On Dollhouse

What It Means to Mourn

Dollhouse and Aporia

By Martin Shuster

In “Omega,” the twelfth episode of the first season of Dollhouse,
Alpha explained to Caroline: “that’s just a body–they’re all
pretty much the same.” Through the course of Dollhouse’s two
seasons, it was difficult to determine whether Alpha was right
or wrong. On one hand, what the show seemed to suggest, in
a plethora of various contexts, is that there was some bodily
essence that constantly asserted and re-asserted itself, even in
spite of imprinting and global wipes. We saw this, e.g., in Victor
and Sierra’s impregnable bond, and in Echo’s somatic reactions
to Ballard and Boyd (neatly illustrated in “Briar Rose,” 1-11). The
body seemed to retain a certain sort of primacy over the mind
or the spirit. On the other hand, through the course of two seasons,
we saw precisely how disposable bodies were. They were
often cast away or worn like new suits: from Enver Gjokaj’s brilliant
doubling of Topher as Victor to Echo’s being imprinted
with Margaret Bashwood in “Haunted” (1-10) to Harding’s
expendable bodies in “Epitaph Two: Return” (2-13). The crucial
component seemed to be the wedge and the information it
contained.

Here, we seem to have one of Dollhouse’s many aporias
entirely insoluble standstills or moments of contradiction. Aporias,
according to Plato, often serve the function of bringing us
to an impasse that would then force us not only to admit the
limits of our present knowledge, but also to investigate further.
Given that the world of Dollhouse is so similar to our own world
(more on this shortly), such a focus on aporia proves doubly
instructive: by developing these moments, fleshing them out,
seeing how they work and why, we are able to see what they
tell us about Dollhouse, and, perhaps more importantly, about
ourselves.

Wrong World and Glimpses of a Better One

What is most striking about Dollhouse is that its great theme,
like so many of Joss Whedon’s creations, is freedom; yet it is a
show about slavery. What we had in the show was a complex
bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, certainly in the character
of Echo, but also to a certain extent in ourselves as viewers.
As our attachment to and identification with Echo grew, our
concerns began to merge with hers–not only formally, as we
realized that we were indulging in fantasy and entertainment as
much as Echo’s clients, but also as the very tenuousness of the
show’s continued existence (and thereby the tenuousness of
ourselves as viewers) became unmistakable.

Meta-narrative concerns merged with actual narrative ones
most explicitly in the concluding episodes of the show. In “Epitaph
Two” we saw that Rossum’s motivation, for all of its complex
machinery of domination, was hedonism. We saw Harding
enjoying the fruits of his various nefarious labors, thereby
working whatever body he had to its destruction, and, in turn,
abandoning it for a fresher one. The insatiable desire for pleasure
persisted across bodies and across lives. In this sense, it
was stunning to see how efficiently and quickly the writers of
Dollhouse were able to deconstruct capitalism: corporate greed
is merely a way–albeit a dangerous one–to entertain oneself
(the imagery of Topher’s inventions, “playroom,” and “toys” reinforced
this point in a potent way). Through this forceful commentary
about our society and its economic underpinnings,
we were pushed to strange sorts of meta-questions about not
only our relationship to Dollhouse, but also, more broadly, our
relationship to television. Were we just a bunch of dumbshows
consuming our way (  la butterball Harding) through television
entertainment? Taken in this way, as a modern reflection on the
conditions of its own possibility, Dollhouse found itself in the
strange predicament of attacking corporatism while relying on
Fox for its existence, of questioning technology while depending
on the same for its actuality, of decrying the objectification of
women while lavishly promoting itself by means of Eliza Dushku’s
scantily clad body, and of ultimately championing freedom
while revealing the fundamental impossibility of its reality.

