Sunday, December 25, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 15: 1x13)

(Written for the video version)

The thirteenth Dollhouse episode “Epitaph One”, the season finale, is a dramatic break from the rest of the show, taking place ten years later in 2019 with a new group of characters. The Dollhouse technology has gotten out. The superpowers used it to fight World War III, and now it’s the end of civilization where most people have been imprinted to be mindless killers akin to zombies called Butchers. That’s right; the Rossom Corporation caused the apocalypse.


A group of Actuals, meaning people who aren’t imprinted, travel around the ruins of L.A. They consist of Mag, Griff, Zone, Lyn, and a kid named Iris. They also take along Iris’ wiped father Mr. Miller. They’re afraid of any technology capable of imprinting them, which seems to include everything that emits light or sound. They head underground, where they discover an entrance into the Dollhouse.

The Dollhouse was abandoned long ago, and the Actuals take shelter there. They try to figure out what it used to be. They turn on the generator, and they’re able to turn on the chair, which at some point was upgraded with a user-friendly touch screen. They realize that it’s a “memory bank”, storing memories that could be imprinted into someone. Hoping for the legendary miracle cure, they imprint one in Mr. Miller, who essentially turns into a Dollhouse Active in tabula rasa state. He doesn’t have a full personality, but he’s able to describe a conversation from the memory. The memory turns out to be Adelle’s, and the memory is of her delivering a sales pitch to a prospective client.

The Actuals can’t believe the source of the imprinting technology came from a brothel of all places—an indication that Dollhouse was indeed aware that they were depicting prostitution. They imprint more memories into Mr. Miller, and we get a glimpse of what happened. An early memory shows Topher accepting the job at the Dollhouse and revolutionizing the imprinting process, which used to take hours using crude equipment. Topher and Dominic foreshadow the end of civilization through underestimating the human brain.

Around this point, Iris says she needs to use the bathroom, so Lyn takes her to find one. Lyn discovers the shower and that it has working hot water, so she insists that Iris can find the bathroom herself while she takes a quick shower. After Iris leaves, someone bludgeons Lyn to death with a flashlight.

The next memory takes place sometime after the events of the previous episode. Ballard is now Echo’s handler. Echo is imprinted to be an innocent Russian girl to help Ballard infiltrate the Russian mafia, and they walk off on the way to the engagement. In the elevator, Echo breaks character, revealing that she is self-aware. She has evolved to the point that imprints are like masks she can take off at any point. This is starting to have some detrimental effects, and she complains of migraines getting worse. Feminists have criticized Ballard becoming a handler because this implies that the Dollhouse is good, but I don’t think this is a good interpretation. He’s helping Echo keep her evolved status hidden from Topher, implying that they’re conspiring against the Dollhouse, and Ballard has acquired Boyd’s philosophy of working inside the Dollhouse to keep Echo safe. Season two confirms this, though Joss has said that “Epitaph One” memories aren’t perfectly canon because memories are fallible, so they can be interpreted on their own.

Back in the future, Iris screams over Lyn’s body. Figuring that someone else must be there, the Actuals group in the chair room. They continue to imprint Mr. Miller. The next memory shows an apparent romantic relationship between Boyd and Dr. Saunders. She doesn’t want him to leave, but Boyd thinks he needs to run from Rossom so he doesn’t put the ones he cares about in any more danger. He hugs Claire and leaves, promising he’ll return.

The Actuals decide to make Iris an official member of the group. They give her a tattoo on her back that states her name, so that anyone could confirm she’s who she thinks she is. She tells them not to tattoo her dad because he’s not the person he was. They then see a figure standing in the Dollhouse: Whiskey.

She has been put in her tabula rasa state, but that was a while ago, so she’s evolved to some degree similar to when Echo was wiped in “Grey Hour”. The Actuals think she killed Lyn, so they’re about to kill her, but then she reveals that she knows the way to Safe Haven. Safe Haven is a rumored paradise land where people can live without fear of being imprinted. They get her to show them the way, and she leads them back to the chair room. They look for a hidden tunnel, but Whiskey points at the chair. The memories are the key to Safe Haven.

