I’m going to go ahead and quote the im I sent to Tristan when I finished this episode: “ok, that was tight.”
And it was. Dollhouse is back, baby, and it’s back with the good bits and not the bad ones, from the new opening titles (nice) to some pretty clever storytelling and staging. I am unsurprised to learn that Joss wrote and directed this episode.
There’s a lot of stuff to cover here, but I think the takeaway is that I am excited about Dollhouse again, and, quite frankly, I thought that I was not going to be. I think I got kind of ground down by some of the vitriol directed at me over the summer by ardent apologists for the show and Whedon defenders in general, and I was actually almost dreading the premiere, but instead I finished feeling totally amped.
I’d like to specifically discuss some stylistic things in the episode which I really liked before delving into content. For one thing, it was awesome to see the return of true Joss dialogue. Joss dialogue doesn’t necessarily have to be witty, although it sometimes is, but it is often very trenchant and sharp and perceptive, and it definitely was on, as they say, in this episode. I was scribbling quotes all over my note pad because a lot of splendid things were said this episode.
I also really, really, really liked the mirroring with Victor. At the beginning of the episode, we see Adelle fondling his face, and him being obviously upset by it. At the end, we see Sierra repeating the action, and a totally different reception. Something about those little bookends of activity spoke to me, in a way I can’t really fully articulate.
I also liked the incorporation of casual misogyny, which sounds like a weird thing to say, but it underscores some important themes in the show. We have Echo’s handler leering and making a comment about “inspecting the plumbing,” underscoring the fact that he views the Actives as objects, literal Dolls. And then, we have Adelle pointing out to Ballard that Echo needs someone who “cares for her,” and referencing the fact that Ballard picked up important details about the engagement that her handler didn’t. There was a clear message there. (Although, ladies, back me up here: Why was Echo sitting upright on an exam table with her ass in the middle of it and her legs closed for what was clearly meant to be a gyn exam?!)
So, let’s start, for lack of a better place to start, with whatever in the hell is going on between Topher and Saunders. This was a really interesting storyline, for me, because we learned more about both characters. We found that Topher does sleep in the Dollhouse, something which I think wasn’t confirmed last season (and, again, I wonder, is he an Active?), although I could be entirely wrong (I have been before). Saunders also pretty much exploded, characterwise, in this episode.
It’s clear that the revelation/understanding of the fact that she is an Active is devastating her, for all of the reasons she talked about in that very intense scene in Topher’s lair. I noted early in the episode that it was strange to see Saunders programmed to be bitter and resentful, but it’s actually more complicated than that: she is actually growing that way, in part because, as Topher pointed out, he programmed a whole person, “not a roomba,” and people evolve.
She’s clearly messing with him because she’s struggling with herself and trying to figure out who/what she is. She’s on a search for meaning, which is somewhere a lot of us have been, but on a whole new level. I can’t help but note, however, that she seems to know exactly how to push his buttons. She knows his triggers and she knows how to get him, and their revealing conversation strongly suggests to me that they knew each other before the Dollhouse, and he knows it, even if she doesn’t. She also seems to be a bit afraid of her real identity, at the same time, which I also found extremely interesting; fear of the unknown, or something deeper?
Topher’s violent reaction to her sexual assault while he was sleeping also intrigued me, as a viewer. Especially given that he refers to the Actives as objects and specifically says that he can program a “sex slave” any time he wants. She was obviously teasing him (mentally and sexually) in that scene, and it seemed to me like a couple of layers were going on there. If they have a past history together, did Topher react so strongly because she disturbs him in some ways? Because he has trouble reconciling her real identity with who she is now?
And, is Topher the kind of simplistic person who would prefer to program a sex slave, as we have kind of been led to believe through his prior characterization, or does he, as Saunders suggests, want the thrill of the chase? It’s kind of a classic trope, that men prefer women who don’t like them because of the playing hard to get aspect. Perhaps Saunders intuits/senses/or knows this on a deeper level. And, I also feel like some of her attitude comes from nostalgia for being an Active; whatever I may think about it as a viewer, she clearly misses it.
Echo’s main storyline also fascinated me, because I think that in a lot of ways, it was a subtle mirroring of what’s going on with the show. First we see something which repulses us, presented without nuance or apology except from a few hardline critics who are disgusted about it. Then, the peel’s off the orange, and we realize that there is actually a lot more going on than we realized. I can’t help but think that Whedon did this deliberately by putting Echo in a wedding dress and pretty much pushing every viewer button imaginable (even if you don’t think that what happens to the Actives is rape, a wedding is a little much), and then turning the tables. It’s kind of a clear message: trust me, I know what I’m doing. Everything is not what it seems.
And we will be going down the rabbit hole this season, with Echo and Ballard versus the world. Echo’s glitching, like she was in the first season, but it’s far more complicated, and she’s reaching a high level of self awareness which includes the ability to at least try and pretend that everything is fine. This sets us up for some very fruitful exploration. Like, maybe we will find out why Ballard is obsessed with her.
Something else which I noted in this episode was the rat theme. I will never forget one of the first season Buffy commentaries, in which Joss talks about enjoying working with “rat actors,” and when rats started falling out of the supply cupboard, I couldn’t help but think of that and kind of giggling. But the rats were actually there for an important reason, and rats kept coming up throughout the episode, perhaps most memorably with Saunders’ line “put the rats back in the maze, Topher, before one of them bites you.”
There’s a clear connection here: Actives=Rats. Rats are, of course, a classic symbol of and metaphor for animal experimentation, and a small part of me can’t help but hope that they were included here as a gibe at animal research and the abuse of animals in the name of science. “That’s how science works,” says Adelle, but it’s more jarring when people think of human beings being in the position of rats.
Ok, this is getting way too long, but I did want to briefly mention the awesome scene between Sierra and Ivy. Sierra’s imprint dislikes “Orientals” and makes a series of awesomely racist comments to Ivy, which, you know, great commentary on racism, etc etc, especially since Dichen Lachman is part Tibetan, and, you know, therefore part “Oriental.” Clearly that was done intentionally, and I sense the influence of Mo Tancharoen, “the Asian Whedon,” there.
Hey, y’all, Laura wrote a review of “Vows” too, and you can read it right here.