Mark Watches ‘Dollhouse’: S01E01 – Ghost

In the first episode of the first season of Dollhouse, WELL, THIS IS REALLY CREEPY. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.

Well, this isn’t what I expected.

Here’s what I knew about Dollhouse before I sat down and watched “Ghost”:

  • Eliza Dushku was on it.
  • Joss Whedon created it and wrote lots of it.
  • Fran Kranz would show up at some point?
  • Like two people I know have actually seen it?
  • Things happen on it?

It’s definitely the one project of Whedon’s where I’m not really all that familiar with… um… anything about it? Obviously, I’ve never seen it, but aside from my roommate and one other friend, I don’t think I even know anyone else who has seen this show.

I think I might have been less forgiving of this pilot had I known more about what I was getting into. Instead, I found myself pleasantly surprised by what I watched. I mean, first of all, I was so confused at first. The premise of this show isn’t revealed until after the scene between Caroline and… that one lady. I don’t remember if they said her name!!! I’M SORRY, IT HAPPENS, I SWEAR I’LL LEARN IT. Even then, it isn’t until after Echo’s date with Matt that we’re shown the world of the Dollhouse. And let me just say: fucked up.

I think the idea could very well have been confined to a single episode of Buffy or Angel, so I was concerned about how a show like this would keep my attention and interest over the course of two seasons. Why should I care? Well, okay, so Amy Acker, Fran Kranz, and Tahmoh Pennikett are all on this show, so that’s one reason why. RIGHT??? But I noticed that aside from a few familiar faces, this pilot didn’t really feel like Joss Whedon wrote it at all. To be honest, that was kind of refreshing! All three of his shows had a specific sense of humor, a playfulness in the dialogue and the set-up of many of their plotlines, and none of that is in “Ghost.” I liked this because this show felt more “new” to me. I’m far more interested in a serialized drama that is… well, rather serious.

First of all, though, I needed to find out what this show was about. Over the course of the pilot, I think Whedon generally manages to convey how this fictional world works and why I should care about it. But as I learned what the Dollhouse was, I became more disturbed by the idea behind it. As far as I can tell, that opening conversation with “Caroline” really was a flashback, which means that the Dollhouse organization “erases” a person’s past/personality of their own choice so that they can become a shell of a human. Any complete personality can then be programmed into them, and people can hire the Dollhouse to give them any sort of person they need. In the case of the first “engagement” that Echo gets sent on, that means she is some rich kid’s dream date. AND THIS IS REALLY DISTURBING TO ME. Like, what happened to Echo/Caroline all those years ago that made her think it would be worth it to give her body over to a corporation that would use it however it saw fit?

Also: what the fuck???? I think that for a pilot episode, “Ghost” does address the horrifying implications of what the Dollhouse Corporation (I’m guessing that’s what it is called????) has done to these people. Echo’s handler, Langton, is well aware of how fucked up this process is. So is Topher, though he is far more willing to accept that he is doing good in the world with his work. And as polished as this show is, I never felt like Whedon glamorized the… dolls? I mean, if this place is the Dollhouse, it stands to reason these are the dolls, right? Regardless, the horrifying nature of these people is always right on the surface. They have all lost their original personalities and can be programmed with an imprint of a new one that’s designed by folks like Topher. And in “Ghost,” we see how this can easily become a problem.

These people are not treated like regular human beings. Watching this episode, Langton and Claire were the only people within the corporation who seemed to exhibit even the slightest bit of sympathy or understanding for who they handled. Everyone else truly views the “dolls” as property, as programmable machines, as collateral damage, and as animate objects. I mean, I suppose this is especially creepy when you think about Echo’s date with Matt. He hired someone to have sex with him, but he didn’t have sex with Echo’s real… identity? Oh god, this is so terribly complicated!!! Where does Echo’s original identity fit in to this? Can she ever get it back or was it wiped for good?

I’m glad I have these questions because it really does make me want to see more. But that’s not the only thing in “Ghost” that intrigued me. Paul Ballard is AWESOME, and I’m so glad I get to watch another show with Tahmoh Penikett in it. Through Ballard, Whedon adds a secondary storyline to the show that’s just as intriguing as the main one. Ballard, who works for the FBI, knows that the Dollhouse is real, but he can’t prove it. I’m interested to know why someone higher in the government wants the FBI working on discovering the Dollhouse, and I want to know why Ballard has lost his marriage and nearly ruined his career trying to find the place. What’s his connection to the place? Did he perhaps lose someone to the Dollhouse? I’m sure he’ll play a huge part in the upcoming episodes, as he already made progress with Anton by the end of “Ghost.”

But I think the most intriguing part of Dollhouse is Eliza Dushku. During the first ten minutes of the pilot, I was concerned that it would be hard for me separate Eliza from the role of Faith. If she played a character who was tough and violent, it would be too easy for me to draw parallels to someone she’s already portrayed. That seemed to be the case during the cold open, but as soon as Eliza stepped into the role of Eleanor Penn, I was sold. This was definitely not the same character, and it was much easier for me to understand Echo when I contrasted her with her new personality. I imagine that this show is going to be super challenging and fun for Eliza, given that she will get a new alias and personality in every episode. She gets to portray a different character each week! That’s pretty cool.

So I admit that I was taken in by this show fairly immediately. By at least halfway through “Ghost,” I was ready to see more. Therefore, when this episode started exploring the idea that Echo’s identity mapping could malfunction, I was really excited to see more. It seems that Echo is retaining some very tiny elements of her past identity after a wipe, something that should not happen. On top of that, she also appears to be far more curious about the Dollhouse itself. Calling it: Claire is going to help her discover more about where she works. Also, who is Claire and what happened to her?

Eliza was great as Eleanor Penn, but I found that her portrayal of one of the victims of that murdering pedophile was the most fascinating element of the whole pilot. The show has set the basis of how this all works, and we’d already learned that Topher pulled real elements of a person’s identity map from real people. His comments to Langton about achievement and weakness demonstrated that he took his job as a programmer quite seriously, almost as if he viewed what he does as art. That’s why he made Eleanor nearsighted and asthmatic. But what no one could have foreseen was Topher’s use of a real identity that was actually the victim of the murder. Fuck, that just gets me wondering: where does Topher and this organization get their identities from? Do they siphon them off of real people??? WHAT THE FUCK????

So yeah. This shit is immensely fucked up, but I was satisfied with a serious and subtle exploration of this entire set-up. Paul Ballard is close to the truth, but he’s got a dangerous path ahead of him. I have no goddamn clue what the Alpha is or why I should be frightened of it. But I do want to see more, and that’s all I really desire from a pilot.

Onwards! To inevitable heartbreak, I bet!

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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1 Response to Mark Watches ‘Dollhouse’: S01E01 – Ghost

  1. ScarlettMi says:

    I get to follow along on this one, as I’ve only seen a few of the episodes when it first aired. I’m really looking forward to finally seeing all of this show. This was a second viewing of the pilot for me. Eliza really impressed me and the Dollhouse really creeped me out. That said, with an initial viewing already under my belt, I’m really excited to move forward with the series. It must be interesting as an actor to get to play all these different characters and still try to find a way to make the audience connect to you as a core focal point for the series. Has to be a challenge.

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