Netflix TV Series Alert: Dollhouse

Eliza Dushku, producer and star

Echo, a.k.a., Eliza Dushku, producer and star

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.

Echo and Narcissus. Who is the myth really about?

Echo and Narcissus. Who is the myth really about?

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.

  1. Ron’s avatar

    Thumbs up. I’ve mentioned “Dollhouse” before, on one of your blogs or other. I’m a Whedon fan. My wife and I both really enjoyed Dollhouse when it was airing, and were hacked when it got cancelled. Fortunately, Whedon was prepared and already had a wrap-up for the show. I would have loved to see it run its full five-year arc though. (I was able to get my wife to watch it because we both loved “Firefly”.)

    BTW, Netflix also streams Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, which I absolutely loved. Shot entirely in Whedon’s own house, it’s chock full of actor friends from his other shows. Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry was so funny he had me wetting my pants. And Amy Acker, whom you definitely know by now from Dollhouse, is gorgeously brilliant as Beatrice. Watch the “If I were a man” speech:


    1. Instapunk’s avatar

      The wrap up had some big holes. Thing is, I don’t think this should ever have been a five year arc. What happened to Alpha? Or the Keith Carradine character? Why was penetrating and infiltrating the Attic indispensable one moment and solved by a Bomb the next?

      As I said, I was sick at my stomach with Echo being a whore early on. Can’t believe women wouldn’t feel the same way.

      It’s also a perverted view of women. Our ideal is what? Meaning, Whedon’s ideal is what? No fundamental identity. Just a concatenation of emotional reactions and skills that make men idolize them? THERE IS NO ECHO.

      But her accomplishments invite us to celebrate her fractionated self as the best we could ever want. Please. Whedon is an insult to women and men.


      1. Instapunk’s avatar

        I was being kind in not mentioning the utter cheap shot against George W. Bush. Intellectually, he’s nothing but a shallow lefty.


      2. Ron’s avatar

        The finale didn’t wrap everything up partly because IIRC he shot it before he knew for sure the series would be cancelled. I think the idea was to shoot something he could show at the end of season 2, season 5, or any other point at which the network decided to cut. The finale had to wrap up the Big arc, which was about Rossum’s ultimate plans. It wasn’t optimal, but it was better than the way Firefly got chopped.

        As for Whedon being an insult to women and men… I don’t understand you. At all. You’re *supposed* to be disgusted at how Echo is being used. This is setting tension… You’re wondering what could possibly have brought Caroline to the point of cutting a horrible deal like this (knowing what it would entail). Rossum is evil, and you don’t even realize how evil until the end. Echo isn’t Joss Whedon’s “ideal”. What’s happening to her is *wrong*, and Whedon *wants* you to feel that. At first, characters can try to rationalize that it’s all okay… Actives were willing participants when they sign up. Topher is the model here, because he has no conscience. But as the story progresses, the wrongness of the situation becomes more pronounced. Even Topher comes to appreciate the consequences, and it destroys him.

        I can’t help but wonder if there’s some “meta” criticsm of Whedon’s own industry going on here. After all, what are actresses but “dolls”? We “make” women (and men, but especially women) do degrading things all the time… whore themselves out, debase themselves for our entertainment… When we *want* to see some young actress in a steamy sex scene, are we much better than the clients who hire the dolls? And does this aspect of our nature put us at risk ourselves of being turned into robots by massive media corporations (or governments), slowly reprogramming us, manipulating our interests, desires, and opinions?

        BTW, *you’re* the one who put a nude image of Eliza Dushku into my memory. Not Whedon.


        1. Instapunk’s avatar

          I’m the one who showed you what Whedon was really doing. He was creating the ultimate sex symbol. As I think I explained. She’s not really a symbol in this universe either. She’s a woman you care about who is described as having “slept with half of Los Angeles.” If you tell me you never imagined the picture she took and I posted, I would call you less than honest. It’s the whole point of her character. When she’s trying to seduce her true love, she tells him, “I am sexually aggressive and sexually creative. It’s part of who I am.” You’re supposed to be discomfited by her. As by her murderous combat talents, which mirror the strange trans-human character in Serenity, who said, “it’s my turn now,” and then proceeds to kill EVERYONE.

          These are sexual archetypes we are being shown, not flesh and blood protagonists. Neither is strictly human in our terms. They are impossibilities, divinities. They are meant to get into our heads, as they clearly have into Whedon’s head. What we can never have. What we are expected to fantasize about. A moviemaker’s mousetrap.

