Dollhouse (Season Two)

Sages gave the soul a feminine name.
In nature, she is also feminine. She even has a womb …
When she fell down into a body and entered this life,
then she fell into the hands of thieves.
Wanton men passed her from one to the other,
used her, some by force, others by seducing her with a gift.

– The Exegesis of the Soul


The experience is like holding a flashlight in the dark, groping for evidence of what is cloaked beneath the cover of night. At any moment, only fragments are illuminated, pieces of a larger puzzle that has yet to be fully recognized much less understood. With each shift in perspective, new elements are brought to light, even as others are lost, returned to the secret place from whence they came … unless they can be retained in the mind’s eye. Until that time, however, like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, comprehension is doomed to the confusion brought on by the immediacy of experience in which one remains beholden to a (partial) picture of what stands before us. A mystery, precisely because the “whole” has yet to be grasped.

This is the experience of watching Dollhouse during its second season, particularly as we are introduced to an increasingly complex web of stories – and lies – about the nature of the Dolls’ existence both within the confines of the House itself and beyond. We learn, for example, that there are many other Dollhouses scattered across the globe, part of a vast network whose ultimate purpose is much larger than the mere satisfaction of the kind of fantasies for which the Dolls are groomed. We also learn of power struggles within and between these subterranean structures, as well as efforts that seek to expose them and shut them down. Given this web of deception and intrigue, it’s quite appropriate that the opening episode of this second season would close with the music of The World, by Earlimart:

The world is all around us, it’s much too big to see.
And the words are seldom honest, so we never disagree.
The world is all around us, so tell me what you see.
Yeah, the world is all around us, there’s little room to breathe.

Oh, the world is all around us, but have you noticed me?
Yeah, the world is all around us, now it’s plain to see
That the world has overshadowed me.

Significantly, this is the experience of the program’s main protagonist, Echo. Not unlike Sophia’s fall into matter. It reflects the nature of her struggle to piece together the different elements of her life, a confusion that is heightened, particularly since special care has been taken to erase all memory of the life that brought her to the present. It is also about her struggle to find meaning, to wrench some sense of coherence from the confusion of tongues with which she is surrounded. This is, in fact, the major storyline of this second season, right up to its conclusion: Echo’s growing awareness of her life as a Doll and her efforts to disentangle herself and others from the stranglehold of that eviscerated existence. Against all odds, she will develop a mind of her own – supplanting the emotions that have been placed into her – and in the process, makes the shift from a Sleeping Beauty to an independent agent working toward her own liberation. Her own White Knight.

As witnesses to this transformation, no longer will we be relegated to the status of passive observers empathizing with her plight. Instead, she becomes a leader and teacher, showing us the way to do battle with – and overcome – the brutal constraints of an artificial existence. Demonstrating the kind of insight and wisdom such an extraction requires.

The Doll’s Dilemma (Revisited)

It’s during this second season that the show’s creators have also provided a more nuanced understanding of the dilemma with which the Dolls are faced. We see more of the lives that preceded their entry into this place, the decisions that brought their “original” selves to this life of servitude. For most of them, it seems to be the result of a trauma too great to bear, one brought on at the hands of another or the terrible weight of an insufferable loss. Leading the brutalized to sign over their lives, in search of freedom from the pain.

For one – known as November – it was the loss of a child whose headache turned out to be the result of an unseen cancer, stealing a child from under her mother’s loving gaze, leaving a yawning absence unable to be filled or overcome. For another – Victor – it was the trauma of battle, unable to return to civilian life after the horror of bloody combat, a cruel inoculation against any kind of normalcy. For yet another – Sierra – it was the experience of being terrorized by a man who would not let her be, literally stalked into a psychic prison, left without any form of protection other than the “paranoid delusions” her doctors readily dismissed as the fabrications of deranged mind.

When seen in this light, the advantage of opting for the life of a Doll becomes obvious. The absence of memory. Anesthetizing the pain. An escape from from an abject existence already gutted of all that would allow for a life worth living. As November describes it:

[The recruiter] told me I didn’t need to suffer anymore:
I go to sleep for five years [and then] I wake up without pain.

Clearly, this is not the kind of escape one might associate with a vacation or a trip to exotic places. The Dollhouse requires their services. Those are the terms of the contract, part of the draconian exchange. And so, while the erasure of the Dolls’ memories protects against the trauma of having to remember, they must submit to the fantasies of others: transformed into personas designed to gratify the needs and desires of the powerful and wealthy. And since they are also Wiped of any memory of these assignments, they are “freed” of having to remember this, their forced subjugation.

This is more than just medical malfeasance or ethics violations.
This is prostitution. Human trafficking. Maybe murder.
They take people and they change them.
Into whatever they want them to be.

Some Dolls find themselves on permanent assignment, in which case they don’t even have the “benefit” of such Treatments, the release brought about by Erasure. Dr. Saunders, the wounded healer who has tended to the damaged, discovers that she, too, is a Doll, confronted by the awful realization that her life as a doctor is nothing but a fabrication. When faced with the lie she had taken to be the very essence of her her life, she is faced with the impossible, particularly when it becomes clear that she’s still bound by the terms of her contract. Forced to comply with the masquerade, she comes to see her life as a prison: the very contours of her existence dictated by intentions that are not her own. Inscribed from without, absent the possibility of escape.

How can I live?
How do I go through my day knowing that everything I think
comes from something I cannot abide?

Even the thought of returning to her previous self is too frightening a prospect to consider: for to let go of her persona – however false it may be – would mean relinquishing the life that has come to define her very existence, one she has come to consider her very own. There’s some security in that. For however much she may have come to despise the FACADE, it still provides a story and a purpose, even if it’s not her own. Choosing something else would be the equivalent of submitting to her own oblivion.

Why don’t you find out who you really used to be?
— Because I don’t want to die …
— I’m not even real! I’m in someone else’s body,
— And I’m afraid to give it up.

But lest we allow this to diminish our sympathies for the other Dolls, it’s worth reminding ourselves about the nature of their existence. For embedded within this alternative universe is a commentary about the kind of therapies designed to ensure compliance with the terms of their indentured servitude, therapies not so different from those to which we turn when faced with dilemmas too large to contend with on our own. The “treatments” that mark the transition from one Doll-state to another are accomplished with the aid of a chair (or is it a modified couch?) and the technology for Wiping old memories and Imprinting new ones merely serves to alleviate the stresses with which they are faced, making their subservience all the easier, perhaps even appearing as if it were the result of their own doing.

The other therapies available to them – in the form of art classes and yoga – would seem to amount to the same thing: the creation of a tranquil environment that would allow the Dolls to continue trying to “be their best,” oblivious to the kind of enslavement to which they have been consigned. In short, treatments provided by the very same authorities whose interest it is to peddle the services of artificial Imprints to those in the position to pay for them.

Such is the Doll’s life.

The Power of Imprinting

Imprint: from the Middle English empreynte,
“to print, also to assail or set on with violence.

