In the ninth episode of the first season of Dollhouse, Echo demonstrates a stunning sense of awareness when she offers to help Topher solve a case of a spy in the Dollhouse. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.
Serialized television, take note: this is how you develop a story across a season. Sure, the first five episodes of this show were largely one-offs, but I don’t retroactively dislike them. They’re necessary to understand how the Dollhouse works, to learn the history of Echo and Alpha, and to get an introduction to the staff who work in this company. But ever since “Man on the Street,” this show has rocketed forward with revelation after revelation. I keep expecting a break, and I’m not getting one. Somehow, I’m getting satisfying answers to this show’s mysterious mythology, and yet I’m still left wanting so much more. It’s brilliant, and I think the writers for this show have achieved something completely unreal: an entertaining show about how corporations are running our lives. On FOX, for christ’s sake! How did they get away with this?
Yet amidst the many plot twists, “A Spy in the House of Love” is very much a character study. It’s an examination of Topher, Ivy, Dr. Saunders, Echo, and Dominic, and how their lives in the Dollhouse affect their hearts and minds. This story is told in four interlocking parts that overlap with one another, and I’d like to address it by splitting this up by each Active:
So, I implore you to watch today’s video for “A Spy in the House of Love” for a very specific moment early on. When Mellie returned to Paul Ballard’s place, offering to ground him, I began to think outloud: How was Paul going to deal with the reality of who Mellie was? She’s so good to him, despite how frustrating and chaotic his life is, and it would undo him if he found out she was a doll. AND THEN LIKE THIRTY SECONDS LATER, SHE REVEALS THAT SHE IS FROM THE DOLLHOUSE. Oh my god, WHY DO I DO THIS TO MYSELF? I have been cursed, haven’t I? PROBABLY.
Anyway, as I expected, Paul is fucked up when he discovers that this woman who he’s grown attached to was a plant all along. Even worse, he has to maintain the illusion that he doesn’t know who she really is. How??? How is he going to do that??? On top of this, I’m still not certain I know who is sending him these messages through various Actives. Initially, I thought the reveal about Dominic’s identity solved this, but that doesn’t make sense. Dominic was working to keep the Dollhouse hidden. He wasn’t interested in taking away the technology; he wanted it to remain right there. So it makes no sense that he would contact a rogue agent from the FBI to expose the Dollhouse. So who’s behind this? November also echoes the same message Echo told Paul earlier: investigate the purpose behind the Dollhouse. I’m at a loss as to what the hell this means. I don’t get this at all! Everything we’ve seen points to the fact that the Dollhouse exists to satisfy the fantasies of the rich. And I’m guessing that the piece I’m missing relates to the Rossum Corporation. They have to be the ones who are working on some “true” purpose, no?
Bah, I’m so unprepared.
Dichen Lachman, how do you act? I am constantly blown away by her talent to play such diverse characters, and her role in this episode is no different. It’s fascinating to see how Dominic’s imprint works versus the one Topher will later make to discover the identity of the mole. Sierra is made to be brutally efficient, and I’d like to think that she’s an imprint of Dominic’s ideal. It’s how he works. I also loved how long and tense her scene was as well; there wasn’t a single break during her journey from that Amtrak train to her escape from the roof, and I appreciated that we saw her entire methodology from beginning to end. God, she’s good.
Just… 100% unexpected. First, let me also praise Enver Gjokaj’s acting as well; like Dichen, I’m just so impressed with his ability to switch between such disparate characterizations. Coming off of “Needs,” it is especially fascinating that his imprint deals with the idea of a forbidden love. I assumed that the older woman from the beginning of his engagement was Katherine, so you can delight in my shock when it was revealed that Katherine was just an alias for DeWitt. As far as I can tell, Victor’s engagement was a secret, one that DeWitt hid from the others. With this story, the writers take a break from the thrilling chaos of the mole plot to give us some depth to Adelle DeWitt. While she’s certainly portrayed as a ruthless and amoral businesswoman, her moral ambiguity is only deepened by the reveal that she is deeply, deeply lonely. I didn’t take this development as an excuse for her behavior; the end of “A Spy in the House of Love” very clearly paints DeWitt as being heartless in her treatment of Dominic. But I appreciate when a fictional story gives us layers to antagonists. I don’t always need that, but I tend to like it more. In terms of DeWitt’s characterization, I got the sense that she was fostering this painful desire to escape from her life at the Dollhouse. Through Victor, she was acknowledging this hidden part of her. However, her breakdown on the bed at the end of her engagement with Victor was a sign that she knew she could never get out of this. She could never escape with anyone. The rest of her life, she’d be tied to the Dollhouse.
