Dollhouse Review: A Spy in the House of Love (now with added stop-watch action)

That was Nifty.

So nifty that, for the first time, my review involved a stop watch. Be warned, I’m getting even geekier as time progresses.

It’s so frustrating that just as the show is getting even more mindblowingly awesome Fox is messing it around. For those of you who missed the fan panic (and fans can panic): last week Fox announced they would be airing Omega the season finale of dollhouse, which is episode 12, in May.

However anyone who is even minorly obsessed with the show knows that there were 13 episodes, and the 13th episode is called Epitaph One (and it’s Joss Whedon there’s a lot of obsession for dorks). This led to high confusion about whether the show was cancelled, and Fox decided not to comment, fuelling the panicking tendency. It turns out it’s not cancelled but Fox the production company and Fox the TV network are in arguments about what makes 13 episodes of Dollhouse. The TV network are counting the unaired pilot as an episode, but the production company are, so the production company made 13 and the TV network are only airing 12. The two arms of Fox are still in negotiations for a possible season 2 and nothing has been announced.

Joss had been sounding very dismal about the possibility of renewal, but apparently when Fox heard these dismal noises they contacted him and told him that the show wasn’t cancelled yet and another season was possible.

So I’m still looking for people with Nielsen boxes who accept (very small) bribes.

I think that was the best teaser I’ve ever seen.

I loved this episode from the first few seconds when they showed Echo and Sierra wondering around together. What I wanted most from this episode was to see that the dolls were still friends, and that Dr Saunders evil plan hadn’t worked in the way she thought it would. So I was far more entranced by Echo and Sierra’s conversation than the fact that someone was being shot up in the chair (except when I was wondering who the ‘her’ could be and was scared it might be Mellie).

Twelve hours earlier we seem to be in Fox bait territory, with Eliza Dushku as a dominatrix. It’s only as you watch the episode that you realise that S&M Barbie has a purpose – because the themes for this episode is trust and pain (and I loved the idea that Handlers have preferences about imprints, and how annoying some imprints might be). In a more normally structured episode, this may seem a little bit pedestrian. But because the episode was so fractured I think it was really important to make sure we knew what this episode was about.

The teaser grounds the characters far more subtley than it reveals the theme. Over a 6 or so minute sequence we see where each of our major characters are and where they’re going (or where they want people to think they are, and where they want people to think they’re going). Not in an obvious way, mostly we’re just distracted by the hilarious dialogue (and the idea of bonsai people creating bonsai trees). You think the teaser can’t get any better when Topher loses an argument to Echo.

And then Echo asks to be imprinted, and those of us who are so inclined let out squeals of geeker joy.

I’m not going to concentrate too much on the structure of the episode (I have seven other things on my ‘must cover in my review’ list. Although now I think of it that can be regrouped into three headings, which greatly increases my chance of ever actually publishing this), but I think from the strong grounding in the teaser to the continual layering of tension, this episode was very well structured. Unlike Echoes, where the varying tone made the episode feel incoherent, this episode’s thematic unity meant that I didn’t care whether I was in a romance or an espionage thriller.

Our first foray into trust and pain, with an emphasis on the pain came with November telling Paul that she, and therefore Mellie, was a doll. That was brutal – Joss certainly knows how to bring the pain. Poor Mellie – she doesn’t know that she’s a doll.

And as for Paul – I’m surprised his brain didn’t explode from the horror. I have previously been unconvinced by Tahmoh Penikett, but I’m far more interested in deranged Paul Ballard than I was FBI Paul Ballard. I also think he did an extremely good job, particularly at the end. 1

But the situation at the end of that scene is the most twisted thing I have ever seen on television. It’s heartbreaking for both of them.

I loved this episode structure, except when I’m watching the scenes between them, because I do not want to wait a week to find out what happens next.2 At the end of the episode it looked like Paul had a choice between death, rejecting someone who is in love with him and who he clearly cares about, and sleeping with someone he knows is a doll, an action which he has described (and I agree) as the act of a sexual predator.

I think that’s all I’ll say for this episode, I’ve got enough to say about this episode without speculating what happened next. Clearly this is a crucial moment for Paul’s character and I’ll have much to say about it next week.

But poor Mellie…

The other major exploration of trust and pain was Adele and Dominic, and this episode was a series of revelations for the both of them. I’d always seen them as having a weird kind of sexual tension, expressed by his concern for her position, and her occasional willingness to let him use the lift. I didn’t think they’d get together, but I thought the under-currents were pretty clear.3 Which only makes the scenes in this episode, and Adelle’s character, sharper.

