Introducing both the beginning and the end…
Dear Moth Chase readers,
Let us introduce our friends, Martin and Travis, who will be blogging with us for the next few weeks on the final episodes of a show they both requested we cover, Dollhouse. Martin and Travis are both fellow grad students at different programs and great guys, and we’re excited to welcome them to themothchase’s ongoing procrastanalysis!
We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
Kathryn and Natalie
I’m sure you have heard: Dollhouse has been cancelled. Why should anyone be blogging about the show, then? That is the question I hope to address in this post. Now, since neither one of us are Whedonites (we just discovered Buffy, after discovering Firefly), the obvious point is that we can’t claim it’s simply because we’re Joss Whedon fans (although, now, we obviously are).
The way I would go about it would be precisely to start with the end.
Not just the end of the show or the end of last season, but, in fact, the end of our world.
That’s exactly what Epitaph One, the thirteenth unaired episode of the first season of Dollhouse is about. Frantically yet methodically we are introduced to a whole new cast of characters trying to survive in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. In the year 2019, people can be imprinted remotely, by wave, and we find our characters trying to get underground in order to avoid being either imprinted or killed by those imprinted above ground. The world is in the midst of a global war launched by telephone call: those who answered were instantly imprinted to destroy those who weren’t. As the episode unfolds we see the role of the Rossum Corporation in the various events leading up to the end.
Aside from the brilliant indictment of corporatism, what Epitaph One does so remarkably well is to attack the very medium to which it is wedded. This is both its amazing vision and its ultimate downfall. Taken as a modern reflection on the conditions of its own possibility, Epitaph One and Dollhouse more broadly finds itself in the strange predicament of attacking corporatism while relying on Fox for its existence, on questioning technology while depending on the same for its actuality, on decrying the objectification of women while lavishly promoting itself by means of Eliza Dushku’s scantily clad body, on championing freedom while revealing the fundamental impossibility of its reality.
All of these elements come to a head in Epitaph One, but most prominently surrounding the creation of the episode itself. Made in six days, with a new cast, and on the whims of a studio request for a 13th episode for the foreign market, Epitaph One sees Joss Whedon caving to corporate interests while at the same time working to undermine them. This irreconcilable procedure, as I mentioned above, is precisely its downfall. Whedon wanted a show with an insatiable creative drive that extended beyond limits of genre, style, and medium, but was wedded to corporate interests that demanded boundaries, limits, and ratings. In yearning to do the impossible, the show trudged on in its aporetic glory, but from the very first episode we knew it wouldn’t last and Epitaph One simply confirmed it (although actual news of its cancellation would come only later).
In framing the show in this way, I hope you and our readers will notice an element of frustration, fairly or unfairly, with Whedon himself. This summer, Whedon produced an internet-only quasi-musical with Neil Patrick Harris called “Dr. Horrible.” A stunning production that showed the possibility of bypassing corporate involvement, one surely wishes, in the case of Dollhouse, that Whedon would have used the experience to become self-aware of his aspirations for overstepping various boundaries and pursued his agenda in a way in which the disappointment of cancellation would be a non-issue. This stunning mixture of triumph and defeat is precisely why the show deserves to be discussed.
There’s nothing quite like the blinding light when that curtain’s cast aside, and no attempt is made to explain away the things that really, really, really are behind*
First, I want to say thanks for a great, thoughtful first post to get us started on this quixotic task: blogging an-already cancelled show notorious for its poor viewership! I think you’re exactly right: Joss Whedon is the product of his contradictions (I’d love to talk more about this feminist who makes shows centering on “scantily clad bodies,” but I’ll save that for another time), and I think it’s insightful to look at “Epitaph” as an attack on its own medium; in a certain respect, I think his in/famous “meta” irony has always been about a need to comment on the possibilities and limitations of the medium of television. Even before David Chase invented the modern “megamovie” (as Vincent Canby has called it) with the Sopranos, a show whose entire point was to explore the cultural contradiction resident in our fascination with organized crime, Whedon was exploring just how far television could be pushed as a mirror held up to the culture.
Recall the episodes “Needs” from season one? The glitches started cascading in some of the Actives – they were retaining too many memories and reflexes from their imprintings. Adele’s solution was to turn them lose in the Dollhouse, let them escape, so that they could come face to face with the traumas that led them to accept enslavement in the name of forgetfulness in the first place. There was a moment when the awakened Actives stumbled into the wardrobe room – huge racks of clothes that were, quite literally, the personas they would adopt as actors in new narratives. They began to realize that they were characters in search of an author (Scott Tobiasread this episode much like I do). Something happens similar in the second season of Buffy. In the episode “Halloween,” a spell turns everyone into the embodiment of the costume they’re wearing: Willow becomes a ghost, Xander (Buffy’s version of Topher, and, both of them, I think, a proxy for Whedon himself) a soldier, and Buffy becomes, literally, a fainting, hysterical, damsel in distress. In both cases, highlighting the artificiality of the medium – look! what you’re watching involves people wearing costumes and taking on different personalities! – allows something astonishing to happen: the characters, as they encounter firsthand the inherently artificial way they are constructed, become subjects for the first time. Xander finally gets to be the hero, and actually kicks considerable amounts of ass. Willow is not quite the wallflower we think. And Buffy, always the victim of her destiny,* for once was relieved of the burden of being the Slayer – only to find herself robbed entirely of agency, almost fatally so.
I think I first realized what Whedon’s up to when it occurred to me that, had Quentin Tarantino worked in a comic book store rather than a video store, he would look a lot like Whedon. The unabashed geekery, the unapologetic postmodern instinct for pastiche, the wild and untamed imagination that sometimes shades into self-indulgence – all the parallels are there. Except: whereas Tarantino struggles to connect us to his characters at a visceral level (only Inglourious Basterds really succeeds in getting past the sterile gaze of Tarantino’s unhinged formalism), Whedon is at heart a humanist. This is why Buffy is so much more than a teen soap opera with fangs and witches; why Mal (of Firefly) makes the old Han Solo stereotype of the cynical idealist seem so fresh; and why Dollhouse puts us face to face with the fragility of our fantasy, asks us to enter the hall of mirrors created by our confused desires and our barely-hidden traumas, and holds before us the hope that, on the other side, we might actually become selves. Just as whenHelo Ballard comes face to face with his obsession in “Man on the Street,” only to have his obsession beat him to a pulp, so the mirror of oursevles and our culture that Whedon holds before us exposes the sham that our “everydayness” is (for are we all not, at some level, blanks who put on a costume and a persona in order to negotiate our days at the far shore of forgetfulness?). That, I think, is why Dollhouse is so brilliant. And why it is so little watched.
As Will Sheff sings in another song, “You’re lying when you sing along.”** But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
*There’s a lot be said about Whedon’s political paranoia here: the Whedon hero/ine is always defined by their fight against forces utterly beyond their control, but that is somehow never tragic. I have a feeling we’ll be talking about that a lot before Dollhouse ends its run, though, so I’ll hold off for now.
**Okkervil River lyrics: “For Real;” “Pop Lie.”