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Dollhouse Heads Into the Woods with Episode 2: “The Target”

February 23, 2009

Don’t, don’t, don’t, Cinderella, darling,
Don’t turn down the prince.
Don’t rewrite your story.
You’re the legend, the folk lore . . .

“Cinderella, Darling”
How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, 1961. 

*Spoilers, speculations that might be right and therefore spoilers, plus the usual assortment of random thoughts follow. I’ll put triple asterisks (*** ***) around potentially spoiling speculations and avoid any informational spoilers (stuff gleaned from news coverage, fan boards and the like) altogether. I’m here to play with Joss Whedon‘s toys, not to break them.*

◊ Dollhouse episode two, “The Target,” takes Echo, the show and us viewers into the woods — those last three words being the title of a 1986 musical with songs by Whedonspiration Stephen Sondheim. The musical was allegedly influenced by Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, a/k/a That Book I Never Read But Just Ordered. In the woods, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, more than one Prince and other characters undergo the joys and tribulations of getting what they wish for, leading one of them to draw the ultimate lesson (a la Adelle in the Dollhouse opener) that “actions have consequences.” 

Soon To Be Dead Guy: The woods?
Boyd: Yup.
Soon To Be Dead Guy: I hate the woods.

The woods are where characters in horror movies and action movies — two more genres of wish- and nightmare-fulfillment — often find themselves and lose themselves and find themselves again, and Joss Whedon and writer Steven S. DeKnight weave strands of both into their story. Like the action that begins the story, “The Target” is a “composite event.”

◊ The “fairy tale” line taken on the Dollhouse investigation by Ballard’s FBI higher-ups last week disseminates to his colleagues this week. When he asks who delivered the envelope containing the picture of Caroline, one sneers, “Granny left it. Man, her teeth looked big.” What’s better than a Big Bad Wolf reference to introduce Ballard to someone who may be this season’s Big Bad, but appears also to be an ally in Ballard’s investigation? 

Questions: Is it Alpha, or some other Creepy Naked Guy? What are his motives for helping Ballard? Does he have anything to do with this week’s Little Bad, who refers to himself as “The Big Bad Wolf”? Should I have ordered Bettelheim via Next Day Shipping? 

The Huntsman saves Red from the Big Bad in the fairy tale, and Ballard is one kind of Huntsman, on the trail of Dollhouse in general and now Caroline in particular. 

◊ Leg wounds. Second episode, second injury to Echo’s s left thigh. (This time, there’s nothing to suggest she was programmed to get injured, and JLV gives a good reason to think she wasn’t programmed to fall off the bike last week). What is it about leg wounds? They evoke the Fisher King, whose leg-or-groin wound causes his kingdom to become a waste land. 

Literally, and maybe metaphorically, a wound to the upper thigh is as close as you can get to, without becoming, a groin wound–IOW, a perfect metaphor for a sexual wound.  Whedon makes no secret of his belief that inequality of the sexes screws up the world, and sexual assault is a powerful metaphor for (and element of) misogyny, so Echo may be our Fisher Queen. Her quest to find herself, to become whole, to reconcile her different selves, may correspond with the world’s need for reconciliation and the collective need to find real, better, truer selves underneath the crap heap of imposed stereotypical identities. It would also tie in very nicely with the metaphor of a sexually abused woman conquering her abusers (mentioned last post).

The Fisher King of legend is the keeper of the Holy Grail; knights journey to his realm on a quest to heal him and it. Dollhouse has a holy grail: The healing of Echo. Alpha’s death-dealing composite event calls for a corresponding, life-giving integration of all Echo’s selves into her true Self. 

Like Ballard, Echo is on a quest to find Caroline. That makes her a Hunts-woman (a word spell-check does not recognize). She is both the quester and the grail. 

Two related-but-not-identical questions for the season and the series: Who will heal Echo? What will heal Echo?

◊ Meet Handsome Prince II. Like Handsome Prince I at the start of last week’s episode, he’s got a lot of money and a wish to tarry a while with his version of the perfect woman, what fairy godmother (or worse) Adelle calls “your heart’s desire made flesh.” Handsome Prince II, like his predecessor, also feels the need to defeat his perfect woman, but cannot satisfy this desire merely by winning a fixed motorcycle race. He’s more deadly, but more sporting. He’s another Huntsman. 

“Richard Connell” has a conspicuous patrimony, his father’s “shoulder to the wheel” philosophy, benignly expressed as the need to earn what you have, malignantly expressed as the belief that what you kill deserved to die. 

