Saturday, August 1, 2009

Welcome, Michelle!

For some time now, we've thought it would be neat to have someone to write reviews of new Dollhouse episodes as they air, starting with Season 2. Well when our listener Michelle emailed us an essay she had written about Season 1, we knew we had found just the woman for the job. We're proud to welcome Michelle to the staff and we look forward to reading her Season 2 reviews come September! Once the new season begins, check back here for Michelle's new reviews every week. To read Michelle's Season 1 essay, click "Read More."

A House Divided: Loneliness In 'Dollhouse'

The Dollhouse fashions itself (in a large part, anyway) as the ultimate cure for the loneliness of its clients. An active serving in a romantic or companion-like role (probably a majority of their assignments) is created to fill exactly the needs of his or her client-- in other words, to completely and seamlessly fill the yawning loneliness in their lives. Of course, the Dollhouse does this by completely isolating the actives from any real human connection, including any link to their real selves; this places the actives in the ultimate state of loneliness. In addition, from what we have seen, I would guess that the Dollhouse uses loneliness itself to seduce or motivate someone into becoming an active. Mellie, for example, probably submitted herself to escape the terrible grief, one form of loneliness, of loosing her daughter. On the other hand, Echo and Sam (from "Echoes") appear vulnerable to the lure of Dollhouse contracts at least in part due to their lawbreaking, which has isolated them from others and therefore the aid and options offered by allies.

The physical structure of the Dollhouse also plays into the motif of isolation and loneliness. Even aside from the clear metaphor of the actives sealed into their coffin-like sleeping pods, Alpha brings up an important point in mentioning that the Dollhouse is almost completely self-contained and self-reliant; it is independent of the city structure and provides for its own needs. This independence is vital for the secrecy of the Dollhouse, of course, but it also serves the purpose of severely limiting the actions and thoughts of those inside. (Which makes an ironic contrast with the imprint chair, supposedly representing limitless possibilities.) The Dollhouse cuts off all who are inside it--actives, employees, FBI agents-- from the world outside. Even those who leave are bound by its secrecy (another strong isolating factor) and therefore more or less permanently tied to the source of their loneliness.

As such, the Dollhouse also seems to attract lonely employees, or perhaps the above-mentioned environment of the Dollhouse fosters loneliness in the people who work there. The primary examples of this would clearly be Adele and Topher. Both characters make their livelihood through exploiting lonely clients and the lonely-by-design actives, but they both in turn experience such an intense loneliness that they turn to actives for relief. And while it's possible (particularly in Topher's case) that they were both solitary people before their involvement, it would seem that both their roles in the exploitation of the lonely and the inherently isolationist nature of the Dollhouse has severely compounded the loneliness which they seem unable to combat in any meaningful way. Even Adele's revealed friendship with Margaret in "Haunted" is distorted and then snuffed out by the very technology that enabled Margaret to live again.

Moreover, even internal connections of cooperative or codependence are disapproved of or outright cut off. The bonds between a handler and his or her active, specifically, which would seem natural and even neccisary, are disallowed; handlers are directly instructed not even to view their charges as human, but instead as a pet. Aside from speaking volumes of the Dollhouse's view of its actives in their wiped state, this instruction serves, once again, to isolate any given handler from his or her active by severing the basic human connection between them. Echo's own handler Boyd seems unable to take this step, and is, tellingly, soon removed by circumstance from his position of Echo's guardian to become Head of Security-- an assignment superficially appearing connected to every individual in the Dollhouse, but which instead necessarily cuts off any meaningful association with anyone. (Interestingly, despite this, Boyd seems to be one of a very few who are able to largely avoid the loneliness which plagues everyone else; he is determined to value and maintain his connection and responsibility to Echo, regardless of consequence, and therefore does not fall as deeply as the rest into the black hole of the Dollhouse.)

Other employees fare less well. Claire/Whiskey seems to embody an interesting (and tragic) combination of the engineered loneliness of the actives and the situational loneliness of Dollhouse employees. Though she suffers as an active would if they were somehow self-aware (surrounded by people and yet unable to connect), she experiences her forced isolation similarly to the way Adele and Topher do; as if it is her own choice. Whereas Adele and Topher could in theory, if they were strong or determined enough, break the bonds of their loneliness, Dr. Saunders is by design incapable of this-- but she is made to live with the fantasy that she could, and perhaps should, escape the loneliness she experiences in the Dollhouse. (This duality plays out further in "Epitaph One", where the apparently wiped Whisky appears to have chosen the ultimate isolation of the abandoned Dollhouse in order to help others connect to the mythic-seeming "safe haven.")

Paul Ballard represents yet another facet of the loneliness that surrounds the Dollhouse and engulfs those who approach it. Throughout season one, he walks farther and farther down the road toward near-total isolation. Not only does he alienate those around him (his colleagues and Mellie) due to his obsession with the Dollhouse, but most of the time he is 'alone' in his mind with Caroline and what he believes to be her captors. Ironically, although Ballard does not seem to perceive himself as lonely, he isolates himself in pursuit of an essentially imaginary companionship with the ever-elusive Caroline. Even Ballard's only real attempt to break out of this path, his deepening relationship with Mellie, pushes him further toward isolation. Mellie's revelation as an active (and therefore one of the mechanically lonely) illustrates to Ballard just how isolated he in fact is; the only truly real person in his life is not real at all. But by this point, Ballard has progressed too far down the lonely road paved by the Dollhouse, and is forced by circumstance to continue his isolating investigation; even if he chose to, he could not break free without risking dire consequences.

It is also worth noting that the villain of season one, Alpha, appears ultimately to be driven in a large part by a lust or need for companionship with Echo. Although it's difficult to say whether Alpha's entire motivation is rooted in a true desire to escape loneliness through Echo, or if this was a shallower cover for his sadistic tendencies, Alpha both acts on and represents a clear rejection of loneliness and isolation. Not only do his plans focus on acquiring Echo as a companion but Alpha's "composite event" have also endowed him with a perverse immunity to solitude-- by combining 48 personalities within himself, he can never, in theory, be lonely and therefore tips to the opposite extreme than intended by the Dollhouse. This composite existence is in itself isolating though, and in Echo-as-Omega, Alpha intends to relieve his paradoxical isolation. As the heroine, Echo rejects the composite existence and returns to the middle-ground of a single occupant of a single mind-- though still retaining the ability to connect to others so snuffed out by the Dollhouse.

Ironically, in fact, the only ones in the Dollhouse who seem to have transcended the crippling loneliness experienced by most of its inhabitants are actives-- Echo, Sierra and Victor have created a bond between them that survives wipes and seems to reach the level of instinct. As such, their loneliest and most isolated moments could be seen as not the time they spend wiped, but rather the time they spend on assignments, their brains loaded with false connections to real or even imaginary individuals. The connection between Echo, Sierra and Victor prevents them from fully embodying the manufactured loneliness presumed as the norm for wiped actives. In a way, these three experience the only real connection presented on "Dollhouse"; the untainted, unprogrammed bond between them is the genuine article so yearned for by Adele, Topher, Ballard and even to some extent, Whisky, and it is all the more powerful as it is achieved by those who are intended to be incapable of it.

Finally, "Epitaph One" takes this motif of loneliness to a wide-scale extreme; the entire human race has been isolated from its very self. "Actuals" now a shrinking group cut off by violent circumstance from most meaningful connections other than survival. The fabled "Safe Haven" where no one can be wiped (aka, permanently cut off from one's self) represents not only physical safety, but a place where the loneliness of an "actual" existence in a world drowning in the isolating Dollhouse technology can be relieved by genuine human contact.


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