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On the Uses and Abuses of Enchantment, or Dollhouse Premieres!

February 14, 2009

Dollhouse Episode One, “Ghost.” (Trivia: “Ghosts” is the name of my favorite play by Henrik Ibsen, author of the feminist classic “A Doll’s House.”)

I’ve never actually read Bruno Bettelheim (or spelled him unassisted) but the fairy tale theme jumped out from the screen (Fox HD — nice) as I watched the premiere of Joss Whedon‘s and Eliza Dushku‘s and Craft & Fain‘s (way to be named like allegorical characters, showrunners) Dollhouse.

It comes up in an unconventional way when FBI agent Paul Ballard gets chewed out by his superiors. This is almost obligatory — your heroic cop has to be bucking some system and the petty parochial bureaucratic interests of the guys upstairs — it’s part of what makes him heroic. But the concerns of this particular chewer are a lot like Whedon’s publicly stated concerns  about human trafficking in the real world and the risk that his new show will be misperceived as glorifying it. Ballard’s boss is not just the designated asshole of standard crime drama when he berates Ballard for disrupting a seven-year human trafficking investigation. “We have a chance to dry up a major pipeline of girls being smuggled into this country, and you do not jeopardize that for a fairy tale.”

Whedon himself is worried about what his fairy tale may jeopardize, and fairy tales are dangerous, scary and necessary things. They summon the terror that they prepare you to cope with. Whedon the storyteller faces the risk that his Buffy the Vampire Slayer faced — when you battle demons, you often get accused of summoning them (by, for example, Lily, formerly Chanterelle, in the season three opener, “Anne.” Later, of course, Lily borrows Buffy Anne Summers’ middle name and a bit of her strength to become Anne Steele, a hero of a less super and more realistic sort — the operator of a homeless shelter. But not before a brief sojourn in a more than usually hell-like locale. Whedon has mentioned Anne Steele in his publicity interviews for  Dollhouse and created a similar character in Penny for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, one who, IMHO, is the closest that story comes to a real hero.)

All of which is my slow wind-up to saying that Whedon displays greater concern than ever with the relationship between fantasy and reality, taking greater responsibility and greater risks in his stories. (Yeah, I know, he’s always been concerned, responsible and risk-taking, but he’s even more so now.) He’s cutting closer, he’s cutting deeper, and look out, cuz he’s coming after you. And me.

Opening shot: Looking down on two women from above, on WTF-cam. It’s the god’s-eye, from-above, Hitchcock angle, but it’s also obviously a television monitor, so God clearly ain’t the only one taking a peek. Security? Surveillance? Voyeur? All we know about the people watching is that they’re . . . us. Just as the Actives in the Dollhouse are hired to act out fantasies for the clients, the Actors in Dollhouse are hired to act out fantasies for us. Realistic, entertaining, exciting, smart, sexy, violent fantasies. You know, like Buffy.

(Spoilers follow.)

Act I shows us two little girls. Echo, on someone paternal’s knee with a storybook in her hands, and Divina, putting her head down on her bed and entering a nightmare — imaginary for us, real for her. The dreams and nightmares of girls, the intersection of their fantasies and realities (which are often the fantasies of men), will be one of this show’s chief concerns.

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies as sung by Jonatha Brooke was reportedly (IIRC) Whedon’s idea of the perfect theme song for Dollhouse, and both Fox and Brooke agreed to make this fantasy a reality. The wordless sung melody has a childlike, sing-song quality whose innocence is undercut by a hint of a sneer (ever notice that the children’s taunt of nyah-nyah nyah-nyah-nyah has the same melody as “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring”?) and punctuated with more adult stabs of distorted electric guitar.

The credits (in this first incarnation, which may be frequently updated, as Buffy’s were) flash between powerful and powerless images of Echo. First we see her dressed something like Trinity (black tee shirt, black leather pants, long black leather coat) ready to kick The Matrix’s ass, then (in the same shot) removing that coat to reveal long white lace stockings and a short, short dress, alternating between assertive and submissive, powerful and girly, drawing attention to both as roles to be played. It’s four images of Echo in five seconds: (1) Trinity (2) Girly girl (3) Trinity taking off her coat (4) Girly girl completing the removal of her Trinity coat. I could devote many paragraphs just to What That Might Mean, but I would bore even me.

The next set of images also goes from juxtaposing opposites to bringing them together:

1. Cellphone-wielding Echo outdoors turning around in the middle of a street, apparently ready and willing to break the rules, to

2. Echo indoors pulling up the white stockings in the girly-girl dress, ready to be pretty, to

3. Her mirror image becoming a leather-skirted Echo pulling on boots even as the foreground image remains in lace.

If the credits raise intelligent questions about power, identity and role playing, the show’s gonna.

Random Observations (Continued)

A. Echo’s innate personality traits are questioning and concern for others. She asks scarred Claire Saunders if anyone takes care of the doctor.  She investigates the Frankenstein-lab-lightning-like lights from Topher’s Frankenstein-like lab and is alarmed when she sees Sierra because “She hurts.” It’s a good start.

