No one ever really leaves here
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
“The Public Eye”/”The Left Hand”
Well, Martin, let’s just start by stating the obvious. That was a pretty insane two hours of television.
I won’t even try to summarize the episodes. Here is the gist. Senator Perrin, we find out, is a homegrown Raymond Shaw (with a bit of a Dubya frat boy backstory), with wife Cindy a slightly less creepy version of Angela Lansbury (some superb double misdirection there, by the way). Rossum has used the Dollhouse investigation as a MacGuffin to set itself up as a corporate savior, and has a Manchurian Candidate in the making. And Rossum is willing to frame its trouble-prone LA office in order to get there. Madeleine/November is in the hands of the DC Dollhouse’s Bennett (I’m not clear on exactly what’s going on there – is she off to the attic?). And Echo is finally on the loose.
The show went to a very special level of crazy when Bennett (Summer Glau, River from Firefly, of course) came on the stage. The scenes between her and Topher were priceless (“Wasabi peas?” “I’m excited and scared.”…”Your skin is like a pig…because it’s pink.”) And after Victor glitched into a pole-dancing valley girl in “Belle Chose,” it was obvious that Enver Gjokaj was an amazing actor. But seeing him as Topher redux was astonishing – the impersonation was so good at times I forgot that they were actually two different actors.
I want to talk about Topher, our favorite sociopath in a sweater vest, for a moment. I never really understood the Topher-hating in season one, but I think it’s inarguable that, between “Vows” and “Belonging” (eps. 2.1 and 2.4), he’s becoming one of the most morally complex characters in the shows. Everybody, you’ll recall from “Belonging,” who’s in the Dollhouse administration is there because they’re morally compromised. Topher is there, though, because he has no morality at all; the irony of that line from Adelle being that he’s emerging as the most morally compromised of all. And our awareness of that tragedy is heightened by the fact that he’s developing a technology that is responsible for the apocalypse, which technology we’re watching emerge from episode to episode.
Topher’s problem speaks to the central illusion “Dollhouse” is premised upon: our vain hope that in forgetfulness lies respite and absolution from responsibility. Here’s what I mean by that. We had two Topher doppelgängers last night, highlighting the split that runs right down the middle of his character: one double, literally, in Victor, in all his benign geekery (“Glasses?” “Glasses on a chain.” “For the win!”). And we have his way-smarter (and “badder”) alter ego in his Washington, DC counterpart Bennett.* When Topher begins to realize what Bennett really is, a seriously malicious evil genius, it’s another step in his realization that he, as the literal author of the characters the dolls become, is doing things that cannot be undone to bodies and to minds.
Topher’s dilemma is that (as we saw with Sierra in “Belonging”), while the dolls can forget (sometimes) what he makes them do, he cannot. This connects to the political paranoia I mentioned last week, for I think Whedon wants to say that our greatest political problem is that we have become a culture endlessly self-mediating in the shiny oblivion of our own entertainment. There’s a kind of nonchalance in the way the political angle is handled (Topher’s response to the “fascists” stealing the presidency: “It wouldn’t be the first time”). Rather, the really scary thing lies in the fact that, when the apocalypse happens, it will come about by a broadcast signal. When people find “Dollhouse” (especially the sexual exploitation) uncomfortable, it’s because Whedon is commenting on the basest nature of our contemporary viewing habits. Are not the images flitting across the screen “shells” that we craft to project our fantasies? To some extent, we are all clients of the Dollhouse: here we are now, entertain us.
And, as Ballard comments early in “The Public Eye,” “No ever really leaves here, do they?”
*So, Summer Glau is pretty much a shoutout to nerds everywhere on these episodes, yes? Imagine the conversation in the writers’ room: so, the kids are into sexy librarians these days, right? Let’s go with that, and make her a techno-dominatrix, too.
I’m totally with you on the intensity of these two episodes. It seems that not only did Dollhouse return, it returned with a vengeance. I’m glad to see the show going out with a bang instead of a whimper. In response, I’d also like to take up your title as my theme. And we can start with your comments about Mellie November. I think you hit the nail on the head: I don’t think it’s the attic, but rather the simple fact that “no one ever leaves here,” a fact that Adelle and Ballard hinted at with the revelation that even released actives have “active” architecture in them, still. She is being (re)activated.
This idea that “no one ever leaves here,” to my mind, speaks to the orientation of the show on a variety of levels. On one level, we have the variety of individuals who are thrown into their situations, both figuratively and literally. When the Senator asks: “They didn’t create me—only parts of me—how can I untangle it?” Echo responds simply with: “does it matter?” Putting the same question, in a flashback, into the mouth of Cindy Perrin (Stacey Scowley does a stunning job as a detestable villain) is quite clever: it shows us that any freedom is always compromised. After all, it is not that Cindy Perrin’s question is inauthentic, she means it (even though it is staked in the context of your aforementioned “Manchurian Candidate” scenario). On another level, we see how Echo and the other characters (e.g. Sierra) continually must resort to relying on the Dollhouse for help. As the exchange between her and the senator illustrates, with him objecting: “You want to take me to them? They’re all bad guys.” Echo: “I think her bad guys are badder than my bad guys.” Continually, from every angle (including, obviously the future) we see that everything around every character is utterly wrong. This is true of everyone: from Boyd to Paul to Topher (as you nicely point out) to Adelle (who even though showing courage ultimately bows under pressure). The show embodies, scene after scene, episode after episode, Adorno’s claim that “wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” There are no good guys, anywhere.
Of course, through the show we see glimpses of something akin to goodness or morality, but these are ultimately mere flashes. Indeed, they can only be flashes. At the end of Minima Moralia Adorno writes of the ultimate impossibility of redemption: “But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.” Dollhouse illustrates this week after week.
Ultimately, all we have is the basic fact of reason: the characters in the show—much like ourselves—cannot but help make decisions. From their first personal perspective, they cannot wait around to see what their motor-neurons or programming will do, they must act. But seen from our perspective, from a “sideways on” perspective, we see that all of their decisions are continually comprimised from every angle, at every step. Even “genuine” freedom is a compromise: as Echo shows in her wariness of Caroline (and, in turn, as we see in Caroline’s treatment of Bennett). In this sense, the episode’s ending is highly fitting: while Echo has finally garnered her freedom, we find the show’s present world in its most uncompromisingly wrong state…just a few political moves shy of the events of Epitaph One.