?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The much-delayed Dollhouse Thinky Post

Which would have been even more delayed, but Office of Doom's intranet was down all morning.

Rewatching Serenity recently, I realized that Dollhouse is grown from the same seed as Mal's speech about why it's crucial to get out the truth about what happened on Miranda: "Sooner or later, they'll swing back around to the belief...that they can make people better. And I do not hold with that."

We know next to nothing about Rossum Corporation, but one thing is glaringly clear to me: That's exactly what they're trying to do. To what ends, by what justification, we don't know, but we do know that the Dollhouse is a petri dish for making people "better."

If you're looking for an anchor in the show's murky moral waters, I think that's it. There's nobody in sight with a traditional white hat that really fits properly -- not Ballard, not Langton. And while I don't hesitate to peg Topher as one of the most morally bankrupt characters ever committed to film, DeWitt's black hat is a bit ill-fitting too. I'm finding it valuable to focus on asking, about each character, whether they believe people can be made "better," and whether they believe they should. (Separate but equally important questions, as I see it.)

I'm struck by several comments I've seen by people citing it as a stumbling block that they don't find Caroline sympathetic. I don't particularly like her myself. The idealistic girl in the video, maybe, but that idealism has soured into myopic self-righteousness at best, and outright fanaticism at worst, in the raid on the lab. But to me, it doesn't matter all that much whether Caroline is sympathetic, because Caroline isn't the protagonist of the show. Echo is.

Which means that any morally just ending to the story will require the destruction of its protagonist.

And therein, I think, lies the key to what grabbed and held me about this show. The wrong perpetrated on the original people is obvious, to the point where I wondered how much potential the concept really had before it was played out. We didn't need twelve episodes to get to the truth that Caroline stated so flatly: You can't volunteer to be a slave. That's pretty basic.

They've shown us over and over again, in the revelations about the various actives' backgrounds, that the Dollhouse's definition of "voluntary" is dodgy to begin with. Craft was a convict. Caroline was a fugitive. Madeline was in a debilitating stage of grief. Most disturbingly, Priya had her life systematically destroyed at the whim of a powerful man. It's the stuff of purest nightmares that the scum who perpetrated that is a client who now gets what he wants from her whenever he chooses to pay for it.

Without exception, the circumstances we are shown of the actives' real lives demonstrate that they at least believed they had nowhere else to go. But even without that, the basic wrongness of the arrangement would be self-evident.

What's less transparent, and more interesting to me, is the ethical quagmire of the people the Dollhouse has created. The assumption that they're "not real" goes unquestioned by everyone involved, even Ballard. But what becomes increasingly evident as the story progresses is that it's not necessarily a valid assumption. And at some level, at least some of the staff seem to be aware of but steadfastly ignoring that. With the possible exception of DeWitt, who seems to be subversively encouraging Echo's personality development whenever she can get away with it. And I do think that when she reverses that (notably the meeting in which all the handlers were given strict orders to watch for the slightest sign of such growth in their charges while in the tabula rasa state) it's the result of orders and/or increased scrutiny from the higher-ups, not a reversal of her own motivations.

The gut reaction is that encouraging the actives to be people is a good thing, and all evidence seems to point to its being inevitable in any case. Echo is presented as a special case, and maybe she is in the extent of her actualization. But none of them is truly an empty vessel: Victor's crush on Sierra persists through multiple wipes. Sierra smiles more readily and seems subtly friendlier than her peers. November chose to stand next to and say "hello" to Ballard, the only outsider in the room. Tango (whom we barely even met!) likes the sweet flavor of bananas.

These are not the "zombies" Ballard imagined. Are their differentiating traits traces of the original personalities that the machine fails to neutralize, or are they new developments, built on the experiences of adult bodies in the controlled Dollhouse environment instead of on childhoods? I'm more and more inclined to think the latter.

And then there are the imprints. Some of them might be said to be "not real." Maybe most. They're in place for a day, maybe a weekend, reacting to specific planned circumstances in specific programmed ways, and then they go back on the shelf. Easy -- too easy -- not to think much about them, unless something goes pearshaped with the engagement.

Mellie, though, lived in the real world (however closely monitored) for months. Even when she returned to the Dollhouse, she was re-imprinted with those experiences. Yes, her relationship with Ballard served a specific purpose, and key elements of the imprint governed her behavior, with disturbing results (the heartbreaking "you don't have to give me anything back" speech, the haunting "just not all the time" the morning after the angry frustrated sex, and of course the suicidal despair at his rejection).

But try as I might, there is no angle from which I can look at Mellie and say "she is not real." They didn't program some theoretical construct with those unhealthy parameters. They created a person and inflicted them on her.

