Following a 4-year hiatus from the world of television, Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, has returned with a new series. Dollhouse follows the story of Echo (Eliza Dushku), a woman who has had her memories wiped by a criminal organization and is given new personalities in order to fulfill “engagements” for high-paying clients. At the end of each engagement, the false persona and all memories of the event are erased. However, as Echo completes her engagements, the process begins to fail and she begins retaining fragmented memories of her experiences and becoming self-aware.
The show has garnered curiosity and criticism for it’s unorthodox subject matter. While science fiction, it touches on some controversial real-world issues. The childlike “dolls” of the series are practically slaves; in the first episode we see the woman who is to become Echo signing a contract to join the Dollhouse, but it’s clear the decision has been made under some kind of extreme duress. The parallels to human trafficking are impossible to miss. It’s a concept that in the wrong (even well-intentioned) hands could be disastrous. But, if the episodes so far are any indication, Dollhouse may just be able to walk the thin line of catering to fantasy and depicting slavery without patronizing the issues and demeaning the characters.
Echo’s first on-screen engagement involves fulfilling a man’s fantasy for the perfect romantic weekend. She leaves, gushing about how he might just be “the one” and debating whether or not to call him, and upon her return to the Dollhouse instantly forgets everything that just transpired. This is obviously a form of sexual slavery, and her innocence and complete lack of awareness about the fact that she is being used makes it all the more painful for the viewer to watch. The disconnect between Echo’s earnest desires (and even those are placed inside her head without her knowledge) and the willingness of the men who engage her to use her, knowing full well exactly what they are doing, is troubling.
Problematic depictions of sexual violence against women and girls also emerge early on. Echo’s personalities are not created from scratch; she is implanted with the composite memories and experiences of multiple people who fit the profile necessary for each “engagement.” In the first episode, Echo comes face-to-face with the man who abused a woman her persona was based on as a child and has to deal with the trauma of the false memories while attempting to thwart a kidnapping ring. This mostly comes across as lazy and cliché writing – using past sexual trauma in lieu of substantive character development is dismissive of the very real impact of sexual violence on its victims, and it’s unfortunately endemic in television and movies.
The second episode is incredibly disturbing. Echo is hired for an engagement with an outdoorsman looking for the perfect woman. After a day of elk hunting and rock-climbing, he pulls out a bow and tells Echo to start running and prove that she “deserves to live.” So she runs, while her handlers desperately attempt to rescue her from the engagement gone wrong. However, as horrifying as this is to watch for the next 45 minutes, it is handled more artfully than the pilot. Echo starts to show signs of autonomy and rejects some key aspects of her programming when, instead of weakly submitting, she takes initiative and saves both her bodyguard (assigned to follow at a discrete distance unless it is necessary to intervene) and herself. By the end of the episode, Echo appears to be more human and less plot device, a refreshing departure from the course the show appeared to be taking up to that point.
The third and most recent episode is where the direction Whedon has taken with Dollhouse begins to become clearer. Another doll who lives with Echo, Sierra, has become her friend in their mind-erased, childlike state between engagements. Both are assigned to protect a pop singer from murder attempts by an obsessed fan, unaware of their relationship prior to the engagement. Even though they have met as strangers and Echo is hardwired to protect her client, when their plans backfire and Sierra is taken hostage, Echo does everything in her power to protect Sierra, at the expense of her mission. She knocks the client out cold and offers to trade her as ransom for the release of Sierra, saying, “friends help each other.” In the end, the threat is creatively eliminated and everyone escapes more or less unscathed (minus the kidnapper). The head of Dollhouse explains the incident away as Echo’s programming manifesting itself in an unexpected, yet effective manner, unwilling to accept the possibility that her programming is faulty. As for Echo, even after all memories of the incident have been erased, she seems aware of the ramifications, purposely avoiding Sierra to subdue suspicion.
Though initially difficult to judge and unsettling in its treatment of Echo, Dollhouse seems to be finding its bearings. The struggles of characters trapped in high-tech slavery is compelling, but only once they begin to become aware of it and search for an escape. Assuming the characters continue to grow and develop (and that the show doesn’t meet the gruesome fate of its canceled cousin, Firefly), it’s safe to say that Dollhouse will be a fascinating and worthwhile journey.