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Dollhouse

Dollhouse is a drama about a secret company in Los Angeles who can programme the minds of their young 'Actives' with any personality that a client chooses. FOX 2009-2010

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Episode 9 - Spy in the House of Love

28 March 2012

Synopsis: Topher finds a chip which he fears has been used to change his imprints. Laurence is temporarily in charge and locks down the Dollhouse. When they discover that the chip is owned by the NSA he sends Sierra to their headquarters to find out who the spy is. November returns to spy on Paul but she has been reprogrammed to warn him of who she truly is. Victor heads out for his tenth engagement with Miss Lonely Hearts, an older woman. But once there he leaves her and secretly meets with Adelle. Echo volunteers to be imprinted by Topher and help solve the mystery. She is now a spy hunter and interviews the staff of the Dollhouse. Ivy is in the NSA records but Echo works out that Laurence planted that information and is actually working with the NSA. Adelle orders him to have him sent to the Attic. He shoots her just before being wiped but she shrugs it off. Topher tells her of Echo’s learning curve but Adelle seems happy with her evolution.

The Good: Phew, this is a dense and complex episode. Dollhouse isn’t destined to be light and fluffy anytime soon.

The structure of the episode, showing us what happened in the last twelve hours from the perspective of the four main actives is clever writing. The twelve hours part creates a natural desire for viewers to want to see the mystery through to its conclusion. While the different perspectives of the actives slowly builds all the detail which we need to understand the story being told. And best of all we get a sense of some real character development.

So in chronological order: Topher explains why he always sounds so serene when welcoming actives back from their treatments (to help ease their minds back to the real world). It’s a nice touch to help fill in another part of the procedure. We are also reminded of the consequences of last week’s experiment as Topher is still trying to fix his machines after Echo shot them. I also liked Adelle making it clear she takes full responsibility for everything which goes on in the Dollhouse. Not only is that a responsible and professional line to take. But it establishes early on the stress that she must live under (which obviously becomes important later on). Finally Topher acknowledges his friendship with Boyd by offering him a way out if he is the spy. It’s one way to humanise them and remind us that they are normal people on some levels.

November returns to being Mellie and logically she is there to keep tabs on Paul and his investigation. He has continued to dig and found the traces of the Dollhouse’s deep reach into society. This has led to understandable paranoia about his own safety. The big reveal then comes that Mellie is an active and Paul must live a lie to protect the investigation. This does draw great sympathy for Paul who is in a horrible position and feels betrayed. I still think the tragedy of him discovering her true identity could have had a much bigger impact than this if it had played out over a longer period. But logically speaking, his investigation would have led to his death, so I suppose this had to happen. We are also reminded that the key detail is not the engagements which the actives go on but what the purpose of the Dollhouse really is.

Sierra does her best Alias impression penetrating the NSA and stealing files. It gives the middle part of the episode a bit of action and intrigue.

Victor heads off on another engagement with “Miss Lonely Hearts.” It is evidence of good planning that this was mentioned before when he had his “man reactions” (105). It makes this story feel more organic and not manufactured for the episode. Victor’s English accent is the only clue we get as he rushes past his elderly client and reaches Adelle. Again another big reveal which initially felt like it had come too soon in the show’s development. However what unfolds is the show’s finest hour as we finally get to see the real side of a character (see Best Moment). Seeing Adelle’s intimate, comfortable, personal side genuinely felt like the first time in the show’s history I was really getting to know one of the characters. We see how she rationalises what she’s doing. How he provides her with the comfort and peace we are all searching for. How when she thinks about the delusion she has created she becomes embarrassed. Finally she weeps to Victor when she loses the “real” person she was closest to. She had worked with Laurence Dominic closely for three years and learnt to trust him. The heartbreak of his betrayal is touching. As a result she decides to stop seeing Victor because she realises that she is needed at the Dollhouse more than ever. Her Tongan bar fantasy is even further away by the episode’s end. Finally we see Adelle genuinely believing that the work she is doing is important and morally right. Finally we can sympathise with her, and at least on that basic level, become invested in her as a character.

Echo comes to see Topher and volunteers to be imprinted. It’s another positive stop as we see her finally developing a personality and making choices in her doll state. She sees that Sierra and November come out of Topher’s room behaving differently. She decides that Topher is more worthy of her support than Laurence and wants to bring peace to the upper level of the Dollhouse.

The interviews she conducts with the employees give us some more character details. Topher confirms his needy ego-driven personality and that his motivation is having his genius confirmed and tested by the amazing Dollhouse technology. Ivy confirms her credentials as having studied the human brain extensively. Boyd is more cynical, seeing the pimping and killing as undesirable but (like Adelle) confirming that he sees it as ultimately good (philanthropic is his choice of words). The most interesting of the lot is Dr Saunders who we can see has been so traumatised by what Alpha did to her; she hasn’t left work in weeks and may not have any friends to turn to.

