(Written for the video version)
The Dollhouse second season has a different feel to it. It was pure chance that it got renewed at all. Joss and the others knew that they weren’t going to get another season, so they crammed the rest of the story into one season, leading to a rushed pace and a darker tone as we’re now slouching toward Bethlehem.
The season opener “Vows” reintroduces us to the general concept of the ‘house with its Actives and engagements. It’s made very clear that most engagements are sexual in nature, some being quite weird fantasies. There’s a joke about how the Jonas brothers are frequent clients, and I think that’s meant as a jab at them for secretly doing something sinister similar to how on Angel jokes were made about celebrities making deals with Wolfram & Hart.
One weird engagement involves Sierra being imprinted with someone of a different race who doesn’t realize she’s currently Asian. She at first seems to be sexist and insists that Topher give her a treatment instead of Ivy, but he’s annoyed at Dr. Saunders and has Ivy do it. It then comes out that Sierra’s actually racist instead of sexist and doesn’t trust Ivy because she’s Asian. When Ivy doesn’t let this discourage her, Sierra tries to proposition her for BDSM games. This scene plays off of the way Asian women are fetishized in the predominantly white Western culture, but it doesn’t go anywhere and really just exists as a weird joke to show how bizarre it can be to work there. It’s not particularly feminist, but it’s not particularly anti-feminist either. I presume most people are fairly uncomfortable with Sierra’s bigotry and objectification.
Victor’s slashes are healing well. Adelle objectifies him by stroking his face. In his subdued way, he objects to this, and she backs off. Not because she respects him so much as she doesn’t want to reveal that she was using him for personal romantic engagements last season. It’s another example of that interesting stereotype subversion where the woman mistreats the guy and it’s treated seriously, unlike with Topher and Claire, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Echo is sent out on an engagement where she gets married to Starbuck’s other love interest. Ballard listens to her have sex with him from a Dollhouse van and it’s starting to look like he’s her handler. Echo joins him later and it becomes clear she thinks she’s an FBI agent working undercover to take down an arms dealer. Her handler shows up to take her for a medical examination, and it’s revealed that Ballard’s the client.
Now, feminists don’t like him doing this. He’s helping the evil organization in the way that shows them there’s profit in what they do, essentially being complicit in their abuses. I think given that this is presented as a shocking reveal, this is supposed to show a flawed aspect of his character. He likes Echo and wants to be close to her, as well as continue his crime-fighting work, and he chose to go along with the evil Dollhouse. I did read an interesting idea that he specifically had her imprinted as someone going undercover so that she could consent to sexual activity. I tend to think it’s more because he can work with a fellow agent better, similar to Topher making Echo an undercover psycho in the unaired pilot.
At Echo’s gynecological exam, Claire’s presence makes Echo glitch to a romantic engagement where she and Whiskey kissed for the apparent enjoyment of a male client. Based on the music, I’d say this is presented in a sad way more than sexy, somewhere between “Oh, my God, what have they done to us?” and “Why don’t I have fun with Whiskey anymore?”. Some people find it unlikely for Echo to get aroused by that, saying the scene is basically a male fantasy, but I’m not convinced she was really turned on so much as remembering Whiskey touching her there on a certain engagement. She’s in the tabula rasa state, anyway, so she’s unusually relaxed and objective.
A senator named Perrin makes an announcement that he’s going to hunt down the Dollhouse. Adelle and Boyd try to figure out who gave Perrin enough evidence of its existence for him to make that his cause, and Boyd says he suspects Ballard. Ballard counters that Boyd could have done it just as easily, and the case is left unresolved. Adelle then offers Ballard a job as Echo’s handler. She knows Echo represents a danger to the Dollhouse, but she’s curious about where Echo’s evolution could take her. Reading between the lines, she tells Ballard to keep Echo under control but let her evolve, showing she’s got her own agenda that’s not quite Rossom’s.
When Echo gets back to her husband Apollo—oh, okay, his name’s Martin—he confronts her about being a spy. One of his goons snapped a picture of her talking to his enemy Agent Ballard. He starts beating her up, and this causes her to glitch. She loses her identity as the imprint and kind of becomes the composite created by Alpha. She expertly weaves a plausible story that convinces him she’s innocent, and then she messes up her name, confusing her imprint with the hostage negotiator from “Ghost”.
