On Dollhouse

"Let the Tide Come In"

How Claire Is the True Representation of Dollhouse's Premise

By Rebecca Levinger

The first season of Dollhouse promoted Echo with the tagline,
“She can be anyone, except herself.” At first glance, this is
certainly true of Echo’s story. She could be programmed to be
anyone in the world, but she was really Caroline, the funny,
outgoing, passionate activist, and her inability to be that person
showed that she was actually nobody at all. Throughout the first
season and for part of the second, even Echo felt that she was
really Caroline.

But in a way, this statement proved not to be true. It was
Echo, not Caroline, who defeated Rossum, despite describing
the effort as Caroline’s war in “The Attic” (2-10). It was Echo
who won (and lost) the guy. While Echo eventually incorporated
Caroline, her initial rejection of her original personality allowed
Echo to become an individual, one who would exist with or
without the memories and persona of its host. By the end of the
series, Echo wasn’t Caroline. Echo was Echo. Caroline was Echo.

So what happened to Dollhouse’s premise? Did Echo’s ultimate
self-discovery and its implications–that people are able
to transcend the expectations and limitations given to us by
society–negate the show’s premise: that the Dollhouse was creating
identity-less slaves? Maybe. Or maybe it simply moved the
story of loss of self off of Echo, and gave it to another character:

From the moment we met her, as she was patching up
Echo’s knee and gently reassuring her that the Dollhouse would
“take care” of her, it was evident that Dr. Claire Saunders lived
to help others. As a doctor, Claire made her living taking care of
people. In “Stage Fright” (1-3), Claire yelled at Topher for allowing
Echo to be sent on a dangerous mission despite injuries she
had sustained during a previous mission, displaying the depth
of her concern for the well-being of the people she had been
charged with caring for.

In “Needs” (1-6), Claire showed that her protection of the
Actives extended beyond the physical. As she told Boyd, he’d
been assigned to protect Echo, but her job was to protect all
the Actives. She did this by becoming their advocate, reminding
Dominic that the Actives were people, not pets, and telling
Topher that, unlike him, she cared what they were doing. This
made Claire a good doctor, but it also made her the closest thing
the Dollhouse had to a moral center. She often seemed to be the
only person who cared about the Actives as people, rather than
a business commodity, and she made it her mission to remind
her coworkers of that.

A scene in the unaired pilot suggested that Claire’s compassion
extended beyond the Actives under her care. She told
Topher that she had noticed “pro bono” engagements had a
physical benefit for the Actives involved. While this could simply
have been another sign that Claire took the health of the
Actives seriously, her visible excitement as she talked about
these engagements, describing them as “totally altruistic,”
suggested that she wanted to help people outside the Dollhouse,
as well, and felt the Dollhouse technology could be used for
something better than just “partying, sex, crime,” and “fulfilling
the needs of the rich” (“Echo,” unaired pilot). When Topher told
her that the Dolls also fell in love, she replied that love was a
“selfish” emotion. Selflessness, like compassion, was at the center
of her nature. To Claire, helping others was more important
than attaining personal happiness.

Claire’s selflessness seemed to stem from feelings of inadequacy.
While arguing with Topher in “Stage Fright” (1-3), she
declared herself a useless employee by exclaiming that no one
even read her medical reports. In the same episode, she told
Boyd that being “special” wasn’t a good thing, that “sometimes
the best you can hope for is good enough.” Claire was underappreciated
at work, and appeared to have little interaction
with the outside world. It’s logical to assume that Claire had
been programmed to believe she was an orphan or otherwise
estranged from her family; she couldn’t have a family outside of
the Dollhouse, because she’d only existed for a little over a year,
and the Dollhouse wouldn’t want to deal with the complications
that would arise from an attempt to give her a life outside her
job. She had no real friends, as the rest of the Dollhouse staff
kept her at arm’s length, probably because they knew about her
real background.

Whatever the reason, Claire didn’t feel special or good
enough. So it made sense that she was so dedicated to her
cause, as it helped her to ease her feelings of worthlessness. She
had no one to help her feel better about herself, so she cared
for others in the hopes that they wouldn’t have to suffer as she
did, and possibly in the hopes that it would give her a sense of
self-worth. (As Topher told her during their conversation in the
unaired pilot, altruism feels good.)

