Dollhouse Episode 12: Omega, Pt. 3: Something Like Suicide
In part three of my rambling analysis of “Omega,” I will, for a change of pace, actually discuss “Omega.”
Ideally, you would read this after reading the first two parts. Then again, ideally, I would have written this after writing the first two parts. But as the title tells you, the theme is something like suicide, and I avoid the subject, for reasons obvious to you, my dozen readers. Parts one and two focused on Summer Glau to give you the bright overside of spiritual rebirth.
Dark underside time.
Boyd: Topher says it’s like childbirth. I think it’s more like watching someone die.
Topher’s Man-Frenemy is describing the imprinting process to Ballard, but he could be describing two essential aspects of rebirth rituals. One essential aspect is beautiful: the birth of the new self. The other essential aspects is terrifying: the death of the old self. Before you are reborn, the old you must die.
Both elements are in “Little Red Riding Hood.” The little one is eaten by a large carnivore; when that happens outside of a fairy tale, it means death. The little one emerges from someone’s belly after an adult cuts it open; when that happens outside a fairy tale, it’s a Caesarean birth.
To paraphrase Boyd, watching “Little Red Riding Hood” is like watching someone die and be reborn. His description of imprinting reverses the rebirth order of the fairy tale ritual. In the line from “Omega” quoted above, the death image comes *after* the birth image. First we contemplate the active emerging from the chair with a new self, then we contemplate someone getting into the chair and losing a self. The structure of Boyd’s sentence puts the emphasis on the dark side of rebirth — on the death. So, I think, does the dramatic structure of “Omega.”
The desire to begin a new life implies the desire to end an old life. Metaphorically, the desire to end the life you are living is kind of suicidal.
There are two symbolic suicides in “Omega,” plus an aborted one. The two symbolic suicides are Alpha’s and Whiskey’s; both characters are contrasted to Echo.
It was really mind-blowing to me how much “Omega” set us up to dislike Whiskey. Part of the point, I think, was that Tim Minear went for that patented Hitchcockian ambivalence. Hitchcock got you to sympathize with the criminal, to implicate you in the crime, and I thought that the show was trying to get us to kind of understand why Alpha slashed Whiskey’s face. I don’t have to explain how horrifying that is. (It’s Amy Acker, for heaven’s sake!) And I do think that was part of the intention. But then there are two awesome twists that raise things to a tragic level.
But let us begin with hating Whiskey: We’d never met Whiskey-the-Active until this episode (though her existence was hinted at in the previous one, “Briar Rose“). While Echo’s defining characteristic is her desire to ease others’ suffering, Whiskey’s is not, to put it mildly. Alpha the budding serial killer shows more empathy than Whiskey in the flashback to Caroline’s first day in the Dollhouse. When Caroline feels like she’s going to her own execution, Alpha at least notices that she is sad. (This emotional response to someone else’s pain gives him something in common with Echo’s number one defining trait, her desire to ease the suffering of others).
Whiskey responds, “Dr. Saunders is nice.” He is, and not just because he gave her a lollipop. We know, retrospectively, that Whiskey will be in most ways nice once she is imprinted with the doctor’s personality. But without the imprint, she just isn’t. She’s utterly indifferent to the suffering of others.
Imprinted for the Mickey-and-Mallory engagement seen toward the beginning of the episode, Whiskey dances while Alpha tortures the client/victim, then joins in the tormenting. (The client may actually have hired the Dollhouse to fulfill a sado-masochistic fantasy, but the pain Alpha has inflicted on him goes beyond the kind he finds pleasurable. He appears to be terrified and hysterical.) The client’s emotional turmoil, like Caroline’s, is something Whiskey just doesn’t notice. When the handlers arrive to abort the engagement, Whiskey’s parting words to the client are: “Thanks for the ride.” It stopped being a ride for the client long ago, as the final shot of him confirms.
Throughout season one, Whiskey-as-Dr.-Saunders had never shown indifference to the suffering of the actives, but when Victor, disfigured by Alpha’s knife, expresses a childlike need for reassurance, she responds with some of the callous indifference that we’ve seen in the Whiskey flashbacks. And something worse. Slowly realizing that she, too, is a damaged doll, Whiskey takes her self-loathing out on someone else .
Victor: I’m not my best anymore.
Dr. Saunders says nothing.
Victor: I want to be my best.
Dr. Saunders: I know you do.
Victor: How can I be my best now?
Dr. Saunders says nothing.
Victor: Dr. Saunders? How can I be my best, please?
Dr. Saunders: You can’t, Victor. You can’t be your best. Your best is past. A past you can’t even remember. You’re ugly now. You’re disgusting. All you can hope for now is pity. And for that, you’re going to have to look somewhere else.
It’s the episode’s most emotionally brutal moment. Other characters do worse things, but not to (1) someone with the personality of a child (2) who has been entrusted to their care.
