In today’s edition, Raúl will continue to respond to Mr. Lousy’s dissatisfaction with the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse. I have already addressed one complaint, uneven episodes; now, I shall proceed to a second problem: the proliferation/surprise revelations of established characters as Dolls throughout the progression of the series. Here is Lousy’s original objection:
Abuse of Trust – How Many Damn Dolls Are There?
While I like being surprised, I don’t like feeling like a chump. There were too many dolls/double agents to the point where I just stopped caring because who knows if it’s even a real character – Alpha, Senator Perrin (Wes from Buffy). The Whiskey/Dr. Saunders/Clyde triple flip was particularly annoying to me. I also didn’t buy Boyd as head baddie but when it happened I just felt like, of course. Why even bother becoming invested if the rug is going to be pulled out? I felt like my emotional investment was being toyed with here and I did not like it.
Raúl is counting on his fingers now. Let me know who I forget.
If anything, I wish that they could have held this one out a bit longer, if only because Enver Gjokaj is far and away the most adept actor in the Doll collection, first introduced as the jittery Russian thug serving and then betraying the Russian mafia. Lubov is a convincing character on his own, so when we discover that he is a Doll, we’re not just marveling at the plotting, we’re given a ringside seat to what the Dollhouse clients shovel shitloads of cash to get: a character who believes he is real. It’s not acting, as Adelle DeWitt points out time and again. The Dolls are whoever mad genius Topher Brink imprints them to be.
It’s not acting because it’s real to the Doll. (See my previous discussion on Dr. Saunders for elaboration.) Lubov’s programming fools us with this incompetent Russian gangster, complete with convincing accent, comical fumblings, and desperate attempts at self-salvation. Topher’s sense of humor shines through his creation, Lubov, who serves as Adelle’s cleverly played chess piece to keep Paul Ballard very busy but quite off-track.
And every Doll has an Original Self. Victor’s was a broken soldier willing to trade five years of his life to erase the psychological wounds of war. Was there no other recourse for someone in such psychological turmoil? What level of PSTD desperation drove Anthony Ceccoli to give away half a decade of his existence to be freed of the horrors of war – and why should he have to commit to such a sacrifice?
Moreover, what good does it actually do to erase memory? Does it serve any purpose in and of itself? Should memory be sanctified – and if it can be erased, what fills the void, if anything? Can we fill our minds with candy when we’re surrounded by rotting carcasses? Does the illusion really overtake the reality, and is the ugliness ever truly eliminated?
I admit that while I was surprised by all the Doll revelations, this was my favorite. The episode sets us up to follow a cliché: Mellie (played by fresh-faced, un-Doll-like Miracle Laurie) was clearly an expendable character, simpering, clingy, both self-deprecating and self-absorbed, the unwanted girlfriend, forever an also-ran to Caroline/Echo. She seemed to exist primarily to provide Paul Ballard with someone to engage in expository dialogue with. (Yes, that’s true: Because her Doll Self, November, was bringing all that dialogue straight back to the Dollhouse!) The panicked phone call to Paul, Adelle’s perfectly timed assassin, Mellie’s helplessness – it all pointed to her becoming a sacrificial lamb in a show that, in the Whedon world, probably needed to kill off a supporting character to shake things up. I saw her following in the footsteps of Jenny Carpenter from S2 of Buffy: mostly unnecessary and not central to any storyline.
Except that Mellie was a sleeper! Holy fuck, did Raúl not see this coming and did he love that moment of brilliant blindsiding!
Sweet but simpering Mellie turns into a killing machine with a simple phrase from Adelle about flowers in a vase. The reveal is timed impeccably, instantly tells us that while Adelle can indeed be cold-blooded in placing a hit, she feels absolutely no remorse when it means taking out a man she curtly refers to as “a serial rapist” before moving on to the next order of business with a self-satisfied sneer at the perfection of her operation.
Mellie is a Doll, but deeper in the Doll is a ruthless, single-minded assassin. She is only referred to as a sleeper. No name. Just killing. What identity is that? She’s not Mellie, not November, and certainly not Madeline.
And Mellie/November’s Original Self, Madeline, has a past that most closely tracks Victor’s: past trauma, in this case, the unending bereavement of a mother losing her child. Like Victor, she hasn’t placed herself in dire straits. Fate has been cruel, assumedly wounding her so deeply that she would rather cease to exist than continue bearing the weight of her grief. In fact, she does opt out of existence, as part of a five-year contract, which, upon completion, will unburden her of the well of sorrow she has been sinking in. And like Victor, we get to see her release – an early one thanks to the good heart of Paul Ballard. Adelle returns to visit to find Madeline with her maternal memories intact but her sadness lifted.
