Monday 25 March 2013

Dollhouse: Season 2

Contains season one spoilers, season two spoilers, anguished cries of "WHY?" and cursing of the name of Joss Whedon. You have been warned.

So, everything hurts and nothing is okay. Why do we do this? Why do we, as humans, enjoy getting our feelings ripped out and shoved in a blender in the name of entertainment? Is it because we learn to deal with the highs and lows that life throws at us, in a safe environment because it's not real? Perhaps so, but sometimes even the fiction can break our heart and make us feel actual physical pain which is generally not considered enjoyable. And yet we go back for more. Joss Whedon is known for being the master of emotion-manipulation, and is simultaneously loved and cursed for it.

Funny I should say this about a television series that I initially described as "engaging my brain more than my heart." Somewhere along the line, Dollhouse changed and I started caring. Really caring. Season two is overshadowed by a sense of doom, as we know what the future has in store, thanks to Season one's finale, "Epitaph One."

It was a risky decision to have a foregone conclusion, but in this case I think it worked. "Epitaph One" showed a post-apocalyptic world where the dollhouse technology has ended up in the hands of those who use it as a weapon in an attempt to achieve immortality - by wiping minds and imprinting new personalities at the touch of a button. "Epitaph One" could almost stand as a series finale, if necessary, if a very bleak one, but it does not mean that we know everything in season two before we watch it. We know what the Dollhouse-verse will look like in 2019, but not how it got there. This flash-forward gives every little advancement in Dollhouse technology or power an ominous significance.

Season one took its time to get started, the first few episodes following Echo in various assignments in order to give a sense of how the Dollhouse works when it's running smoothly (er, if you don't include that unfortunate incident with rogue "doll" Alpha that had happened shortly before the beginning of the season, or any of the self-contained misadventures that befall Echo, Sierra or Victor while they are out on an engagement) before gradually developing into a bigger story arc. The series seemed to be a different show every time I watched it. Season two shows the plot escalating much faster. There are fewer assignments-of-the-week, with a greater focus on the Dollhouse itself and its sinister parent corporation Rossum.

I wrote in my first review that I didn't understand the love for Adele DeWitt, head of the LA Dollhouse. She is externally a very hard, cold woman, and when her authority is threatened, she becomes harder and colder. Dollhouse does not have easily classifiable "good" or "bad" characters, and Adele's motivations are unclear for much of the season. Is the welfare of her "dolls" and house her top priority, or is it her own power? I hated her for a few episodes, really believing that her character's story was a study in the corruptive nature of power and the dangers of constantly crossing and redrawing one's moral boundaries until there is nothing left. But no. Adele may have lost control for a while, but her apparent worst act of betrayal all turned out to be part of an intricate plan to attempt to bring down Rossum. After this revelation, my jaw was hitting the floor for the last five minutes of the episode. Yes, she is a complex character, double- and triple-crossing the dolls, Rossum and the viewers, the Severus Snape of Dollhouse, but with a better haircare regime.

It seems funny now, that I was so surprised that Adele was not a traitor (to us, anyway) after all. It doesn't seem like a twist at all, not compared with the following episode's bombshell.

What did I write about Boyd Langton before?
"...a fairly decent, fatherly type of character who seems to be conflicted about the organisation he works for [...] he does seem to have more of a sense of morality than the rest of the staff, who put their consciences to one side for science."
Er, quite.

Except for being the head of Rossum itself. No no no what no what what no (continue over the episode's entire closing credit sequence and you'll have my reaction.) Boyd was the one character I felt I could count on, a quiet but steady figure among a cast of morally ambiguous figures who it would be folly to trust completely. I did not see that coming!

Or did I? It seems I hit the nail on the head when I commented that I trusted Boyd because I was seeing him through Echo's eyes, who was specifically programmed to trust him with her life. So were we! And even knowing the truth, hearing him say and watching him do terrible things, that programming overruled my senses. I couldn't hate him. I couldn't look into his face and see a bad guy, despite all the evidence, even while I was shouting at the characters not to trust him. And I grieved at his death. I grieved the character I thought I'd known, even though he'd never really existed. (Yes, this is a character who never really existed on a deeper level than everyone else I've grieved who never existed other than in fiction.) It hurt.

But not half as much as the final episode: "Epitaph Two: The Return." Not due to the death of the supposed main love interest (who I didn't realise had even been absent for a few episodes until he reappeared, that's how much of an impression he made on me.) Partly thanks to the apocalyptic nightmare world of 2019. Partly when I saw Priya (doll-name Sierra) at Safe Haven among many other faces - but without Anthony (formerly known as Victor.) Their love story had transcended the many personalities imprinted on them. Whoever Sierra and Victor were from week to week, they always found themselves in love with each other, even when in blank doll-state. It even touched my hard heart. But where was Anthony? Why wasn't Anthony with them? This wasn't right, this was very wrong! It wasn't the worst, though. He was alive, but their marriage was in trouble, because Anthony had become addicted to all the technology that was the reason for the predicament the world had come to. And they had a child, and Priya had tried to shield him from all that stuff, and given the choice, Anthony chose the tech. They managed to sort things out in the end, though, thankfully. I couldn't have borne it otherwise.

But what really broke my heart was poor Topher, who was driven mad by the knowledge of his role in hastening the thought-pocalypse ("Is brain-pocalypse better? I figure, if I'm responsible for the end of the world, I get to name it," he said before he broke completely.) If ever I wanted to hug a TV character until everything was better, it was Topher. But hugs provide no comfort, because he's right. It is partly his fault: Topher developed the technology used in the terrible war that brought the world crashing down. Honourable motives don't change that.

After "Epitaph One" I knew that Topher would not survive the series. I thought I was prepared for his death as soon as I realised I liked him - Joss Whedon has a way of killing off not the heroes, but well-loved supporting characters. (Still not over his "leaf on the wind" trick! WHEDON!!!!) I wasn't prepared. Oh, it had to happen, and it was the best ending for him, I think, sacrificing himself putting right the damage he had inadvertently caused. People On The Internet have wondered how come a genius who can remotely wipe and programme people's personalities, can't invent a remote detonator for an explosion. I think it's not a case of can't, but won't. I don't think Topher could live with his guilt any more. Besides, his brain, his technology, had been his whole life, and now he'd seen the effects of that, I don't know what kind of life he would have had, forever in fear that anything he did might bring about a repeat of this devastation. His story had to end this way - but I howled.

Still, the fact that Dollhouse affected me so strongly has got to say something about its quality. It was a week ago that I finished watching the series, but the story has stuck in my head. It was quick to capture my imagination, but the characters were sneakier, worming their way into my affections without me really noticing. It shows the power of storytelling that it can both make one think and feel deeply, though now I feel emotionally exhausted.

My friend wants to show me Whedon's Cabin in the Woods, but I've resisted so far because I'm not into horror movies. But she is trying to use my love for Topher Brink to persuade me, because actor Fran Kranz is apparently just as lovable in a similar role in that movie. Perhaps not right away. I know how that film ends. I think it's time for something lighter.

I've been watching a lot of Avengers movies recently. Again, I blame Joss Whedon for getting me into that. I've been adamant that I don't do comic books. (Then Sandman happened.) And I certainly don't do super heroes! (Er, how many super hero comic-book film adaptations do I have on DVD now? The lady doth protest too much. Iron Man 3 is out soon. Yay!)

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