Briar Rose Learns to Read

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Echo:  Can i?  You keeping that book?

Susan:  I’m fixing it.

Echo:  I see that.  They call that “editing.”  You could make a living at it…  You really hate that she didn’t save herself, don’t you?

In front of a lovely arched window, Echo sits down with Susan, a girl who was orphaned and abused as a child.  Susan is crossing out lines and pictures from a book, Briar Rose.  Susan doesn’t like the story, which is a Sleeping Beauty story.

Briar Rose happens once upon a time, when a much wished-for princess was born and for her christening all the fairies in the land came to give her gifts and blessings – beauty, grace, kindness, discernment, and so on.  Everyone except for a jealous dark fairy, who cursed her with a prophecy: on her 15th birthday, she’ll prick herself on a poisoned spindle, and drop dead.  Thanks to the efforts of a good fairy, the spell was ameliorated: a slumber of a hundred years, from which only a kiss of true love would wake her.

It came to pass, of course.  The princess pricked her finger on a poisoned spindle, and she fell asleep, as did the entire kingdom.  Briars grew all over the castle, making it impossible to enter, for the thorns offered certain death.  The years passed, a prince with a pure heart braved the treacherous path, and succeeded in entering the castle – indeed, the briar vines opened up for him without resistance.  His kiss awakened the princess, as well as the whole kingdom.

Susan:  This is crap.

Echo:  I’m sorry?

Susan:  Crap.  Don’t you know what that means?

Echo:  You don’t like the story, but the others are listening, so maybe we can talk about this afterwards.

Susan:  The spell was for a hundred years.  So he shows up on the last day and takes credit for saving her?

Echo:   Okay.

Susan:  She knew the curse.  “You will touch a poisoned spindle on your fifteenth birthday.”

Echo:  Right.

Susan:  So if it’s me, I’m not exploring the castle on my fifteenth birthday groping any spindles I find lying around, especially when I think she might have had a vague idea of what the hell a spindle is!

Echo:  I don’t think her parents told her about the curse.

Susan:  If she knew, maybe they could’ve hid her.  Or, she could have just… run away!  Or what about this, she could have just woken herself the hell up!

A spindle is a pointed rod around which newly spun thread is collected.  Spinning fibers into thread may be one of humanity’s oldest technologies.  It is also one of our oldest metaphors.  The Sisters Fate are said to spin the thread of our lives, weaving each line into a tapestry, and then cutting them off at our deaths.  So it’s very appropriate that the “dark fairy” gives a prophesy or a fate to the newborn princess, a prophecy involving something like a spindle.

Echo’s engagement with Susan is much like a prophesy itself.  As Topher explains it, Echo has been imprinted with a modified scan of Susan herself – a future version of herself who has healed from the horrors of her childhood, who has stepped into a meaningful life… and who has become a master of her her own fate.

To do this, in a sense, is to experience a form of sleep, a kind of death.  To change is to die, and to be reborn into someone new.    The Sisters Fate live outside of time, and to get outside of time takes an experience of dying.  It takes a different perspective.

Echo:  It’s okay to get rescued by someone else if you’re young or small or you just can’t do it yourself.  Hey, you know this story?

Susan:  Yeah.

Echo:  Read it again, okay?  But this time, think of yourself as the prince!

Susan:  I didn’t save anyone.

Echo:  Hey, remember what you said – the prince shows up at the last minute, takes all the credit… that means Briar Rose was trapped all that time, sleeping, and dreaming of getting out.  The prince was her dream.  She made him… she made him fight to get her out.  (pointing at Susan) Prince.

Myths are stories that never happened, but are always happening.  This allows myths to be read metaphorically, and so the way to read myth personally is to put yourself  in everyone’s shoes.  We are all Briar Rose, and we are all the Prince, and even all the ancillary characters, too.  Each of them has something to say about who we are, and what it means to be human.  They are archetypal.  Echo tells Susan that it’s time to stop limiting herself to the perspective of the sleeper, and to take on the perspective of the savior – who is willing to suffer the thorns for his love.

