Dollhouse Review, "Belle Chose" (Episode 2.3): On Chaucer; gender, sex, and power; and a postmodern concept of self

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With the third episode of Dollhouse’s second season, the show has hit its stride. “Belle Chose” is the first self-contained episode that’s fully held-up on its own, that didn’t feel like an intermission or unwanted distraction from the broader story arc. While the latter are always the highlights of the Whedonverse, the show needs these single-episode stories to work. When they are successful, they help draw in new viewers and they keep the series from being one giant extended tease. But, more importantly, they give the space and concreteness needed to ground the drama and character development, without which the arc matters little. And, at last, we have a self-contained storyline that works wonderfully.

The episode starts with the best (isolated) three minutes of the show’s run. A creepy young man, Terry (think a twentysomething Crispin Glover in prep-school attire), arranges four drugged, mannequin-like young women in a croquet tableaux, talking to them as if they were family members. A tear eerily falls down one woman’s face. After she is killed following an attempted escape, Terry leaves to find a replacement and is struck by a car.

The nephew of an investor in the Rossum Corporation, Terry is taken to the Dollhouse to be revived since the local hospital can’t revive him (at least not quickly). Topher discovers that Terry’s brain resembles that of a serial killer—the part of his brain responsible for “empathy, compassion, an aversion to disemboweling puppies” is utterly unused. Uncle Bradley (Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Hogan) reveals that he thinks Terry is responsible for several missing women. DeWitt has Topher put Terry’s brain in Victor’s body so Ballard can interrogate him and locate the women.

Meanwhile, Echo is sent on a romantic engagement as the dimwitted, effervescent college student Kiki, who exerts her feminine whiles on her college professor client as they study Chaucer in his office. Victor/Terry escape the Dollhouse, Topher tries a remote wipe that ends up switching Kiki and Terry, and Echo/Terry almost kills the women Terry has abducted. Fortunately, Echo exerts control over Terry and help arrives from the Dollhouse.

The opening scene hooks you from the start, and its power was all the more remarkable for featuring all new characters (the show having had a problem with creating memorable non-recurring characters). Just seconds into the story, I was already asking myself why this was clearly working better than previous non-arc storylines. Here was a fabulously creepy and engrossing bad guy; he had the feel of some of the best villains of Buffy. This was a “monster of the week” episode that could work.

The key word being “monster.” I love complex characters and moral ambiguity as much as the next guy (OK, judging from the Nielson’s, maybe the next guy doesn’t love them so much). But those work well in characters you get to know—in your Spike’s and Mayor’s—but only occasionally in your single-episode non-recurring characters, when you need a reminder of the messy uncategorizable nature of reality. Generally, you can’t get to know these monsters of the week well enough to care about their nuances. Here, at last, was someone unambiguously bad and gloriously creepy, right from the start.

Until the remote wipe, Echo’s storyline was—dramatically speaking—secondary, and thankfully the writers didn’t try to force it to be otherwise. Seeing this professor manipulate this student/doll was an effective reminder of just how creepy the Dollhouse is, an clear indication of the issues of prostitution and human trafficking that remain despite the dolls supposedly willing subjugation to the company.

Thematically, this storyline was very much intertwined with the main one, both dealing with gender, sexuality and power (also very relevant to the broader arc). And this storyline threw some pretty meaty bones to Whedon’s academic (and frustrated academic) fans. The name of the episode, Belle Chose (“pretty thing” in French), was Chaucer’s euphemism for the vagina. When we first meet the professor, he is returning papers on “The Economics of Love in Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath.’” And the rest of Echo/Kiki’s interaction with him takes place over discussions of Chaucer and Alisoun, the Wife of Bath.

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is one of Chaucer’s most important tales dealing with the role of women in the Middle Ages. Alisoun has married five times (even widows remarrying was controversial at the time). She was proud of her control over her first three husbands, tortures her fourth, and then battles the fifth over control. She tells the tale of an Arthurian knight, whose punishment for raping is to wonder the country and find out what women really want. He discovers that the answer is control over their husbands.

