Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dollhouse, "Meet Jane Doe" & "A Love Supreme": Living in the future

A review of last night's "Dollhouse" feature - which will be liberal with spoilers for the unaired "Epitaph One" episode, so read on at your own risk if you haven't seen it - coming up just as soon as my ass feels pampered...

These two episodes went a long way towards setting up the horrific future we'll see in "Epitaph One," with Echo trying to master her ability to tap into all her old imprints (and slowly falling for Ballard), Topher inventing the device that will destroy the world and DeWitt handing it over to Rossum(*). And intentionally or not, the two play off (some of) our knowledge of "Epitaph One." Now Adelle's interactions with Topher take on a different shade, as the two are equally to blame for the end of the world. And we know, of course, that Alpha didn't kill, or even permanently injure, Ballard, since he's alive, well and still partnering with Echo/Caroline down the line.

(*) Adelle's heel turn in these episodes was interesting not just because we know she'll rediscover her humanity in the future, but because it's rare to see a show take a relatively sympathetic character and have her do a terrible thing out of a sense of self-preservation. Yes, DeWitt gets to spare any of her dolls from having to go to what I'm sure would be a nightmarish house in Dubai, but her behavior late in "Meet Jane Doe" and throughout "A Love Supreme" suggests a woman who can see that the bad guys are going to win and needs to stay in their good graces. Very well-played, as usual, by Olivia Williams.

The episodes are so busy, in fact, that I have to wonder if they were written after the ratings for the first episode or two of season two had come in - and after it became clear the show's borrowed time was running out - or if Joss and company just decided on their own that it was time to start racing towards the apocalypse already.

But if the series has, in its final hours, become more and more about how the end of civilization will be brought about, it hasn't left behind its usual questions about identity, free will, human trafficking and the rest. As Echo becomes more self-aware, she goes through the same questions and fears that Dr. Saunders did: Why should I let myself be killed so I can give this body back to a stranger? Especially a stranger who might not be as wonderful as I'd been led to believe?(*) And playing a super-Echo who can tap into the skills of her other imprints without being overwhelmed by their personalities has been a good shift for Eliza Dushku.

(**) I know Joss doesn't write in response to fan reaction, but I do wonder if he, like the viewers, realized that Caroline was fairly unsympathetic whenever we saw her in season one, and decided to play into that here.

"A Love Supreme" was the stronger of the two hours, as it lacked the racist caricature sheriff characters from "Meet Jane Doe," while featuring the return of Alan Tudyk as Alpha and some of the best-looking sequences (courtesy of director David Straiton, who was also behind the camera for season one's hangnail-curing "Man on the Street") in the show's run. The switch to the new, cheaper filming style has really worked wonders on the visual palate, and that was really obvious in sequences like Boyd and Paul on the roof with Alpha, or Topher using the remote wipe device to de-zombie-fy Sierra and company.

Again, it's a shame that cancellation came just as the show was really finding itself this season, but at least it feels like there's a sense of purpose to these episodes as we head for the series finale, and maybe it's better for the show to go out with a bang - which the end of the world tends to provide quite nicely - then to linger as it tries to postpone getting to the "Epitaph" future by going back to more stories about botched engagements.

What did everybody else think?


Paul Worthington said...

On another forum many were saying/hoping that Adele would come through, that the betrayal is part of a plan to work for good from the inside...

I've always thought the character was just a corporate power player. In recent episodes it was clear she was on the loosing end. This two-parter started with her reduced to a flunky -- and she saw that she was, along with the rest of humanity, about to be reduced to slave. And she made the choice to be on the winning team.
I don't know that she had an alternative -- at best she could delay Rossum -- but the character of Adele is tragic, not heroic.

And I bring all that up to lead to a question for Alan and everyone: outside of distopia SF, has any long-form story ever so blatantly just lead to the downfall of society?
At what point in envisioning the long-term story of Dollhouse did Joss Whedon determine the overall plot was that an evil corporation wins, takes over humanity, and ruins civilization?
And at what point did Fox realize Whedon was using it big corporate money to produce a cautionary tale about big evil corporations?

Paul Worthington said...

... and to kinda answer my own question: Terminator 2 certainly shows how corporate power leads to death for everyone. But it's end implies that distopia is averted.
[Whedon is on record for loving that movie/franchise]/

Yohan L. said...

Great couple of episodes. It really seems like they're trying to cram as much plot as they can before the show's imminent demise and it's doing wonders in terms of pacing. Really compressed storytelling, far from the "let's draw it out as much as we can" approach that has become the norm in TV drama. I like it.
By the way, anyone knows what the song featured at the end of "A Love Supreme" was?

