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Dollhouse Episode 11, “Briar Rose,” or Princess Valiant

May 3, 2009

♥ Shoulder-Length Hair + Bangs = A Prince Valiant Haircut. “The prince was a boy,” young Susan says during her close up — a framing that leaves out every aspect of her appearance that does not rhyme visually with Prince Valiant’s. 

The neverending Arthurian comic gets a shout-out  from Loomis a couple of scenes before this one. Prince Valiant is, to put it one way, androgynous. To put it another way: an old-school prince who looks like a modern princess. 

Susan the Older, Susan the Wiser, Susan the (theoretically) Healed and (hopefully) Healing, tells her young self to read Sleeping Beauty old-school Bruno Bettelheim-style (well, not in so many words, but Bettelheim said children do relate to every character, gender be damned) (again, not in so many words). 

“Read it again, OK? But this time think of yourself as the prince.” 

This isn’t just the point of the entire episode. Or of the finale. Or of the entire series. It’s the point of the entire career of Joss Whedon.

To conceive her as hero. 

Ω Aristotelian Unity. The finale, particularly the scenes between Young Susan and Echo/Susan, is tying tie together motifs that have spanned the entire season (like a good finale should). Motifs like:

The Grown Up Abused Child Rescuing Her Younger Self. Episode One, “Ghost,” gave us one beautiful vision of this. In that episode, Echo was imprinted with the personality and skills of a woman who had been abused by one of the kidnappers when she was a child. Although the woman committed suicide, in a sci fi version of resurrection she was able, when imprinted in Echo, to overcome her childhood abuser and rescue another child from him. In this episode, Echo teaches another abused child to see herself as a rescuer. In both episodes, the victim is identified with the hero. The victim is the mother to the hero. 

On the flip/dark side, Young Susan’s knives, like Alpha’s in this episode and “The Target,” evoke the chapters of Men, Women and Chainsaws on slasher movies and rape/revenge movies. Susan’s future could be a lot darker than the one Echo/Susan models. For much the same reason, Echo’s future has the potential to be as dark as Alpha’s, if she undergoes a composite event like his and suddenly knows and feels everything that has happened to her as a flesh-and-blood sex doll. We have seen, especially in ep. three, “Stage Fright,” that Echo thinks that responding to pain by spreading it around is wrong. She is about to enter unknown realms of pain. As Echo/Susan says of Young Susan: “Just be ready. She’s close to moving forward, but it’s gonna hurt.” 

Fairy Tales. The fairy tale motif:

◊◊ First appeared in Act I of Episode One, when we saw a storybook in child Echo’s hands,

◊◊ Informed the series theme song (which Whedon conceived as a cross between Jonatha Brooke’s “Careful What You Wish For” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries”), and

◊◊ Popped up in the dialogue of episodes two and six.*

Whedonia being a character-driven realm, the biggest way that fairy tales figure in Dollhouse is in the exploration of the nature of the:

Fairy Tale Prince, in both Handsome and Frog Form. (This builds on my takes on episode one,two, and six.) We’ve had lots of variations on (and interrogations of) the Prince/Rescuer, starting again in “Ghost” with the client Matt. 

The theme was highly developed in “The Target,” both with the ostensible client, “Richard Connell,” and with the (likely actual) client, Alpha. I deleted a bunch of my speculations about Alpha’s motives, but now that we know that he has programmed Echo to be his lover, I’m going to at least type that he has been grooming her as his Bride of Frankenstein since early in the season. I have a fairly elaborate theory of how Alpha has done this that I’ll keep to myself on the off-chance I’ve struck true phlebotinem. 

“Man on the Street” had a frog (Joel Mynor) and a handsome prince (Ballard) interrogating one another, and I think both scored.

