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Dollhouse Episode 3 “Stage Fright”

February 28, 2009

First Dollhouse episode written by a woman, Maurissa Tancharoen, as well as a man, Jed Whedon, who are affianced, write songs together (for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Commentary! The Musical), sing songs about fast food together, make videos together and now write scripts together. For all this harmonious co-working and co-being, they get my Jane Austen Update Award, which is the mock mass media monicker J-Mo. By “mass media,” I mean that about a dozen people use it, one of them  fortunately being Joss Whedon (in “Heart, Broken” from Commentary!)

So naturally when I heard that they were writing an episode about a crazed super-fan, I thought, “Wow, a shout-out!”

*Spoilers for this episode.*

Much rich theme-iness enrobed in a pop candy coating:

I Want To Live, Clarence! This time Echo is a guardian angel. I spy two It’s a Wonderful Life parallels:

1. Echo serves Rayna (as Clarence the guardian angel serves George Bailey) with What You Asked For therapy. Clarence shows George a world without him, Echo confronts Rayna with a world that is all about her: a (seeming) super-fan in “Audra” at risk of death at the hands of a crazed super-fan, both of whom are the logical outgrowth of Rayna’s obsession with creating a star persona designed to captivate, an obsession that has “captive”-ated her.  (I think. I just watched it for the first time. Needless to say, her quandary is not as sympathetic as George Bailey’s, but it’s more complicated. George just needs to wake up and smell his awesomeness; Rayna needs to work on creating some real awesomeness after having smelled the result of merely creating an awesome facade.)

2. Echo has something important in common with George Bailey. Bailey helps the people in his life because he understands their suffering and does what he can to ease it. In the fantasy World Without George, he sees them suffering more in his absence, and that inspires him to live. In all three Dollhouse episodes we’ve seen, Echo shows the same sensitivity to others’ suffering and does (increasingly extraordinary) things to ease it. 

Bailey’s very self-abnegating. He’s kind of a Giving Tree, sacrificing himself for others. At his moment of crisis, he feels he’s got nothing left to give but his death. Echo starts out with her self completely abnegated, erased, and appears to be building a Self by marrying her pain to others’. Not sure where this thought is headed, but it is pleasingly complex.

◊ Hitchcock. “Stage Fright” is also the name of a 1950 Alfred Hitchcock movie. I could link to the Wikipedia entry, but really should rent and watch it, because it’s Hitchcock, and although I’ve seen it before, I can’t remember anything. 

Echo decides to “Stage [a] Fright” to save the day, first when she threatens to hand Rayna over to the embodiment of her self-destruction-masked-as-self-creation, and more particularly when she shoves her off the catwalk, to which Rayna may not have realized she was tied. Like an artist, Echo uses an illusion to reveal a truth. (“It’s a Horrible Life . . . Clarence is back . . . and this time he’s not f—ing around.”) Rayna, while talented, is not an artist, since she uses her talent to create a captivating illusion rather than a liberating one. 

◊ Freedom Song, Captive Song. Maybe this ep wasn’t a musical, but it was darn close. Love hearing the caged soul (Echo) sing a freedom song! “Freedom is all we need . . . to heal the pain of history.” It works as:

1. A civil rights song. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t (or if J-Mo wrote it for the show) but it would have slotted nicely into the civil rights movement. 

2. A song that works for Echo and against her. Echo clearly needs freedom from Dollhouse, so we’re invited to enjoy the song as an expression not only of the personality she’s been imprinted with but as an expression of Echo’s heart. But freedom was (apparently, from what we saw in the opening scene of episode one) what she gave up to escape the pain of her own personal history, so we’re invited to contemplate the many meanings of the word freedom. 

3. A song that works for, against & on Rayna. We first see Rayna through bars, looking momentarily like a 1960s cage dancer, a pre-feminist woman. Only after a moment of silence do we get the hint she’s in a larger place than a nightclub when the crowd and music kicks in. We then see her dance in a way that suggests she’s a captive who wants to be free — and the music and the dance tell us this is supposed to be “hot hot hot.” Once she easily slips out of her cage, we realize she is center stage–she gets a microphone and sings what she is, “Superstar.”

This introduction encapsulates Rayna’s dramatic arc. Rayna begins by seeing herself as imprisoned by her own superstardom, Echo confronts her with the fact that she built her own cage and can escape it, and in the end Rayna reconnects with her voice–singing the freedom song in a single spotlight while looking out at other lights. (This hints that she might become a different kind of superstar, one who uses the spotlight on her to see and reveal the light in others. The song has gone from being something she comes from to being a place she’s taking her audience. V. nice.) 