Unknown said...

Greg Laswell - Your Ghost

Anonymous said...

Eliza has taken a lot of grief for her performances. However, I feel she has steadily improved. I haven't seen her perform better than these two episodes. She was truly very good.


Anonymous said...

I think we're seeing an example illustrating that when creators know the end date of their show, the stories tighten and improve in quality. Same as with 'Lost'.

I hope that studios and broadcasters take note. I think there is lots of potential for great television by limiting a show from the start to a set number of episodes.


Anonymous said...

According to the Dollhouse Wikia, Meet Jane Doe began production Sept 29, which was after the airing of the season 2 premiere. The ratings for the premiere would have been known when the episode filmed, but I don't know enough about the business to know how much the writers would have been able to respond in that time.

MM said...

Definitely going out with a huge, loud bang. At the end of the two hours, I was exhausted and wanted a Valium and a cigarette (and I don't take Valium and I don't smoke).

Alan Tudyk is starting to scare me - he's just way too realistic as psycho/sociopath/all around baddie Alpha.

I've said negative things about Dushku since the show started but she was quite good in both of the hours that did feature her prominently. Usually, an episode that is mostly Echo is a dog but she stepped it up. And the heat between Echo & Ballard is palpable.

BigTed said...

More great stuff... but it does seem as if they're rushing to get through everything. I could have enjoyed a few entire episodes (if not an whole series) with Echo and Ballard out fighting crime.

While Adele is still in question, it seems as if the show is making the lines betweein good and evil a little less gray. With the threat of the new Dollhouse, it became clear that no matter how bad the L.A. house is for the actives, they could have it worse. And when Alpha came in like an avenging angel to get rid of everyone who had had "romantic" relationships with Echo (except for the one who was a relatively decent guy), it almost seemed a direct answer to viewer complaints that the show itself lacked ethical clarity.

Of course, Ballard isn't gone, only "brain-dead," which doesn't mean anything on a show where brains can now be transferred as easily as text messages. Of course, there may be a difference between storing a personality and copying it -- the Ballard who comes back may not be the same person, but an exact replica. (It won't matter from our point of view, but I think it would matter to him.)

femmeperdue said...

Adele fascinates me, as part madame/part corporate queen/miss lonelyhearts/sympathetic mother/dominatrix all combined. And I saw her actions in turning over the technology as an extreme form of self-preservation, not just for her power but for herself. If Rossum can turn anyone into a doll, perhaps she wants to ensure it never happens to her. Am I the only one who wondered, when Keith Carradine mentioned she was beautiful "in her day", if she's a former Doll?

Unknown said...

This show starts each season badly and then blows me AWAY. Man, I wanna cry that they didn't start out like this so the show would still exist.

Now that Ballard's been doll'd, we don't know if his body survives...his personality may have been implanted into someone else for all we know. We didn't see him personally in the future, eh? (Also makes me wonder about Echo's indicating then that they still weren't involved.)

I LOVE Echo as a self-aware personality switcher on command. Awesome use of the character.

Adele, Topher, and Keith Carradine were all quite horrifying. Hoo boy.

annie said...

I actually didn't like these episodes much. Echo's evolution from a doll/active to a 'person' was the only part of the story I really liked. Well, I like Topher and Adelle, and I love seeing Tudyk (reminding me oddly of NPH this ep), but other than that...

Echo's story in Meet Jane Doe didn't make sense to me, and Alpha's in Love Supreme didn't either. Things happen to move the meta story along, not because they're reasonable. While Tudyk is scary on screen, Alpha isn't interesting or menacing to me, especially compared to Rossum and the end of civilization

Anonymous said...

Topher is the tragic character. He went from an amoral state of being to a moral one. In this process we see him free in a system to a slave of the system. He can't leave the Dollhouse, the only alternative is the attic. He's doing the best he can to do good.

Adele is a "cold hearted bitch." She's not the tragic one. Self-preservation does not mean loss of humanity. She's chosen her side. She's not doing the best she can.

It was only recently that I realised I love the Doll's question, "Am I my best?" We all could learn from the Dolls.

Great tv.

wytchcroft said...

it's interesting how people seems split on liking or disliking thee necessary compression in season 2, moving the big picture into focus is always a wow but... nuances do fall by the wayside.

still, at this stage i guess it's moot and both episodes were strong - even if some frakker tried to remote wipe us all during the transmission.

oh and eliza rocked these two for tru.