What are memories divorced from feeling? Do they still count? Has Madeline’s brief motherhood been reduced to a set of images and sounds with no real love attached? Because love brings sorrow. Did Topher erase love?
I think because November only had assignments as Mellie – and I believe one other Active, a bounty hunter paired off with Sierra in some scenes that were mostly relegated to extras – I found her appearances in the imprinting chair to be somewhat disturbing. She remains the fragile, brokenhearted mother – and they just wouldn’t stop fucking with her brain. She may have escaped her hit in season one, but she was destined for tragedy.
With the most nebulous identity, Sleeper-Killer November has a startling end. Rather than battling an external adversary, she internally battles her programming. Mellie, Madeline, November, and the Sleeper all seem to commingle in the seconds before she (use of pronoun purposeful to avoid a specific referent) turns a gun on herself to prevent herself from killing Ballard. In the end, she’s the anti-Caroline; she has to sacrifice herself to save Paul and loses him and herself forever. Caroline gets to keep him in the most intimate way possible, not despite, but because of her programming. Whedon makes the Mellie/Madeline/November character, along with Dr. Saunders/Whiskey, the most tragic in the series.
This revelation doesn’t really wreck a character, though Alan Tudyk’s performance as the wacked-out weed-growing bio-engineer is a treat while he lasts. We’ve always known that Alpha was coming. Again, a good actor has to pull off a good Active, and Tudyk makes me buy that Alpha really was accessing that Imprint, though because he can retain his Alpha-meta-consciousness, the geeky, stoned scientist is real, alongside the rarified psychotic Doll, who destroyed his Original Self during his first rampage in the Dollhouse. I got even more creeped out because it’s an act – again, one owed to Topher – he’s a psychopath is sheep’s clothing – and this sheep has a lot of outfits/disguises at his disposal. Alpha’s immediate jump from trembling ninny to stealthy killer unsettles appropriately.
We’d only heard about how scary and crazy he was up until this point; his surprise introduction using Ballard as an entrée back into the house validates all the fears we’ve seen etched on Adelle’s, Topher’s, and even Dominic’s faces. Shit, it’s etched literally on Dr. Saunders’ face, and now he’s done the same to poor Victor. Here we experience the viciousness and violence ourselves. Alpha is savage, cunning, and totally fucking nuts.
Did they need to bring him back for the Epilogue? No. But like Whiskey, who I’ll turn to next, his evolution after the Apocalypse is left to our imagination? We know that like Echo, Alpha is perpetually evolving. Is it possible that he consciuosly managed to contain the psychosis using the numerous Imprints as counter-measures? What does an anarchic Doll do when anarchy reigns? Return to order? The only order he ever truly knew was in the Dollhouse? The other Dolls? People who’d been wiped who he’d rescued and brought to the sole sanctuary he knew for the Doll state? We don’t know. Alpha’s last-minute turn toward goodwill also left me doubtful, but then, in an Apocalypse, I figure everything goes topsy-turvy.
Four, Dr. Saunders/Clyde 2.0/Whiskey.
Your least favorite switch. In the long run, I suppose she’s my favorite, in all her incarnations, partly because she’s the one Doll whose Original Self remains an unknown both to the audience and to the various entities occupying who/what I will call Whiskey.
I’ve already made my case that the scene in which Saunders breaks down in Topher’s office after he asks her why she never sought to discover her Original Self is really the crux of the entire show. You think you were frustrated to find out that Dr. Saunders was a Doll? Just imagine how she felt. Her very existence is called into question. Is she real? Are her feelings genuine or programmed? At which point do her programmed memories end and her experienced memories begin? Does Dr. Saunders actually constitute a separate, living being? When technology intersects with biology and being, which is dominant? What is death? Saunders has quite a load to deal with. We have it easy by comparison.
On learning that she is a Doll after a terrifying encounter with Alpha, Saunders becomes even more withdrawn and sullen, and even cruel when the Doll Victor comes to her with his face slashed up like hers. Her invective against Victor is clearly an invective against herself, though her frustration gives way to compassion. When Victor leaves the office, he gets the feel-good lollipop dispensed by the original Dr. Saunders. She does know how to make a Doll feel better, and does so in resignation, knowing that fundamentally, she and Victor share much more than a sliced-up face. Her own Dollness inspires a degree of self-loathing, but also compassion. She knows deep inside the helplessness and innocence of the Doll state.