In between, however, she is all kinds of unconscious. She sees herself as a caged bird singing, but she constructed the cage — hell, she sells the cage, putting it center stage and inviting her audience to enjoy her playing the captive. She’s also selling the notion of superstardom — addressing her audience in the opening song as a “superstar” who wants her. So . . . she invites individual members of her audience to imagine that she thinks of each of them as a superstar, a fantasy they can indulge by buying her music and going to her concerts — i.e., by making her a superstar. She’s exploiting herself to exploit them. She makes them want her by pretending to want them. She dominates them by playing the submissive, their cage bird. Her problem is she believes her BS–the real cage from which she needs to escape. 

(The “Superstar” song’s pretty boomerangy: “Your priorities are out of line,” “You’ve rehearsed your lines and now it’s time for you to shine,”  “You play my heart with every word that you say”–all accusations a pop fan could hurl at her. When she sings later, “I’ve been watching you, stalking you,” she’s predator as much as prey.) 

It’s never spelled out, but “Biz” (allegorical names are not limited to show runners) obviously chose this song for Echo to sing because he knows that Rayna loves it and wants to manipulate her into picking Echo. Even more tellingly, he plays to her wish to feel like she’s rebelling against the Biz (even as she is its embodiment) by pretending to want Rayna to reject Echo. He flatters her pretensions. As long as her self-destruction remains profitable, he’ll encourage it. He slaps her for endangering her own life, probably because that endangers his own livelihood.

OK, instead of trying to finish a huge post all at once, I think I’ll mull on this ep throughout the week and add stuff as the spirit moves. I’ll fix spelling and grammar, too. Maybe. Primo, J-Mo!

ETA: Sorry for the misspelled name. Again. I’m a bad MySpace friend :(

ETA:

What’s a Real Friend? Topher was lying when he told Echo Sierra would be her new friend–placating her to get her out of the way. But Echo makes the lie real when she helps Sierra, dizzy from exercise, avoid falling. Their conversation is very simple, but we don’t know how much of it is how they’re programmed to act in their childlike “doll” state, and how much is Echo’s innate desire to ease others’ suffering: “I didn’t want you to get hurt. You’re my friend.” Like children, they’re also keenly aware of their supervisors. I’ve read that one of the first things children do to assert their independence from their parents is to keep confidences with one another away from the eyes of authority. Their wary glance at the woman with a clipboard in the opening act is answered by Echo’s little head shake in the last act that cautions Sierra against acknowledging their friendship. Real friendship is a threat to the Dollhouse on many levels. 

Fake friendship is its proud product. Echo is hired as a made-to-order friend for Rayna, willing (per contract specifications by Biz) “to take a bullet for my girl.” No bodyguards because, Biz says, she “feels like a prisoner, blah-bitty blah,” so she needs someone “she likes, she trusts, and will protect her without even knowing she’s supposed to.” Like a friend, but in one way, “Even Better Than the Real Thing.” 

Topher asks a good, leading question: “What do you want: Someone who’s paid to protect you or someone who wants to protect you?” He doesn’t ask the all-important follow-up, the question Rayna never asks herself: Should you get everything you want? 

The Greek Chorus–actually, the Multi-Racial Backup Singers–know exactly how much and how little it means when Rayna picks Echo to ride with her to the gig. “Well, lookie who’s pick of the week.” Rayna’s friends are disposable. 

Boyd and Dr. Saunders begin to form a real friendship around their shared concern for the well-being of Echo. Her concern for his health makes her reluctant to certify him as fit for duty. His reluctance to let Echo into some other handler’s charge when he thinks (IMHO incorrectly) that Alpha or someone else is trying to kill her leads her to agree to certify him. And, like Echo and Sierra in the first and last scenes, Boyd and Saunders recognize that someone is always watching. (Their friendship is a threat to Dollhouse at the Topher level–he wants to be Boyd’s buddy.)

◊ What’s a Real Rebel? Rayna knows she isn’t. FBI Agent Paul Ballard thinks he is. We’ve heard alternative explanations regarding why he’s been assigned the Dollhouse case. Lebov/Victor says the FBI gave him a case he couldn’t screw up because the Dollhouse doesn’t exist. Since this is a world where people (wittingly or not) often say the opposite of the truth, I wonder if someone arranged to give Ballard the case because he’d screw it up? On television, the maverick who breaks all the rules triumphs in the end. In an actual investigation, breaking all the rules can destroy the investigation. And the investigator. We do know that he will take a bullet for the people he thinks he’s protecting. And he will put bullets in others for the sake of the people he thinks he’s protecting. And neither he nor we know if they’re the same people. ETA: Victor/Lebov says to Ballard, “You don’t close.” For some, that would make him perfect for this assignment. 

The Dollhouse uses Sierra as a distraction to Crazed Fan, diverting him from Rayna, a maneuver of which Adelle approves. This serves the client, Biz, although it risks the life of Echo’s friend and clearly makes Sierra suffer. Helping Sierra is not part of Echo’s assignment, but helping a friend is part of Echo’s character–and a real rebellion against Dollhouse, whose interests are apparently compromised by Echo’s kidnapping of Rayna. 

