Dollhouse Episode 11, “Briar Rose,” or Princess Valiant
♥ 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
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.
♥ 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.
*Henry caught that slip. See below.
If Ms. E. had a production company, it would be called “Sad Robot.”
More Tudyk & Espenson love from Art at the Auction.