Ghost: Episode Review of Dollhouse

So Joss Whedon has a new show. I’ve already reviewed the premise. On Saturday night I sat down with my best friend Betsy incredibly excited that I was again watching a Joss Whedon show.

And I was disappointed.

I liked the opening, even though, or perhaps because, it was ridiculous. Clearly I don’t find male fantasies that involve motorbike chases and barely present dresses interesting, but it was clearly framed as being a fantasy. And I thought the opening did a really good job of portraying how creepy it was that she went from being this person to being blank. It seemed clear to me what they were taking away from her.

I also really liked the characters who work in the dollhouse. I liked the relationship between Topher (the computer geek) and Boyd (the handler). For the time being the relationships between the people who work in the dollhouse are going to be the main on-going relationships in the show. I think the work they’re doing is repugnant, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting.

I’m interested in what happens to the dolls in their blank state, and thought it was very well done. There have been lots of people question the politics of the show, but I’m not one of them. I’m fascinated with the idea of a story about people who have been so atomised and commodified. The first glimmerings of Echo’s self-awareness “I don’t remember what fell on me?” and her recognition of Sierra, are great.

Less great, more ridiculous, was the cliched FBI fight argument/kick boxing match. Clearly FBI agents arguing with their superiors is a hard scene to understand on TV, so we needed a second depiction of this where Tahmoh Penikett was shirtless for no reason.

But my main objection to the episode was its plotline (which is not an incidental part of an episode of TV). Initially I thought the biggest problem with it was that it was deathly boring. If I wanted to watch a procedural about a child being kidnapped I’d watch Without a Trace.

I said in my concept review that I thought it might be difficult for the episodes of the week to engage me. Having watched the first episode I think this may be a bigger problem than I realised. Because the engagements are all going to be about meeting the needs of the obscenely wealthy. And while I do think you can tell interesting stories about the obscenely wealthy, I think it takes work that was missing from this episode.

But my problem with the kidnapping plotline ran deeper. The character that Echo was imprinted with included parts of a woman who had been kidnapped and sexually abused by one of the kidnappers.* Others have commented on the clichedness of this plotline. But I would go further, I would say that it was horrific.

The dollhouse gave a Echo memories of being sexually abused as a child in order to make her a better tool. In doing so they were taking memories from someone who had killed herself because of them. They were doing something obscene both to the woman who hadn’t been able to survive those memories, and to Eleanor Penn, who was suffering from these memories they had created.

None of this was given any particular time or weight – they were just plot points, not what the episode was about. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling a story about someone who is imprinted with memories of childhood abuse. But I think if you’re going to tell a story where someone is imprinted with memories of child sexual abuse to meet a man’s need, then you have to say something about it. Otherwise your using that sexual abuse narratively in the same way Topher is.

I think I saw glimmers of that – Eleanor Penn calling herself a Ghost. But it wasn’t central enough, and it wasn’t thought through.

I know this episode was probably written in a hurry, as Joss decided Fox needed a new pilot. I understand that there wasn’t time to get the script of this episode right, and I’m optimistic that the episodes will get better. But I’m worried about the lack of judgement in including sexual abuse in the opening plotline, when they didn’t have time to think it through.**

When my friend and I finished watching it we talked about authenticity and identity until three in the morning. I still think the show is fascinating. But I’m worried about the weekly plotlines.

* Given that Topher did not know who were the kidnappers were this is a coincidence of the laziest sort.

** It seems to me the same sort of ‘sexual abuse as plot point’ which led to Spike trying to rape Buffy so they could develop his character, and not ever try and say anything about the effect of the sexual assault on Buffy.

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7 Responses to Ghost: Episode Review of Dollhouse

  1. 1
    Doorshut says:

    I’m trying and failing to get my hands on a copy of this episode, so my opinion might be lacking, but I think it’s a serious failing of the show to use something so sensitive as child abuse as the plotline for an episode without giving it time to make it right. At the risk of damning Whedon unfairly for being kind of feminist but not enough, I don’t think that there should be a time excuse for putting together an episode poorly when it involves something that many, many people have dealt with. He’s not an idiot, he made the choice knowing what it involved so if we’re going to criticize him fully.

