Hello folk. This was my entry for an upcoming anthology of Dollhouse essays. It was not selected, so now I publish it here, for your enjoyment. I’ll try and post more pop culture essays here in the future.
The sixth episode of Dollhouse’s first season, titled “Man on the Street” uses documentary style footage to present various perspectives on the dollhouse. As the dollhouse is the titular character of this series, these points of view act as moral guidelines for looking at the story as a whole, and as such analysis of these people on the street helps in comprehending just what the heck the dollhouse is about. Dollhouse is “pre-apocalyptic” fiction, which places at the core of it’s mythology a McGuffin which is going to destroy the world. The interviewees fall into three distinct categories. There are those which see the dollhouse as a positive, wish granting entity. There are those which see the dollhouse as a negative, human trafficking agent. Finally there are those which are no so much concerned with what it is, but rather its greater implications for the world at large. Each of these perspectives gets championed by a main character in the series, and watching these characters develop from these starting points is part of the joy of watching Dollhouse. The show doesn’t paint a picture of good and bad, instead Dollhouse challenges the viewer to analyze various viewpoints and come up with their own logical conclusion, as we root for the characters in the show to do the same.
The myth that the Dollhouse is some sort of high tech glamour boutique, a myth perpetuated by the series’ first five episodes, gets debunked in the sixth episode “Man on the Street” when those espousing this belief are undercut in their presentation. A young shopgirl interviewed basically says that if she were given the opportunity to party with rich people and not remember anything, she would sign up in an instant. However, with her blue apron and name tag showing her a member of the service industry, combined with her slouched posture, youth, and hint of an accent place her culturally as lower class. Her worries are also of the student class, as she mentions studying and paying rent. As if that weren’t enough, the shot takes place in an alley, further emphasizing how off the beaten track her point of view should be seen.
There are two other pro-dollhouse testifiers, and both of them are presented in a way which discredits their testimony. First off is a young blonde woman. This young woman is shown telling the interviewer that as long as this was a volunteer giving her the romantic dream she knows is never coming, she’d be okay with it. It calls to mind a certain popular singer’s view of life, but more importantly, she’s shown in a way which makes her dreamy voice less convincing than it could otherwise be. She’s shot from above, whereas every other interviewee was shot head on, emphasizing her youth and inexperience. She’s also shown sitting on the grass, with children’s voices chattering in the background. This is a person with very little life experience whose notions of romance are immature and selfish.
Finally there is a young man, wearing a backwards baseball cap, who reveals inner desires that his girlfriend was not privy to. His immaturity is shown not only through his backwards cap and open flannel, but through his word choice when he says he wants his homosexual encounter to have “nothing queeny”. He’s the only one interviewed with another person in the frame, his completely dwarfed girlfriend. Her inclusion is great, as after two young women musing about how great it would be to have a robot boyfriend, she is the one repulsed by her boyfriend having that very same opinion. He has his arm around her the whole interview, while she’s standing in such a way that makes the ring on her finger stand out.
Sure, much of the contrast between outward displays of couple-hood while the boyfriend reveals secret longings is done for comic effect. There is still something to be made from his girlfriend’s reaction. Her blink filled thought process as she starts to realize what he’s saying, slowly turning to face him as if to contrast what she’s come to accept about this man with what was just revealed. While he’s fantasizing about using someone and then wiping their memory of it, in his mind a victimless circumstance, she stands to remind the audience that there are always those affected by the actions of the dollhouse.
Immature, selfish, unaware of greater consequences and unconcerned with individual’s moral agency, gee that sounds like Topher. The young Topher, of course, is a man inside the Los Angeles house whose hubris is the true cause of the end of the world. Everything about Topher screams youth, from his Opie haircut, to his frequent usage of the words “bro” and “dude”. He’s often dressed like his mom dresses him, wearing terrible Cosby sweaters. There is no mistaking his genius, but he’s too young to understand that knowing what you know and knowing it well is not the same as understanding everything.
Much like the young interviewees, Topher only sees the immediate need and a way to meet that need. He’s often driven by a need to fulfill his curiosity, for example his continued work on remote wiping, without considering any possible consequences for entertaining these questions. Topher’s growth will come from gaining an understanding of the effects his curiosity can have, in the most apocalyptic and dramatic way possible. Arguably Dollhouse’s most tragic character, Topher taunted many an audience member with the phrase, “I know what I know” as he grew to understand the consequences his knowledge as having.
Topher is supported by his partner in crime Adele. While not in the same exact vein as the young characters previously mentioned, she benefits from every scientific advance Topher makes. As an example, in season two it is Topher’s invention which allows her to resume her position as the head of the dollhouse. Consequently, while Adele has the most control in the dollhouse, mostly her job is to foster Topher’s creativity. Her first command after hiring Topher is to her head of security, telling him to get this man a mini-fridge. She’s portrayed much like the girlfriend from the interviews, committed to her geek but occasionally repulsed by what he’s capable of.