“The Economics of Love” is a reference to a scholarly essay on “The Wife of Bath” by Mary Carruthers. She argues that for women in medieval times, wealth was required for independence, and that autonomy allows women to chose who they love. In essence, money can buy true love; it may be the crucial ingredient. The phrase also has the implication of prostitution, and indeed medieval culture (including the Church) talked of sex as the “marriage debt” of a woman. Sex was, to a considerable extent, an economic transaction.

The parallels of Chaucer’s tale with the two story lines (and the larger issues of the Dollhouse itself) are rich. Some of this is made explicit in the discussions between Echo/Kiki and the professor. He pulls quotes from Alisoun where she argues that, via sexual dominance, she has the power. All of this takes on a richer meaning and ironic tone as the professor uses it to seduce a student, who’s really an active (lacking conscious control) he’s hired to play out his fantasy.

The two story lines also deal explicitly, though very briefly, with the topic of identity (another key concern of the series). After the paralytic drug start to wear off, one of the women Terry has enslaved tells another, “We have names; remember that. We’re human, not his toys.” It’s so heavy-handed as to be clumsy, but I can live with a little driving the point home—especially given the nuances of this episode.

Earlier, after Ballard asks Terry what those women mean to him, we cut to the professor discussing medieval concepts of identity: “They were, in a real sense, nobody. The authors of some of the most important medieval literature had no concept of self-identity, as we might understand it. We think of them as anonymous; they didn’t think of themselves at all.” He says this with Pope Gregory VII’s final words on the chalk board: “I have loved justice and hated inequity: therefore I die in exile.”

This was a very surprising little moment. The complexity hinted at by that segment, especially in juxtaposition with Chaucer and the broader concepts, is astounding. Whedon is, to a large degree, an existentialist, a philosophy born of the age of reason and fueled by a modern sense of individualism. But could it be that he (and/or his writers) see how our modern individualism tends toward isolation and selfishness and works against his higher humanistic principles? Could it be that a more medieval sense of self and community (very different from our own) could help make one better able to love justice and hate inequity? Or, does standing up for justice create isolation and foster a different kind of individualism? The very idea of a different concept of self being introduced is revolutionary and something I never expected, even from Whedon and company. This is postmodernism in the best sense on display.

Some other, random thoughts:

It was great to see Michael Hogan, who played his part beautifully but was woefully underused. There’s no reason to think he’ll be a recurring character but I hope the writers find a reason to bring him back.

Enver Gjokai was incredible as Victor/Terry/Kiki. The episode was a showase for his talent. Early in the first season, he struck me as the best actor among the dolls. He completely disappears into his characters and makes them utterly believable. He’s the perfect actor for this concept. This episode convinces me he’s the best actor among the regulars (save, perhaps, Amy Acker).

Eliza Dusku’s switch from Kiki to Terry was perhaps the best metamorphosis we’ve seen from her. Kiki was a little unbelievable as a real person, but as a character a client might want created, she fit the bill. Her turn as Terry was chilling, especially when (as Echo) she begged the women to kill her to prevent Terry from ever coming back.

We again see the disastrous effects of Topher’s hubris in the remote wipe, which is even more ominous if you know (from “Epitaph One”) how the remote wipe will come to be used. Technology unchecked by ethical responsibility is a dangerous thing, and Whedon joins the long line of science fiction authors to remind us of that. But he does it with a very likable and relatable character, reminding us that the hubris is in us, not (just) in some soulless other we can readily dismiss.

The language had more of an oomph this time, more of that characteristic wit more often seen on other Whedon shows. For example:

The ending left me scratching my head a little. Ballard pulled the plug on Terry after DeWitt left. Were they really going to let this guy go? Was DeWitt telling Ballard to pull the plug? Will we see more of a sense of morality from the Los Angeles Dollhouse, from Topher and DeWitt (Boyd and Ballard have frequently shown their own moral ambivalence with what they do).

How will Terry’s (unintentional) imprint affect Echo long term? We’re bound to see this revisited. Now that Ballard knows Echo remembers her personas, will he be conscious of the potential problem here?

If you haven’t started watching _Dollhouse, or if you gave up on it due to its weak beginning, please give it a shot. Despite its flaws, this is too good—and too important—of a show for it to face cancellation this early. The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan has written a spirited defense of the showtv/2009/10/dollhouse-joss-whedon-eliza-dushku.html that’s worth reading. She also has an interview with writer Jed Whedon (Joss’ brother).

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