As viewers, we could not help but become focused on these
concerns as the show’s premise pushed them forward relentlessly.
In Dollhouse, we were entertained by fictional characters,
on a show about people who paid money to be entertained by
fictional characters. Yet episode after episode, to quote Adelle in
the opening lines of the series, we saw that: “Nothing is what it
appears to be.” As viewers, we quickly realized that there was
more going on here than entertainment: there was a complex,
self-referential, satiric social commentary (with the allusion to
Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots being the icing on the
cake in this regard). This social commentary originated as much
from the content of the show and its parallels in our world as it
did from the formal aspects of the show–its premise, its format,
and its demand for us as a distinct sort of viewer (one,
let’s say, who is a fan who engages cognitively and emotionally
with the story, as much as a consumer who supports the show
economically through ratings and merchandising). In fact, our
relationship to the show was mediated as much by our outlook
as viewers as it was by our orientation as consumers; indeed,
there was a constant tension between entertainment and social
commentary, and between Fox’s wishes and the desires of the
writers. This tension, however, was necessary; if either pole
(consumer or fan) were to give way, the other would follow, and
the social commentary would collapse. Ultimately, Whedon
conceived a show with an insatiable formal creativity that could
easily extend beyond the limits of genre, style, and medium,
but that was wedded to corporate interests demanding boundaries,
limits, and ratings. In this regard, the show’s unfortunate
and all-too-quick demise was the blatant culmination of this
tension.

A similar thread of impossibility and aporia permeated the
show within the lives of its characters. Our protagonists consistently
attempted to assert their freedom while running into
decidedly structural barriers to that freedom. Episode after episode,
we saw that any hope of genuine freedom was consistently
compromised. A structural framework–as much external and
formal (i.e., the show’s setting within the Dollhouse) as internal
(e.g., the Dollhouse’s security measures)–was in place, so
that any move toward escape was immediately predicted and/
or counteracted (this was best illustrated in the conclusion of
“Needs” (1-8), where escape from the Dollhouse itself became a
part of the Dollhouse experience). In a variety of ways, we saw
the extent to which Echo and others (e.g., Sierra) had to continually
resort to relying on the Dollhouse for help, even when trying
to break free of the Dollhouse (from Echo’s “escape” but continued
reliance on Paul and thereby Boyd in season two to Priva
and Topher’s need for Boyd’s particular skill set in “Belonging,”
2-4). The exchange between Echo and Senator Daniel Perrin in
“The Public Eye” (2-5) perfectly illustrated this tension. The senator
resisted Echo’s impulse to bring him into Adelle’s Dollhouse
by asking: “You want to take me to them?” Echo responded:
“I think her [Perrin’s wife/handler] bad guys are badder than
my bad guys.” Continually, from a variety of angles (including,
as “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two” illustrated, the future) we
saw that everything around every character was deformed and
wrong. This was true of everyone: from Boyd (as we found out,
most true of Boyd) to Paul to Topher to Adelle (whose character
seesawed from incredible courage and care to stunning betrayal
and viciousness). In Minima Moralia, twentieth-century German
philosopher Theodor W. Adorno wrote that “wrong life cannot
be lived rightly.” Adorno, who was writing in the context of a
response to the Nazi genocide, proves to be the perfect intellectual
counterpart to Dollhouse, since Dollhouse could be seen
as the perfect illustration of Adorno’s general point (and in this
sense, I would not want to minimize the extent to which the
events of “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two” were precisely illustrations
of genocide).

Of course, through the course of the show we saw glimpses
of love, care, honor, and courage–just some of the qualities we
take to be essential to a moral life. What is significant, however,
is that what we saw were only glimpses. Just as the Dolls
were wiped from mission to mission, these flashes of hope
disappeared almost as soon as they appeared. To again lean
on Adorno, in the same book he argued that redemption is
impossible because it is irrevocably bound up with that which
redemption is to redeem. As he wrote in Minima Moralia:

But [redemption] is also the utterly impossible thing, because
it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s
breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know
that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested
from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this
very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it
seeks to escape.

