Whiskey after the Apocalypse. It’s all really going somewhere. Sometimes you have to look at the forest instead of the trees. The episodes are uneven, but the series is not.

I insisted that Mr. Lousy watch Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse this summer, and now my recommendation has been called into question. I am here to respond in part. I take complete responsibility for the recommendation and do not rue making it, though I do have some new thoughts after viewing it sort of in tandem with Lousy, though for me it was my second time through. I understand Mr. Lousy’s problems, as I had experienced a number of them during my first viewing, though my second round has made my estimation of the show increase to the extent that I now consider it the best of the Joss Whedon big four.

Now, I will address Mr. Lousy’s problem with uneven episodes, point by point, with Lousy’s reactions in blue and Raúl’s responses in brown, because blue and brown do go together, no matter what your mama told you.

Uneven Episodes
While I don’t think it ever ventured into [Buffy’s] “Beer Bad” territory, there were some real stinker episodes. The blind girl in the cult, the rich ghost lady and rich Apollo were particularly stinky.

This sounds strange, but though I agree those three episodes were mostly bad (though not the worst), each served a function in moving the story forward.

Rich Apollo (“Vows” S2e1):

If Mr. Lousy can recall, I was never a giant Jamie Bamber fan from Battlestar Galactica. I thought he hit his stride as Fat Apollo during the New Caprica phase, but otherwise I found him a bit dull. I was therefore feeling less invested than Lousy in his guest star turn here as the arms dealer/bridegroom.

Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica falls in love with and marries one of Echo’s long-term imprinted Active personas, an undercover agent attempting to find evidence on her groom’s illegal arms deals. She’s undercover to her husband as an agent, and deep, deep undercover to her Self as an Active.

However weak the main storyline is, the episode put some points in perspective. Echo comes back after finale fracas of S1 firmly established as still a Doll, fully occupied in the Dollhouse business. They also used the wedding story to cover some chronological ground: the assignment had been going on for several months, meaning that a rhythm was already in place with Paul Ballard as Echo’s handler. Moreover, the extended job shows that Ballard has to knuckle under in his new job and send Echo off every day to seduce and sleep with another man.

Paul is still waiting for Caroline, but he must deploy Echo daily  for not just sex, but feigned romance. Worst still, she casually debriefs him afterwards! Paul is conflicted and uncomfortable: he’s in love with Caroline, who he’s never met, but Echo is present, and his feelings for her are transparent in his disapproving glances. Can he be falling in love with Echo, no longer a blank slate, but still a Doll? Where is the line between Echo and Caroline? 

I’m in agreement on Lousy’s logistical problem. How did Echo’s Active persona explain away her absences? There were the undercover meetings with Ballard, who she thought was her fellow agent, and then there were the treatments, which even she, the imprinted Active, was not aware of. This is a lot to cover for someone undercover, when her consciousness cannot even account for her actual whereabouts.

This is where the layering becomes interesting. She is an undercover Doll, meaning she is a Doll imprinted as an undercover cop masquerading as an arms dealer’s trophy wife. Caroline to Echo to Imprint to Undercover. Her tether to her original Self has been distanced exponentially. Okay, it was just squared, but that’s an exponent.

Echo wakes up. She has a lot to work with as the glut of Imprints locked in her mind awaken and queue up for action.

The conclusion also shows Echo semi-consciously activating previous Imprints in the crazy gun battle at the airport culminating with her riding on Apollo’s car hood. She’s evolving and slowly gaining a stronger consciousness: she is Echo plus; she and we are just not sure how much more than Echo she has become and is becoming.

“Vows” wasn’t a good story, but it had a point. Echo is like Alpha without the crazy. She still doesn’t have his meta-consciousness, but she’s retaining, discerning, and now activating past Imprints. This ability, as you know by the end of the series, is not part of any mental mastery; she is biologically predisposed to compositing different Imprints, which makes her more valuable than any Doll because she provides the missing key in the real end game of the Dollhouse, toward which the second season steadily moves.

Topher asks the Big Question. He doesn’t get the depth of his own creation. Saunders/Whiskey has to spell it out for him.

