Back before Dollhouse first aired, we argued it would be the best thing Joss Whedon had ever done. Now its first season is ending, and we were proved right. Here's why.
First, let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Yes, Dollhouse had some weak individual episodes. The back-up singer episode, for starters. I also thought the college campus "Naked Time" episode was as weak as a Tiberian milk-bat. This goes with the territory - every Joss TV series has had weak individual episodes, especially in its first season. Buffy had "The Pack" and "Teacher's Pet." Angel had... well, its entire first season. Firefly had "Safe" and "Heart Of Gold." So it's not really a valid complaint to say that Dollhouse had a couple lame episodes.
So with that aside, let's talk about how much Dollhouse rules (and, we hope, will continue to rule for years to come.) Oh, and here are a bunch of photos I found on the Fox press site, most of which I'm sure I've never seen before:
Looking at Joss' career to date (especially his television work) you can see a trend towards moral ambiguity, which has made his work richer and richer. In Buffy, there are fairly clear-cut good guys/gals and baddies, who tend to be demonic or infected with some kind of supernatural evil. And over time, Buffy itself became more and more ambiguous, as we met demons who weren't all bad, and Buffy herself got darker and more willing to cross moral lines to do what was necessary. And then Angel was constantly challenged by his dark side as well. But it wasn't really until Firefly that Joss gave us the consummate anti-hero: Mal Reynolds, a criminal who's out for his own gain and quite willing to get his hands dirty in the process. There are lines Mal won't cross, but we never entirely know what they are until he comes right up against them.
But Joss' trend towards storytelling with no clear-cut right or wrong has taken a giant leap forward with Dollhouse. With the possible exception of former FBI agent Paul Ballard, everybody in Dollhouse is morally compromised - but we can't quite hate them. In a nutshell, the Dollhouse is a modern-day slavery operation, except that even the most abject slave gets to preserve some kernel of individuality and free will. In the Dollhouse, people are erased utterly, their minds replaced with empty vessels that the Dollhouse can fill with whatever its rich clients need. You can hire a good-looking person to be whoever, and whatever, you need him/her to be.
We see the evil of the Dollhouse most clearly in the story of Sierra — she didn't volunteer to become a mindless Doll. Instead, she turned down a rich guy's sexual advances, and he was so pissed he spent a fortune to have her erased, so that he and his slimy rich friends could hire her to be their willing, eager sexual plaything whenever they wanted. And then, once she was mind-wiped and vulnerable, her "Handler," the guy who was supposed to protect her, abused her trust and raped her, repeatedly. This is not an isolated instance of the Dollhouse's technology being abused — this is the Dollhouse at work.
People compare this to prostitution, but that's selling it short - it's way worse than prostitution, way worse even than murder. It's the ultimate evil, and the show has gone out of its way on numerous occasions to point this out. Not only does Ballard explain in almost every episode why the Dollhouse is morally repugnant, but the Dollhouse's security guy Boyd discusses his moral qualms about the organization constantly as well. And yet.
And yet, we see over and over again that the Dollhouse is a force for good in the world. It saves people, it makes the world a better place. The "Dolls" even do pro bono work, like last week's episode, where Echo helped a nascent juvenile delinquent, by being a social worker programmed with the mind of that same delinquent as an adult. The Dollhouse's head, Adelle DeWitt, constantly sells the idea that they're doing good works - and it doesn't feel entirely like a put-on. Meanwhile, you have the aforementioned Boyd, who is obviously a deeply moral person who keeps working at the Dollhouse despite his misgivings. He's only able to stick around because he believes the official line, that every one of the Dolls volunteered to be erased, in exchange for a huge reward five years later.
Also, all of the Dollhouse staff are classic Whedon characters: witty, clever, complicated... and a bit lovable. I've noticed something about Dollhouse: there's an inverse relationship between someone's moral fibre and the quality of his/her dialog. In other words, Adelle and Topher consistently get the best lines in every episode, and they're the people who are obviously the most amoral and most willing to treat human beings like pieces of meat. (They're also the only two Dollhouse staffers to become clients, that we know of.) It's hard to hate Topher and Adelle when they're both so much fun to watch.