Consider the pair of scenes immediately following the “nothing queeny” interview. Topher, wearing not quite a Cosby sweater, but close, is going through his process compositing a brain for Echo’s engagement that night. His screen is practically a video game, as he combines various parts and is rewarded with beeps when he gets the puzzle right, and flashing red lights when he gets it wrong. His reaction to Boyd having put a man through a window is pure joy, smiling and giggling the whole time. Adele on the other hand is the one who choses to use Echo to take out Ballard, but she uses Echo in a non-lethal way, her mission was always to get Ballard framed. This directly contrasts with Topher’s statement that he’s created an active that’s “gorgeous but deadly”. There are lines that Topher will cross, but Adele, like the girlfriend in the interview, hides her repulsion and smiles.
These young characters get contrasted with some very angry interviewees. In the first interview shown, an African American woman condemns the dollhouse as nothing but a warehouse of slaves. This woman’s race is her most important cultural signifier, a fact made obvious when considering the content of her testimonial. She’s also dressed in bright colors, and a top which hangs more than it is tailored, suggesting a more traditional African dress. The camera then cuts back to reveal the interviewer, who is also black. Given that this is the only testimonial where that happens, it can’t be coincidence. The shot reveals the street, referencing the title of the episode, and showing that the particular street their on is not in a high finance type of neighborhood. The blocking off the shot also show the camera crew and camera separating the interviewer from the interviewee, suggesting almost a danger with her point of view. Considering her next words are that “there’s only one reason someone would volunteer to be a slave is if they is one already” there’s no denying the anger in her position, and the revolutionary possibilities of such anger. However, that revolutionary possibility is shown to be unstable, as the interviewee loses her cool and curses on camera, a strict violation of the rules of broadcast television.
There is another interviewee who reinforces this point of view, and that’s the environmentalist. The audience can assume she’s an environmentalist because she’s shown riding a bicycle in car happy Los Angles. In case the bicycle wasn’t enough, she’s shot in front of a parking lot for emphasis. Her point is that it’s human trafficking, and that it is repulsive. Again however, being aware of the situation and having a moral stance on it doesn’t seem to be enough. Much like riding a bicycle in the smoggiest city in America, her single informed stance doesn’t seem to be enough, just a drop in the bucket. Of all the interviewees, she’s the one most like the young Caroline the viewer is introduced to in the next episode. Caroline is also depicted as a young, angry protestor. Her attack on Rossum is what gets her brought into the dollhouse.
Young Caroline is a character the audience only gets to see occasionally, but from the first time she appears in the series, on a tape Alpha sends to Paul Ballard, she’s shown as the angry rebellious youth. In direct contrast to Topher’s frat boy bro-isms, Caroline sarcastically tells a campus sorority to enjoy their venereal diseases. In the episode “Echoes” Caroline hosts a party and via voiceover calls Rossum, depicted in a family friendly ad, evil. There’s no ambiguity in Caroline’s world, Rossum is wearing the black hats and she feels it is her mission to bring them down.
There’s a Rilo Kiley song playing in the background of this scene which sheds light on Caroline’s motivation. One of the lyrics is “I keep on talking trash but I never say anything”. Caroline and both of the interviewees talk speak ill of Rossum, but to what end? The song goes on to say that the talking leads to touching, and so on, as this song is about a bad love, but in the context of Dollhouse, it shows the futility of the actions Caroline is about to take. Direction action is where all the ill talk leads, but the action is bad news. Caroline ultimately won’t survive it, and doesn’t take down Rossum because of it. Her growth has to come from understanding the complexity of an organization like Rossum, rather than hacking at Rossum’s feet, she needs to grow to understand the beneficial role someone as motivated as she is can play. Caroline’s finest moment comes when, as Echo, she provides a place known as Safe Haven for those resisting the spread of the apocalypse.
Caroline, now Echo, finds her position supported by fellow actives Victor and Sierra, and also by rogue FBI agent Paul Ballard. Echo and Ballard have a fight scene in “Man on the Street” and unsurprisingly neither is portrayed as the victim. Echo’s line that she’s counting on Ballard not wanting to hurt her are telling, even though the scene is violent the intent is not for either of them to win. The moments right before the act break show Echo disarming Ballard and grabbing a knife, ratcheting down the possibility of a fatal wound. Echo’s goal takes a while to unwrap intself, and gets tangled with Alpha’s goals for the both of them, but ultimately the idea is to put Ballard in the same situation Caroline found herself in, having attacked the dollhouse, lost, and forced to work from within. Anger from the outside is shown as futile, while submitting to those in power and working from within has greater potential.