I am reminded of the story of Jean Houston, world traveler, doctor of religion and philosophy, and contemporary of Joseph Campbell (whose Heroic Journey monomyth stands as a sort of gestalt of myths the world over.)  Like Campbell, Jean Houston suggests that the way to read myth is precisely in this metaphorical way.  She’s gone a step further, suggesting that to “live mythically” is something that can be intentionally done, with transformative results.


She’s had a remarkable life.  At the age of six, she had a religious epiphany, a numinous experience of communion with the Universe.  As a teenager, she met the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who taught her not only the concept of entelechy (the future patterns of our unfolding, like moths from caterpillars) but also an idea of the entelechy of mankind and the Universe.  Teilhard suggests the emergence of a global “noosphere”, a sort of group mind or collective consciousness, which might be kin to the “waking” of Jung’s collective unconscious. Teilhard calls this convergence The Omega Point, which he equates with Christ.  Jean’s take is a bit different, for she incorporates all myths:

“The gods are not schizophrenic like humans are.  The polarities and seeming splits in their nature are more on the order of a healthy polyphrenia.  Their multiple selves serve them according to the needs of any situation.  They can also elevate us into the One and know that oneness as their true condition.  Knowing the One, they can step down into the many – thus their polyphrenia, their wide play of attributes, their many selves.  This protean skill is one that humanity awaits and, perhaps, in our time is moving towards.  What myths tell us about the polyphrenia of the gods may be our evolutionary portion as we humans move into our next stage of becoming.

People may thus… develop a different psychological structure.  Instead of having a dominant self or ego, they will learn to keep a large cast of characters active, calling them to stage front to fit the occasion.”

Finally, Jean has reported several experiences similar to Susan’s meeting her “future self.”  On more than one occasion, Jean has felt a future version of herself communicating to her in her mind’s eye to help keep her on her path of becoming – from overcoming depression in college to barking out commands to her father as a child so as to avoid an imminent car accident.  Susan’s future version of herself suggests that Susan identify with the Prince of the story – and so Echo has become the “prince” who offers rescue from without for the sleeping beauty, laying down  a thread by which Susan might remove herself from the labyrinth.  With that in mind, let *us* look at the perspective of the archetypal Prince in the Dollhouse.


Paul:  All dead ends.  The farther I reached, the worse I did.  But then, they came to me.

Loomis:  Your neighbor?  The one you finger-printed?  You’re certain now she’s –

Paul:  A Doll.

Loomis:  Well, I was going to say, “a victim.”

Paul:  I followed her to 23 Flower.  The Dollhouse!

Loomis:  You just… flashed your badge, swooped in on them like Prince Valiant?

Paul seems our obvious candidate for the Prince Charming who seeks to swoop into the Dollhouse to rescue his sleeping beauty, Caroline.  He’s been searching for the Dollhouse all season, and has been thwarted at every turn from crossing that threshold.  Until now, he has been the frustrated hero.

What does it mean to be a hero, mythically speaking?  As Joseph Campbell puts it, the journey of the myth is a metaphor for the journey into one’s self, for finding within some key that unlocks one’s own unfolding, one’s entelechy. The Journey has a familiar structure:  the Hero hears a Call to Adventure, and with the help of a mentor or some supernatural aid, overcomes the Threshold Guardian to enter the Special Place, where fantastic events occur.  The Hero gives his life and experiences rebirth on the road to recovering a Boon, a special treasure, which he must take out of the “other” land and Return to the Ordinary World.

So, considering Paul’s Heroic Journey, he heard the Call at the beginning of the series, a Call to find the Dollhouse.  He hasn’t been reluctant, but he did require some “supernatural aid” to find it: both November and Echo have been programmed to deliver surreptitious messages to him.  From this aid, he figured out that November as Mellie was a guardian to the threshold of the special place.  To get to the Dollhouse, he has to get around her.

Paul:  You’re in my way.

