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Dollhouse Episode 5: “True Believer” or The Politics of Faith

March 14, 2009

Just watched Dollhouse’s first Tim Minear episode, “True Believer,” for a second time, and it’s even better than I noticed on first viewing. As a religious dude (12 years of Catholic schooling, which I’m glad of) I’ve got to give props to an hour of television that gets both (some of) the good and (some of) the bad of faith. I never felt either pandered to or disrespected, so thank you, Tim & Joss & Sundry Mutants

*(Spoilers for this episode)*

Moral Complexity as Suspense. What as what now? Think Doris Day in the opera house in Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. *(Big spoiler for classic Hitchcock movie)* If Doris Day foils the assassination of a diplomat, the assassins will murder her son, whom they’re holding hostage. If Doris Day doesn’t foil the plot, the diplomat dies. She faces two unacceptable alternatives. The suspense is over what moral choice she will make and what the choice will do — to the diplomat, to her son, and to herself. (BTW, since this is the only Doris Day movie I’ve seen all the way through, I don’t understand people who think she can’t act. And brilliant dramatic use of “Que Sera, Sera” in the film’s second climax, which completely turns the song’s chorus on its head, cuz “whatever will be” is whatever we make happen, with supreme effort and risk. Victor/Lubov was not thinking of this movie when he said he wanted to be Doris Day.) 

“True Believer” hits us with suspenseful moral complexity from the first scene. We’re dropped into rural America and witness a confrontation, but between what and what? Is the mechanic the equivalent of the jerk in Witness who taunts the peaceful, faithful Amish, or has someone he loves fallen prey to a cult whose seemingly benign religious practices shield depravity?  The mechanic’s behavior — and the behavior of the group on the bus — lends itself to either explanation (and a range of explanations in between those two poles). Who is the snake? In whose garden? The beauty of the opening is that it refuses to tell us how to interpret it, while letting us know that it very much matters which interpretation is right. 

Just in case we’re thinking of suspending judgment, we see a character, the store owner, doing just that. His open-mindedness is tainted, however, by his commercial interest in not taking sides, as long as both sides shop at his store. Finding out what’s true would be bad for his business. He profits from moral blindness. His character combines the liberal faith in the free marketplace of ideas with the the conservative faith in the free marketplace of goods and services, while illuminating a self-serving aspect of both.

Throughout the episode, we see people deciding vital questions on the basis of inadequate information — making choices based on faith. Any moral response the viewer makes to each decision — approving, disapproving or suspending judgment — is implicated in what we see happen next. 

To paraphrase Echo/Esther: We are not given these things to see just so we can watch. 

Politics of Faith I: The Politician. An authoritative voice says something we know to be true as we look at Echo and the other Actives in the Dollhouse. “Happy? No. This is something quite apart from happiness. Call it a kind of bliss, an unquestioning serenity. True happiness requires some measure of self-awareness. We’re talking about people here who have their–their very wills taken away.” 

While these words appear a reasonably accurate description of the Actives, we don’t know whether it’s true of the Children of the T___’s.* The speaker, a senator with an election on his mind, is thoroughly compromised. He’s a Dollhouse client, so he’s fine with some people being deprived of their free will and happiness. He’s not out to shut down the organization that he knows is guilty of depriving people of their free will (the Dollhouse), just to shut down a compound that important constituent groups may be inclined to think is guilty. “I’ve got the family value voters on the right, the women’s issue constituency on the left, all coming after me if anything untoward is going on behind those compound walls. The ATF is convinced there is.”

The invocation of an ostensibly objective government authority to justify the investigation is important. The senator doesn’t ask Adelle to take his word for it; the ATF, which doesn’t face reelection, agrees. Of course, the ATF depends for its funding on the Senate and on public support, which in turn is based on the ATF showing evidence that its work is vital and essential to the defeat of very bad guys. Politics inclines the senator to put his faith in the ATF’s judgment. Self-interest would incline Adelle to put her faith in it as well. If the compound is a den of iniquity, she can feel good about taking the senator’s money and risking Echo’s life. The ATF’s authority enables the senator to reinforce his self-deception and Adelle’s self-deception. Putting their faith in the ATF’s authority might enable both to feel noble about being selfish.  

(I should note that later Adelle describes her decision to Dominic in terms of pure self-interest for the Dollhouse, free of any self-congratulation — “Denying his request would have a steeper downside than acquiescing” — since I prefer people who don’t flatter themselves.) 

