Dollhouse – Ghost Revisted

Adelle:  Nothing is what it appears to be.

From the very beginning, we are warned that Dollhouse is deceiving.  We are being set up to be tricked.  We are being conned.  Cogito Ergo Sum.  And yet, there is truth to be found in this story.  Dollhouse is epic mythology, and myths are stories that never happened yet are always happening.  The truth of Dollhouse is not on the surface, but underneath, not in its historicity but in it patterns.  We will be challenged by irony, and informed by metaphor.  Adelle is speaking to us as much as she’s speaking to Caroline.  Through polysemy, we can receive divine revelation, because we have a choice in interpretation.

Adelle offers Caroline a clean slate, and this is our next metaphor.   John Locke proposed that we are blank slates, ready to be scrawled on by experience, and as Caroline rightly points out, once the scrawling begins, something is left behind.  The mind – the slate – will be wiped clean, all shiny and new, by Topher’s magic chair, but as we will learn, technology has its limits.  There’s a ghost of what was there before, left behind, and that ghost is its own causal force.

Adelle makes an offer Caroline can’t refuse:  what if actions did not have consequences?  The answer is Epitaph One.  (By the way, I happen to have Adelle’s tea set.  It’s lovely.)

Our next scene tells us more of Dollhouse’s conventions.  Echo accuses Matt of cheating.  Likewise, our writers will be cheating.  They will introduce us to people who can change on a dime.  They don’t even have to know whether a character is or is not a doll – anyone can be revealed as a doll through clever writing.  Anyways, Matt accuses Echo of being a sore loser, and Echo claims, “I’ve never lost.”  I have my own theory that Dollhouse is inspired by Whedon’s experience with Lost.  Lost also begins with John Locke and Tabula Rasa, and employs the same trick of pulling the camera back to change the context and framing of the events depicted; everything change.  This is not unlike the children’s toy called Jacob’s Ladder, which flips back and forth incessantly.  It’s also alluded to at the end of Epitaph One, as Caroline leads people out a window (through glass) and up a ladder into the sunlight.

Matt tells Echo of their agreement that there were no strings, and Echo quips that their rules have already changed: they also said no ropes, but that didn’t last.  Matt says, “Yeah!  I remember… I remember it all.”  Echo claims she’ll never forget, but of course she will.  This conversation turns ironically as she’s taken away in black van and given a treatment, wiping away all her memories.  And here’s how the Jacob’s Ladder works:  in the Season 2 premiere, Echo now claims that she remembers everything.  She’s learned to resist imprinting.  The series premiere becomes inverted by the revelations of subsequent events.

Matt waves goodbye to Echo, and he describes his encounter to a friend, likening Echo’s departure to that of Cinderella.  Reality changes at the stroke of midnight, chariots become pumpkins, and princesses become handmaidens.  It’s not really midnight, it’s five o’clock, but the lack of historicity highlights that the truth is in the metaphor.  Echo *is* Cinderella, metaphorically speaking.  And isn’t it delicious that this scene takes place at a Chinese restaurant!  Eastern philosophies will also be in play in Dollhouse, especially Joss’s adored concept of “negative” or empty space; consider Hush or The Body from Buffy.  Is the body an empty shell, a blank slate?

Echo:  Maybe I shouldn’t go back.  The last thing I want to be is clingy…

Lost is predicated on the myth of the Eternal Return, and one its primary catchphrases is “go back”.  To “go back” is a loaded phrase; it has many meanings.  On the Island, to “go back” doesn’t just mean returning to a previous location, but returning to a previous *time*, and this is accomplished through dying.  It’s not unlike the Eastern concept of reincarnation.  We repeat an endless cycle of  birth, death, and rebirth, a cycle of suffering born of attachment.  So Echo’s comment is really quite funny – can she let go of her attachments and exit the cycle of suffering?  In a manner of speaking, yes she can, thanks to the Chair.

The Chair is an invention of Topher Brink, and I just want to say that I love this name for this character.  His technology takes us to the brink, literally on the edge of apocalypse.  The other thing about his name is that it’s a shortening of Christopher.  Topher is an “incomplete” name, it lacks Christ, and this is an apt description of Topher Brink.  He may well be the AntiChrist, metaphorically speaking.

Topher:  Hello, Echo.  How are you feeling?

Echo:  Did I fall asleep?

Topher:  For a little while.

Echo:  Shall I go now?

This is another of Dollhouse’s metaphors, encoded into the rituals of the Chair.  What does it mean to be asleep?  What does it mean to be awake?  Which is better?   Jacob’s Ladder is a metaphor for the numinous experience of Enlightenment, which may well be convergent with the Buddhist experience of the Godhead.  In a sense, the Dolls are closer to God than those who run the Dollhouse.  The Dolls live in paradise, a place before or beyond the Fall (which is why the Dollhouse is a place without “judgment”, and Topher will invoke Shakespeare a bit later claiming “there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”)  The Dolls are souls without the baggage of ego, without the illusion of a constructed personality, and possibly without “thought” as we understand it.

