Aug 28, 2014

I Do This to Myself: On Dollhouse

Dollhouse sleeping units

I Do This to Myself: On Dollhouse
A possible alternate title for this post would be, “Dollhouse: It's Even More Complicated than Bunheads”. My experience with this series provided a definitive answer to the question, “What’s more frustrating: a series with a horrible beginning that mostly manages to right its course, or one that starts out very promising, develops well, and then delivers an absolute trainwreck of an ending?” The former might drive people away, but the latter is a guaranteed recipe for heartbreak and deafening screams of frustration.

It’s a bit of an understatement, then, to say that my feelings on Dollhouse are tangled. If any of you were to ask me, my fellow story loving friends, “But really, how did you like it?”, I wouldn’t know how to answer. I admired its premise and ambition; I found it, at its best, remarkably smart; I wished these moments came more often; I thought that when it failed, it mostly did so in interesting ways; I felt, all the same, that it often bit more than it could chew; I’m glad to have watched it; and I’m never, ever, ever going to stop being furious about the ending.

Dollhouse: Echo, Topher and Boyd

The main reason why I decided to watch Dollhouse was this Sady Doyle post, in which she called it Whedon’s smartest and most complex work to date and said:
The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large: even the boy dolls are girls, stripped of agency or access to power and cast in pre-defined roles to fulfill the fantasies of the folks who are actually in charge. When they have sex, they aren’t consenting – they’ve been made to think that they are consenting, by being made to think that they are the people who would consent to such things. They exist either in a state of infantilization and non-personhood (in which they are “cared for” by people who have a vested interest in continuing to use them) or implanted with false consciousness in which they are not aware of what’s being done to them. I mean, false consciousness: Whedon’s metaphors, they are rarely subtle. Their reactions to learning this, when they “wake up” (which Whedon has shown them doing, albeit briefly) are horror, disgust, and rage at how deeply they’ve been violated.
(My other reason was: Amy Acker, Summer Glau, Eliza Dushku. I just really like their faces, okay?)

For those of you not familiar with the series, the premise of Dollhouse is the following: a multinational company, the Rossum Corporation, has developed a technology that allows human bodies to be implanted with perfectly designed AI personalities. Having immediately spotted an opportunity for profit, they create a series of underground establishments, the Dollhouses, that program individuals (technically volunteers, but all the ones we get to know turn out to have joined in circumstances where their options were severely limited) and send them out in “engagements” with very wealthy customers. Many of these engagements are sexual in nature, and upon their return the Dolls, or Actives, are wiped of their temporary personalities and of any recollection of what has happened to them. Dollhouse follows the LA branch of this organisation, and a particular Active, Echo, as she moves towards self-awareness.

Dollhouse: Echo and Sierra
There’s nothing about this premise that is not creepy, and I agree with Doyle that this is very much deliberate. I also absolutely agree that this is a show about consent; about how rape culture gets inside your head; about how you need constant attention and care to avoid being complicit in a system that’s ever-present — and even then, sometimes you will fail. I’m happy, up to a point, to read the Dollhouse as a metaphor for rape culture and oppression, but I also think this metaphor gets tricky when the symbol and what it stands for begin to overlap.

Let me use an example to explain what I mean: when Sierra/Priya’s backstory is revealed, we learn that she was forced into the Dollhouse by a man who wanted to get back at her for rejecting his sexual advances. Nolan is a horrifying character: when Priya turns him down, he has her drugged, declared schizophrenic by less than scrupulous doctors, and then recruited to the Dollhouse under the guise of “helping” her. Once she becomes the active Sierra, Nolan regularly requests her services and finally gets to have sex with the body he lusted after. The series unambiguously frames this as rape, which is of course what it is, and eventually Nolan comes to a gory but narratively satisfying end.

This storyline, however, raises a question: Nolan was horrifying, but why was he singled out as a rapist when everyone who has sex with an Active is in fact guilty of rape? As Doyle says in her essay, the Actives are incapable of meaningful informed consent, because the consent they give when implanted is a direct result of their programming and they remain unaware of this fact. The contrast between Nolan and everyone else, including characters we’re meant to root for, is as jarring as it is artificial, and it exposes many hypocrisies and blind spots.

Of course, you can argue that this is exactly what the writers were aiming for — and as I said above, I think that at its best Dollhouse is smart enough that this is a possibility I’m willing to consider seriously. But I’m far less interested in discussing intent than I am in discussing effectiveness, and I’m of two minds about the latter. Accepting and even admiring what Dollhouse leaves unsaid requires me to balance, on the one hand, my personal preference for stories that approach their themes with a light touch and make use of subtlety, with on the other hand my knowledge that in order to work effectively, these stories require a degree of social consensus about their themes that may be greater than what we actually have.

This is something I’ve tried and failed to write about in the past, but to return to an old example, the silences and implications in “The Lottery” work because no one seriously pretends that murder (the murder of white people, that is) is not horrific. The same is not true of sexual assault, and that often makes me wish for clearer narrative pointers despite my aforementioned personal preferences.