Tom Galloway said...

Couple of nitty bits that bothered me; 1) Seemed that Galena went from no English at all to understanding some fairly complex sentences during the second part of the break out in no time flat. 2) I'm confused about the timeline. It appeared that Echo was in doll fugue state and living on the streets when she met Galena (and caused her to get arrested). Then, while dealing with the deputy, she snaps into super-Echo mode, apparently for the first time.

OK. We then cut to her having hooked up with Ballard, having apparently trained with him for "three months", and them doing the breakout. Um, how'd Ballard find her? She's in "Logan County", a random location in the US, and is still completely off the grid. And it wasn't indicated she had any way of contacting him. 3 months also seems a bit long to leave Galena stuck in jail; as mentioned, she's only there due to Echo foisting the shoplifted goods on her. 3) It's also very unclear where/when the "cabal" of Paul, Harry, Echo gets formed, and why Paul would be so willing to trust Harry.

Random notes: between Alpha and his role on V, Alan Tudyk is becoming quite the scary actor.

I don't quite understand why Topher revealed his brainwiper to Adele though. So he tells her what he's figured out about Rossum subcontracting the design for it to all 22 Houses. I'm not clear on what he expects her, particularly in her demoted role, to do about that, but anyway...the thing is, he doesn't need to tell her either that he's figured out how to do it or show her both his plans and where he keeps them. What he should be doing is building one himself for self-protection...and to start working his way up the Rossum power structure, rewriting their memories/personalities to delay someone else from coming up with this.

Finally, I recommend an early '80s written novel by Spider Robinson, Mindkiller, which deals in a different way with what happens when you get to start messing with minds and memories and the consequences thereof.

Anonymous said...

Just thought I'd note that "Your Ghost" was originally by Kristin Hersh and Michael Stipe; the one from Dollhouse is a cover. Check out both versions!

Anonymous said...

Are they trying to say Dubai is a less than reputable place? How dare they.

Definitely, the rush to the end has something to do with seeing the writing on the wall.

Bia said...

@Tom Galloway - Um, how'd Ballard find her?

He says she tracked down his phone number, but couldn't remember his name. And also that she knew she could trust him, and that's why she contacted him.

I quite liked these episodes, though not as much as the ones last week. And while Eliza has in fact been improving (just compare Echo here and Dushku's atempts at the one off engagements shown during the opening credits -- I guess she can deal better with continuity than the improv feel those episodes had), my compliments go to Olivia Williams and her compellingly evil Adele DeWitt. I just really want to be there when she "rediscovers her humanity", as Alan put it. All these conflicting parts of DeWitt "composite" for one incredible character, with more sides than Alpha himself!

Anonymous said...

It seems like Maurissa Tancharoen's character exists solely so Topher to can shut her up through technology.

Eric said...

Two pieces felt like callbacks to previous Whedonverse shows - when we saw the trail of rose petals, was there any doubt that it was leading to a corpse? (Just not Jenny Callendar's this time.) And when Echo was strutting back into the Dollhouse, and there were cuts to other characters turning to notice her, it felt a lot like Dr. Horrible's walk through the party to the ELE meeting at the end of well, Dr. Horrible.

Billiam said...

The more I see of Boyd, the more I want to find out his back story. We know it's not completely wholesome (what with his knowledge of body disposal in "Belonging") but he mostly presents himself as one of the "good guys." We also need Victor's backstory.

Anonymous said...

Topher was NEVER "amoral" in general. He was only "amoral" when it came to Dolls, because he saw them as transitory non-people, thus, not ethical subjects. He was always fairly concerned that the bodies got back all right to their initial owner-personalities, whom he DID see as people. But the Dolls, they were just shells. He wanted them in good condition, but he had no reason to worry about them morally. What people call Topher finding a moral compass is really just Topher realizing that a) Dolls are in fact more than empty vessels, b) that he can't count on the Dollhouse to preserve the Dolls for their original owners.

Saying that Topher was amoral just because he used to not see Dolls as moral subjects is similar to the divide between pro-lifers and pro-choicers: it's only murder if you consider the fetus a "real person" and thus a viable moral subject.

Lucy Femmebot said...

I liked how along with DeWitt's increasing unease, isolation, and loss of control, Topher, Boyd, and Paul each in his own way played a part in nudging DeWitt toward her decision, albeit unintentionally. I thought it would've been more impactful if she were the one masterminding things in "A Love Supreme," but it seems as if Whedon & Co. wanted to emphasize DeWitt in the episode as strictly middle management: craven, petty, lacking in imagination, and ultimately insignificant.