The evil in Dollhouse is harder to deal with than the evil in Buffy because it's our evil. It's our willingness to strip other people of their humanity in order to get what we need from them. It's our eagerness to give up our humanity and conform to other people's expectations, in exchange for some vaguely promised reward. And it's our tendency to put any new piece of technology to whatever uses we can think of, whether they're positive or utterly destructive.
And that last bit, about technology, is the other main reason why Dollhouse is Whedon's most accomplished work, especially if you love science fiction like we do. Unlike Joss' other works, Dollhouse really is about the impact of new technology on society. It asks the most profound question any SF can ask: how would we (as people) change if a new technology came along that allowed us to...? In this case, it's a technology that allows us to turn brains into storage media: We can erase, we can record, we can copy. It's been sneaking up on us, but Dollhouse has slowly been showing how this radically changes the whole conception of what it means to be human. You can put my brain into someone else's body, you can keep my personality alive after I die, and you can keep my body around but dispose of everything that I would consider "me."
We've seen this most poignantly in recent episodes, like the one where Adelle DeWitt brings her dead friend back to life by plugging her friend's stored brain patterns into Echo. And judging from the promo, tonight's finale will show us a Doll, with a new personality, confronted with her "original" personality in another body. We've also seen the same personality (Taffy the bank robber) in more than one body.
Dollhouse pulled a fantastic trick on us, the viewers — the first half of the season, we thought it was all about Echo's individual struggle to regain her personhood and escape the Dollhouse. Every episode, we saw Echo gaining more awareness, learning more, and becoming more individual. So we naturally thought that was the arc — Echo's struggle to free herself — and we thought it would play out over the course of five years. Except that that arc, in many ways, culminated halfway through the season, in the episode where Echo and several other Dolls regain their independence, and we realize that gaining freedom, for Echo, is a lot more complicated than we'd believed. The Dolls march out of the Dollhouse, at gunpoint — but where are they going to go now? Also, it's hinted that Echo can't regain her freedom so easily because there are horrible things in her past, things she can't confront and which make it impossible for her to simply go back to being Caroline.
Also, it's clear that Echo is evolving into something other than a Doll, and that her self-awareness is more than just being aware that she used to be Caroline. She's taking the initiative on her missions — something Adelle encourages — and acting outside her pre-programmed parameters. And then she asks Topher to program her with a new personality, in the "Spy In The House Of Love" episode — something no Doll has ever done before. Could Echo be on her way to becoming something more than just a regular human? Something with both agency and a Doll's versatility?
But that's not the real trick the show pulled. We thought it was about Echo's personal journey to regain her individuality, but it was actually about something larger: the wider implications of the Dollhouse's technology. Like I said, Dollhouse is a classic science-fiction story in a way that no other Whedon creation is. (Firefly has terraforming, FTL, Reavers, super-soldier experiments, etc... but it's not "about" the implications of those things.) In the episode "Man In The Street," Whedon includes an interview with an expert, who's clearly a mouthpiece for the writer, and he says that if the Dollhouse's technology exists, human beings are over. We cease to matter.
And ever since that scene appeared, that's been the not-so-secret theme of Dollhouse: that as soon as you can separate people's minds and bodies, the human race becomes just so much hardware, and we're going to wipe ourselves out or turn ourselves, basically, into the Borg. That's why the NSA (including Mr. Dominic) are so eager to get their hands on the tech. That's why Alpha sees it as leading to the extinction of humanity within 200 years, and why he seems so eager to dominate what's left of humanity. Unless Paul Ballard and the super-evolved Echo can find a way of erasing this technology from existence utterly, it will destroy the human race.
And that's the final thing that makes Dollhouse such a breath of fresh air, especially in a television season cluttered with abuses of science and looming apocalypses — it's about a very different apocalypse, one without demons or nuclear explosions or warfare. It's about the kind of apocalypse that we're busily trying to create every day, with our information technology that tries ever harder to put as much of our personalities onto the internet. It's about the slow-motion destruction of our individuality by brain science, instead of something that's easier to put your finger on. And I can't wait to see how it plays out — hopefully over the next several years. Here's hoping!