“Selflessness,” of course, had another, literal meaning in the
world of Dollhouse. In this world, it was entirely possible, even
easy, to strip someone of their self-awareness and create a “selfless”
being–a Doll. In this way, Claire’s figurative selflessness
became almost ironic when we learned that she was actually a
Doll herself. Claire was so “selfless” that she wasn’t even Claire;
she was Whiskey.

When she discovered that she was an Active, Claire believed
that her feelings of worthlessness had been proven true. When
she told a cut-up, distraught Victor that he could no longer be
his “best,” that his best was “a past he can no longer remember,”
and that now “the best he can hope for is pity,” she might as
well have been talking to herself. The way she saw it, of course
she wasn’t worth anything to anyone: she wasn’t real. She used
to be the number one Active in the house, and before that she
used to be a real person, but now she was “broken.” She told
Victor he was “ugly now,” and in her mind, so was she.

Claire’s existence was owed in part to Topher, arguably the
most selfish person in the Dollhouse, who had programmed
the “broken” Whiskey with the personality of the previous Dr.
Saunders. It could be theorized that, because he created her,
Claire was a physical manifestation of Topher’s best qualities:
a sense of charity and empathy that Topher himself possessed
but rarely chose to exercise. Topher himself supported
this theory when he told Claire in “Vows” (2-1) that he’d programmed
her specifically to challenge him. He didn’t want a
yes-man; he wanted someone who would tell him when he was
wrong, because otherwise something might go unnoticed and,
in Topher’s words, “someone could get hurt.” He even went on
to tell Claire that she was “better” than him, suggesting that,
on some level, he did care for the Dolls as human beings. And
although he created Claire, he respected her enough to consider
her an individual.

Claire’s emotional meltdown in “Vows” seemed to stem as
much from her inability to understand why Topher–whom
she hated, and whom she believed hated her–had shown her
any sort of kindness as it did from her discovery that she was
an Active. She misinterpreted this kindness and believed that
Topher was attracted to her–a logical conclusion, considering
how often the Dolls were used for sex. Rather than confront
him about it, the way she might have before her discovery, she
chose to reinforce what she believed was his fantasy, by putting
on a sexy little black dress and trying to sleep with him. In that
moment, Claire’s desire to give other people what they needed
shifted from being characteristic of her personality to being its
definition. She couldn’t believe that she was better than anyone
when she was no different from the people whom those around
her saw as pets, as Dolls. She didn’t just want to do things for
others, she was created to do so, and her discovery of this caused
her to lose her sense of self-worth. She began to feel like she was
supposed to be a plaything, and she couldn’t find a reason to
see herself as anything else, so she didn’t even try.

Love, the very emotion she’d once described as “selfish,”
briefly appeared to be Claire’s possible salvation when Boyd
asked her on a date. In retrospect, this act was likely to have
been entirely sinister: Boyd knew she had feelings for him, Boyd
knew she was a Doll, Boyd knew she was in a fragile emotional
state, Boyd saw an opportunity to force her over to his side, and
Boyd took it. At the time, however, this seemed to be one of the
nicest things anyone in the Dollhouse had ever done for her.
Boyd, in his frequent conversations with her, showed time and
time again that he cared what she thought. He spoke to her as
an equal and showed an understanding of her desire to care for
the Dolls. While most of the Dollhouse staff called her Dr. Saunders,
Boyd called her Claire and asked her to call him Boyd, a
sign of friendship. Unlike Topher, he respected her and valued
her presence. This friendship likely caused Claire, at least prior
to her discovery of her true nature, to feel like there was a possibility
that she wasn’t worthless after all; because she knew someone
else saw her as worthwhile, she would have had to at least
consider why he thought that. By hoping to continue or even
advance this friendship despite Claire’s discovery, Boyd showed
Claire that he didn’t care if she was a Doll. To him, she was still
Claire, and she was still worth something to him. (Of course,
Boyd may have only continued to care about Claire because she
was an Active. It’s even possible that he, as the head of the company,
knew all along. He didn’t appear to hesitate at all about
using Claire’s body as a murder weapon and henchman, and it’s
unclear whether or not he planned to reprogram her with the
“Claire” personality after Clyde’s work was finished. However,
Claire didn’t know about Boyd’s true motives.)

