For my reflections on the Season Finale, go here.

Dollhouse LogoIf you’re not already watching Dollhouse (currently showing on Fox on Friday nights), you should be. It provides a brilliant meditation on how memory – as well as its loss – haunts the living, particularly in the face of the absurdities and imperatives that so often shape the rhythm and tempo of our lives. I use this word (“our”) deliberately. For while Dollhouse is organized around a fictional world peopled by imaginary characters, the story is also about us: the nightmare of absent memories, as well as the yearning for liberation from the demands of a mindless existence.

The Story: Fool’s Paradise

At the center of this world is the Dollhouse, a facility that erases the memories of its inmates who are then used as blank slates upon which to write or “upload” other personalities. When reprogrammed in this way, the inmates become a highly prized commodity for the benefit of a secret roster of wealthy clients.

The official site describes the show’s premise in this way:

ECHO (Dushku) is an “Active,” a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don’t just perform their hired roles, they wholly become — with mind, personality and physiology — whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time. … After each scenario, Echo … returns to the mysterious Dollhouse where her thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge are erased.

These Actives, manufactured and recycled for the benefit of others, have no memories. They have no recollection of their lives before entering the Dollhouse, and neither are they allowed to accumulate new memories of experiences they acquire while in residence there.

The Dollhouse

With this set-up, the show’s creators provide us with a hauntingly beautiful image of Hell. As Dolls activated for the pleasure and benefit of others, they are regularly outfitted with personas and wardrobes pleasing to the eye. And when they are not on assignment, they enjoy the benefits of an empty-headed existence in what can only be described as paradise: embraced by the warm red and browns and the lush greenery of their surroundings, they are free to spend their time as they please, whether in the sauna or the ever-present yoga classes at the heart of the main astrium, with assistants always on hand to tend to their needs and well-being.

Despite this picture of harmony and peace, the Dolls are condemned to an existence without history, stuck in empty time and swallowed by a yawning present that has no end. Absent the capacity to form a sense of themselves as individuals with a story, the purpose of their lives – if there is one – is beyond their capacity to know. For their “purpose” is scripted without their knowledge, at the hands of authors unseen, as they are recruited to enact roles assigned to them in service of figures mysterious and unknown. They have no future and no aspirations other than their immediate sense of contentment, even as they service the needs and desires of others. Emblematic of this alienated existence is not only the erasure of their personalities but the substitution of the very names by which they were previously known and loved. In their stead, each Doll is provided another appellation, which is less an “identity” than a designation of one’s place in an alternative universe organized around the trade of empty souls.

Is it any wonder the show’s official logo is an inverted pentagram, most commonly taken as a symbol of the Devil or, less ominously, of Spirit’s descent into Matter? For the Doll’s struggle, however unarticulated it may be, is about the twin effects of such a descent: coming face-to-face with one’s objectification, molded by the hands of others, and the quiet voice compelling a return to one’s Source – another Life – that has all but been eliminated.

Glitches in the Machine: Echoes from Elsewhere

If there is any hope for salvation, it can only come from the imperfections in the Dollhouse itself. Otherwise, its system of production can only be understood as a machine with complete control over the Doll’s lives, their bodies, and their desires. The key to the success of this dystopian world is its ability to toy with the mind, for the mind is what connects past to present and present to future. It is the foundation upon which a stabilizing and stabilized self can be built, one strong enough to withstand – or at least survive – the endless demands that come from the external world, a buffer against the incessant onslaughts on one’s character and being.

The crucial element – the lynchpin – of this Dollhouse universe is the hi-tech interface between computers and the brain that is used to erase memories, creating a human-sized tabula rasa, and implant a range of personalities into these emptied selves.This is the technology that ensures the Dolls’ compliance to the uses to which their humanity is put. This process is called Treatment. As in: “Echo, are you ready for your treatment?” Invariably, the answer is “yes.”


And what are the glitches in this vision of total control over the human soul?

They come from incomplete erasures, faulty imprints, and the unanticipated effects of imposing a persona upon a body that cannot withstand the demands made on it. To their consternation, the Dollhouse authorities have begun to recognize that the Dolls are beginning to form preferences that undermine the empty-headed lives they are expected to live when not on assignment. While not quite full-fledged memories, these preferences indicate the intrusion of linear time and the emergence of history, the accumulation of subconscious experiences that create inclinations and tendencies that should not exist in those who have been evacuated of all content. The Dolls begin to form incipient relationships with one another, no longer indifferent to who their dining partners may or may not be, but somehow – and inexplicably – preferring the company of certain individuals over others. In other ways, proto-memories begin to impinge upon their existence, fleeting images that make no sense to the Doll’s themselves, some of them disturbing and painful. Flashbacks and reverberations from another time.

