personalities constantly in flux, and changing drastically from day to day, or is there some core of our personality that will always remain the same no matter how many experiences or how much time has passed? It's these unanswerable questions that Joss brings up in his shows that will always have me coming back to him for more.

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