B. This is post-Battlestar Joss. He’ll use fantasy to interrogate reality and reality to interrogate fantasy, but he won’t have the paternal and maternal figures of Commander Adama and President Roslin to provide security and order. His young woman hero will have to make her own security, create her own order. She is told, “In my experience a beautiful woman never puts anyone at their ease. Fatherly types do that. They’re warm and comforting, make people feel safe. A beautiful woman distracts people, make them nervous or jealous. . .”

“Fatherly types?”

“Like Edward James Olmos.” (I.e., BSG’s Commander Adama, heh heh)

While Caroline wanted to take her place in the world, Active Echo knows she must make her place in the world. As hostage negotiator, she subtly invokes a traditionally female source of authority (her unquestioned devotion to the safety and welfare of a child) as well as traditionally male sources of authority that are available to women (she elaborates on her educational credentials and attainments and her real world experience (and though these are borrowed, the skills they represent are, within the context of the show, real)).

Most interestingly, her (borrowed) experience as a woman who has undergone abduction and sexual abuse cements the client’s faith in her. There’s a really cool book by Carol Glover called Men, Women and Chainsaws that explores how often in modern horror movies women who have been raped administer vigilante justice/violent revenge on the perpetrators, with mostly male audiences cheering the female victim/heroes on. There are metaphorical undercurrents of the rape victim/hero in Joss’s work. The male creators of the first slayer, if I remember and understood the special effects in season seven’s “Get It Done” correctly, forced a demon into her body. River’s violation by the alliance was primarily mental, but the symbolism of a needle penetrating her forehead was pretty evocative, and we see much the same needle penetrating pretty much the same spot on Sierra’s forehead in Dollhouse. Glover’s book is not for the squeamish, but it is 80-90% insightful (unfortunately mixed with 10-20% 1990s identity politics). Once Gabriel knows the source of her passion, he puts his life and his daughter’s in her hands.

C. Scars. Robert Bly’s Iron John talks about men’s strengths coming from their wounds, their scars, their primordial screw-ups and failings and attempts to compensate for them. Topher expresses the thought in cynical yet gender-neutral terms: “Achievement is balanced by fault, by a lack. Can’t have one without the other. Everyone who excels is overcompensating. Running from something, hiding from something.” He’s looking at Good Ol’ Scarface when he says this, so we just know we’re gonna be seeing lots of strength from Dr. Named-After-the-Strong-Woman-Character-Played-by-Jean-Arthur-in-Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington. As if we couldn’t guess from the casting of awesome Amy Acker.

D. Resurrection. The victim of childhood sexual abuse has the strength to overcome the victimizer, strength she probably wasn’t sensing when she took her own life, but strength that proves itself after her death, when her knowledge, skills, experience and passion (perhaps augmented by Echo’s compassion) triumph in the end. This is one of the reasons we need fairy tales. Ophelia ain’t gonna revive if she doesn’t see the point, if she doesn’t see how the victim/hero in her can triumph.

E. Boyd sees the victim/hero in Echo, sees she can “Get It Done” and must have the chance to. The little girl trapped in the dark is Divina; she’s got the divine spark in her and can save the day.

F. Favorite shot: Echo standing alone in a barren field before going to face her demons. So like Cary Grant in the crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest, when he’s lost everything he has held onto in the world and is about to begin to gain himself.

In conclusion, Dollhouse is Vertigo meets North by Northwest meets something rich, strange and distinctly Joss Whedony. Enjoy.

15 Comments
  1. caeli permalink
    February 15, 2009 10:02 am

    Amazing post! I wasn’t aware of *any* of the allusions. I’ll be on the lookout for more in Episode 2.

  2. pointy07 permalink*
    February 15, 2009 12:47 pm

    Thank you so much, Caeli!

    I neglected to mention the Cinderella references to turning into a pumpkin at midnight, and now I’m thinking about what an interesting twist that was on the handsome prince. I think most movies that are described as Cinderella stories wind up with her married to a prince who loves her and will take care of her for the rest of her life.

    This, we learn during the mind-rewind, was a fairy tale for the young prince — three days of strings-free fun with Eliza Dushku — a completely disposable Eliza Dushku at that. Especially interesting is that he’s not portrayed as hateful. He simply doesn’t care about her apart from what she can do for him.

    So his perfectly constructed dream date doesn’t mention that she fell off her bike and injured her leg — not even when he wants to dance, which she does, looking quite happy about it. But Echo still feels the injury later, so dancing must have hurt. Was “uncomplaining” one of the specs?

    I think the big thing we learn about Echo in this episode is that she cares about other people’s pain even when she’s in pain. (Maybe she draws a parallel between other people’s pain and her own.) In the key balcony scene when the hostage negotiator persona is flashing back to her own childhood trauma, Echo flashes back to Sierra’s pain, not her own.