          Tell me you see Echo only as a victim, not as a woman capable of living up to all the variations programmed into her. If she is’t, she could let them go when she is wiped. The fact that she keeps them all alive inside her, treasures them in a sense, is far past victimization. Her pan-sexuality is part of her strength and her power and wisdom.

          Sounds like you’re reducing her to maintain your moral comfort. That’s fine. I just don’t think it’s any part of Whedon’s intent.


          1. Instapunk’s avatar

            BTW. You’re welcome.

          2. Ron’s avatar

            I’m not “reducing” her. Echo is a construct… a fabrication. She’s a manufactured high-tech whore. Oh, yes, she has a great many abilities. Which were planted there by the socially inept geek (Joss?), and which she gained by losing her identity. And, of course, her existence is entirely the result of a technology that ends up enslaving everyone. I honestly don’t see what there is to desire here. Sure, she’s hot. But she’s been had by everyone else. Ick. She’s worse than a victim. She’s a product, and a deadly one at that… a result of a civilization-destroying manufacturing process. If Whedon thinks he’s making me want that product, he’s really confused. He seems smarter than that to me, but maybe I’m overestimating him. I also don’t want meth, heroin, cocaine, LSD, and any number of other substances which supposedly make one feel really great/happy/enlightened… for a while.

            My point about the Dushku photo was that you were displaying more of the woman than Whedon ever did, whom you were criticizing. It’s not offensive, it’s just ironic.

            In reality, it’s all kind of sad. Dushku is just another doll, and Whedon is using her (intentionally or not) as a doll to tell a story about dolls. I was drawn into the story out of curiosity, eventually coming to feel slightly bothered by the fact that the story was leading me to regard with distaste what I was essentially doing myself. So, your read that Whedon was just crafting his Ultimate Fantasy is way, way different from mine.

          3. Instapunk’s avatar

            I expected men to be grumpy about this post. As I told my wife in a text today, “This show was aimed so subliminally and so directly at men that I’m tempted to regard it as evil. I had to figure it out to exorcise it.

            “One line uttered to Adelle: ‘She (Echo) is the Virgin AND the Whore, all in one. That’s why you hate her.’ All an elaborate erotic trick.”

            My wife wasn’t offended by the Dushku photo. Or by my post. After she’d read it, she said, “Beautiful job.”

            Which, in my experience, generally means I wrote what she was thinking or explained to her satisfaction what she was wondering about. She doesn’t say ‘beautiful’ often.


          4. Tim’s avatar

            Interesting discussion. Not sure which one of you is right. I did not care too much for Dollhouse and watched it mainly because I like Whedon, thus I have forgotten a lot of it. Aside from the “We have a black president” dig, I cannot think of much lefty propaganda in his shows or movies. Firefly/Serenity, especially, is one of the precious few stories these days where the federal government is the bad guy as opposed to a corporation or military contractor.

            Regardless, he must be doing something right to spark a debate like this. Not too many sci-fi shows could.


          5. Instapunk’s avatar

            Ron, I think we’re not as far apart as you think. Your personal rectitude makes it hard to understand the attraction to many men of the whore and their conflicting emotions about that attraction. We’ve both said in different words that Echo is an artificial creation. Where we disagree is in assessing Whedon’s intention. So, we both are speculating and have both offered our opinions.

            Thank you for an intelligent conversation. I’ve enjoyed it.


            1. Ron’s avatar


              On the upside: if you are right about Whedon’s intent, his own story sabotages it. He’s crafted his ultimate fantasy, but had to destroy civilization to do it. His doll has a horribly high price tag, right there in plain view. He did this to himself with “Firefly” also. Sure, he’s lefty as all-get-out. But during River’s flashback at the beginning of “Serenity”, when another student asks why the Browncoats resist the wonderful benefits of civilization brought by the Alliance, River replies We meddle… People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome. Of course, this is why many of us here in flyover country don’t want Joss and his leftist cohorts running the country. I know guys like Joss… Really smart, and they think they mean well. But they think they mean well so much that they believe they’re justified in meddling with me “for my own good”. Joss’ president has been committed to some of the most meddlesome legislation ever enacted by the US Congress. Joss crafted a great show about people resisting a world not at all dissimilar from the one the Left is trying to create. I think it’s funny that he apparently doesn’t see it, but I’m happy to let him propagandize against his own causes.


              1. Instapunk’s avatar

                Nothing to add. : )



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