Signing a Contract to Be a Slave: Dollhouse in Retrospection


Dollhouse. How do we even begin to talk about Dollhouse? It might be the most ambitious of all of Joss Whedon’s shows, and, while it is deeply flawed, it’s also one of the most interesting. 

Let it never be said that Joss Whedon doesn’t follow the adage “go big or go home.” He’s a man of many big ideas and some of them are way ahead of their time. Firefly and Dollhouse fall into that category. They are both shows that, at their cores, are about consent and slavery. They’re both shows about what consent means and the different ways that slavery is presented in a culture. And for those reasons, they are both shows that were streets ahead.

That being said, I really love Dollhouse. For all of the greatness and for all of the faults, Dollhouse is a show that works and doesn’t work in equal measures.

Echo, played by Buffy alumni Eliza Dushku, is an Active (or a Doll) in the LA Dollhouse (the capitals are pretty necessary, trust me) who is fighting her real memories of Caroline Farrell. Caroline was a girl trying to take down the Dollhouses and, ultimately, the Rossum Corporation. The Dollhouse bills itself as the answer to everything you’ll ever need – for a substantial amount of money. dollhouse_lWhat Rossum is really doing is taking people, who usually have no way out, and having them sign a five-year contract to have their memories stored on a harddrive and their body implanted with a new personalities as ordered by the clientele. Caroline was captured trying to expose and destroy Rossum for all of its illegal activities and human rights violations. So, she signed her life away after being given no other choice. 

Joss Whedon brings up a lot of amazingly strong points dealing with the sociological issues of rape, slavery, and (to a lesser extent) poverty. The show also brings up the philosophical point of what makes human beings who they are – is it memory or are people always who they are? Whedon’s contention is that people are a combination of both. We, as people, are our memories, but we will always be, at our cores, uniquely us. Caroline becomes the standing point for this idea – as well as it’s opposition  She is always meant to fight, that’s who Caroline is, even when she’s been brainwashed into Echo with a clean slate. But, by the same token, Echo does become her own person. When Echo has every person she’s ever been dumped into her conscious, including Caroline, she is not her original self anyone. Caroline becomes part of Echo, instead of the other way around. She becomes a personality and set of memories that Echo can access. She is, for character purposes, lost to the void of who Echo is. All of which actually leads to an interesting question: Was Caroline always Echo? Was Caroline always meant to be Echo, or was it a crazy happenstance that her life took this turn? Herein lies where a lot of what Whedon was trying to do, but wasn’t really successful in doing. Echo, as a character, is a very ambitious, but she is also a failure.

There has also been a lot of conversation about what Whedon’s sympathies to those members of the LA Dollhouse staff means. Is it sexist, given that the majority of Dolls we see are female? Not really, not by my count and my understanding of both feminism and sexism. Is it utterly problematic because of the issues of human trafficking, rape, and slavery that are inherent in the fact that there are Dolls at all? Yes…but for not who and why you think. It’s not problematic for Joss Whedon or the creative team of the show. It’s the ultimate understanding of drama and what we try to do as artists. When you can imagine your enemy, or Echo’s enemies in this case, as people, like, as real people who make mistakes and aren’t always the good guys, then you’ve achieved something great. And yes, herein lies a lot of where Whedon’s gets things right. Particularly concerning Topher Brink, played by the marvelous Fran Kranz. Where Echo’s character is a failure, Topher’s is the ultimate success story of Dollhouse.

Dollhouse-tv-17Topher is a genius. He’s sweet, funny, nerdy, and utterly charming. He is also an awful person for what he does. He reprograms people. He puts them through immense pain, erases their memories day after day, and allows them to go into situations where they will be used, abused, and made to be nothing but slaves to the personalities he’s created. But here’s the thing: we are sympathetic towards Topher’s world. We understand why he does what he does. He’s a genius who wants to keep expanding his mind, but the trade off for him to be able to do that is to literally make slaves of innocent people – and he’s happy to do it. We love Topher, but we simultaneously hate him for what he does, his complacency in the horrible nature of the Dollhouses, and the science he has, personally, contributed to Rossum. And when Topher’s need, and want, to expand his mind begins to crack, when Rossum starts to crumble, we love him that much more because he grows as a character. He is pliable, and he understands that he’s the only one who can change things – so he does.

All that being said, Dollhouse is worth not only a watch, but a rewatch. For all the show’s problems, it’s also one of Whedon’s strongest works. The twist at the end of season two is spectacular – utterly amazing. I still scream about it sometimes because it was so brilliant. Topher, Victor (Enver Gjokaj), Sierra (Dichen Lachman), Whiskey (Amy Aker), and Alan Tudyk’s character are the strongest characters with the most interesting backgrounds, development, and endings. Also, I might be one of the biggest fans of the two coda episodes that were never shown on television: Epitaph One & Epitaph Two: Return. Because what else do you do, other than the apocalypse, when you’ve created a scientific world where you can wipe and implant memories into anyone at any given time?

Emily Frances Maesar

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