Adele's betrayal of Topher was set up as sort of a Darth Vader moment, a pivotal choice which drives the character to a sharp and swift descent into evil.* As Echo comes into her own selfhood, the ways the others relate to her have been increasingly shown to be personal in nature. Perhaps Dr. Golson's psychoanalysis isn't far off from the truth, and Adele's issues with Echo are ultimately the same as Bennett's: betrayal, control, and jealousy.** With the "chip-sex" with Perrin of last week, and the "spar-sex" with Ballard this week,*** it's hard to ignore the show's sexual overtones. When Bennett was talking about the power Caroline (Echo) has over people, it seems logical to me that Whedon was alluding to her sexuality.

*Alpha's plan also had a very "Order 66" vibe to it. Yes, I'm embarrassed at referencing a Star Wars prequel.
**I'll have to go back, but was there any hint in previous episodes that DeWitt may be interested in Ballard? That's a whole other kind of jealousy.
***If the fighting is between a man and a woman, is it still gay? Toy gun to my head, I'd say yes.

Anonymous said...

To Yohan L.
The song at the end of "A Love Supreme" was "Your Ghost" which was originally written by Kristen Hersh for her album "Hips and Makers"

Matt said...

I hadn't noticed any new filming style. What's changed?

Unknown said...

Responding belatedly to the questions raised by Tom Galloway

1) Galena spoke some English at the grocery when she was trying to convince the clerk to take her food stamps. When Echo first visited Galena in the prison as a nurse, she told her to pretend not to understand English, so as not to arouse suspicion from the guards.

2) At their little safe house, Paul mentioned how Echo, in her doll state, remembered his cell phone number, but not his name, and called him for help. They had been hiding out together ever since then.

2.5) The jail guard mentioned that Galena was in there so long because they were waiting for INS to pick her up and deport her. This is totally realistic.

3) Paul and Boyd have both trusted each other since attempting to rescue Echo from Alpha in the S1 finale. They both recognize in each other an overwhelming desire to protect and help Echo/Caroline above all else.

ztp said...

@anon 4:19:

Calling Topher amoral could mean precisely that he didn't consider the dolls viable moral subjects- amoral means he didn't even see it as a moral vs. not moral question. Now if someone had called Topher immoral, that would be certainly be judging him in a negative light.

Not to get too confusing with termonology here, but I believe that if you're in a position such as Topher's, it IS immoral to see things in such an amoral light, because his selfish and not-terribly-well-thought-through desire to make technology do as many cool things as his genius brain could make it do was very selfish in that way. Having the resources, ability and encouragement to push your intelligence and creative ability feels good, but hopefully not I'd-trade-in-humanity's-well-being-for-this-feeling type of good. You'd think such a genius as Topher would've been able to see the potential nefarious purposes that this whole brain-wiping thing could be used for a looong time ago, wouldn't you? Maybe the only reason he couldn't was he was blinded by all the coolness and the fun he was having.

Completely different question from what I was just minorly ranting about: did they ever explain how Patton Oswald's character got an imprint of his deceased wife's personality to get it in to the dollhouse system? I remember in a different episode, Adele's buddy wanted her personality imprinted, so she had to come to the Dollhouse several times to get that done, etc, etc. But Oswald's wife died very suddenly, yes? This has been bugging me these past two episodes- please tell me this isn't a gaping plot hole!

Anonymous said...

@Tom: My impression of why Topher told Adele about the larger project and his little invention is that he did it because he trusts her. The show has gone out of its way to show that Topher is not very socially savvy, and also that he does trust Adele. She's done the right thing and gotten the Dolls out of bad situations before (although not always). He told her because he had to tell somebody, because he didn't really think it all the way through before he told her and because he thought he could trust her.

Bix said...


I always figured that he just gave them as much information as possible to make the imprint.

On a related note, they never really explained how they got the "real people" portions of certain imprints (most notably Eleanor Penn).

Hatfield said...

It seems like Maurissa Tancharoen's character exists solely so Topher to can shut her up through technology.

I wonder if her husband Jed (or is it Zack?) Whedon is the one writing her guinea pig scenes?

These two episodes were awesome, and I love the evolution of the "cabal," which now includes Topher as well. Speaking of which, my DVR glitched on "A Love Supreme" when Boyd said "She doesn't expect..." and didn't come back until Paul and Boyd were already explaining Echo to Topher. Did I miss anything good there?

