Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 8: 1x06)

(See the video version here)

The sixth Dollhouse episode “Man on the Street” is a break from the established formula of the previous episodes. This is when the show started to get good. It’s not about Echo going on an engagement, encountering a patriarchy, and overcoming it. Echo isn’t even in it that much. Instead, it’s a closer look at exactly what kind of place the Dollhouse is and the implications of the technology.

It starts off with a man-on-the-street series of interviews performed by a TV show of some sort to ask people what they think of the Dollhouse, should it actually exist. What we see over the course of the episode is basically the reactions of the people who watch Dollhouse. Some think it’s awesome and some think it’s scary. Some people want to be Dolls, and others want to be clients. And some call it slavery and the end to human existence.

We cut to Agent Ballard, hard at work trying to expose the Dollhouse. Alpha has sent him a picture of Caroline, and he’s becoming obsessed with the idea of rescuing her particularly. He figures out that this Mark Zuckerberg type of guy called Mynor is a client of the Dollhouse and goes to confront him at the engagement. He runs in to find Mynor with Echo on a ‘romantic engagement’ and tries to tell her she’s a Doll. Of course, she’s not receptive to this and it only serves to further alarm her. Mynor’s security shows up and Boyd takes Echo out of there in the scuffle.

Ballard starts interrogating Mynor, who calmly explains his side. His beloved wife was killed in a car accident years ago. He’s hired the Dollhouse to complete the romantic evening he had planned. They make Echo his wife and he gets to be with her.

Ballard: “And then you sleep with her.”

It’s kind of sweet, but it’s also twisted. The scenario is forced on the Actives. Mynor sleeps with an Active without obtaining proper consent. It’s prostitution and it’s rape. It’s also portrayed as something twisted.

Mynor goes on to speculate about how Ballard has a fantasy about rescuing Caroline and her falling for him. It’s very perceptive of him. Ballard is initially set up to look like the classic male hero, but his desires to fit that image make him into a kind of creepy character. This will become more overt later.

Right now, Ballard feels guilty, so he seeks a relationship with his submissive and classically feminine neighbor Mellie, who keeps cooking him dinner. He shares what he found out from Mynor. Little do they know, the Dollhouse is watching from a camera in the vent.

Meanwhile, the Dollhouse is running an internal investigation because someone raped Sierra. She freaks out when Victor touches her, and Echo says he likes to pretend he and Sierra are married, so it looks like he’s the culprit. Boyd finds out that it was actually Hearn, Sierra’s handler. Adele interrogates him, her body language radiating a sense of absolute control.

Hearn: “You have a bunch of stone foxes running around naked! Did you think this would never happen?”

The Dollhouse is a place where abuse goes on. It’s in its nature. It’s underground, entirely unregulated, and it has a very strong element of persons of authority taking care of dependents. It breeds abuse.
Adele doesn’t think the Dollhouse is inherently flawed. She thinks things keep coming in to disturb her little paradise. Well, she’s a villain. She’s like Lilah in Angel. She’s on the wrong side.

Anyway, Adele sends Hearn to kill Mellie and Echo to keep Ballard busy. Topher gets distracted and leaves the imprint wedge alone for just long enough for someone to tamper with it before he imprints Echo. Echo attacks Ballard, they fight for a while, and then she enters a pre-recorded message state. She delivers a message from a spy in the Dollhouse to tell him to keep looking for the Dollhouse but make them think they won. She says the Dollhouse deals in pleasure but it is not their real purpose, and he needs to discover their true purpose.

She tells him that they’ll kill Mellie, and he runs off to save her. We then see an artistic montage of Ballard running and Mellie getting beat up set to this soft music. It’s twisted and it really looks like Joss the Character Slayer struck again and killed off a lovable character. And then Adele calls Mellie and leaves an odd message about flowers. This triggers Mellie—who’s an Active—and she turns into a ninja and kills him. Adelle watches and then gives another trigger to make Mellie wake up and forget what happened.

This scene takes classic imagery of violence against women and turns it into a woman defeating her male attacker. Hearn is a rapist. He is wearing very spooky clothing. And he attacks poor helpless Mellie. It’s set up like it’s going to be a woman-in-refrigerator death to cause Ballard angst. Instead, Mellie kills Hearn. Yes, she’s an Active, but the imagery is still there. She’s being controlled, but by Adele, who’s killing him through her because he raped Sierra. It’s all very twisted, but we’ve got female empowerment subverting cliché.

Back at the Dollhouse, Adele acknowledges to Dominic that her Actives are remembering things when they shouldn’t but that they’re working on it. She sees Echo drawing the house of her last engagement with Mynor. Echo says that it feels unfinished. Adele is curious, doesn’t have her wiped, and instead lets her finish the engagement with Mynor. We see the two of them enjoying themselves.
Now, a lot of feminists don’t like this part.

Joss says he put it in because the episode is about different views to the Dollhouse, and Echo choosing to take part in the engagement fits in the narrative. It’s supposed to simultaneously be sweet because we care about Mynor’s romance, and disturbing because of the whole Dollhouse concept. I think it works because Echo has some ability to decide and she wants to help this man. This doesn’t make what the Dollhouse does okay, though, because the Actives in general aren’t given any choice. In any case, it strengthens the whole theme of moral ambiguity.

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