The new FOX TV series Dollhouse starts off on a creepy, creepy premise: the main character is an operative from an agency that provides people to do almost any service imaginable–from sex to rescuing hostages–and wipes their mind clean after each time.
In essence, they are human dolls, programmed and deprogrammed. This might seem like a strange story from the creator of Buffy, demigod among female genre fic fans, Joss Whedon. But because it’s Joss, we assume that he’s got a point to all this creepiness, right?
It’s a provocative trick to start a show with a cast of untrustworthy characters and let you try to figure out with whom you’re supposed to identify. It expects a lot of the viewer for them to get that the characters you’re immediately presented with are not the ones you like. Echo is the obvious heroine, played by Eliza Dushku, but since she doesn’t know who she is at any given time, it’s hard to get a grip on her. It takes a certain kind of actress to be able to play this role–to be able to change personalities several times an episode and yet retain enough of herself for you to follow her through a TV show where everyone else is a bad guy.
Buffy was an excellent show, and it was many things, but one thing it nearly always did was present you with a black and white, good guys/bad guys setup. Vampires, demons, whatever, they get slain. But it was at its best when those lines were blurred–Angel going bad, Spike having a chip and being in love with Buffy, Evil Willow. Dollhouse starts you off with those lines not just blurred, but invisible. In that sense it’s a more mature series: it doesn’t offer you the easy heroine to identify with and cheer for. It asks you to make moral determinations, and to decide for yourself who’s good and who’s bad. It is an exploration of the very concept of agency, and one that if it continues to go this way, should make us ask some very hard questions of ourselves.
I didn’t write about it last week because I wasn’t feeling that great on Friday night and didn’t really have the energy–and also because it didn’t really provoke any strong reactions in me. I love Eliza Dushku–Faith is possibly my favorite Buffy character–and I trust Whedon enough not to insult my intelligence. I found a few interesting takes on the first episode here, here and particularly here and an interview with Whedon here.
Like many people, I have an immediate distaste for the “woman was molested/raped and so she’s Damaged Goods” trope, and when it showed up in the first episode I blanched, but I do think there was a reason for it being there–to show the lack of control over memories. No matter how much the Dollhouse thinks it can erase and reprogram, it clearly doesn’t have full control.
The backstory is filled in through flashbacks in the second episode, and it just gets creepier. Naked dead bodies, and a CSI-worthy autopsy scene, bad cops, and more twists than I could even follow. Yet the flashbacks also start to show who Echo really is, and almost immediately her missions start to go wrong and we see her start to push back against those controlling her. Yes, this IS a Joss Whedon series.
Though Echo is the main “doll,” prompting possible misogynist readings, there are male dolls as well, and the head of the agency/company/whatever they call it is a woman. Echo’s protector and the Giles figure–c’mon, it’s so obvious–is the only black man on the show, while the nastiest figures are white men (as usual). There are also shades of Warren (from Buffy) in the geeky guy who performs Echo’s “treatments.” Plus, this episode ends with a good-old-fashioned Buffy-style ass-whupping.
The villain of this episode makes reference to the symbolism in the name “Echo,” and though that was a little heavy-handed, it hadn’t occurred to me to read the name as an explanation of character. But she is simply an echo of other people’s voices, other people’s desires–or is she?
Dollhouse offers up some of the same moral questions posed by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which asks if it’s better to keep painful memories. But instead of a small, personal love story, Dollhouse is sci-fi action, and those questions about memories are layered on top of more obvious ones about trust, society, control, and bodily autonomy. As I said above, it’s a series about agency and whether we have it–at times reminding me of the radical feminist argument that “women don’t have agency under patriarchy.” Does Echo have any control? Do these men control her? Joss seems to be arguing that no matter how much they try to erase her personality and turn her into a doll, she will resurface. And that IS a feminist premise.
I must admit that the first episode left me lukewarm, but yesterday I remembered that the show was on and was excited to get home and watch it. And by the end of that episode I was completely hooked.