In this last of meeting places
Dollhouse: “The Hollow Men”
So we come to the end of the world as we know it. When we return for one last visit to the Dollhouse universe in two weeks, this world will be gone, not with a whimper but, as it happens, with a bang (to invert T.S. Eliot’s famous line evoked in this episode’s title). Last night was far more straightforward (until that last Battlestar Galactica-referencing denouement) than the extraordinary last few episodes. I didn’t share your misgivings about last week – in fact, I kind of wondered if we had watched different shows! – as the major twists felt very appropriate to me. The show has hinted at a mysterious past for Boyd more than once, and so the big reveal of “Getting Closer” was, I thought, very satisfying. Likewise, the shooting of Halverson by Whiskey/Saunders (who is after all a doll, and thus infinitely manipulable) was, I thought, executed with perfect Whedon-style abruptness.* In fact, the reveal of Boyd makes his flirtation with Saunders earlier this season far more intriguing – how long has all this been in the works between the two of them?
I did have a few misgiving about this week’s episode, even as I felt it accomplished its purpose with admirable economy. Boyd’s motivations are a bit dim to me – although it’s obvious that Rossum intends to use Topher’s teletechnology for evil and not for good, and Boyd wants to quarantine his inner circle, there was also a suggestion that Boyd saw the use of the technology as unavoidable elsewhere. And the spinal fluid thing was a touch too midichlorian-y for me. But those quibbles aside, my biggest lament is the scene between Ballard and November/Mellie. The scene was written well enough, and in fact Mellie’s auto-da-fé was the perfect end for her tragic character. It was her only way out, and her only way to avoid killing the man she loved. But the episode was so packed and driven by the action that we never really had time for her suicide to sink in.
This is a problem for Ballard’s character, whose effectiveness has always been a function of his relationships with Echo and November. His obsession with Echo – and his encounter with her in “Man on the Street” that I cannot stop talking about, because it haunts me to this day – and the torturous complexity of his relationship with Mellie gave him a depth I don’t think he can carry on his own. In large part, I think this is due to Tahmoh Penikett’s flat affect (something that undermined his fascinating character in BSG as well); but his character has also been in limbo a bit this season, while the action has propelled him on, well, like a doll controlled by something alien and inexorable.
There’s part of me that wishes that, with full knowledge of Dollhouse‘s inevitable end, Whedon &co. had decided to let the show end a bit more like Firefly. That show came to its premature conclusion full of unexploited possibilities – especially the backstories of Inara and Shepherd Book – but its conclusion in the extraordinary (unaired) “Heart of Gold” and “Objects in Space” episodes lingered with the characters, further inscribing them in our minds as vivid, fully-rendered persons. Serenity brought the story to a satisfying conclusion (especially the character of River), but its feel was very different – more like the second half of Dollhouse, action-driven and full of “blow your mind” twists that, while superb viewing, didn’t resonate with me quite the way Firefly‘s unrushed character studies did. That said, Dollhouse has paid its dues in this respect, and so much of this finale builds upon the way in which Adelle, Topher, Sierra and Victor (once again as Topher FTW!) have emerged as full-blown moral agents.
I actually liked this week’s episode, so I suppose there’s a bit of mourning for what the show could have been, given another season or two, in my somewhat-critical tone here. So let me close with something more appreciative. Eliot’s poem speaks of “the hollow men…the stuffed men/leaning together/stuffed with straw,” whose “quiet voices, when/we whisper together/are quiet and meaningless.” In the face of the apocalypse, and an increasingly ubiquitous and ominpotent corporate power, we might be tempted to conclude that the Dollhouse universe is likewise the tragedy of the bleakness of our contemporary political and economic landscape – a world ruled by the collusion of totalitarianism and capitalism, mediated by the illusion of a television screen that plays out our anesthetizing fantasies before us, night by night. But I don’t think so – and here’s why I’ve come to love Whedon’s work so much. Underneath the brutal honestly that his characters (so many of them women played with a depth of complexity that is still so rare on television) are portrayed with, the hopeless of their moral dramas and the inescapability of their fates, they are nearly always persons who bring humor, pathos, bizarre non sequiturs and most of all, the indelibility of their fully realized humanity to the dilemmas that Whedon’s writers always find ways to place before them.
There are some things that cannot be undone – this, I think, is the lesson of this show.** The show has built, continually, toward the conclusion that even in the face of inevitability the personhood of the dolls cannot, in fact, be erased – Mellie was the latest example of that this week. Likewise, the fierce, if perhaps myopic, idealism of Caroline cannot be turned aside. The love of Sierra and Victor is ineradicable. But on the other hand, there are powers that, once loosed in this world, will remain forever: Topher’s technology cannot be uninvented (something he is all too aware of), and Boyd’s betrayal is unforgiveable (Echo’s use of him as a human bomb trigger is driven at least as much by vengeance as it is cold calculation, I think). While I’ve understood where you’re coming from, Martin, in your concerns about the instrumentalist ethic of Adelle and Echo in this show, I’ve always found that to be secondary to something more elementary: the tragedy of characters acting out a path preordained for them, even as they held out for the hope of a way out in the long march toward “that final meeting/in the twilight kingdom.”