Adorno’s point is that our world shapes who we are and how
we see things. In order to see them truly differently, we would
need a different world. At the same time, our world being different
depends entirely on us seeing it differently. In this sense, an
aporia exists in the very heart of hope. We saw Adorno’s point
constantly on the show. Again, not only in its basic formal premise–
clients paying for fantasies that ultimately could not last–
but also in its content, where we consistently saw moments of
hope (whether the aforementioned escape in “Needs” or Echo’s
bittersweet taste of freedom in “Meet Jane Doe,” 2-7, or the alltoo-
temporary triumph at the end of “The Hollow Men,” 2-12).
Our characters consistently ran up against structural barriers,
whether biological (as in the limits of technology upon bodies)
or totalitarian (as in the omnipresent reach of the Rossum corporation).
Nonetheless, those moments were real. This was most
apparent and most touching (surprisingly) in Adelle’s affair with
Victor as “Miss Lonelyhearts.” The affair provided an intimate
glimpse into Adelle’s world and her capacity for love. Yet it also
showed how that affair ran into problems, both biological (“It’s
just grouping . . . ”) and professional (and one thing that Adelle
was, above all else, was professional).

What was interesting was the extent to which such moments,
to return to an earlier theme, were dependent upon the body
and upon somatic drives. This was manifest most explicitly in
Echo’s care for the well-being of the dolls and Victory and Sierra’s
love, all of which burst forth regardless of which personality
was in their bodies. Precisely because these moments were tied
to bodies, they were inherently finite and frail. Furthermore,
because these same bodies were the site of programming and
indoctrination (whether social or more direct, as in imprinting)
such moments could not last. If they were to last, they themselves
would be revealed to be codified sequences exhibiting all
of the same systemic and structural failures that the show highlighted
episode after episode.

This stress that Dollhouse put on embodiment (obviously
formally always omnipresent when dealing with sex trafficking)
was paradoxically brought to the fore on the show through
the subtlety in which it was presented. To return to the theme
of the bildungsroman, Echo’s self-awareness, indeed her full
development as a self (as opposed to a placeholder for Caroline),
came precisely at the moment when she was able, having been
exposed to Bennett Halverson’s memories of Caroline, to see
Caroline as occupying Echo’s body, not as Caroline returning
to Caroline’s body. And Echo’s reaction was that she “[didn’t]
like it” (“The Left Hand,” 2-6). Similarly, Ballard’s “brain-death”
revealed the same focus on embodiment from both sides of
the coin: in the care that all of the characters could not but
help show to his unconscious, brain-dead body, but also in
the mercy that Echo could not but help show to Alpha when
Alpha’s body spoke with Ballard’s voice. At every step, the show
highlighted our continual dependence on our body, but also our
all-too-human ability not only to lose sight of this dependence,
but to reach continually beyond it; indeed, Dollhouse’s story arc
neatly illustrated a continual drive to forget our human embodiment
through hopes of reaching beyond that embodiment. Ultimately,
then, we saw that this tension between the body and
mind (or spirit) was precisely what drove Echo’s development,
her coming of age. This tension was also formally on display in
the strange state of affairs where a show about the transference
and manipulation of personalities and minds ended up thematizing
to such a large degree the body.

Boyd’s Death

What Dollhouse told us about the body–that it was as crucial
to who we are as anything else–made Boyd’s death much more
significant than it initially appeared. Indeed, it was difficult to
know what to make of his death: it was both enigmatic and disturbing.
At the end of “The Hollow Men,” as Boyd destroyed the
Rossum building at Echo’s command, we witnessed an exchange
between Ballard and Echo. Ballard asked: “Did we save the
world?” And Echo responded: “I think so.” In this sense, Boyd’s
death was meant to at least serve some higher purpose or utilitarian
(or perhaps even moral) goal. Yet, almost instantly, the
camera cut to the apocalyptic hell of “Epitaph One,” where we
saw that nothing had changed. On its face, Boyd’s death then
just reinforced the points of the last section. Change seemed to
presuppose its own possibility, while immediately acknowledging
its impossibility.

