Friday, December 23, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 13: 1x11)

(Written for the video version)

The eleventh Dollhouse episode “Briar Rose” starts with Echo as a social services volunteer named Susan reading the story of Briar Rose (aka Sleeping Beauty) to a bunch of orphaned children. A girl—also named Susan—gets triggered by the story and explodes with anger about how the princess should have saved herself. An orphanage staff member apologizes to Echo, but she’s fine with it. She expected it would happen. She’s actually there specifically for young Susan. Echo thought that reading the story would trigger young Susan because it always triggered Echo. I just want to point out here how cruel it is to purposefully trigger someone in your care, especially a young girl you’ve never met. What the hell?


As it turns out, Echo’s current imprint is based off of a brain scan of young Susan. Topher saw that she was headed down a bad path, so he took her brain model and altered it to a well-adjusted adult form that would make a good role model for her. Echo is her, so she would be best able to help her. Topher had to push Adelle to let him do it, which shows that he doesn’t just say he’s a humanitarian; he actually tries to be one. This said, he doesn’t focus so much on helping the kid as bragging about his genius. Topher stays morally grey.

Echo as Susan talks to young Susan. Young Susan was held captive for years by her mother’s ex-boyfriend, who prostituted her out against her will. She always felt like she could escape if she wanted, and the fact that she didn’t was her own fault. Old Susan helps her realize that there really was nothing she could do. The guy told her he knew all the cops and they wouldn’t help her, so she had a legitimate reason for never asking them for help. Old Susan reinterprets the Briar Rose story as the princess dreaming of being rescued and creating the prince to get her out as an instrument of her will. She advises young Susan to read the story again and imagine herself as the prince.

“The prince is a boy,” young Susan points out.

“Yeah, but that’s not his fault,” old Susan responds, causing her counterpart to smile. This line subverts the traditional patriarchal view of masculinity being required for strength by characterizing the prince’s gender as lacking for not matching Susan’s rather than vice versa, as would be expected.

There is a big parallel between young Susan’s abusive past and Echo’s current captivity in the Dollhouse. Echo is regularly prostituted out by an extremely powerful organization and she’s currently not strong enough to rescue herself, so she needs a prince to save her. The implication is that this prince is Ballard.

At the moment, Ballard feels guilty about sleeping with Mellie—and thus raping November—so he ends the relationship. She does her very best to get him to let her stay, but he coldly breaks her heart for his own peace of mind. He says that she (as in November) will get over it, but he’s being really harsh to the Mellie personality, and her pain for the moment is real. It’s a complex issue.

November has been imprinted to be Ballard’s girlfriend, so Mellie doesn’t feel like she can continue if she’s not, and she considers suicide. Her handler retrieves her before she jumps, though, and takes her back to the Dollhouse. Ballard suspected this would happen and follows her straight there. The question is, do the ends justify the means? It’s unclear, but it shows Ballard is becoming cold and is still dehumanizing November. When discussing her with his friend at the bureau, he uses the slang term “doll” while she uses “victim”.

He searches around the Rossom building on top but can’t find the Dollhouse, so he figures out that it’s a self-contained underground facility directly beneath it. The Rossom Corporation paid a lot of money to a man named Stephen Kepler, who designed a hypothetical environmentally friendly hi-tech office building that wouldn’t consume any outside resources and would thus be effectively invisible. Ballard suspects that this design was used to create the Dollhouse.

At the Dollhouse, Boyd reports that Dominic was mailed a highly encrypted memory stick. He suspects it’s a message from Dominic’s NSA handlers. Adelle suggests imprinting an Active with hacking skills, but Boyd thinks the NSA would have made sure only Dominic could open it, so Adelle has Victor imprinted with Dominic. Dominic freaks out when he realizes he’s in Victor, so Dr. Saunders drugs him. Topher seems disturbed by the whole thing, which is another indication that he’s not completely amoral.

