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Dollhouse Episode 9, “The Spy in the House of Love”

April 11, 2009

***(spoilers for this ep and maybe some previous ones, depending on my mood)***

. . . or “The Palace of Puzzles.”

Q: Is that a reference to “The Puzzle Palace,” James Bamford’s classic book about the National Security Agency?

A: You’re so smart. You just gave me the chance to make the necessary distinction between the real NSA (which intercepts electronic communications) and TV NSA (which does all manner of bad). Every time I use the letters NSA in the rest of this post, it’s about TV NSA. Maybe I should just call it the un-NSA. The NonSA.

Q: You shouldn’t waste too much time deciding.

Looks Like a Puzzle Movie, But Ain’t. Puzzle movies like Go! and Memento draw attention to their unusual story structure, showing you the same events more than once, each time with a twist in the meaning. Puzzle movies make audiences and filmmakers feel clever, even though every last puzzle movie pretty much solves itself. The best, like The Sixth Sense, tie the puzzle into character development and character revelation. ***(wee conceptual spoiler warning for a movie you’ve probably already seen)*** The reason the end of The Sixth Sense works so beautifully is not just a neat intellectual puzzle it presents and unravels in the climax, but the profound things we learn about the character of Bruce Willis’s character.

Q: The character of his character?

A: We learn what kind of person he is, how much and how little he is willing to face the truth about himself, what his real motivation is for helping the Haley Joel Osment character is — basically, to hide from himself.

Q: Plus, we learn what a compassionate and wise little kid HJO’s character is.

A: It’s been years since I’ve seen it but, yeah, I think that’s how it ends. Everyone was all up in the trickery of it, but the reason the movie worked is not that it was so clever, but that it revealed to us two extraordinary (for the movies) true characters in the end.

This ep is shaped more like Reservoir Dogs or (IIRC) Go!, where it’s divided into segments that each focus on a particular character. We get a mystery — What Went Wrong? Who Got Shot? — at the start and an answer at the end. But this being a Whedonworld, the puzzle is not what’s important. What we learn about the characters and ourselves is.

Q: You assumed that it was an Active being put down and you worried about which one it was and you kind of hoped it was you didn’t know and then you thought it would be kind of a cheat if it was someone you didn’t care about.

A: Yeah. Basically.

Q: And you totally didn’t see it coming! You did not see it was Dom.

A: Not at all. And that was brilliant, writer Andrew Chambliss. Not for the silly intellectual puzzle of it, but because it made me wonder in the end how I felt about him being Attic’d. Dollhouse interrogates the heart. It doesn’t just provide a pleasing little puzzle for the head, with nice closure at the end, like an episode of Alias.

Sierra Stars in a Perfect Episode of Alias! Sierra faces a purely external challenge, requiring no character growth on her part at all. She tackles it first through clothes and makeup.

Q: She tackles it first through clothes and makeup?

A: Yes, this point bears repeating, in the context of Alias. If you hide behind clothes and make up and conceal who you really are, you save the world.

A nice note was the way that Sierra, who is European/Asian, simply has to don a black wig in order to become the perfect double for an Asian woman. Who really doesn’t look much like her at all. I like to think that was a Maurissa Tancharoen touch, an allusion to the All Asians Look Alike (to Non-Asians) trope. Even if one of them’s only half-Asian. And doesn’t actually look like the other.

Q: What was up with Sierra making sure that her target saw that she had completely stolen her identity before she knocked her out?

A: Good question.

Q: That means you don’t know the answer.

A: I think my favorite scene in Alias was when their little nuclear family of double or triple agents was machine gunning down, what was it, an entire village, while U2’s song about the non-violent leader of the democratic opposition to Burma’s military dictatorship played in the background. It was so perfectly appalling. Like listening to music’s spirit being violently violated while its screams are drowned in automatic weapon fire.

Q: Speaking of perfectly appalling. So we get a nice little techno-thriller. Mission accomplished via superior technology, deceit, hand-to-hand violence of the non-fatal kind, a chase scene in which  a woman in the most impractical of high heels–

A: They had zippers on the back. That’s what kept them on.

Q: –outruns a bunch of government agents–

A: –and their bullets!

Q: Hey, they explained that! It was all just for show, to make the Dollhouse believe it had acquired inside info when it all it got was a cover story.

A: People will forgive a lot for wish fulfillment. The unrealistic parts become fun in wish fulfillment. Examine a fairy tale just a little, though, and everyone’s all, hey, why would people pay so much just to get the ultimate hostage negotiator to save their daughter’s life? Or the perfect midwife for the birth of their child? Hey, if this lack of realism continues, I think I’ll go watch shows where violence solves everything.

Q: That’s unfair. Violence doesn’t solve everything unless it is wielded with superior technology. So you didn’t like Sierra’s story?

