Doll? Or just Dull?
I’m trying to work out what’s bugging me about Dollhouse. Apart from the whole high-tech whorehouse aspect of it all.
Okay, that does bug me, & okay, I’m several years late on Dollhouse. This is because I started watching it 3 times & found it, frankly, bland. And really the only reason I’ve succeeded in making it into Season 2 was the look of affront on a friend’s face when I said I just couldn’t “get” Dollhouse. (Luckily I didn’t use the phrase ‘mind-sappingly dull’ to explain my reaction.)
Anyhow, lemme just get the irritation at the whole Whore/Dollhouse aspect out of my system & I can move on: Dear Unca Joss Whedon, what in hell do you think you’re doing? There was a distinct point in Season 1, where Echo/Caroline had been sold to a man who wanted to take her hunting, then take her, then hunt her. For all your crp about how expensive the dolls are, I’m astonished you’d put a doll in that much danger, with no resources, no ‘deadman switch’, & apparently – unless it’s convenient to the plot – no tracking implant. It felt, then, like a raw piece of titillation with precious little world-building consistency – or story. I sat through that episode thinking, ‘wait, am I really meant to be okay with the fact I’m watching women being degraded? am I meant to be okay with turning women into unwilling whores AND THEN degrading them?’ Because, frankly, whoring, well, it’s a job, innit? But if you’re not even willing to *call them* them whores, it just looks hypocritical.
Where was I? Oh, yes. So it’s a show about whores. And now we’re getting to the heart of the two issues I see with Whorehouse as a fellow storyteller:
a) there is no greater pursuit in this show than the pursuit of profit.
b) there is no genuine protagonist.
Let me start with a). We’ve all seen this ‘pretender’-style show before: the episodic faux characterisation of the lead character who switches outfits/acting/timezones in pursuit of … something. In Dark Angel I think she was pursuing the bad guys who made her & her friends into freaks. Which had the charming feel of good vs. evil, or even survival vs. death. These kinds of ‘big values’ are intrinsically interesting. Good/evil. Life/death. Similarly, in Alias she was a government agent – or was she – or … *was she*? And so on. Good/evil. In Pretender, the role of the changeling was played by a man & I forget why he was doing what he was doing now, but it seemed to have elements of both Dark Angel & Alias, some kinda government conspiracy/tragic childhood thing. Oh, and he was a kind of ‘equaliser’, visiting justice on the heads of the unjust. Good. Evil.
In Whorehouse, we have a corrupt commercial enterprise dedicated to making money. It buys contractors who are relatively cheap & desperate, & sells them into high-paying contracts. What we don’t have are any kind of high stakes. There is no life & death implications, except in as much as you may, at some point, be hunted & possibly killed. But that’s an episodic thing, not a story arc thing. In the story arc, you’re unlikely to be killed. There are no good & evil implications either since, frankly, it’s just a greedy corporate organisation. And we’ve all seen those before. Hell, we’ve probably even worked for them.
So, I’ve only seen half of Season 2 so far, & I’ve no doubt Joss has some kinda storytelling up his sleeve about the evil motivations of Dollhouse Inc – the story arc I have seen so far have shown that old Whedon magic. The doctor doll that goes AWOL (without any consequence whatsoever, apparently). The sleepers, the dollhouse network. It’s all been awesome. But if you’re gonna wait until Season 2 to express them, well, people will get bored. It’s hard to be engaged by what *looks like* simple corporate greed, even if there’s something else going on that you plan to surprise people with at the end of the second season.
As a final comparison, the best-loved corrupt corporation I can think of off the top of my head is Wolfram & Hart, of Angel fame. And even THEY had, at their heart, good/evil, life/death – and heck, eternal damnation. Not just profit. Profit, by comparison, is a dull pursuit.
So, let’s move on from the absence of higher values in Whorehouse & turn to b) there is no genuine protagonist. And let me again exercise my opinionatedness (wow, spellcheck didn’t even blink) by saying a protagonist is someone who wants something (a lot), who is in pursuit of that something, whose actions drive the story forward. And how does Echo/Caroline fit those traits? Does she want something (a lot)? Mmmmm, nope. I mean, she might. Sadly she’s either a) completely vacuous – literally, because they’ve vacuumed out her mind, or b) somebody else, with an episodic want that’s not relevant to an overall story arc.
Is she in pursuit of something? Again, no. Probably she wants to stop being a whore/doll, but the expressions of that are rather random, & often expressed in the kinda dreamy tone I use when I say I want to live on top of a mountain of icecream. And her want, her pursuit of anything she is after (her own name, for example) certainly do not drive the story forward. They just kinda happen.
Ultimately, nothing Echo/Caroline does (at least until mid-Season 2, where it’s likely I may stall, yet again, in my viewing) is driving the story. She is, frankly, a doll.
The problem is, *the show* thinks she’s a protagonist. The show thinks that the occasional scene of her kicking butt &/or wearing bondage gear somehow passes for compelling characterisation. But you can see the fundamental flaw in thinking a show about a ‘real doll’ might actually be compelling, right? They are not interesting. They are not active. They do not want. They are, in effect, two steps above inflatable.
In fact, I would argue that the protagonist of Season 1 is FBI agent Paul Ballard, who wants to find Caroline (for reasons that are either obscure, or I’ve forgotten them). I know I’m talking about a show that’s a few years old, so most of you will already know – & those who don’t will be able to guess – that he finds her. At which point he apparently stops being a protagonist because he becomes, of course, her pimp.
Maybe it never has been about rescuing Caroline from a fate worse than death. After all, her fate does not drive him to risk all to save her – which is what you’d want from a protagonist, after all. Echo’s fate, ultimately, lands him a job. Which is probably nice, but not very interesting as story stakes go. Once his motivation is addressed – he finds Caroline – he largely fades to the background for an episode or two & the protagonist becomes … nobody.
With Caroline/Echo’s memory returning in fragments, she begins to *act*, to drive, to potentially, eventually own the overall story. But gee, it’s getting quite late for that. And it’s a real shame, ‘cos I reckon Joss had some excellent storytelling planned. But with such a flaccid heroine – a reactive, often blank ‘doll’ of a woman – I’m not sure I’ll be there at the end of the season to see it.