Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Michelle's Review Corner: "Vows"

Season 2 is here, and as promised over the summer, our listener and friend Michelle has kindly offered to lend her talents to providing you with written reviews of each new episode as a supplement to the podcast. So come back here each week, not only to read the latest Dollhouse news and hear the most recent episodes of Echo Alert, but also to read Michelle's awesome reviews!

Click "Read More" to see Michelle's review after the jump, and feel free to make use of the comment box below it to get a discussion going! We're a community and we live on your feedback.

Hey everyone! It’s beyond awesome to be here at Echo Alert, and I’m looking forward to analyzing the sure-to-be-amazing episodes of season two. I hope you enjoy them!


Echo (“Rona”) is working with/for Ballard in trying to catch a weapons smuggler named Martin Klar, who he couldn’t nab when he was an actual FBI agent. This includes Echo marrying the guy while Ballard pretends to be her cop-partner. During a treatment break, Adele tries to sell Ballard on becoming Echo’s handler, since a) her current handler is kind of a joke, b) Echo really should be in the attic by now, may end up there anyway and needs someone in her corner, and c) Adele very clearly wants him on her side, such as it is. Ballard turns her down. Back on the case, the Klar’s minion finds out about Echo’s “double” life, and when Klar tries to beat information out of her, Echo starts glitching in and out of past personalities. Klar takes Echo and his bombs to a fancy private airplane hanger where a deal is apparently going down, until Ballard walks into the snake pit because he (and not Echo’s actual handler) realized that she was in danger, and not just being a newlywed. Echo is slipping in and out of various personalities and Ballard starts haranguing and then hitting her which, I won’t lie, is not easy to watch, until she snaps into the ninja-fighter personality she was given in “Man On the Street” and starts attacking everyone in roundhouse-kick range (and then some.) Ultimately, Echo grabs onto the roof of her erstwhile husband’s car until she can toss one his precious bombs through the window. They both get out in time, but Ballard nabs Martin successfully. Wiped and back in the Dollhouse, Echo confides in an apologetic Ballard that she does in fact remember all of her previous personalities, and wants to find not just Caroline, but the “lost” personalities of all the Dollhouse Actives. Ballard agrees to become Echo’s handler.

Meanwhile, an understandably very bitter Claire Saunders is unleashing her pain on any and every available source. She torments Topher with Bride of Frankenstein images and rats, is openly hostile to Echo (who calls her “Whiskey” after remembering a mutual engagement of an ambiguous variety) and rejects Boyd’s attempts to coax her out of the Dollhouse by listing the fears and phobias Topher has imprinted her with. Claire ends up sneaking into Topher’s sad little cot in the server room and more-or-less attempting to seduce him; but instead of a(nother) sex scene we get a touching and surprisingly honest conversation between Claire and Topher. It seems that Claire loathes herself even more than she hates Topher; she has to confront her human existence, which she views as selfish and cowardly—a series of excuses that keeps her in the Dollhouse and in Whiskey’s body. Claire later leaves a note on her desk, found by Boyd: “I am running out… of excuses,” he reads, as we watch her drive through Los Angeles, looking so brittle it’s a miracle she doesn’t shatter.

Elsewhere in the Dollhouse, a surprisingly business-like Adele finds herself caressing Victor’s healing face for a little too long, an unsettlingly proprietary action which Sierra later lovingly copies before she and Victor walk off hand-in-hand. Boyd is overly-concerned about Echo’s safety, but gives us some interesting information on upstart Senator Daniel Perrin; he is very rich, very ambitious, and very interested in the mystery that is the Rossum Corporation.


Now, as this is the first episode of the season, I don’t want to go overboard on a thematic analysis—what seems evident now could take on an entirely new perspective by the time episode thirteen comes around. (I will go overboard anyway, but take it with a grain of salt!) That said, an interesting pattern did pop out at me that I’d like to explore just a little. Season one, I think, was largely an exploration of loneliness and isolation on many levels. Given what was presented to us in “Vows”, I wonder if season two is presenting the flip side of loneliness, connections—but for the most part, connections that have been, for some reason or another, perverted.