While Claire believed that love is a “selfish” emotion, many
people would argue that it’s totally selfless. It is often said that
to truly love someone means to be willing to sacrifice your own
well-being or happiness for that person. This may be why Claire
chose to reject Boyd’s advances. She understood that she was
created to serve others, and she was afraid that loving someone
would confine her to that. She was afraid that, by giving
in to a selfless kind of love, she would be sacrificing her freedom.
Claire told Topher that she wasn’t a human, just a “series
of excuses.” She didn’t, however, tell him that, rather than a
human, she was a Doll. While Claire couldn’t accept herself as
human, she did seem to see herself as different from the rest of
the Actives. When she left the Dollhouse, she left Boyd a note
that said she was “running out of excuses”–running out of the
one thing that gave her some kind of individual identity and
separated her from the rest of the Dolls. Her “excuses” were also
what allowed the “Claire” persona to continue living: “not wanting
to die” was the excuse she gave Topher for not reading the
files about her original identity. If she had no “excuses” left, she
would have to accept that, in addition to not being fully human,
she was not different from the rest of the Dolls, which would
have destroyed any remaining semblance of her security in her
identity. Claire understood that the Actives were programmed
to love selflessly, and she seemed to fear that loving Boyd would
prove that she was one of them.

At the same time, Claire may have been afraid to accept
love because she believed it was selfish; she prided herself on
her selflessness, and giving it up meant she would be susceptible
to being defined by the other people around her, rather
than by her own morals. In a way, she felt she had already given
these morals up: by refusing to read Topher’s files and acknowledge
her original identity, insisting “I know who I am,” Claire
was selfishly denying her body’s original inhabitant the right
to exist, even in theory, because that would have meant that
“Claire Saunders” would die. Knowing that she had already
compromised her morals, Claire could not allow herself to fall
in love, because she was terrified that by doing so, she would
lose even more of what made her who she was (something she
had only a tenuous grasp on anyway) and become completely
open to definition by those around her.

Ironically, this is exactly what happened. At some point,
Claire did accept Boyd’s advances, almost certainly of her own
accord, though it’s possible that he programmed her to do so.
Boyd then took advantage of their relationship, programmed
her to kill Bennett, then wiped her clean and replaced her with
Clyde. It could be argued that Claire’s dislike of Topher led her
to kill Bennett on her own, but this seems unlikely, given that
flashbacks in “Epitaph One” (1-13) show her helping Adelle care
for him, and that Caroline was so excited to see her in the same
episode. It seems illogical to believe that she would have killed
his girlfriend simply to spite him, then changed her mind and
cared for him after he’d been driven insane, and it seems even
more unlikely that Adelle and Caroline would have forgiven her
had she willingly murdered Bennett. Not to mention that, quite
frankly, killing Bennett would have gone against everything
Claire stood for. Someone who believed that helping others was
more important than anything else wouldn’t kill someone just
because she resented her boyfriend. No, Claire killed Bennett
because Boyd programmed her to. She had become completely
defined by her relationship with him, so much so that she was
no longer able to abide by her own morals, and instead did only
what he programmed her to do.

Though it wasn’t clear exactly how she survived the explosion
at the Rossum headquarters, flashbacks in “Epitaph One”
showed that Whiskey was re-imprinted as Claire, albeit with
two noticeable changes: she straightened her hair and fixed her
scars. Claire’s curls and scars were the two things that separated
her, physically, from Whiskey, and–if the picture on Topher’s
computer in “Omega” (1-12) were any indication–from her
original identity. Her decision to alter her appearance this way
suggests that she may have been considering re-adopting her
original identity, and wanted the body to be recognizable to
her. Or she may have accepted that she was a programmed personality
and decided that the crimes she helped Boyd perpetrate
made her even less worthy of having an identity of her

