On Dollhouse

Like a Boss

By Johnathan Mason

Of the various reasons to sing Dollhouse’s praises, my personal
evangelism of the show (to anyone who would sit still long
enough to watch) boiled down to pointing at Olivia Williams
whenever she was onscreen and noting to my captive audience:

“There. That’s who you should be watching this for.”


That Adelle DeWitt was the first voice heard in Dollhouse is
no coincidence. Not to slight any of the talented cast, but her
performance was a subtle symphony—a pop of her calculating
expression, a turn of phrase—that shaded every scene she took
part in. Indeed, “Echo,” the unaired pilot episode, and “Ghost,”
the series premiere, which are otherwise two very different
episodes, both had her introducing the premise of the show in
their openings.


Both began with a businesswoman and her client sitting
in a warmly lit wood-paneled room. The woman poured her
guest a drink while speaking calmly of the complications that brought them to her. Amid listing the entanglements of her listeners’
lives, she offered a choice, a chance to simplify, with an
oft-repeated phrase: “This isn’t about what you want. It’s about
what you need.”


At first blush, Adelle is the villain of the piece, because she
is someone we all know and loathe: a supervisor. As head of the
Rossum Corporation’s L.A. division, it was certainly her duty
to keep employees, Actives, and clients dancing to the tune of
upper management. In her dealings with others, she expertly
maneuvered her listener (and, by proxy, the audience) to her
desired outcome with the skill of a psychologist. When irritated
with someone’s performance, her sharp tongue dismantled
her target with barbs that almost made one feel sorry for the
recipient.


Thus, it was easy to view Adelle as just a manipulative
higher-up in the inter-office food chain, screwing the little guy
to appease her corporate masters before they did the same to her.
However, Adelle was a carefully considered balance of the pragmatic
responsibilities required of her job and the compassion
demanded by her conscience. It was a tightrope act maintained
by her personal need for control and her talent for exerting it
over others.


We saw that talent unleashed in “Man on the Street” (1-6),
when Adelle activated Sleeper Active Mellie with that phrase no
viewer can forget, and a dead body helped deliver a message
to the prying Paul Ballard and rogue handler Joe Hearn: cross
the Dollhouse, and the third flower in the vase will snap your
spine like a Mortal Kombat fatality. And in “Needs” (1-8), when
the damaged Dolls were sent out for self-repair (an idea contributed
by Dr. Saunders but worthy of Adelle), their freedom was
revealed to be an exercise controlled the entire time by Adelle.


Adelle’s control of those around her was matched by her
strict self-discipline. Yet however reserved she kept herself, she
could not completely repress her own empathy. Brought face-to-face with the loss of a true friend in “Haunted” (1-10), she was
both supportive and tender. Drug-induced delirium lightened
her clipped acerbic wit in “Echoes” (1-7), which led to a series
of exchanges between her and head tech-head Topher Brink
that spun into a series of scenes worthy of a stand-alone sitcom.
During their tandem journey into altered states, Adelle was
rendered amusingly unguarded as she guessed at what Topher
thought of her: “Sarcastic? Unfeeling? British?”


Beyond the various glimpses behind her meticulously
crafted persona, what best revealed Adelle in full were the ninth
episodes in of both seasons—“A Spy in the House of Love” and
“Stop-Loss,” respectively. Those episodes shook loose the bedrock
of her control and forced her to re-evaluate herself. In season
one’s “A Spy in the House of Love,” Adelle retreated from
the Dollhouse under the guise of being called to task by Rossum.
Here at last Adelle showed us how she knew her clients so
well: she was the mysterious “Miss Lonelyhearts” who had been
making such frequent use of Victor.


By getting high on her own supply in a fantasy weekend
out of a Bond movie, Adelle’s time with “Roger” was confessional
and recreational (her affinity for fencing made for a wry
commentary on the lady herself). Adelle did not doff her armor
without consequence, however, and the revelation of her righthand
man as the mole within her organization left her literally
gut-shot. Passing sentence on Laurence Dominic and burying
her attachment to Victor, she cast aside the men who were her
comfort—and her liability—as a response. Adelle refocused on
pragmatism, suppressing her empathy and conscience further
in service of regaining control over herself and the Dollhouse.


Season two opened on a revitalized Adelle riding the crest of
her balance of power. Her vulnerabilities seemed to have been
banished. Echo was the Dollhouse’s employee of the month, an
asset rather than a threat. Paul was no longer a thorn in Adelle’s
side but under her thumb, able to do little more than bristle at
her orders. With Adelle using the women in his life as a lure, no
doubt was left as to who wore the heels in this hierarchy.


