Dollhouse continues to move in jerks and sputters, but in the right direction nonetheless. The second episode of the season failed to maintain the quality of the last few episodes of the series but offered intriguing glimpses and interesting insight into the central characters.
In this episode, Echo goes on assignment as a wife and mother. Topher has modified her to the extent that she lactates. When the husband/father calls off the Dollhouse engagement, the maternal bond proves stronger than the wipe, and she tries to save the baby from the danger she thinks it’s in. DeWitt convinces Mellie/November/Madeline to come in for treatment, where she runs into Ballard and explains how she came to the Dollhouse. We also see a little more of Senator Perrin and his early investigation of the Dollhouse.
The engagement part of the episode suffers from the problem that’s plagued Dollhouse since the beginning. It’s hard to build three-dimensional characters you care about out of such transient characters. This is obviously a challenge for the non-recurring characters, but even for the regulars who are dolls, it’s a challenge. You care about how the assignment will affect Echo, but that’s the extent. Bringing in another doll, Sierra, to play her persona’s friend just heightens your awareness of how inconsequential, in and of itself, this all is. The writers also play the husband as a dark, mysterious person for the first half of the episode. Why is he so cold? Why does he lock his study, stay away from home, and have hushed phone conversations? Ultimately, he proves sympathetic. You find out that his wife died in childbirth and he’s had problems bonding with his son ever since. It’s standard misdirection. They would have been better off playing him sympathetically from the beginning, given our reluctance to invest in the character anyway. Echo’s breast feeding someone else’s baby was, of course, disturbing. That’s the point—highlighting the lack of boundaries in the Dollhouse. The unbelievability of this storyline was more disturbing. How long was this assignment supposed to last? It had to be relatively short-term, given the limit on resources and the dolls contract. How could this not end badly for “mother,” son and husband, and what does that say about the Dollhouse, the client and even Ballard?
At this point, I’ve come to just accept the limitations of the episodic stories and look to the broader arcs and meaning. And here, the episode delivered. We get some deep and powerful glances into a number of the characters. The choices (conscious and unconscious) they’ve made and the inevitable costs are coming into sharp focus. Maternal instinct is referenced in the title, but I think it could also refer to survival instinct and its cost. In choosing to survive and the way we chose to live, what cost do we exact?
We see the cost of Topher’s amoral curiosity and his intellectual arrogance. Despite his condescension toward Ballard, his excitement is infectious when he discusses the changes to Echo. “I kind of blew my own mind this time…. This opens up a whole new world for us. I made code for the brain that changed the physical body…. Arguably, one could program the brain to flight cancer.… The possibilities are pretty much endless is what I’m saying. I don’t want to use the word genius, but I’d be OK if you want to.” Later, when confronted with a rogue Echo worried about the theft of “her baby,” he’s even excited by his failure. “I outplayed myself. It’s like in chess.” To which Ballard replies, “Not like in chess, like Echo is in trouble and pain because you didn’t think it through.” This crystallizes one of the major themes of the series (and much of Whedon’s work): the destructive consequences of thoughtless human action (in this case science). Whedon, an avowed atheist and passionate humanist, warns us of the dangers of human intellect unchecked by morality, by responsibility to humanity. Evil is not just in faceless corporations or supernatural demons or sociopaths. It lives in people we like or at least can relate to (like Topher). It lives in us and requires constant vigilance and brutal honesty.
We catch a small glimpse into Senator Perrin (I’m still getting used to Denisof without his faux British accent). We learn a little of his motive for going after the Dollhouse. The Rossum Corporation refused to use its technology to help his sick mother. It seems the technology he’s fighting is the same technology he sought not that long ago. It’s no surprise his motives aren’t pure. I look forward to seeing how this character develops.
Freed from the Dollhouse early, Madeline is living the life of the idle rich and seems happy. Of course, in the Whedonverse that means she’s heading for a major fall. Her fear of the Rossum corporation belies her breezy demeanor, as is evident in her conversation with DeWitt. But her talk with Ballard was the real revelation. We learn that DeWitt recruited her to the Dollhouse after she lost her daughter to cancer. “It all worked out,” she assures Ballard. ”[DeWitt] told me I didn’t have to suffer anymore. I go to sleep for five years; I wake up without pain.” She assures Ballard that despite the very real and extreme emotions Echo is feeling, she’ll forget and be fine. Ballard ask her, “So, what, you’re happy now?” “I’m not sad,” she replies. It’s clear where she’s headed. And her choice to hide from herself, to bury her pain, to remain emotionally asleep stands in sharp relief to Echo’s choice.
We’ve known that Echo has memories of her engagements and personas. But the extremes of this engagement drove home their emotional toll. She tells Ballard, “Not remember. Feel. I was married. I felt love, pain, fear. It’s not pretend for me. They made me love my little boy and then they took him away. They make it so real. Every time, they make it so real. Why do they do that?” Ballard responds that he can tell Topher and have him fix it—wipe her so she won’t remember and experience all that pain. She replies, “Feeling nothing would be worse. That would be like before, asleep. I’m awake now. I don’t want to go back to sleep.”
This is where the individual story and the underlying themes and characters come together wonderfully—the examination of our choices and their consequences, confronting us with life in its often painful fullness and asking us to what degree we’ll live in the real world or in our own suppressed fantasy world. Every one of these characters is dealing with the consequences of their refusal to live in the now. The father refused to deal with his wife’s death and almost lost his son. Topher, Madeline, and Ballard (far from a white knight, though we’ve seen little of his motivation) are all at various stages of their delusion. And Echo is fighting to stay awake.
Dollhouse Review: “Vows” (Episode 2.1)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Classic Storytelling