  2. 2
    Plaid says:

    Doorshut: Try hulu. The first episode is legally posted in its entirety there.

  3. 3
    Maia says:

    Doorshut – I don’t disagree with any of that – and I think it’s a bad sign for the possibility of Dollhouse dealing seriously with the issues around the dollhouse that they fell at the first hurdle.

    Plaid – I don’t know if you’ve listened to “Commentary! The Musical’ but every time anyone mentions Hulu I start humming “What’s up with you on hulu, I thought you were laying low after our hooker snafu” – I love Zak Whedon as a try hard.

  4. 4
    LunaWoman says:

    ** It seems to me the same sort of ’sexual abuse as plot point’ which led to Spike trying to rape Buffy so they could develop his character, and not ever try and say anything about the effect of the sexual assault on Buffy.

    Actually the function of the Rape Plot Device was first and foremost to punish (female) fans of Spike, Buffy, and/or Spike/Buffy and this was made quite clear by Noxon and Fury several times. That it completely ripped us out of the nuanced universe that is BtVS and all other hanging issues wasn’t so much deliberate as negligable.

    Though I always find that problematic – “the effect it had on Buffy”. What were they going to do, show her in a rape support center? I’m not making light of that but this is still a show about vampires and demons, not an after-school special. But moreso victims of rape/sexual assault react and are effected in a variety of ways and failing to acknowledge that leads to such attitudes we see in lawyers saying, “well she was smiling on Facebook a few days later, so clearly she wasn’t raped” and people buying it.

  5. …I just got around to watching it.

    I think the part of the story that intrigues me most is Echo’s life pre-Dollhouse… (the very very first scene was perhaps the most interesting to me). What lead her into a position to be so coerced? Who was she trying to help, as she hinted at?? It almost sounded like the Dollhouse could be punishment for some kind of activist-ish behavior. Alternatively, I see great potential in the Dollhouse as being something that’s actually completely legitimised (covertly) by the State, even as the Dollhouse’s operators themselves claim to be illegal, as an arm of the criminal “justice” system, or as some kind of fracked-up social welfare program, a place to dump the poor… altho it doesn’t seem like they’re headed this direction.

    The rogue cop cliches with Tahmoh’s character didn’t really bother me… in part because I think Joss has always exploited (and usually, eventually, subverted) genre cliches… but also because that man (Tahmoh) melts me, and I’m a total sucker for that rogue hero schtick even tho I probably ought to know better. Am I reinforcing some kind of hegemonic cowboy masculinity by swooning? Is it maybe slightly more subversive that I’m a Queer male swooning over cowboy masculinity (speaking of, Malcolm Reynolds = my fiance, but nobody knows that yet), or is it just some kind of internalized oppression? Does it make me complicit in the hierarchies of masculinity that exist within Queer communities? …re: the shirtless scene, Joss was quoted somewhere (TV Guide, maybe??) as saying he was doing his service to America by taking Tahmoh’s shirt off… and I have to admit I find it somewhat refreshing (if admittedly maybe still problematicish) to hear a comment like that being made about a male star.

    re: sexual violence, I think Joss probably convinced himself (if he thought about it at all) that he was “empowering” survivors by having Echo confront her perpetrator, but it’s a logic that only makes sense in a law and order culture where retribution and punitive measures are the only accepted responses to violence, which has the result of reinforcing and perpetuating the violence… as you point out, it doesn’t allow the survivor any room to confront her trauma… it also naturalizes violence by attributing it to aberrant individuals (who can be conveniently shot) rather than to the patriarchal systems, institutions, cultural norms, etc that authorize and perpetuate violence. It’s definitely typical police procedural BS, as everyone has pointed out.

  6. 6
    tabatha atwood says:

    as a multiple trauma survivor i found the first episode interesting and gave it a B+. i thought the idea that you can not tell who is a survivor, or what experiences give people their strength and talents, or that extreme strength in some areas does not mean one can overcome their own history. i thought she did bring closure for the eleanor character.

    but last night was C-. it was t&a without point, sadism and violence without point, and i could not watch it- just like CSI and law and orders- unlike buffy.
    i tuned into the last quarter to see what the point was but honestly i thought it was too convoluted. he needs to bring jane espenson back to write or forget it.
    battlestar galactica which she did write last night was great.

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