It’s clear now that DeWitt can adjust the dolls to her whims without others knowing, so I entertained the notion that she might be sending Ballard those messages, but her vicious defense of the Dollhouse at the end of this episode complicates that idea. She sends Dominic to the Attic without a single hesitation, and she refuses to have Echo wiped because Echo displayed a willingness to defend the Dollhouse on her own. She clearly wants to keep this place going.
Oh, moral ambiguity. You are so delicious.
It is intriguing that Echo might be developing a need to protect the Dollhouse, and I’m not sure what that develops from. Do I want to see more? Of course. But what I enjoyed most about Echo’s story was that through Topher’s programming, we were able to learn more about the staff at the Dollhouse. We’ve seen Topher’s inflated ego before, but once again, that fear of rejection pops again. He wants to known as competent, and it’s what he clings to in this place. Like I said in the review for “Needs,” Topher isn’t one to address the moral implications of what he’s doing. He’s just a dude using his brain to do a job. But every time he’s presented with the logistics of his job, he freaks out. I’d like to see more of this.
I’m still holding out hope that Dr. Saunders is the one sending Paul Ballard those messages. We learn that SHE LIVES AT THE DOLLHOUSE. And you know what? That strangely makes sense. As I said before, she’s the only staff member who exhibits any sort of sympathy or empathy for the dolls aside from Boyd’s attachment to Echo. She’s never outright happy about what she does. Christ, she always seems like the moral weight of what she’s doing is about to crush her. So how did she end up getting a job there? Was she once a much happier person there? Did her experience with Alpha disillusion her and make her the way she is now?
I was also glad that the show finally gave Ivy the chance to decry the way she is treated by Topher. It’s dehumanizing to her that she spent so much time at school, and she’s left to run petty errands for Topher. I hope to see her get a bigger role, but then… yeah, that’s a weird thing to wish for? Because she’s actively involved in running a super-fucked up company. ONCE AGAIN, I’M CONFUSED ABOUT HOW TO FEEL ABOUT ALL OF THIS.
The end of “A Spy in the House of Love” relies on the reveal that Dominic works for the NSA to give us two things. First, it shows us that even the governmental organizations who have an interest in the Dollhouse aren’t necessarily there to take it down. That is horrifying. When Dominic’s true identity was revealed, it didn’t really make sense. Didn’t he try to kill Echo? Twice??? It wasn’t until he openly criticized DeWitt that I understood his role: he was there to keep the Dollhouse safe. The NSA purposely discouraged and misdirected Paul Ballard, and wanted the technology to be kept a secret. AND IT WAS DOING THIS. Oh god, do you realize how incredible this commentary is? The United States government is hiding a potentially damaging technically from the American public for its own interests. How did this air on FOX at all??? To its credit, FOX did air nine seasons of The X-Files, and that show was regularly subversive about the role government played in the lives of Americans. Still, we’ve got multiple layers of power at work surrounding the Dollhouse, and none of them are trying to expose this company or technology.
With Dominic sent to the Attic (WHAT THE HELL GOES ON THERE), this leaves a new role to be filled, and we get to witness Boyd’s retirement as Echo’s handler. Now Head of Security, we lose that kind of touching emotional connection he has to her. It’s kind of sad? I mean, I still don’t know how to figure out how to feel about all of this, but I did like the way Boyd treated her. It was respectful at the very least. But now he’s on to bigger and better things. Sigh.
I AM EAGER TO WATCH THE NEXT EPISODE.
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