No wonder she fell apart at Topher’s question. He created her, and though he knows she has free will – she hates him on her own accord – he does not grasp that she perceives her own existence as partially invalid, nor that she feels real enough that returning the body that she inhabits to her Original Self means death to her. Topher plays with Dolls. He doesn’t understand the depth of one’s self-awareness, as when she, as an Active on a hyper-extended assignment, discovers that she is a riff on the Imprint of a deceased Doll doctor, not an independent being.
Topher develops empathy, though it comes late and at a terrible cost to himself. More cruel is Boyd Langton, the secret villain of the series. He seduces Saunders, encourages her escape from the Dollhouse, secretly shelters her, and at the same time manipulates her programming. We discover this as she places a bullet into Bennett Halverson’s head as part of a sleeper program to ensure that Caroline’s memory remains inaccessible and that his identity as the co-head of Rossum stays unknown.
Even the meta-aware Doll Dr. Saunders’ identity has been fractured by the man she trusts most in the world. The next time we see her, Saunders has been dislodged completely. She has met her virtual death, not to make way for her Original Self as she’d imagined, but rather for the other head of Rossum, Clyde 2.0. We’d been forewarned in “The Attic” that a Clyde 2.0 (similar to Senator Perrin, who I’ll discuss in a moment) was still in active partnership in running the worldwide Dollhouse operation and international Rossum Corporation. We have no idea who Clyde 2.0 was inhabiting at that point, though it can’t be Whiskey, because she is not capable of compositing Imprints like Echo or Alpha.
Therefore to imprint Whiskey as Clyde 2.0, or, as we are reminded, just one of the Clyde 2.0’s, since bigwigs have the resources to get themselves imprinted into multiple bodies, Langton has to sacrifice Dr. Saunders. This unseen act strikes me as one of the unseen, unremarked tragedies of Dollhouse: the virtual death of Dr. Saunders. When she was asked if she’d like a treatment, was there a moment of impending doom before her obligatory acquiescence? We’ll never know.
We do know that Whiskey became the second half of Rossum, even more badass than Langton, with newly downloaded skills making her near even match for Echo in hand-to-hand combat. She is now a he (gender variation is a question that comes up with Victor and Echo, though only briefly), dressed in a killer suit with killer instinct ready to be unleashed. Echo does defeat Clyde 2.0, and after the explosion at Rossum, his fate is unclear.
Our next encounter is with Whiskey, devoid of Imprints, roaming the vacant, cavernous Dollhouse alone in a spooky white dress and wide eyes full of precise knowledge but devoid of specific identity. She is the Doll with semi-cognizance acquired after the business folded amidst the imagined chaos. How was she restored to her original Doll state? How did she make her way back into the Dollhouse? How does she know how to function, let alone release a toxic gas quell the rioting and allow the escape of the first epilogue heroes, including a Caroline restored in the body of a little girl? There is a backstory that Whedon allows us to invent for ourselves to fill in gaps for the Apocalypse. This isn’t cheating; it’s granting us freedom of imagination to create our own route from a battered Clyde 2.0 in the Rossum D.C. HQ to a spectral Whiskey haunting the halls of the Dollhouse.
What Whedon does give us is perhaps the saddest, defeatist of death scenes. With Dr. Saunders already unaccessible and therefore, dead as a virtual entitity, Whiskey is left as Whiskey, a solitary Doll, no longer trying to be her best, just floating silently through the self-contained underground cavern, not mindlessly but not mindfully either. She’s trapped in a state of semi-existence, awaiting an end that is finally delivered by the arrival of the Epilogue crew. She sacrifices herself by releasing the gas, but as she sinks down against the railing above the madness below, a sense of relief pervades the room: her semi-conscious state has been ready to die all this time. The dread that Dr. Saunders felt is replaced by a quiet, almost conciliatory suicide,which helps to answer a question that runs throughout the series: Are the Dolls people? If Whiskey can purposefully kill herself, then she was indeed alive. I felt a mixture of sadness and solace as she slowly let her limbs dangle over the bars and rested her head for eternal sleep. Whiskey/Saunders/Clyde 2.0 plus some intense performances from Amy Acker make one/some of the most compelling, challenging characters in the entire series.
