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Dollhouse Episode 4: “Gray Hour” a/k/a Twilight

March 7, 2009

Repetition Risk From Two Sources:

1. “Gray Hour” reminded me a lot of (what I think is) the central theme of Buffy Season 8: Love vs. Domination. A basic question about any kind of  moral/political/emotional/social/economic/sexual relationship: Is it a relationship of  love or a relationship of domination? Or a bit of both? The Big Bad for Buffy Season 8 is a masked villain named Twilight, whose name refers to one of the day’s grayer hours. 

2. I think I read the script to this episode in an earlier draft. 

Mythology vs. Standalone? Some critics have already decided they prefer the “mythology” aspects of Dollhouse (season-long story elements such as Ballard’s investigation and Alpha) to the “standalone” plots that begin and end in a single episode. 

I think they’re missing a big question: Most of the characters in the show and all of the viewers don’t know whether the “standalone” engagements are or aren’t part of the “mythology.” The question I’m asking about each seemingly standalone episode is this: Is the client who appears to hire Echo for an engagement merely a cat’s paw or a stalking horse (or some other animal metaphor conjuring deceit) for Alpha? 

In “The Target,” Boyd asked whether Alpha hired a psycho to kill Echo. In the question there are a few assumptions about the identity of the “Richard Connell” and about Alpha’s intentions. Just because we saw “Richard Connell” hunt Echo, does that mean Alpha was trying to kill Echo? Is there another reason to put her in mortal danger? I mean, we all love to see Eliza Dushku play characters fighting for their lives, but does that mean we want to see her die? What does Alpha want from her? 

A lot of critics have mentioned that a lot seems to go wrong on assignments. To chose one little example that wound up in my inbox today: 

In brief, I think it was a mistake to do two episodes out of the first four (the pilot being the other) where the imprinting process backfires in some way and nearly ruins the mission, because it creates yet another story hole for a show that can’t afford to take on any more plausibility leaks.

Something goes wrong in all four episodes. Whatever Echo drinks in episode two allows her to “see” other identities she’s had, and she risks the life she’s supposed to defend and defends a life she’s not imprinted to save in episode three. It’s a mistake to assume any of these are story holes before asking whether any of them are simply story — specifically, the story of what Alpha is trying to do with Echo. 

If whatever Alpha put in the canteen in was supposed to help “Richard Connell” kill her, well, it ended up helping her live. And Alpha could’ve killed her himself more than once in that episode, starting the day of his “composite event.” Why would a super-killer send a not-so-super killer to do the job? Perhaps the jobwas something other than killing her.

Alpha’s a Frankenstein’s monster. What does Frankenstein’s monster want? (More than one thing, in the book and the many movies.) What can Alpha only get from the Dollhouse? What can Echo do for him? What can Echo be for him? 

“It’s not for me, you know,” the client in “Gray Hour” tells Adelle. “This night, it’s a gift.” Well, who is the night a gift to? If the goal of the caper was the marble frieze, referring to it as “this night” is a little odd. It would make sense if the cover story that Echo was  a hooker that we saw in the first act was the real engagement, but Echo was hired as someone who could play a hooker while doing another job. 

If Alpha is this episode’s client, he put her in another situation of mortal danger (as in “The Target”) and then, for some reason, deprived her of the programming that would enable her to master the situation. We don’t know where Alpha gets his brain-wiping abilities, but Topher compares them favorably to his own, and here’s what Topher says could result from a remote wipe of Echo while she’s trapped in bank vault:

“Being wiped is not unlike being born. It’s traumatic. I mean, in here we minimize the trauma with throw pillows and perfectly crunchy lettuce. There’s no conflict. But out there it’s all fluorescent lights and forceps. Right now Echo is experiencing extreme sensory overload. And that could lead to a coma state. Or it could turn her into Carrie at the prom.” 

Carrie at the prom? Reminds me of Alpha on the day he was re-born as a mass murderer, the day of his “composite event.” To put it another way, the opening scene of Echo as a midwife (something she may remember later while looking at a painting with a blue sky (although “blue skies” is a Taffy phrase)) may be a clue. Alpha may be trying to midwife Echo into becoming the sort of being that he is. (I love how many critics think the midwife scene is just a mistake. Oops, Joss forgot how to structure a story. Who would want an Active for a midwife? There’s more than one possible, plausible answer.) 

Being born is a trauma, but it is the kind we all put our children through. 

OK, one more point before I send this baby out into the world for further updating and amending in the days ahead as the spirit moves, the time frees and the brain blogulates:

◊ Eliza Dushku and Dichen Lachman even sounded alike when they portrayed Taffy. Insanely awesome acting! And I can’t believe I spelled both their names right. 

Coming up . . . maybe . . . if I get to it . . . some Bruno Bettelheim on initiation rituals (speaking of being reborn) and maybe a word or two about Neo-Platonism from your Christian Humanist brain candyman. But I will avoid punning on Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain‘s last names. Again. Because I could not fain to craft as fine a script.


