Let’s Watch Dollhouse ep.3: If you can’t handle Joss Whedon at his worst you don’t deserve him at his best

Dollhouse

So this episode opens with a scantily-clad pop star dancing around in a cage. Unsubtle metaphor or unsubtle wank fodder? U decide

Anyway, one of the backup singers of the pop star (Rayna) gets set on fire by malfunctioning pyrotechnics and it turns out it was the work of a creepy stalker fanboy, so Echo gets hired to be a replacement backup singer/bodyguard.

That’s the main storyline for today. Out B plots are Echo and Sierra having akward, stilted robot-conversations in a vague approximation of friendship back at the Dollhouse, and FBI agent Ballard getting ensnared in a plot by Russian gansgters. Also, Langton wants to protect Echo from Alpha. I might as well get into this now, but I don’t get what this guy’s deal is. He clearly think the Dollhouse is sketchy as fuck, so why is he even working there? I guess attachment and a sense of responsibility to Echo are keeping him there, but that doesn’t explain why he’d sign up in the first place. In fact that applies to all of the Dollhouse staff, even the “nice” ones like Scar Doctor. It would take a certain kind of amoral personality to be even comfortable working in that sort of environment, and as far as we know they haven’t received any kind of indoctrination or brain-washing.

In the main story, there’s a rather eyebrow-raising bit where DeWitt is talking to Rayna’s agent, who she appears to be on familiar terms with, and says that she can “have the twins freed up in a day or two if you want to unwind”. Assuming the twins are Actives (and I can’t find any information either confirming or refuting this) I interpret this as meaning “so you can have mind-wipe sex with them” which just reinforces the notion that the Dollhouse is basically a hi-tech brothel.

So Echo is supposed to be a backup singer for Rayna, and to be fair Eliza Dushku is actually pretty good at both singing and playing a star-struck X Factor-ish wannabe pop star, although she gets saddled with some truly awful lyrics. And her singing is heavily auto-tuned during the actual concert scenes, although maybe that was supposed to be satire or something. The relationship between Echo and Rayna is much more immediately interesting and, well, actually present than with any of the previous clients- although note that the agent is actually technically the one who hired her, Rayna isn’t aware that Echo is anything out of the ordinary or that she’s there to do anything other than sing, ostensibly because Rayna hates bodyguards…… even though we’re explicitly told that she has eight bodyguards. Okay, whatever.

Back at the Dollhouse Topher explains that the Actives are programmed with two attributes, persona and parameter. Persona is the personality they take on- in this case, singer- while parameter is basically their mission- in this case, protect Rayna. This is sort of interesting because it means that Echo herself isn’t aware that her job is to protect Rayna, but she’ll do it anyway on an instinctive level. It raises some odd questions though, like what was the parameter during the hostage negotiator assignment, where the persona would already ensure that she’d make rescuing what’s-her-face her top priority? Maybe that’s why Echo was so hell-bent on continuing the rescue operation even after she thought the dad had been killed.

Back in the main plot, Eliza Dushku really seems to be pulling off this role way better than the previous episodes (also she spends a lot of time standing around in her bra for no apparent reason). As far as Rayna herself goes, the episode really goes out of its way to portray her a selfish, shallow, bordering-on-psychotic diva who hates everyone and treats her fans badly. I realize I am about to spend a paragraph defending among the most privileged people on the planet, but this sort of portrayal of famous people has always kind of bothered me in that they tend- from what I’ve read at least- to actually have a pretty rough time of it in terms of exhausting jobs, demanding and sometimes obsessive fans and an entertainment press that delights in destroying their privacy and reputations for lulz. If you were someone who just really liked singing or acting or whatever and ended up having to deal with that shit just because you were good at it I could imagine it would make you a little messed up, is all I’m saying.

Well actually make that really messed up, as Rayna has been communicating with stalker-fanboy and wants him to kill her out of some sort of desire to be freed from her manufactured fame. This would work a lot better if she had received any characterization beyond “histrionic asshole” prior to this revelation. Of course Echo manages to foil their plans and saves Rayna, much to Rayna’s chagrin.

The Dollhouse decided to set up Sierra on this job as well, in case of “extreme circumstances”. Predictably circumstances get extreme when stalker-fanboy kidnaps a woman who won a “no.1 fan” contest and appeared on stage with Rayna during the botched assassination attempt. Unfortunately the woman is actually Sierra, in her own persona. I’ll give props to the costuming and hair department for this show, I totally didn’t realize this was Sierra until DeWitt is informed that she’s been kidnapped. Also gotta say, the actress playing Sierra is way better than Eliza Dushku, to the point where I really wish she was the main character.

Sierra being in peril actually works to the Dollhouse’s advantage since she drew attention away from Rayna and now Dollhouse operatives can rescue Sierra and shoot stalker-fanboy in the head with their large guns. The frequency with which these missions seem to end with the deployment of heavily armed soldiers rather suggests that the Dollhouse should rethink their business strategy. In any case sending two Actives into the field together backfires slightly when Rayna won’t step up to the plate to save Sierra (even though she supposedly wants to die), so Echo knocks her unconscious with a folding chair and forces her to give herself up, on some level remembering an earlier conversation at the Dollhouse where they had called each other friends. We’re three episodes in and just about everything that could go wrong with the Dollhouse’s set-up has gone wrong. These guys need to get their shit together.