But Echo/Jordan convinces herself that doing something to save Sierra/Audra’s life will make Rayna feel something–the something she needs to feel in order to stop plotting her self-destruction. So she risks Rayna’s life to save Rayna’s life–or at least that’s what Adelle concludes, which should actually give us pause to wonder about the day’s biggest moral gray: Echo/Jordan decides for Rayna. She decides what Rayna needs to do, what’s best for Rayna. Boyd and Dr. Saunders also approve, which is somewhat reassuring, since they do care about Echo’s well-being. But this week Echo saved the day by taking away someone’s freedom of choice and risking her life against her will. Even as she was becoming Sierra’s friend and Rayna’s friend, she was also becoming her enemy–i.e., becoming more like Dollhouse itself. 

Alpha may be interested in her for more than one reason.

ETA:

◊ The Introduction of the Action Trope Henceforth to be Known as “Chair-Slapping.” 

This Post Is Really Cool & Not Just Cuz It Links Back Here

◊ “Minority Report” Shot. Seeing two characters look in opposite directions while talking to one another should have a better name than “Minority Report” shot but that’s the one that sticks out in my mind. There was one in episode one between Echo/Hostage Negotiator and Gabriel on the patio, and there’s one between Victor/Lebov and Ballard on another patio. I don’t know why I find these shots particularly affecting. They remind me of a painting a college professor had of people sitting in a cafe. It was a quiz: Why Is This Painting Called “Hell”? Because no one’s looking at each other. They were all caught up in their own issues, not seeing anyone else. The shot comes in this episode when Ballard is describing the earth as a kind of hell:

Ballard: We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is destroy, manipulate, control. It’s human nature. 

Victor/Lebov: Yeah, people are mostly crap. 

In “Ghost,” the shot comes when Gabriel realizes that the hostage negotiator was sexually assaulted as a child. 

Gabriel: And they did things to you. Unprofessional things. 

Echo/Hostage Negotiator: Is this helping you in some way? 

That last question could mean more than one thing. It could be a polite form of “Back off a bit,” but it could also be a way of adding, “But go ahead and ask if this will in any way ease your anxiety about me being the hostage negotiator for your child.” Perhaps Echo/Hostage Negotiator is willing to relive a little of her own hell to help someone else through his.

Hell shot?

ETA: It’s less than 48 hours until the J-Mo nuptials, so I searched those two syllables and found this link to the original casting call for “Stage Fright,” which had the original name for Rayna as Alyson. Don’t know why they changed it, but am glad they did, because it would have taken me out of the story if she had the same name (different spelling) as my late wife. So, thank you for the consideration, if consideration (rather than coincidence) it was!

ETA: On April 18, 2009, Maurissa and Jed did wed! So I stole one of tunes from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and rewrote it in their honor.

ETA: Maurissa Tancharoen says she and her hubbie did not write The Freedom Song.

7 Comments
  1. Alexander permalink
    February 28, 2009 3:50 pm

    so the song that echo sang “freedom”

    is that a real song and if so what is it called and by who??

  2. pointy07 permalink*
    March 8, 2009 6:58 pm

    On to Episode 4: “Gray Hour

  3. December 31, 2009 12:43 am

    Wow. Thanks for this. It is amazing. This episode has been reviled as cliche, poorly written, and overly ambitious. Your post makes it clear that it indeed was ambitious. In my opinion, the episode absolutely succeeded. This is a tad off topic, but I never knew what was cliche about it. A pop star singer insane to the point of hurting herself and others in front of a crowd? There are shows and movies about self-destructive celebrities, but this episode took it to an extreme that I haven’t seen before. Maybe people just don’t like subtlety. Everyone’s favorite line was, “You can fire me, but, Bitch, don’t think you can take me.” (Which, incidentally, I thought was awesome.) I guess I just like the fact that you went in depth with your analysis. I thought I was alone on analyzing Dollhouse! Most just say “it sucks” or at best “it had so much potential” without looking at what’s there.

  4. Pointy permalink*
    December 31, 2009 9:38 am

    Thank you for your kind comments, Noelle, and for an excellent way to start New Year’s Eve! Feel free to link to your Dollhouse analyses so we all (dozen of us who ever come to this site) can enjoy them. Merry 2010!

  5. June 11, 2010 8:04 am

    I really enjoyed your blog, Thanks.

  6. October 18, 2010 11:05 pm

    It’s been nearly a year, but I just read the kind reply. No need to check this out, but I wrote this little review of Dollhouse after the first third of the second season had been aired: http://noellesnook.blogspot.com/2009/11/ode-to-television-dollhouse-ahead-of.html.

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