Dominic looks at the stick and says that the NSA didn’t send it to him. They communicate the normal way, by phone. He and Adelle realize that it was Alpha. Dominic guesses that the password Alpha would use is the Greek alpha character (α) because Alpha used to use it as his signature in his tabula rasa state—the first sign he was different. The stick contains an image of a statue outside the Rossum headquarters in Tucson. Boyd does a search and finds out that an unidentified body killed with a razor blade was recently discovered in Tucson. It looks like Alpha’s work, so Topher imprints Sierra as an FBI-trained forensics expert and she’s sent to investigate.

Ballard pays Kepler a visit. Kepler is an extremely paranoid, agoraphobic, misanthropic environmentalist who happens to be growing pot in his apartment. Kepler doesn’t want to tell Ballard anything, but Ballard blackmails him to show him how to get inside the Dollhouse. Ballard notably says that there’s a girl named Caroline waiting for him to save her. It is true that she called him, but this shows how he’s focusing on her to the exception of the other Dollhouse victims, though he does mention Mellie in a later scene. He notes she’s dangerous as a sleeper and says that he’ll come back for her after rescuing Caroline.

Kepler acts really reluctant and rambles about how them going in there would make there be more people in there like the other people already in there. Ballard says “they’re not people.” He’s dehumanizing again. I suspect he’s talking about the Dollhouse staff rather than the Actives, but they’re still people even if they’re part of an evil institution. He’s oversimplifying to match his fantasy.

As Ballard and Kepler sneak into the Dollhouse, Susan starts to read Briar Rose and imagines herself as the prince. Her description is overlaid by the shots of the two men. The phrase “sleeping beauty” is used around the time we see Echo going to sleep.

There’s another reference to the Dollhouse as Eden—a theme prevalent in “True Believer”—as Kepler compares his dream building to the Garden of Eden. Ballard says Eden wasn’t a prison, and Kepler retorts that even the apples were monitored. In “True Believer”, the Fall of Man is referenced as a reason to oppress women and Adelle uses the basic idea when passing judgment on Victor.

Anyway, Ballard steals clothing from an Active to dress Kepler in. He Tasers Topher, which—given that he’s done some pretty bad things—I’m sure many feminists got a kick out of. Kepler tries to disable security from Topher’s computer but can’t break the encryption. While supposedly looking for security patterns, he ogles the scantly-clad female Actives. “I designed parts of it,” he says, “But I did not design the stone cold foxes in the small clothes . . . Don’t get me wrong—I heart my porn—but this is gold!”

His description of them as “stone cold foxes” echoes the rapist Hearn. I mean, it’s a common phrase, but repeated phrases can be meaningful, such as the “we give people what they need” line.
Ballard says that the Dollhouse is a “bad place” as he examines the chair. The topic veers from there as Kepler defends the building he designed. What they just said is significant dialog, though.
First, Kepler is implied to be perverted rather than just speaking for the male gaze. Kepler has been portrayed as weird. He drinks his own urine, never goes outside, grows pot, and has an extreme environmentalist view. Even though he seems harmless, he’s also unethical and gross. So, when he perves on the Actives, it’s as this undesirable figure. He doesn’t speak for the audience.

Ballard pretty much does. Even though he’s got this unhealthy fantasy about rescuing Caroline, he is a recognizable protagonist. Plus, there’s now this prince theme building him up. So, when he shuts Kepler down, it’s meaningful. He’s not particularly verbose, but the fact that he calls it a “bad place” while looking at the chair conveys the meaning that the institution that keeps these women is bad. True, he could go into more detail about why it’s immoral, but what does transpire is feminist in nature.

So, they go into Dr. Saunders’ office and Kepler uses her computer. He directs Ballard to the pods while he stays behind to disable security systems. Ballard first opens November’s pod but realizes that she could turn into a killer again, so he closes the pod and goes to Echo. But then Boyd shows up.

Boyd and Ballard have a big fight, and with Kepler messing with security, there’s no backup coming. Ballard calls him Echo’s pimp in a really accusatory voice. Even though he doesn’t understand the intricacies of handler/Active relations, I get the sense that we’re on his side in denouncing the Dollhouse. After all, Boyd himself referred to Dollhouse staff as “pimps and killers”.

