Mark Watches ‘Dollhouse’: S01E05 – True Believer

In the fifth episode of the first season of Dollhouse, Echo is sent on a specialized engagement within a cult as Ballard gets one step closer to the Dollhouse. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.

I’m splitting this up! Let’s be negative first so we can end on a positive note, especially since I do feel good about this episode and the show so far.

The Not-As-Good

I don’t know that I’d necessarily qualify this as “bad,” but I did feel the need for a bit more serialization from this show. At this point, we’ve gotten five one-offs in a row. They’re good! I’m entertained! They all have metaphors to highlight characterization of different people in the show! Eliza Dushku is great! But these little cookie crumbs feel just like that: crumbs. It’s a bit frustrating, too, that we’re teased with the possibility of progress on Ballard’s front, and then it is unceremoniously taken away from us in a kinda sloppy way. I mean, really? Agent Lilly is just going to pretend like Esther is a stranger to him? I mean, I understood that Lilly was furious that he’d been bested by Boyd, but it just seemed strange that he wouldn’t then take it out on Boyd by outing him. I wouldn’t say this was bad per se, and I also don’t know if it carries over to the next episode. Just thinking aloud!

At times, the episode does feel like it wanders a bit, and I think that’s related to the above point. You can tell that the people behind it and the actors are trying to find their footing, to figure out just what this show wants to be. Is it sci-fi? Is it a human drama? Is it a thriller? I’m perfectly fine with a show being all of these things, and I think Whedon has demonstrated that he’s been able to mush up any number of genres into one thing. This show in particular, though, doesn’t have the camp quality of Buffy, Firefly, or Angel, however, so anything that doesn’t feel consistent is kind of strange.

But this is truly just nitpicking at this point. Most of what I felt about “True Believer” falls in the next category!

The Damn Good

This is a cleverly executed script from Tim Minear (and one where everyone doesn’t die horrible deaths!), and the main reason for that is because it doesn’t inherently shame the people who are believers. The entire point of Esther’s characterization here is not just to have a method of infiltration. Esther is made to believe wholeheartedly that she saw a vision of Jonas Sparrow, that God sent her to his compound, and that her sight return was a miracle. Her programming is not about her lying to earn Sparrow’s trust. It’s real and genuine to her. On top of that, the form of ambiguous religion that these people practice isn’t inherently violent. It isn’t all that far from a more strict interpretation of Christianity. The sole antagonistic force is Jonas Sparrow himself. It’s his past that is evil, and it is his actions that are deplorable. When you think about it, the reveal that Agent Lilly wrote the “Save Me” note on the back of the shopping list shows that none of these people felt they were in danger. Was their culture a bit strange? Sure, but aren’t most elements of a culture strange to those who are outside of it? Even the owner of that tiny convenience store knew that it wasn’t fair to bully and persecute these people just because they were different.

But the best moment of this entire episode is happens inside the room where Sparrow gathers his followers during the final stand against the ATF. This story obviously borrowed heavily from the Waco experience (and possibly the Jonestown massacre), but here, Minear and the writers twist the trope in just the right way. I assumed that this would unfold just like every fictional story I’ve ever seen post-Waco: faced with a fight against some government, outside force, the cult resorts to ridiculous displays of violence or mass suicide. It even looked like it was going that direction! So I was initially confused when Esther, the one programmed to believe that God had sent her a vision to follow Jonas Sparrow, was the one to openly defy the miracle she’d experience. It didn’t make sense to me! Wasn’t she the one person in that group who should have followed Jonas until the end? However, I misread what was happening here and what this story was telling us: just because people believe something different than we do does not mean that they are inherently irrational people who do absurd things. You have to remember that Kris was the first person to actually protest about Jonas burning down their church as a forced miracle. She was instantly uncomfortable with the notion of Jonas’s literal interpretation of the Bible. So when Esther then stands up to this man, I saw it as a pretty rad message that was altogether unexpected: these people weren’t wrong. Jonas was. Esther was a true believer, and she knew what Jonas was doing was wrong.

Out of the entire group, it was only Lilya who believed until the end, and he’s portrayed rather negatively, spitting in Esther’s face when she tries to reason with him. And look, I know it may be weird for a bonafide atheist to say this sort of stuff, but I’m tired of the notion that people who religious are fools. This is coming from someone who has a deep aversion to a lot of Western religions! And believe me, I went through a particularly nasty period where my own trauma of what happened to me at the hands of organized religion manifested in some awful behavior. So I appreciate that this episode really doesn’t shame these people for trying to find peace and salvation through their faith. It shames those who are willing to hurt others trying to be true believers.

Obviously, the end of this episode frames the work that the Dollhouse is doing in a very direct parallel to a cult. That’s what I took Adelle DeWitt’s words to mean. It might be a little heavy-handed, but I appreciated it nonetheless. I mean, look at what this company does to their Actives. Look at way the Dollhouse itself is designed! It’s fucking eerie. Shit, there’s an entire sequence where two employees spend time check to see if one of the Actives has a man reaction. That’s how intense the scrutiny is in this place! (Oh my god, why are men so TERRIFIED of this sort of thing? Bless you, Dr. Saunders, for being so direct. ERECTIONS. THEY’RE CALLED ERECTIONS.) (P.S. THIS SCENE WAS SUPER HILARIOUS.)

I am WAY into this show acknowledging that Dominic is super fucked up. The dude traveled all the way to Arizona to break into the compound under the guise of being a part of the ATF in order to ensure that Echo dies. I give absolutely no fucks about his eventual fate at this point. To me, Dominic represents the cutthroat business interest at Dollhouse, willing to do whatever he wants to protect the bottom line. He’s emotionless and without any sort of attachment to… well, anything at all. I look forward to the next Tim Minear-helmed episode where he brutally kills of Dominic and I cheer.

AND LET’S TALK ABOUT AGENT BALLARD. Yes, I’m frustrated that the carrot was dangled in front of me and then thrown off a cliff, but I’m still really stoked that this episode connected the events at the compound with Ballard’s search for Caroline. It’s a smart move, and I think that’s why I was so mad it’s not going to go anywhere. HE WAS SO CLOSE. SO CLOSE. Also, can we please see more of Loomis? PLEASE?

I’m enjoying this show quite a bit, and it’s nice that it’s so different from the other three shows Joss Whedon created. It is a bit more serious, but that’s perfectly fine. I’m intrigued by the characters. I’m interested in the growing affection that Boyd is showing to Echo. I want to know what Dr. Saunders and Topher are going to do about the Actives somehow recognizing one another and breaking their expected behavior during their doll phase. I WANT TO KNOW ALL THE THINGS, and I’m excited to keep watching this in order to know more.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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