Finally Laurence is exposed as a spy and condemned to the Attic. The Attic we learn is a kind of lobotomised state. It’s a truly disturbing idea when you think about it. When you kill someone, they are gone. Their mind is gone and their body becomes useless. They are usually buried or burnt and the world learns to live without them. The Attic allows for the Dollhouse to retain the capitol that that person has built up in the world by being able to recall the person to fool others into believing they are still alive. Their body can be used and abused and still functions. But their mind is gone, they have been destroyed but their place in the world becomes someone else’s to command. Between that concept and Laurence’s frantic screaming struggle to avoid being put in the chair I was quite disturbed by this development. I felt truly sorry for Laurence and looked in horror at Boyd, Topher and Ivy, seemingly normal people stand by and watch a man “murdered” in front of them. If television can make you feel, I think it is doing its job.

Laurence’s warning to those who ended his life is that he can see Echo will one day escape their control. “Sooner or later” he claims “everybody gets theirs.” That belief in justice is what underpins how humans can live in a world that can be so cruel. Perhaps what is so terrifying about the Dollhouse is the sense that justice can’t reach them or right the wrongs they have done.

The Bad: Still crucial details remain missing which irritate.

We still haven’t seen Paul being a normal guy. Beyond his brief kick boxing in the pilot we don’t know any other version of him beyond determined investigator and neighbour seducer. Mellie’s outing as an active would have had far more impact if we had seen a side of him where he showed some human emotion and frailty.

Sierra’s flawless entrance to the NSA asked some questions which I am not entirely satisfied by. She knew what a particular NSA agent would be wearing, she knew her personal access codes, she knew exactly how to find the one file she needed and she escaped without harm. Yes I know Laurence was working with the NSA and helped out. Yes I know the Dollhouse imprinted her with lots of skills and information. But particularly the way she took on the appearance of one of their employees within an hour or two seemed ridiculously convenient. The greater the heist the more implausible it becomes.

As for Victor, who wrote his imprint? His imprint had to tell him that the woman he really wanted was Adelle and he shouldn’t reveal that to anyone. We have no evidence that Adelle knows how to create an imprint herself. But someone must have done it for her at some stage. Topher clearly didn’t (as he jokes about the elderly woman with her), so who did? That is a big plot hole if it is never addressed.

Another slight irritation is the way that the handlers openly refer to the actives as such to their faces. Not just to their faces, but while they are imprinted with a new personality. It’s still not clear why those new personalities don’t react with more surprise to these conversations. Once out on an engagement they don’t remember the Dollhouse, so it’s just a bit messy to have them witness these bizarre conversations and not react at all.

Finally I return to the question of morality and how that affects the employees of the Dollhouse. Adelle at last states that she believes they have never hurt anyone. Laurence points to Echo as an example of someone she has. But the real question for me is where are the limits of Adelle’s morality. We have seen Echo commit theft already (104) and last week we overheard the handlers discussing perjury (where an active setup up a man so that his wife would get all his money in a divorce). Not to mention the implication that Sierra was sold into slavery for turning a man down (again last episode). It seems fatuous to suggest no one is getting hurt by what the Dollhouse does.

But the spotlight on the bizarre morality comes in to focus now that we know what the Attic is. The threat of going there seems liberally thrown around, so we can assume that everyone knows about it. Is that in the employee’s contracts? That they might be lobotomised and become literal slaves should they displease the boss? Is this explained to the janitorial crews whom Topher refers to? The Attic is outside the law. It is a non-governed prison which removes a human’s ability to seek redemption, which is a major part of the moral code underpinning our criminal justice system. Yet we are expected to believe that Topher, Boyd and others all agree to work for a company which might arbitrarily end their lives. This needs more explanation. It trickles down to make all the characters look less real and more difficult to relate to.

Laurence shooting Adelle seemed like unnecessary drama for drama’s sake. And her lack of reaction also felt needlessly macho and cold. I felt both their stories didn’t need that final moment of action to be effective.

The Unknown: Laurence Dominic is not the one sending messages to Paul Ballard, so who is?

Best Moment: Adelle and Victor in post-coital glow. Having referred to those who hire actives as “pathetic, self deluding souls” we see her thoroughly seduced by Victor. She clearly loves the way he sees her as perfect. “I want the real you” she says to him. There’s no irony in her voice, you begin to see that she means it. The double meaning is clever.

She goes on to tear down traditional relationships, claiming that they are riddled with lies and compromise. But with Victor she can be herself, with no need to hide anything. It’s such a beautiful scene to show the deep seductive power of the Dollhouse.

Then she fantasises with him about getting away from it all. I loved the writing here. The first thing she could think of giving up were clocks. She mentioned them twice. The idea of living on a schedule, always needed, always demanding more of her clearly weighing on her soul.

Then comes the embarrassment, the shame of sharing this intimate personal desire with someone who isn’t real. She hates that she was so foolish to raise her own hopes even for a second.

The later revelation that she cries because of losing Laurence is the icing on the cake. It’s a huge chunk of character development bottled in a few cleverly written moments. Excellent television.

Epilogue: This is good television. Despite the flaws there is drama and real emotion in this. It is shining a light on where man’s growing knowledge about the mind, technology and control could take us.

Dollhouse is in such a difficult position. Trying to tell a complex story in a fun way. Trying to impress a network looking to make money from advertising with a show about how the world is full of big controlling corrupt organisations trying to manipulate people.

At the heart of any television show though must be people. People viewers can care about. Without them viewers will lose interest and go elsewhere. This does a good job of helping us get to know them a little better.

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