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Dollhouse Episode 6, “Man on the Street” or “Porn!”

March 27, 2009

“Like every good fairy tale,” a TV reporter says at the start of Dollhouse episode six, “Man on the Street,” by Joss Whedon, “the story grows more intricate, and more divisive, every day.” 

It’s easy to spot heroes in fairy tales. The huntsman cuts open the Big Bad Wolf to rescue his victims, performing a surgical operation with scissors that liberates Little Red from the belly of the beast, whom she then finishes off quite cleverly. Killing Big Bad, that makes you the hero, the Big Good.   

Fairy tales are divisive. Adults wonder whether children should be encouraged to think that when, like Little Red Riding Hood, they wander off the right path, it’s because evil incarnate led them astray. But Bruno Bettelheim thought children need these kinds of stories until they develop the strength to face themselves. 

I have known children who during the day are successfully dry but who wet their bed at night and, waking up, move with disgust to the corner and say with conviction, “Somebody’s wet my bed.” The child does not do this, as parents may think, to put the blame on somebody else, knowing all the while that it was he who urinated in the bed. The “somebody” who has done it is that part of himself with which he has by now parted company; this aspect of his personality has actually become a stranger to him. To insist that the child recognize that it was he who wet the bed is to try to impose prematurely the concept of the integrity of the human personality and such insistence actually retards its development. In order to develop a secure feeling of his self, the child needs to constrict for a time to only what is fully approved and desired by himself. After he has thus achieved a self of which he can be unambivalently proud, the child can then slowly begin to accept the idea that it may also contain aspects of a more dubious nature.

Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment

The right story for adults to tell children can be the wrong story for adults to tell themselves. Children may need to be shielded from self-knowledge to grow, but an adult shielded from self-knowledge can’t grow. 

Dollhouse is a fairy tale for the grown and the growing, full of characters who are busy trying to not to see their own “aspects of a dubious nature.” This episode shows us several characters casting themselves as heroes in their own eyes. They all lack, to varying degrees, what Bettelheim identifies as a crucial quality of maturity: integrity. Even when they are not lying to others, they are lying to themselves. 

The Frog Who Would Be Prince. I just knew it would be a widower. As one myself, I was ready to post earnestly about how one might be tempted to use the Dollhouse for a chance to talk once again with the person you built your life around, and how it might seem, in anticipation, like a miracle. In practice, however, I think that hearing one’s sainted wife’s words and seeing her gestures in an entirely different body would end up being kind of traumatic, an especially cruel reminder that the one you love was gone. I thought it would be heartbreaking to watch the widower growing more upset, and watching Echo/Departed’s resulting confusion and distress at the realization that she was upsetting someone she thinks she loves. And at the end of the engagement, the widower would be like Roxanne at the climax of Cyrano de Bergerac, burdened with the experience of having loved once, but lost twice. 

So . . . a little off. 

Mynor’s very sympathetic. In fairy tale terms, this was a frog who had set the perfect stage for his transformation into a prince in the eyes of the woman who loved him. 

More than he loved her. His need for the big, dramatic scene, the transformational reveal, is the reason his wife died. He could have sent a limo for Rebecca. The message would have been clear and overwhelming: Joel had finally made good. Instead, he called her out of work in the middle of the day and told her she needed to get to a certain address right away. “She was worried, you know, I could hear it, she probably thought this was a police station or something, but I don’t . . . you know, thinking about the look on her face when she saw this place and I told her it was ours.” It’s all in the ellipsis. You don’t deliberately scare someone before she gets behind the wheel of a car. It’s not safe. She could get in an accident. What was he thinking? Did he want her to jump to the wrong conclusion, so he could prove her wrong about him, to make the moment sweeter for him? “She never knew I’d made good.” Whose fault is that? 

Reading Bettelheim suggests a darker possibility. “Even a four-year-old cannot help wondering what Little Red Cap is up to when, answering the wolf’s question, she gives the wolf specific directions on how to get to her grandmother’s house. What is the purpose of such detailed information, the child wonders to himself, if not to make sure that the wolf will find a way? Only adults who are convinced that fairy tales do not make sense can fail to see that Little Red Cap’s unconscious is working overtime to give Grandmother away.” Think of all the other ways that Joel could have revealed to Rebecca that he was–that they were–rich, now starting with just showing her the check.  (Unless he bought the house the same day he got the check, he had to conceal their riches from her for some time.) Why pick the one way that could easily get her killed? 

Whedon sprinkles hints that Mynor is kidding himself. He thinks he’s more clever than he is, dropping half-witticisms about a check with more zeroes than the Luftwaffe, the “F-Bitch-I,” and a judge “throw[ing] the Kindle” at Ballard. What’s funny about Mynor is that he thinks he’s funny, like Michael Scott of The Office. 

Whatever motivated Joel to do things the way he did, it wasn’t love. His desire to be a hero in his wife’s eyes turns him into something of a villain, a man responsible for the death of his wife. His engagement with the Dollhouse is an extension of his self-deception, both his chance to play the hero and the proof that he is not. 

But he’s got Ballard’s number. 

Ballard Is Such a User, Part II. He has sex with Mellie to prove to himself that Mynor was wrong about him, which only proves that Mynor was right about him.  Mynor knows what fairy tale Ballard is telling himself. 

“The brave little FBI agent whisked her away from the cash-wielding losers and restored her true identity and she fell in love with him. . . . Tell me you haven’t thought about it, you know, her grateful tears, her welcoming embrace, her warm breath. . . . Is there someone in your life right now? . . . Of course not. No, there’s no room for a real girl, is there, when you can feel Caroline beckoning?” Mynor is like The Mayor telling Buffy and Angel that it actually won’t work out for them in the end — merciless, cruel, and right. Buffy and Angel have the integrity to break their own hearts in order to avoid doing more damage to one another down the line.