“Shall I go now?” evokes a similar phrase that is invoked on Lost.  In Lost, Christian Shephard magically appears on a freighter to tell the character Michael that he “can go now”, just before the freighter explodes.  Another character, Miles Straum, tells the ghost of poor woman’s dead son that he “can go now” as he exorcises the spirit of the drug dealer.

To “go now” is a phrase given to those who are dead, in the new mythology, and so it is with the Dolls.  They are zombies, as Caroline describes later.  They sleep in coffins with glass lids embedded in the floor.  And yet being dead does not mean being gone; Dolls are dead but they are also still here, they are alive.  Later we will discover that an experience in the Chair is like dying.  Adelle says your life will flash before your eyes; Paul complains that being wiped is like being murdered.  Even a dead woman comes back to life, if only for a while, in order to solve her own murder.  Again, this is an allusion to Jacob’s Ladder, or Enoch’s Ascension – the experience is like dying, like sacrifice.

Echo:  I can’t remember what fell on me.

Claire:  Does that bother you?

Echo:  Should it?

Claire:  We’ll look after you.

Echo:  Does someone look after you?

In her Doll state, we see the natural expression of Echo.  Echo is empathic.  She feels what other people feel.  She has compassion.  She touches Claire’s scars, and Claire recoils.  Claire has been scarred, she is no longer perfect, she is flawed.  She’s also put off by Echo, and leaves her to go set up a massage; Echo wanders up to the Chair, where Sierra is getting her first traumatic whipe.  Topher claims that they are making her “better, but Echo recognizes that “she hurts,” again showing us that she has some soul to her.

Contrast this behavior to what Paul Ballard will say.  He is being grilled by his bosses, while we see him boxing in a juxtaposed flashback.  Ballard is deceiving his superiors – he claims that it won’t be a problem to “back off”, but his boxing match demonstrates that he is not the type to back off.  Ballard is concerned about the imprinting process he’s heard of, that one’s personality is removed completely for another; he likens it to people walking around having been “murdered.”  He’s right – they are zombies – but he’s also wrong, because there’s still someone there.

Davina: I don’t understand.

Gabriel:  You don’t have to understand.  You just have to do as I tell you.

So there’s this dynamic of parent and child in a lot of religion.  God is conceived as Father, and we get a taste of one version of this conception through a daughter and her father.  In this example, the Father is supposed to be obeyed.  He is the source of authority.  Just do what you’re told, follow the plan.  Davina calls her father a “tyrant” at the end of their phone conversation – notice that this version of God is not present, though Gabriel offers Davina a “present” for finishing her homework, and that “present” is knowledge.  Knowing comes from study, from reading.  And in the Eastern mindset, it comes from “being present.”  Davina doesn not receive knowledge from her father, but rather direction.

Davina wonders aloud if she can cheat.  She could pretend that she’s studied, that she knows, and her father wouldn’t know.  He disagrees, claiming that he could see it all over her face, even if she was sleeping.  This is an all-knowing father.  Well, so he thinks: his daughter is kidnapped (in a body bag) right out from under his nose.

Gabriel asks Adelle to deliver him a negotiator, someone to save his daughter.  He wants it to go like “clockwork”, a word he repeats twice.  His savior will be someone from the Chair, someone modified to suit his needs, and this may be a nod to A Clockwork Orange, which also features “social programming”.  The little girl must be saved… and this is echoed and reversed in Epitaph One, as the savior of humanity is imprinted into the body of a little girl.

Back to Ghost:  The little girl is kidnapped by a man calling himself Mr. Sunshine, which sounds near enough like another version of God.  In some Gnostic myths, what we know of as the Universe is actually the product of a mistake.  An Aeon, Sophia, gave birth on her own – without a partner.  Her son is the insane creator demiurge who made a universe of imperfection and suffering.  Mr. Sunshine is a source of pain and suffering.  Later we will meet Alpha, who is also a creator of pain and suffering, himself the product of a “mistake”: composite imprinting upon a broken Doll.

Echo: I’m Eleanor Penn.  Our mutual friend referred me.

Gabriel: I’m sure he did.  I’m a little surprised, though, that he sent you.

Echo: I’m good with people.  I put them at their ease.

Gabriel: In my experience, a beautiful woman never puts anyone at their ease.  Fatherly types do that.

Eleanor!Echo does not put the fatherly type at ease.  On the contrary, her crisp and evocative manner is striking and startling to him; he’s turned on.  She is the embodiment of the male conception of female power; she is a creation of Topher’s.  She isn’t there to administer justice, which is reserved for patriarchs, but rather to facilitate an exchange – again, we are warned not to attempt “judgment” on the Dollhouse.

