Terry: I demand my phone call. I want my attorney present.
Paul: No attorneys, No phone calls.
Terry: I know my rights.
Paul: And no rights.
Terry: You are in big trouble. When my family finds out what you’re doing, you and your entire department –
Paul: This isn’t a department. And I’m not a cop.
Terry: What is this place?
Paul: This is the place you’re not in, and I’m the guy you’re not talking to.
I love that Adelle watches this conversation unfold in front of a Buddha head. The influence of Eastern thought on our recent mythologies *is* something to behold. In the late lamented Firefly, the future is a time when the East and West have long since merged; characters swear in Chinese. Over on Lost, “science” has been wedded to “dharma”. In this day and age, Buddhism is often pointed to as a religion that even atheists can embrace, and there’s several reasons for that.
So what do I mean by “Eastern Thought”? It’s not easy to spell out, and considering the numerous texts out there which attempt to do just that, I’ll have to let it suffice to highlight a couple of concepts relevant to reading Dollhouse. The first, as alluded to by the title, is the concept of “Emptiness”. It’s not the easiest concept to describe, as it has no material referents. In the West we often equate it with boredom, wanting, apathy… or even being devoid of spirituality. In the East, on the contrary, Emptiness is seen as a vehicle for liberation.
It revolves around the notion of Essence. In the West, our very language is oriented around Essence, as though people and things had a “causal nature” that not only describes who and what they are, but constitutes the “driving force” that makes everything what it is. This is not something we can prove, though, and the other position to take is that Essence is a fiction – it’s a product of how we make sense of the world, not the world we make sense of.
In Dollhouse, there’s all kinds of references to Emptiness. Dolls are treated as empty vessels or blank slates. Paul uses the power of “not” to destabilize and derealize Terry as he interrogates him. And really, the whole episode clamors with such allusions. Just about every scene has some kind of negation in it, pointing to not how things are, but rather how they are not:
Terry: This is not how we play the game!
Adelle: Any progress on locating our troubled, missing employee?
Boyd: She’s not really missing, is she? She left.
Adelle: I call that missing.
Boyd: I call that leaving.
Adelle: How’s the patient?
Topher: Not complaining.
Topher: Could also give him a man-reaction.
Adelle: I choose not to hear that.
Kiki: Don’t ya just feel like dancing?
Paul: Not overly.
Kiki: Normally at this time I’m in yoga disco. My body’s just programmed to do this.
Ivy: She’s not wrong.
Paul: How long is this going to take?
Franklin: Changing their insides is nothing.
It’s really quite relentless, and I could fill up this page with more examples of this sort of dialogue. Which I’m not going to do. I’d much rather point out how Bradley Karrens tries to manipulate Adelle through lies of omission, and how Terry’s lack of empathy drives him to exercise power over women. Bradley’s worry stems from the missing women, but Terry claims he doesn’t know them. And of course, so much of what Topher does, he has no idea of the ramifications.
Meanwhile, the professor Gossen is going on about how some important medieval authors have no concept of self-identity. Twice, Kiki calls Chaucer “Chauncy,” and I can’t help but remember the Peter Sellars movie, “Being There,” which is about a man so simple that it seems he barely has any awareness at all. All he talks about is his garden, and gardening, and soon he’s seen as a genius because everyone is taking everything he says metaphorically – in part because it’s impossible to figure out what he might mean when taking anything he says literally. The simpleton ends the movie by walking on water.
Franklin: Echo? Echo? Who’s doing that? I am. Right. Okay, so, not exactly a rocket scientist. Normally that would be irony, but around here, one never knows.
I love our new salon manager! In case we missed it, Dollhouse is loaded with irony, in many different forms. In general, irony is employed to say one thing and mean another. In the Dollhouse, Franklin might meet an Echo who is a rocket scientist, and yet she wouldn’t be a rocket scientist as far as Franklin is concerned, because he knows whatever Echo is she’s still a doll. Or a prize.
Adelle: Why Mr. Langton, have you no charity? We’re working to reunite a desperate family with a wayward loved one.
Boyd: And by “wayward” do you mean they’ve been looking for him since he skipped out on his last bail hearing?
Adelle: A bail hearing on a minor matter which has since been resolved.
Boyd: And by “resolved”, do you mean –
Adelle: Yes, yes, a judge was bought off.