And let’s look beyond just the episode. Mr. Lousy, you’re getting too wrapped up in the A-story. Focus on what’s taking place in the Dollhouse. How about the exchange between Topher and Dr. Saunders, ending in Amy Acker giving her best performance ever, crumpled on the floor in terror and revulsion, revealing that she doesn’t want to find out the identity of her original Self because she’s afraid of dying. Who is the Self now? We assume that bodily proprietary rights go to the Original, as stipulated in Adele’s contract signings over tea, but what happens to a Doll like Whiskey, who is imprinted for the long run and then discovers that she is not real, even though her programming has made her Self real to her, and if it is real to her, is it real, period?

Topher’s question appears naïve to Dr. Saunders. He asks why she doesn’t want to know who she “really” is – when, to her, she “really” is Saunders. She is also Whiskey, who, as a blank slate, makes no threat to her existence, but the original Self of the body is its legal occupant. Being displaced would mean a kind of death, a banishment to Topher’s shelf of imprinted Active cartridges, along with the pliant sex kittens and dimwitted outlaws. Saunders sees herself as more real than Whiskey’s various Imprints, but not quite as real as her original, unknown Self.

Does Dr. Saunders have a Self, or is she just a program that Topher tweaked from the Original Dr. Saunders, who was killed by Alpha? She wants to know why Topher programmed her to hate him when he created her – she laments more comically earlier about being created “by a sociopath in a sweater-vest.” Thing is, Topher created her to counter-balance him, to keep him in check so that in case he made a mistake, she would catch it. Hating him was not part of the package. It became a part of the Imprint Dr. Saunders’ evolving will, or evolving Self. She’s not a robot. She hesitantly perceives herself as alive, but in someone else’s borrowed, bartered body. 

And this is an important theme for us to consider later, especially in the context of stealing bodies for selfish Selves.

The puppetmasters leading the blind: Echo is imprinted as an Active in search of her place in a cult headed by a volatile, egomaniacal criminal. How do we distinguish the cult from the Rossum Corporation?

The blind girl in the cult (“True Believer” S1e5): 

Another of my least favorite episodes. It played out like a high-tech police procedural. However, I give it credit for drawing the parallel between falling in with a cult and signing part of your life away to the Dollhouse. In both cases you are relinquishing your original Self and consenting to the absolute will of others. And in both cases, the cult member and the imprinted Active must be, as the title suggests, a True Believer – in a scenario of sheer manipulation, where belief is coerced or constructed.

Whedon and writer Tim Minnear may have hit on another transgression into violating the Dolls’ Self. Here, Topher riskily robs Echo of her sight, which is displaced via Topher-tech contact lenses transmitting images monitored by a team of federal agents in a van outside the cult compound, as well as by Topher et al in the Dollhouse. Everyone sees through Echo’s eyes but Echo.

The Rich Ghost Lady (“Haunted” S1e10):

I called this one the Murder, She Wrote episode. It is still another of my least favorites and probably one of the reasons that I felt season one was really inferior to Season Two. (I’ve since reconsidered this but to no final conclusion.)

Adelle and her sort-of-deceased BFF now imprinted into Echo at the funeral. This shot drives home the strange continuation of life with Echo’s Imprint staring at her own lifeless body in an open casket. Adelle and her friend make some lighthearted cracks and snicker during the funeral services, distracting us from the deeper theme which would later lead us to an apocalypse. Start small, says Joss Whedon.

“Haunted” is not good. I won’t argue that point. Yet, it is critical in foreshadowing: how can life be extended through use of an Imprint and how authentic is that extended life? Adelle’s friend is hardly the most compelling character to see teetering between life and death. (See Lucy Lawless’s Battlestar Galactica D’Anna Biers if you need that. And we all know I need it.)

But the episode did make for a sneaky foray into the new territory of eliminating death/protracting or redefining life through imprinting an original Self into a Doll. It looks like it’s just a favor for Adelle’s friend – and Adelle has no intention or illusion about keeping her 1%-class drinking buddy around any longer than it takes to solve her murder. It’s Caroline’s body according to the contract. Adelle is still playing by the rules, though she’s hitting some new boundaries. Ironically, it’s Boyd Langton who outwardly questions the ethics of the experiment. He must have been watching it play out much more closely than we had imagined.