– Oxford English Dictionary

As with the concept used by ethologists, the imprinting to which the Dolls are subject operates at the level of the body and mind, taking advantage of an innate responsiveness – a sensitivity – through which an external object or command comes to be inscribed upon the soul. Some biologists might attribute this to the power of genes, but to leave it at that would overlook the conditions that give rise to a birth, whether it be natural or not. For “genes” are but the elements, the building blocks, that give way to successive generations, one coming on the heels of the next. Defining the space within which genesis might take hold … or remain stuck.

As we have already seen from the first season, most of the assignments for which the Dolls are summoned revolve around fantasies of love and adventure. The opening episodes of the second season remind us of this, as we witness Echo playing a variety of roles for the (male) clients that have hired her services: as a student and muse for a college professor, an undercover agent to assist in the investigation of an arms dealer, a mother to a newborn child orphaned at birth. And like before, we come to marvel at the sheer variety and veracity of her experience, completely submerged into the personas – and dramas – for which she has been recruited.

Perhaps this is why the Dolls are called Actives: they have been provided with the “architecture” that enables successive imprintings, their brains hardwired for activation as a Doll. They have been altered – not merely by earlier traumas but by technicians of the mind – making them forever amenable to playing the parts created for the benefit of others, taking each as seriously as if it were their own. Submerging themselves within the scenarios provided them, even in the face of certain death. And by virtue of the kind of programming involved, their dedication is complete. No second-guessing, no what-ifs, no wishing for an assignment different or more exciting than the one with which they’re faced.

Quite appropriately, according to the lingo of the Dollhouse universe, these assignments are called Engagements. Not only are the Dolls drawn into fantasies of love, the process of imprinting itself serves to lock each Doll into a predefined script, a piece of a puzzle they are meant to complete. As if it were a marriage made in heaven.

If only it were that simple.

As if to underscore the nature of the constellations into which the Dolls are inserted, an entire episode (“Belle Chose”) examines the case of a man who, quite literally, recreates an idyllic family scene using those he’s forcibly recruited to play the women in his (past) life. When one of them fails to cooperate, her refusal only serves to trigger a barely concealed rage and, after killing her, the anger gives way to a compulsion to find another to fill the dead woman’s place, like a robot. Haunted by a long lost ideal of perfection, forever seeking to fill the empty “hole” that’s always (re)created.

Perhaps this is no different from the fury that comes to be unleashed on each of Echo’s previous clients (“A Love Supreme”) as the rogue Alpha, competitor for Echo’s affections, finds himself no longer able to accept the fact that she would come to love another. Neither does it seem to be radically different from Sierra’s stalker (“Belonging”), unable to acquiesce to her repeated refusals. And even though the widower that hires Echo to replace the mother of his orphan child would seem to be cut from a different cloth (“Instinct”), at some level, the same logic would seem to be in operation there, as well. For each has come to be obsessively attached to a need that – in their minds, at least – only a Doll can fill.

The Dolls, in other words, are not the only ones subject to a power that seems to exert its control from elsewhere, endlessly grasping for what seems to exceed their reach. Whether it be the murderous passion of a jilted lover or the melancholy of a husband mourning the death of an ideal, these men – those who fill the Dollhouse’s roster of clients – find themselves unable to countenance a world that continually frustrates their desires, forever operating under a set of compulsions they find themselves unable to control.

But while these clients possess the wherewithal to hire the services of an underground facility to feed their barely controlled passions, the Dolls are forcibly subjected to imprints that are not even their own. Yes, the personas are only temporary, but their effects are more far-reaching than we might have imagined, both in their immediate impact upon the body and mind but also in terms of the accumulated emotional upheavals they are required to endure. The modifications necessary for each Engagement are so profound that they alter the bodies of Actives at the physical, sometimes even the glandular, level. Their very physiology altered to facilitate the performances that are expected of them.

This facet of their exeprience is illustrated with particular forcefulness (“Instinct”) when we witness Echo become mother to a newborn child. Despite the absence of any “real” connection to the infant, overnight, the young one comes to be the very reason for her living: watching over her client’s son, even as the father lies asleep. And so, quite understandably, when she begins to suspect that her “husband” plans to remove the baby from her care, she loses all sense of composure, willing to fight anyone and everyone to ensure the well-being of the one that she has come to see as her own.

And this is where the pathos of being an Active becomes glaringly evident. For it is precisely the client’s loss that Echo has been recruited to ameliorate, a task that she has been programmed to take on as if her life depended upon it, even if, later, the client comes to the realization that the hole left by the dead cannot be be filled. Not even by a Doll.

This isn’t someone playing make believe.
In Echo’s mind, she planned for this child.
Carried him for nine months, delivered him, and nursed him.
For all intents and purposes, [the child] is her baby. …

You could have hired a nanny, a babysitter.
But you wanted someone to bond profoundly with your child,
Because you
could not bond with him yourself.

This is no small indictment. It is precisely this kind of inability that forms the unspoken knot around which the services of the Dollhouse are organized, the kind of need that establishes the very reason for its existence. For it is this neediness that gives rise to the fantasies of its clientele, the Engagements within which the Dolls come to be caught. It’s no small irony that the very same kind of neediness brought many Actives to the Dollhouse in the first place, the trauma experienced at the hands of others unable to come to terms with their own emptiness. And so, in taking on the personas assigned to them, the Dolls unwittingly find themselves subjected to the same kind of demands they originally sought to escape. Except this time – thanks to the technology of Wiping – they will be saved from the pain of recognizing the kind of treatment they continue to receive at the hands of their clients.

Which is not to say that there’s no merit to the kind of services they provide. In confronting the father of the orphaned boy, the Head of the Dollhouse points to the severe consequences of leaving those needs unaddressed, particularly for a child.

The formative months of an infant’s life are crucial.
A child who feels loved is imprinted with a sense that the world is a safe place.
A child that does not feel loved grows up to be
… well, most likely a sociopath.

Clearly, the “service” provided by the Dollhouse is not merely the fulfillment of fantasy. At a deeper level, the Dolls compensate for an abiding absence, a barely recognized need for a Mother whose existence in the outside world has been all but erased but who alone possesses the power to diffuse the demons that lie in wait. And it is precisely this absence that serves as the invisible fulcrum around which a cruel world of Substitutes has been built, set into motion by a dazzling array of Imprints: those which infants receive from those who fail to love them, the various traumas that turn humans into Dolls, the Personas channeled into the architecture of Actives for each of their engagements, and the barely conscious Imprints that compel clients to seek out the services of a Dollhouse.

Within this jumble of needs, only those possessed of worldly power carry the necessary weight to establish the terms of Engagement; the remainder, like marionettes on a string, act out the parts assigned to them, even as they “try to do their best.” And so, with the face of pain carefully sequestered from sight, each set of actors is set upon a stage ruled over by what one writer has called a most accursed religion.

For it’s in this way that trauma becomes God, where an unacknowledged power is given reign over the world of the (barely) living.