Dollhouse full cast

Likewise, I had mixed feelings about Dollhouse’s approach to its characters’ varying degrees of complicity in the horrors it portrays. I got what it was going for, and I liked it in theory — but. But. Over the past few years I’ve followed numerous discussions online centred on male anti-heroes, or otherwise morally compromised male main characters, and the space they occupy in our culture; being aware that these narratives form a pattern when put together inevitably affects how I respond to each individual one. In theory I do like characters who come in shades of grey — I appreciate the acknowledgement that people are messy; that most of us do benefit from and contribute to oppressive social systems; that it’s pretty much impossible to live in a world where dehumanising attitudes are pervasive without interiorising some of them. And yet it grates to know these types of characters are predominantly male, because we respond very differently to contradictions and complications in a woman.

Dollhouse: Bennett Halverson

I suppose it’s exhaustion more than not thinking they serve interesting narrative purposes that leaves me with such limited emotional availability for characters like Topher Binks and Paul Ballard. Topher Binks is the tech genius behind the LA Dollhouse. He embodies the very worst of geek misogyny, and then slowly (too slowly?) develops a conscience and an awareness of the humanity of the women around him. (The series, by the way, is a scientific cautionary tale, and unfortunately there’s no equivalent to Orphan Black’s Cosima to introduce some nuance to this aspect of the narrative.) Paul Ballard is an FBI agent investigating the Dollhouse who eventually comes to believe it’s better to help Echo defeat it from the inside. Again, an interesting idea with clear metaphorical resonance (you cannot escape the patriarchy; you can only help dismantle it while living immersed in it) — but Paul has sex with Millie after learning she’s a Doll, and I found it hard to make room in my heart for yet one more ethically dubious man.

But it’s time to give credit where credit is due: Dollhouse gave us characters like Adelle DeWitt, Bennett Halverson, Claire Saunders (though there turns out to be more to her story than meets the eye), and even Caroline herself — complicated women all of them. I enjoyed them immensely, and I’m grateful that they allowed me to engage with the themes of complicity, of varying degrees and different forms of subversion, and of just how much it takes to dismantle systems you profit from, without the baggage of exhaustion and oversaturation I couldn’t help but associate with the men.

I kind of wish Topher Binks and Bennett Halverson could have exchanged places: Bennett would be the brilliant LA programmer around for the duration of the series, and Topher the one from DC we only get to see a handful of times. There were enough other male characters around that I don’t think this would amount to giving men a free pass, or to portraying women as the sole enforcers of patriarchal norms. And it’s one of those small things that would have complicated the series in what I think would have been really interesting ways.

Dollhouse: Adelle DeWitt

Changing topics, one thing I really liked was how Dollhouse didn’t shy away from taking its SF premise to its full logical consequences. It doesn’t ignore the fact that its technological set-up is the sort of thing that could very well lead to the scenario we see in “Epitaph” parts one and two — without giving everything away, let me just say that I’d have had a hard time believing that consciousness-transferring and implanting technology could stick to such a specific usage for long. Even more interestingly to me, the series avoids what I initially feared would be a major pitfall: it acknowledges that a fully realised human consciousness is in fact human, even if it was artificially created, and that to wipe it is to kill a person. We see this in Echo’s “I’m scared of Caroline”, as well as in Claire’s “I don’t want to die”, and as much as I’d have liked to see it taken even further I thought the series did a good job of addressing it in the time it did have.

Dollhouse: Claire Saunders

So far so good, right? We have a series that’s not without significant flaws, but that also raises feminist questions that go beyond the 101 “women can kick ass too” level (not that I don’t still want to see more of that) and gives them the weight they merit. But then we get to “The Attic”, when — four episodes away from the ending — Dollhouse completely jumps the shark. And it’s not even the fact that the pacing is clearly set by its impeding cancellation and is therefore all over the place. No, it’s that the direction the story takes in those last few episodes is a bad, bad, bad, awful idea, and no amount of slow development could possibly change that. It couldn’t be done right, because there’s no possible execution that renders it not terrible.

Explicit major spoilers of the kind that will irrevocably change your viewing experience from this point onwards.

You know, I actually thought, naïve and privileged that I am, that in Boyd I might have found an exception to the traditional awful treatment of characters of colour in Joss Whedon’s shows. “Of course the pattern is still a problem”, I said to myself, “but still, it’s nice to have found a counterexample. As long as Boyd doesn’t die heroically saving Echo at the end or something, this is good.”


Boyd was one of my favourite characters. He was the one man whose shades of gray didn’t feel tiresome — perhaps because his interest in Echo/Caroline, unlike Paul’s, never felt sexual, and he seemed to see her as a person from the get go; or perhaps because he was an ambiguous character in ways less obvious than Topher’s initial misogyny. He was a father figure of sorts, a man of integrity caught in thorny circumstances, and of course a black man in a position of authority who commanded respect.

