Hasslein Blog: Cubing: Dollhouse


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cubing: Dollhouse

By Duy Tano

The last piece I wrote for Hasslein was about Faith the Vampire Slayer, and in it I mentioned that Eliza Dushku tends to have a limited range, partly due to talent and mostly because anyone who watches things she headlines, myself included, generally just wants her to play Faith, or someone close to Faith, so what's really the incentive for her to try new roles?

Spoilers for Dollhouse follow. If you want to go in cold, you can skip the piece.

A few years ago, Dollhouse, co-produced by Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku and starring Dushku, premiered and I watched a couple of episodes. The basic concept was that the Dollhouse was a place where volunteers signed up for five years to have their brains wiped and imprinted, at will, with other personalities, all to service the clients of the Dollhouse. Dushku's character, Echo, in the first few episodes, played a motorcycle-riding ideal girlfriend, a hostage negotiator, and a master thief, among others. When not in their Doll state, these "Actives" are close to mindless, unable to think for themselves.
I stopped watching Dollhouse when it was airing after three episodes. I just found it boring.

A few weeks ago, I started playing Dollhouse because I was reminded, after watching Agents of SHIELD, that Whedon's shows really need some time to get going. The first few episodes were still kinda boring, so I just played the show in the background for a bit as I worked.

Right around the sixth episode, when Echo started to develop glitches, remembering her various imprints and mixing up memories, it got really interesting. Apparently a unique type of Doll, Echo eventually had the ability to control her imprints and access their various abilities at will. As a result, Eliza ended up essentially playing a badass, take-no-prisoners girl capable of kicking any amount of ass. In other words, she became a character that was flat out in Eliza's wheelhouse, and if that were all the show became, it would have instantly been captivating.

But there was more. Echo wasn't the only one showing a sign of evolution, as the Actives Victor and Sierra, played by Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman, begin to fall in love despite their mindwipes. Adelle DeWitt, the boss of the dollhouse, played by Olivia Williams, began to question the ethics of what they were doing. Topher Brink, the mad scientist played by Fran Kranz responsible for mindwipes, slowly develops a conscience and a moral compass. Various characters are revealed to be Dolls, or re-imprinted with Doll Architecture. There are twists and turns that not only kept me on the edge of my seat, but made sure that I finished the second season in all of three nights.

Dollhouse was an intriguing show. It asked controversial questions and was, frankly, really disturbing. The protagonists of the show wiped minds and sold the bodies of their Actives like property, while we rooted against Paul Ballard, the agent trying to take down the Dollhouse. Why do we do it? Does it say anything about the power of perspective in fiction? Or does it say anything about us, as people? What does that say, if anything? Is the Dollhouse a slave trade, or is it negated by the fact that the Dolls are volunteers? "Our" Dollhouse ends up getting into ethical arguments with the other Dollhouses, who don't care for their Actives anywhere near as much. Where is the line crossed? Who are we to say?

There are a few things in Dollhouse that I feel deserve special mention. Gjokaj, as Victor, is incredible with accents, able to go back and forth between many at will. At one point, he plays Topher Brink, alongside the real Topher Brink, and if you closed your eyes, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The love story between Victor and Sierra was genuinely moving, legitimately touching and hope-filling, which is a rare thing for a Joss Whedon show where you, you know, expect everyone to die. Despite mindwipe after mindwipe, they manage to find each other, and, you know, that's beautiful, man.

But for me, the most beautiful thing in the show is the final scene. Taking place in the future where the Dollhouse tech went out of control and minds are being wiped left and right, Echo leads a movement to take back humanity. But in the process, they lose someone who means a lot to her. At the end of it, she imprints that particularly personality into her, and because she could control the imprints in her mind, that person lives on in her and with her.

Typing that paragraph alone brings back to the forefront all the questions that Dollhouse raises. Is that person "really" that person, in Echo? What about souls? How much are these people accountable for what their imprints do? Does it matter? And if it doesn't, then what does?

But it was beautifully done, and provided closure to a show that had to pack five seasons' worth of plot into two. That's not an easy feat, and that's made less easy by the fact that it's a tricky concept to start with.

It's been five days since I finished watching the show, and I'm still ruminating over Dollhouse, unable to get started on much of anything new. I can't say the show is an all-time great, but it was ambitious and moving. And some parts were just beautiful to watch.

And maybe, in the larger scheme of things, that's really all that matters — that no matter how thorny life gets, no matter how complicated the issues are or how difficult the questions are to answer — we find and hold on to beauty where we can, figuring out the various things in the world that can give us some resonance. A reflection of our own desires. An echo of our own dreams.

Duy Tano is a popular Internet blogger and comic book expert. Check out his blog, The Comics Cube!, at www.comicscube.com, which tackles all sorts of different topics for all sorts of different forms of sequential art. Superhero comics, indie comix, komiks, manga, BD—you name it, it's a valid topic for discussion.

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