Ballard, Boyd and Alpha all tell themselves they’re rescuing Echo from the Dollhouse. Boyd thinks he’s protecting Echo from clients, from Alpha, and from elements within the Dollhouse that would kill her (such as Dominic — who, sidebar, man-friend, is out of the way, so who is going to kill Caroline if she escapes, Mr. Head of Security?), but Boyd’s “protection” involves keeping Echo a doll — something he directly profits from. Ballard thinks he’s rescuing Caroline, but he can’t protect her from the legal consequences of whatever actions she took to bring the Dollhouse down before becoming an active. The incredibly talented and wonderful Jane Espenson crafted a great fight scene, a new twist on the “everybody’s right” scene that Drew Goddard described in the commentary to “Selfless” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This time, everybody’s wrong–including Echo, who remembers Ballard only as her attacker and Boyd only as her defender, missing a chance to get out of the Dollhouse — something we know Caroline longs to do. I loves this “everybody’s wrong” scene and hope it is answered in the second half of the finale with an equal and opposite “everybody sees how everybody was wrong” scene. (Or something better, probably.)

Another reviewer writes that Ballard should listen to Boyd. Boyd is better than some other employees of the Dollhouse, but better does not mean good or even right. Boyd would save Echo’s life, yes, but in a way that serves and preserves the organization that has destroyed her life. He’s heroic — he would risk his life for hers. But he is villainous as well — he keeps her in the organization that keeps her in peril. Everything he protects her from comes from her being a doll, and he uses force against Ballard to make sure she stays a doll. He’s not fighting the system from within, he’s protecting the system from within. Expressing contempt for it is a way to avoid feeling contempt for himself. An imprint of Caroline’s memories and an assortment of Active skills would enable Echo to avoid the Dollhouse’s reach on the outside as well as Alpha has managed to, so I’m not buying Boyd’s argument that Echo has to stay in the Dollhouse for her own good.  

Unlike readers of this Bettelheim-bestrewn blog, a lot of reviewers have, IMHO, neglected the fairy tale motif. One wrote that the “theme tonight was fairy tales,” but IMHO it’s a theme of the entire series. “Anyway, the real reason for this encounter [between Young Susan and Echo/Susan] was to set up the fairy tale motif.” Structurally, the encounter, like the entire finale (so far) pays off the fairy tale motif that was set up in Act I of Episode One and developed throughout the season. (Another reviewer found the fairy tale allusion “heavy-handed,” but I think it’s clear that the show had to spell it out explicitly or it would go unnoticed.)

One reviewer wrote that the “big twist is that Ballard didn’t end up being the Prince. Alpha did.” Alpha does get her out of the Dollhouse, but in much the same way as any client does — by imprinting her with a personality that pleaseth him. He’s not her rescuer. Like Ballard and Boyd, he may tell himself (and her) that he is rescuing her, but, again like Ballard and Boyd, he’s using her. So: 

♥ Who Will Rescue Her From Her Rescuers?  This is a Joss Whedon show. Wondering who’s going to save Echo is like wondering who’s going to save Buffy. (Another reviewer wrote: Hopefully [Boyd and Ballard] aren’t too sore from breaking the majority of the Dollhouse with their bodies to successfully save her.) Echo is the hero. She has shown her capacity to rescue others before. If anyone rescues Echo, it’s going to be Echo. The interesting question is how. 

Echo/Susan points at Young Susan and says, “Prince.” She might as well be talking to herself. 

:D

♥ OMG, Alan Tudyk! Alpha is my new favorite Whedonvillain! What an absolutely amazing performance at every level. When’s the last time you saw a performance that was funnier? When’s the last time you saw a performance that was scarier? So vulnerable, yet so dangerous! Playing the victimizer playing the victim! Puppet and puppeteer! So intellectually complex, yet emotionally immediate! Which reminds me:

♥ OMG, Jane Espenson! Bringing this villain to life took as much of her art as his! The script provides the levels of complexity the actor plays. And what levels, from the moment we first meet him, giving a stoned answer as Kepler and a mocking answer as Alpha to Ballard’s simple question, starting a bunch of things-that-mean-one-thing-at-first-but-some-other-things-later:

“Steven Kepler, is that you?” 
“Well, there’s a lot of aspects to that question.”

