26 March 2009
This week’s episode of Dollhouse, titled “Man on the Street,” was a game changer episode. It was “Prophecy Girl” on Buffy, “Diversity Day” on the Office, “To Shanshu in LA” on Angel, “The Man in the Fallout Shelter” on Bones, and “Tracy Does Conan” on 30 Rock. All these episodes helped shape and redefine the greatness we could expect from shows, and give us a tiny bit of insight into the way that they would be run from this point forward. They transformed good-middling shows into original creations that would carry us through for seasons.
That’s about as much of this episode I can discuss without getting into SPOILERS, so please be advised from this point forward.
Let’s start with the structure of this week’s episode. The whole piece was intercut with man on the street interviews, giving us a broader sense of what the Dollhouse is and how it exists in the world. This ties in thematically with a lot of the broadening that this episode did. It also provided with the most grandiose (in the best possible way) explanation of the stakes of this television show: “If this technology exists… it’ll be global. And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter.” Up until this point, this has just been the story of one very blank girl. All of a sudden, with this episode, Dollhouse became a show about all of humanity.
This change mirrored a lot of the ways this episode subtly changed the game that we thought we’d been playing, the show we thought we were following. Most obviously, this episode fleshed out the physical Dollhouse. The LA branch is only one of twenty. They’ve been around since the 80s. They’re more powerful than anything we’ve seen so far. Dewitt, thus far the most powerful person we’ve seen on screen, answers to a group that’s as powerful and terrifying as were the Senior Partners for five seasons of Angel. Most importantly, though, we’ve learned that while brainwashing hotties to serve the needs of the rich may be how the organization is making its money, it’s not it’s ultimate purpose.
This episode also changed the very nature of the dollhouse. Sure, we’ve found the actives’ blank faces creepy as they Tabula Rasa their way around the Dollhouse, but the physical threat of abuse, in this episode in the form of rape, suddenly made all these metaphorical loose ends tie together. Suddenly, it’s not a well lit sanctuary; the subtext of what they’ve been doing to these people is made flesh.
The rape also served an important dramatic purpose. It redefined the characters surrounding it. Boyd got to play the unambigous hero here, punching out Sir Rapes-A-Lot and not wanting a reward for it. But Dewitt, as the boss of the whole ambigous operation, couldn’t allow such goodness. Her need to pay him for basic human decency was her way of transforming a good deed into just another job for the company. She’s keeping him from redemption.
Dewitt has a huge week this week. She is an ambiguous figure; we never see her acting outright evil, but we’re given to believe that there is something very, very wrong with the way that the dollhouse treats human beings and she is more than just a little complicit in this process. But one thing Whedon has always been VERY good at is defining his bad guys: Dewitt is the mastermind of a multipronged evil organization, but she’s got a clear sense of her own rights and wrongs. And what Hearn (Sierra’s handler, who this episode reveals has been raping her) did is wrong. This episode gave her a clearly defined, although still deliciously ambiguous, moral compass. Having Hearn killed by a woman who he was trying to rape wasn’t just justice; it was revenge. It was a feminist bitch smacking of epic proportions. Mellie didn’t just kill him, she humiliated him when he thought he was on the edge of victory.
Since she’s popped into my recap, let’s talk about Mellie. She was one of this episode’s big reveals, and even though I saw it coming, I loved the way it was played. It was incredibly smooth: first, they give her more personality than just lasanga-making. Here, she’s flirting and awkward, and they set you up to think, “here it comes. Joss loves to tragically kill female love interests in order to spur revenge.” And they show us Ballard trying to call her as he runs frantically to his apartment, and we’re so ready for the oncoming tragedy, for Tara to die in Willow’s arms, for Penny to get hit by a bit of shrapnel. So when the phone rings, it’s the tragic death scene. Except, it’s Dewitt. And all of a sudden Mellie’s not Mellie, she’s November. And we’re forced to rethink the whole nature of her and Ballard and everything around her.
But even here the show doesn’t settle for black and whites. It doesn’t completely invalidate all the legitimate character work between her and Ballard. As Dewitt sardonically notes at the tail of the episode, “she loves him.” There’s something real between Ballard and Mellie, despite the latent doll programming. And in a way, this also transforms Ballard into the people he’s despising.
For the first time in this episode, Ballard does something right on the job. He follows the money, and he comes face to face with both Echo and her John for this episode. Now here’s where this becomes more than just game changing awesomeness- it’s also a damn fine episode. The storyline of the week is actually really affecting. Patton Oswald guest stars as Joel Mynor, a software tycoon who just wants to live the happy moment he never got to have with his dead wife. His wife, incidentally, is my favorite Echo imprint to date, whether she’s flinging her hands up in fear or balefully wondering, “Is this a porn man?” when gunmen interrupt her romantic moment.