The professor toward the end of “Man on the Street” gets depicted as the point of view with the most authority. He’s presented wearing a suit, well framed by the camera, with a black board full of brain pictures behind him. He starts by saying, “forget morality” and this is further reinforced when he says that everything you believe will be gone; not everything you know or everything you remember, but everything you believe. The most trustworthy source is telling the audience that the most tragic thing about the dollhouse is the lack of moral agency. He’s also the first character in the series to point out the fact that the tech used in the dollhouse is going to cause the apocalypse. Quite plainly he states that everything that makes you who you are will be wiped away on a whim, and that such technology will be abused. It will be global, the the professor states, and most importantly, we will be over.
There is another interviewee that gets to wear the tie of authority, who’s shown standing in front of a metro station. In fact, he’s surrounded by public services, there’s a postal truck, a bus stop, and a public bathroom all in the background. His position seems a better fit with the angry commentators from earlier on, but his anger is not the point this time but rather it takes from the impact of her actual point. Returning to the public services, the framing of the shot strongly suggests this is a man incapable of supporting himself, possibly a man with socialist leanings, but definitely a man who would be despised in an increasingly privatized American society. His anger is not directed at the dollhouse, but at a public which seems not to care about the greater implications of the technology. When the camera pulls in, we see a pen tucked in behind his ear, his beard is unkempt, and his tie is lose. This is a man who knows something, but almost looks crazy from professing the truth repeatedly and having no one listen.
In Dollhouse’s world, Boyd gets to be the professor. Boyd, and his predecessor as Head of Security Mr. Dominic are the chief authority figures in the house. They are always shown wearing a suit, as are the handlers but the handlers answer to the head of security. It’s Langton Boyd, however, who gets to shepherd Echo through the entire series. He’s the one who encourages Echo to develop moral agency, giving her a keycard allowing her greater access to the house, and ignoring Ballard’s attempts to help her remember. Oddly his character grows by ignoring Echo’s humanity. For much of the series, like the professor, he’s simply content to stand back and watch, knowing full well the events taking place were leading to global catastrophe. It comes to be that Caroline has a special anti-body inside of her, and it’s that property which can save the world. Boyd, ever the realist, sees this as a way to protect his “family”, acknowledging that the rest of the world is hard out of luck. This tragic oversight is his undoing, as none of his family was willing to join him on his island while the rest of the world went to hell.
Mr. Dominic on the other hand has his fate foreshadowed by the disheveled professor. From his position of power, Dominic is able to learn much about the inner workings of the dollhouse, and rather than see the bigger picture of where things are headed, he’s convinced that he’s seen it all and knows that it is bad. He takes matters into his own hands attacking Echo while on engagements, and he feeds secrets back to the NSA, a government organization. Rather than becoming a person of authority, he turns himself into a pest for Rossum, and as such is dealt with by Adele DeWitt, but that doesn’t stop his peskynes. Dramatically, it is Mr. Dominic who tells Echo while they’re in the Attic of the true nature of the dream space they’re inhabiting, and it’s also Mr. Dominic who breaks out of the attic to warn Echo that Rossum is on to them.
There are two other interviewees from “Man on the Street” who were not analyzed in the main body of the essay as the threads they represent are not picked up main characters in the show, rather they seem to apply to supporting roles. There is a young woman, standing on a street corner, tastefully dressed in pearls. She’s not “Hollywood beautiful” which was a label unfairly thrust upon Miracle Laurie who played Mellie, nee November. The interviewee is shown giggly as she thinks about the secret fantasy she would act out if there were “no consequences”. While this obviously falls into the dollhouse is great category, her domestic attire is reminiscent of Mellie’s portrayal early in the series, and her giddiness over potential sex foreshadows Mellie and Paul sleeping together later in the episode. Also, unlike the other interviewees, her statement of “no consequences” mirrors Mellie’s protesting that she will be so cool when Paul admits sleeping together was a huge mistake.
I’m pretty sure the old man is the new Cheese Man, Joss just had to put someone in there that didn’t mean anything.
There were three main threads in the “Man on the Street” testimonials and those three threads got played out throughout the show’s run. Like many other “plays within a play”, this small moment shed light on the greater themes going on throughout Dollhouse. Ultimately, none of these threads wins out: Topher goes mad, Echo’s fight is eternal, and Boyd doesn’t save anyone. That’s the beauty of Dollhouse, it doesn’t try to provide neat answers to a truly grand scale issue. Just like in life, there isn’t a right answer or a solution, just more thoughts to juggle as we carry on.