Viewed more closely, however, Boyd’s death raised deep
questions about Echo’s impulses and, as viewers, our own. First,
we knew that Boyd had been wiped and so was a Doll, akin to
and as harmless and powerless as any of the Dolls in the Dollhouse.
In that sense, he was entirely innocent. Second, however,
we knew that Boyd was a manipulative, ruthless killer. Was the
death of who he was as a Doll justified by the actions of who he
was as Boyd, however? Certainly, as viewers, we had become
accustomed to sympathizing with Dolls. Yet, nonetheless, we
found ourselves in the strange predicament of feeling that
Boyd’s death was not entirely unjustified. This seemed to reinforce
the show’s stress on embodiment. Boyd’s body appeared to
be marked as responsible for his actions as Boyd, the founder of
Rossum. The worry was precisely that even if Boyd was wiped,
the Rossum bogeyman still somehow lingered on and so would
have to become the object of revenge in addition to neutralization.
But this seems patently unfair, since, after all, even Echo
herself carried serial killers and all sorts of Boyd-like personalities.
Boyd’s death seemed to signify exactly what I have been
attempting to sketch thus far: the aporetic presence and dissonance
of hope and despair. It beckoned toward hope–through
Echo’s genuinely human, genuinely decided-upon action of
vengeance intended to save the world–and, yet, at the same,
it represented the omnipresence of despair, the ubiquity of iniquity,
whether tied to the inescapability of Boyd from his past or
to Echo’s all-too-human drive for revenge. The fact that Boyd’s
death changed nothing about the future only reinforced this
aporetic structure of hope within Dollhouse.

Ultimately, then, Whedon’s universe reworked the very
tropes of hope and despair, representing the despair of hope
and the hope of despair. To hope is to despair and to despair is
to hope. To again parrot Adorno, the only meaningful response
within such a world is to practice basic acts of “humanness,” all
within the broader matrix of inhumanity and barbarism. And
yet, in practicing this humanity, the characters at the same time
produced the limits of that humanity and thereby the ubiquity
of control and dominance. The limits of humanity are the
bounds of the structural inhumanity all around us, and vice
versa, showing the intimate relationship between the two.

Again, there is no escape from this condition. Indeed, in
Dollhouse there was no escape from anything: the apocalypse
happened regardless.

The Apocalypse Was Televised

It is significant that the apocalypse shown in “Epitaph One”
was never averted. It was, however, survived. In “Epitaph Two,”
before Topher headed upstairs to arm his bomb, he and Adelle
had an interesting discussion, where he stated: “I’ll fix what
we did to their heads–you fix what we did to the rest of the
world . . . Your job is way harder.” Aside from again highlighting
that there are no easy solutions–indeed, that there are no permanent
solutions whatsoever, only stopgap measures–Topher
here, to my mind, raised another aporetic issue: that our actions
can be seen as both determined and free.

In the opening lines of the show, Adelle asked Caroline,
“What if actions did not have consequences?”–a pointed question,
since at that moment Caroline would certainly have been
thrilled by the prospect. In similar attempts to reveal or point
to some hidden desire within the person in question, Adelle
often invoked the principle of care: care for the satisfaction of
her clients (“giving people what they need”) and the safety of her
Dolls (occasionally giving them what they needed). In that sense,
what Topher and Adelle “did to [the Actives’] heads,” was precisely
what was needed, or, at least, wanted. They were attempting
to fix a broken world by allowing people to live out their
fantasies, while at the same time allowing others to forget their
nightmares. In doing so, however, they engendered a world that
was worse than the one they found. Now, what I take Dollhouse
to be suggesting is not a mere “the road to hell is paved with
good intentions” sort of situation, but rather a more fundamental
condition.

Dollhouse is driving at the point that we must reason: we
must have reasons for our actions and attempt to find reasons
for the actions of others; this is what it means to take ourselves
and others as agents. We must deliberate to take action (and not
taking an action is also deliberating to take a particular sort of
action); we cannot help but make decisions. From a first-person
perspective, we cannot wait around to see what our neural network
or what our social programming will do. We act. Now,
after the fact, when we take a “sideways-on” perspective, we
can justify, rationalize, and explain our decisions in a variety
of ways, ways that both exhibit and prohibit attributing agency
to ourselves. Through Dollhouse’s reliance on imprinting, we see
this explicitly: everyone’s actions are always compromised, no
matter the intentions. They are pre-programmed to take a particular
course of action and to be a particular person.