    All part of the Objectification vs. Identification theme Joss has discussed in interviews. Good theme. Rich and themey.

    Use Your Allusion!

  3. JudyKay7 permalink
    February 15, 2009 3:08 pm

    Great analysis! I found you via Whedonesque. I’ll definately be returning each week to your blog after Dollhouse airs and see what you think! I just love reading deep analysis of Whedon’s work by smarter people than me!

  4. pointy07 permalink*
    February 15, 2009 3:30 pm

    Thank you kindly, JudyKay7, cuz “smarter” sounds so much better than “more obsessive” ;-)

  5. February 16, 2009 9:22 pm

    Awesome analysis. Would you mind if I linked it for discussion elsewhere?

  6. pointy07 permalink*
    February 16, 2009 9:53 pm

    Please do, Emmie, thank you very much!

  7. Ryan permalink
    February 17, 2009 2:18 pm

    What a thoughtful and well written piece of writing. Will have to come back, for sure :)

    Nice to find good stuff through W-esque.

  8. pointy07 permalink*
    February 17, 2009 3:49 pm

    Thank you kindly, Ryan! Joss supplies thought fuel.

  9. pointy07 permalink*
    February 17, 2009 8:19 pm

    Ohhhhhhhh. I get it. I think.

    Opening scene: Echo (for no visible reason) breaks off from her motorcycle race to go down an alley (for no visible reason) where, out of birthday boy’s sight, she falls off her bike (again, for no visible reason). That’s (apparently) why Birthday Boy wins the race by a nose.

    Was she programmed to ride out of his sight and fall so that he would win? The same way that she feels compelled to meet up with her handler, did she feel the need to break away from the race and then momentarily lose her balance?

    If so, that would make her first rebellion against her programming this exchange:
    “No way! No way! You cheated.”
    “How did I cheat?” [Not actually a denial.]
    “You did something that will prove to have been cheating.”

    If part of the birthday boy’s present to himself is to win the race without having her consciously throw it — to be, in her eyes, the incredible first guy ever to beat her — the leg injury is something the Dollhouse did to her, not an accident, not some crazy random happenstance.

    The scene that introduces Dr. Saunders links Echo’s leg pain to Saunders’s scars and to the Dollhouse’s manipulations and deceptions.
    “We’ll look after you.”
    “Does someone look after you?”

    After Echo, still wondering why her leg hurts, sees Sierra hurting as she is turned into an Active (with two forehead needles, not one like I earlier thought), she again mentions her leg injury.

    So the show links:
    1. The pain of being forced against one’s will and without one’s knowledge and despite one’s well-grounded suspicion to lose a fixed race.
    2. The pain of becoming an Active, a human played with like a doll.
    3. The pain of being an abducted and sexually abused little girl.

    I didn’t catch this during the patio scene the first couple of times through, but when Gabriel makes Echo/Hostage Negotiator “recall” her childhood abuse, not only is the scene cross-cut with flashbacks to shots of Sierra suffering with the forehead needles but (ta-dah!) Echo’s left leg — the one that was injured when she fell off the bike — buckles beneath her.

    The story doesn’t present these three different kinds of pain as equal, but I think it does ask us to consider what they have in common.

  10. jaynelovesvera permalink*
    February 23, 2009 8:37 am

    The Master* at play. Wonderful insights, Pointy. I braved the possibility of anaphylactic shock in order to comment, such is the brilliance of your unbridled analysis.

    I agree Echo was programmed to lose the race by trying an unproven shortcut but I don’t think the fall was programmed–too much potential risk to the Dollhouse’s investment. Methinks.

    *That would be Pointy, of course. It’s great to see such a deep post get the hits it deserves.

  11. pointy07 permalink*
    February 23, 2009 9:34 am

    It’s the Return of the King! His Majesty JayneLovesVera the First and Foremost! It has been too long the Nerdish Realm has been without its rightful ruler. And I have sent the royal guard to detain Anna Phylactic so she cannot shock your royal person.

    Your point about the Dollhouse investment in Echo is characteristically incisive.

    I noticed she gets another injury to her left thigh in episode two, about which I am in the midst of an ongoing brain spill that I shall presently (or futurely) cast upon the wide, wide web.

    Anyway, Left Thigh Injury II was clearly not programmed, so maybe . . . I need to look up stuff about the Fisher King. Hmm . . . Fisher Queen . . .

  12. pointy07 permalink*
    February 23, 2009 7:56 pm

    On to Dollhouse Episode Two: “The Target”

Trackbacks

  1. Dollhouse Heads Into the Woods with Episode Two: “The Target” « Do Lurkers Dream of Electric Peeps?
  2. Dollhouse Episode 5: “True Believer” or The Politics of Faith « Do Lurkers Dream of Electric Peeps?
  3. Dollhouse Episode 11, “Briar Rose,” or Princess Valiant « Do Lurkers Dream of Electric Peeps?

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