Mellie:  You’re under a lot of stress.  I’ve been smothering you.  I… I’ll back off.  We can take a break.  Probably a good idea.  But just a break is all we need.  Can you talk to me, anyway?  You think you can’t trust me, and you’re right to pay attention to that feeling, but you need to make sure you’re laying the blame where it’s supposed to be.  Look at me!  Look at the real me, and really think about whether I’ve told you anything I didn’t believe with all my heart.

Paul:  You know… you just said exactly what I needed to hear.  And that’s why I’m leaving.

Paul’s figured out how to break her programming.  He’s realized that she is perfect for him, and that for that very reason she can’t be real.  By breaking up with her, he’s able to get her to return to the Dollhouse.  He follows her, and figures out that the Dollhouse is “invisible”, that it has to be underground, hidden, covert.

The address he finds for the Dollhouse is 23 Flower, and that is an interesting address.  23 is a “calling card” number for the followers of Eris, the goddess of discord.  One of their teachings regarding the number 23 is that it can be found anywhere, and made relevant, given enough ingenuity and creativity on the part of the interpreter.  It’s a principle of associativity, where “connections” and “meaning” are understood to be thre creation of the observer, rather than an ontologically existent property of the Universe.   The number 23 is one of the Lost numbers, btw.  “Flower” street ties back into the theme of the episode, Briar Rose (and “LaFleur” is an alias taken by one of the Lost characters known for his con-artistry.)

Paul needs one more “mentor” to get in, a man known as Steven Kepler.  Kepler designed the Dollhouse architecture, so Paul goes to visit and forces him to get inside through a secret passage – air ducts, of course.   When they finally get inside, Paul declares: “It’s real.”


Paul:  Oh my god.  I know that guy.  Lubov!  My whole life.  My whole life isn’t real.

Paul sees the Dollhouse as real, and his own life as unreal – which is due to the Dollhouse.  This show is chock full of such lovely contradictions.  And look at how carefully the shot of Paul’s entry to the sleeping pods is arranged.  The crossing lines of light.  This is one of the thematic structures of Dollhouse (and certainly Lost) – that there are two sides, with intersecting trajectories.  Shortly before this shot, Kepler calls Paul “my tall man”, and I wonder if that’s a reference to the Phantasm series of movies, which features a villain named The Tall Man.  He occupies dreams, pulls people through mirrors, and he’s got this floaty silver ball that can kill people.  Just last week, in the season premiere of V, we saw Alan Tudyk playing a bad guy, whose side employed a flying silver ball that kills people.  Interesting coincidence?

Paul isn’t the only prince in this story, and Echo isn’t the only sleeping beauty.  November is also a sleeper, and she eventually ends up being the one freed by the dashing prince.  Yet this isn’t the end of Paul’s Heroic Journey.  No, he’s just begun.  He’s just entered the Special Place, which has its own set of rules that he must learn.  Having passed through the Threshold, and recognizing his life isn’t real, Paul’s next step is not taking the Boon (Echo) and leaving Paradise.  No, Paul now has a Road of Trials in front of him, where he will learn to confront his own issues that he may be truly transformed before his own Return later on down the line.

So who is *really* our Prince?  Who are we and Briar Rose supposed to empathize with now?  It’s not an easy answer.

alpha tree

Adelle:  Alpha?  Just like that?

Dominic!Victor:  He used to sign his stuff in art class like that.  They thought it was a fish, but it was his name over and over again.  The first sign something was different.

It’s a telling name, Alpha.  The First – Buffy fans take note!  But also, consider the appellation of Christ from Revelations 1:8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”  Alpha has been a running story from the very beginning, when his file showed up in Adelle’s office.  He’s the one who sent pictures and video of Caroline to Paul.  He’s the one who tricked Paul into being a distracting decoy, a shield, so that Alpha could make off with his princess – whom he dubs Omega in the end.