After Ballard spoils his and Echo’s reenactment, he sits down with the FBI officer and the two have a heart-to-heart that shockingly doesn’t feel forced. Here, the show once again plays with ambiguity: Mynor’s not some sex-crazed nerd just wanting to bang a super hottie, nor is he in need of an assasin or a thief. He’s a sad man who lost his wife and just wants the chance to show her the house he bought for her. As one of the man-on-the-street interviews puts it, it seems “kind of nice.” But this storyline works a lot like the episode “Lie to Me” on Buffy* did — it presents us with seeming ambiguity and then undercuts it, showing the way that no amount of personal tragedy allows this blatant crossing of the moral line. It actually enhances the arguments that it seems Mynor’s arguing against.
On top of that, the interview with Mynor helps us to more clearly define Ballard. Mynor explains explicitly the way that Ballard’s obsession with Echo is affecting his relationship with the case. Ballard gets more screen time than Echo this episode, and it’s very much so for the good. He’s a real person (as far as we know and I’ll be severly peeved if they take that away) and it’s much easier to invest in him than it is to invest in the constantly shifting Echo (although I’m starting to). We start getting backstory on him. The erst-while Badger from Firefly speaking of Caroline and his obsession with Caroline calls her, “a whore. Just your type. No offense, though, I’m sure she has a heart of gold.” Ballard himself tells us he used to be married. Suddenly, he’s more than just a disrespected FBI man. He’s got a whole past. Plus, we finally get to see him be good at his job, and be cute and flirting and a fully-fleshed out human being. The ninja skills are just a plus.
Speaking of ninja skills, the Ballard/Echo showdown could be the best fight scene I’ve ever seen on t.v. Period. It’s long and cool and brutal, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the great stunt work done on this show (especially if you compare it with early Buffy spot-the-stunt-double games). Plus, it’s freaking hot.
Which leads us to our final, biggest, most game-changing-iest reveal yet: There’s someone inside the Dollhouse, and they’re trying to help Ballard. My first time watching the episode I wasn’t sure if this was for real or if it was a Dewitt attempt at keeping Ballard off their case. I’ve decided it was legit for three main reasons:
- It makes more story sense. If it’s true, then we’ve got a whole new, wholey awesome subplot brewing in each and every episode that the writers can put on the slow burner and that helps to explain the way the dolls are all evolving and glitching all of a sudden.
- The conversation between Dewitt and Dominic after the Echo/Ballard showdown doesn’t seem like she realizes how completely she redefined Ballard’s mission for himself. It seems like she just got him kicked out of the FBI and taken off the case.
- The door behind Topher in the computer room.
When Boyd enters the room while Topher is designing Echo’s new imprint, the two of them exit the room, and the door to the other enterance (behind Topher and to the left a little) is closed. When he comes back into the room to finish the imprint, that door is open. Maybe this was a goof belonging in the mistake section on it’s IMDB page, but I’m inclined to believe this was an intentional hint to the audience.
Assuming the inside man is true, then, we can see how completely redefined the show is now. It’s no longer a quest of a single man, alone, against a small-scale organization. It’s the workings of a team against a global network of evil. Whedon has both expanded and changed the whole shape of the show, and promised so much with a single episode. “Man on the Street” was a funny and smart action thriller that featured intrigue, danger, and romance, and the promise of a whole lot more awesomeness to come.
RANDOM GREATNESS (or how Joss Whedon learned to be unafraid of the dialogue that makes his shows so amazing):
- “He’ll throw the Kindle at you.” -Mynor to Ballard
- “I’m sure I’m in need of some serious moral spankitude, but guess who’s not qualified to be my rabbi?” -Mynor
- “The dollhouse? It’s pink and it opens up and yoyu puit the boy doll on top of the girl doll and you learn about urges.” -Mynor again (Oswald sure can carry a witty a line, and who knew he was so good at emoting?)
- “A guy wants to know what it’s like to be with another man. Just once, nothing queeny. And then after, the other guy forgets. That could be sweet for some guys.” -from a man on the street interview from a very, very intimidating guy standing next to his slightly alarmed girlfriend
- The entire exchange between Mellie and Ballard that began –> “Weren’t you seeing that guy, Rick?” “Dick.” “Oh I thought his name was Rick.” “Oh it was.” and ended –> “What a Rick.”
RANDOM THOUGHT: Do you think Fox realizes the irony of using Eliza Dushku’s naked body to promote a show that’s all about the misuse of other people’s bodies?
* “Lie to Me” was the episode where Buffy’s old school friend, Billy (played by Roswell’s Jason Behr), comes to town. All seems good until we find out that Billy is actually part of a vampire-loving cult that wants to be turned by the dark ones, and that he’s willing to trade Buffy in for his chance at eternal, soul-less life. Just when Buffy’s berating him for his naivete and causality with human life, he reveals that he’s dying of cancer and that all he wants to do is live a little longer. He cries how “unfair” his situation is. For a moment, Buffy looks sorry for him. But the point is that while that sucks, and while it’s truly unfair that Billy’s sick, that’s no excuse for what he’s doing.