A: I loved it. Canned, superficial, seemingly high-stakes, absolutely no-stakes game-playing that looked awesome but was just . . . why did she have to dress exactly like the woman she was impersonating that day? Did that woman phone ahead and email everyone she works with a picture of exactly what she was wearing that day, thus forcing Sierra to wear exactly the same thing? To fool the people who would not notice that she has a completely different face?

The only people fooled by the fraud were the people who thought they were perpetrating it on someone else.

Q: Is there some deep, profound lesson in there?

A: Probably. I’m wiped. But I should point out that since Dominic did arrange the entire caper to fool the Dollhouse, not the NonSA, this careful attention to detail and spectacle was well-motivated by a character’s needs. This show is not stupid.

Dominic Is Not Just a Jerk. He’s still a jerk, but now he’s one with a defensible motivation. The NonSA has a point. Dollhouse technology cannot get into the wrong hands. Or other wrong hands. Wronger hands. We can’t have other countries/non-state actors programming super soldiers to use against us. (Leaving aside for another ep the whole question of why the NonSA doesn’t just shut down the Dollhouse or why it hinders the nonFBI’s investigation thereof, and the obvious answers about possible NonSA desire to have its own programmable super soldiers, super spies, & sundry super options.)

Everything Dominic did has to be reevaluated, because he wasn’t doing it just to keep a lucrative private sector job in the field of killing. He was defending a legitimate national security interest and American lives. If Echo becomes another Alpha, she will kill Americans, just as Alpha did.

I do admire this show for depriving me of both heroes and villains. Whether you’re a saint or a sinner, an innocent or a bad, always depends on what you do next. Your next decision in response to your next challenge.

That’s why it was perfect to make you think that an Active was being victimized in the opening scene. The lighting and the setting reminded you of the scene in the premiere when Echo met Sierra. Then you were clearly supposed to empathize with Sierra’s suffering, just as Echo did. But who do you identify with in the closing scene, when Dominic’s identity is wiped away like Sierra’s?

1. The one who risks his life and his sanity to keep the mind-wiping technology out of the hands of (other) people who will abuse it?

2. The one he tried to kill, who managed, somehow, through her own efforts or aided by that of an internal spy (with unfathomable motives) or of Alpha (likewise with unfathomable motives) to defeat him first.

3. The one who defines his mission as protecting #2, a definition that apparently justifies putting down a NonSA agent whose national security justification for his actions is pretty hard to miss.

4. Narcissus and Narcissa, both certain of their entitlement to play with the best toys.

5. DeWitt, who’s too interesting to summarize.

Dominic’s the least sympathetic character in the Dollhouse, but he’s also the one with most defensible moral justification for being in there. He’s a guy who clearly is drawn to killing, but he found a place in the government where his desire to kill could be put in the service of protecting his country from other killers. This is the episode in which he became interesting. The “complete, unabridged” him will need to come back to disturb us some more.

Dominic Knows What Jack Bauer Denies. If you torture someone long enough, she’ll confess to being a spy, even if she isn’t.

Eliza Dushku Is an Excellent Actor. Echo/Dominatrix was a completely new character, as was Echo/Counterspy. This must be said. I love her counterspy face. Highly intelligent. Counterspy is also a new kind of character for this show — an Active who knows she’s an Active and is willing to accept that, for now. We see her back as an Inactive at the end, and there’s no indication that she put up a struggle to avoid being wiped.

Saunders Has Blue Hands. Like the men who come two by two from the Blue Sun Corp. into River Tam’s waking nightmare of Firefly/Serenity. This says little, evokes much.

Mellie’s the Perfect Femme Fatale! She doesn’t know she’s a femme fatale. She’s programmed to seduce Ballard, but innocently. We know that November, when compromised by the Needs drug, experienced her jealousy of Caroline as a trauma and associated it with the trigger that turns her into a killer, but Mellie does not know that one of the reasons she is in Ballard’s life is so that DeWitt can have a killer close to the FBI agent investigating Dollhouse if she decides she needs one. (We never did learn why she was programmed to be both Ballard’s lover and a killer, did we? I think the latter option is Plan B.)

I love this show because of the subtext beneath the subtext. In the opening scene with Echo/Dominatrix, her talk of trust means one thing as the character she’s programmed to be, another as the Active who’s programmed to trust Boyd, and a third as the individual who thinks she can trust this particular individual because he has come through for her when his own life was on the line.

When Mellie says to Ballard, “I take it you haven’t gotten your badge back,” it works as gentle lover chiding, a little humor to help him put a little perspective on his work, get a little distance, and perhaps return to functioning. It is also a reminder from Mellie to him and to herself that he does kind of need a sane person in his life. It’s also a small reminder that she is just such a sane person. It’s a small expression of hostility at his obsession with his work, which overlaps with an obsession with Caroline, which hurts not only Mellie but November. And it’s the Dollhouse collecting necessary information regarding the status of the nonFBI’s investigation.

