Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 11: 1x09)

(Written for the video version)

The ninth Dollhouse episode “A Spy in the House of Love” is a partially nonlinear story following the four main Actives in separate storylines that intersect with each other. The first part is a set up that doesn’t follow anyone specifically.

It starts out with Echo as a dominatrix talking to Boyd about her job. I have issues with the portrayal of BDSM here, but I’ll leave that to the previous post “S&M Barbie”. I’ll just point out that Echo’s outfit is incredibly revealing and even though she’s supposed to be dominant, she comes off as just a sex object for the male gaze. Anyway, she talks to Boyd about the importance of trust and how it’s beautiful when a submissive trusts a dominant enough to submit to her. Boyd talks about how it’s dangerous to trust people, and it has the implication that the Dollhouse can’t be trusted and he feels bad for lying to her. Trust and specifically misguided trust is the theme of the episode.


As Boyd and Echo approach the Dollhouse entrance, they run into Ramirez and Victor on their way out. Victor has been rented for a romantic engagement by this elderly woman named Katherine for the tenth time. A lot of jokes are made about this, specifically in regard to her age. Boyd, Ramirez, and Topher all seem to think Katherine is pathetic for lusting after Victor to that degree. On the other hand, Nolan rents Sierra for more times and not a single joke is made about him. Maybe if he was elderly, there would be some comments, but I think that would fit into the “dirty old man” stereotype and not be unexpected. Katherine, however, is expected to be asexual or at least satisfied without fulfilling her sexual drive.

Anyway, Echo’s wiped. Ivy tries to handle the process alone, but Topher derides her attempt because she doesn’t sound sensitive enough when talking to Echo. While Dr. Saunders checks Echo out, Boyd talks to her about how he’s uncomfortable with Echo engaging in BDSM activities, which again turns into a statement against the Dollhouse. Dr. Saunders says that the Dollhouse is flawed, but that she’s not exactly on Boyd’s side. The implication is that Boyd has been annoying her because she’s not as militantly anti-Dollhouse as him.

Topher comes to Boyd to tell him that he’s found evidence of a spy in the Dollhouse who has been messing with imprints. Dominic springs into action and imprints Sierra into a larger than life secret agent so she can infiltrate the NSA and steal data that will reveal the spy’s identity. Echo then wanders in to the imprinting room and notes that something’s wrong and says she wants to help. Topher thinks that the idea of an Active in her tabula rasa state offering to help is absurd, but Echo sits down in the chair and tells him to imprint her. That scene in the last episode where Topher explained the process to her made an impression. Even if she doesn’t have the episodic memory, she has the information. Topher agrees, and he imprints her as a back-up spy-hunter.

The episode then breaks into separate storylines. The first follows November, imprinted to be Mellie. Mellie had broken up with Ballard, but she now goes back to him. Ballard has become obsessed and paranoid. He explains how he’s figured out that the Dollhouse is bigger than he thought and that the L.A. building is somewhere underground. Mellie has been programmed both to find out what he knows and to distract him from his search. She romances him and then spaces out as a message is triggered. The spy imprinted her to give Ballard the message that Mellie was created to spy on him and not to tell her anything about his investigation and to just play along. Ballard is shocked to find out that the whole person he knows is artificial, but he manages to play along and pretend to date her. The implications of him now essentially acting as a client will be explored in the next episode.

We cut to Sierra’s storyline. She’s essentially James Bond if he was a hot female Active. She’s got some pretty cool stuff, but she’s unnecessarily sexualized. The big problem is the heels. They’re like fetish accessories. They zip. From what I can gather from a blog comment Joss made, this was the decision of costume designer Shawna Trpsic, who possibly was influenced by the actresses wanting to look sexy. Well, it’s unnecessary and impractical when you’re running from guys with guns. The whole reason Sierra’s the Active for the job is that she can look like this Asian woman and take her place. Unfortunately, not all Asian people look alike, especially those two. Bottom line, it’s a cool role with Sierra as a strong female fighter, but it comes off as mostly fan service.

The next storyline is Victor’s. He’s imprinted with this suave personality straight out of a romance novel. Ramirez takes him to see Katherine. Victor meets her with a bouquet of roses, but then he walks out the back door and drives to another house, where he’s met by the real client: Adelle DeWitt. Adelle has thus far come off as cold, but she reveals a vulnerable side to Victor. She is actually very lonely and gets something out of being with a man programmed to be her fantasy. Her fantasy man is strong, impulsive, and idealistic. He tosses her cell phone into the ocean so she won’t be distracted by work, which she is pleased by even if she acknowledges it was probably bad.

They spar and Adelle works off her emotional issues. She gets a surge of anger and nicks Victor’s arm. They fight furiously and he wins. This immediately transitions into them having sex. I think it’s interesting that Adelle desires someone roughly on her level. She’s fine with being able to cut him, but also fine with him beating her in the end. He tells her that they should run away together. She finds the idea appealing. I get the sense that she’s tired of running the Dollhouse and even though she insists that their work is humanitarian, she has her doubts, which makes her in an especially precarious moral position given that she’s actually using an Active romantically. She insists that she can’t leave her life, telling Victor that he has to trust her. Victor says he trusts her completely.

It’s interesting how Adelle is a woman abusing Victor, a guy. Normally, this kind of situation involves a man using a woman. Victor is put into a submissive and vulnerable position, which is not something we’re used to seeing with men. This won’t be the last time we see Victor put there either.

