Sunday, January 03, 2010

Dollhouse: One scene from Season 2

Bad idea to begin a post by discouraging people to keep reading, but I want to analyse a particular scene in the first episode of Dollhouse, Season Two. So, yes this post contains

SPOILERS

IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN ALL OF DOLLHOUSE: SEASON ONE, YOU PROBABLY DON'T WANT TO READ MUCH FURTHER.



The centrepiece of this first episode is a conversation between Topher (the genius who designs and uploads the artificial personalities into people's brains) and Dr Saunders, who has recently discovered that she isn't real - that she is in fact one of these artificial personalities.

I love this scene for three reasons:

1. It's long
2. It introduces a big idea that gets explored throughout the rest of the season
3. There are clear changes between the start of the scene and the end (in both emotion and character).


The scene begins as a seductive confrontation. Saunders (who despises Topher) tries to overcome her programming and make love to him. In the process of doing this, she acts like a doll, trying to be her best - basically adopting the role of everything she hates. Which raises the question of 'why'. Why is she doing this.

The scene immediately answers that, dancing through a complex series of beats that climax in Saunders identifying Topher as God. After all, he created her with a specific series of qualities. He obviously had a 'divine plan' in mind. Why should she fight it?

The next section of the scene is great: as Topher explains why he designed Saunders the way he did, there's the resonance of God explaining himself to his creation. Anyway, Topher resists Saunder's take on the situation. He tells her that he programmed Saunders to question and challenge him, not hate him. Saunders has chosen to do that.

It's a good end-point to the scene: identifying that Saunders has free will and she chose to hate Topher. A nice emotional twist that reveals a truth about a character. But the scene continues, and the material it begins to explore opens up a whole new dimension of understanding what 'Dollhouse' is really about.

That's the first reason I love this scene. It's unafraid to spend time with these two characters and dig into the hearts of what they're about, what's driving them, and what they're afraid of. Sure it's a little 'tell, don't show', a little theatrical. But screw it: I like plays.

So, the scene continues with Saunders wanting to know how she can continue living, knowing that that she's not even real, knowing that everything about what she is and who created her disgusts her.

But when Topher offers to give Saunders back her original personality, Saunders refuses.
And she refuses because she doesn't want to die. "I'm in someone else's body, and I'm afraid to give it up."

And that's the big idea that this season introduces: these artificial identities think of themselves as real. These 'imprints' have their own existence, their own drive for survival. It's an idea that's expanded on in the next episode, 'Vows', which features the first entirely successful (at least to me) assignment-of-the-week episode, and subsequent episodes dive into the concept whole-heartedly.

One of the reasons I admire love Dollhouse is that it's a show about big ideas that haven't been fully explored on TV before. A 13-part season is just about big enough to (a) explore the idea of self-preservation in people who know they aren't real, and (b) throw in an enormous amount of patented Whedon-esque plot twists and character reveals.

Finally the scene ends with this recognition: that Saunders knows she isn't real but doesn't want to give up her body to the personality it originally belonged to. And it ends with Topher appreciating the enormity of her problem. The scene moves from seduction to isolation, and from Topher being glib to being to move into another phase of his character arc.
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