With the second season of Dollhouse gearing up, the Girl and I took the time to re-watch the first season in glorious Blu-ray. I’ve been thinking about the show a great deal (a side-effect of Joss’ work which is both a blessing and a curse) with most of my thoughts centered on any of three topics: an analysis of the show as a work of art and entertainment (primarily about how it did the exact opposite of jumping the shark and went from being “meh” to “phenomenal” in only five episodes), a dissection of the morality and ethics of the Dollhouse universe, and a discussion of the way Joss toys with fate in his worlds.
This last idea is the one that resonates with me the most, so I’ve decided to blog about it. While I’m sure the English majors who are also Dollhouse fans have already done this subject to death, I haven’t seen it. And like I said, it resonates with me. So here’s my take on it.
This post contains open spoilers about the entire first season of the show, including the un-aired finale “Epitaph One”. It contains no spoilers about the second season because I’ve very carefully shielded myself from them. It also contains open spoilers for Buffy and Angel; but honestly, if you haven’t seen those already, there’s no reason for you to read this.
If you look at Buffy, Angel, and now Dollhouse, I think there are three obvious ways that Joss uses foreshadowing. Each of these means different things to the characters, but they also mean different things to the viewers.
In Buffy, one of the main themes throughout the series is that Fate (and, for that matter, viewer expectations) doesn’t matter and our destiny is our own to control. Buffy is told that Slayers are solitary and derive their power from themselves, but she instead chooses to embrace her friends and draw her real strength from them. In the first season, there’s a prophecy that she will die at the hands of the Master. And while it’s technically true, she subverts the prophecy (again, through the strength of her friends) and gets back up again.
In Angel, things are different. Angel is also given a prophecy. But, instead of trying to prevent it or subvert it, he embraces it. He is still afraid of it at times, but he recognizes it as his destiny and intends to fulfill it (though he’s doing his best to do so on his own terms).
Buffy and Angel are the two sides of a single coin. In these universes, Fate is a real thing; but it’s not absolute. Ultimately, the characters can choose how they want destiny to play out by making their own choices. They’re greatly aided in this by knowing what’s coming.
Dollhouse is different. In “Epitaph One”, Joss showed the viewers what’s in store for that world; but the characters themselves don’t have a clue. The Producers of the show have stated that the future world of “Epitaph One” is canon and, over the course of the show, they will be slowly building to that future. For Echo and Caroline both, there are no choices to be made. Her destiny is set and she’s marching towards it.
This should not be terribly surprising. Where Buffy was very clearly about empowerment, Dollhouse is about the lack of it This powerlessness seeps into every scene. The dolls themselves are clear examples of it. They’ve had their humanity removed and are merely automatons to be sent on engagements according to their programming. The powerlessness extends to the other characters as well: almost no one with actual control is ever seen (until, possibly, the final two episodes. I’ll talk about that in a bit.).
Boyd can make small decisions to protect his Active, but he’s severely constrained along a very narrow path designed to achieve is superior’s objectives. DeWitt usually seems in control, but “Epitaph One” makes it perfectly clear that she is ruled by her off-screen superiors. When both Mellie and Dr. Saunders are revealed to be Actives, it not only demonstrates that they are as powerless as Echo; but it also makes the point that anyone could be a doll and not realize it. Any character could be completely sure of her own power while completely lacking it.
Dominic was the character who was closest to being able to make his own decisions and affect his own destiny. Yet, in the end, he’s put in the Attic: a place of total and utter mindlessness. It’s arguably a fate worse than death and possibly Dominic would have chosen death as an alternative. But, in the end, he was denied that choice.
Even the ostensible good guy is manipulated throughout the season. Alpha pulls his strings to the point that he may as well have been a doll. Ballard followed his program, free-will or not. In the end, he even joins the Dollhouse. Because, honestly, what choice did he have?
Alpha, it seems, is the only character we’ve seen so far with any control over his circumstances. And he was the Big Bad. And crazy. And his plan didn’t work. But unlike in Buffy or Angel, where the Big Bad’s plans are foiled at the last minute by our hero’s heroics, Alpha’s was foiled by dumb luck. Echo didn’t want what he had to offer.
Towards the end of “Omega”, Echo and Caroline have their first real choice of the series. In that moment they can, together, choose freedom or slavery. They chose freedom. And Alpha takes that choice away by killing the body that Caroline is in. (As a brief aside: the woman playing the part of Random Body #1 in this episode completely failed to make me think she was actually Caroline. It really hurt some powerful scenes. Alas.)
By showing us “Epitaph One”, Joss and company have taken power away from more than just their characters. They’ve shown us that there will be no letter-writing campaigns for fans to save a beloved character. There won’t be “choose-your-own-adventure” style 1-900 numbers for viewers to call to vote if we want the good ending or the bad ending. Even the Producers themselves are now severely restricted: they know where the story goes and they can’t change their minds now. (Well, they can. But it’d be a huge cop-out. And that’s really not Joss’ way.)
With Dollhouse, Joss has produced a work which makes its point at every level. It makes statements about powerlessness that I’ve never seen in a piece of popular art. And he did it with a 13-episode television series (where the first four of those are arguably bad). To contrast that a bit: in the past year, I played video games and watched TV. This show is damned impressive.
“Epitaph One” also changed my relationship with the show in a way I’ve never seen before. Usually, when I’m watching a show for the first time, I’m looking for an answer to the question “What happens next?”. When I watch it a second time, I already know the answer to that and I’ve picked up the answer to “How did it happen?” as well. Subsequent viewings are about picking up nuance and little things that I missed (as well as just really enjoying some shows).
Dollhouse is different. With every new episode I see, I’ll already know the answer to “What happens next?”. For the first time, I’ll be watching a new show to answer the question “How will it happen?”.
The question is dark, too. This isn’t “How will Ross and Rachel end up together?”. It’s “How is the world going to end?”. Because there is no question: the world will end. Within this fictional universe, it’s been fated by the creator himself. There is not a single thing that Echo or Caroline or DeWitt can do about it. Every decision they make, no matter how wise or good it seems at the time, is a step towards total ruin. Everything they do is a direct cause of the end of the world.
And they don’t have a clue. But we do. We know how it ends. Joss performed the television equivalent of having everyone flip to the last page. It changes things.
I’m the sort of person who spends a lot of time being sad that everyone I know and care about is going to die and there’s not a thing to do about it. I very literally mourn the living because I know they’re in that state for only a moment. When I know that someone I care about is driving in a car, I become afraid until I know they’re safely at their destination. Because I know that they’re fated to die, but I don’t know how or when. I suppose I’m fortunate that it’s not a paralyzing fear. But it’s very real.
And now I find that these same concerns have infiltrated my entertainment. I know bad things are going to happen to these characters I’ve become involved with and I know that there’s nothing that can stop it; but I don’t know when and I don’t know how. And it’s dark and it’s depressing.
At the beginning of this post, I said that the question of fate in the Dollhouse universe resonated with me. That’s why. Joss took one of my least favorite parts of my psyche and filmed it. And he did it expertly.
So when I watch season 2 of Dollhouse, I expect to be entertained. I expect to be impressed by the talents of everyone involved with the production. But I also expect that it will touch the darker recesses of my brain, and I expect to find it troubling. I don’t expect to get a lot of sleep on Friday nights.
But I also expect that I won’t be able to not watch. Because some things are too good to look away from.