Alpha was a creation of the Dollhouse, and in a way the creation of Topher (who is without Christ.)  But Alpha has come all the way around.  He now knows the ins and outs of the Dollhouse, its architecture and policies, and he’s even built his own Chair.  He learned remote wiping long before Topher.  My friend Natasi points out that both Alpha and Topher use graffiti:  Alpha’s lair has chalk drawings all over it, and Topher’s “crypt” in Epitaph One is similarly adorned.

Alpha:  What was that name again?

Paul:  Stephen Kepler, is that you?

Alpha:  Well, there’s a lot of aspects to that question.

When Alpha is first presented to us, he has taken the name of Stephen Kepler, and that’s an interesting name.  Johannes Kepler was a 17th Century pioneer in the scientific revolution.  He provided some of the earliest descriptions of the laws of planetary motion, laws which led to Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation.

Alpha:  They told me this was going to be the New Eden.

Indeed, the notion of mathematics governing the universe was pivotal to the emergence of Science, yet for Kepler this was a reflection of God’s intelligible Plan, discernible through reason.  In the Dollhouse mythos, Stephen Kepler is the Designer of the Dollhouse, or at least the architect of its invisible and sustainable life-support system.  Alpha is quite aware of his environment, too – he spits back out the coffee in a coffee mug labeled “Coffee From Hell,” and voices ironic distaste for Paul’s plan to dress him up like a Doll.


Adelle:  If Alpha is in Tucson… god!

The “message” Alpha sends to Dominic on the data stick is a picture of a Paul Bunyan statue in Tucson, Arizona.  Paul Bunyan is an invented myth of the North, a giant man who felled timber (a staple of housing) and fought the oppressive British.  Tucson means “(at the) base of the black (hill)”; the city is also known as Old Pueblo (old house) as well as City of the White Dove.  Adelle says “The Center” is located near Tucson.  So, Alpha is positioned as a mythic Creator, of himself as well as of houses, who describes the Dollhouse itself as “shell” and later as an “oyster”, from which one might metaphorically procure a Pearl.  An insane Demiurge might be a more appropriate description, though.  Alpha slices up people in the name of “art”, much as our own world doles out tragedy and suffering in spades – and yet he says that each wounding is unique, a gift.  (Take note that Alpha isn’t the only one who trucks in knives – Echo deduces that Susan is holding one, too.)  So Alpha embodies both “white” and “black” polarities, if you will.  Being in an ironic position, he gets lines like, “We suffer from unsightly visibility.”

Boyd:  Who else would be trying to contact you covertly?

Dom!Victor and Adelle:  Alpha.

It’s been priceless listening to this story again, focusing on Alpha.  Just about everything he says has a covert meaning!  His first scene, as Kepler with Paul, is amazing.  He tries to explain away the marijuana plants as “carrots”, the food most popularly associated with rabbits.  Back in 1×07, Echoes, Echo was embodying Alice, who went down the rabbit hole as well as through the looking glass.

Alpha describes most people as making “carbon snow angels,” so imagine angels made out of carbon, out of soot.  Black angels, we are.  Fallen.  Not Snow White – which is another sleeping beauty story.

Alpha:  I think that once we die out… in a couple hundred years… Earth is going to have a People Day.  To remember us.  One day a year, She is going to laugh and laugh and shake our bones.  Recycled urine?

Alpha predicts a quick demise for humanity, which seems to bear out in Epitaph One.  Of more interest to me is the juxtaposition of urine with a Goddess.  I’m reminded of a creation story from Gregory Maquire’s Wicked.

“In one form or another, we all know some of the origin myths that predate the Oziad,” said Tibbett, throwing his blond bangs back with a theatrical flourish.  “The most coherent one has our dear putative Fairy Queen Lurline on a voyage.  She was tired of travel in the air.  She stopped and called from the desert sands a font of water hidden deep beneath the earth’s dry dunes.  The water obeyed, in such abundance that the land of Oz in all its febrile variety sprang up almost instantly.  Lurline drank herself into a stupor and went for a long rest on the top of Mount Runcible.  When she awoke, she relieved herself copiously, and this becamse the Gillikan River, running around the vast tracts of the Great Gillikin Forest and skirting through the eastern edges of the Vinkus, and coming to a stop at Restwater.  The animals were terricolous and thus of a lower order than Lurline and her retinue…