So we get a good, bad look at Whiskey. I think in this moment, so out of character for Doc Saunders, Whiskey gets a good look at herself.
In the end, when Topher asks Whiskey why she didn’t look up her real identity on the computer when she could, her response, “I know who I am,” can be taken more than one way. In “Vows,” the opener of season two, we’ll hear her say that she is afraid of “dying” as Dr. Saunders. You can interpret both statements as expressing either Dr. Saunders’ sense of self-preservation or Whiskey’s sense of self-loathing. She may realize that if she sees who she really is, she may not like her any more than we do.
Whiskey may suspect that the best in her — the decent, caring, concerned person that she is as the Dollhouse doctor — is a download. Without it, she may be as indifferent to the well-being of the actives as she was to Victor’s suffering. She may be the kind of person who doesn’t care about the actives — the kind of person she sees and hates Topher as. She may not want to see the ugliness she suspects — the ugliness we’ve seen — confirmed in her computer file. When she offers Victor a lollipop at the end — not as a habit or a reflex, but as a conscious decision — she’s choosing to be Dr. Saunders. I like the way she hugs the candy jar afterwards, like she’s holding onto her self. It’s really poignant and heartbreaking and when will Amy Acker return? (So good.)
Is Whiskey saving herself here or committing suicide? You can make a convincing case for both answers. I’m betting the Doc Saunders that Topher stitched together in Frankensteinian fashion is a better human being than whoever Whiskey was before she became an active — and certainly better than the Whiskey we see in the flashbacks. The desire to be one’s best is not just something Actives are programmed with; even stronger is the desire *not* to be one’s worst. Whiskey/Saunders’ “I know who I am” sounds to me like “I know who I refuse to be.”
At their best, rebirth rituals — including the storytelling ritual — give us something constructive to do with our self-destructive impulses, a way to turn self-loathing into self-love, a way to deal with the unwanted, unavoidable knowledge that there are aspects to ourselves that we simply cannot accept.
At their worst . . . next up: Alpha in “Omega”
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Post Script: Since blog-wide tradition dictates that an analysis of “Omega” should analyze something or someone else entirely, let’s jump ahead to one of the latest episodes, “Meet Jane Doe,” in which Echo’s attitude toward Caroline gains something in common with Whiskey/Saunders’ attitude toward her pre-imprint self.
Bennett gave Echo a touch of self-loathing by imprinting her with the memory of Caroline abandoning her friend when she was trapped under a pillar, crippled, terrified and begging her not to leave. Echo cannot accept this.
She can’t even say it. She keeps trailing off whenever she tries to describe it.
Paul: You said Bennett gave you her own memory.
Echo: Of Caroline. And it wasn’t … I didn’t like it.
Echo: But the idea that Caroline might not be … I’ve been saving this body for her. But I’m not her.
Paul: You don’t know that.
Paul notes, correctly, that before Alpha did anything to her Echo was resisting the mind-wipes and displaying her own character traits.
Echo: I’m not her. My name is Echo.
Echo emphatically does not want to believe that there is Caroline in her. Which is understandable.
But the way Echo acted in Act I of “Meet Jane Doe” is very reminiscent of the Caroline we caught a few glimpses of in season one’s “Echoes.” Yes, she is genuinely moved by the suffering of others (in this case, Galena, who’s hungry, but the grocery store won’t accept her food stamps) but Echo’s attempt to make things better just makes things worse–it doesn’t solve the problem, it compounds it. Her actions are simple-minded, illegal, unethical and end up hurting someone more than they help anyone. So, yeah, Echo, you are Caroline, for better and for worse.
But this rejection of herself is a key part of her self-creation. From Echo’s perspective, she’s evolved *because* she got a glimpse of Caroline that she did not like. This is a lot like a rebirth ritual. Instead of hanging onto her old self uncritically (like a person who’s unwilling to see faults in his past behavior and therefore unwilling to change), Echo is now consciously and deliberately rejecting her past self (something that’s explicitly or implicitly part of rebirth rituals) and bringing into being a new and better self. Partly this rebirth is something she is choosing, and partly it is something that she is allowing to happen to her. (The way it is for a person choosing to be baptized or a person listening to a fairy tale being read.)
The change isn’t as big as Echo conceives it — she has a lot more in common with Caroline than she’s willing to admit. (Rebirth rituals usually assert a cleaner break with the past than most of us are able to pull off). But Echo *is* really changing — becoming better. Self-rejection and self-creation are very complexly interwoven for her. The two concepts sound like opposites, but their relationship is paradoxical–seemingly contradictory, but really not.
Would anyone cheer louder for Echo’s successful rescue of Galena than Caroline? In her wildest dreams . . .
(BTW, we don’t know what Caroline did three months after Bennett was pinned beneath that pillar.)
But I digress.