Some TV shows are fun and easily forgotten, while others are worth returning to every few years. Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is one of those. It’s tight storytelling, engaging characters, and cutting edge philosophical explorations merit further exploration. In coming weeks, The Herring Review will publish a series of articles examining different figures, themes, and significances of Dollhouse. If you have seen Dollhouse, this introductory piece should be unnecessary. If you have not seen the show, this introduction is intended to situate the major elements of the show and encourage you to watch it! The shows reminds this author of a favorite poem by Yeats, which described the kidnapping of a human child by fairies:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
(W.B. Yeats, The Stolen Child).
Dollhouse is a bit like a fairy story, stealing the viewer away. By the end of the show, the viewer has a clearer, albeit darker, understanding of the world.
I want to begin by summarizing the major plot movements of Dollhouse. If you have seen the show, this is the section to skip. Like any worthwhile story, Dollhouse has a series of subplots underneath the main plotline. In this section, I describe the major plot elements.
The story revolves around a revolutionary technology (referred to as imprinting): what if your mind could be removed from your body, and a different mind inserted? A mind that had different skills, memories, habits, and history, even awareness of self, could be in your body. For people who have committed crimes, struggle with grief, or have some pressing reason to need to skip five years of their life, the Dollhouse becomes the perfect business opportunity. The Dollhouse offers the perfect arrangement to the mother who lost her first child, to the serial killer facing the chair, or to the post-college activist caught red-handed trying to commit corporate espionage: work for us for five years. The Dollhouse will remove your personality, shelve it on a disk, and will take very good care of your body. During those five years, your body will be imprinted with different personas suited to the client (perhaps a dominatrix one day, a submissive the next; a thief, an assassin, or the perfect lover/mountain climber). People who are imprinted are referred to as Dolls. At the end of five years, you will be reinserted in your body, and it will feel like you’ve only blinked. You will have a huge sum of money for your years, and go away without consequences.
This is the Dollhouse, and it sells people tailored to requested specifications. The show follows one woman, Caroline, who becomes a Doll (also known as an Active) called Echo. Echo is somehow unique – she retains all the imprints (personalities put in her body), and can become any person she was ever imprinted as when needed. At one point, she is imprinted as an FBI spy. When threatened with danger, she calls up the persona with Kung Fu skills. Echo transcends her role as Doll, the blank slate on which a new persona can be written, and becomes her own person.
As she develops her personhood, Echo also adopts a savior mentality. The technology which enables the Dollhouse to work is gradually expanded throughout the show, and by the end has gone viral. Original humans become rare, and are always threatened by those who would turn them into “Dumbshows,” people who have been wiped involuntarily and roam the world in a state of infantile naïveté, able to be enslaved by the first opportunist who discovers them. Echo’s goal expands alongside the technology, and she eventually plays a key role in reversing the Dollhouse’s technology restoring humanity to its original state.
The characters in Dollhouse are well developed, and they quickly became one of the best parts of the show. While the show revolves around Echo and her growing personality, the secondary characters each get plenty of time and subplots worth exploring.
Caroline is the main character. After finishing college, her driving ambition was to fix problems in the world. She honed in on the Rossum Corporation as an evil organization. While she at first thought their evil only extended to cruel animal testing, she learned later that they were involved in extensive human experiments exploring the extent of neurological control. After a botched attempt to destroy a Rossum lab, she was captured and offered a deal by Adelle DeWitt to join the Dollhouse instead of facing corporate espionage charges.
Echo is the designation given to Caroline’s doll-state body. Caroline is shelved for a five year term, and when her body is not imprinted with a persona, she is referred to as Echo. Over the first season, Echo is developed as a unique character who undergoes more traumatic experiences than other dolls, and is somehow special. In the second season, we learn that Echo retains all her original imprints and can summon them up at will. Rather than just the blank slate she is supposed to be, Echo becomes a real personality which evolves to a point of control over normal personalities which are imprinted onto her. She has an odd relationship with Caroline, because for Caroline to return to her body Echo must die.
Adelle is the manager of the Dollhouse. She recruits people to become Actives, oversees their new lives, and arranges clients’ wishes. She is British, and has a vague humanitarian streak. She articulates the ethical rightness of the Dollhouse’s existence – the technology exists, so the good guys should control it; the Dollhouse is serving needy people who could not find satisfaction otherwise; all Dolls are volunteers who contractually agree to give five years to the Dollhouse. Over the course of the story, however, Adelle sinks to moral lows as she loses control of her House. Eventually, she becomes one of the staunchest opponents of Rossum.
Boyd is Echo’s handler, the one responsible for overseeing her engagements (working out the clients’ fantasies). He oversees Echo’s psychological development, and cares for her. An active is imprinted with an intense bond of trust – so strong that they trust their handler with their life. Echo feels that for Boyd and it is a consistent presence in their relationship through both seasons. By the end of the first season, he becomes the head of security in the Dollhouse.
Paul Ballard is an FBI agent obsessed with revealing and dismantling the Dollhouse. He is sent information on Caroline which forms his initial fascination with her. The FBI, however, expels Ballard. He joins the Dollhouse, becoming Echo’s handler after Boyd becomes head of security. Ballard has complicated romantic feelings for Caroline/Echo which get resolved in the series finale. He is instrumental in training Echo to access multiple personalities.