Martin brings Echo to a hanger where he can kill her. Ballard tries to negotiate with Martin, which doesn’t pan out. When Echo starts glitching into various imprints, Ballard realizes that Echo herself is the best chance to get her out of that mess if she can access the fighting skills from “Spy in the House of Love”. He starts hitting her to try to trigger a glitch, saying to her to remember, in a way coded so that Martin wouldn’t catch on. This could be an antifeminist scene, but Ballard is more of an ally trying to help her regain her superpowers than an oppressive man. The scene is pretty much from Echo’s perspective, so there’s no sense of the audience being complicit in abusing a woman as means to an end. In the audio commentary, Joss talks about the difficulty of making that kind of thing clear, and I think he did a good job. Echo remembers beating up Ballard, starts beating him up for real, and then becomes conscious enough to attack the bad guys. There’s a big fight, and Echo once again triumphs over her male opponents.
Back at the Dollhouse, Ballard apologizes to Echo for not rescuing her, explicitly saying he’s had a hard time knowing how to do the morally correct things. Echo reveals to Ballard that she’s never quite gotten out of the composite state. She isn’t fully ready, but she wants to try to take down the Dollhouse to rescue the Actives. She asks for his help and he agrees. He accepts Adelle’s offer to become her handler.
There’s this subplot with Claire Saunders acting out because of the revelation that she was an Active. She starts wondering about her identity. Who is she? When Boyd asks her why she doesn’t heal her scars like Victor, she says she likes them. They give her identity and security in her identity because if she gets her looks back, Adelle might wipe her. She gets jealous of Echo’s good looks, and for a moment it looks like she’s going to attack Echo like Alpha, but she instead taunts her with a little power game in offering her food and taking it away.
She fixates on Topher, her creator, and pranks him. One prank involves scaring him with lab rats. There’s a flip on the gender stereotype here, where Ivy calmly collects the rats and Topher jumps on the furniture. His extreme reaction is used as a source of humor, but I think the stereotype being challenged is ultimately positive. It reminds me of the Schoolhouse Rock example of a fearful interjection, where a girl and a snake are introduced and it turns out that the girl scares the snake. Claire also hacks his computer and makes it show the Bride of Frankenstein, who was an artificial woman created to be the companion of the first monster.
Claire reasons that because Actives are primarily sex slaves, maybe she should relate to people through sex. She comes on to Boyd when he shows her compassion, but he’s not interested in anything but genuine interest and is supportive as a friend. She later almost rapes Topher.
She definitely sexually assaults him by initiating sexual activities when he’s asleep and there’s no way that he could meaningfully consent. When he wakes up, he actively tries to get away from her, and she won’t take no for an answer. I have some issues with this scene. While it’s made pretty clear that Topher does not consent and that his physical arousal doesn’t matter, the scene is played both for humor and like a sex fantasy for the guys. Topher’s frantic attempts to get away are like his being scared of the rats more than serious drama. The cinematography makes this way sexier than it needs to be, but I’m wondering if Fox told them they needed a certain number of sexy scenes per episode and they just decided to force this scene to be sexy as a way to conform to the network executives but still keep the desired narrative. I say this due to a scene in a later episode where Echo and Perrin perform crude surgery on each other and look unnecessarily sexy as they do so. It is worth comment that a scene in which a male character is the victim of sexual assault gets this sexed up treatment whereas I think Joss et al. are very careful not to sexualize rape-related scenes with the female characters as victims.
The scene only becomes dramatic when the focus is taken off of the sexual assault and put on Claire’s search for identity. She admits that she hates him and he physically disgusts her, which he programmed into her. She thinks that it was to make her a challenging target in a game to manipulate her into loving him, but he denies it. He says that he cares about people too much to do anything like that, which is the first linear indication that he’s not a sociopath like everyone thinks—as opposed to “Epitaph One” in the future. He explains that he created her persona to be a good doctor, loyal to the Dollhouse, who would care for the Actives and help keep them safe. She needed to hate him so that she wouldn’t accept his way as right and would find things he’d overlook.
After this talk, she takes Boyd’s advice and goes against her programmed phobias by leaving the Dollhouse. Actress Amy Acker couldn’t be a series regular anymore because she was working on the show Happy Town at the same time, so I imagine Claire’s storyline was sped up to meet this requirement. Nevertheless, the second season begins with a Dollhouse prisoner making an attempt at freedom. As it turns out, this won’t end well, but Dollhouse is a tragedy in general. I’ll get to that later.
The episode “Vows” is just the season opener, introducing the basic concepts of the show, and I think it’s a pretty weak episode. It’s still pretty much a feminist episode. Echo triumphs against male oppressors and announces that she’s going to rescue the Actives, Ballard explicitly questions his moral judgment, and Claire escapes from the Dollhouse to claim her own identity. The only major issue I have is with Claire sexually assaulting Topher, but Topher does explain why that’s wrong and I can imagine the Fox executives insisting on things being sexed up.