Dollhouse Belonging

Am I the only one who is thrilled that Dollhouse is on hiatus for a month?  The nice thing about it, from my perspective, is that it will give me plenty of time to write some more about the lovely Season One episodes.  It gives the community another month to drum up some more support for the show… time that might be best spent singing praises, if we want this small opera to continue!

If Belle Chose was like a dose of LSD, then Belonging has to be a nice pinot noir, smooth and heady without unnecessary adornment.  It has some crisp layering, and nice little details, like the posters of lost dogs behind Priya as she stands there at the beach with her hand-painted Polaroid camera.

Back in Needs, we discovered that Sierra got the opportunity to exercise some wish-fulfillment, and this led her to the penthouse apartment of Nolan Kenard, who openly mocked her as she tried to confront the man who enslaved her.  That episode pays off in Belonging, which unfolds the whole story.

priya art 1
Priya Tsetsang was doomed from the start, let’s be clear.  This is bad luck, becoming the target of the powerful son of powerful men who refuse to accept any other reality than their own.  At first Nolan thinks he can convince her through an elaborate charade, staged by the Dollhouse – and at first I thought Echo was recruiting *for* the Dollhouse, a riff on the Story of O.  However, Dollhouse delivers myth, and the myth plays out as it should: the budding artist does not fall for the powerful patron, but the earnest art critic dolled by Victor.  The Dollhouse produces actual true love, not the fake true love sought by the client.

When Nolan’s ploy fails, he resorts to violence:  restraining and dosing Priya with drugs to strip her of her sanity.  She begs Topher to save her, and he’s more than happy to take her to the Dollhouse.  So this is now a Heroic Journey for Priya.  She has left the ordinary world of selling art on the boardwalk; she has entered the Special Place in search of a boon, even though she’s not aware of it.

sierra art 2

Sierra’s road of trials are centered around rape.  She was raped in more ways than one by Nolan, but also by her handler in the Dollhouse.  And really, there’s a certain aspect of rape — of being subject to a force of power-over — that is part and parcel of myth.  Stepping into myth can be like stepping into a river, it can be that overpowering.  I think it’s important to convey that sense of being raped in myths that deal with death and rebirth, for dying is the most powerless experience one can have… and yet it’s also sexual, this becoming detached from one’s self and converging with all else.

Anyways, being treated as a belonging comes out in Sierra’s art, which is now dominated by negative spaces.  Victor thinks just getting rid of the black ink will make Sierra feel better, but this is the simple thinking of an innocent.  (Check out the statue of a person with an empty space in her torso in the middle of the art room!)  Echo realizes that Sierra’s art is a crucial knowing, and enlists Topher – who has been slacking from his mythically appointed role as a savior.

He restores Priya to Sierra, and sends her off to deal with her nemesis.  Deal with him she does, knifing him to death in a glorious fury.  She rises, and now her own shadow becomes convergent with her art, the art she made before she was ruined by blood on her hands.  In Belle Chose, Echo retains a bit of “negative space” through her salvation; in Belonging, Priya *becomes* her own negative space.  I love this juxtaposition, for Priya has become like art herself… and isn’t that a lot of the attitude that Alpha had towards people?

Or is her becoming a “negative space” a reflection of how Nolan beheld her?  She ends up killing him, but this is surely the entailment of Nolan’s own perspective, that people are “belongings”.  He doesn’t see the person of Priya, he *won’t* see her person, for he can’t stand how she contradicts his own understanding of himself.

topher eye
Topher:  It should work.  Well, it doesn’t work.  It works in theory.  Alpha got it to work through a phone, nonetheless.  Are you comparing my intelligence to Alpha’s?  Well… you’re talking to yourself like he does.  That’s!  Ha ha!  A very good point.