The Elephant in the Room

There are other names used to describe the effects of being subject to this kind of imprinting, at least the kind that the Dolls have come to bear. For it is accompanied by a certain sensitivity, the kind brought on by the suffering of violence, often experienced as a curse but sometimes recognized as a blessing. When misunderstood, it takes on the guise of the demonic, an unwanted source of persecution. For it comes in a language not easily deciphered: the enigma of a foreign tongue. And when caught in the grip of its shadow, swallowed by a darkness without end, life itself seems to crumble, leaving one forever on the brink of despair.

More often than not, for a Doll, such visions are but an echo from a previous life of which they are no longer aware, reminders about another place and time, the memories of which have been “erased” but which nevertheless always seem find a way to make themselves known.

This is what we witness in the case of Sierra, one of Echo’s comrades in the Dollhouse and fellow chamber-mate (“Belonging”). For her, the unexpected emerges while painting. And what was intended as a peaceful form of self-expression turns eerily into an experience of a different sort, the subject of her creativity overtaken by something darker. While it has no recognizable form, it slowly comes to dominate her simple scene, as if seeking to give voice to a malevolence that has been pushed aside and hidden. And yet, for Sierra, it’s nothing other than a source of bewilderment. So, when asked about her creation, all she can say is,

I don’t like this color.
— [So] why do you use it?
It’s always here … ?

Because Echo has been paying attention – perhaps also because, at some level, she can relate – she brings the painting to another’s attention. To the Engineer, in fact. The one responsible for the Imprints that repeatedly send Sierra out of the Dollhouse for Engagements that are not her own. In bringing Sierra’s creation to him, we see how Echo has become a mother hen to those closest to her, those who share her sleeping quarters, looking out for their best interests, much to her overseers’ dismay. For this kind of behavior falls outside the normal parameters of a Doll. Nevertheless, there she is, painting in hand, inviting the programmer to recognize what’s staring her in the face, plain for all to see.

Sierra made it. Sierra hates the bad man.
— Who’s the bad man?
He’s not like the others. He makes her sad, over and over.
— This is a pretty primitive rendition.
— I’m not sure it is a man, let alone which one.
You’re not looking hard enough. You never do.

In many ways, Sierra’s experience is not so different than Victor’s, the one who has come to be her closest friend and protector. For when she finds him disposing of the black ink in the communal shower (“now you don’t have to use [that] color anymore”) their joyful celebration will seek put the paint to another more playful use. But even as they begin to slip into a rhythm of their own, the very elements they seek to appropriate for their enjoyment will turn, triggering a different kind of darkness – invisible to the woman standing in front of him – one that is all his own. The very reason he came to be a Doll. The markings on her face blending into those of another, emerging from a different time.

As he collapses to the floor, he will repeat – like a broken record – the very limit that he’s been unable to master. I don’t want to take control. I don’t want to take control. For earlier, when Echo first become aware of his plan to help Sierra, she congratulated him for his desire to take charge. But now, when faced with the frenzied presence that haunts himself, the man who would be Victorious finds himself crumbling instead, as if paralyzed from without. And so, what began as an act of chivalry and a moment of jubilation turns into a mockery of any kind of aspiration, defeated by nothing short of a ghost. As if playing with the murky ink of one was doomed to bleed into the other. As if the very act of exultation was prohibited to those who still find themselves living the life of a Doll.

Understandably, our attention will turn to the authorities, those in charge of the everyday operation of the Dollhouse, as Echo had already done. Among these, two figures loom large, two personas in their own right: the Engineer and the Head. The “techie” responsible for transforming the Dolls before and after each of their assignments, and the chief executive of operations, recruiter of Dolls and overseer of all Engagements. However, as quickly becomes clear – and despite their declared interest in protecting those in their charge – both will fail, and quite miserably, at that.

The Engineer – Topher Brink – is but a boy, surrounded by the wet dream of any aspiring master of the universe. Gadgets and toys galore. For him, the of job imprinting and wiping the Dolls is nothing other than an opportunity to exercise his brilliance, testing the limits of his knowledge and what the Actives’ bodies are able to bear. Fully encapsulated in a world of his own, even while remaining completely oblivious to the suffering of others. Only after Echo’s accusation does the darker side his experimental “play” begin to dawn upon him and his hyperactive brain, forced to consider the consequences of his dalliances with the minds and bodies under his control.

And so, later, when he consults the (missing) Doctor’s records, he will discover that Sierra’s picture was not the first. Like unrecognized writing upon the wall, he will find himself surrounded by a chorus of other portraits similarly haunted, blotches giving voice to what’s been wiped but not entirely unremembered. Sitting among these gestures toward the unknown, the technician will find himself overwhelmed, out of his element. Moved by the plight of a woman for whom he finally feels responsible, yet unable to make heads or tails of what he finds before him, much less think of anything that might actually help.

In contrast, Adelle DeWitt, the Head of the Dollhouse, will find herself in charge, as always. Cool and collected – some would say icy – she remains dispassionate about the nature of her work, even while reassuring herself (and others) that it’s the Dolls’ interests that she has at heart. For whatever quandary may have brought them to the Dollhouse in the first place, the terms of their service ultimately protects them from the pain of psychic collapse. So, even if the Engagements force them to brush shoulders with the unsavory underbelly of wealth and privilege, at least they are kept safe.

But even she recognizes that there is a line that should never be crossed. Upon hearing of Sierra’s repeated Engagements with the psychopath responsible for sending her to the Dollhouse, DeWitt will confront him in no uncertain terms. You have made me an accomplice in something vile, Mr. Kennard. And it ends now! And yet, even this vigorous defense will come to naught, as the Head is reminded that she is but a link in a much larger chain of command. And so, when orders come down from on high that she’s not to interfere with this client or the details of his Engagements, she will be left powerless to do anything else to defend her charge, particularly if she hopes to keep her job.

Meanwhile, the boy-technician, finding himself in the grips of a novel moral dilemma, will seek to help the one who’s been pounded to the edge of sanity, allowing her to meet the “client” as her original self rather than a Doll imprinted to serve his every need and desire. What the Engineer hadn’t counted on, however, was the kind of rage that lay just beneath the surface, the blotch of darkness having already come to infect her very soul.

As the outrage finds expression through a knife repeatedly plunged into its target, the Engineer comes to be confronted with yet another side of his impotence, and not merely by virtue of the death wrought by an anger that had simmered for far too long. For the killing brings no relief, and the boy-child who merely wanted to help will have to face the distraught woman once again, asking what had come to pass under his watch. Both soaked in the bloody stain of a deed that can no longer be undone.

DeWitt, the Head, will come up against similar defeats, forever reminded that she does not hold all the power, that others will exercise authority with more viciousness and confidence than she could ever wield on her own behalf, much less those of her Dolls. And so, over the course of this second season, we will witness a slow and steady decline, as she struggles with – and fails – to come to terms with this, her “castration.”