And then they did what they did, which was senseless and cheap and RUINED EVERYTHING. It was like Tara or Cordy all over again, only WORSE. I’m never getting over it, and I especially resent that it’s the sort of thing that makes it difficult to rewatch the series and enjoy it for what it was up until then. And yes, I care that a showrunner whose diversity track record is what it is allowed a character of colour to be not only killed, but turned into the villain first. To give you context, this happened in a series in which an Asian woman successfully impersonates another with nothing but a matching outfit and wig. And it’s not even like the episode can be read as Sierra taking advantage of people’s racism to best them, Veronica Mars and sexism style, by using the fact that they glance at an ID card, see “Asian” and look away again against them: even people who actually know the woman Sierra is impersonating are fooled, which betrays the series’ lack of self-awareness.

The other aspect of the ending that disappointed me was the fact that it cemented the specialness narrative surrounding Echo/Caroline. We go from a narrative that implicitly tells us that we can all grow increasingly self-aware and strive to dismantle oppression to one whose heroine is rendered actually biologically special, and only capable of what she’s achieved because of that. Again, it’s lazy and ruins so much of what the series had going for it.


There: rant over. Though now that I wrote about the ending I’m furious all over again. Recommended with enormous caveats? I honestly don’t even know.


  1. Yes, yes, and yes. This show was so very promising, and it got a few things so very right. But it failed epically, too — maybe *because* the potential greatness was so immense? It was disgusting in the truth it portrayed, and the ending (and leading up to it) was so incredibly maddening!

  2. I never even got past the first episodes of this and have often thought about returning to watch it again especially because another friend recently watched and loved it but something about the idea of the show and then the way that idea was implemented in the show was always just so offputting to me. ESPECIALLY coupled with the advertising and marketing for the show at the time which basically focused on how sexy Eliza Dushku is (and Summer Glau actually since it was originally paired with The Sarah Connor Chronicles which she was in. I didn't realize she actually made her way into this show).

    Better luck next time! I know it's so disappointing when a beloved showrunner disappoints.

  3. I'm glad to see your thoughts on Dollhouse because I was coming to the conclusion that I was the only person who liked it at all. There were some really interesting things going on in it about the nature of consent and the meaning of personhood. And it was satisfyingly complex on so many questions of right and wrong/good and evil. Plus, it was at times really fun to watch.

    But, yes, the ending let it down in a big way. The pacing was a huge part of the problem for me, but I was also deeply disappointed about Boyd. It's possible that a slower pace could have sold me on that twist, but as it was, it felt like it was thrown in for shock value, because there wasn't time to develop a new villain that would excite viewers.

    If someone were to watch the first season and ignore the existence of the second, they'd have a pretty solid, but flawed show.

  4. Heh, I did exactly what Teresa recommends, watched only the first season.
    This weekend at the Supernatural Convention in Vancouver, BC I heard Tahmoh Penikott talk about Dollhouse. He was circumspect, but he made it clear that although Whedon thought he was going to be able to do the show the way he wanted, the network kept asking him to re-do the pilot, and so the actors weren't sure what was going on because what was happening to their characters was so fragmented. After that, Tahmoh trailed off a bit (maybe to be circumspect), but his sense of disappointment in the show was palpable.

  5. Excellent post! I was fascinated with this series at first, and by the end, I was just watching for the sake of finishing it.

  6. Honestly, I think Dollhouse is the reason why I don't gel with Joss Whedon. It was my first Whedon, and I found it to be an interesting watch as it aired, but all my impressions have faded away. Except, of course, that Enver Gjokaj is amazing and should get more work. (He's joining Agent Carter, and I am over the moon about that.)

    Fantastically written analysis and rant.

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  8. I so badly wanted this show to be good. I pulled for it really hard, and I always tried to convince myself that I was loving it, even though I knew I really wasn't. I thought the metaphors for rape culture were wildly underdeveloped, as well as unsubtle -- there was interesting material in there, but it just didn't come together in any coherent way, at least not enough to be interesting to me.

    Having complained enormously about that, I will say that the Bennett/Topher romance is just the best ever. I could have watched their scenes together a dozen times. <3 But I agree with your proposal to make Bennett the in-town tech person. That would have been better.

  9. I feel like I should hang my head in shame for my overwhelming pop culture ignorance--I'd never even heard of this show. But oh my god, how you can suck me in when you talk about TV series!!! I loved every second of your post and your insights and your conflictedness. I've got to say though that there is something about the creepiness of the whole premise that makes me think it might not be a show for me even without its problems. So, like I said, I loved this post enormously even though I doubt I'll ever watch the show.

  10. I'd managed to forget pretty well everything about this series (including the horrible thing with Boyd; so horrible). Even with that ending, I kind of want to rewatch it now with your analysis in mind. I definitely didn't dig deep enough the first time through.

  11. I've never seen this, though I heard about it when I came out and was puzzled. The premise itself exists, and is explored only briefly, in William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (only in it, I think, the others in the series don't return to it), where its more or less the same setup: the troubled woman who the protagonist is in love with slowly dissolves, because she's working as a prostitute, who is sent to do awful terrible things, then given a drug so she forgets them (though, the idea that a consciousness is created and destroyed in Dollhouse is intriguing and disturbing). In Neuromancer its presented unapologetically from the man's point of view (the woman is dead by the time the story begins), and I remember that feeling of the premise being too big to wrestle with. Sorry this one didn't work either.


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