Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 14: 1x12)

(Written for the video version)

The twelfth Dollhouse episode “Omega” starts where the last one left off. After Alpha leaves with Echo, Claire Saunders screams for help. Adelle and Boyd show up with a security force, way too late as usual. Topher reports that Alpha used crude surgery to remove Echo’s GPS locator implant, so there’s no way to track him. Adelle suggests that finding out which imprint he used on Echo would help, and she leaves him to that.

Dr. Saunders then mentions that Alpha asked her questions about her past, like if she always wanted to be a doctor.

Topher: “Who can fathom the mind of a crazy person?”
Claire: “The one who made him crazy, maybe?”

It’s a repeated idea that Topher and the Dollhouse are responsible for Alpha. It’s part of the justification Dominic uses for his harsh treatment of Echo. If the Dollhouse created a killer like Alpha, surely they could do it again? However, this episode will prove otherwise in its course. Some things are inherent human traits, and that scares people like Topher because they can’t control those traits that could decide everything.

Meanwhile, Alpha and Echo drive away. Echo is a ditz named Crystal who thinks she’s on a crime spree with Alpha, who she believes is her boyfriend Bobby. Alpha, however, is constantly flipping through every imprint he’s ever had. He tries to explain, but Echo’s imprint is far too stupid to grasp the basic concepts even if he bothered explaining properly. It’s shown that they’ve kidnapped a random woman named Wendy.

There’s then a flashback where we see the original engagement these two imprints went on. Alpha has turned the tables and kidnapped his client. The client wanted some kind of Bonnie and Clyde fantasy, but Alpha spotted the handlers and assumed the client was involved in some conspiracy against him, which to be fair…

So, Alpha ties up the guy and threatens him with a knife. Of course, the guy can’t explain without making Alpha angrier. His partner steps into the light and we see that it’s actress Amy Acker. Dr. Saunders is actually an Active called Whiskey. There’s then a montage of tormenting the client while Alpha and Whiskey engage in sexual behavior, which sexualizes the whole violent incident before the Dollhouse arrives late.

Alpha generally goes after women, but this is an example of him sadistically toying with a man in a manner akin to how he treats Dr. Saunders in “Briar Rose”. Though this may give his torture of the client sexual undertones, neither man is explicitly sexualized. In contrast, Whiskey appears in sexy clothing and moves in a very sexual way, intending to turn on the client at one point. It’s not on the client’s terms, but it does appeal to the male gaze more than being a horrifying moment of sexual victimization on the part of the client. It is not the same thing as women finding Alpha attractive. If Alpha is sexy, it’s because he is sexy. If Whiskey is sexy, it’s because they explicitly directed her to turn men on.

Back in the present, Adelle and Boyd uncuff Ballard and fill him in on how he helped Alpha infiltrate them. Adelle denies the existence of Alpha as relevant to discussing the morality of the Dollhouse because it was an unfortunate technological anomaly. Ballard doesn’t agree; his sentiment is that they should never have messed with that kind of technology. Their discussion is interrupted when a bunch of feds arrive outside to check out a phoned-in bomb threat. Ballard tells Adelle that he’ll make it go away.

He goes out and tells his old boss that the threat isn’t real, that he’s found the Dollhouse, has seen it for his own eyes, and can lead them straight there. His boss thinks he’s delusional, so he just recalls everyone and walks away. Ballard tries to do the right thing, but if no one believes him, he has no real power against the Dollhouse. Like with Boyd, what’s one man to do against an institution that large? Well, this does have the side-benefit of getting Adelle to trust him, so he goes back inside to work with the Dollhouse in rescuing Echo from Alpha, which is a brand of captivity worse than that of the Dollhouse.

Topher imprints Sierra and November as bounty hunters to help track down Alpha. Ballard is uncomfortable with the whole thing, especially when Sierra comes onto him. Sierra is very sexual here, but she is not so overtly for the male gaze as with Whiskey in the flashback. The focus is more on Ballard’s being uncomfortable than anything.

Dr. Saunders helps care for Victor. Victor is still extremely vulnerable, but he’s accepted that he’s going to have these nasty gashes. He recognizes that the Actives are valued for their attractiveness and wonders how he can serve the Dollhouse to the same degree. Claire takes out her feelings of resentment on him by telling him he’s hideous and the best he’ll receive is pity.

We see in a flashback that there used to be another Dr. Saunders, a man. Whiskey’s handler proudly remarks on how popular Whiskey is, calling her their “number one Active”. Adelle walks Caroline into the Dollhouse, and Alpha zeros in on her. Even in his tabula rasa state, he forms an unhealthy obsession with her. This can be contrasted with Victor’s developing sexual attraction to Sierra that is benign in nature. Male sexuality isn’t demonized. It’s just that Alpha’s a creep.

Flashbacks show Alpha ambushing Echo and kissing her. Echo can’t even perceive it as anything notable. It is completely alien to her. If Victor and Sierra were to kiss in their tabula rasa states, I imagine they would be mindful of each other’s boundaries, making sure they’re both into it. Alpha just takes what he wants and doesn’t care about what Echo wants. Alpha’s handler catches him and doesn’t report it, instead telling Alpha that he’d catch hell if Adelle found out. Alpha acts completely innocent and doesn’t seem to understand, which I think is an act.

Later, during bonsai hour, he observes Whiskey’s handler saying that Whiskey’s number one. He is obsessed with Echo, so he thinks she should be number one. So, he decides to mutilate Whiskey to drop her off the ranking. This is before any technological anomaly. He does something incredibly violent in his most basic state. It’s in the struggle to wipe him that the anomaly occurs and gives him superpowers. This allows him to kill very effectively, but the anomaly is not responsible for his killing attitude.