This Head who had aspired to be King will finally hit bottom (“Stop-Loss”) even as one of her favored Dolls – Victor – is released from the Dollhouse, only to be kidnapped by the very forces that had haunted him for so long. In this way, she will find herself caught between a rock and a hard place, leaving her desperate for even the semblance of comfort, whisked away to the nether regions of oblivion …

Such are the different faces of the Impossible, the unavoidable collision between past and present, when Play runs up against the problem of consequence and when Responsibility confronts the awful limit of its own powerlessness. All the while, the haunted figures in the background – the very ones these personas of authority would seek to protect – are left alone with their half-erased misery, watching from the sidelines, even as they’re recruited to service the needs of others. Imprinted for (and by) their clients’ dramas, acting out scripts that are not their own. The dream of a different life seemingly beyond their reach.

Like five blind men, each held in the grip of the “sense” that’s uniquely their own, these figures will remain divided, even as each tries to do their best. Stymied in their efforts to wrest the reigns of control, precisely because the “whole” has yet to be understood.

Beginning the Ascent, Overcoming the Splits

Each of these characters – and others – will come to be constellated around Echo, as if they had been nothing but disembodied voices reverberating in her sleeping chamber, waiting to be recognized as her own. But before that can happen, she first needs to locate her center, the place that will hold them together, one that had yet to make itself known.

That long and excruciating process had already begun when we last met her at the end of the first season, a glimmer of awareness that had just begun to emerge, the other voices in her head she would eventually come to recognize as her own. The Imprints that had come to define her lives in the Dollhouse. By the time we meet her again, Echo will have already begun to recognize this pattern more fully, no longer deprived of the memory her captors continually sought to erase.

I remember everything.
Sometimes I’m someone else and then I come back.
But I still feel them. All of them.
I’ve been many people: I can hear them, sometimes suddenly.
I’m all of them, but none of them is me. Do you know who’s real?”
— Caroline
I want to find her. I want to find all of them, real them. They can be found.
We are lost, but we are not gone. Will you help me?

The man to whom Echo speaks is her new Handler, appointed by the Dollhouse to watch over her transitions from one persona to another, replacing the one who came before. His name is Paul Ballard, the former FBI agent whose crazy theories about an underground prison finally paid off, bringing him face to face with the one for whom he had been looking. But because he’s still operating under the impression that it’s his role to play the white knight, he still believes the objective is to rescue Echo from her Doll-state and return her to Caroline. But despite the lingering fog of confusion, Echo will have already come to a different conclusion, recognizing that all the people she’s been must have a place in whatever she has yet to become.

It’s a conversation they will have on more than one occasion. For the two have bonded in ways that exceed the intentions of the powers that be, a secret union committed to undoing the House in which they find themselves. They have also committed themselves to helping Echo develop a better sense of her emerging memories, recognizing that she will be both student and teacher in that process.

All of these things that happened to me, I feel them.
— I know, Echo. I know you remember everything.
Not remember. Feel
I was married: I felt love and pain [and] fear. It’s not pretend for me.
They made me love my little boy, and then they took him away.
They make it so real; every time they make it so real.
Why do they do that?

For this, he will have no answer. But when he broaches the possibility of allowing the Engineer to Wipe these rediscovered feelings, she will protest. Despite the pain that they bring, as far as she’s concerned, it’s better than the alternative. Feeling nothing would be worse. That would be like before: asleep. I’m awake now [and] I don’t want to go back.

Later, through a series of unexpected events, the two of them will find themselves outside the confines of the Dollhouse. But just for a minute. (Three months, to be exact.) And it is during this time (“Meet Jane Doe”) that Echo goes into training with the full expectation of returning to the site of her former captivity, preparing for the final escape in which she hopes to save herself and the others held imprisoned there. Working on her mind and her body, developing the skills she will need for that eventuality.

At first, her mind will protest. Ravaging headaches drop her to the floor, as painful as any assault on the body. In a way, it’s a measure of her very ambition, seeking to break the barriers that have been put in place since time immemorial, accessing selves content to remain oblivious of the others’ existence. Pushing through protections meant to maintain the safety of distance. It will be next to impossible to put this experience into words, but when Paul Ballard asks, she will try:

It’s like a wave, everything rushing over me.
And then the wave pulls back and you see what it washed up.
Picking up the shells and the smooth stones from the shore.
Collecting myself.

Later, with practice, the movement between these separated spaces will become easier, no longer experienced as the rush of panic or pain. No longer drawn into the whirlwind of emotions brought on by excavations of the ancient, the accumulations of countless pasts. And with this development comes a new sense of possibility – a new certitude – including an answer to the question about who she might be.

So how exactly does this work? You accessing other personalities?
— I used to have to make an effort to switch between Imprints
— But now I can slip back and forth without even thinking.
Who am I talking to now?
— Echo. You’re always
talking to Echo.

When Echo finally returns to the Dollhouse, she will be thrown into solitary confinement, as if underscoring her new understanding of what is means to live within its walls. For the Head is none too pleased with Echo’s extended absence, suspicious of how a Doll could survive without her “protection.” Responding to those who would protest the harshness of her punishment, she’ll only bark her defense. – Pain reveals who we really are. Let’s see who this girl really is. – As if secretly hoping that Echo will find a way to overcome the obstacles put in her path. As if this new form of torture was an initiation for Echo’s transformation on her own behalf.

In some ways, this eventuality was already predicted. Her (original) Handler had warned of what might come of her newly emerged determination, suggesting that the course she had set for herself could only end in disaster.

You’re pushing [everyone]. The actives, the staff.
What you’re doing could have consequences you couldn’t predict or control.
Some people aren’t ready to wake up.
— I don’t care. Something bad is coming. Like a storm.
— And I want everyone to survive it. They need to wake up.
Echo, [if] you stir things up, you might bring the storm on yourself.

It’s a strange conversation, bespeaking a familiarity – and candor – quite uncharacteristic of relations between Handlers and Dolls. Hinting at another dimension of Echo’s past that had yet to make itself fully known. And yet, from their conversation, this much is clear: both are now aware that the Doll’s Engagements are nothing but a distraction. For Echo’s new mission is nothing short of finding a way to wake “them” up.

Stilling the Waters, Coming to Consciousness

Perhaps for a moment, caught in the trap of doubt, Echo might wonder whether this confinement has been self-induced, a storm she has brought on herself. For the place to which she’s been banished – ominously referred to as the Attic – has been a place much discussed but rarely seen, a place to which the defective and disobedient are consigned, never to be heard from again. It is the price to be paid for crossing those to whom one has been sworn to obey.

And so, when we see the Head – newly invigorated after returning from her own visitations of the depths – standing over Echo and pronouncing her indictment, it would seem as if all hope has been lost (“The Attic”).

You’ve disrupted countless Engagements, brought Alpha into my house, deceived me with the help of Paul Ballard [your Handler], dragged [the Engineer] and [Security] into the fun, and now Victor and Sierra. You leave a wake of destruction wherever you go.