Boyd doesn’t actually deny it either. He does say that what Ballard’s trying to do won’t actually keep Echo safe. They’re two people who care about her and have different ideas of how to help her. Ballard works to take down the system entirely, which is almost impossible, while Boyd works from within the system. Boyd does say that Ballard can’t get Echo out, which implies he thinks it’s desirable but unattainable. Boyd offers to let Ballard leave now without raising an alarm, but Ballard won’t give up.

Their fight has them crashing through Victor’s pod and terrifying the poor guy. Ballard tries to get to Echo, but Boyd tells her to run. They fight again around the stairs. Echo glitches repeatedly, remembering both her trusting relationship with Boyd and her fight with Ballard. Echo determines Ballard is an enemy and helps Boyd defeat him. Now, this has Echo working against her best interests by keeping her in the Dollhouse, but what it also accomplishes is keeping Ballard from the prince figure. Echo will eventually evolve to the point that she can fight back without being dependent on Ballard.

Dr. Saunders finds Victor and takes him to her office. When Kepler is discovered, he uses a scalpel to slash up Victor’s face in a manner just like… “Alpha!” Claire gasps. Kepler Alpha grins.

Alpha’s a lot like Angelus. He’s intimately sadistic in that blend of sexy and creepy. I find it engaging, but I can understand why others would want to say their figurative safewords and change the channel. This doesn’t say anything about whether or not his inclusion is feminist. Alpha as a guy doesn’t have to be a feminist for Alpha as a character to contribute to a feminist narrative.

He caresses Claire’s face and forces her to be his, well, doll. He brutally hurts Victor, but he doesn’t pay him the same attention. His torment of Claire is sexual in nature. Like with Angelus, I wouldn’t say he’s a misogynist so much as an evil heterosexual man who mostly preys on women because he’s attracted to them. In other words, he makes a fine villain for a woman to defeat in a feminist story like this one.

As for Victor, his victimization is not typical for a male character. I could compare him to Enzo Matrix from ReBoot. Enzo’s an energetic kid warrior who loses an eye in a fight with a devil-shaped User avatar. Though his pain is shown as horrible, and he’s out of the fight, he is still a dignified warrior who grows up into a badass renegade. In contrast, Victor has none of this dignity. He’s soft and vulnerable, like how a female character might be. His injury is not glorified, and he instead just ceases to function.

Meanwhile, Boyd escorts Ballard to Adelle’s office. “Did you really think you could walk into the Dollhouse when everyone knows it doesn’t exist?” Adelle mocks in a smug villainous way.

Ballard gets into a yelling match with her. “There is no provision for… for consensual slavery! It is wrong,” he shouts as Adelle rolls her eyes. He turns to address Boyd, “You know it’s wrong. What you did to Caroline is wrong!”

While both Boyd and Ballard are protagonists who have earned the audience’s sympathy and Boyd has Ballard in cuffs, we are expected to take Ballard’s words as true. Boyd feels he has no choice; that he can help the Actives better from inside, but would otherwise want them to be free. That he does not pull his gun on Adelle is not a statement regarding the morality of the issue. Boyd even winces when Ballard says Boyd knows it’s wrong. Though Dollhouse has a lot of ambiguous characters, the statement that consensual slavery is wrong is echoed by, well, by Echo in the next episode, so it’s clearly the message of the show rather than just one character.

Adelle considers mind-wiping Ballard and making him an Active. Boyd disagrees, saying that Ballard hasn’t agreed to it and that makes it fundamentally immoral. Though I can’t conceive of a form of consensual slavery that isn’t inherently abusive, it is certainly a lesser evil than the nonconsensual kind. And just because Boyd’s using this argument doesn’t mean he agrees with consensual slavery, so much as he knows Adelle does and he’s arguing with her. Then Sierra phones that the body in Tucson was identified as Stephen Kepler, who was killed in L.A., meaning Alpha isn’t in Tucson.

Alpha puts Echo in the chair and imprints her. When it’s over, they kiss passionately, and she calls him her prince. They saunter out to edgy music like Spike and Drusilla. I don’t particularly like how the Briar Rose dynamic of the prince rescuing the damsel is maintained, but it’s restricted to this episode. Alpha is not Echo’s prince later on. It does serve the effect of removing Ballard from the role of standard male hero insofar as the prince thing goes. Anyway, this plot arc will be resolved in the next episode.

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