“That makes you my new partner.”
“Then can I hold the gun?”

“We’ve got to get in there and save her.” (All in the we.)

Ω Other lines that bit me:

Alpha/Kepler calls the dolls “stone cold foxes.” The other character to call them stone foxes was Dom. Short for Domination.* Hearn. Not a Prince.

“Stay asleep. Stay asleep.” No, not a Prince. Not for Echo. She wants everyone to wake up. 

 

ETA:

*Henry caught that slip. See below. 

ETA:

If Ms. E. had a production company, it would be called “Sad Robot.” 

ETA:

More Tudyk & Espenson love from Art at the Auction

 

 

 

 


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22 Comments
  1. jaynelovesvera permalink*
    May 3, 2009 9:36 pm

    The episode and your take on it both rock the Dollhouse. I saw a version of Prince Valiant once where he appeared to be played by a female.

    If it somehow gets a second season I hope Amy gets more to do.

  2. pointy07 permalink*
    May 3, 2009 10:03 pm

    I’m suffering some serious Amy Acker deprivation, too, Your Majesty. She did make the most of her few seconds on camera in this ep, as she usually does. I’m glad all the protagonists are getting together in one place, so we can watch them confront. Thank you for your kind words about my many words!

  3. henry permalink
    May 4, 2009 1:50 pm

    I think it was Hearn, not Dom, who previously used the phrase “stone foxes.” Of course, turning to stone is a fairytale motif. On the subject of fairytales, I can’t remember if you’ve already mentioned this elsewhere, but not just the theme song but the images of the credits support your take: Alice in Wonderland is, essentially, in the fairytale tradition.

  4. pointy07 permalink*
    May 4, 2009 1:58 pm

    Oh, you’re right, Henry, I mixed the two of them up. Thnq!

  5. korkster permalink
    May 4, 2009 7:14 pm

    That was wonderful, Pointy! Thank you so much for bringing it all together! With Joss + Pointy comes rewarded dissected fairy tale layers! :D

    Can’t wait to *pimp* out this review!

  6. pointy07 permalink*
    May 4, 2009 9:16 pm

    Thnq, kind Korkster! (You young people and your hip slang!)

  7. May 5, 2009 12:12 pm

    I think you’ve written off the possibility that alpha imprinted echo with a personality that Caroline wants to have?

    We’re not privy to any of the history between Echo and Alpha, and we don’t really know a whole lot about Caroline.

    The fairy tale suggestion was clearly that Alpha was the Prince and echo is responsible for him coming.

  8. pointy07 permalink*
    May 5, 2009 1:16 pm

    No chance, IMHO, that Caroline wants the personality Alpha has imprinted her with.

    There’s a reasonable chance, IMHO, that Alpha tells himself that Echo (as opposed to Caroline) wants the personality he’s imprinted her with. But that, IMeversoHO, is certainly Alpha’s self-delusion. The personality he’s imprinted her with reminds me of Mallory from Natural Born Killers, an abused child who numbs her pain with empty thrill-seeking. Hers is not an identity a sane woman would long to adopt.

    You write, “The fairy tale suggestion was clearly that Alpha was the Prince and Echo is responsible for him coming.”

    It’s clear to MHO that Alpha is one more false prince whose concept of “rescuing” Echo entails using her for his own selfish ends, and that Echo will have to rescue herself — to be her own Prince.

    We’ll see when we see “Omega.”

  9. Aerrin permalink
    May 5, 2009 2:25 pm

    I wonder whether Alpha really created Echo, or if it’s something more complicated than that – I’m thinking of Echo telling young Susan that Sleeping Beauty made her prince, dreamt him up so that he could come save her/she could save herself.

    We don’t really know how Alpha came to be, or what he imprinted Echo with, but we do know that they apparently communicated previously (he mentions a promise to come back) – a tiny part of me wonders whether it’s not that Alpha is creating Echo, but that Echo at least in part created Alpha – or some other similarly twisted concept.

