Let’s talk a little about Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt.
In recent weeks, I’ve been a little surprised with two things. I’ve been surprised with just how complex Adelle’s motivations have become and how little hand-holding “Dollhouse” has done to explain this to us (indeed, sometimes TOO LITTLE hand-holding, which almost never happens on network TV). And I’ve been surprised with how little buzz there is around the character among the few people still buzzing about “Dollhouse.” When it was announced that Joss Whedon’s latest series had landed Williams to play the mysterious head of the Dollhouse, this was seen as a great coup. And yet, even though Williams is turning in work this season that should land her on Emmy’s short list, she almost never gets the big praise from critics or fans. Perhaps that’s because the writing of the character is so cagey, playing to the actress’ strengths at only letting out raw emotion after just too much of it gets pent-up. Perhaps it’s because Adelle does some bad, bad things. Or perhaps it’s because it’s just easier to empathize with the Dolls. But make no mistake: DeWitt is an evil woman, doing evil things, but for complicated and understandable reasons. And that’s hard to do well (much less play) on a weekly TV series.
[Full recap of the “Stop Loss” hour of Friday’s (Dec. 18) “Dollhouse” double-bill after the break…]
“Stop Loss,” which is an intriguing episode of “Dollhouse” conceptually but falls apart on a few execution levels (perhaps because this was when the show’s budget started to run low), is not only a showcase for the endlessly reinventive Enver Gjokaj as Victor, who finally gets his origin story (he being the last of the main Dolls to not have one), but also for Williams. And with Dichen Lachman’s Sierra being the key to rescuing Victor from the new hell he’s found himself in, the story becomes something of a love triangle as well. Adelle is someone who does very bad things and doesn’t seem to feel too many compunctions about doing them in the moment, but we’ve also grasped a sense of how she came to this position, who she was before Rossum entered her life. There’s been a rueful sense to most of Adelle’s scenes this season as she gradually gets backed into a corner of her own making and has to side with people she is fairly certain will eventually destroy her. In the show’s increasingly political universe, she’s like a senator who can see bad things coming long-term but knows that he can only act short-term. In some ways (and to completely change metaphors), she’s becoming the show’s Cassandra, only playing for the bad guys.
This is a love triangle, of course, because Adelle’s lover is Roger, who is actually Victor imprinted with a specific personality, someone she keeps engaging, even though she knows she mustn’t. The episode opens with the two having a tryst, only to find it interrupted by Roger’s insistence that he’s met someone else, even though he can’t explain who she is. Realizing that it’s Victor, on some level, being in love with Sierra, Adelle becomes more relieved at another prospect that’s stressing her out: Victor’s time is up, and it’s soon going to be the time for him to return to his former life as an ex-soldier named Anthony. Anthony fought in Afghanistan, suffered from PTSD and was turned over to the Dollhouse, presumably by the military (or, at least, the show has strongly hinted at this). They cured his PTSD and gave him a five-year break from the world that had let him down. But almost the first thing Anthony asks when he comes to again is whether the war is still going on, and Topher (Fran Kranz) can only acknowledge that, yeah, it is.
It’s entirely possible I’m reading too many politics into “Dollhouse,” but the series increasingly feels like it might be Whedon’s most political work. Whedon has always been engaged with issues like the inequality of women in the workplace or the abortion debate, but always through metaphor and always, always obliquely (to the point where the final season of “Buffy” was occasionally cited by right-wing columnists in the build-up to the Iraq War, using her quotes to rally her troops to fight the First Evil to parallel George W. Bush’s attempts to rally us to fight Saddam Hussein). “Dollhouse” didn’t dabble too much in politics outside of the broad, general strokes of the idea that human trafficking is a great evil or that people should not be slaves (both prospects hopefully all Americans can agree with) in the first season, but the second season has increasingly become a frustrated shout from people who increasingly feel powerless in the face of dehumanizing forces. Anthony wants to know if the war in Afghanistan is still going on, but, in a way, he’s all of us. We’ve all sort of willfully forgotten a lot of terrible things that have happened in this country and this world in the last decade (quick; when’s the last time you thought about the 2004 tsunami?). That’s the way these things work, but some are so awful and yet still ongoing that to forget, to grow complacent is rather like being a Doll in some senses. It’s just easier when you can pretend everything’s fine and dandy over in Iraq or that the rebuilding after Katrina is mostly going OK.