Ballard’s the Most Interesting Character on the Show. He appears to have been simplified into Obsessive Conspiracy Theorist, but he’s now exploring a deeper mystery than the Dollhouse: his own motives. He says he sometimes doesn’t know why he’s investigating the Dollhouse, which means he’s investigating his own identity. The dream sequence that opened “Needs” disturbed the dreamer, likening his desire to rescue Caroline to necrophilia, and if all she is to him is a damsel in distress whose rescue turns him into a hero, then she is more or less dead to him, and he is using her for selfish reasons — to see himself as a selfless rescuer. If all he wanted to do was rescue her, he would have rescued her in Joel Mynor’s dream house, but he was incapacitated by his own self-deception.

Now, thanks to whoever is sending him secret Dollhouse messages, Ballard must use Mellie consciously (instead of unconsciously, like he did in “Man on the Street”). This makes him a little better and a little worse.


“I’m Not Broken.” I’m thinking this is something Caroline said at a very important moment in her life.

Echo’s New Handler’s Mustache. Grounds for termination. With extreme prejudice.

Roger Is the Name of DeWitt’s Toy Boy? In British slang, doesn’t to “roger” someone mean to . . . ? Rather on-the-nose, Miss DeWitt.

  1. korkster permalink
    April 20, 2009 7:49 pm

    Hi Pointy! I love it when you talk to yourself.

    A nice note was the way that Sierra, who is European/Asian, simply has to don a black wig in order to become the perfect double for an Asian woman. Who really doesn’t look much like her at all. I like to think that was a Maurissa Tancharoen touch, an allusion to the All Asians Look Alike (to Non-Asians) trope. Even if one of them’s only half-Asian. And doesn’t actually look like the other.

    I totally agree. When I lived in Hong Kong, this happened to me. There were Asians everywhere! They looked slightly different, but not enough for me to tell them apart. AT FIRST. But, given a couple of weeks to meet them and get to know that they are just like me, it became very easy to tell them apart.

    And, this “superficially saying one thing to make you think about it because we’re really saying something deeper (& different)” is still carried though. I love how this is essentially what Dollhouse (the show) is. Is there a name for that sort of subversion?

    Dominic Is Not Just a Jerk. Everything Dominic did has to be reevaluated, because he wasn’t doing it just to keep a lucrative private sector job in the field of killing.

    This also ties into my “pretending to be superficial when really there’s a more opposite deeper meaning to all of this” theme. We, the audience members, were actually happy in the beginning that we could hate this guy. We were rooting for his execution from the show. Because he was “bad” in the “Bad House”. Well, now he’s “not bad”; he could even be considered “good”. So I gotta wonder… with Echo’s helpfulness in taking down her “opponent” (Adelle’s words), does that make her “bad”? Opponent, opposition, not good = bad?? So then, would the wishful thinking really be us wishing that Echo was good? I know, I know. Maybe bit of a stretch. People are always like “I really want to like this character”, and then they get some characters to “like”. They lie to themselves saying that these dolls didn’t have a choice. But Echo had a choice here. She may not be “bad”, but she’s definitely “not good”. Hmmm… things to chew on…

    I love this show because of the subtext beneath the subtext. In the opening scene with Echo/Dominatrix, her talk of trust means one thing as the character she’s programmed to be, another as the Active who’s programmed to trust Boyd, and a third as the individual who thinks she can trust this particular individual because he has come through for her when his own life was on the line.

    The trust didn’t stop there. Take a look at Adelle/Roger/Dominic. Adelle opens herself up to Roger completely because he’s the only one she can trust (a person she’s programmed to trust (does the mole know?)). She breaks down in front of Roger because of the betrayal of trust that Dominic does to Adelle, whom she had entrusted with the Dollhouse for 48 hours. After this incident and showing her weakness, Adelle shelves Roger & Dominic because she finds “trusting” another person, be an Active or a human, is a sign of weakness that eventually leads to “pain” (which the Dominatrix warns us about in the opening sequence “It’s about trust. And sometimes pain”). I’d love to see your take on how this episode was set up with the Dominatrix’s theme.

    Or how about Boyd/Topher. Topher risks his job to let Boyd know first about the chip in the chair (a betrayal of trust to the Dollhouse, both on the chip’s side & on Topher’s side). Topher does it, though, because he trusts Boyd, even if he is the bad guy.

    I kind of wonder who all at the Dollhouse doesn’t trust someone. Would it just be Boyd & Dr. Saunders?

    I would argue that Boyd is just as interesting as Ballard. He’s the only character that hasn’t laid out his cards on why he’s here (or what his motives are). At first it seemed that he was the easiest guy to read, but he went from that to being Adelle’s head of security without giving up anything himself. Going with the “nothing is what it appears to be” motif, I would guess that this player has a major hand stashed up his sleeve.