Side Note: I did wonder why Adelle kept Whiskey on as a Doll after the Alpha attack – and why she didn’t have the plastic surgery performed on her as was on Victor to erase the slashes up and down her face inflicted by Alpha. Sure, Adelle was sweet on Victor – actually, I think she was really only sweet on his Imprint Roger – but this doesn’t explain turning Whiskey into Dr. Saunders. By keeping her in the Dollhouse, DeWitt was actually protecting her from Alpha, who had an axe to grind, or a razor to carve, since Whiskey was #1, even more requested than Echo. Moreover, by not fixing her face, DeWitt ensured that should Alpha ever return, he wouldn’t go for his prime target again. Indeed, instead of butchering her a second time, he merely taunts Saunders with hints about her non-Dr. Saunders-hood. Instead of a repeat performance on Whiskey, he turns the blade on Victor, to almost identically horrifying effect.
And lest we forget, Whiskey is the only featured Doll whose Original Self is never recovered or revealed. This doesn’t just make her unique; it makes her emblematic of a major theme in Dollhouse: what is Self, and when Self is technologically tampered with, what does it become? For Whiskey, the Original Self is lost, or perhaps a whiff of it is gliding through the halls along with Whiskey as she, or they, haunt the house. She’s less than a ghost. She’s a distant copy of one.
Five, Senator Perrin/Modified Senator Perrin.
I’d already mentioned that Senator Daniel Perrin resembles Clyde 2.0 in that he isn’t an entirely different Imprint; he is a modified version of his Original Self, only in this case, he actually inhabits his original body. But he is indeed a Doll – he’s horrified to discover that he’s not himself, sort of. They took the self-indulgent, directionless, entitled, overaged party boy with nothing to offer but the political cred of a last name and turned him into an ambitious political animal. What part of his Original Self did they remove? He’s become an impassioned crusader for societal justice, when in his original incarnation, I imagine him chasing coke whores and vomiting in the back of limos. That’s a pretty big jump.
Though on the surface an improvement, in a sense, they’ve murdered the original Perrin. Without his consent (in this way, he resembles Sierra), he’s been imprinted with traits to take full advantage of the political legacy of him last name. (G.W. Bush, were you imprinted? You and Perrin have a similar past.) But in imprinting him, Bennett Halverson (I imagine her to be the programmer who rigged his Active state) had to remove the components of the drifting, drunken rich boy squandering his political potential. The D.C. Dollhouse robbed Perrin of his identity, and replaced it with a re-jiggered one that bears a connection to his Original Self, but is, in a sense, as authentic as Taffy, the art heist Active imprinted into both Echo and Sierra. He has no free will exercised under the program. Barhopping is out. Judicial hearings are in.
That might not sound like such a terrible trade, except Perrin never made it. Moreover, the Improved Perrin isn’t around to make the world a better place; he’s here to push legislation to facilitate Rossum’s agenda. This Doll is a specific tool instead of a toy like the ones for rent. And like Dr. Saunders, this Active is in for the long haul. They’ll never restore his Original Self because he would expose them – and he tries that with Echo. No, they either keep him on Active assignment as Improved Perrin or they kill him.
Guess which one his wife would have preferred? This was another curve that I hadn’t seen coming. They set us up for the pert, loving senatorial wife, too perfect to be true, to be the Doll, when in fact, she turns out to be his Handler. In terms of machinations, this move is more effective for the operation: they have complete control over Perrin with full-scale monitoring from his Handler at every moment. No strange disappearances for treatments – just the occasional outing with his wife, albeit maybe in the back of a black van.
Why so many damn Dolls?
The question and its accompanying irritation are valid, and Raúl had a similar reaction on his first time through. I don’t like being played just for the sake of being played. It’s one of the reasons I avoid movies that I know are full of quintuple crosses. This is one of the reasons that I dislike David Mamet. I mean just one – I could do a whole post on that, but why bother? He gets too much as it is.
Anyway, back in 2000, I was reading about an Argentinean film called Nueve reinas (Nine Queens) about a collector’s stamp heist promised to be full of a myriad of double-crosses. I didn’t feel like investing two hours of my time essentially agreeing to be tricked for the sake of being tricked. Then, as fate would have it, I happened upon a streaming film starring Raúl favorites Diego Luna and John C. Reilly with the stunningly generic title Criminal. I didn’t connect the two synopses and inadvertently watched a remake of an original that I’d avoided. (Side note: the remake was co-written by Steven Soderberg.) The film was 95% trickery and 5% reveal. Everything was a set-up as one of the con men was conning the other in a preposterously elaborate caper. I’ve heard the Argentinian version is better, but I’m not interested.