There’s only one place for a Doll as irreparably damaged as you.
— The attic … !
They say it’s whatever hell you imagine, but I think it’s something far worse.

And as if alerting us to what is yet to come, we will overhear the Engineer and Security speaking about this mythical place from which no one returns. Wondering what will become of the Doll who has become an unexpected friend and ally in a conspiracy designed to bring an end to the Dollhouse and the Corporation for which it stands.

No one comes back, Boyd.
— But why? What do they do to them there?
No one knows. Experimenting … torture …
I think they’re testing the limits of the human mind.
The brain is kept in a fear-induced, adrenalin-fueled overdrive state.
Like a problem you can’t solve. Either the nightmare lasts forever or …
— Or it doesn’t last, at all.

Of course, for those stuck in the Attic, this is not something they can know. For as the Engineer has already recounted, it’s a trap contained entirely within the mind, fueled by fear that refuses to go away. Leaving its captives filled with panic and the imperative of escape, but without the requisite knowledge or signposts to show them the way.

In what follows, we come to witness what’s contained within Echo’s mind, as well as the way she learns how to escape it. For it requires a different attitude – a different stance – toward what would pretend to be real, a deceiving presence that appears right before her eyes. It means coming to recognize that there’s a pattern not readily apparent in the immediacy of her experience, one that’s detectable only when, amidst all the noise and confusion, she finds a way to loosen the grip that “reality” has over her.

Which is no small feat. The first impulse that takes hold is the imperative of rescuing her friends – Victor and Sierra – who have also been condemned to this place. But each time she tries, her frantic efforts will be crushed, as the two lovers are struck down by armed guards, even as Echo is caught behind a plate a plexiglass, helplessly watching, unable to intervene on their behalf. But just like a video game, after each assassination, she will find herself returned to her sleeping state, only to repeat frenetic attempts at search and rescue, hoping against hope that this time she will have learned how to outsmart those who would kill her friends.

It will not take Echo long to see through the nature of this deception – that it’s all a cruel trick of the mind – realizing that she must let her friends “die” if she is to find her way out of that awful place. And so, as she braces herself for the violence of her imagination and allows the guards to let loose with their rain of bullets, she will turn her attention elsewhere, looking for another means of escape.

What she discovers – like an Alice climbing through the rabbit hole, only in reverse – is a scene of what would appear to be nothing short of a mini paradise. Snow falling on a silent landscape, home to a twisted, yet beautiful, tree that stands alone. It’s an abrupt change from what came before, angry blasts of fire replaced by the calm of frozen water falling from the sky. Which will leave Echo not a little confused and disoriented, not quite knowing where it is that she finds herself.

Is this still the Attic or is it someplace else?

As Echo looks around, she will recognize scenes from her past, snapshots from long lost lives that have brought her to the present. Some of them will be familiar to those of us who have traveled with her for part of that journey; by necessity, others will remain an enigma to everyone but her. However, in either case, the portraits are no different from what appears to those on the brink of death, at least those who have returned to tell of their experience. Life flashing before one’s eyes. Except in this case, Echo’s not dead.

Or is she?

Even the tree beneath which she stands comes to be seen as familiar, a silent totem from her childhood home.

But even as she begins to orient herself to these visions of the past, a shadowy figure begins to circle ominously even as she finds herself met by familiar faces – like her original Handler – that slowly morph into something else: ghoulish figures seemingly intent on undermining any semblance of sanity she might still recognize as her own.

Boyd, where am I? What am I doing here?
— Echo, if you stir things up you might bring a storm on yourself.
— There are not a lot of good people here.
There aren’t? What about my friends? Where are my friends?
— [laughing] You have no friends!!
— Now be quiet. [transforming into stranger]
— Or I’ll find something to stuff that mouth with!

And then she bumps into an enemy from her past, the chief of Dollhouse security who had been sent to the Attic at the end of the previous season. So, even though there’s no love lost between them, Echo is once again put in the position of trying to discern the real from her imagination, realizing that he could be stuck in the Attic along with her: Is this man yet another paranoid creation or is it possible that two people could actually find a way to communicate in this god-forsaken place? So, once again, Echo is forced to find a way to distinguish between a healthy fear that seeks to protect and one that merely serves to prolong the delirium induced by the Attic.

When the two of them determine that the other is indeed “real,” they will also deduce that he has stumbled upon a way into her mind. Armed with this knowledge, Echo will press him for the lessons he’s learned – what he’s discovered about the Attic and the telepathic travel he seems to have mastered – even as the shadowy figure who calls himself Arcane continues to haunt them from a distance.

So you travel from mind to mind?
— I guess so, yeah.
I need to know how. I need to find my friends.
— Well, he’ll probably go after them. He targets newcomers.
— He might even lead us right into their heads.
How do you track him? How does he get in and out?
— He can sense fear. He finds something that you’re deeply afraid of.

And we’ll see that it is precisely such fears that have embroiled her friends – the Lovers she’s so desperate to save – finding themselves stuck in an infinite loop, endlessly reliving their worst of fears. Unable to find a way out.

As we already know, for Victor, that fear is the terror he’s come to associate with his tour of duty, caught in an interminable battle for his very survival: hand-to-hand combat with a man who, despite the foreign garb and the absence of a military uniform, appears to be none other than a version of himself. The two of them fighting each as if their very lives depended on it. As if the existence of one were a mortal threat to the other.

At the same time, somewhere on the other side of this psychic prison, Sierra enjoys a quiet evening with none other than Victor, the one who so unexpectedly entered her life while both served at the Dollhouse. Which doesn’t seem so terrible, until she opens hers eyes, that is. And in place of Victor she finds the man who had brutalized her, the monster responsible for sending her to the Dollhouse in the first place, somehow returning from the realm of the dead. As if her new lover had become indistinguishable from the horror she had struggled so hard to push out of the bounds of memory.

Later, the two of them will compare notes about the hell they finally managed to escape:

In my scenario, I was constantly fighting myself, at war.
Just trying to get home to my girl.
— In mine I was constantly making love to you
— And then you’d turn into the rotting corpse of a rapist I killed.

Meanwhile, as Echo begins experimenting with what she has learned about psychic travel, she suddenly finds herself transported to another place and what would seem to be another mind. By all appearances, it seems to be Tokyo. And she will discover that the man sitting in front of her remains quite oblivious to the fact that his tranquil existence is but an artifact of the Attic. Instead, he believes he’s protecting a secret on behalf of the Corporation, knowledge about a weakness in their computer mainframe that must not get out.

He will hear nothing of her protests, brushing off all talk about the Attic. For he is convinced of the responsibility with which he’s been invested, trusted to safeguard a key vulnerability in Rossum’s operation. So when Echo warns of the Shadowy figure and the violence that might come to wreck havoc on his idyllic prison, he will dismiss that that too, quite unaware of the amputations that keep him rooted to this in-between state. And sure enough, the one called Arcane will come and kill him. But rather than allow this to send her in a panic, Echo will find the strength to turn her attention to the practical task at hand.