As the story unfolds, the Dolls begin to realize that the life they lead and the peaceful world they take for granted may not be all there is to their existence. Some begin to wonder whether there is an “out there” separate from this paradisal Eden where all their needs are seemingly met. Despite any clear feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, they begin to find themselves compelled by these echoes, increasingly driven to discover from where they came and what they might mean. To make matters worse, at least from their Keepers’ point of view, the imprinting process used for their assignments also begins to falter.

Exposing Desire: Who’s Watching Whom?

Lest we take this show’s story about “memory” literally, and thank the gods that we – as members of the television audience – still have our own memories intact, we should guess again. For we are implicated in the very indictment leveled by Dollhouse, and not only through allusions to dependence upon Treatment-like phenomena that numb our senses, making for a more tolerable existence.

What is this indictment? The “service” provided by the Dollhouse represents the epitome of (male) fantasy: embodiments of an idealized need (whether sexual or utilitarian in some other way), in which the Dolls are not merely compliant but fully committed to their assignments and the task of satiisfying the pleasure of their clients. By putting on this perverse display, the television program is implicitly inviting us about our own fantasized relations to objectified others, including our relation to the Dolls themselves.

Whose Desire?

Since the Dolls are the main protagonists here, we get to see the “other side” of fantasy, particularly the kind of emotional evisceration it entails. So, even while the Dolls have no memory of their assignments, we witness the cost of their labor, for the prerequisite to “wholly become – with mind, personality, and physiology – whomever the client wants or needs them to be” is a certain form of vacuousness antithetical to human life. Due to the (thankful) glitches in the process of their production, the Doll’s catch glimpses of the humans they once were, igniting a desire to know more than what this Dollhouse world has to offer; and yet, after each assignment, they are “erased” once again, only to experience the flashbacks anew, as if for the first time.

The storyline of Sierra, one of the Actives who is particularly fragile in her doll-state, portrays the seamy side of fantasy: the condition and consequence of being the object of desire. In the language of the Dollhouse, she experiences glitches. The erasures don’t work, and we witness her – apparently inexplicable – flashes of confusing images, nightmares, hysterical responses to physical contact, and breakdowns during her assignments. We eventually learn that she’s being abused by her Handler, who uses her docile compliance to his sexual advantage. The juxtaposition of this abuse of her body against the more “legitimate” tasks assigned to her by the Dollhouse can only leave us wondering where the line between appropriate and inappropriate uses of these Dolls should be drawn, if one can be drawn at all.

During the same episode – “Man on the Street” – we see and hear the reactions of “normal” people upon discovering that the urban legend of the Dollhouse is real. Their responses – which speak directly to the question of desire – range from incredulity (“You mean if it was real? If I could hire a doll and he could be anyone and do anything with no consequences, I would want him to… (giggles) Oh, my God, I’m so not going to tell you.”) to envy (“So being a Doll, you do whatever. And you don’t got to remember nothing. Or study. Or pay rent. And you just party with rich people all the time? Where’s the dotted line?”) to wistfulness (“If you could have somebody be the perfect person, the moment you wish for that you know you’re never going to get, and someone signed on to do that, to help you… I think that could be okay. I think that could be maybe beautiful.”). On the other hand, at least one “man on the street” finds the idea disgusting: “It’s human trafficking, end of story. It’s repulsive.” (Full transcript available at the official Dollhouse wiki; videos of episodes also available here.)

As viewers, surrounded by this cacophony of voices, we cannot help but wonder about our own desires and how they relate to the Dolls on screen. Are we indulging a “guilty pleasure,” participating, however passively, in a fantasy-world, just like the wealthy clients of the Dollhouse? Might we not also be seen as taking pleasure from the enactments put on by the emotionally and mentally disemboweled, recruited as objects of our desire? Might our relation to the television set be seen as participating in a different sort of human trafficking? There is, after all, a reason behind the longstanding association between actors – specifically female actors – and prostitution, although it probably has more to do with the insistent desires of the (male) audience member and the pandering to his expectations which, in the case of Dollhouse, is achieved only through a technologically-assisted production of empty-headedness.