And on the Topher front, how good was Fran Kranz in the betrayal scene? "You are the coldest bitch on the planet." Topher has always been iffy, but now that he's grown a conscience and is trying to do something to stop (or at least hinder) Rossum, I'm liking him a lot more. Knowing where he's headed--"I know what I know"--makes it even more interesting.

I'm sad that there's only 5 left, but at least it's finishing strong.

Lilly said...

Enjoying my trip down the rabbit hole. So many things to twist my mind around. Thanks Wheedon, nobody does it better.

Eliza has some work here to be proud of. She was much more consistently good even though she full and varied script.

Anonymous said...

Why would Dubai have been a nightmare house? I doubt Dubai created and let loose a psycho like Alpha who can hack in and out of their systems (physical and programmed) at will. I doubt Dubai constantly has problems with actives going rogue or being let out without GPS tags or handlers who just wander off. I doubt Dubai has people killing off their longterm clients.
The only real part of this I seriously disliked was Adele's distaste at the regular client who likes pain. This is likely one of the oldest and more boring type of engagements the dolls have to handle. I understand it's a set up for the dramatic heel turn but it's really out of place.
I enjoy how Joss and his cohort try to play the "bad buys, but in a good way" theme and usually do it so well, but we cannot pretend that the LA Dollhouse has ever had any real moral high ground to claim here. Echo knows this even if everyone else doesn't.


Stewart said...

I'm enjoying the plotting, but things are moving too fast for such niceties as Character Development.

With respect to "skipping to the end", I'm reminded of the final half-season of episodes of Star Trek's Enterprise, which seemed to me to include a bunch of episodes which had probably been previously sketched out and filed away in the "slow reveal" drawer.

Anonymous said...

Ridiculous finale prediction: Ivy is the savior of humanity. Topher still doesn't respect her.

justjoan123 said...

I believe the characterization of the Dubai Dollhouse as being "nightmarish" is based on a long, real-life history of sex-slave houses in the region, populated with Western and European women. One might say that all of the Dolls are reasonable candidates for such a house because they are regularly sent out on sex assignments, but somehow in this episode a distinction was made between sometime- and full-time sexual thralldom. If you were implying a racist slant, however, I think it is not racism to base a fictional establishment on well-documented models.

Tom Galloway said...

Re: Echo calling Ballard's cell. Um, Ballard's also on the lam from the Dollhouse...which certainly has the resources to trace/track a cellphone. Maybe Boyd was covering this up, but if Echo can find him via calling his cell phone, the Dollhouse certainly should've found him a while back.

Anonymous said...

"The only real part of this I seriously disliked was Adele's distaste at the regular client who likes pain. This is likely one of the oldest and more boring type of engagements the dolls have to handle."

No no! It really isn't. It was made VERY clear before that the only kinds of S&M engagements Dolls went to were ones where they were the tops. Dolls were NOT supposed to be put in situations where they would be guaranteed physical harm. Sometimes physical harm did result from an engagement, but all precautions were made to avoid it, even for "high risk" scenarios. The fact that Dolls are now being sent to clients for the sole purpose of abuse of their physical bodies is very much an indicator of the changing ways of the Dollhouse.

"Calling Topher amoral could mean precisely that he didn't consider the dolls viable moral subjects- amoral means he didn't even see it as a moral vs. not moral question."

No, because Topher DID have a moral compass--he very much cared about good and evil, and about the general impact on humanity, when it came to people he actually considered, you know, PEOPLE. He was immediately highly disturbed when it came out that Sierra may not have joined up under her own will, and at any other junction dealing with not-Dolls, he has showed himself to be quite ethical. It's just that for most of season 1 we only saw him dealing with Dolls, so we didn't get to see his ethics in action.

It's like... I'm vegan, and I see someone eating meat without thinking anything of it, and I assume that they are amoral and don't care about killing living beings based on that. Obviously that is not true--that person probably cares very much about the treatment of humans and whether they are killed, mistreated, etc, or not. It's not that they have no moral compass, it's just that they don't consider animals in the same category. Topher simply doesn't consider Dolls in the same category. But he has a pretty clear moral compass.

Anonymous said...

That is, you could say that "Topher is (was) amoral in respect to Dolls." But not "Topher is amoral in general" or "Topher is an amoral person."

Anonymous said...

"It was only recently that I realised I love the Doll's question, "Am I my best?" We all could learn from the Dolls. "

I like how those set phrases that began as meaningless pre-defined responses became kind of leitmotifs through the show, used in so many situations with so many different meanings.