By “Epitaph One,” Claire had literally lost her sense of self.
She lived in the abandoned Dollhouse in a perpetual Doll state,
knowing herself only as “Whiskey.” However, she continued to
display Claire’s two defining character traits: compassion and
a low sense of self-worth. She offered to help the Actuals find
Safe Haven, reflecting Claire’s constant need to help others, and
when Zone said that there was no Safe Haven, Whiskey replied,
almost under her breath, “Not for everyone.” She seemed to be
referring to herself; a flashback revealed that Caroline came
to the Dollhouse and spoke to Claire and Adelle before leaving
for Safe Haven, and while neither appeared to have left
with her, Adelle eventually decided to go to Safe Haven, where
she was seen in “Epitaph Two: Return” (2-13). Claire did not,
and when Caroline, in Iris’s body, discovered that Whiskey no
remembered being Claire, she remarked: “I told her if she
stayed here she’d lose her mind. I guess she decided that was
better.” Claire’s opinion of herself was so low that she preferred
to be Whiskey than to attempt to survive, either as Claire or
as her original identity. Whiskey knew she would never go to
Safe Haven, suggesting that Claire didn’t feel she deserved to.
When she asked Caroline if she was her best, Whiskey showed
that she was still searching for a reason to believe that she was
good enough, and when Caroline told her that she was “better,”
it was the first time anyone had truly, selflessly appreciated her.
Unfortunately, given her state of mind, Whiskey was unable to
fully understand this.

Because we don’t know anything about her history, it’s difficult
to say whether Whiskey’s selflessness or self-loathing were
a part of her original personality. While her status as an Active
suggests that she disliked something about herself enough to
want to have Topher remove it from her brain, Priya’s story
made it very clear that not all of the Dolls were there voluntarily,
while Madeline’s showed that the decision to become a
Doll could stem from the desire to ease the pain of a traumatic
event. It’s also possible that, like Alpha, Claire’s body originally
belonged to a criminal whom the Dollhouse drafted from prison.
The only thing that suggested that Claire’s defining traits may
have been inherited from her body’s previous inhabitant was
that they were present in both Claire and Whiskey. Although
she had no sense of self-awareness, Whiskey retained her need
to help others, suggesting that it was an irremovable part of her
soul, much like Priya and Tony’s love or Caroline’s idealism. If
this was true, then Claire was right: she did know who she was.
But because she had allowed herself to become so devoted to
the people around her, once she discovered her status as a Doll,
she was unable to see that her desire to help them was a good
thing. Instead, she saw it as something that marked her as inferior,
and she couldn’t live with that. Claire allowed herself to be
erased because she didn’t think she deserved to live.

Whiskey ultimately died in an act of self-sacrifice: she
gassed the Dollhouse in order to kill the butchers, allowing
Mag, Zone, and Caroline to escape. Her selflessness, the very
thing that both made her who she was and made her a good
person, finally completely destroyed her.

In “Needs” (1-8), Claire said that people need closure, that
in order to allow them to be their best, they need to be able
to attend to their emotional needs. “Let the tide come in,” she
said. “It’s the only way to wash it back out.” By depriving herself
of the ability to resolve her own emotional needs, Claire had
essentially drowned herself in her own emotional tide. Although
she strove to help everyone else, she allowed her insecurities to
cause her to ignore herself. Claire’s self-loathing, which is one
potential reason for why she was an Active in the first place,
led her to believe that she could create a sense of self-worth by
devoting herself entirely to those around her. She believed that,
by improving the lives of others, she might be able to come to
terms with who she was, and, prior to discovering that she was
an Active, this might have been true. Claire’s downfall was that,
once she learned her desire to promote charity and altruism was,
as least partially, the result of a program, she could no longer
separate “charitable and altruistic” from “willing slavery.”

Dollhouse is science fiction. There is no technology that can
turn most of the world’s population into zombies. People cannot
instantly upload or remove memories and skills from their
brains, nor can they have forty fully functioning personalities
at once. They can, however, be selfless. They can devote themselves
to helping others. Because of this, Claire becomes Dollhouse’s
most immediate cautionary tale. It is possible to care too
much. It is possible to believe that you will never be as good
as anyone else. And it is possible to let these things take over.
Like the rest of the Actives, Claire was unable to be the person
she wanted to be. Like most of them, she likely volunteered to
be that way. But unlike the other Dolls, Claire was conscious
of others’ ability to decide who she was. She just continued to
allow it anyway. Claire was not the slave of her programming;
she was the slave of her own weaknesses, her selflessness and
self-loathing. And in this way, even if she could not believe it,
she was completely human. She could have been anyone.

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