In “Vows”, we see Echo engage in a marriage, ostensibly the ultimate successful connection. This connection is soured on two levels, however—not only is “Rona” a fallacy as Martin’s loving wife, but she doesn’t even truly exist as the agent who is supposedly his enemy. In no way is Martin Klar’s marriage a real or viable thing; instead it is a false and hollow construct put in place by Ballard for his own ends. In this, Ballard puts himself in the unbelievably awkward position of hovering between both layers of this fallacy (existing as the Dollhouse client and Echo’s “partner”)—all in the endless pursuit of connection he began in season one. Ballard, it seems, is always reaching for something, always straining for the impossible; Martin Klar, the Dollhouse and Echo all remained tantalizingly beyond his reach. Disappointing, and also convenient for a man who never seemed particularly satisfied with what was right in front of him.

But I think Ballard takes an important step in this episode. His relationship with Echo is, for most of the episode, profoundly perverse. He “has” her, as he wanted in the first season—she is supposedly his partner, and actually his slave—but she is also by his own design Klar’s wife, and off-limits. Toss in the fact that he can both beat himself up about what he is doing and stoke his ego by rejecting Adele’s offer, and you basically get Ballard’s perfect cocktail of bizarre happiness. Thankfully, once he finally, at long last gets the bad guy, his perspective changes a little, and he is able to truly and purely connect to Echo. This connection is not made in the imprint chai r, which is another artificial perversion of what should be a natural connection; it might not even be his vow to help her and Caroline on another seemingly impossible quest. Ballard’s true and un-perverted connection is in his apology to Echo (who should not, at that moment, know anything about Caroline). It represents an acceptance of hard reality, a laying down of the chase that Ballard really has not done before. It will be very interesting to see if this refreshing step holds up in the future.

Another perverted connection is embodied by Claire Saunders (who could probably be a thesis is in and of herself) and her interactions throughout “Vows”. Claire is suspicious of Boyd’s new interest in her, which seems to come after her revelation as a “fake”; ironically, she rejects a real connection with Boyd after he makes it clear that he does in fact see her as a real person to whom he would like to (dare I say it) make a real connection. Claire is less intimidated, it seems, by the prospect of being treated as an Active then she at the idea of being treated as human, so she throws her energy into pursuing the most perverted of all possible connections—a relationship with Topher. By trying to play the monster to his Dr. Frankenstein, Claire is attempting to claw out a connection she can tolerate; a horribly fake one, for the self she sees as a horribly fake person.

But interestingly, Topher will not let her do it. He makes it clear that he never intended for to Claire exist as anything other than genuinely human, capable of pure connections untainted by the fact that they came from Topher’s own mind. Even Claire’s existing hatred of Topher is pure; she was not programmed, but made the choice to hate him. Topher and Boyd both prevent Claire from sealing her existence as “false”, and thereby avoid responsibility for her humanity. Boyd does this by offering genuine connection; Topher denies her a false one. Neither allows her to cave to her excuses. Fittingly, Claire leaves the Dollhouse alone at the end of the episode; she doesn’t rely on any connection—pure or perverse—to deal with her humanity. Though eventually she probably must make some connection, it will be interesting to see how she copes on her own, without the perverse protection of the Dollhouse or the pure protection of Boyd. (Assuming we are treated to Amy Acker enough to see it; can I wish her luck on “Happy Town” while hoping it crashes and burns, and she comes back to us quickly?)

The last main piece of this theme was in the contrast between Adele and Sierra’s stroking of Victor’ s face. Both women are connecting with Victor, but in vastly different ways. Adele starts by inspecting Victor’s face as she would a progressing piece of art she has purchased—clinically and proprietarily, the perverseness of which hardly needs to be explained, given that Victor is a human being. (Albeit an exceptionally pretty one.) As she continues, it seems pretty clear that she is not touching Victor, but instead the “Roger” imprint with whom Adele had a “relationship.” Adele clearly has an interest in the wellbeing of Victor’s body, if not any actual self related to whoever Victor truly is. (If I had to guess, I’d say this was a big factor in why Adele authorizes his surgery. I would also guess that, destroyed or not, we will see the “Roger” imprint again.)

In contrast to Adele’s perverse interest in Victor (I’m not really judging her by the way; I have great sympathy for her loneliness) we have Sierra, who strokes his face lovingly and then walks off holding his hand. She is not interested in Victor’s face; she is interested in Victor. Tellingly, by the time Sierra caresses Victor’s face at the end of the episode, his scars have disappeared, and his face is pure. It’s a pretty fitting symbol, I think, for a pair who have so far embodied the only true demonstration of purity—of connection, mo tive, and attraction—on the show.

Well, that’s all for this week; thanks so much for reading, and I’m sorry this was so long! Hopefully I’ll get a firmer hand on this soon and buckle down on my propensity to keep going… and going… and going…

See you for “Instinct”!

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