If you want your head messed with at a time when the world is doing everything possible not only to mess with it but bash it in, Dollhouse is your ticket. Ultimate binge watching, two seasons worth. (No nudity, no cringe-worthy simulated sex, no bad language. Not HBO. Pic above is just for how Echo will make you feel. Something about her acting.)
The oddest thing is that I tried to bail when I started to feel deeply uncomfortable with what the series was about and where it was leading. It was the missus who continued to be intrigued, and so we fell back from the point where I was uncomfortable and, having watched a few episodes at a time previously, binged on the rest.
I know what it’s about now, which is a revelation of the executive producer Joss Whedon, whom many of you know. He was the creator of Firefly and its movie climax Serenity (a couple of the stars of which appear here) whose final 15 minutes I have watched again and again, which I normally don’t do with movies anymore. Joss Whedon is, I’m thinking, a sick man. But he knows how to keep you turning the page.
I’d be tempted to say that Dollhouse is original except that its originality is not that of new sci fi ideas but of the way he has created a pastiche of The Matrix, Terminator, Stepford Wives, Manchurian Candidate, Constantine, Resident Evil, The Three Faces of Eve, and Barbarella.
Which is not to say that it fails to be consistently imaginative and creative. You may think I’m delaying getting to the point. I’m setting the latches for your understanding of the premise.
There is an institution in Los Angeles which takes in attractive but grievously damaged people and offers them a deal: give us five years you won’t remember and we’ll take away all your pain and release you to a life of economic freedom and escape from the guilty thoughts haunting you.
The key to the offer is a technology that wipes away their memories, which are stored on a shelf, and gives them new complete identities consistent with what high paying clients want. The “Actives,” as they are called, complete these engagements as utterly different people from what they originally were, are protected throughout their engagements by “handlers,” and then wiped again. In between engagements, the Actives exist in an infantile state. They shower together without experiencing sexual interest. They eat, they make crayon drawings, and they know each other only by their Active noms de guerre.
So we have a heroine whose nom de guerre is Echo. She is the most in demand. It takes a number of episodes to realize fully that most of her assignments are high priced, highly customized prostitution. The personality she is given makes her fall in love with the john. She is played by Eliza Dushku above. The name of the establishment is The Dollhouse.
There is also an FBI agent who is obsessed with proving the existence of the Dollhouse. For this he is shunned and ridiculed by his fellow agents. But he cannot be deterred.
We learn slowly how everything works. Before an assignment the Active lies back in a kind of high tech Eames chair and is quickly imbued with a new personality which provides the personal identity details, inclinations, emotions, and even the skills necessary. Early on, for example, Echo’s erotic assignments are downplayed. She has to be blind for one life saving assignment, an immodest but martially capable dancer for another, and in these first season episodes Eliza Dushku is a kind of Orphan Black, dazzling you with how many different people she can be. A terrific acting performance.
Slowly, slowly, slowly, everything shifts. Something more sinister about the Dollhouse than granting fantasies or righting wrongs. Something different about Echo. The post assignment wipes don’t quite work the same with her. The FBI guy gets closer. The Dollhouse turns her loose at least once as a Special Forces assassin and she very nearly kills the FBI guy, who is now obsessed with her in particular.
Hence the long arc of the show. Unlike the other Actives, Echo can access other identities she’s been given when she needs them, altogether unconscious of any transition. Typically an assignment ends when a handler says, “Do you want a treatment?” Obediently they say, “Yes,” and they are led back to the Dollhouse, the chair, and arise from it saying, “Did I fall asleep?”
Echo does this too until you realize she is no longer being wiped clean. She remembers, not her original identity, but some sum of the constructs that have been programmed into her. She assembles a human moral conscience from the kaleidoscope of her multi-brained mind. She becomes conscious. And incredibly dangerous. She’s a world class courtesan, martial arts master, weapons expert, electronics and demolitions maven, multi-lingual nurse, deeply altruistic and selfless leader, and fearless warrior. She also loves deeply and forever, as half a dozen of her imprints continue to do.
I was ready to bail when the FBI agent so obsessed with her entered the Dollhouse to become her handler, at which point he was effectively her pimp. Enough. She hadn’t completed her transmutation at that point, but I was feeling sick, manipulated.
What we are seeing in Dollhouse is Joss Whedon’s Ultimate Female Fantasy. She is the Everything we all think we want, and single-handedly she could fulfill all of every man’s fantasies.
Her mission is to take down the Dollhouse and the huge sponsoring organization behind it, whose ambitions grow throughout the second and final season. She dies, goes to hell, is resurrected, and keeps going. Won’t tell you the end. But she continues to regard herself as Echo, whose story we all know from the myth of Narcissus. Or most of us do.
The be all and end all of femmes fatales. That was Joss Whedon’s objective. Shocking how close he came to achieving it. But there is no such thing as Echo, except in the fevered dreams of men. She’s always a reflection of one more self-admiring Narcissus. I hope Dushku has round the clock armed guards.
Oh yeah. The trailer.
HINT: If you don’t show your wife this post, she might let you look at it. Women love Amazons. She’s that too. Absolutely unstoppable in combat, of which there is plenty. I told you. I was the one who tried to stop.