  10. pointy07 permalink*
    May 5, 2009 2:50 pm

    I think it would be really interesting if Echo played some role in the creation of Alpha, perhaps inadvertently. For some reason the idea crossed my mind when we saw Caroline pull at the locks on the animal cages in “Echoes” — did she do something naively, in her unimprinted Echo state at the Dollhouse, to “uncage” Alpha?

  11. May 6, 2009 4:53 am

    Your take on this is absolutely brilliant and insightful! Can’t wait to see Omega.

  12. pointy07 permalink*
    May 6, 2009 5:49 am

    Hope your opinion of my take doesn’t change too much after you do see “Omega,” Jizzka! Thnq!

  13. pointy07 permalink*
    May 8, 2009 9:55 pm

    I won’t be able to watch this episode until it’s online Saturday!

  14. pointy07 permalink*
    May 9, 2009 8:21 am

    Just watched “Omega” for the first time and, wow, it was tremendous! There were a lot of answers and, at the end, some big questions. Have fun thinking about it and talking about it, y’all!

  15. pointy07 permalink*
    May 15, 2009 7:56 pm

    Dollhouse, she is renewed! I celebrate by deleting a couple of smart-alec posts. :D :D :D
    Come back and see us sometime, y’all!

  16. korkster permalink
    May 16, 2009 5:43 pm

    Well now I’m curious on how renewing affects your perception of Episode 12. Will we receive the goody thoughts of Pointy on “Omega”?? Stay tuned!

  17. pointy07 permalink*
    May 16, 2009 6:13 pm

    May have to go with my mediocre thoughts. Plot twists keep popping into my head, and I fear rightness.

  18. pointy07 permalink*
    May 17, 2009 4:05 pm

    ‘K, here’s my problem: The ending of Omega made perfect sense to me after I watched it a few times and thought about the consequences of springing Caroline from the Dollhouse before Alpha is caught. But apparently a whole lot of viewers think the ending made no sense whatsoever. So I don’t know whether I just have a reasonable answer to the questions raised by the last act or a spoiler to a season cliffhanger.

    ‘K, here’s my other problem: I’ve got something I want to write about, a season-long and character-wide theme, but to start it is not to finish it any time soon, and I have a couple of more pressing writing deadlines.

    Just still wowed by the finale(s), Joss, Jane and Tim reaching new heights together. And so excited about season two.

    By the by, I skimmed or read the ratings articles throughout the season. I thought then that I was wasting my time. Now I know that I was wasting my time. The behind-the-scenes drama is somewhat lost on me and nothing compared to the on-the-screen drama of this fascinating series. I think of the story as a party Our Mutant Friends throw for me. I aim to enjoy it my own peculiar way and am psyched so many of you came by to hang with me for the last few months. I’ll be doing it some more, but posting very sporadically (and gingerly, cuz I don’t want to spoil the party by . . . spoiling the . . . party. Wow, I wasn’t even planning to make that metaphor swallow its tale.)

    ‘Til thens . . . enjoy!

  19. korkster permalink
    May 18, 2009 2:58 pm

    Well, the way I figure it is this: I don’t agree with everything you say/interpret, but your interpretations shine light of my own thoughts on the show.

    I didn’t realize people were having such difficulty with the ending, but maybe it’s because they’re conflicted with the shows messages, still seeing them as “answers” and not “questions”.

    I’m sad that I have to wait longer on your take of the show, but I respect your distance (for now). Perhaps you can (lie to me and) tell me that you’re secretly working on it on the side. ;)

    Thanks again! Can’t wait to see more in the fall!

  20. Pointy permalink*
    October 30, 2009 8:03 pm

    You can get your own Dollhouse tee shirt emblazoned with “Sleeping Beauty had to rescue herself” at https://whyiwatch.spreadshirt.com/

    Proceeds go to advertising for more Dollhouse!

Trackbacks

  1. Dollhouse Episode 12: Omega, Pt. 3: Something Like Suicide « Do Lurkers Dream of Electric Peeps?
  2. “Getting Closer” « Do Lurkers Dream of Electric Peeps?

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