But before we could even explore Adele and Dominic, we got Adele and Roger (Enver Gojkaj is brilliant enough that I’ll pretend not to notice the accent). Adelle as Miss Lonely Hearts was an awesome plot twist (one that I was unfortunately spoiled for, but I can imagine was great to experience), and also a real character moment, revealing as it did the depth of Adele’s capacity and need for delusion. Because there is not difference between her and Hearn (Sierra’s rapist handler), but it’s becoming increasingly clear how much she needs her vision of the dollhouse to be true.4

Olivia Williams portrayal of Adelle only got more captivating and terrifying as Laurence’s portrayal as revealed. “Did you think I would show you rage or mercy” is chilling in a way I did not know was possible. Adele as a character is both convincing and incomprehensible – the writing and acting are both superlative.

It wasn’t just Adelle and Dominic, after this episode every worker we’ve met in the dollhouse seems to have unfathomable problems that have only been touched on.5 Boyd is just getting deeper and deeper in it, and sardonic comments about pimps and assassins can’t hide that.

I’ve no idea what Dr Saunders’ story is, but at this stage she must be in the running for the most damaged character on the show. I don’t think it’s what Alpha did, although that may be part of what’s going on. The way she talked about the outside world to Boyd at the end of ‘Needs’ makes it clear that she’s got a bigger reason not to leave the building than she wants to serve the actives. I wonder if she’s a ex-doll (if such things exist) who couldn’t handle the thought of going back into the world. I can’t wait to see more of her story.

When Echo held Dominic out the window and asserted “I’m not broken” I believed her. Clearly compared to the non-actives in the dollhouse she’s getting it together. While I loved the teaser, I was worried when she first got in the chair and asked to be imprinted. It made me very uncomfortable – as if they were showing her asking to be used. As the episode progressed it became clear that she was choosing Topher in his fight with Dominic. Actually there are many reasons why you might not want to help Topher, but siding with him over Dominic makes perfect sense.

Last week’s episode was brilliant, but I was scared that there would be too much of a reset. I was so reassured that we saw the relationships between the dolls continue, and that having her Needs fulfilled seems to have only increased Echo’s self awareness.

I think I’ve covered everything important I’ve got to say about the characters and themes of this episode – now it’s time to get out the stopwatch.

When I first watched Dollhouse I thought the chronology went like this:
Victor imprinted with Roger
Echo wiped of Dominatrix
November imprinted with Mellie
Topher finds Chip in chair
Sierra imprinted with Sydney Bristow

But I rewatched the episode and I don’t think this chronology works (although it is what we’re led to believe happened. We see the time frame around when the chip was found in two different scenes – once in the teaser, and again in November’s imprint. These scenes are from different perspectives but they both show Echo waving at Mellie.

In the teaser, Topher rushes down the stairs, chip in hand, to warn Boyd. From the time he enters screen to the time Echo waves at Mellie is 1:18 seconds. But from the beginning of the scene where November is imprinted with Mellie to Echo waving at her is only 38 seconds. Topher is not in that scene at all, and November is being imprinted by Ivy. So the order must have been:
Victor imprinted with Roger
Echo wiped of Dominatrix
Topher finds chip in chair
November imprinted with Mellie
Sierra imprinted with Sydney Bristow

The chip cannot have been in the chair when November was being imprinted, as Topher already had the chip. Therefore the NSA chip is not the way that dolls were loaded with parameters to give messages to Paul, and Laurence was not responsible for those messages. There is definitely another mole and another method of changing the imprints.

Unless the writers are less obsessed about this stuff than I am, which is a distinct possibility (they forgot that Paul Ballard wasn’t supposed to know where Mellie had gone, and had him mentioning her mother’s). But until I hear otherwise I’m going to use my stopwatch confirmed theory of evidence that there’s a second mole.

Although, I still think the messages might not come from a mole. At first I thought that November telling Ballard that Echo was a doll was a sure sign that the dollhouse wasn’t behind the messages that were being sent to Ballard. But the more I think about it the more possible it seems. If their goal is to break him, what better way than to create a situation where he feels he has to sleep with someone he knows is a doll.

This week’s dollhouse has been pre-empted with a re-run of Prison Break. Which means we’re going to have to wait even longer for more Victor/Sierra (the only thing missing from this episode). I’m going to clearly suffer major withdrawl symptoms. But rest assured that I’m not going to stop a little thing like no new dollhouse episodes stop me writing about the Dollhouse. I’ve wanted to write more about Dollhouse’s portrayal of race, where most of my thoughts span more than one episode. I may also finish some other pieces I’ve got in my head. Never under-estimate my obsession.