Eleanor Penn is an interesting name, especially in light of “our mutual friend.”  The story byDickens features cascading reveals, changing aliases and confidence games, a doll’s dressmaker, and the theme of spiritual rebirth amidst the pressure of social roles; like Dollhouse, it was published serially.  Our Mutual Friend is also a book featured on Lost: Desmond David Hume plans to read it on his deathbed, and in it he find a key that ultimately sends him back in time.  He meets Eloise “Ellie” Hawking an interventionist who convinces him to make the same painful choice he made before, to preserve his path to the Island.  After the time-travel event he is reborn, literally naked.  Eleanor Penn, also called Ellie, is also a sort of interventionist dropped deus ex machina into the drama of Gabriel and Davina.

Gabriel reacts sexually to Eleanor Penn, he is too distracted by her beauty.  He would prefer someone like Edward James Olmos, who played Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galactica, another epic mythology that deconstructs patriarchal culture.  Echo counters with superior knowledge: she’s done this her whole life, and she knows from experience that a “fatherly type” would *not* be as likely to save Gabriel’s daughter from these sort of kidnappers, who are so brazen as to steal her from bed.  However, it will be Eleanor’s personal experience with one of the kidnappers that brings salvation, for Eleanor has been created from several peoples’ memories, one of which identifies the child abductor among Mr. Sunshine’s gang, the one with psychosexual motives rather than financial ones.

Topher:  You see someone running incredibly fast, the first thing you got to ask is, “Are they running to something, or are they running from something.  And the answer is always both.  So these personality imprints, they come from scans of real people.  Now, I can create amalgams of these personalities, piece from here or there, but it’s not a Greatest Hits, it’s a whole person.  Achievement is balanced by fault, by a lack.  Can’t have one without the other.

Topher’s philosphy of personality creation is also the philosophy of character creation in postmodern drama.  The flawed hero is much more interesting and believable than one who is “perfect.”  So Eleanor is nearsighted – and this is a metaphor for the lack of perspective she actually has regarding her identity, not to mention *our* lack of insight in what Dollhouse technology actually entails – there is so much we just don’t know.  Eleanor also has asthma, which is the focus of a deception in Lost’s eighth episode, Confidence Man.

Eleanor: You have to trust that I’ve done this many, many times.

Gabriel: I have to trust that, right.  Yesterday you weren’t a nurse or a clown in the circus.

Eleanor: What?

Gabriel: You’re the best.  The best one they could send.  Why is that?  What makes you so good at this?

Eleanor: I don’t have any hobbies.

Eleanor is also programmed to have had the experience of being the victim of child abduction.  This “flawed” childhood turns out to be the perfect solution for solving Davina’s case, for this memory leads her to realize who she’s up against.  She is simultaneously running towards something and away from something; she is *crossed*, she can embody contradictory positions.  She is perfect and flawed, and perfectly flawed.

She has done this many many times, and yet she has never done this before.  Both of these statements are true, but they are true in different ways.  The persona of Eleanor has been constructed with many many memories of saving abducted children, but Echo has never done this before.  And yet we know now that Echo is perfectly suited to saving people, so she is a perfect match for hosting Eleanor; future knowledge changes our interpretation of the picture.

And isn’t it neat that “being your best” is such a common theme running through the limited consciousness of so many dolls?  Echo is “made” the best by Alpha, by virtue of his “breaking” Whiskey, who was the best until then.

Lubov: You’re about to make a very bad mistake.

Yes, we are.  Lubov is the man Paul Ballard grills, hoping to get information on the Dollhouse.  Unknown to either man, and unknown to us, Lubov is actually Victor, a Doll.  We have all been deceived.

Echo is deceived into believing she’s Eleanor Penn, raped as a girl by a man who claimed he was a ghost, and you can’t fight a ghost.  Her repeated uttering of, “Is it bigger than your thumb?” shows us the dolled-up negotiator as the victim of child abuse, and challenges viewers to check their voyeuristic enjoyment of the show.

We have to consider Echo’s “ghost”.  Her soul.  Her ghost is strong, and resists Boyd’s triggering phrase to have a “treatment.”  Dollhouse has its own “treatments”, slang for doctoring scripts, and that treatment is to conjoin contradictory perspectives and directions.  Echo has a ghost strong enough to faintly resist imprinting: her desire to save the girl gives her the strength to deliver key information to Boyd, even as she succumbs to her programming.

Boyd: You cannot wipe her right now.

Adelle: I can do any damn thing I see fit.  Echo botched the engagement.  She jeopardized this entire operation.