This iron control could not last, however, and the machinery
to break it was set into inevitable motion by the events of
“Belonging” (2-4). Placed in a position similar to the one she
was put in during “Man on the Street,” down to the same endangered
Active, this time Adelle stood her ground against the client
who brought Sierra to the Dollhouse. However, this was
no lowly employee to be dispatched, and the word came down
from management that Nolan Kinnard gets what he wants.


What resulted was the first real blow to Adelle’s confidence.
Before, she had made difficult judgment calls and been able to
live with the consequences. At the end of “A Spy in the House of
Love,” Dr. Saunders tried to have Adelle confront her feelings of
loss at having her right-hand man and her secret holiday taken
away. Adelle’s reply came sharply: “Nothing I can’t live without.”
When she balked at the use of the Actives, upper-management
suit Harding, and later Boyd, reminded her that this was what
Rossum had always been like.


So with a bitter twinge of envy at what she perceived was his
still-intact lack of morals, Adelle ordered Topher to prep Sierra
as if she would be talking herself into the surrender they now
had to make: “You have always thought of people as playthings.
This is not a judgment. You always take very good care of your
toys. But you’re simply going to have to let this one go.”


It was the moment when the two characters began to trade
places. Adelle’s compassion for the Actives—the way she had
protected herself against the choices she’d made up to that
point—had become too painful to sustain and began to fade,
while Topher awakened emotionally to what he’d been a part of,
and was forced to act.


Adelle’s emotional resolve was further shaken in the events
of the two-parter “The Public Eye” (2-5) and “The Left Hand”
(2-6). Adelle found that her decision to free Mellie/November
was being used against the Dollhouse, and had her own indiscretion
with Victor thrown in her face as warning to press no
further. Still stinging from the fallout of standing up to Rossum
on Priya’s behalf, Adelle mounted an unauthorized investigation
that landed Echo in the dangerous custody of another
Dollhouse.


To retrieve her prize chess piece, Adelle confronted her
Washington, D.C. counterpart and went from lady to tigress
with the ease of a switchblade leaving its sheath: “If you don’t
return my Active, I will send someone to cut these off. You will
be killed horribly, over a long period, and never found. Now
look me in the eyes and tell me if I’ve learned how to bluff.” Flying
across the country to makes threats against a man’s genitals
just to retrieve an employee—when was the last time your boss
went to bat like that for you?


Still, the gamble cost Adelle in no small way. Losing both
Echo and her position, she was relegated to gofer status in her
own house, tasting her own medicine as she chafed under the
new management. Having put herself on the line multiple times
for the Dollhouse, only to receive punishment for her passion,
Adelle was desperate to claw her way back into her office. By
using Topher’s knowledge as a stepping stone, she gave Rossum
the equivalent of a loaded gun, just to regain control of herself
and the house.


When Topher confronted her about it, the ensuing scene
was as cold as their time in “Echoes” was warm. Adelle reeducated
Topher with a pimp’s backhand: “You will follow every
single one of my commands as if they were your heart’s deepest
desire . . . I rule this house! I won’t let anyone challenge that
ever again!”


Later, Adelle’s one-on-one with Alpha in “A Love Supreme”
(2-8) forced her to articulate her choice by telling her captor
that she had “moved beyond chivalry to self-preservation.” Having
chosen the detached safety of being the calculating, selfish,
villainous stereotype most believed her to be, she no longer had
to risk the consequences of trusting or caring for anyone else.
It was not until the appropriately titled “Stop-Loss” that Adelle
was forced to do just that: stop her loss of self and confront
what she was becoming.


Trying to settle back into the routine of her role to bury her
frustration at her job and celebrate being back “on top,” Adelle
found that the locks had been changed on her old life. Even
her fantasy would no longer accept her, as Victor’s head was
filled with Sierra despite his “Roger” imprint. In dismay at her
“breakup,” Adelle’s self-preservation became self-medication as
she binged on her office wet bar. She had become the “pathetic,
self-deluding soul” she’d so often pitied in her line of work,
attempting to regain control by numbing herself to little more
than a shell filled with expensive liquor.


Echo, at the peak of her self-awareness, came to Adelle at
her lowest ebb. The two of them sparred like a spiteful mother
and daughter until Echo ended their argument with a challenge:
“Now you can be on my side or Rossum’s, but the time for playing
both is over!” The control with which Adelle had previously
been able to compartmentalize her life could no longer sustain
her. Her compassionate stewardship of the Dollhouse in service
to its populace left her at Rossum’s mercy for failing to obey its
directives, but service to Rossum had left her emotionally barren,
empty for not doing what she knew was right.


