Dollhouse: “The Hollow Men”

In another world, Dollhouse is one of the best and most significant TV sf series ever made. In our world … well, we got what we got. It’s still Whedon’s most ambitious and provocative metaphoric construct, but rather deeply flawed; something of a stitched-together monster shambling towards the finish line. The second half of the show’s second season is, though only “fast” by the glacial standards of most American serial television, rather inelegant; as with Serenity, you can see where they’d have stretched things out, given more time (that “three months later” was a dead giveaway), and where compression has prevented them from dotting every narrative i and crossing every t. And, perhaps most damaging, there’s a lack of attentiveness to the givens of the original premise, the pervasive, corrosive suffering that comes from treating identity as a commodity, in favour of Excitement. (Of course the show was never all that attentive to such things; but less and less as time has gone on, I feel.)

So we come to “The Hollow Men”, which wraps up the present-day thread of the story with Our Heroes taking out Rossum’s HQ, and at this point if you don’t buy into the underlying argument being developed, things really have become somewhat incoherent. But thematically it’s all there. The story we have been watching, the story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow), turns out to be a story told by the villain, all the characters – dolls like Whiskey and originals like Topher alike – dancing to his tune, as they have had dolls dancing to theirs. And said villain himself isn’t exactly a free agent, rather running scared of the brainpocalypse, trying on the one hand to bridle the technology he’s brought into the world, to delay the inevitable, and on the other to create an escape route. It’s for the latter that he tells his story, constructing the “specialness” of Caroline and of Echo out of his own obsession, which of course makes it meaningless – hollow – a closed loop. So the confirmation that the genie is out of the bottle is predictable, but worthwhile, the last nail in the coffin of Echo-as-saviour. Nobody in Dollhouse is free; society is the shambling beast, working out its death knells through the characters. The slingshot of the last two minutes takes us ten years into the chaotic, dystopian future, the setting for “Epitaph Two” which will (presumably) provide some mitigation of all this bleakness; although I for one hope that it calibrates the amount of consolation it provides very carefully.

7 thoughts on “Dollhouse: “The Hollow Men”

  1. This is a much more persuasive version of your reading than the one we were discussing yesterday, but I think that’s mainly because I like the show you’re describing here better than the show we actually got. I find the second season not so much stitched as cobbled together, and have grave doubts that the themes you identify, much less the plot twists that (aspire to) deliver them, were there from the start.

    All of which is to say that I agree that Dollhouse is the most ambitious thing Whedon has ever done, but that given how artlessly executed it was, a little less ambition might suit him, and me, much better.

  2. I think it was Roz Kaveney I first saw call the idea that the Dollhouse staff would turn out to be as much manipulated as manipulators, though she thought the revelation would come at the end of the first season. So that, at least, I’m confident was there from the start. I think I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on Boyd — they may not have firmed up his role exactly, but I am quite willing to believe they knew he was a Rossum plant of some kind from the start. I’d be interested to know who the first person to use the word “special” with respect to Echo was …

  3. Have you seen “Epitaph One”, Niall? I think it’s made quite clear in that episode that Echo/Caroline is STILL the savior of mankind, even if she wasn’t able to keep the brainpocalypse from happening. So Boyd was right about her all along.

    Regarding the Boyd plot twist, Tim Minear has said that it was thought up in early season 2, so it was definitely not part of the series plan from the beginning. Personally, I hated it, and find it fundamentally flawed in terms of both character and theme.

    They have really missed the landing on this show, which is a pity.

  4. Character I can see, but how do you find it thematically flawed? Or rather: what do you think the theme of the show is, that this doesn’t fit?

  5. A big theme in many of the episodes is the way the corporate profit motive trumps individual initiative or morality. The “Boyd as evil mastermind” plot throws that away to go for a clichéd “one bad apple” theme instead. (And not only is he evil, he’s also crazy!) Kind of a fictional version of the story the Bush administration tried to sell about Abu Ghraib. Grrrr!

    Sorry, but I was really excited about the potential for this show, so I am upset about how it’s ending.

  6. Except that it doesn’t work — not Boyd’s plan, nor the plan to stop Rossum (and the technology) by cutting off its head — surely?

  7. The second plan didn’t work because apparently even Topher, IT genius, couldn’t figure out that blowing up a single mainframe wouldn’t destroy the data stored on a world-spanning computer network. This is partly dumb writing, and partly a reflection of the fundamental despair at the heart of the show. The bad writing contributed to it being a bad episode, but the despair does fit with the theme I mentioned above.

    However, the first plan is still completely at odds with it. It’s not just Boyd’s ridiculously convoluted attempts to produce an imprinting immunization drug; more fundamentally, it’s that he was fully aware of where the tech could lead for some time, and still actively worked to achieve it so he and his “family” could come out on top once society fell to pieces.

    The way the “evil mastermind” speech was written, it sure seems like the narrative explanation for Boyd’s behavior is that he is crazy. There are shades of selfishness, sure, but when most of the plot of Dollhouse can be boiled down to, “Some wacked out villain from a James Bond movie made it happen,” any pretense of societal relevance flies out the window. Or at least, I think so.

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