In this regard, the world of Dollhouse was explicitly, fundamentally
wrong, broken, and deformed. Nonetheless, the characters
had to act. Often they acted with good intentions, yet, no
matter what they did, the wrongness of the world was so systemic
and global that no single action (or even a multitude of actions)
could have changed the deformity of their world. Nonetheless,
the characters had to act. Their humanity depended upon acting
within the broader matrix of inhumanity. In this sense, the big
theoretical question that a meta-analysis of Dollhouse raises is not
to what extent we are like the Dolls, swaying to the Pied Piper
of corporatism, hedonism, or programming (whether social,
ideological, or otherwise), but rather the question is to what
extent the world of Dollhouse is our world. The former question
is utterly irrelevant. Senator Perrin told Echo: “They didn’t create
me–only parts of me–how can I untangle it?” Echo responded
simply with: “Does it matter?” (“The Left Hand”). The latter question,
however, remains: Is our world entirely beyond repair? And
if so, what is the proper response to such a world?
One response that Dollhouse presented, and wielded admirably,
was the affirmation of life. Indeed, all we seemed to have,
episode after episode, was life: life with all of its moral ambiguities,
its disappointments, and its violence, but also with its
courage, excitement, and, ultimately, with its possibility for
friendship; life with its acknowledgment of one’s incredible
solitude (even with Echo’s hundreds of personalities), and, at
the same time, with one’s incredible nearness and dependence
on others (whether living or dead). As Dr. Bennett Halverson
explained by video in “Epitaph Two” to Topher (and to us, the
viewers): “We become what we do . . . We are best defined by
our actions in the moment.” I would add, however, that in these
moments, we ourselves are defined as much by structural limitations
(again, whether biological, as in the limits of our bodies,
or sociological, as in the limits of our mind or worldview) as by
the actions we have undertaken to get to these moments. In this
sense, there exists a permanent and constantly responsive interpenetration
of the social with the biological, all within one finite
life-form that is most explicitly constituted by the very fact that
it must act. The show illustrated this state of affairs by continually
showing the inadequacy of pictures of ourselves that stress
one axis (e.g., the social, as in the recurrence of the somatic
in the form of grouping) over another (e.g., the somatic, as in
the death of Ballard and his rebirth via the wedge). Opposed to
these dualisms, Dollhouse posited that all we have is the intertwined
saturation of the social and biological . . . inseparable,
inescapable, overbearing, and ours, wholly ours.

Mourning

To conclude, I want to turn to Ballard’s death in “Epitaph Two,”
since in a deep sense it served as a sort of bookend to the bildungsroman
that was Echo. Ballard’s death revealed that while
the show proposed an affirmation of life, it did so in a very
distinct emotional register, one that I would characterize as an
overwhelming sense of mourning. Again, aporetically, the show
proposed that only in mourning can we affirm life. Ballard’s
death, much like Boyd’s death, is difficult to parse. On the surface,
we finally got Echo letting down her guard. Yet looked at
closer, was the point that she could only open up by consuming
the other? If so, what does that suggest? And is it, then, truly an
opening? Sigmund Freud argued that in mourning the world
becomes impoverished. He was willing to see mourning as a
plausible response not only to the loss of someone, but indeed
to a loss of a variety of things, from ideals to places. In mourning,
we notice the emptiness of the world.

What Dollhouse seemed to suggest in its closing moments
was that the world of Dollhouse was impoverished and empty,
much akin to ours; not only because of the people who were no
longer present, but also because of the ideals and hopes that had
disappeared, or maybe never managed to appear. Nonetheless,
its characters could not but act (much like we cannot but act),
thereby revealing a continual openness to the world (in all of its
apparent deformity). Any existence as a human agent requires
such an opening: it is to be an agent to see possibilities. In this
sense, the world cannot but be empty so that there is a place for
agency in it. This openness was exemplified in Echo’s acquisition
of Ballard, which was the ultimate enlargement of her ego:
the addition of another personality to it.

It is for this reason that as Echo walked away from the
chair, there was a certain look of contentment, but there was
also, I would argue, an undeniable sadness (gray hair and all).
In mourning, all one can do is act, and in acting, all one can do
is mourn. In watching Dollhouse, we mourn the contours of a
relationship and a show that precisely was in its ceasing to be.
In thinking about Dollhouse, we mourn, as viewers, our structural
separation from the show as much as we mourn the fact
that its world is our world. In both activities, we mourn our
world–ours, wholly ours.

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