Another side note!: Raúl does wonder if Mr. Lousy might enjoy the 2003 film Identity, directed by James Mangold. It’s was the type of movie where I knew my mind was getting fucked, but at the end I did have a cranial orgasm and didn’t feel guilty or angry afterwards. A healthy mindfucking that I enjoyed thoroughly both during and after.
If I’m going to be tricked well, I’ll want to watch the film again, which is what I did with The Sixth Sense, which I still hold up as a good film. I can’t imagine sitting through Criminal again. However, I did sit through Dollhouse again – and heaven help me, I know I’ll go back for thirds eventually.
Why so many Dolls? Did I feel duped after investing my time in the characters? Not this time.
Above I attempted to explain how each of the five Dolls was different in how they became Dolls, how the process stole part of their personhood away in different respects, and how their Dollness served the series. I don’t think any of the Doll revelations was there just so Whedon could squeal, “Twist!”
Maybe if the series had been extended, say to a third season, we might not have been so overwhelmed with Doll deception. Echo and Sierra are the only regularly featured Dolls who we met as Dolls. More time might have allowed for more Dolls, and not the spring-loaded surprise kind. For example, in the episode, “Echos,” the concluding scene is of the villain of the story signing over five years in exchange for an erasure of his industrial espionage and the drug-fueled chaos that he caused at the university. Here he is entering the Dollhouse? Why not make him a recurring character? I think if Whedon could’ve had three seasons to stretch the story, the series would have benefited from more Dolls with fewer Doll revelations. We could see the process going forward linearly rather than pieced together as done for Echo and Sierra, our only major non-revelation-as-Doll characters.
I suppose we did see Paul Ballard become a Doll, though I place him in another category. This – and his final metamorphosis – will be discussed when I address your next complaint: “Echo’s Mind Fuck – Huh?”
In the meantime, I will discuss the twist that Raúl did not appreciate in Dollhouse: Boyd Langton turning out to be the Rossum co-CEO alongside Clyde 2.0. I suppose they did build up to this in the last few episodes, but the turn made me feel cheated. I thought Harry Lennix was too convincing as Echo’s handler. It turns out that all his moral misgivings and ethical challenges to DeWitt were an act, but they since these dialogues explicitly present an integral part of the series’ theme, I feel they should have been genuine.
They could’ve gone with the already established Rossum bigwigs played by Ray Wise or Keith Carradine, but they just had to have that “gotcha” moment. Well, it got me. Mad.
Ray Wise or Keith Carradine as the super-villain? Either could have been using an L.A. Doll to keep on top of Echo. Bennett Halverson could have seen to that. She was a technical match for Topher. Raúl would have a much better time with a double-agent Doll. But not Sierra or Victor!
Boyd Langton as the villain of the series, even worse than Alpha, also makes me feel ripped off, especially because he does such a 180 in the end, sounding bananas in unveiling his master plan when previously, in his cover as a Handler and then Chief of Security, he keeps his cool and uses reason consistently. And what exactly was he doing allowing Echo into the Attic? Risking his shot at immortality? Why did he allow the L.A. operation to get so close to the D.C. operation when he could have thwarted their efforts. The “Ah-ha, this was all part of my plan” ending was too pat and ruined the character of Langton for me. I would have preferred that the villain remain an already established villain. This, to me, was a twist for the sake of a twist, at the expense of a character, and for my first go-round, largely at the expense of the series. The second time, I knew it was coming, accepted that it was mostly consistent with the story, and purposefully focused on other aspects of the finale, especially those relevant to the Epilogues.
And speaking of the Epilogues, I think one might consider that there are so many damn Dolls in the series as foreshadowing. In the Apocalypse of the Epilogues, we can’t be sure of anyone’s identity, and everyone’s Original Self is lost, up for sale, up for grabs, or at risk of being altered or destroyed at any given moment. You think there were too many secret Dolls in the regular series? Imagine life in the chaos of the Epilogues.
Also, don’t feel bad about being fooled by the Dolls. Again, remember what Olivia Williams’ Adelle always tells her clients. “It won’t be an act. Everything the Active does, says, and feels is real. It’s part of the programming, and it’s why you are paying a premium price for the experience.” Raúl has been charged double admission and gladly pay for a third round.