Doing Battle: Welcome to the World of the Real

It is precisely this kind of haunted relation to desire that hounds Paul Ballard, a (former) FBI agent who loses his job and family due to his obsessive search to expose the Dollhouse and its illegal operations. Even members of the mob underground that he taps for information think he’s crazy. He is forced – as are we, by extension – to inquire into the reasons behind his compulsive desire to liberate the Dolls from their captors … if, in fact, they actually exist. Is he victim of a different sort of fantasy, in this case, the desire to be a knight in shining armor? One thing is certain. His imagination is captured by a specific woman he is convinced is being imprisoned against her will, a woman he believes is called Caroline. She has even invaded his dreams. Is she a figment of his imagination, or is he merely chasing a phantom? Not only is Paul Ballard doing battle with his fantasies and confronting possible inventions of his mind. Like the Dolls themselves, he is enmeshed in a struggle to discern what is real from what is not, particularly when he can find no one to listen to his theories about the Dollhouse, much less take him seriously.

Inside the Dollhouse, with the glitches in the Wiping and Imprinting processes, the authorities have a crisis on their hands, and recruit all personnel in an effort to detect and thwart any suggestion of rebellion or escape. There is the computer wiz who is responsible for the technology behind the Doll’s treatments, as there are others responsible for their well-being, including Dr. Claire Saunders. As tending physician to the Actives, she ironically bears the scars of a previous runaway Doll; yet, she may be one of their most likely allies, should they ever develop a coherent understanding of their plight. Those who share the doctor’s conundrum are the Doll’s Handlers – their personal guardians when on assignment – who, because of responsibility and proximity, are also caught between conflicting imperatives: serving the Corporation or the well-being of those in their charge. The emerging battle, in other words, is not merely a class war between Actives and Inactives but one defined by a complex web of allegiances and interests that emerge from their relations to the Dolls. And desire.

Dr. Claire Saunders

By Episode 8 – Needs – we learn exactly how the Dolls came to their fate, although earlier episodes already suggested they were there of their own free will, by the consent of their former selves. From the Doll’s emerging memories, we learn that each has escaped a life either too painful or dangerous to survive. We discover that their trance-like existence is the result of a deliberate choice to exchange the use of their bodies for a return to the womb, sequestered from the world from which they came and anesthecized against the traumas of their previous incarnations among the living (and the dead). As a consequence, if there is any possibility of escape, it will require that the wounds from which they have run will have to be confronted and endured. And while we may root for such an eventuality, we are also left wondering whether the Dolls can muster the will and courage to face what their former selves were unable to accomplish with their minds intact.

In the midst of this, we are also presented with the beginnings of what appears to be a love story, which can be taken as another form of the same battle. The fragile and frightened Sierra has an admirer,Victor, also an Active, who is inexplicably drawn to her as if they were known to each other in his previous life. In following the leads provided by her incipient memories, both discover that she entered into service at the Dollhouse to escape the manipulative and violent abuse of a powerful businessman, an echo – and foreboding – of the kind of maltreatment she would subsequently experience at the hands of her Handler. They – and we – are left in the position to ask whether the Dolls are doomed to a life of repetition, even as they are ensconced in the presumed safety of amnesia. And if Sierra is somehow haunted by the spectre of ghosts refusing to stay in the (erased) past, we must also wonder why Victor finds himself among the ranks of Dolls and why, in addition, he finds himself pulled toward this particular woman. If there is an invisible hand that reaches from beyond, mysteriously directing the shape of their new lives, it throws into question the very nature of the present and what can be taken as reality. In learning how to trust Victor, is Sierra merely repeating past mistakes? And in finding himself drawn to her, is Victor merely repeating a more ominous pattern he’s unwittingly inherited from his previous existence?

The battle here – located in the space that develops between them – is not the same as fighting the nightmare visions that haunt the night or the allure of fantasy that bind one to another, although it certainly involves both. Neither does it involve the kind of “heroism” one would associate with the act of liberating the Dolls from their captors or staging a rebellion against the Corporation, although there is a certain heroism in their efforts to understand what brings them together. Rather, the fight involves battling the doubts that invariably surface about oneself – and the other – while refusing to remain empty-headed Dolls. But regardless of these differences, each of these are merely different facets of the same battle fought on different terrains, where the successful combatant is the one who finds the strength to face the past in order to recognize the Dollhouse present and contribute to an alternative future.

In a word: Immanence.

~ by mistified on 10 April 2009.

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