Ballard Is Such a User. We finally get to see Ballard be charming as he gets his coworker to search the databases for Caroline, but this performance is juxtaposed with the way he very much takes his neighbor for granted — getting her to run errands for him without showing the slightest interest in her as a person — and it’s just painful to watch. She has faith in him. What are the politics of it? Whatever she gets out of believing that her handsome next-door neighbor is the kind of guy who rescues damsels in distress. 

What’s Up With Saunders? She sounds passionately concerned about the dangers to Echo of the eye-camera surgery, but once her boss authorizes it in Olivia Williams’ authoritative British voice, that’s that, she performs it. I totally understand, but: disturbing! 

A Sharp Medical Stick and a Woman’s Pinned-Open Eye. Metaphor, yes, but what, what could it mean? See Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws and first two episode posts. 

◊ Politics of Faith II: Faking a Miracle. By programming Echo/Esther with a lab-furnished vision of Jonas Sparrow, Dollhouse plays to the general desire to feel chosen, singled out by supernatural forces for special recognition, as well as (obviously) to the slightly less general desire of religious people to feel personally picked by God. As Boyd makes clear, the purpose is to gain the Children of the T___’s trust and thus infiltrate them.

No one outside the compound ever expresses the slightest doubt that faking a miracle is anything less than a perfectly fine thing to do. (Note: Beware of Allowing Oneself To Be Labelled as a Member of a Fanatical Religious Cult :-( ) The story does suggest some dangers in a tactic that encourages Jonas Sparrow’s conviction that he is chosen by God and, once Echo/Esther regains her sight, that he is a miracle worker — two beliefs that reinforce his delusion that he can start a cleansing fire (rather than just the standard consuming kind). 

Politics of Faith III: A Separatist Community. Quoth Tim: “Well, Joss wanted to do a cult episode. The only real edict was that the culties should have a point of view — that they shouldn’t just be crazies. In fact, they should be right. I liked that notion.” 

Well, the episode doesn’t show the Children of the T___ as exactly right, but from what we are shown, they appear relatively benign. I say “what we are shown” and “appear,” because the episode makes much of the incompleteness of knowledge. The characters only see part of the story, the viewers only see parts of the story. 

We don’t see the cult doing any of the bad things they are suspected of. No human-trafficking, no gun-running. There is some gun-stockpiling, but Jonas Sparrow apparently sees that as necessary to the compound’s self-defense. He’s wrong in his application of the self-defense principle (when the ATF serves you with a warrant, challenge it in court, not in a shoot-out) but the principle is widely recognized. 

What we see of Sparrow indicates that he is a mixture of good and bad. Contrary to Agent Lilly’s self-serving assumption, Sparrow’s religious conversion appears to have been sincere. (One reviewer missed this, but also thought Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter was a religious faker, rather than a religious psychopath.) We see no evidence that he is sexually exploiting anyone in any way. He is not so full of himself that he immediately believes Echo/Esther’s story about having a vision of him. He has enough regard for the safety of his community to test her rather than simply use her testimony to reinforce his authority. Pointing a gun at her head wouldn’t terrify a blind woman, but might make a sighted informant give herself away.

I wouldn’t want to live in the compound, but people who wish to live in a self-sustaining community where they are treated like brothers and sisters rather than just employees and consumers have a right to. 

Sparrow doesn’t seem to be a bad leader until the ATF shows up. Which reminds me that the question of whether one is a saint or a sinner always depends on what one decides to do next. 

Politics of Faith IV: Heroes Need Villains. ATF Agent Lilly is a true believer in the unreformed criminality of Jonas Sparrow. In the words of the old hymn and the old Baretta theme, his eye is on the sparrow. But for all his advanced surveillance techniques, Lilly is blind. He only sees what he wants to see — a suitable villain whose capture or death will transform Lilly into a hero. 

The guiltier he thinks Sparrow is, the more justified he can feel in taking any action to ensure his capture or killing. Like the senator, he can mistake selfishness for selflessness and encourage others to do the same. 

His “Thank God” at the end was pricelessly insincere. Miracle-mongering–not just for the religious any more! Even better was the rulebreaker’s hide behind the rules to keep FBI Agent Ballard away from Esther: “I don’t do things unofficially. Get a warrant.” 

Echo’s Programming Does Not Glitch. There is no indication at any point that Echo/Esther senses that she is anything other than a woman who takes her blindness as a gift that God gave her at the tender age of nine. Throughout the episode she functions as a person of faith. When she challenges Jonas Sparrow’s decision to set fire to the building in his belief that the righteous shall be unharmed and the wicked consumed, she does so as a religious person, one who believes that a vision from God brought her to the compound and a miracle restored her sight. She challenges him on theological grounds: “You can’t force a miracle.” Echo is not a true believer, but the personality she is programmed with apparently came from someone who believes our purpose on earth is to do the will of a loving God. The story gives no reason (that I at least can see) to think that Echo/Esther is stating anything other than her belief when she says, “God brought me here. He has a message for you, and that message is move your ass! Go! Come on!”

