Dollhouse, week 8

by Matt Ruff on April 4, 2009

Better this week.

For the first time, I was genuinely surprised by the ending, in a way that was satisfying. Part of that was clever misdirection—I jumped to the wrong conclusion about the scenario Adelle was running, as I no doubt was intended to—but part of it was that I still don’t entirely trust the writers, so when Echo and co. started making ridiculous choices (“We have no idea who or where we are, so let’s split up!”), I took it for bad storytelling rather than a clue to what was really going on.

Dominic’s line about why it’s better to think of the dolls as pets was my favorite bit of business, but it also underscores one of my ongoing issues with the show, which is that there seems to be a mismatch between the nature of the Dollhouse and the character of the people (especially the handlers) who work for it.

The nearest real-world analogy to what the Dollhouse is, seems to me, is a brothel staffed by slave labor, one of those deals where women are lured into traveling overseas for what they think is a modeling career, only to discover, too late, that they’re actually going to be unpaid prostitutes. The Dollhouse uses sci-fi mind-control in place of threats and physical abuse, but morally and practically, it’s the same sort of enterprise.

The attitudes and behavior of the Dollhouse staff, on the other hand—Amy Acker’s objection to Dominic’s use of a dehumanizing metaphor; Topher’s belief that the terms of the dolls’ contracts will be honored; the distinction everyone seems to draw between Sierra’s rape by her handler and the equally non-consensual sex acts she and the other dolls regularly perform with clients—all of that seems more appropriate to a legal but corrupt business, like a state-licensed Nevada brothel being run by mobsters. I could see average-Joe (and -Jane) doctors, tech people, and security guards signing up to work at a place like that and maintaining a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable exploitation of the dolls. I could also see them turning a blind eye to evidence that the management regularly breaks the law and abuses the dolls—but the more of that evidence they see, the more important it becomes that they be able to maintain the fiction that what they’re doing is OK.

One way to create and preserve such a fiction in the context of what is clearly a criminal enterprise would be to convince employees that the Dollhouse is a technically illegal but still legitimate business, e.g., a scientific research facility that uses volunteer subjects to conduct important research that has been unreasonably suppressed by the government. Even if you could convince people that this sexual fantasy factory is serving a higher good, though, I’m not sure why you’d want to. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just admit you’re engaged in a felony enterprise, and hire people who don’t have a problem with that?

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