Topher Brink is the scientist who programs Dolls for their engagements. His character develops from one of moral neutrality, pursuing science for its own sake, to deeply compromised as his inventions strip humanity of free will. He is also the quintessential nerdy, isolated genius character. He helps Rossum develop their technology to successively higher stages.
Sierra is the codename for Priya, a Doll sent to the Dollhouse by a vindictive Rossum employee with a grudge against Priya. She has a deep-seated love for Victor, whose original name is Antony. Their love story plays out over the course of both seasons; no imprint removes their love. They always remember each other, regardless of which personality is placed in their bodies.
Mellie is a Doll sent to spy on Paul Ballard. After they begin sleeping together, Paul learns Mellie is a Doll. He bargains his leverage with the Dollhouse to have her released from her contract early. Paul still has feelings for Mellie, even after he learns of her Doll-nature. She returns in the series as a foil for Paul’s developing feelings for Echo.
Alpha is a Doll made from the body of a convicted serial killer. He experiences a “composite event” where all his previous personalities cascade into his mind. He and Echo are the only two Dolls who can hold multiple imprints in simultaneously. Alpha is both a genius and a killer; when his composite event occurs, he kills several Dolls and Dollhouse employees. He is a recurring character in Dollhouse.
Dollhouse engages deep questions of philosophy, and has no qualms wrestling with dangerous questions. While there are far more than these, at least five philosophical areas deserve discussion in an introductory article.
- Morality – Dollhouse takes place in a post-Christian world, with the one exception of an episode dealing with a cult. Outside of Christianity and traditional Western theism, where does one root morality? Dollhouse argues that free will is the highest value, and consent establishes a basis for legitimate action. Drawing on the foundations of natural law and social contract theory applied to an individual level, Dollhouse grounds moral righteousness in free will. That which strips an individual of free will is evil. The show questions (but does not answer) if there are areas which an individual cannot choose to yield. Can one rightly yield up his body? Is the whole premise of the Dollhouse morally wrong? Or can one make a contract to sell himself into a form of indentured servitude and thus escape any moral blame for actions done with his body during the time of Doll-slavery?
- Technology – Closely tied to these questions of free will are the considerations of the dangers of technology. The “law of unintended consequence” reigns supreme in Dollhouse; just because one person invents an element of technology does not mean he will control it. In a world where free will is only moral restraint (government is ineffective, and penetrated by Rossum at the highest levels), technology opens endless dangers for human flourishing. Simultaneously, Dollhouse presents technology as also holding the cure to human sufferings. The same technology which can imprint a woman to assassinate her husband could also be used to cure brain tumors.
- Power – Foucault made a career out of writing on different constructions of power; Dollhouse would have given him entirely new insights into human nature. The show plays with what will people do when given the ability to change or oppress other human beings without consequences. In one episode, Topher changes Echo into the positive (redeemed) version of a troubled girl in the hopes that Echo will inspire this future-neurotic to seek help. In another case, a Rossum doctor abuses his access to the Dollhouse to commit serial rape. The technology and moral ambiguity of the Dollhouse technology creates new opportunities. One particularly bizarre episode features Echo being imprinted as a mother for an infant whose actual mother died in birth. In another, a woman purchased death insurance. When she died, her personality was imprinted into Echo, allowing her to speak with her family after her death and solve her own murder. In all of these ways, Dollhouse explores the questions of power, particularly in constructions of identity.
- Mind/Body Duality – Following Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, the Dollhouse practices a Gnostic duality between the mind/soul and the body, making them completely separable. Except, on occasion, something remains. Victor and Sierra still love each other, even when the mind has been removed. Echo has the same passion to fix broken people that motivated Caroline. Alpha is motivated by the same murderous desires which moved his original personality. Though in one sense Dollhouse holds to a clear division, it also flirts with a more Christian understanding of an embodied soul. Something essential to the person remains, even if their intellect is removed.
- Love – One of Plato’s most famous dialogues (The Symposium) is dedicated to the question of love: what is it? Why do people pursue it? Is it worthwhile? What are the different possibilities of love? Dollhouse explores these same arenas and explores the boundaries between lust, agape, phileo, and the quest for love in community. Echo divorces love from physical expression; having been imprinted with every possible erotic experience, yet she still seeks love with Paul Ballard. For Victor and Sierra, love allows them to transcend science. Topher pursues love in Bennett Halvorsen, another Rossum programmer. With Bennet, Topher finds a love rooted in common pursuits and appreciation of genius. The loves pursued by the dolls stand in stark contrast to those clients who want nothing more than a one-night stand with the perfect programmed woman or man. Perhaps Dollhouse seeks to investigate the question of love in a post-sexual revolution world.
Joss Whedon is a master storyteller, and Dollhouse is a marvelous creation. Whedon creates, in Tolkien’s language, a “secondary world” which has the “inner consistency of reality.” Inside this world of believable characters and heart-wrenching choices Dollhouse explores some of the deepest questions of postmodern philosophy. If you haven’t seen the show, check it out on Netflix or Amazon Prime and come back to The Herring Review for more reflections on Dollhouse.
Copyright 2015 Joshua Herring