The next memory shows Adelle watching helplessly as Victor is stolen by Clive Ambrose, the head of Rossom. Clive has imprinted himself in an Active in every Dollhouse to deliver a message simultaneously: the Actives will now be sold off to rich customers who want the chance to live longer by having their minds transferred to young, healthy bodies. Clive tells her that Rossom influences the government and within a year, this will all be completely legal. Adelle wants to fulfill her promises and return the bodies to their rightful owners once their contracts run out, but Clive explains that if she doesn’t comply, the Rossom Corporation will send Actives to kill them all. Topher looks shell-shocked.

In the future, Griff and Mr. Miller are the only ones in the imprinting room when Iris comes in. She says it looks like the imprinting process hurts her father, and Griff says it does but that he’ll immediately forget about it when it ends, which is an interesting moral issue I won’t get into. Iris coldly shoots Griff, killing him, then puts the gun in Mr. Miller’s hand, walks into the corner, and screams.

Iris: “Daddy’s angry!”

Zone kills the innocent Active, and then Whiskey imprints herself with another memory. It’s the beginning of the end of the world. Adelle resisted Rossom and has been waging war with them. Rossom took Dominic out of the Attic and sent him to kill Adelle, which is what she wanted. He rants about how he knew Adelle would let things get too far. He describes running into a physically adult male person on the street who acted like a little girl, and Dominic wonders if he was imprinted or just decided to play a role because personal identities don’t matter anymore. Adelle talks about how Echo has a mutation that makes her resistant to mind-controlling technology and how she could be used to create a cure, but he can’t remember which Active is Echo anymore.

Whiskey realizes that someone needs to be imprinted with a physical wedge, but she doesn’t know where to find it. She looks for answers in another memory. This one shows Victor and Sierra as their original identities Tony and Priya. Tony describes things being really messed up outside and that Priya shouldn’t ever go out. Priya shows him her new tattoo, implying that she goes on to organize the Actuals. Tony shows her a hidden cache of wedges he’s made.

In the future, the group goes to check it out. Zone talks to Iris privately. There aren’t many of them left and it’s dangerous, so Zone thinks Iris should carry a weapon. He hands her a gun and tells her how to fire it. Whiskey finds Caroline’s wedge, which she intends to imprint in herself. They go back to the chair.
However, Iris pulls the gun on them. She reveals that she’s not an Actual, but instead an adult who doesn’t want to be stuck in a child’s body. She wants to transfer her mind into Mag. She tries to kill Zone, but it turns out the gun is empty. He wipes her and explains that he checked Mr. Miller’s body and found a tattoo that didn’t say “Miller”, so he knew Iris was lying.

Iris is imprinted with another memory. During the apocalypse, Adelle has sealed the Dollhouse. All the Actives have been given their original personalities back, and they pray for better times. Adelle is summoned by a scar-less Dr. Saunders to help Topher take his medicine. Topher—one of the most amoral characters—has become so guilt-ridden that he’s had a mental breakdown. He lives in a pod surrounded by books, toys, and religious items.

He babbles to Adelle about having a genius idea of how to weaponize the imprinting technology. Someone could create an automatic program to call every number in the country and imprint the people who answer to be soldiers. By Adelle’s reaction, it’s implied that this has already happened. He begs Adelle to not pick up the phone, and she promises him she won’t. Topher wonders what would be worse, to be imprinted or have to deal with knowing civilization has been destroyed. He realizes that he figured it out and brought it forth, and he has a breakdown.

Feminists have called Topher evil for his actions. Certainly, he’s been apathetic toward the Actives.

Claire: “A sneeze could cause a seizure!”
Topher: “Or worse, a sneezure.” (snerks)

But Topher isn’t evil so much as deluded. He thinks he’s on the right side and doesn’t care to closely examine his beliefs.

Ballard: “So, this is where you suck out their souls.”
Topher: “And then we put them in a glass jar with our fireflies. Why is there a tall, morally judgmental man in my imprinting room?”