After Adelle gets dressed, she breaks down in tears. She’s unsatisfied with her life and possibly feeling bad for abusing Victor’s trust. There’s a sentiment among some feminists that strong female characters can’t show any vulnerability or they’re antifeminist, but I think showing her weakness makes her a fuller character and makes her strength more meaningful.

We then see Echo’s imprint, an enthusiastic investigator.

Topher: “She reads body language, knows advanced interrogation techniques, and she’s rockin’ a little Sherlock Holmes.”

Dominic hates the idea because he already sent Sierra to uncover the spy, but then Echo reveals that Topher is one of her suspects. Because Dominic likes to see Topher suffer, he allows her investigation so she can interrogate him. There’s a montage of interrogation clips. Topher mainly just brags about being a genius, and then Ivy complains about her job. She’s an intelligent Dollhouse scientist, but her job has been reduced to getting Topher snacks. This is a weird thing I wish they addressed more in the show. It is disappointing that they had a character like her relegated to being Topher’s babysitter. I guess it ties into Topher being a jerk, but they still could have had her contributing something. Ivy snaps that she could have dismantled and reassembled the equipment without Topher ever knowing, which makes her look suspicious.

Next, we have Boyd saying that they’re “pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way”. I think it’s supposed to be an ironic statement where he doesn’t agree with the Dollhouse, but he’s going along with what they say about being humanitarians. Echo again says that she feels she can trust Boyd.

Next, she interrogates Dr. Saunders. Echo finds it suspicious that she devotes her entire time to work. She never goes home and doesn’t have any friends outside of work. Dr. Saunders insists that she’s there to help the Actives, which is an interesting look into her psychology. She has to explain why she’s there, and she rationalizes that it’s to help the Actives. Only, what does she actually think about the Dollhouse? Dominic interrupts with the news that Sierra retrieved the data. He’s tickled by the news.

It turns out to be Ivy. She insists that she’s innocent, but Dominic doesn’t care. He tells her she’ll be sent to the Attic. He has Topher explain what that means. “It’s a mental suck,” he explains. “You know that feeling you get when a name is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t say it? It’s like that, but with every thought you never had.” This is another indication that we are not supposed to regard the Dollhouse as the good faction.

However, Echo says Ivy’s innocent. Dominic is the spy. He was tense when Echo was investigating but relaxed when Sierra retrieved the data he knew would blame Ivy. Dominic tries to kill everyone and blame it on Echo, who he’ll say was another Alpha. He tells Echo she’s a doll and a broken one. Echo glitches, remembering Dominic trying to kill her in “True Believer”. There’s a big fight. Ivy and Topher just hide. Eventually, Echo wins, growling, “I’m not broken!”

Echo strongarms Dominic to Adelle’s house. Dominic claims that the Dollhouse hurts people like Echo, which is of course ironic coming from him, so Adelle doesn’t give it much thought. She asks Dominic why the NSA wants to take down the Dollhouse, and he answers that they’re actually trying to keep it hidden. If the technology ever becomes public, it will cause disaster. It’s actually safer for the rest of the world if the Dollhouse continues to function. The way Adelle reacts incredulously to this makes me think that she wants the Dollhouse technology to go public so that she doesn’t have to have such a stressful job and that she might not even believe that the work is humanitarian. She feels burned by Dominic’s abuse of her trust and coldly has him sent to the Attic, but first they’ll make a copy of his mind so they can imprint him on an Active from time to time to answer any check-ins the NSA does.

On the way to the Dollhouse, Echo tries to taunt Dominic, but he’s accepted his fate. He’s smiling because he knows that Echo will bring the Dollhouse down. This is why he hated her so much. She’ll bring it down and the Dollhouse will never see it coming.

Dominic is forced into the chair so they can mind-wipe him. He grabs a gun and tries to kill himself. In the struggle, Adelle is shot. And then he’s wiped. The camera lingers over his pain. I think that’s important to acknowledge because there has been some criticism over how the camera loves torture of female characters on this show. The truth is that it’s just a violent show in general.

Topher reports to Adelle outside. She gives orders and then wonders why she didn’t see through Dominic’s guise, thinking that Topher had and that’s why he imprinted Echo. Topher admits that it was actually Echo who suggested it, that Dr. Saunders’ exercise didn’t actually work, and she’s still evolving. He offers to wipe her again, but Adelle sees value in letting Echo evolve. Dominic was the one who was most determined to take her out and now Echo just saved the Dollhouse by protecting herself against him. As Dominic said, even after everything, Adelle doesn’t see Echo as a threat. That doesn’t mean she’s right.

Adelle then cancels further engagements with Victor, saying Katherine realized that it was an unwise indiscretion. Adelle is patched up by Dr. Saunders. I want to note that she comes off as completely dominant here without being sexualized at all. Dr. Saunders tries to reach out to her, and Adelle pushes her away, treating her as a subordinate. This is what Domme!Echo should have been. Adelle looks vulnerable for just a moment as she looks at Victor, but quickly reins it in as she returns to her job.

Adelle gives Dominic’s old job to Boyd, meaning that some guy named Travis would then be Echo’s handler. Travis goes through the routine to imprint in Echo absolute trust in him. Echo resists the new imprint and stares at Boyd when saying she’ll trust Travis. It doesn’t work. Echo trusts Boyd because she knows Boyd and this imprinting thing isn’t driving her trust anymore. The Dollhouse doesn’t control her nearly as much as they would like to think, and this will be their end.

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