Ballard doesn’t. He has shown repeatedly his lack of concern for Mellie’s well-being or even her pain. He embarrassed her by pointing out that the leftovers she offered him were not really left over, but a full home-cooked meal. He used her as medicine delivery girl and did not have enough consideration to invite her out to lunch for her troubles. He shares Chinese takeout with her so he can talk about His Big Case. He kisses her to prove he’s not a Mynor frog awaiting Caroline’s transformational kiss, then sleeps with her for the same reason. He doesn’t consider the possibility that involving her in his investigation may endanger her. [Trope Watch: "Is this the part where you dress me up and use me as bait, cuz those movies never end well." *(Spoiler Warning)* Robin Wood writes in "Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond" that "the subtext of The Big Heat (the hero's use of a woman to whom he feels morally superior to serve his own ends, and his responsibility for her death) becomes the overt, dominant text of [Brian DePalma's] Blow Out.”] Mellie may be a sleeper agent, but she’s also a woman who gets beaten within an inch of her life and suffers the emotional consequences. 

Caroline is as much a fantasy figure for Ballard as Echo is for Dollhouse clients. What does rescuing her mean exactly? If her identity is restored, doesn’t that mean she has to suffer whatever fate that she entered Dollhouse to avoid? Is Dollhouse her alternative to a less comfortable prison? Ballard doesn’t appear to have considered the possibility that his rescue might put the damsel in greater distress. “I would never hurt you,” he tells her in the same episode that features their first fight scene. 

She came in the morning with the U.S. mail
She didn’t say nothing but she looked pretty good to me

She could keep the secrets that we shared in my world of dreams 

And a man needs something when he ain’t got nothing to hang onto
And there ain’t no telling when I’ll feel like yelling, “I love you!” 

Ooh, it gets lonely in the night
When there ain’t no one around
Ooh, she makes me feel all right
Gets my feet right off the ground
She’s the girl of my dreams

“Girl of My Dreams,” Bram Tchaikovsky

OK, enough for now. More false heroes to come.

ETA:

Re-View Part II.

ETA: Joss Whedon discussed the thinking behind the Joel Mynor engagement: “The Patton Oswalt thing was an attempt to address the humanity of it, the beauty of somebody who wants something with context as opposed to something that is purely sexual and then have Paul Ballard just completely not be convinced by any of it, just again and again, just hit him with it to say no, but that doesn’t matter to show the two completely opposing viewpoints and articulate both of them.”

5 Comments
  1. korkster permalink
    March 27, 2009 11:53 am

    When you said this:

    “The right story for adults to tell children can be the wrong story for adults to tell themselves. Children may need to be shielded from self-knowledge to grow, but an adult shielded from self-knowledge can’t grow. ”

    I thought Victor!! in the scene “I think I did something bad. But no one will tell me!” The Dollhouse employees shield the Dolls as children, when in fact they are adults. It’s probably part of the reason they have such difficulty developing/growing. I’m amazed that they’re able to grow at all.

    I’m curious what you think about Hearn. Do you think he has any illusions/fantasies when he’s with Sierra? When Adelle asks him if it was better, he’s says that it wasn’t better, but easier. He seems to be the only one that IS disillusioned at the Dollhouse. Or is he illusioned with his disillusions? He think that the Dollhouse is selling out for sex and that what he does is no different. Maybe true, but Adelle (and the insider, whoever that may be) both state that there is another purpose for the Dollhouse. Is that where he fails?

    I’d like to see you take on Boyd, Adelle, Dominic as well with the “fantasy” fulfillment. Mynor says that everyone has a fantasy, that it’s a survival technique. If that’s the case, then what are theirs and how does that dictate their actions in this particular episode? Do they get what they want (a la Hearn with struggling woman = death)?

  2. pointy07 permalink*
    March 27, 2009 12:04 pm

    Why, Korkster, the rest of my word dump post in progress is mostly about DeWitt, Hearn, Dominic and Boyd. Great exposed minds (nice graphic :D )

  3. korkster permalink
    March 27, 2009 12:48 pm

    Awesome Pointy! Gotta say, though, that even though I love Purple Squishy Brain (does that remind you of Joss? No? Just me then), I wasn’t the one that came up with it- it’s the default. But I love it though. ;)

    I think we have achieved out brain wave, Pointy. That makes me so happy! Please don’t make me wait a week to read your second half though. That would be painful.

  4. March 27, 2009 3:17 pm

    “He has shown repeatedly his lack of concern for Mellie’s well-being or even her pain. He embarrassed her by pointing out that the leftovers she offered him were not really left over, but a full home-cooked meal. He used her as medicine delivery girl and did not have enough consideration to invite her out to lunch for her troubles.”

    While I heartily agree with the rest of your interpretation of Myner and Ballard, I have to say, I came away from these couple scenes with a completely different interpretation. Those two scenes, and the one with Lubov/Victor where Mellie was just waiting for Ballard to get home, demonstrated more of a creepy/patheticness on her part than anything about him, I thought. Now that there is a reason for that creepy/patheticness (and now that she’s got some more of an actual personality), I like her a lot better. But she’s the one who seemed to be waiting for him every day, and she’s the one who allowed herself to be used as a drug mule and who slunk out of the room when he became preoccupied with his work. Now that we know she’s a Doll, it makes her less creepy (and the situation moreso), but before that I didn’t have much sympathy for her. Ballard was pretty much just treating her as a neighbor, and that was all she was.

  5. pointy07 permalink*
    March 29, 2009 11:27 pm

    Part two of my re-view here.

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