Here is the other side to seeing people as belongings.  Topher declares that he is not a bad man, and he seems to have a genuine sense of compassion about him.  And yet, he does see people as Dolls — he *makes* them into dolls.  How can he do this?  Unlike everyone else in the Dollhouse, according to Adelle, Topher’s morals have not been compromised because he never had any morals to begin with – oh, she’s so good at getting him to do what she really wants!  Recall in the very first episode, Ghost, he declares (quoting Shakespeare) that there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so.  Topher – a shortened form of Christopher, but without the Christ – is much like Alpha and Nolan, but like Echo he has some empathy to go with his self-hatred.  He *wants* to be good, even though he doesn’t really believe in such a thing.

He properly comes to understand that he doesn’t have a God’s eye view of his own activities when he discovers that he was conned into bring Priya into the Dollhouse.  Goaded by Adelle, he lets himself be used well:  Priya is restored, and frees herself from a situation where she otherwise had no power.  Unable to live with her actions, she submits to the Chair and is returned to innocence.  On top of it,20her Heroic Journey is closer to fulfillment, for she has found her boon: the man she loves, Victor, who loves her back.  So Topher really did save her, in the end.

sierra grace

I mean, think of it this way.  Had there been no Dollhouse, Nolan probably would have resorted to something more crude and barbaric, like kidnapping Priya and eventually murdering her.  Because of the Dollhouse, justice is eventually meted out to one deserving of it, and a soul enters a place of true belonging, next to a loved one.  This is truly a moment of grace.

So this is Priya’s fate.  Her name comes from Sanskrit, and it means “beloved.”  Priya’s destiny is love.  She likes birds, she paint birds, because they’re beautiful.  Birds are also symbols of freedom, of going wherever you like.  Priya, once free, becomes bound to love.

More shocking than how perfectly Dollhouse delivers myth must be the revelation that Echo is now reading.  Boyd sees her picking a leaf, sees her reading a book, and goes to investigate.  In her sleeping pod, he finds the book.  He misses the *writing* she’s been doing, on her glass coffin lid.  Mythically speaking, I shouldn’t have been shocked.  Echo has become self-aware, and an exercise like *writing* — for Dollhouse is a written show — is a perfect metaphor for expanding consciousness, and even self-authorship.

There’s another sense of “reading” going on here, beside literal reading.  Boyd has “read” Echo, he’s successfully ascertained that she’s different from the other Dolls, and in a very particular way.  He confronts her about this, and she evades his questions: Echo is now reading Boyd, reading his sense of disapproval about her “activities”.  Yet for all her awareness, Echo still doesn’t realize how vulnerable she is to being surveilled, to being eyed, even though she correctly senses that most of the Dollhouse staff are just as asleep as the Dolls.

Why won’t they wake up?  There’s a storm coming.


10 Responses to Dollhouse Belonging

  1. rkuang says:

    I really enjoyed this episode. I had my doubts when it came to Sierra (or rather the actress who portrays her), but the storyline turned to be more gripping and heartwrenching than I ever imagined.

    Something unusual in the episode is also really strong imagery (color, shadow). It’s deliberate and obvious, but it proves powerful in the end. This is why I hope Dollhouse sticks around.

    I guess you can say if the episodes remain this quality, I’m OK with Eliza Dushku trying her best to take on whatever role the show attempts to hand her.

    • janeaire says:

      Yeah, I really like the strong imagery, too! Priya rising as this dark bird in her own painting, I thought that was very powerful. So is she becoming an artist of herself? I also thought her dark paintings looked a lot like renditions of the Smoke Monster from Lost, and I that makes me wonder if Smoky has something to do with deeply repressed memories, or woundings of the soul.

      How does this episode work in context with Grey Hour? 1×04, where Echo is remote wiped in the museum vaults. It was also touched on in Omega, when Alpha had his breakout/composite event. What do you think?

      • Robert says:

        I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I skipped the episode 😦

        Never even realized it until you confused me with the episode synopsis had in that comment. Now I feel cheated.

  2. I really like your idea that Nolan used the Dollhouse as a form of grace. He was the kind of guy who would go to whatever means necessary to get Priya, and that would have likely meant kidnapping and murder.

