Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Problem with Echo (which is not actually a problem)

Alright, so. I've been putting off writing about Dollhouse because - besides the fact that I've only been casually engaged blogging lately - the series is young, and I felt analyzing the shit out of it was a little premature. It was episode two, and a lot of people seemed to be complaining that "this is not a feminist masterpiece yet!", and, you know, wait.

But, I want to get some writing on it in before the alleged mind-blower next Friday. I don't really want to talk about this past Friday's installment, True Believer - except for Victor's man reaction, which I'll get to in a minute. I want to talk about episode four, Gray Hour, because for me, it solved a fundamental problem a lot of people seem to have with the show, and it made me realize a direction the show could go in, which excites my obsession with the construction of identity to no end.

Particularly after the first two episodes (once again - dude, you have to wait) I read a lot of complaints along the lines of "there is no one to root for". Or relate to, or sympathize with, or what have you. Everyone who works in the dollhouse is evil (Dominic), borderline evil (Topher), or at least has big whomping moral gray area (Boyd). The dolls are either a completely fabricated person or a completely empty person. Well, people with moral gray areas seem to be a staple of the Whedonverse, so I think the answer for a lot of people was to root for Boyd, especially after episode two, The Target, in which we realize that he actually cares for Echo and prioritizes her over the dollhouse itself.

But, Echo is the main character. Though I hope, and think, we will see an episode with someone else in the A-Story (though I suppose it could be argued that The Target was really more about Boyd than Echo), this is clearly Echo's story. And the story we're following is about a person without an identity. And that's a problem. Right?

I think the pilot, Ghost, partially answered this concern for me: we can relate to Echo in an imprinted state, because even though we know it's all made up, it's incredibly real to whatever person she is that day. So we can relate to the main character for the length of the episode, which can be effective, as I think it was in Ghost - especially since we were reminded that, even if it wasn't Echo's real experience, these bad memories were real. But maybe this only works to an extent. Without something steady, it'll get harder and harder to buy into Echo's persona-of-the-week.

Episode three - I don't actually know what it was called because it was, admittedly, the weakest episode so far, the only time so far I've felt THE METAPHOR! was being shoved in my face. But the revelation that Echo was "adapting" to her assignments indicated something important - that Echo does not have a consistent identity on assignments, but she does possibly have a consistent underlying personality, that her self is shading her imprinted personalities. This doesn't really solve the relating-to-Echo problem either, though, I think, since it's not really clear what these glitches imply, except of course plot twists aplenty.

And that still leaves blank doll-state Echo to deal with. The tabula rasa state may be the closest thing to the dolls' "true" personality, and they're, you know, empty hats. Which is why Gray Hour is my favorite episode thus far, and why Victor's man reaction is important (I'll get to it in a minute!).

In Gray Hour, we're watching Echo - not Caroline and not an imprint, but wide-eyed empty-headed Echo, and we find out she's not an empty hat - she's a person. She doesn't just sit around gaping and asking where the massage table is. She gets scared, she thinks about art, she makes a connection to one person and abandons another - she's not a plaything. She's not a blank slate, not really. She's a person who just isn't given a chance to be one. And this, for me, solves the who-do-we-relate-to problem once and for all, but also asks a lot more questions.

Victor's man reaction, i.e. his crush on Sierra, is another example of this. We're being shown that not just Echo, but Dolls in general aren't robots, they're people. DeWitt's cold demand that Victor be "scrubbed" and the whole forced utopia is, you know, goddamn disturbing in this light.

I took a college course called "Science, Literature and Gender", in which we read The Cloning of Joanna May, which deals with identity in a different sci-fi scenario. Sparing the details, since this is already really long, the class talked about the idea of a whole identity versus fragmented identity. The former is usually what we think of as "identity", but the latter isn't necessarrily a bad thing. Joanna May had several outward "selves" whereas Echo has several inward "selves". Joanna May ultimately doesn't become "fragmented", but multiplied, her power increases by virtue of being split up. This possibility for Echo - which I thought of when she uttered the heart-stirring line, "I'm not broken" - really excites me.

Ok. Miscellaneous other things about Gray Hour:

I like the midwife intro, because the show finally winks at us about having too much sex, and because, yay midwives! Even though it seems only the super-duper rich can afford them - or maybe the super-duper rich don't trust ordinary midwives. Whatever. "Yay midwives" stands.

Alas, A Blog took issue with the portrayal (or lack thereof, I suppose) of sexual violence in this episode, which is totally understandable. For me, though, since the people in the show are programmed to consent, I feel much more disturbed by the "consensual" sex that's constantly happening and so far hasn't been dealt with at all. Here's hoping for improvements in this whole area.

(If I could make a subtitle for this post, it would be "And a Journey of Self-Discovery for... Topher?")

Topher knows from the get-go that Alpha would be able to achieve a remote wipe, only thinking it's impossible because he assumes Alpha is dead. If no one understands this technology but Topher and Alpha, and imprints are made from real people, could this imply that Alpha has an imprint of Topher, or at least part of Topher? It's not implausible - if something happens to Topher, how else could they keep the Dollhouse running? I've been toying with the idea that some of the faculty in the Dollhouse are dolls themselves, that this may even be the true meaning of putting someone in "the attic", and this reveal would put a new angle on the exploration of identity. We don't sympathize with Echo's constructed identities because we seem them come and go, sure, but if, say, Boyd or Saunders or Dominic were revealed to be a doll, then how does our relationship to the character change? How does the character's relationship to other characters change? Would they defend their long-term constructed personality or reject it? Of course, I'm thinking more and more that this isn't going to be the case.
BUT, if Alpha has an imprint of Topher, what implications could this have for Topher's sense of identity? Could this be the thing that takes him from witty loveable douchebag to - well, something more interesting?

Alright, that's all. My fangirl is showing.

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