In the present, Ballard tries to build a profile on Alpha. Topher insists this is impossible because Alpha is 48 people living in one brain and this is what made him crazy. Ballard asks who Alpha went after the second he had a choice after the anomaly, and Topher realizes it was his original personality. Ballard suggests that Actives have souls, some part of their identities that is innate and can’t be altered. If they were to figure out who Alpha used to be, they could have a handle on who he currently is. Adelle reveals that he was Carl William Craft, in prison for kidnapping and attempted murder, and he agreed to be an Active to get a shorter sentence. When Ballard and Boyd go to talk to the woman Craft victimized, it’s revealed that he cut her face in the same way Alpha cuts people now.

The Dollhouse played no part in Alpha being evil. Alpha is innately evil. The Dollhouse just made him stronger. It’s part of the theme that the Dollhouse doesn’t have full control and they’re playing around with extremely powerful things, which will inevitably lead to disaster. But just as Alpha’s soul is evil, Echo’s soul is good.

Alpha brings Echo and Wendy to an abandoned power plant, where he has made a chair of his own. He took all of Echo’s imprints and plays mad scientist with the women. During this process, he is verbally abusive. He wipes Wendy and imprints her with Caroline. He yells at her for abandoning her body, which is interesting because it has the premise that Caroline is distinct from Echo. This brings the whole issue of Dollhouse sexual consent into question. Even if you accept the already strained concept that the original personality meaningfully consents to sex in unknown ways with unknown people in unknown circumstances throughout the five years of service, the fact that Caroline is put in the wedge means that she’s effectively selling a completely different woman into slavery. In Alpha’s minds, this offense means she’ll deserve being killed. He describes turning his beloved into an ascended being.

Alpha: “Alpha, meet Omega.”

He then imprints Echo with all of her personalities at once, turning her into something like him. He thinks she’ll join him and kill Caroline as a symbol of transcending her capabilities, except that’s not Echo’s soul at all. When she gets all of her imprints, this means she gets all those women who were victimized by men and successfully rebelled against them. The whole season’s accomplishments combine to making a very powerful feminist character.

Echo at first plays along so that Alpha will let her get a weapon. She pretends to try to kill Caroline, but instead turns and whacks Alpha. Echo is so not going to be Alpha’s girlfriend. She rejects the name Omega that he tries to give her and instead asserts her identity as Echo. She beats him up and rescues Caroline. Echo acknowledges that Caroline is her, but also agrees with Alpha’s idea about Caroline abandoning her.

Caroline talks about how she realizes she has to go back to the Dollhouse because she signed the contract.

Echo: “I have 38 brains; not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave.”

Yes, the Dollhouse is evil! It’s slavery. More specifically, it’s a socialist narrative about capitalism forcing people into roles, which uses the depiction of a literal business turning people into slaves. The show has a problem with catering to the male gaze, putting the audience into a position where they may favor the Dollhouse, and some Dollhouse staff members are sympathetic, but the institution itself is supposed to be evil and not attractive. The whole point of the series is Echo fighting against it. The show is not without its problems, but it is a feminist story.

Well, Alpha wakes up and kills Caroline. He threatens to destroy Caroline’s imprint if Echo doesn’t go back in a wedge. He describes how he’s going to imprint several more women with her just so he can torture them. This could be the setup for some antifeminist sexual fantasy, but Echo doesn’t just let it happen.

Echo: “To ascend to anything, at minimum, you don’t cut up women!”

Does that sound like a show that lives to be misogynistic? Echo threatens Alpha. He shoots her, but then he runs. He feels threatened. The shot is just to slow her down as he flees. She gives chase.

Fortunately, Topher figured out where Alpha might be hiding based on his original personality’s crime, so Boyd and Ballard show up. Alpha fires on them, but doesn’t hit them and has to run as Echo comes after him. He gets away by tossing the imprint to a precarious position. Echo tries to retrieve it, but it falls. Ballard catches it, finally able to save Caroline in some way. A deleted scene shows the bounty hunter Actives cornering Alpha, but he starts to trigger November’s killer persona and gets away while Boyd works to maintain control. It’s not canon, but I think it’s interesting to see Sierra and November that badass.

Echo is taken back to the Dollhouse and wiped, but she acts more evolved than ever. What Alpha did to her was the equivalent of another season’s worth of imprints. It would have happened anyway, but this is a boost. When she goes to sleep, she whispers, “Caroline…”

Claire confronts Topher after discovering she’s an imprinted Active. She says she understands that Whiskey was an investment and after the original Dr. Saunders was killed, it made sense to imprint the “broken Doll” rather than hire someone. She asks why Topher imprinted her to hate him, but he doesn’t answer. I think the implication might be that he felt guilty. Topher asks if she wants to know who she really is.

Claire: “I know who I am.”

She is the imprint, not the original personality. This is another case of the original personality being separated from the current body. Whiskey with Claire is the only person that matters.

As for Ballard, he’s made a deal with Adelle. He works for them as a contractor to help track down Alpha in exchange for them releasing November before her contract expires. They give her back her memories along with a full paycheck. Ballard asks her name but doesn’t introduce himself, saying he’s nobody. Some would call this creepy. I currently think it’s just unrealistic social behavior that goes along with dramatic conventions. It could also be said to be extremely off how sitcom characters pause their dialog while laugh-tracks play. As it is, it’s Ballard deciding that he shouldn’t base a real relationship off of the relationship the Dollhouse staged for his own happiness. He decides that Madeline being free is enough for him.

As for him working with the Dollhouse, it’s morally ambiguous, but what can he really do? The real rebellion against Rossom can’t happen until Echo is able to glitch her self-awareness past imprints, which won’t happen until later. We get a glimpse of this in the next episode, the season finale “Epitaph One”.

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