Not that I’m complaining, because this is actually an interesting and unexpected direction for the series to take. I am legit enjoying this aspect of the show.

The Dollhouse staff predictably freak their shit when it turns out Echo has gone rogue and Langton once again has to come to the rescue, but Echo beats the shit out of stalker-fanboy before Langton has to shoot him, while also forcing Rayna to confront her death-wish and realizing that actually she’s not so hot on the whole getting murdered thing after all. During this we learn that Sierra’s implanted persona appears to be functioning 100%- she doesn’t display any recognition of Echo or go “off character” at any point- so it seems as though the problem is entirely with Echo.

Back at the Dollhouse one of DeWitt’s goons suggests they “send Echo to the attic” (a euphemism for death, or something less sinister?) but DeWitt’s having none of it even though Echo is pretty obviously a huge liability. They try to frame Echo’s actions as being a sort of thinking-outside-the-box fulfillment of the mission parameters (she was programmed to stop the person who wanted to kill Rayna, but it turned out the person who wanted Rayna dead the most was actually Rayna herself) but we the audience know that she was at least partially motivated by a desire to save Sierra as well. In fact at the Dollhouse Echo continues this by subtly refusing to interact with Sierra when her handler- who’s an asshole and doesn’t like Echo- is watching. It’s actually kind of sweet, I have to admit.

In the Ballard-centric sub-plot we learn two interesting facts, namely that Ballard was fobbed off onto the Dollhouse case because he couldn’t solve other more high profile cases and that the technology behind the Dollhouse is known to the public in a prototype form used on monkeys, but its use on humans is considered an urban legend. So I guess it has the same status as cloning in the real world- the theory and practice have been developed enough to where it could be used with humans, it just hasn’t yet (as far as we know). Ballard says he’s confident the Dollhouse exists because new technology always ends up being used for shady purposes eventually, which….. yeah that’s pretty fair actually. In real life I have to imagine the US government would be all over that shit.

Also WOAH PLOT TWIST it turns out that Victor, the Russian mafia guy Ballard has been talking to to get info on the Dollhouse, has had his mind wiped by Topher. Not sure if this is implying he’s an Active (Topher addresses him as Victor rather than a code name so I don’t think so), maybe they just kidnapped him when he got a little too close to the truth. Pretty smart idea, actually. Victor gets programmed to lure Ballard into a trap in an old hotel, during which Ballard gets shot by a russian mafia guy but luckily his torso is made out of the same indestructible material as the legs of that dude Langton shot last episode and he uses FBI-fu to knock his assailants unconscious. I’ll say this, as unrealistic as this part is it was nice to see a fictional fight scene where the hero gets into hand to hand combat and one of the bad guys just pulls out a gun and shoots him instead of going along with it. Later lasagna-neighbour from the previous episode comes to visit Ballard at the hospital. Dawww.

So this episode was….. substantially better than the previous two. Actually I thought it was pretty good, overall. I mean the the pop star stuff didn’t work at all- Rayna is a poorly written one-dimensional character- but the evolving complexity of Echo’s unconscious rebellions against the system are pretty neat. The over-arching plot is far and away the most interesting part of the show and the aspect that the writers are clearly really invested in, so I kind of wish they’d just ditched the engagement-of-the-week format and taken this thing full-tilt into ongoing story land.

I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s not suddenly Breaking Bad here, but the story they seem to be going for, of Echo breaking out of her programming through her evolving relationship with Sierra, has potential. It could even be the setup for a pretty good sci-fi romance, if they wanted to take it in that direction.

So, I’ve now gone from “this show totally sucks” to “this show might not suck”. I’m pessimistic about the chances that my opinion is going to stay positive for long, but we’ll see.

Random notes:

– Echo channels her inner dominatrix again this episode when she threatens to “smack” an intern who gets in her way. Joss, there are people who can take care of that sort of thing for a fee, you don’t need to express your sexual frustrations in your show.

– Rayna’s agent slaps her when he learns she’s been in contact with stalker-fanboy. Joss Whedon writes shows about strong, empowered women you guys.

– I’m now wondering how long it’s going to be before we find out that either Echo has been faking her tabula rasa state the whole time (which wouldn’t be hard) or that one of the recurring cast is actually an Active on a long-term assignment.

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5 thoughts on “Let’s Watch Dollhouse ep.3: If you can’t handle Joss Whedon at his worst you don’t deserve him at his best

  1. Hek

    For what it’s worth, there are very, very good reasons both Boyd and Lady Scar-Face are working at the Dollhouse… if one manages to watch that long. 😉 I liked the Dollhouse at first try but I don’t think I’ll ever be rewatching.

    Reply
  2. Kip Manley

    Once you get up around no. 6 you might be interested in going back and watching the original, intended pilot, which compresses the origin stuff doled out over these episodes into a single two-hour premiere.

    Reply
  3. Greentree

    I sort of got the feeling the writers had no choice but to write it as a story-of the week. Been a long time since I watched it, but I seem to remember things really picking up once they knew they were cancelled

    Reply
  4. rmric0

    IIRC, the doll’s codenames are based on the NATO Phonetic Alphabet so Victor is, and has always been, one of the blanks.

    Reply

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