The episode where she gets imprinted to lactate is really icky (“Instinct” S2,e2)

It was supposed to be icky, and it was also supposed to show the limits of imprinting. Topher was ecstatic to move beyond imprinting personalities to effecting actual biological, hormonal change.

Sierra and Echo are imprinted as mommy friends, but Echo has an extra oomph from Topher: he’s tinkering with her basic biology to create a hormonal bonding to not-her-child that extends to producing breast milk. She’s no longer Caroline at a neurological level, but now she’s slipping away on a biological one as well. I don’t think this was in Adelle’s contract, especially as the revelation came as an unpleasant surprise to Adelle.

Topher’s arrogance and mad-scientist excitement prevent him from finding any ethical problem in taking the imprinting process from a neurological to a basic biological level. As a result, the Active he has created is no longer contained in a cartridge: Echo’s body, not just her brain, has turned into part of a lab experiment without constraints. She is no longer just an Active; she is a mother above and beyond her programming, making her above and beyond Topher’s control.

Another critical point for the overall theme: in order to maintain the purity of the Imprint, the biology of the body containing it must not be fucked with; otherwise, the Imprint becomes something or someone else. An Imprint may be duplicated and downloaded into a dozen Dolls, but the replication has to take place within the constraints of neurology. This leads me to think of the Techs in the second Epilogue: they want all that they can handle, but they can’t handle all that they want. A biological bump might do the trick, but it would also lead to loss of control and perhaps madness. 

This isn’t another glitch in Echo’s programming. Topher’s taking the imprinting process to a biological level puts the Active into a new level – outside even his control. You can’t do a remote wipe on biological adjustments.

If Echo cannot manage a biological bump, then no one can. Her bloodwork shows that she has the capacity to contain multiple Imprints that co-exist, but tinkering with her already unique biology only leads to mayhem. 

Topher’s manipulation of Echo’s basic biology gives us the willies. He’s made a wet nurse out of Echo, except she believes she is the baby’s mother, creating a fake mother-child bonding and making everyone uncomfortable in the process.

And Mr. Lousy, the lab-produced lactation was designed to make you feel icky. We are getting that Topher needs someone to set limits and remind him that he’s working with human beings. This episode forces him to consider what he is capable of doing versus what he can control, as well as whether his experimentation could and should have lasting effects that cannot be erased with a simple wipe and his condescending “for a little while” smile. Topher has tampered with a different construct of identity: motherhood, and in the process, has recreated a deeply intimate bond that feels perverse in its falseness. The episode was written by two women, Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters – and I sense that they were aiming for another level of violation of womanhood beyond the standard sex slavery that we’ve almost come to accept as part of the Dollhouse business. It’s meant to be icky.

I loved seeing Apollo – and Colonel Tigh on Helo’s new show – but I don’t see the point of it. Also, this show was particularly confusing because how the hell did rich arms dealer Apollo not know Echo was a doll? How long had this been going on and how did they justify her absences? A waste of an episode when they must have known they were on the chopping block and a waste of a good guest. I also thought the episode when she gets imprinted to lactate was really icky.

But when it was good – it was really good. I loved Topher. The first reveals of Mellie and Victor were particularly good. I like being surprised. I liked the twists of Adele as Miss Lonely Hearts with Victor, Victor pretty much was always a delight especially as Topher, and the Sierra/Victor realtionship. Whiskey/Dr. Saunders and Alpha were nicely portrayed for the most part and Adele was a great female character. There was such promise in the middle of season 1 – ep 7 – 9. Then it just got terribly muddled and I don’t think it ever quite bounced back.

“Is everyone a Doll?” asks Mr. Lousy in irritation. Raúl’s response is still forthcoming.

I disagree. I will attempt to make further arguments in favor of Dollhouse as a whole rather than as a set of episodes. Coming up: I will address four other areas of Mr. Lousy’s concern:

  • Abuse of Trust – How Many Damn Dolls Are There?
  • Echo’s Mind Fuck – Huh?
  • Happy Alpha Not All Bad
  • Eliza Dushku – Still Not Buying It