Dollhouse (Season One Finale)

For my original reflections on Dollhouse, go here.

In the final two episodes of this season, Dollhouse has provided us with a brilliant proclamation of the program’s aspirations, what it intends to convey in serving up the bizarre (yet fascinating) world of the Dollhouse and the characters that inhabit it.

It’s nothing short of revolutionary.

The Dollhouse Dilemma

In the season finale – Omega – we are presented with the Dollhouse version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Like the version many of us have learned about as students, it revolves around the conundrum of dealing with a less-than-complete pack of cards: what decision can a prisoner make when crucial pieces of information are missing, particularly if one’s partner is being held and questioned separately?

In the case of the Dollhouse, the enigma revolves around three features of the Doll’s captivity that constitute the knot of their existence: the empty “lives” they are expected to live during their term of indentured servitude, the unreality of the “personalities” that are imprinted upon them for their assignments, and their Original Selves – the ones responsible for their captivity in the first place – of whom they have absolutely no knowledge.

In this fictional universe, we may call this the Dollhouse Dilemma.

The answer to this dilemma is not merely escape since, in their current condition, the Dolls would be quite incapable of living in the outside world. And even if escape were a possibility, their Original Selves would still be held captive, the computer “wedges” symbolic of the very alienation and separation that defines their hollowed existence. It would seem that they are doomed to complete their sentences, earnestly attempting to “do their best” while rendered completely unaware that this “best” is premised on the evacuation of all that defines them as human.

What’s a Doll to do?

Übermensch: Overcoming the Many

Alpha – the rogue Doll about whom we’ve only heard, but not seen, until the final two episodes of this season – believes he has found the answer to this question. Due to a freak accident during his final “treatment” and just prior to his escape, all forty-eight personalities used in his previous engagements have been imprinted onto him simultaneously.


This puts Alpha in a unique position. After all, the other Dolls are regularly “treated” to remove all conscious traces of their assignments. One might say, then, that Alpha has attained “enlightenment.” At least that is what he believes. He understands how his desire “to be his best” was but an implant in service of an illusion. His newly acquired consciousness, in which he can recall each of his “assignments,” has allowed him to develop a new understanding of the purpose of his existence: to supersede his life as a Doll. In his words:

“Übermensch. Nietzsche predicted our rise. Perfected. Objective. Something new.

He even uses the language of ascension and evolution. And this is understandable, for what dignity is there in abject – and unconscious – servitude to an invisible master? To be unconscious of this fact is to be condemned to a form of life that has no meaning other than that which is forcibly inserted to one’s head by others. Mere puppets animated by unseen hands and for purposes unknown.

The Stakes of the Game

While we can leave it to the academics to bicker over Nietzsche’s notion of Übermensch, we should not fool ourselves into thinking this is but a “philosophical” debate. In the context of the Dollhouse, it is but one answer to the Dollhouse Dilemma, one side of the on-going struggle for making sense the Dolls’ fate. For us, it’s an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of our own existence, defined by its own versions of servitude, empty-headedness, and illusions.


Part of the “reality” of the Dollhouse involves the imprints – the personalities – given to the Dolls for each of their assignments. In this connection, it is worth noting that person and personality derive from the Latin persona, a word used to denote the mask used by actors in the performance of a play. The illusion, therefore, concerns the veracity, the truth, accorded to these performances and masks, in the Dollhouse and otherwise. For they are but the requirements for the parts we play. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Alpha’s vision of the Übermensch understands this and seeks to transcend it. To ascend.

But ascend to what?

Echo’s Alternative

These are the stakes of the battle between Alpha and his “Omega” who, upon her “ascension,” proceeds to reject his vision. In its place, she chooses another path to salvation, one that seeks not escape but something else.

And that something else is her Original Self, the one who abandoned her to the misery of the Doll’s life. True to her name – and like the Echo of Greek mythology – she is aware of how she is condemned to repeat the words of others, cognizant that her life is but a replication of scenes written by and performed for the benefit of others. But unlike her nemesis, Alpha, she seeks liberation not by building upon and “transcending” these artificial performances (and personas). Rather, she seeks her original source, the Self that gave birth to this alienated existence in the first place.

"Omega" defends "Caroline"

Yes, the Original Self has betrayed her. It is the Judas in all of us complicit in our alienation, servitude, and sacrifice. Yet this betrayal lays the foundation for an emancipation – and reconciliation – that is yet to come. It is the painful, yet necessary, condition for release … for without betrayal and banishment there is no Garden that awaits one’s return.

Future Anterior

Significantly, it is the previous episode – Briar Rose – that provides us with the clues as to what this might look like. However, rather than taking Nietzsche or Gnostic wisdom as its point of inspiration, it uses something with which we are already familiar: the story of Sleeping Beauty, a.k.a. Briar Rose.

The Rose Bower, Edward Burne-Jones

The Rose Bower, Edward Burne-Jones

While a significant portion of the episode introduces us to Alpha and his brilliant plan for rescuing “Omega” from the Dollhouse, it is the second – and apparently inconsequential – story that is most relevant here. Echo is assigned to assist a young girl who is trapped in her own version of hell, a torment that has transformed her into a contemporary version of a “briar rose.” What has brought her to this point is not something she can speak about, particularly to the adults in the world about her, as they surely will not understand.

But Echo can. She has been imprinted with a future version of the girl, with the same memories and traumas minus the debilitating after-effects that have imprisoned the girl. The point-of-entry is the story of Sleeping Beauty which infuriates the girl:

Girl: This is crap!
Echo: I don’t think her parents told her about the curse.
Girl: If she knew, maybe they could have hid her! Or, she could have just run away! Or, what about this: she could have woken herself the hell up!

The story of a Sleeping Beauty passively waiting for her Prince enrages the girl, perhaps because she wasn’t rescued herself or because she’s tired of waiting for something to happen, a change that never arrives, leaving her to suffer her torment alone. More importantly, the story of the gallant Prince ignores her own heroism, of what she’s been able to endure, and of how she’s learned how to care for herself.

But Echo invites her to interpret the fairytale differently:

Echo: Read it again, ok? But this time, think of yourself as the Prince.
Girl: I didn’t save anyone …
Echo: Hey, remember what you said: “The Prince shows up at the last minute and 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.
Girl: But the Prince was a boy.
Echo: Yeah. But that’s not his fault.

Rather than dreaming of a valiant Prince to save the day, we are encouraged to identify the dreamer as the one who wields the power to free herself. Not only does this invert (and challenge) the cynical portrait of the universe as nothing but a dream of an indifferent God, it also rejects the fantasy of passive salvation dependent upon another. Instead, the power of transformation, emancipation, and release comes precisely from the one under the curse of sleep, only seemingly dead to the world.

Isn’t it appropriate that the closing image of the season’s finale is precisely this: a close-up on Echo’s face as she lays down to sleep in her own chamber, whispering a name that should be unfamiliar to her, a Great Unknown, giving voice to what a different age might have even called the Almighty:


(According to Namipedia, Caroline means “free.”)

~ by mistified on 22 May 2009.

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