In the third episode of the second season of Dollhouse, the Dollhouse staff use Victor to help track down the possible victims of a serial killer. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.
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I know that on the surface, this is a one-off style episode that basically turns Dollhouse into a complex police procedural. Obviously, the context is completely flipped, and it’s filtered through the weirdness that is the Dollhouse. But the reason I ended up liking “Belle Chose” so much was because it acted as a subtextual commentary on what the Dollhouse is, the sexualization of the male gaze, and what Adelle’s role is in all this.
First off, TERRY KARRENS TERRIFIES ME. Oh my god, his hair alone is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and then you find out those mannequins in the cold open are paralyzed people. I hate him, I celebrated when he was hit by a car, and then I was confused for forty minutes straight. My bewilderment with how this was unfolding, though, did not distract me from what this episode was saying about female empowerment and the nefarious way in which the Dollhouse subjugates the dolls who work for it. And before I get to that element of “Belle Chose,” I really want to praise the fact that this show is able to have a one-off episode like this. I can totally imagine a world where Dollhouse is five seasons long, where there are twenty-two episodes per season, and this episode is a perfect example of the kind of storytelling the show can host. It’s thrilling, it enhances the moral issues Dollhouse addresses, and it builds on the themes of identity and consent without necessarily being serialized at all. It helps to have the previous fourteen episodes in mind, and I think that sort of context gives these characters much more depth. For instance, there’s no way to understand why Ballard looks so uncomfortable when he takes Echo to that Dollhouse-approved spa. He’s barely adjusting to his new role as a contracted handler, so that’s why he was so eager to swap with Boyd.
PS: I miss Whiskey/Dr. Saunders, and I hope we find out what she’s been doing in the interim.
Anyway, I think the bulk of “Belle Chose” sometimes explicitly addresses the idea of consent and power. The entire storyline concerning Chaucer and that creepy professor really frames the episode as an exploration of the power the dolls have within the Dollhouse. Professor Gossen talks to Kiki about how The Wife of Bath found a way to navigate a patriarchal system to gain power, but… yeah, dude, you realize you’re basically doing the complete opposite, right? I mean, you’re trying to “empower” Kiki to have sex with you, but the entire arrangement in your office was designed for and by men, and Kiki is really Echo, who has absolutely no power or ability to give consent in the situation.
Initially, I didn’t understand how Gossen’s engagement was tied to Terry’s, but once Kiki passed to Enver (WHICH I WILL GET TO IN A SECOND), Echo became an amalgamation of her doll state and Terry. If you think about what Echo says to the three surviving women that Terry had kept captive, it feels very much like foreshadowing. She is spelling out to these women, who were LITERALLY DOLLS FOR TERRY, how they can take power and agency back for themselves: they have to kill Terry. And how else are the dolls in the Dollhouse ever going to get their own control back in their lives? We’ve seen a glimpse of what the future is like, and we know it’s going to take a violent revolution in order to fight mass wiping. But even in terms of what’s happening in the here and now, this episode provides the most direct and scathing criticism of everything that the Dollhouse is doing.
There’s even a scene that addresses Adelle’s complicity and power in the Dollhouse. I’m pretty sure that moment where Paul is telling Terry (in Victor) that he surrounds himself with copies to create the illusion that he’s powerful can be applied to Adelle as well. She completely misses it, though, as she is distracted by the case. But I think it’s important to acknowledge the complexity of Adelle DeWitt. We know she believes she is doing good generally; we can assume in the future that she chooses not to permanently sell the bodies of the dolls; and we know for sure that she’s aware of pretty much every engagement that the dolls go through. It paints a portrait of a woman in power, surrounded by copies, who finds ways to justify the fact that she’s running a company that actively strips people of their consent for five year stretches. “A Spy in the House of Love” showed us that there is a part of her that is conflicted by what she does, but it’s a small one.
I wonder if we’ll get another episode this season addressing Adelle and Topher’s moral issues with the Dollhouse. I’d like to see that.
I want to wrap this up by saying that Enver Gjokaj is currently my favorite actor for anything ever forever ever. After maybe Daniel Day-Lewis. Okay, I’m just being hyperbolic for the sake of it, but he completely steals the show here. (And an honorary mention goes to Eliza, who handles three completely varied roles with ease.) His portrayal of Terry is very much like his mimicry of Dominic. It’s so good that it’s creepy. And god bless that man for his incredible dance sequence. I’m pretty sure that made me realize I have a crush on him? Something about dudes without any inhibitions like that just totally do it for me. But on a serious note, I actually think it was a neat way to play with gender roles, to tease us with a possible queer reading of the show, and to have Paul Ballard refuse to act grossed out by what happens to him. Too many other shows would write Ballard as being disgusted by Victor’s manhandling of him, but I appreciated that he just went along with it, instead criticizing other’s for their apparent homosexuality.
Now, give me some actual queer characters, Sierra, Whiskey, and more about Boyd, and we’ll be all good, Dollhouse. Thanks!
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