  1. This is a bit of a tangent, and possibly an over-reading, but I really appreciated that they showed Paul Ballard notice as soon as Mellie zoned out. You don’t often see such an explicit example of checking in, and being aware of your partner in sexual situations. I thought it was great that a show which is so much about sexual violence and non-consent, also explored some ways to ensure that sex is consensual []
  2. My other, slightly larger complaint is that Sierra’s mission had no purpose, except to show that shoes can always get more ridiculous. ‘You were making fun of our shoes before – take these impratical high heels with zips.’ At this stage they’re taunting those of us who are sceptical about the footwear choices of the female characters. I’ve decided that Topher loads “strange affection for and agility in high heels” into every female imprint, whether she’s an NSA impersonator, CDC Doctor, or Dominatrix []
  3. I was surprised that the people I was watching with disagreed. They were much more about the potential for Boyd and Dr Saunders to have scowly babies. I thought that had pretty much been destroyed by the end of Needs, but I do think Topher has a thing for Dr Saunders []
  4. I thought it was a very effective way to answer questions like ‘Why would the love of someone who had been imprinted to love you matter?’ After the scenes between Roger and Adelle I have very little doubts about why. []
  5. Except for Topher who, appropriately enough, went the other way and spent this episode acting like a human being who has cares about people. Not just the scene with Boyd, but he looked genuinely concerned about Ivy. []
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11 Responses to Dollhouse Review: A Spy in the House of Love (now with added stop-watch action)

  1. 1
    ed says:

    Whoever had Episode 9 in the “When will they dress up Ms. Dushku in full-on dominatrix get-up?” pool, you may claim your prize.

  2. 2
    Emster says:

    One note about ratings – if you can’t bribe a Neilson family, the best way to help the show is to not watch it on TV. Watch it online, multiple times even, where they can count you. I’ve been catching it on Hulu, which for me is better than TV anyway because there are fewer commercials and the commercials themselves tend to be less offensive.

  3. 3
    Kay Olson says:

    Neilson boxes? They really, REALLY suck. Just sayin’. Anyone with one is probably so tired of the damn thing they’d be thrilled with a (small) bribe.

    Also, I am doing my small part to widen the Jossiverse.

  4. 4
    Charles says:

    It’s really starting to get pretty good, isn’t it? I was pretty skeptical after the first five episodes but I think this week is the official moment when I decided that I’m going to be really annoyed when this gets canceled.

    My review of the episode is here if you’re interested. I think the best part of this episode is how much they get into the troubling questions about the more sympathetic characters. Are Adele or Ballard really any different than the rapist handler? You can’t help but feel that they are, and yet attempting to explain why raises a lot of difficulties. I really appreciate that there’s a show willing and able to explore some of that.

    Keep up the reviews, please. I enjoy the blog as a whole, but to be honest I check regularly in the hopes of more Dollhouse talk.

  5. 5
    Kay Olson says:

    I’m hoping that the real purpose of the dollhouse is not a Manchurian Candidate thing but something that blows my mind a bit more. I can’t see where revealing Mellie as a doll to Paul would serve the dollhouse if they want him so torn in allegiances he forgets his cop-itude. But that was truly an amazing and creepy scene.

  6. 6
    Gar Lipow says:

    Unspoiled speculation on the object of the dollhouse: to turn the whole world into one giant dollhouse.

    1)Taking over the world standard motivation for genre villains.

    2) Room for a twisted idealism. If they can perfect the process – so it can be done by non-expert and last without reinforcement (in other words be done cheaply) could have all sorts of social benefits. Everyone lives in dormrooms within walking distance of work, eat healthy ecologicaly sound diet. Nobody craves toys. Massive reduction in consumption. Education becomes very cheap. And massive brainwashing reduces need for police forces and administrators. (Administration/management has huge police component which brainwashing can substitute for most of.) utopia/dystopia – paradise and nightmare in one. Everybody happy. Everybody or almost everybody slaves.

    3) Corporation named Rossem runs dollhouse. R.U.R. original play about robots in which robot meant “worker”. So corporate name fits with goal of turning everyone into a doll/everyone into a robot/ everyone into a happy obedient slave worker.

  7. 7
    Dymphna says:

    Yep, this was also for me the episode where the show really gelled and I really started to sense my future disappointment when (if?) it is canceled.

    The scene that really did it for me was Adelle crying in bed with Roger. So many wrong things happening in that scene, and yet I felt totally heartbroken for both of them. I was tearing up for them, which is definitely the first time I’ve felt so moved in this series.

    All season long I have been waiting to really connect emotionally with a character and I was shocked to find it was Adelle who pulled my heartstrings. Her despair, her naked need for connection, her desire to be honest with Roger and he knowledge of the devastation she would create in him. Her desire to protect him from the truth of what she was doing to him. Wow. That was all over her face.