Not the most typical example of irony, but it’s a good start. Adelle has this lovely habit of veiling her words so as to gloss over the moral implications of her choices. Topher does it too, not so much in his choice of words, but how he chooses to frame the implications of his actions.
Irony is sharper, though, when what’s meant is the opposite of what’s said, and here the power of negation comes to full bear in Dollhouse. But not only negation: sometimes it’s possible for us to know the opposite of something not in its negation, but through a polarization. Not all opposites are negative.
The obvious polarity explored in Belle Chose is that of gender. Strictly speaking, gender isn’t something that has “negation” built into it, but rather polarity. The opposite of female isn’t “not female”, but rather it’s connected to another positive: male. The “irony” of the situation in this episode then comes from showing us a male personality in a female body, and a female personality in a male body.
Other kinds of polarities are shown. Terry builds his croquet course inside a building, yet he pretends that they are outdoors. Terry blames the women, but Paul reverses this by averring that Terry brought this on himself. Topher says they can’t do a remote wipe, and Adelle reminds him that Alpha’s already done it. Topher claims that “reversing the signal and sending a purgation tone” will do the trick. Gossen claims that Kiki is in control, but really he’s in control… and then this is reversed, when Gossen pretends to give up his power, only to have it actually taken from him when Echo reveals not Kiki but Terry. Echo says she’s wet, while Topher says he can induce a man-reaction.
I spent so much of this episode laughing, because the reversals keep coming relentlessly. And then they start marrying these oppositions, and using them for connection. Oppositions become connected and fused.
Paul: I don’t see a pattern here. For some reason, you do. Who are these women? Who are they to him?
–> cut to lecture hall
Professor Gossen: They were, in a real sense, nobody.
They do it again, when Terry describes the women in his family as “whores”, and then we cut to Gossen saying, “No, she’s not a whore.” To which Kiki responds with a definition of “whore” that somewhat aptly describes Alisoun’s behavior, not to mention Gossen’s. Oh, but the layering is exquisite! Alisoun is the most well-developed character, and so is Echo, except she’s not a character (and Kiki is anything but well developed.) Gossen says Alisoun is self-aware, not defined by men, while Kiki is not self-aware, and has been completely defined by a man. Echo, on the other hand, has emerged as someone who *is* self-aware, at least in context with the rest of the Dollhouse. Furthermore, Echo has power that no one else seems to have (save Alpha): she can resist imprinting, she remembers who she’s been.
So we have all kinds of double-entendres, double meanings, and with it there’s this notion of duplication. One thing becomes two, and in Belle Chose we see all kinds of repetitions. Not just the repitition of one thing canceling another out, this conjoining of opposites, but thematic and literal duplication. Terry is copied from one body and put in another (and another). Terry’s head is pushed down by Paul, then Terry pushes Bradley’s head down. Terry is in two car accidents. Topher’s computers go out twice – and then the flashlights come out in the Dollhouse, a visual twinning from a scene in Epitaph One. Kiki dances at the Dollhouse, with Gossen, and at the disco. We even get two good references from the name Kiki which depict powerful, independent women: Kiki’s Delivery Service, an anime film, and Kiki de Montparnasse, born Alice Prin, a successful artist in her own right. “Goodness gracious” is repeated over and over. The yellow croquet mallet is used and reused as an instrument of violence; Terry mentions putting umbrellas in drinks, but he also uses one for “shade” in his croquet simulacra. Boyd “translates” Adelle with the pattern of “by X you mean Y?” twice. Terry makes “copies” of his family, and the Dollhouse makes copies of people’s fantasies.
Given a second chance, Terry does what he did before. He chooses to re-enact the same pattern of suffering that has been running through his head over and over and over again. This is much like the Buddhist concept of the uncontrolled cycle of death and rebirth. The point is to get off the wheel of suffering, and one way to do that is to recognize what is not. Another is to draw together these oppositions and fuse them together. There’s always more than one side, and yet sides are an illusion, so it’s all One.
So the undercurrent of sex in our Dollhouse is most apt: A man and woman come together, and through their physical coupling another smaller coupling is realized: 23 pairs of chromosomes fuse together, and then start replicating over and over again, and in the empty space of the belle chose, whether by accident or design, a miracle occurs.
~ jane ~