Thank you, Tim & Joss & Sundry Mutants!

◊ Echo’s Personality Still Shines Through. Echo always feels the suffering of other people. Echo/Esther puts her hand on Hunky Guy’s heart and senses his unhappiness at the memory of Zion Ranch. She does hit him after he spits on her, but at that point it’s the only way to save his life. Likewise, she doesn’t hit Jonas until it’s the only way to save everyone’s lives. 

◊ Did Victor know Sierra Before They Both Entered the Dollhouse? While Sierra sits with Echo for lunch because they’re friends, Victor may sit with Echo because Sierra’s there. IOW, not so much grouping as pairing. 

(Another reviewer thinks this is just another goofy writing mistake :D )

*I saw the name on the ATF bulletin board, but most of the last word was obscured. 

I’m blogged out now. Coming soon: Better spelling, grammar and punctuation! Along with more thoughts of randomness. 

ETA:

◊ Tim Minear does an excellent episode commentary for sofaDOGS.

ETA:

◊ Another neat podcast featuring Eliza Dushku and Joss Whedon at an Apple store in NYC the week Dollhouse premiered. 

 



7 Comments
  1. jaynelovesvera permalink*
    March 14, 2009 10:19 pm

    Pointy, I can honestly say that every review of a Dollhouse episode I’ve read that wasn’t written by you has appeared to me to have been penned by idiots.

  2. pointy07 permalink*
    March 14, 2009 10:37 pm

    Which is not to say that every review of Dollhouse that was written by me was not penned by an idiot. :D
    May my blog-a-thon lull the crown gently to sleep.

  3. jaynelovesvera permalink*
    March 15, 2009 4:43 am

    Pointy Postage lulls not; rather it stimulates the minds of its readers, filling them with hope of someday, if they think and care deeply enough, achieving some small fraction of your literary prowess.

    Besides, I’m content with my role as the village idiot of Peepsville. It suits my lack of intellect and causal wardrobe. I never listened to my ex when she exhorted me to dress more smartly. I am what I wear, especially when I’m wearing thin.

    I don’t mind disagreeable reviews but the assumptions many reviewers make regarding aspects of Dollhouse are on a par with the musings of engineers with whom I went to college.

  4. Lioness permalink
    March 15, 2009 11:09 am

    I’m not convinced that Sparrow isn’t stockpiling the weapons for other reasons and it becomes fairly clear that he for one is a “bad guy” when he hits Esther. Yes, it serves nicely to advance the plot – allowing her to see- but then he does it again, a little later, which tells the audience, I think, what to think of him. I’m also uncertain about the extent of his faith and feel that he was interrupted in whatever he was planning for the group.

  5. korkster permalink
    March 16, 2009 11:07 am

    But Sparrow makes no argument that he isn’t a “bad guy”. I think he even states that he makes no excuses for who he is or pretends that he has become “good”.

    I do think, though, that he now believes in the garden, and that it’s his job to keep the garden pure. He is the watch dog of the garden. With teeth for snakes. There wasn’t any other evidence in the episode that the weapons were there for anything besides protection. He “believed” that the pure ones would need to take up arms to protect their garden, but realized when Ester showed up, that wasn’t necessary.

    Because he has fallen out of the garden before, he is aware of the dangers people like the ATF can bring. What is funny to me though is that they (both Sparrow & Lilly) fulfill their own prophecy. Lilly is so sure that “bad things” are occurring within that he is in fact the element needed to bring bad things to the compound. Sparrow is so sure that the outside will want to harm his garden that he puts himself into a position (hiding, stockpiling arms) to give the outside a reason to trouble them.

    But as Ester (& Pointy) says, you can’t force these things. In fact, their need to fulfill their own prophecy makes both of their worlds crumble. Sparrow does indeed blaze his own garden and the unpure are burnt in the flames. Lilly does indeed destroy any evidence (fire, unarmed people on camera) that there was anything “bad” going on at the compound, and ends his career. It’s kinda funny.

    I really enjoy reading your blogs, Pointy, and have to agree with janelovesvera. Every time I read another review on Dollhouse, it barely scratches the depth you cover here. It’s completely mind candy. Thank you.

  6. pointy07 permalink*
    March 29, 2009 11:39 pm

    Next: Man on the Street!

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