*I had actually hoped, last week, that it would be revealed that Saunders shot Halverson out of her hatred for Topher (remember that brilliant scene between the two of them from 2.1, “Vows”?). Alas, no – but the act was still thoroughly logical.
**And, indeed of Buffy – the extraordinary season-spanning arc of Angel and Buffy is perhaps one of the most profound meditations on this theme I’ve ever seen.
Thanks for your post…I think it summarizes our different impressions about Dollhouse and I think about Whedon in general. Let me start with our agreements. I completely agree on your last point: the tragic element that you mention. To lean on some German philosophy, Adorno writes in the concluding section of Minima Moralia that:
The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.
Joss Whedon has managed to demonstrate Adorno’s point through the story arc of Dollhouse. In that sense, it’s been a fantastic success. Week after week, season after season (well only 1 season), he’s shown that the best we are going to get are mere glimpses, flutters of something better which are instantaneously squashed by various elements within the world, elements which press down upon the individual. Nonetheless, not to resist these elements would precisely to be complicit with them and yet in resisting them one at the same time extends their dominance. This aporia drives Dollhouse, not only its world and worldview, but also individually, almost all of the characters on the show: from Ballard to Echo to Topher to Adelle to even—I would argue—Boyd.
In that sense, Whedon’s universe represents the despair of hope and the hope of despair by reworking the very tropes of hope and despair. To hope is to despair and to despair is to hope: to again parrot Adorno, the only meaningful response within such a world is to practice these basic acts of “humanness,” all within the broader matrix of inhumanity and barbarism; and yet in practicing this humanity, the characters at the same time project the limits of that humanity and thereby the ubiquity of control and dominance. The limits of the former, however, are the bounds of the latter, and vice versa…thereby showing the intimate relationship between the two. There is—as we’ve discussed—no escape and this final episode shows that flawlessly: the thoughtcalypse (braincalypse?) happens regardless. This is why Alpha’s presence in the final chapters of Dollhouse is so missed: his thoroughgoing nihilism represents another response to the world that Whedon presents and it is a shame that Dollhouse’s cancellation left that option ultimately unexplored.
Where we disagree, however, I think, is in our estimations of Whedon’s failures. To my mind, I still stand by my assessment of last week’s episode: the Boyd double cross plot arc is to my mind totally stupid. The exchange between Echo and Boyd (“I loved you!”) proved to be the most ridiculously lackluster of this season and one almost wishes that the show never went down this path. Although, it is obvious that the necessity of wrapping up the show in a meaningful fashion presented this as a more viable option than I believe the story really allowed. Similarly, I found the ending to Firefly woefully incomplete without Serenity’s magestic story: not only in giving us the background to River, but also to the Reavers, to the war, and most importantly to the precarious bonds holding our characters together, which are brought to the fore by the mystery and stakes of Serenity.
To return to Dollhouse, however, I agree with you about Ballard—but perhaps some of that is intentional, no? After all, we get a nudge in this direction from Boyd himself (“Except for Ballard—you just have that one family member…”) I also agree about the spinal fluid bit…all that aside, I also ultimately agree with you about the show: it was, to my mind, a success. I am eagerly awaiting Epitaph Two. I find myself wondering now whether Amy Acker’s character in Epitaph One was simply Clyde gone deranged or what and if so, how that plays into the broader arc.
Lastly, I wanted to conclude by returning to Boyd’s death. I am still deeply puzzled (or perhaps disturbed or some combination of the two) by this event. Of course, obviously, your analysis is spot on: there is some element of vengeance involved…but surely it seems entirely misplaced, given that Boyd has been wiped. In this sense, we seem thrust back to Dollhouse’s omnipresent theme of embodiment: Boyd’s body is marked as responsible for his actions as Boyd-as-Rossum-founder. In this sense, the worry is precisely that even if Boyd is wiped, the Rossum bogeyman still lingers on and so must become the object of revenge in addition to neutralization. But this seems patently unfair since after all even Echo herself carries serial killers and all sorts of “not nice” personalities. I found Boyd’s death striking: but I am still unsure precisely why…of course, we as the viewer share Echo and company’s disdain for Boyd and his betrayal, but by the same token we have a long-standing sympathy for dolls and don’t even know if Boyd is the original. His death seems to signify precisely what I attempted to sketch in the beginning: the aporetic presence of both hope and despair. It bekons towards hope because it represents a genuinely human, genuinely decided, genuinely Echo action of vengeance, and yet, at the same time, it represents the omnipresence of despair: the ubiquity of inquity, whether tied to the inescapability of Boyd from his past or the inescapability of Echo’s human-all-too-human drive for revenge.