    Then later when she showed just how callous and vindictive she can be … it really struck me that I was watching someone perpetrating perhaps the most horrible act imaginable against Dominic, and yet I felt love and sympathy for her (while also, of course, hoping that her victim would somehow escape). To me, that is the true grace of humanism.

    I also found the scene between Paul and Mellie to be just heartbreaking. And I’m really appreciating the understated, almost detached way in which Laurie is delivering her lines as Mellie. It makes perfect sense – she tells us in her tone of voice that she’s just a half a step removed from being truly “there” as the person she is trying to be.

    There is so much metaphor for human interaction around intimacy, sex, gender, power, identity. Mind = officially blown.

    My god, I never thought I would be pulling for this series so hard. Really, I was so vaguely disappointed in it. And now I see real brilliance, like beyond-Joss Whendon-fan-girl appreciation. I hope against hope that somehow it will pull out a surprise renewal.

    This episode was so right on.

    One quibble, though — Sierra did not look remotely like the Asian woman she was meant to be impersonating. Couldn’t tell whether the point was that security guy and co-workers just can’t tell one Asian woman apart from another, or whether the show wasn’t really thinking about it and just assumed that one Asian woman can so unproblematically stand in for another.

  8. 8
    Felicity says:

    What Dymphna said — I wouldn’t have had any trouble with a security guard whodidn’t know the woman letting Sierra through — dramatic hair and confidence will social-engineer a lot — but he clearly knew her from dialogue. Ugh.

    I’d been thinking a lot recently (before this episode) about Paul. Not to sound too “what about the menz?” but I was thinking that while he wasn’t being raped, his sexual agency certainly wasn’t being respected by the Dollhouse, in a seriously nausea-inducing way. He’s been manipulated into being someone else’s agent of rape, against his will. That’s awful. And now, poor thing, he knows. And worse, he’s trapped.

    The Mellie announcement came as a massive shock to me — well played, Joss. I spent several minutes after the episode ended trying desperately to work out a way for Paul to escape having to participate in her violation again. I cannot now recall the precise wording of her conditions, but it seems impossible without getting him murdered (and her as well? I should rewatch.) The only thing I can imagine at all is him being a jerk to her in hopes of driving her away, but I’m sure they imprinted her too soppy for that, and they’d see through it, and, well, men driving women away For Their Own Good has rubbed me the wrong way since at least 2003.

    I had imagined on first watching that the content of Mellie’s message made it much more likely Ivy was the mole, but your stopwatching seems to throw doubt on that.

  9. 9
    Felicity says:

    Oh, one other point (presuming my previous comment appears as well…hrm.):

    While I couldn’t initially think of any reason the Dollhouse would send the Mellie message to Paul — especially since it negates her usefulness as a spy — there is one probable consequence of her revelation that they MIGHT want. I think Paul is likely to start trying very hard to track down November’s origins now, as hard or harder than he is trying to find out who Caroline is. And while he doesn’t have November’s real name, he has access to November’s DNA and fingerprints — bonus. So while this is largely a prediction of Paul’s future behavior, if they think they’re more vulnerable through Caroline than through November, they might try to sidetrack him in this way.

  10. 10
    Maia says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone. And Kay I’m oddly reassured by my assumption that you have a Nielsen box.

    I agree about Sierra and the NSA woman, and meant to mention it. I’ve seen speculation that this was supposed to be comment on the fact that white people think that Asians look the same, which is possible (and given that this show has far more PoC characters than previous Joss shows, presumably because it also has an Asian writer who wrote a song about racism against Asians in the media, even probable). The thing is that I think it would have been really easy to make clear which side of the line they fall. They could have had Sierra comment on their lack of similarity, and rolled her eyes that it works. That would have provided a nice character/humour moment, and made it clear that they don’t think Sierra and the NSA woman look the same. Since they didn’t I think it’s an entirely reasonable read that the creators thought those women looked the same.

    About consent in this episode – I think the dollhouse is raping Paul Ballard. It doesn’t have a real world equivalent (unlike Boomer’s rape of Helo, which can be compared to rape by an identical twin pretending to be another identical twin), but I don’t think he’s giving meaningful consent. Certainly if they’re still having sex with her that’s coerced, since it’s under the threat of death. Although that’s complicated by his complicity in her lack of consent. He may not be able to give meaningful consent, but he knows she’s even less able to give meaningful consent.

    I don’t think that Adelle is any less creepy than Hearne. Both their fantasies could be enacted in a concensual way, and both are choosing their own desire over the consent of the other party.

  11. 11
    Aoede says:

    Everybody’s being all analytical and discussy, but I only have this to say:

    I thought I was crazy for not getting into Kaylee/Simon and Paul/Mellie. Now I know why.