For a few months, Mellie was a real, living woman, insightful and funny and bursting with potential hampered by serious self-worth issues. Issues she might have learned to overcome, but she'll never have the opportunity, because she was born into a body that rightfully belongs to someone else.

The cruelty of that is staggering.

Now multiply it by every single active in the house. Every supposedly passive mind soaking up any tiny scrap of stimulus that comes its way and instinctively building it into a worldview, an opinion. A self.

Every single one of them doomed to oblivion.

The surprise isn't that Alpha went Blade Runner on them. The surprise is that he's the only one.

Tags:

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
maidm
Jun. 22nd, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
Brilliant. You really summed up why I love this series. I've had big arguments with people about how there isn't really a moral character, and is therefore hard to identify the 'good guys', which is the same reason I love it. Almost every single character in the series ended up in a completely different place than I expected them to by the end of the series. Characters first identified as the 'good guys' like Ballard and Langton became more engrossed in the company, and 'bad guys' such as DeWitt, Topher, and Dominic were made much more sympathetic.

And that is why Joss is a genius. :-D
kjaneway
Jun. 22nd, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
Does it really matter who's a 'good' guy?

It feels much more real that the characters aren't black and white, that way. (Something that I liked with BSG, too, though they didn't always manage to maintain that moral flexibility.)
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 12:24 am (UTC)
What's most interesting, I think, is that they all believe they're good guys.
mekkasimian
Jun. 22nd, 2009 06:22 pm (UTC)
MEK NOT BELIEVE OBJECTIVE "MAKE PEOPLE BETTER".

MEK PROPOSE MORE LIKE "MAKE HARD TO LEARN SKILLS DISPOSABLE COMMODITY" WITH SIDE OF "PROVIDE SOCIAL EXPERIENCE WITHOUT (PRE-)DESERVE OR (POST-)ACCOUNTABILITY".

FOR BOTH, IN MOST CASE, IS MATTER OF USE MONEY TO FORGO INVEST TIME FOR SAME END RESULT. MEK NOT BELIEVE ANY SORT "MENTAL EUGENICS" THING ON AGENDA.

ON SUBJECT OF "NOT REAL", CAN BE CONSIDER CRUELTY IF "PERSON" NOT EVEN NOTICE OR REMEMBER? IS NOT LONGEVITY OF EMOTIONAL SCAR YARDSTICK FOR HOW "CRUEL" ACTION WAS?

FOR THAT MATTER, IS "REALNESS" MEASURE BY FLICKERING SILHOUETTES ON CAVE WALL OF BRAIN?

=M=
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 12:46 am (UTC)
"MAKE HARD TO LEARN SKILLS DISPOSABLE COMMODITY"

Which is not the same "better" as the Alliance's attempt to eliminate aggression on Miranda, but it's not out of the ballpark either. If you can put someone in a chair and make them an assassin or an expert in something, sounds like making them better to me.

IS NOT LONGEVITY OF EMOTIONAL SCAR YARDSTICK FOR HOW "CRUEL" ACTION WAS?

One yardstick, but I'm not convinced it's the only one. And even if it is, the creeptastic scenario in "Needs" was concocted to solve the problem of actives glitching due to emotional issues from their real lives. If that was really the case, how sure can they be that experiences on engagements really leave no trace? Especially at the level of emotional involvement we're talking about with Mellie?

FOR THAT MATTER, IS "REALNESS" MEASURE BY FLICKERING SILHOUETTES ON CAVE WALL OF BRAIN?

I don't know. Is there a way to measure it at all? I'm questioning the assumption that they're not real, not definitively declaring it false. It's a fresh angle on the classic SF theme of what constitutes life and/or sentience, with imprint personae instead of AIs. Rossum is playing god in more ways than one.
mekkasimian
Jun. 23rd, 2009 03:57 am (UTC)
MEK HAND-WAVE ON "BETTER PERSON" BASE UPON FACT THAT SKILLS QUITE TEMPORARY. ONE WOULD THINK IF GOAL WAS "MAKE PEOPLE BETTER", THEN WOULD BE SELLING "PACKAGES" TO PEOPLE ON PERMANENT BASIS.

INSTEAD, SEEM VERY MUCH SERVICE ORGANIZATION: "SELF WANT HIRE DOCTOR" RATHER THAN "SELF WANT BECOME DOCTOR".

(AT VERY LEAST, CERTAIN MAKE FOR COMPELLING TV THAT *NO* QUESTION HERE HAVE DEFINITIVE ANSWER...)