The animals had come into their being as rolled clots of earth dislodged from the exuberant plant growth.  When Lurline let loose, the animals thought the raging stream was a flood, sent to drown their fresh new world, and they despaired of their existence.  In a panic they flung themselves into the torrent and attempted to swim through Lurline’s urine.  Those who became intimated and turned back remained animals, beast of burned, slaughtered for flesh, hunted for fun, counted as profit, admired as innocent.  Those who swam on and made it to the farther shore were given the gifts of consciousness and language.”

Maquire’s creation story is also a story of the ascent of consciousness, an ascent that necessarily involves great struggle and self-reliance.  Dollhouse follows suit, chronicling the expanding consciousness of Echo through her experiences from the Chair.

Alpha:  I also have POM.

POM is pomegranate juice, and the pomegranate is most famously known in the story of Hades and Persephone.  Hades, Lord of the Underworld, seeks a mate and decides on Kore, the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter.   Having stolen her away (some say Kore left of her own volition), Demeter’s sorrow brings on the first winter.  Hermes is sent to bring Kore back, but before he can do so she’s eaten six pomegranate seeds.  She becomes Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, where she spends half of every year tending to the dead.  The other half of the year she spends above ground, with her mother, giving us our yearly summers.

So, Alpha’s offer of pomegranate juice is prophetic, not only of his intentions to make Echo a queen, but also, perhaps, of Paul’s eventual decision to join the Dollhouse.


Paul:  I told you, you’re not in trouble.

Alpha:  Oh, you are naive.  They will kill me, and you, and kill me again.

Alpha is right.  Paul is naive – and wouldn’t you know, given the opportunities afforded by the Chair, it’s possible to die more than once.

Alpha:  We could take some time.  We could prepare, we could get some supplies, we could get some rope – rope is always good!

Alpha is right.  Soon, Paul will be wishing he had some rope, to descend into the Dollhouse.

Alpha:  We’re all just cells in a body.

Paul:  Cells in a body?

This is a gestalt metaphor,  and as such is predictive of what Alpha will attempt with Echo.  Recapitulating his own experience, he will give Echo an experience of “group consciousness.”

Alpha:  The stairs lack risers.

This is a good one!  Alpha talks about how he’s scared that someone will reach through the openings in the stairs and grab him; later, Echo will grab Paul’s ankle while he fights Boyd on the stairs.  There’s another sense to Alpha’s comment – he notices that there’s  no one immediately ready to “ascend”.  No one makes it up the steps the rest of the episode, not until Alpha leads Echo up to the Chair.    The stairs lacking risers isn’t just a prophecy, it’s a metaphor.

Alpha:  Cool off!  Think!  Compose yourself mentally.   Prepare.

Alpha is telling Paul to wait before charging off to save the sleeping beauty, but this phrase is also in keeping with the metaphor of Briar Rose.  The whole point of Briar Rose’s “sleep” of death and rebirth after grasping a special spindle is precisely to gain the perspective necessary to become an agent of her own Destiny, which she is both composer and composition.

Alpha:  I told you I’d come rescue you.

Echo:  My prince!



3 Responses to Briar Rose Learns to Read

  1. Enjoyed reading this very much. You make excellent use of the scripts of Dollhouse. I also appreciated the information on Jean Houston.

    Amazing how terrifying Tyduk makes Alpha, even in still photos. So much menace, ready to explode into inconceivable destruction.

    I’m glad you are continuing, in spite of the sad news. When I look at each character, I want to weep that I won’t find out their full stories. Stories so obviously of redemption; of the formation of a family out of the most unlikely persons imaginable.

  2. This is a great analysis. I loved Alan Tudyk as Alpha. I hope he somehow comes back later!

  3. natasi says:

    more please!!!!
    have you noticed how breachie tofer has been?
    have you noticed how Chuck is kinda like echo?

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