From Arcane, she will learn that the “killings” are meant to dissipate the power of the Attic, to sap the energies that have been mis-directed there. In the process, we will be witness to something quite remarkable, for Echo has begun to develop her powers of discernment. Which is not merely a matter of learning to puncture the nightmare visions that seem to spring from nowhere. Neither is it merely a matter of learning how to distinguish the real from the unreal in this mental prison. She is also quickly becoming an adept in the skill of traveling between the ghosts that populate this place and, as if that weren’t enough, learning how to disentangle herself from the fears – and associated forms of blindness – she meets along the way. Refusing to be drawn in, and finding the strength to avoid being repelled. After all, they are what they are. Nothing other than the psychic protections developed to contend with the darkness thrown our way.

And it is from these lessons that Echo will find a way to save herself and her friends, first from the crippling fear that has kept them entranced in the face of death and, later, from the Attic itself. For when all her friends and allies are finally assembled, it will become clear that their primary objective will be to find a way out of the psychic hell that has kept them imprisoned there.

But this is no small task. As they all know, each of them is plugged into an other place, somewhere different than where they currently find themselves to be. The banished expert who helped create this place will describe how the Corporation – which, perhaps, is nothing other than a mode of living – draws upon the adrenalin and fear generated by the Attic, asserting that the most obvious solution to their conundrum, finding someone to pull the plug, would do nothing other than turn their brains to mush. After all, their bodies are still lying inert, elsewhere, fully engaged with with the Corporate machine that sustains itself from the very force of life they willingly, if unknowingly, relinquish through their visions of hell.

And then a flash of brilliance: if the problem is this enthrallment, why not submit to the opposite? Not merely the mental exercise of distinguishing what is real from what is not but by putting an end to the very connection that gives rise to the world of shadowy appearances in the first place? Before the others can voice their protests, Echo will allow herself to be shot, providing the attendants of the Attic the very excuse to disassemble the elements of her prison.

For, at that point, she and her body will already be dead.

Her friends, Victor and Sierra, will submit themselves to the same fate – as if The Lovers were no other than her own – fully expecting that staring into the face of the unknown will provide them with the strength and insight to come out through the other side, with Echo’s help. Fully believing that their deaths will finally put them on the path toward awakening.

And so, Sierra will submit to the fear she’s always dreaded more than death itself: annihilation in the arms of her lover. After saying their final goodbyes, Victor will plunge the depths of her gut with a sharpened blade, silently watching as the life slowly drains out of her body. And as her lifeless form turns cold upon the barren floor, overcome, he will turn to the mob-infested streets outside, allowing himself to be swallowed by the very kind of violence that’s haunted him for an eternity. Sitting passively, he will wait for the torture to come, welcoming the fate he had, until recently, fought so tirelessly to keep at bay.

However crazy the idea may have seemed, each of them discovers how death of the old gives way to the possibility of resurrection. And with that feat accomplished, Echo will finally find herself surrounded by a constellation of friends and allies not unlike the one already formed in the Attic. As if the one had given way to the materialization of the other. A community of “others” committed to the same task, no longer divided by self-interest or fear.

Surprisingly, this constellation will also includes the Head – (or is it the feet?) – who, earlier, seemed nothing other than a sworn enemy of this quest. But as we soon discover, we have been subject to a certain kind of deceit, finding that all is other than what it seemed. For Echo and her Head have been in quiet collusion, fully aware from the very beginning that her mission required she sink into the underworld … precisely so she could find her way out.

They say it’s whatever hell you imagine, but I think it’s something far worse.
I think the Attic is where Rossum is keeping some of its darkest secrets.
They’re rabid in their protection of whatever’s hidden there.
— And you want me to go in?
I need you to go in.
Far more importantly, I need you to come back and bring the secrets with you.
It’s the only way we’ll ever gain an edge.
— “We”?
We can bring them down.
— [But] nobody else has ever gotten out of the Attic.
[That] nobody else is you.

Toward a Different of Future, Unplugged

If Echo’s task so far has been about (re)integrating the splits with which she has been surrounded – giving coherence to what has been fractured, i.e., putting her House in order – then the part of the journey that remains is about re-negotiating her relationship with the world beyond. For her fate was not born in a vacuum. And this means developing an understanding of the Imprints she has received at the hands of others, and coming to terms with them.

As we see in “The Hollow Men,” this is precisely the task to which the newly constellated members of the Dollhouse have committed themselves. Having overcome the world of the Attic, this means turning their attention in a new direction, toward the powers that have worked so hard to keep them quietly obedient in their subterranean prison. It also means returning to the past, paying particular attention to the ways in which trauma, trust, and betrayal has led to the life they now seek to put behind.

Through a series of flashbacks, we will witness how Caroline’s life led to Echo’s emergence. For in that former existence, she was a self-described terrorist. It began during her college years, after learning about the kind experiments the Corporation used to develop and market its products, becoming even more radicalized after meeting members in the animal liberation movement. But as if to demonstrate how her energies have been misdirected, just as she finds herself on the brink of destroying a key research facility in Rossum’s corporate kingdom, Caroline will have noticed a room not included on the blueprints in her possession. What she finds there will force her to reconsider her cause, including the course of action to which she had been fully committed: humans plugged into machines, not quite dead, but neither fully alive. Guinea pigs for an ambition more frightening than she could have ever imagined.

But before the charges she has planted can be undone, the explosion will come, and she will find herself on a path that can no longer be corrected, marking the end of one life and the beginning of another. And in what may have been the first of many splits to come, she leaves the side of her co-conspirator – her “sister” – more for the protection of the other than herself. Choosing the life of an outlaw so as to preserve the life of the other. And so, when she finally finds herself standing face-to-face with the kind of Authority she had so furiously come to hate, the spokesman will make an offer that cannot be refused. Surprising, not so much because she had a choice (she didn’t), but because she was allowed to live.

Which isn’t to say that the offer was a godsend, even though those who inhabit the halls of power clearly see themselves entitled to act as if they were the very incarnation of the divine. For with power comes the kind of certitude that only belongs to the Gods. And although she will not have known it at the time, those of us in the audience will recognize the one making the offer as no other than the man who would later become her first Handler, the one whom she would later come to trust with her very life: Boyd Langton.

It would seem they had come to an agreement not much different than the one Echo would later make with her Head, one that required that she willingly submit herself to her own extinction. Except in this case, the cause for which she’s recruited was in service of the Corporation itself, and its leaders. She will be told that she has been identified as “special,” unique in ways that are crucial for their survival. The words used to describe her – and the mission for which she’s been recruited – are nothing short of the language deification: Caroline is both savior and their salvation.

You’re the key. The key to everything.
You’re going to save us all. …
Inside that body of yours is everlasting life.