As if that weren’t enough, “Stop Loss” incorporates the dangers of military group think, corporations engaging in shady research and military contractors who don’t care about anything but the bottom line, all hot button issues from the last five years (or, roughly, how long Victor’s been out). Granted, a lot of these are threaded through a story that has many clumsy moments. Hive minds are an old science fiction concept, and when used well, they’re fascinating. But the hive mind here feels sort of perfunctory, like a way to try to tell a metaphorical story about soldiers who’ve lost their way that never rises above metaphor. In addition, that Rossum is making a hive mind army while simultaneously developing technology to imprint any person with any personality feels a little cheap. Are there no other evil corporations? Need we have this many science fiction concepts in one episode?
Whedon’s fascinated by the idea of the unimpregnable fortress being broken into. He’s used a variation on the concept on each of his series (sometimes more than once), and this is his “Dollhouse” variation on the idea, featuring Echo downloading with soldier schematics to take out the hive mind army, plenty of gun play and some pretty sweet hand-to-hand combat. But the overall arc of the story feels a little too easy. Of COURSE Anthony’s going to choke Priya (for that is whom Echo has loaded up Sierra with) at the act break and then realize he loves her afterward. Of COURSE Echo’s going to get into the hive mind and break it up. It’s all a little too predictable for a Whedon show.
Better, then, are the early scenes of Anthony trying to deal with living on the outside, with not only leaving the Dollhouse but also the Army. Both are collectives that try to sand away individual members’ individuality in the pursuit of single-minded goals. Both are places where the bonds formed between those individuals end up being unexpectedly powerful. Witness, for example, how Anthony is able to get his former friend to stand down by making him realize who he is, just as Priya did for him moments ago. And both can leave their members searching for purpose after leaving. Gjokaj is one of the best actors in this talented cast, and the moments where he wandered around his apartment looking for something to do and finally went to sleep in his shower early in the episode were striking.
But there are other places that can make you feel less like a person than like a cog in a machine. One of those places, famously, is the big, faceless corporation, and popular entertainment has been making entertainment out of trying to deal with being a cog since it was invented. So, in that way, even Adelle’s story mirrors Anthony and Sierra’s. She’s a woman who’s falling apart, having gained control of her house, only to utterly lose it to Echo, someone she simultaneously respects and hates and someone she finally decides to send to the Attic. She’s a woman who’s slowly realizing that everything she holds dear is not necessarily true, that she can’t even really rely on herself to do the right thing instead of the most expedient thing. One of the things Whedon and Eliza Dushku said when initially promoting the show is that we’re all Dolls, that we all show different personalities to different people. While I don’t know that that makes us Dolls, the story of Adelle is making the show’s best argument for that point yet. You may think you’re free, but you’re always being shaped by forces beyond your control, whether you acknowledge it or not.
Some other thoughts:
*** The show’s conception of The Attic – long, plastic tables partially filled with water and then plastic wrap stretched over your form until you look like an action figure encased in the packaging – is one of the best low-budget TV visuals I’ve seen in a while. It’s the sort of thing you could throw together convincingly in your garage for $50. Provided you didn’t die from suffocating yourself, that is.
*** I’m surprised how much I buy Topher’s joining up with Boyd and Echo to take out the house. I didn’t think I would at first, but knowing how he turns out (from “Epitaph One”) is going a long way toward showing just how powerful the guilt he feels is growing. I also like his assistant being brought in on the plan.
*** That said, I don’t care about Ballard.
*** Favorite series of shots: Echo’s about to set Anthony and Priya free in the desert, so they can begin their life together, when she and Anthony are felled by a surge running through their group mind implants, noses trickling blood. Cut, immediately, to an off-kilter, low-angle shot of Adelle striding through the Dollhouse. She may be losing control, but she still has it at the same time. Nicely done.