=M=
kjaneway
Jun. 22nd, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
I do wish I could add something eloquent to this... but I'm a bit stuck, because, tbh, you've really got it covered.
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 01:15 am (UTC)
*blush* Thanks! It's kinda the tip of the iceberg -- I didn't even get into Whiskey/Dr. Saunders. A million questions there, some of which will hopefully be addressed next season. (Amy Acker is signed to another series, but Joss said in an interview he's hopeful the scheduling can be worked out.)
studiesinlight
Jun. 22nd, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
Excellent essay! A very compelling read. Strong conclusion.

More than ever, I don't want to watch this show. :-)
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 12:47 am (UTC)
You really, really don't. *wry g*
kirkt68
Jun. 22nd, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
From a social workers perspective the moral ambiguity is absolutely amazing to watch and horrifying to think about.

I can think of several of my clients that would voluntarily "enslave" themselves to "fix" their lives. To remove their criminal pasts, to get rid of the trauma of their lives, and give themselves over to another to run their lives after they have gone through their own pasts. Some people go through life reliving the victimizations of their past, suffering the consequences of their ill-made decisions over and over again.

I am very glad that this show was renewed. I am looking forward to a greater exploration of the Company, and I am hoping to see more about the other chapter houses across the world interact with the LA branch.
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
And now I'm thinking of the woman in one of the mock-interview segments in "Man In The Street" who said "Where's the dotted line?" It all sounds very appealing if you don't consider the part where you don't get the life of leisure in the fancy spa. You don't even exist. Until you do, and then you pick up where you left off, except your body is five years older and your bank account is a lot bigger.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to work -- judging by "Needs," it may be good (in a weird twisted way) that it doesn't quite work the way it's supposed to! I really want to know what that means for Madeline as the prime case study. If her unresolved grief for her daughter was causing November to glitch, and the "escape" scenario allowed her to work to a functional step in that somehow, it seems to imply that Madeline should have the benefit of that. They wouldn't have put her full persona back in her head with a memory of that episode -- there'd be a LOT of 'splainin to do if they did! -- so does she just pick up where she left off, but in a different emotional place re: her daughter's death? It's very weird, and I'm intensely curious about the repercussions.
imbri6
Jun. 22nd, 2009 11:15 pm (UTC)
I do so love to read your thinky posts!

I can't say that I "like" Dollhouse, because I don't, not really, not the way that I like (adore!) Bones and Chuck and Castle. But I find it compelling and interesting. I want to watch more. I've not been able to put it into words, but much of what you write rings so very true for me.

Joss is amazing.
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 01:02 am (UTC)
I actually do like it, even when it's most uncomfortable to watch. But that's true of a lot of things, and an oddity of mine. :-)
kevenn
Jun. 23rd, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
Aw, I loved this! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. :)
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 01:03 am (UTC)
Yay! Thank you for reading! :-)
vretallin
Jun. 23rd, 2009 05:01 am (UTC)
I must add my own compliments to the list. Well thought out and it nailed a lot of my views as well in much more eloquent and well versed terms than I am capable of at the moment.

This show represents a lot of things that I enjoy exploring about human nature and personality. I am very excited that it has been renewed.

Alpha went blade runner I thought in part because he was already mentally unstable whereas echo seems to be a pretty stable personality overall. Which I think is what underlined Caroline. Just that the memories of her life experiences pretty much cut her, and the other activities short, of their potential. We are not our thoughts, our experiences, our feelings. We are much much more than that and can exist beyond that non-dual state. Which I think joss is punctuating in the show.
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
Alpha went blade runner I thought in part because he was already mentally unstable

Definitely, though it still surprises me that he's the only one. But then, that would be why they're hypervigilant about it now.

Just that the memories of her life experiences pretty much cut her, and the other activities short, of their potential. We are not our thoughts, our experiences, our feelings.

Excellent point.
grammarwoman
Jun. 23rd, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
Brilliant piece of thinky. You've clarified for me a lot of the reasons I find this show so compelling.

I also wonder if the Dolls' original personalities are ever mixed in with the constructed ones, like when the former has a useful skill to add, or if they wait until that Doll has left to use it.

Really, what process did Rossum go through to collect all those personalities? Is there an underground experience bank (like a sperm bank, only your mind gets copied) for which people get paid to donate?
wiliqueen
Jun. 23rd, 2009 06:53 pm (UTC)
My bet would be that if they've scanned you, Topher's used bits of you somewhere. I'd be very surprised if they hadn't all be composited into imprints for themselves as well as for other actives.

Really, what process did Rossum go through to collect all those personalities?

This is something I'm intensely curious about too. There are certain things I'm fine with being more question than answer at this point, and exploring them incrementally, but I'm really hoping for more of a window into the the workings of Rossum (or at least pieces of it) in the second season.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

Profile

sugarplum
wiliqueen
Valerie - Postmodern Pollyanna
WiliQueen's Woods

Latest Month

November 2016
S M T W T F S
  12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930   

Tags

Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by chasethestars