    “I’m Not Broken.” Caroline or Echo?? Remember, this was the theme of Episode 4 (“get broken or do the breaking”). It’s nice to see that Echo is remembering, even if that means she acknowledges that she’s a “bad guy”. But I don’t think we ever see this connection to Caroline directly. Now, granted that it seems broken people are those that become Actives, but I think this is more of Echo’s journey than Caroline’s.

    As someone said before, the mustache is like a red shirt… 😉

  2. pointy07 permalink*
    April 20, 2009 10:20 pm

    Hey, Korkster! Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful thoughts!

    Going backwards through your post . . .

    You’re right, we have heard Echo say, “I’m not broken” before. For some reason I want to think that this is Caroline’s heart-cry too. Not sure why yet, or even whether.

    I’m sorry, but in this episode DeWitt got way too interesting for me to try to figure her out. Clearly no Dominatrix dominates a submissive more than any client dominates an Active. But there was something almost poignant about how vulnerable DeWitt was with Roger. DeWitt seems to encompass two opposite extremes in a way that makes you see how human her perspective is, and how inhuman.

    When I think Ballard is the most interesting character on the show, it’s because I think I know what’s going on with him. He’s confronting himself. DeWitt is interesting because of the skill with which she evades confronting herself.

    Boyd may get more interesting soon, because he’s out of his comfort zone as Echo’s champion. I’m sure he’s got a deep dark secret or ten, but I bet they fall under the rubric of the TV law enforcer’s rule-breaking or use of excessive force, like we saw in “The Target.” If he acted like that as a cop (and there’s no reason to think this is a new thing) then he may just tell himself that he lost his LAPD job because he was just trying to do his job by any means (he deemed) necessary. I’m not so interested in what we learn about his past as in what he learns about himself in his new position.

    All along, Boyd has reminded me of people who are very cynical about the organizations they work for. It seems to distract them from the reasons they should be cynical about themselves. Boyd looked down his nose at Saunders at the end of “Needs,” but where was he when Echo needed him in that episode? He knew the game that was being played, knew that Echo would be unpredictable in that situation, knew that she would face new threats in the outside world without the skills or knowledge she needed to face them. But Boyd is not the handler who picks her up and carries her back in at her moment of seeming closure. Why did he excuse himself from Echo’s defining moment? It wasn’t for her. (He couldn’t have hoped she would “get away,” memory-less and identity-less. If he wanted to help her get away, this was not the way to do it.)

    Was Boyd trying to avoid learning how Echo’s defining moment defines him? He likes seeing himself as Echo’s defender, Echo’s champion, the one who has Echo’s back, the one who really cares for Echo, and it would be hard for him to square that self-image with carrying her, prostate and defeated, back into the luxury prison she demonstrated the need to get out of. Boyd’s not a bad guy. He’s heroic — to a point. He’ll risk his life to save Echo’s. But he won’t risk his job to free her. Expressing contempt for Saunders is one way to avoid feeling contempt for himself.

    Saunders countered that she has to look out for all of the Actives, not just Echo. As head of security, Boyd now has to look out for all of the Actives. He must even defend them, potentially, from Echo. Who’s he going to be now?

    At a certain point, I think it was in “Echoes,” I realized that I didn’t really care whether I liked Caroline. She’s in a jam, I want to see her get out of it. I don’t know how and I respect the show for keeping me in the dark. It leads me to think of possible solutions, and then to think of possible problems with these solutions, and to wonder what is really the right thing to do with a person who (appears to have) entered the Dollhouse’s servitude to avoid a fate that I’m not sure how much she had to do with creating. She (like Joel Mynor) needs to know she’s (partly) responsible for someone’s death, but it appears that the best thing she could do to honor his death is to continue doing what she was doing when she led him to his death — trying to expose Rossum. By not letting us know what else happened between her boyfriend’s death in “Echoes” and the time she signed DeWitt’s contract, Dollhouse leads me to think about all the things during that period that might have changed what I want for Echo — and leads me to ask why. Good show, good show.

    One of the things it focuses me on is the constraints under which Echo is operating. She has to piece together her solutions with a very limited amount of information. She doesn’t remember that Dom tried to kill her until they’re already fighting. DeWitt interprets Echo’s actions in a way that suits DeWitt, but her interpretation may not be better than ours. (I argued with (what appears to have been) her interpretation of Echo’s painting at the end of “Man on the Street”).

    And if you look at the couple in the picture Echo drew, the woman’s face is a different color than the man’s. The woman appears (to me) to be half-Asian, half-white. 😀

    We look straight at things and sometimes we even see them.

  3. korkster permalink
    April 22, 2009 5:03 pm

    Pointy, did you see this?

    I thought it was very well put (on some of the many aspects of Dollhouse).


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