Boyd: You botched it, Miss DeWitt!  You gave her the memory of an abused girl, and you put her face-to-face with her abuser.

So again we have a person in Authority who has made a mistake, who has botched something.  And yet this is not a mistake, for it’s exactly what was needed to create a happy ending.   When are mistakes no longer mistakes?  What makes us think in terms of errors and accidents, anyways?

Boyd:  We have a mission!

Adelle: We prefer to call them engagements.  You have not been here as long as some of the others, so I will overlook the error.

Engagement is an interesting word.  It has other meanings besides encounter, happening, or appointment.  It comes from Middle English, to pledge something as security for repayment of a debt.  This is exactly the context presented to us in the first scene:  Caroline is pledging her body – and with it her soul – to the care of Adelle in exchange for not having to face the consequences of her actions.  Adelle is helping her to get off a hook of some sort or another – indeed, Caroline’s “error” will be overlooked for her pledge.

Engagement also connotes betrothal, which is the focus of the Season 2 premiere.  This is also a metaphor for a primary treatment in Dollhouse narration, that there are two polarities conjoined into one.  Everything has a second meaning; this is true for myth.

Eleanor realizes that there is a “second” schoolteacher, that this is the informant of the group who knew of Davina in the first place.  Davina’s schoolteacher is named James Shepherd, another ironic religious invocation.   Then we learn that the person whose brain scan gave Eleanor the memory of the child abuser commited suicide a year ago.  A part of Eleanor is nearly literally a ghost resurrected with the opportunity to avenge her own trauma – a theme revisted in Haunted.

She confronts the abuser, reminds him that she was left for dead in a river, but she wasn’t really dead.  And now *he* can’t fight this ghost, as she successfully recruits one of the other thugs to turn on his partner.  The abuser is shot dead.  And then in a lovely bit, Eleanor tells Davina that they are “going now,” and that they’ll be okay.  The man who turned on his partner encourages them to “go now”, but then another Doll blasts through the front door and the redeemed kidnapper perishes.

Caroline: I’d like to take my place in the world, like Mrs. Dundee said.  Global recovery, doctors without borders, the world is in need of some serious saving.  And I want to travel, travel around the world as I save it.  In a private jet, that I pilot and design… I want to do everything.  Is that too much to ask?

In the final scene, a man watches Caroline’s college yearbook videotape, amidst the cut up bodies of her family.  The man is Alpha, whose file Adelle hands to Dominic, asking how they’re going to “contain” him.  Alpha means “first”, and as such occupies a position at the beginning, the position of creation.  In the pilot episode of the show, we have a little bit of everything.

from The Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, “Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.  For there is nothing hidden that will not become manifest.”

“On the day when you were one you became two.  But when you become two, what will you do?”

The disciples asked, “Tell us how our end will be.”  Jesus replied, “Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end?  For where the beginning is, there will the end be.  Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death.”

“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness, then will you enter the Kingdom.”

Jesus said, “Show me the stone which the builders have rejected.  That one is the cornerstone.”

Jesus said, “Whoever believes the All itself is deficient is himself completely deficient.”

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4 Responses to Dollhouse – Ghost Revisted

  1. I didn’t realize that Topher is short for Christopher. But of course it is! Thank you, than you. Topher is the character who fascinates me the most. I always sensed something was coming like what we see in Epitaph One, but when it arrived, I could scarcely handle it. (Tremendous actor.)

    Your deep interest in myth comes through load and clear!

    The bodies around Alpha (just by the way) I took to be the agents that had been sent after him. At some other point there was a mention of that.

    I give my take on the same Cinderella dream girl passage (with Matt) from episode 1 over in my review of Dollhouse at thelandofunlikeness. I was approaching it from a different angle of course; the ironies there, exposing Matt’s cynicism and also our society’s programming of all those little dream-girls ripe for exploitation. The manipulative uses of a mystique…. That review is long, but you’ll can find that one section, if you want to look at it.

    More later….

  2. janeaire says:

    I don’t think the bodies around Alpha are agents. One is a man sitting in a reclining chair whose own blood has spilled into a bowl of popcorn. The other is a woman who stains the carpet. They’re in a house, an ordinary house. Who would have a video-yearbook DVD of young Caroline, before she ever got into any trouble? These are not agents.

    Alpha, who will eventually destroy his “original self”, is concerned with origins. He’s murdered Caroline’s parents. Caroline is now an orphan, severed from her own origins, and Alpha is watching her on TV.

  3. Janet says:

    Okay. I’ll joyously rewatch the episode. Thanks!

    But that brings up another question? Is Alpha’s Caroline the same as Ballard’s Caroline? The same as the Caroline in the pilot episode interview room with Adele?

  4. Those sayings from the Gospel of Thomas sound a lot like Giles Deleuze on the simulacra….

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