◊ From “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettelheim, with emphasis added:

Plato–who may have understood better what forms the mind of man than do some of our contemporaries who want their children exposed only to “real” people and everyday events–knew what intellectual experiences make for true humanity. He suggested that the future citizens of his ideal republic begin their literary education with the telling of myths, rather than mere facts or so-called rational teachings. Even Aristotle, master of pure reason, said: “The friend of wisdom is also a friend of myth.” 

Modern thinkers who have studied myths and fairy tales from a philosophical viewpoint arrive at the same conclusion, regardless of their original persuasion. Mircea Eliade, for one, describes these stories as “models for human behavior [that,] by that very fact, give meaning and value to life.” Drawing on anthropological parallels, he and others suggest that myths and fairy tales were derived from, or give symbolic expression to, initiation rites or other rites de passage–such as a metaphoric death of an old, inadequate self in order to be reborn on a higher plane of experience. He feels that this is why these tales meet a strongly felt need and are carriers of such deep meaning.

◊ “Michelangelo believed his sculptures already existed. Inside the marble. Waiting to be freed.” Seriously would tune in just to hear Olivia Williams speak. A link to an essay on Michelangelo and Neo-Platonism:

Michelangelo’s philosophy of art was Neoplatonic, and represented a departure from other theories of the time. Michelangelo believed that the artist’s function was to bring preexistent forms out of the material at hand: “the greatest artist has no conception which a single block of marble does not potentially contain within its mass, but only a hand which obeys the intelleto can accomplish that” (Clements 16). Art forms, or the concetto, exist independently of the artist, and are implanted in matter by nature. The artist’s function was to draw these forms out of the material.

So Michelangelo saw the artist as a kind of midwife, seeing the potential beneath the surface and helping it emerge. 


◊ Why do major characters drink on the job? Are they “Mad Men”? 


 ◊ “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Mission Impossiblethen forms a wicked menage a quatre with The Matrix and Memento.

  1. korkster permalink
    March 9, 2009 11:01 am

    Great job, Pointy! Thank you for highlighting the importance of the midwife to the artist. So this then would make Alpha our midwife-y artist?

    I had already thought he was there to teach Echo, to mold her… now I see just how far that metaphor goes.

    And yes, Echo & Sierra acting Taffy together was amazing! I *believed* both.

    I did find it interesting that Adelle & Dominic play along with Sierra/Taffy about the “double the pay upfront thing” with important time ticking away… what could be the reasons that they feel the need to go along with her demands? Can’t they *tweak* her programming just to do what they want? I just found it interesting how much importance they placed on meeting Taffy’s demands as if they were *really* giving her the money.

  2. pointy07 permalink*
    March 9, 2009 11:43 am

    Merci, Korkster!

    I have no answers, but do have two questions:
    1. Does Alpha think he’s being a midwife, helping Echo to be reborn the way he has been?
    2. Is Alpha using Echo the same way the Dollhouse does, to create the perfect _______?
    IOW, is being selfish even as he thinks he’s helping her?

    I, too, enjoyed the way Taffy thought she was playing Adelle as Adelle was playing her (very subtly, too, allowing Taffy to draw her own conclusions about what went wrong, as long as those conclusions would lead her to do what Adelle wanted). There may not have been time to tweak the Taffy program. And if Taffy didn’t think she was getting paid, she could have kicked their asses. Or killed them. Bwahahahaha!

    I’m surprised how many people find it hard to believe that a couple would not hire The Perfect Midwife to make sure that mother and child have as good a birth experience as possible. Joss mentioned Frank Borzage as a director he learned from, and most of the plot of Borzage’s 1931 “Bad Girl” turns on the lengths a husband goes to to provide his wife with the best possible doctor to deliver their baby.

    I thought there were some nice subtle touches in the opening scene when Echo/Midwife clicked off the heart monitor’s audible alarm because it was adding to both parents’ stress (and perhaps even the baby’s?). She also said, kind of redundantly, that the father needed to get ready to hold his new daughter (maintaining the vision of a happy ending) while letting the mother know that this was going to be a little more challenging than expected with the “linebacker” quip. The “someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny” principle, as opposed to saying, “120 heartbeats per minute–eek!”

  3. pointy07 permalink*
    March 10, 2009 5:00 pm

    Interesting AP Video on “Joss Whedon’s Dark Storytelling Place.”

    One of my firm beliefs and one of the things that started Dollhouse was the idea that some of the things that people would like to keep hidden don’t necessarily need to be hidden. And one of the best things that can happen to a person is when they realize that they’re not alone. They have a certain obsession, perversion, whatever it is, that that’s not what makes a person terrible, that the thing they’re ashamed of that happened to them is something that is best come to light.

  4. jaynelovesvera permalink*
    March 10, 2009 5:55 pm

    Pointy, there are at least four paintings awaiting birth from the depths of your post. I may assay.

  5. pointy07 permalink*
    March 10, 2009 6:07 pm

    You are a man of vision, Your Majesty!

  6. korkster permalink
    March 11, 2009 3:14 pm

    Four paintings?

  7. pointy07 permalink*
    March 12, 2009 6:29 pm

    JLV is a multi-layered monarch 🙂

    ETA On to Episode 4: “True Believer.”

  8. jaynelovesvera permalink*
    March 12, 2009 6:21 pm

    Yup. Amorphously leapfrogging each other in my noggin.

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