    So in a way, the Dollhouse saved her life. But on the flip side of that, we have to wonder what kind of life it is to have one’s memory wiped. Sure, the body is active, but the mind is non-existant. Is that really life or is it the sci-fi equivalent of being kept on life support and not having someone just pull the plug?

    • janeaire says:

      Well, I think the Dollhouse *delivered* grace, but I don’t think that had anything to do with Nolan’s intentions. So yes, Priya’s life is saved. And more, *she* is the one to find Love.

      You know, I wonder a lot about what Doll life is like. There are no memories, but there’s still something there. It’s like being eternally present, without much conception of past or future… though Echo’s comment that a storm is coming shows yet again that she’s special in this respect. Anyways, Sierra and Victor do get to love each other, insofar as they are able. The Dolls are interacting, developing… it’s living, but a very different sort of life.

      I’m reminded of the myth of Inanna’s Descent. The Queen of Heaven descends to the Underworld, ruled by her dark sister Ereshkigal. As Inanna gets deeper and deeper, so much of her “self” is stripped away: titles, achievements, memory, voice, and eventually her very embodiment. Only then is she ready to be reborn (which she is.) So the Dollhouse is the sort of place where one’s Self is put to a Grindstone, revealing the “core”, the “soul”, the “essence.” It isn’t like being non-existant, but rather like being in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall.

  3. Janet says:

    Yes, as in Milton’s marvelous Eden, where Adam and Eve have beautiful adult bodies and fine minds, but only days or weeks or months of experience living as the unions of bodies and souls. They have few but very important memories, and the chance to have challenging and fascinating experiences and conversations, The dolls don’t get these latter gifts. All they have for the development of selfhood is whatever experience remains encoded in their tissues and nerves and muscles, and also that pure personal essence or soul that also is very closely tied to their bodily identities, I think.

    Janeaire says: “Topher – a shortened form of Christopher, but without the Christ – is much like Alpha and Nolan, but like Echo he has some empathy to go with his self-hatred. He *wants* to be good, even though he doesn’t really believe in such a thing.”

    I agree. But what he wants even more than to be good, because he doesn’t believe in the possibility of his own goodness, is that there should be genuine goodness in someone else. “Because you’re better than that!” he cries out to Whiskey in his anguish, in “Vows.” What a moment. What a scene.

    A wise man once said in reference to the chances of personal redemption: “It is much more important to know that heaven exists than to know that you yourself are going there.”

    • janeaire says:

      I’m so glad you’re back, Janet! So, is Adelle a sort of mirror-snake? Rather than tempting them to bite the apple, she tempts them to return to Eden.

      I wonder about the Dollhouse’s Eden, and its counterpart in Epitaph One – Save Haven. Save Haven is described as a place “where you die as you are born,” where this split between Ego and Soul can never occur. Dollhouse Eden, on the other hand, is where the corrupting influence of Ego is removed from Soul completely. It sound vaguely Buddhist to me.

      Would Topher ever sit in the Chair?

  4. tiar says:

    Hi jane,

    I read this: “When Nolan’s ploy fails, he resorts to violence: restraining and dosing Priya with drugs to strip her of her sanity. She begs Topher to save her, and he’s more than happy to take her to the Dollhouse.” And I am trying to remember that scene. So the dolls are recruited from sanitariums. That is interesting. It counteracts the moral sting. The people used as dolls would be worse off otherwise. And November was suicidally depressed. So maybe being a doll can be seen as a bizarre type of therapy. Dolls are heroes with a thousand faces.

    • janeaire says:

      So, Sierra’s therapy is getting over her rapist, November’s is getting over her lost child, and Victor’s is dealing with his post-war trauma. What’s Echo’s therapy, getting over her Messianism?

    • Rekidk says:

      What I thought was interesting about that was the parallels drawn between drugs that alter mood/behavior and the Dollhouse. Just as Nolan used drugs to change Priya’s mental state, the Dollhouse used technology to the same end. Although the Dollhouse “rescued” her from her “insanity” (or, at least, they thought that they had at the time), they did so by putting her into a similar situation – one where she was not fully herself.

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