Topher isn’t a sociopath. If shown the right stuff, he’ll care. It’s not quite redemption, but his guilt eventually reducing him to such a state should mean something.

The Dollhouse residents gather as the reinforced door is broken down from the outside. It turns out to be Caroline and Ballard. Caroline has created Safe Haven with Alpha, and she intends to bring all the ex-Actives there. She asks Dr. Saunders to get Topher to make a new scan of her mind to keep as a backup, but Claire explains that Topher never goes in that room anymore, so she’ll do it instead. Adelle confronts Caroline and asks if she intends to kill her. Caroline asks why she shouldn’t, and Adelle says she made her mind up long ago that she won’t beg for her life. It’s left ambiguous whether or not Caroline kills her.

In 2019, Caroline is imprinted onto Iris, replacing the former personality.

Caroline: “Great, puberty all over again.”

Caroline is delighted to see Dr. Saunders, but of course it’s Whiskey. Caroline realizes that Claire would have wiped herself to keep from going insane from the isolation, which she can understand and respect. She also respects Whiskey as a person in her own right.

Well, Caroline’s willing to show them the way to Safe Haven, but the Butchers find a way into the Dollhouse. Whiskey tells them to go on ahead. They go up to the Rossom building, while Whiskey stays behind to release deadly gas. The Butchers are killed, but Whiskey dies in the process.

Caroline, Mag, and Zone go to Adelle’s office, which has been turned into a memorial. They look across at the devastation and muse on how it came to pass.

Caroline: “Children playing with matches… and they burned the house down.”

So, yes, the Dollhouse causes the apocalypse. Though very gloomy, “Epitaph One” is a pretty feminist episode for its respect of its female characters. Any condescension toward Iris is because of her age not gender, and once Caroline’s inside her, she is absolutely respected as an adult human being who can help them. Yes, Lyn’s a red shirt, but so is Griff. In the past, Adelle, Claire, Caroline, and Priya are all strong women. Iris is a villain, but her malice and femininity aren’t associated. Zone doesn’t even know her gender identity until she asserts one.

Throughout this world, there is a pervasive theme of postgenderism, a science-fiction concept largely born from the writings of feminist philosophers. Dominic describes the possibility of a physical man assuming the role of a young girl, evoking feminist philosopher Judith Butler’s conception of gender as a performance. When the structure of society that maintains strict adherence to assigned gender roles goes away, people are free to perform gender as they wish. As for personal psychology, Mr. Miller has a mix of male and female memories, and then presumably Whiskey as well. They presumably would be able to perfectly conceptualize their bodies as of different genders. As the writers likely had no grounding in transsexual concepts, I don’t think there is any firm gender identity in the Dollhouse universe, and thus transgendered imprints wouldn’t come along with gender dysphoria. The result is that these Actives are humans that can pass seamlessly into different genders, resembling ideas suggested by feminist philosopher Donna Haraway. When humans can be like this, there’s no real point to sexism. Science-fiction writers weren’t really writing about gender in this way until feminist philosophers explored that territory.

As I end my analyses of season one, I’d like to return to a question asked by Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency:

“If we’re not supposed to like the Dollhouse, then why are we sympathetic to its characters?”

Because it’s a messed up universe where you’re never sure who’s good and who’s bad. Some people are definitely pretty bad and some people are definitely pretty good, but there’s a lot of grey. The good guys have faults and the bad guys are sympathetic. Even the worst people have a few insights that shouldn’t be discounted because of the source. That’s pretty much what real life is like. You may have missed it with all the vampires running around, but Buffy reflected real life in that aspect too.

Buffy: “Does it ever get easy?”
Giles: “You mean life?”
Buffy: “Yeah. Does it get easy?”
Giles: “What do you want me to say?”
Buffy: “Lie to me.”
Giles: “Yes, it's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.”
Buffy: “…Liar.”

The Buffy series is for teens. Buffy has to learn as a lesson that this simplistic model is a lie. Dollhouse is for adults, who are expected to already know that. That Dollhouse doesn’t say anything more than “nothing is what it appears to be” isn’t Joss being shifty so he can make misogyny look good; it’s a sign of complex art.

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