In the eighth episode of the first season of Dollhouse, the Actives orchestrate an escape attempt. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.
This is an immensely uncomfortable and not at all in the way that any of Whedon’s other shows are uncomfortable either. While there are humorous moments on Dollhouse, it lacks that sense of silliness that Firefly, Buffy, or Angel bring to the table. I think when you’re dealing with such issues as consent, rape, and identity in the way that Dollhouse does, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to be funny. So I’m thankful that this is deeply serious and that the writers deal with these sort of things this way. And in “Needs,” the reasons why three Actives came to the Dollhouse are revealed, and I’m left feeling EMOTIONALLY HOLLOW.
It’s hard to parse my feelings for “Needs” because so much of what I witnessed in this episode was designed by both DeWitt and Dr. Saunders. The hope that these characters would find a way to escape the Dollhouse was distinguished once I realized this was all a set-up anyway. But through this sleight of hand, I’m able to understand these characters a bit more. In particular, I think I’m most intrigued by Dr. Saunders, despite that I know the least about her. DeWitt recognizes that the recent events in the Dollhouse are perpetrated by four individuals in particular: Victor, November, Sierra, and especially Echo. They’re recognizing one another. Fragments of their past keep popping up during engagements or while in their doll state. Every engagement seems to end in near chaos. And so DeWitt calls a meeting to tackle this problem headlong, to face the inevitable tide that’s coming in.
It’s Dr. Saunders (of all people!!!!) who suggest that they allow the tide to come in. This whole time, I’d been fostering this idea that Dr. Saunders was the mole inside the Dollhouse, that she was the one contacting Ballard, and that she had been forced into an uncomfortable situation. Hell, she is routinely the only character to ever exhibit any sort of awareness for how fucked up the Dollhouse is, right? So it was shocking to find out that it was her idea that led DeWitt to ordering that these specific Actives live out their unfulfilled emotional needs.
Those needs differ between the four Actives. Three of them have unresolved issues stemming from their pre-Dollhouse lives, and Victor is unable to cope with falling in love with Sierra. Of course, I wanted to find out why these people ended up in the Dollhouse in the first place, BUT I’M PRETTY SURE THAT ALSO WASN’T A REQUEST TO BE PUNCHED IN THE HEART AT THE SAME TIME. So I found it difficult to figure out just how to deal with “Needs.” If it was all a test orchestrated by the higher ups, why did it matter? What’s the point of this if the Dollhouse has now eliminated the “needs” of these four Actives?
Regardless of the framing device of this episode, I found that there was still a lot to appreciate and digest in the story. First of all, it’s fascinating to see how the Dollhouse employees interact with one another. Adelle DeWitt is the most in control we’ve seen, despite that Dominic is brimming with frustration at the test she’s designed. It’s frightening how easy it was for her to guess the outcome of everything. She never once panics, which is not what we see from Dr. Saunders or Topher.
Topher’s got an interesting part in this episode, too. While he obviously was a part in designing this experiment, I don’t think he expected Echo’s confrontation with him to be that intense. Even if that was always part of the plan, Topher truly seemed terrified by the experience. I read that scene as the first time Topher’s come face-to-face with what it is he does. He constantly maintains that what he does is “good,” but is he starting to realize that this isn’t the case? He hasn’t ever had to cope with the anger and fury of an Active realizing who they are and what they’ve done.
I suppose this is all guesswork at this point, though. I don’t know Topher’s true intentions, and all I have to go on is what this show has given me. And that’s why I started this review off by saying that I don’t know how to parse my feelings for this show. I don’t think I have ever felt so clueless, and it makes it hard to analyze what I’m seeing. I feel like I’m constantly faced with this persistent obfuscation of the series’ mythology. That’s not a complaint, for the record, but I’m admitting that I’m aware that I have maybe five puzzle pieces out of a hundred. So while I’d like to wax poetically about what Echo’s confrontation of Topher meant, I’m also sure that I’ve got everything wrong because it’s all hidden from me.
In that sense, I think that’s why this episode hit me so hard. I’m holding myself back because I know I’m ignorant. However, the two additional revelations about the reasons that November and Sierra joined the Dollhouse don’t need any more context for me to understand them for what they are: IMMENSELY FUCKED UP. November joined the Dollhouse to escape the pain of losing her daughter. No, FUCK, I can’t even get mad at the Dollhouse like I was going to! November chose to forget, and it was intentional. UGH. MY HEART. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m horrified that Sierra attempted to escape a controlling, misogynist jerk, and now it seems like she’s been forcibly made an Active THAT STILL VISITS HER GROSS, PROBABLY-A-RAPIST NIGHTMARE. What the fuck, y’all??? Nope, BACK TO HATING THE DOLLHOUSE FOREVER. Like, how the fuck is this a “good” thing? Who the hell is Nolan, and how did he get the Dollhouse to do this? NO. NOPE. NOPE.
I’m still completely interested in this show, and this recent batch of episodes certainly helped. I’m thankful that Dollhouse has become entirely serialized, and I hope it’s something that sticks for the remainder of the show. I mean, I was left feeling kind of hopeless by the bittersweet ending to “Needs,” and then the final scene reveals that ECHO (as Caroline) CONTACTED BALLARD DURING HER ENGAGEMENT. OH SHIT. OH SHIT. It’s on, y’all, and Ballard has a new lead. I’M SO INTO THIS.
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