This Huntsman turns out to be a Big Bad Wolf (even calls himself that) luring the young woman into the woods to kill her in The Most Dangerous Game. (An IGN reader points out that Richard Connell was the author of the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” that gave the trope its name. And Our illustrious monarch, King JayneLovesVera the One and Only, informs us that Richard Connell won his second consecutive O. Henry Award for “The Most Dangerous Game,” and reminds us that Buffy had a “Most Dangerous Game” episode in season three’s “Homecoming,” when Buffy and Cordelia were the prey in SlayerFest ’98. The royal mind again proves itself the most priceless in the realm.) At first it looks like that may be all there is to him. Sure, he appears to be on an awful tight schedule — he doesn’t have time for sex — but maybe he just wants to beat the sunset. Sure, whatever’s in the canteen does in a way wind up strengthening Echo, giving her access to past identities, but it also makes her head spin and nearly drowns her. Sure, he doesn’t kill her when she’s unconscious or spitting up water on the river bank (how exactly did she get onto the bank with water in her lungs?) but maybe he just doesn’t consider that sporting. 

Or maybe he’s not a prince, just a pawn.  

◊ Alpha is a demonic parody of a prince. He, too, has inherited a patrimony from his sire–a wealth of downloaded skills. The malignant side is that he has every identity ever downloaded into him–all the painful pseudo-experiences, all the contradictory memories, and whatever sins he brought with him to Dollhouse for erasure. He has also inherited at least some of Dollhouse’s philosophy. 

Following his “composite event,” he starts doing unto others what Dollhouse did unto him, again in parodic form. The two deepest cuts I saw on the victims that we got a close look at, Samuelson (Boyd’s predecessor as Echo’s handler) and the fake park ranger, were in each man’s left cheek and on the right side of each man’s neck. It looks like he started to cut off the face (symbol of the identity) and the head (the seat of identity, the brain). This is (IMHO) his misguided vengeance: Take away his identity, he cuts off your face; take away his memories, he cuts off your head. The serial killer is some kind of artist, rich in subtext, heavy on symbolism, but always repeating himself. 

As Alpha’s identity was effaced, he takes away Dr. Saunders’ face–but not her life. What makes her different from other Dollhouse denizens, other than that she absolutely positively has to gotta be named after Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and is played by awesome Amy Acker? She is one member of the Dollhouse staff dedicated solely to taking care of the Actives, and her role as Dollhouse physician apparently doesn’t require her to directly put any of them in harm’s way herself, unlike the role of the handlers and the higher-ups and whatever the hell Dominic is. 

Like the Dollhouse, like the aspect of it represented by Dominic, Alpha solves problems by killing them. (At the start of the episode, during the emergency following Alpha’s composite event, we see Dominic order the killing of anything that moves. In the middle, we see him suggest killing Ballard, a federal agent. At the end, we see him tell Echo that if it were up to him, he’d kill her. Bit of a pattern. If you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail that needs to have its head blown off. Twice.) 

Unlike Dollhouse, unlike the aspect of it represented by Dominic, Alpha did not see Echo as a problem to be killed. Why? We’re not shown a reason, but Echo does have something in common with Saunders. Even in her unimprinted state, she feels the suffering of others. (The dead, beyond suffering, merely confuse her.) 

Boyd introduces the possibility that Alpha “hired some nut job” to hunt Echo. But why hire someone to kill her if he didn’t kill her himself when he had the chance? The script, I think, suggests another possibility, but since it doesn’t quite spell it out, don’t read the following speculation if you want to be sure that you won’t be spoiled. (I have no inside information, of course. I am aware of some real spoilers from earlier press reports but I’m not going to mention them, because that really does spoil the fun. But I think guessing what will happen next is part of the storytelling ritual, and if you’re willing to take the risk that one of my speculations might be right, read on. If not, skip the triple-starred *** parts of the Becoming the Enemy section. ETA: I changed my mind: If my speculations are right, they may be too big a part of the first season arc for ye olde storytelling ritual to proceed at full speed, so I’m taking them down. Maybe I’ll give myself a report card at the end of the season, see if I got anything right. Good villains make good movies, Hitchcock said, and if it turns out that this villain is who/what I think he is, well, I’d hate to stand between the movie and its goodness.) 

◊ Becoming the Enemy. Apparently, one of the most common tropes in action movies is to draw parallels between the hero and the villain, or so I read in Action Speaks Louder, a study of the genre by Whedon’s fellow Wesleyan alum, Eric Lichtenfeld (who doesn’t seem to know that Whedon wrote Speed, but otherwise seems to my untutored eye quite observant). While rock climbing, Echo jokingly tricks “Richard Connell” into thinking she’s lost her grip just to see the look on his face. She jokingly threatens to kill him. She’s more interested in the hunt than the smoochies, turning away from a kiss to kill a deer. In these behaviors she resembles “Richard Connell.”  And obviously, the hunter becomes the hunted and the hunted becomes the hunter, which leads to some excellent John Woo-ing in their final showdown. 

