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Dollhouse and the Meaning of Identity

on Thu, 12/12/2013 - 00:00

In Joss Whedon’s fourth foray into network television—the FOX drama Dollhouse—actress Eliza Dushku portrays Echo, an “active” employed by an illicit underground organization that deals in human fantasy. The Dollhouse, as the organization is known, has perfected mind-replacement technology which enables it to “program” people to be anyone, without any memories of who they were before. During the course of season one, however, the technology is revealed to be not as clear-cut as advertised, for remnants of past “imprints” linger in Echo, while another active—the murderous Alpha—has been able to retain all previous personas and escape the Dollhouse. Add an FBI agent intent on finding both Echo and the Dollhouse into the mix, and one has a combination of adventure, drama and intrigue, with a fair share of kick-ass fights and requisite sex thrown in for good measure.

In many ways, Dollhouse is about high-end prostitution taken to the next level—not only are “bodies” sold, but minds as well. Fantasies can be acted out not simply through the use of role-playing but for real. Human beings literally become whoever one wants them to be. While such a premise opens up many moral issues about society, as well as philosophical questions of identity, Whedon clouds these matters through the numerous characters that populate the Dollhouse landscape. Rather than having a clear-cut “good guy” outsider battling the “bad guy” insiders, these characters instead wage the central issues themselves, internally, through their own individual and complex natures.

Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), the FBI agent assigned to investigate the Dollhouse, is a perfect example. Recently divorced with the reputation of not being a “closer” as a law enforcement officer, it is hinted that he has been given his current task as a polite way to not dismiss him from the force. His unwavering pursuit of what is perceived by many to be a myth is thus a form of therapeutic redemption for him that turns into obsession whenever he mysteriously receives a picture of a woman named Caroline, i.e., the real life Echo. This obsession, coupled with his internal demons, makes his motives questionable and prevent him from being the true hero of the narrative.

Even more clouded are the natures of those who work for the Dollhouse. Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) is a former cop hired to be Echo’s “handler,” a sort of protector for when the active is out on an “engagement.” Although he has no qualms about working for such an illicit organization, he still exhibits doubts regarding the ethics of the Dollhouse while also establishing a father-like bond with Echo. Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the boy-genius in charge of the technology, appears both cynical and egocentric yet is also capable of emotionally feeling the consequences of his actions whenever they turn dire. And while head honcho Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) publicly spouts the “we provide a valuable service” party line to perfection, she privately exhibits concerns about the ideology she so obviously once believed in.

Thus although Echo maybe be considered the main character of the series, it is the Ballards, Boyds, DeWitts and Brinks of the show that provide the emotional cohesiveness. Echo, after all, is a different “person” each week, preventing any true investment in the character. While her slow awakening and awareness of the Caroline that resides within is essential to the overall arc of the series, ultimately Echo is best utilized as a catalyst for the other characters to act and react.

Season two continues that trend—at least during its early stages. Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), for instance, came to the realization at the end of season one that she herself is a “doll” imprinted with the persona of the previous Dollhouse physician. Despite this knowledge, she resists the urge to find the identity of her past self and instead struggles with internal identity issues of her own. Is she really the doctor that she has been programmed to be or simply a shell waiting for its original occupant? And if her original self was reinstalled, would Claire Saunders cease to exist in the same fashion as a computer program that has been deleted?

Echo has similar concerns in regards to her own persona. The active is an anomaly in that she slowly began “remembering” during the course of season one only to eventually evolve into a hybrid of all the personalities with which she has been imprinted—with the exception of her original self, Caroline Farrell. This evolution has effectively transformed Echo into someone “new” but the question remains as to whether this Echo, who has been born from technological manipulation, is more real than the actual Caroline. And if there is only room for one person in Echo/Caroline’s body, which one gets to live and which is inevitably placed on a shelf to gather dust?

Because of conflicting contractual agreements with both the FOX network and the international market, Joss Whedon had to create a thirteenth episode for season one of Dollhouse that was not shown on US television. Entitled “Epitaph One,” the narrative takes place 10 years in the future and features only flashback appearances by the main cast of the series. It also reveals an apocalyptic world where the technology of the Dollhouse has run amuck. Mass brain “wipes” that erased personalities wholesale and randomly replaced them with new ones has reduced society into chaos. Small bands of humans who were not affected, meanwhile, struggle to hold onto their humanity. “Epitaph One” is sci-fi at its best, a warning of the dangers of technology set against the backdrop of a decaying civilization.

Having thus revealed how the Dollhouse saga would ultimately end, a vast majority of season two was regulated to building the pathway from the present to that apocalyptic future. Philosophical dissertations on identity and explorations on fantasy fell to the wayside as the series evolved into a battle between the forces of the Los Angeles branch of the Dollhouse and the “evil” Rossum Corporation behind the technology. Despite such course shifting—as well as the fact that a sneak peak of the ending had already been provided in “Epitaph One”—Joss Whedon and his band of writers were still able to fill the remaining episodes of Dollhouse with enough twists, turns, sacrifices and betrayals to keep the narrative gripping and fans of the series on the edge of their seats.

Complimenting episodes “The Public Eye” and “The Left Hand” are a prime example. United States Senator Daniel Perrin (Alexis Denisof) has stumbled upon what he believes to be concrete evidence of the Dollhouse’s existence as well as Rossum’s involvement in this new breed of human trafficking. What starts off simple enough, however, eventually spirals into a Manchurian Candidate-like thriller as the Los Angeles Dollhouse conspires to halt Perrin’s investigation, Rossum’s plans become murkier and Echo goes off mission, embarking on her own. Add a rival Dollhouse technician with a connection to Echo’s real-life Caroline who is bent on vigilante revenge and the two-part installment evolves into a pressure-cooker action thriller that keeps the viewer guessing throughout the narrative.

If there is one major flaw in season two of Dollhouse, it is the fact that the last few episodes are packed with too much information that is revealed at too rapid of a pace. Whereas season one started slow due to the creative differences between Joss Whedon and the FOX network, it would appear that the show’s cancellation meant a quicker resolution to the overall narrative than originally intended. Although some storylines develop at a natural tempo, others evolve in a less ideal fashion. The revelation near the end of the series, for instance, in regards to the identity of the mastermind behind Rossum, and thus the “Big Bad” of Dollhouse, would have been better served if that character’s dark side had more slowly seeped to the surface over a longer period of time.

Unfortunately time is the one thing that Dollhouse was ultimately denied. Despite its cancellation, Joss Whedon was still able to craft a complete story over the course of 26 episodes that raises philosophical questions about personal identity and the dangers of advanced technology while likewise incorporating all the ingredients of a sci-fi action thriller into the mix. Taken as a whole, Dollhouse is not perfect television but it is intelligent and culturally relevant television nonetheless—one that rewards viewers for their patience and resonates with them afterwards.

Anthony Letizia

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