It’s an insidious form of seduction, for it plays on the kind of insecurity that plagues us all, inviting Echo to believe that their absence – precisely what they lack – is the only measure of her worth, one that can only be realized under their direction. And so, like anyone who finds life’s meaning by the reflections thrown their way by more powerful others, she will insert herself into their organization and their prison, trusting that the life being offered is the only path worth following. Much like the rest of us who put our faith in the (hollow) men and women who would claim to know our future, allowing ourselves to believe that their cause should be our own.

But as Echo later discovers, this life is no different than the one found in the Attic. For she was set-up for an existence in which the privileged and powerful shamelessly tap the life of others, nothing but parasites dependent upon the very Dolls they have come to despise. Cruelly, only much later will she learn what it meant when they said she was the key to their salvation: The mind doesn’t matter. It’s the body we want.

Every time your nervous system blocks an imprint,
it leaves neurochemical tracers in your cerebrospinal column.
We’ve tried to replicate it, but we can’t. It’s unique to your physiology.
So we’re going to harvest it from you.

But because all of this has been Wiped from her mind, Echo will have to find a way to recover what has been lost. Reclaiming knowledge of what was done to her, and the ways she was led astray. And so, using the skills that she had learned to develop while in the attic, she will finally find the courage to access the memories of her former self – Caroline – in an effort to piece together the elements of the story that had long eluded her, even as she continued playing her part in it.

What she finds there will give her the courage and conviction for what follows: confronting the one who banished her to the Dollhouse in the first place. As much a condemnation of herself as the man who brought her there, even as he insists on taking credit for the person that she has managed to become.

I believed you!
You pretended to care for me, and I believed you …
— I did – I do care for you. More than you’ll ever know.
— Who do you think allowed you to grow as an individual, as Echo?
— While they were sending you out to bed half of Los Angeles,
— I was here making sure you had the space to become your own person.
You said you’d protect me and I believed you, you son of a bitch!
— I did protect you. Now it’s your turn to protect all of us.
— You’re going to be the savior of the world.
I trusted you … I loved you …

On the heels of this confrontation and realization will come yet different kind of explosion, as much a destruction of the secret pact that had been formed between them as a measure of the energy brought to the surface as a consequence of her release from it. For in more ways than one, Boyd Langton had become her father. As her original Handler – and, later, as chief of Security for the Dollhouse – he had provided Echo with a sense of safety and protection, even if it rested on a belief and trust that, in retrospect, could only be seen as hopelessly misplaced.

So, with this unleashing of forces, we come face to face with the true meaning of an apocalypse. A cataclysm and a revelation. The force of one feeding into, even magnifying, the strength of the other. Its magnitude giving evidence to the powers that had been held in a precarious balance but which – with the lynchpin finally removed – leads to a thunderous release that ultimately leads to her own salvation.

And this is how we come to see Echo furiously running.
Like a bat out of hell.

Out of the Ashes

As if to underscore the kind of unraveling brought on by this kind of termination, the show’s creators provide us with a bleak post-apocalyptic vision, a dystopian future that lies ten years into Echo’s future (“Epitaph Two: Return”). For even though she has managed to break through barriers both great and small, the story is not quite over. Life beyond the confines of the Dollhouse brings an entirely new set of challenges, not all of which could have been foreseen. And it is the exploration of these that provides the closing chapter of this epic journey.

What we find is a world in chaos in which the majority of the population is divided between “butchers” and “dumbshows” – those for whom long-restrained passions have come to be unleashed and others who have merely fallen into a state of mental evisceration – both the consequence of Rossum’s technology let loose beyond the carefully controlled confines of the Dollhouse. In the streets, where life is reduced to a battle of all against all, it’s the butchers that prevail, while up in the suites, the rotting remnants of the Corporation continues preying upon the bodies they still manage to make their own.

And it’s within this context that Echo and her allies will resume their battle, still seeking to put an end to Rossum while fighting off the butchers that threaten to kill (and consume) anything that moves. Quite ironically, Echo will have also acquired a new moniker, one that, were it not for the kind of stakes involved, would seem to mock the very cause for which they fight: “messiah.”

The great and terrible Caroline.
The one who knows how to save us all.

The words are not spoken without a hint of irony. For there is a new division in the ranks, less the result of the kind of fractures and splits that characterized their lives from before, than the differences that arise when trying to overcome that kind of past. For what is one to do in the aftermath of an apocalypse coming on the heels of a life as a Doll? On one side are those who yearn for a life of peace and quiet, much like what is provided by Safe Haven, away from the noise and brutality, one that allows them to piece together a life of normalcy. On the other side are those, like Echo, fully committed to continuing the fight, armed to the teeth in their efforts to bring the Corporation down. But in addition to this, there is also a running debate about the place of Dollhouse technologies in that battle, between a new breed of tech-heads, those that aspire to become Super-Dolls, and those that shun any and all imprinting whatsoever, even if that would leave them handicapped in the ongoing war with Rossum.

But amidst the chaos and bickering, we will witness some profound transformations, ways in which key figures in Echo’s inner circle have managed to overcome their (previous) limitations, evolving into something new. For if it hasn’t already become obvious, in important ways, this is a story of opposites and the possibility of reconciliation.

And so, one of the first faces we’ll see at Safe Haven is the one belonging to the ice queen, former Head of the Dollhouse, now making her home in the quiet of the countryside far away from the noise of battle. Not only has she found a way to relinquish the kind of unilateral control she wielded so mightily in her previous existence, she’s found access to another side of her self – almost maternal – that no one would have ever predicted. We see this most clearly in her protective relationship to Topher, the Engineer, who has all but crumbled in the aftermath of the Dollhouse’s destruction, collapsing under the knowledge of what was accomplished by the doing of his Hands.

And yet, despite what would appear to be a complete collapse, the former boy-genius has found a new new sense of direction and responsibility, no longer enthralled by the possibilities of a science unconcerned with the consequences of its application. We also witness how his mental dispersion transforms into calm when he remembers the place he had made for himself immediately after the Dollhouse’s fall. For in the very place that once housed the Dolls we see what can only be described as a sacred space, with one of the sleeping chambers transformed into a room of his own, surrounded by statues of the Buddha and a prominently placed copy of “The Road Less Travelled.”

In fact, the entire group will return to the site of their former enslavement, precisely because Topher discovers a way to undo the evil borne of his deeds: a device that will reverse the effects of Corporation’s Wiping of the world’s population.

Quite miraculously, when they reach the Dollhouse, they will find that it is no longer in the state of destruction in which they had left it. However despised, their former home has been returned to its former glory. Except this time, it’s being run by a friendly compatriot, a convert in his own right: none other than the (former) rogue Doll, Alpha. Like others of his kind, he has given up on the battle that rages without. Instead, he has turned his attention to helping those not so different from himself, Dolls unable to protect themselves against the Butchers raging on the streets. Keeping them safe until the time when they may finally be able to fend for themselves.

In different ways, each of these fiercely independent figures has found access to other side of themselves that, in a previous life, had remained firmly repressed. Each discovering, in their own ways, the kind of compassion that would have made their previously incarnations shudder or cringe with embarrassment.