But the moment when she most resembles him is the moment when she overcomes her basic programming, the Handler/Active Imprint. “Echo will always trust you,” Topher says, “without question or hesitation, no matter what the circumstance.” The imprinting routine is:

Handler: Everything’s going to be all right.
Active: Now that you’re here.
Handler: Do you trust me?
Active: With my life.

But Echo rejects the line she’s been programmed to accept. “Everything’s not gonna be all right. You don’t get to live, just because you deserve to. You have to prove it. You have to put your shoulder to the wheel.” Her moment of liberation is also a moment internalizing the centerpiece of the “Richard Connell” value system. She reverses roles with Boyd, the Active asking the Handler, “Do you trust me?” 

At first glance, this is one more way of Becoming the Enemy to defeat the enemy. And she is in a Kill-or-Be-Killed setup, so she is amply motivated to adopt his tactics. But to take on his rhetoric, his internal values? That’s not amply motivated. 

ETA: Instead of spoilerishly speculating, I’ll just point out that Echo now has a contradiction in her programming: “Everything’s gonna be all right” and “Everything’s not gonna be all right.” Contradictions in programming, readers of Whedon‘s Astonishing X-Men arc, “Danger,” will recall, brought the X-Men’s danger room to life–turned it into an individual. So whoever is behind this engagement has, intentionally or not, prompted an awakening of sorts. And whatever was in that canteen seems to have also increased Echo’s awareness of her other identities. One of them, dressed entirely in black, shows her how to defeat “Richard Connell.” Is Dark Echo an identity from a past engagement, or a “composite”? 

Echo has one last thing in common with “Richard Connell”  — just as there’s no trace of his existence, there’s no trace of Caroline’s. 

Believe it or not, I have more brain blather, but this is long enough, so I shall post it and maybe add more in comments later. Thank you for coming this far!

Edited to Add: Comments by me on my own post makes look too much like conversations with imaginary friends, so I’m adding them here:

◊ Boyd Is Better Than the Rest. Better Doesn’t Mean Good. “The new Samuelson,” Topher calls him, encapsulating the Dollhouse ethos of roles-as-identities, something that rubs the new guy wrong. Boyd clearly has some kind of integrity. He is uncomfortable reading from a script and being told to hold Echo’s hand, since words and gestures have meanings for him, not merely value as instruments to get people to think and do what he wants.

Boyd clearly has some kind of integrity, and just as clearly lacks some kind. He tortures the faux ranger for information that he just doesn’t have. This is, to say the least, poor information gathering technique. And after putting two bullets in two legs (keep an eye on the thigh wounds, people!) Boyd knocks him out with his gun. With bullets in both legs, that guy wasn’t going anywhere, even if he managed to untie himself.

I think Boyd sees his personal mission the way the Los Angeles Police Department sees its: To protect and defend. He protects and defends Echo, but he also protects and defends Divina in “Ghost.” Dollhouse has engagements, but he has a mission (or two). My favorite acting moment for Harry Lennix was his facial expression as he used a choke hold on the faux ranger–to incapacitate without killing. Choke holds are sometimes banned and always dangerous in police work, since the difference between just-enough-force-to-incapacitate and enough-force-to-kill is a thin gray line. We don’t know what happened to Boyd’s police career that led him to Dollhouse, but I think it may have had something to do with use of excessive force. A hunch, call it.

Boyd has some kind of code, and that’s something, but not enough. He’s better than his employer, and that’s something, but not enough. He’s uncomfortable with Dollhouse, but not uncomfortable enough to stop taking its money.

At least he seems to hate being an enabler, and is endearingly crap at it, as he shows in the brief, poignant, beautifully-acted scene when Echo comes back from an engagement whose moral is:

◊ Beware of Frog. Enough about what’s wrong with handsome princes already, let’s talk about what’s wrong with frogs! You know, the kind of frog who pays to have some incredibly hot chick will tell him she sees past the surface superficial unhandsomeness to the real, inner prince, who’s handsome on the inside! So much going on in this priceless little scene, including Boyd’s thinly veiled disgust, at the client, the Dollhouse, the Active . . . and maybe even at himself for getting praise and a hug from someone programmed to provide such sweetness.

If it were a standalone, Eliza Dushku would be up for Best Webisode Actress.”You’re the best!” What we wouldn’t do to hear that.

We were raised on you, darling,
And we’ve loved you ever since.
Don’t mess up a major miracle;
Don’t, Cinderella, don’t turn down the prince. 

“Cinderella, Darling”
How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, 1961. 

One Comment
  1. pointy07 permalink*
    March 4, 2009 8:08 am

    On to Episode 3: “Stage Fright

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