No one can serve two masters, but initially it was unclear
which choice Adelle had made. She showered with the Actives
after her hangover, baptizing herself toward the same fate as
them. Yet by the end of “Stop-Loss,” we met a dark executive
version of Adelle who appeared to have given herself over to
Rossum—a sentiment cemented as she banished Echo to the
Attic.
Now, the second season of Dollhouse was both

conceptually
and visually shadowy compared to its first, brighter season.
In spite of her character, Adelle herself was usually well lit. Her
office, with its view of the outside world, was the staging point
for the progression of the series in “Epitaph One” (1-13) and
“Epitaph Two: Return” (2-13), as Zone, Mag, and the young Echo
went toward Safe Haven, and then as Topher sacrificed himself
to bring back the world.


In “The Attic” (2-10), however, the blinds in DeWitt’s office
were drawn to slits, giving the only spot in the Dollhouse that
allowed in natural light an air of interrogation and secrecy,
rather than transparency and counsel, and we didn’t know what
to think about this change. Adelle sat coiled like a snake, seductively
listing Topher’s sins. With Paul, the two of them had a
stand-off with guns drawn. She confronted Boyd as a patient
schoolteacher would a willful child, even going so far as to reissue
Echo’s ultimatum to her: Rossum or death.


Having called Boyd and Paul on their conspiracy to protect
Echo earlier, in “The Attic” Adelle revealed her own masterfully
formed insurrection. To live on her terms and die on her feet,
Adelle drew herself up and recruited the others to make a final
bid for control of themselves. Echo was the leader of their resistance
cell, but Adelle bore the standard.
In many ways, Boyd and Adelle were similar characters.


Though we learned in the penultimate episode of Dollhouse that
his intentions were more sinister, Boyd had tended to the needs
of others the way Adelle had thought she herself was doing. He
protected and nurtured Echo, partnered with Paul, and was
Topher’s “man-friend.” In Adelle’s case, he challenged her to
retake the house, and then herself. In a macabre reenactment
of the exercise from “Needs,” Boyd helped them all gain closure
and move beyond their issues. He and Adelle even both took a
bullet to the stomach on behalf of their workplace.


The key difference was that Boyd failed to glean the knowledge
that Adelle had won through her own mistakes—control
of others cannot give you control of yourself. Rossum and Boyd
attempted to achieve their own aims at the expense of others by
controlling them. Adelle learned that that kind of control never
lasts and eventually backfires, leaving you out of control. Boyd’s
punishment for failing to understand this was to lose control of
his self in the ultimate way. The founder of the Dollhouse being
wiped was truly poetic justice . . . if there was time for such a
thing while fleeing an exploding building.


At the end of “Epitaph Two,” Echo and Adelle held an informal
“exit interview” of sorts. Before parting ways into the worlds
they had once rejected (Adelle by disdaining to clients the complexity
of the outside world, Echo in trying to free others from
the Dollhouse), they paused to compare notes and reflect upon
each other’s current state.


Echo pointed out that Adelle was “ever the shepherd.” Her
leaving of the vulnerable reawakened in Adelle’s care was no
small pronouncement of trust, considering that the two had
been adversaries for so much of the series. Even at Safe Haven,
Adelle was still the voice of the household, ready to defend
against any threat to those under her care. However, she was
now capable of protecting others and herself without needing
to control everyone so obsessively. The compassion of her
heart and the pragmatism of her mind were finally working in
concert.


To boil this show down in terms of Whedon’s other works
(in Firefly terms, what happened to River’s brain, explored
through the consequences of Inara’s profession) would sell short
the unique quality of Dollhouse. In it, those who had no power
but to be used could claim their own purpose, and even lead
others.


The show’s repeated theme of evolution was about becoming
a better person through your own decisions—evolving not
just physically and spiritually, but morally as well. Adelle was
unique because, having gone through that evolution, she could
guide others to do the same.

Adelle’s final scene had her outside on the street as those
with their minds restored to them rallied around her, that she
might guide them through the coming day. No longer a corporate
boss balancing the company’s needs against her own and
losing, Adelle had dedicated herself to earnest, unselfish service
to others, and in so doing had reclaimed herself. Like Echo, she
was self-made.


Certainly it’s an invaluable lesson for those willing to pay
attention, though I can understand why some might not want
to listen or follow her path. As Topher pointed out, Adelle’s job
was “way harder.”

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