It would seem that Echo is the only one left untouched in this way, ever the committed soldier on behalf of the cause. It is, in fact, the source of a number of inside jokes and, as always, is mirrored in the (divided) relationship between The Lovers. But despite the acrimony, even they have not remained unchanged. For they have reverted to their former names, no longer carrying the identities bequeathed to them by the Dollhouse. As if, during the course of the intervening years, they had been liberated from at least part of the burden of that inheritance.

Between the two of them, it is She that has become the peacenik, particularly since they now have a son who’s being raised without his father. What she hates most is the fact that He has joined the ranks of the tech-heads. In her eyes, this is nothing short of a perverted assimilation of the very technology that turned them into Dolls in the first place. Much to her dismay, even His face bears the traces of that appropriation, metallic hook-ups he and his colleagues use for imprinting themselves, providing them with the kind of portable skills they believe gives them an edge in the battle against the Corporation. However noble the cause may be, for her, this appropriation of Doll technology is nothing other than mockery what they had fought so hard to become, voluntarily relinquishing their humanity by turning themselves into walking machines designed for nothing but war.

For his part, He resents the fact that She fails to recognize how the decision to join the ranks was born of love – a sacrifice – given their agreement to keep their child away from the technology. And what greater love is there than that of a father who would willingly leave his family in order to fight on their behalf? But all She has to say is that He chose to stay steeped in the tech, was seduced by it, choosing “Victor” over his heart and his child.

Echo and Paul Ballard find themselves embroiled in a similar standoff, as if giving voice to another manifestation of the feud we’ve already witnessed between The Lovers. Except in this case, it’s Paul who complains about the other’s unwavering commitment to the fight. For Echo’s forever eager to get on with the business of battling the Corporation, unable to sit still even for a moment. So, when she anxiously asks about what might happen when they need to sequester themselves after the Engineer detonates his device for reversing Rossum’s Wiping of the population, Paul will use it as an opportunity to speak to his understanding of the problem.

I think for a good long while, you’re going to have to be where you are.
And I think that scares you.
— Ugh, I hate when you pretend to know me.
That’s not a claim I’d make.
I’ve been knocking ten years [and] you still won’t let me in.
— I’ve let you in a few times.
[Yeah,] when you were sure we were gonna die.
What happens if you’re sure we’re going to live?

Perhaps it’s the time she spent enslaved as a Doll, but what he asks feels like nothing short of an impossibility, or a luxury, during these times of war. But perhaps this reluctance is a measure of her accomplishments, all the barriers that have been brought down in her fight for liberation. Leaving only one, perhaps the most frightening barrier of all, the destruction of which would leave one standing naked before an Other irreducible to oneself. So rather than answer, she will throw the question back on him.

You’re my analyst now, tell me what you think!
— I think you’ve got a hundred people living inside your head.
— And you’re the loneliest person I know.
That’s kind of sweet.
— Not for the person who’s with you.

Whatever she might have thought about the exchange, her life will become even more difficult when, a few minutes later, as they push through a riot of butchers, just a few paces from their sanctuary, Paul is shot to death. And finally, she’ll find herself completely alone.

Strange as it might seem, it would appear that the solution to the difficulties of these Lovers comes from a videotaped lecture that the Engineer consults as he continues working on his anti-wiping device. For in that speech, cloaked in the language science, is a lesson of another sort.

Welcome to Lecture One in a three-part series entitled “neuroplasticity in relation to cortical imprinting.” The most effective way to imprint new pathways is with a timed electrostatic charge. It simulates the natural rewiring process of the brain.

Basic neuroplasticity. Every action affects our neural topography: we literally become what we do, not what we’ve done or [even] what we will do. We’re best defined by our actions in the moment.


With a wavelength of more than two meters, little damage is done to the surrounding tissue.

The “plasticity” of neural pathways speaks of nothing other than the possibility of change, the ability of the brain to accommodate shifts in behavior. And according to this speaker, the matter is quite simple. Our brains, and by extension the very essence of who we are, are determined by our actions and not the other way around. And should the process prove too difficult, a burst of energy – an electrostatic charge – will help nudge the process in the right direction, one no less than two meters in length.

And should we have failed to catch the significance of this, the Engineer will pick up on this last piece of information. Greater than two meters. As if this measure, larger than the height of the average human, were sufficient to undo the perverse effects of Imprinting. As if the mere exposure to a power greater than oneself were sufficient to begin the process of rewiring the habits that have hardened from the traumas of the past.

Is it any surprise, then, that the newly converted Alpha will be the one to provide Echo with the missing piece that provides the solution to her conundrum? For in the wake of Paul’s death, she has come to recognize an absence she had never noticed before, one that has little to do with the kinds of projections to which she had been submitted before. So, as the (former) Dolls prepare themselves for a long winter in an underground bunker, the one who had previously insisted that Echo’s salvation lay along the path defined by Nietzsche’s conception of the super-man will leave her with a very different kind of gift, instead.

Ironically, it rests on the very chair that had come to be the source of so much consternation, the site of repeated Imprinting and the cause of so much pain. And yet, this time, housed there is a disc containing a copy of Paul, not so much for the purpose of “becoming” him than allowing for a neural rewiring that will create the kind of space where she can finally let him in.

Am I … ? Are we … ?
— You wanted me to let you in.
Are you sure you’ve got room?
I’ve got a lot of baggage. Childhood stuff.
— We’ll work through it. We’ve got time.

And just as Echo submits herself to what may well be her final Imprint, and a voluntary one at that, we will see that The Lovers have also found the path toward reconciliation, as if the one were not unrelated to the other. For the “victor” has found it in himself to recognize the dark side of the interminable battle against the Corporation, including his dependence upon the technology used in that fight. Less a matter of the uses to which those enhancements were put than the emotional thrill of acquiring skills the easy way, absent the kind of work necessary for mastering them the old-fashioned way.

If we’re going to rebuild the world, I want to do it myself.

His wife will also have found it in herself to let go of her anger about what she took to be yet another betrayal, finally allowing herself to trust the man who had hurt her so deeply, despite everything they had been through together. Believing that change – in oneself and the other – was not only a possibility, but the only path worth following. What else could be more important for (former) Dolls previously doomed to a life of indentured servitude than finding a way out of the maze of projections and defenses that had hemmed them in for so long?

And so, as the series finale comes to an end, we will find Echo returning to the chamber that had once been her prison, and see that she now sleeps alone, no longer split among her alters. We will also see that the space she claims as her own now sits atop of a pentagram no longer inverted, her descent into matter finally transcended. And what had once been her ashen place of confinement now bears the deep glow of wood, the very element that one system of thought places at the apex of this five-pointed figure and which others have come to equate with Spirit. In light of this, would it be outrageous to wonder whether this might be one version of the Tree of Paradise?

Whatever the case may be, the five that we found in the beginning groping around in the dark have by now found there home in the one. And by this story’s end, we will find Echo in precisely that place.

Finally at peace.


~ by mistified on 1 July 2010.

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