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July 14 2009

"Dollhouse is fundamentally a drama of isolation". Alyssa Rosenberg, author of the Dollhouse critique 'Joss Whedon and the Real Girl', writes about how the sixth episode changed her view of the show.

The theme of 'in the end, you're all alone' is consistent throughout BtVS -- despite the Scoobie Gang's teamwork -- so I guess this is in keeping with Joss's outlook.
I don't know if I'd say "in the end, you're all alone" is really the theme, or Joss's outlook. The isolation and alienation is always held in tension with a solid community, whether it be Buffy's realization that her decisions are her own, or Mal's confession that "we all die alone." Both are alienated from their societies and their friends even as they draw on their close-knit family-like structures for support. I'm not sure how I'd phrase that in a pithy manner, but I guess "alienation within community" is more the theme. It's very present in Dollhouse as well, with Echo very much alone in the middle of what is, in fact, a very tight community.

I think this is Joss's organizing principle. It's always about the drop of angst in the ocean of love. Though, admittedly, the ocean of love in Dollhouse is tiny. Even tainted itself. Yeah, Dollhouse is far more complicated...

I'm not saying you're wrong, only that "in the end, you're all alone" is really only half the story.

[ edited by ern on 2009-07-14 17:15 ]
Having to deal with what's in your own head, and the understanding that you can't really know what's in someone else's becomes the context in which we make connections despite those inherent limitations and challenges. Isolation prompts the seeking out of other isolateds. Fundamentally, though, that's just about biding the time until "in the end, you're all alone", because in the end, you are.

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2009-07-14 17:23 ]
This was not the point that Buffy, at its end, was driving home. It was that it is possible to share power and to work together, not alone. That's what made it compelling in S7, when Buffy, who was alone for so long, realized this and Willow actuated it.
It's probably safe to say that there were multiple points made in BtVS. I don't think you can look at the very last episode or two and ignore, say, Buffy/Riley, the whole of S6, and even much of S7 (Buffy struggling with her leadership role, Giles being not-so-trustworthy), etc.

"Happy Scooby family teamwork" and "in the end, you are alone" aren't even incompatible themes, I think. There's a lot of truth in both.
The series offers both points, I think, and even alternates between the importance of being able to rely on yourself and the importance of being able to rely on others. In season two the Scoobies are so scattered that she has to face Angel alone; in season three the entire high school graduating class goes up against the Mayor. Adam is so self-sufficient that he can't understand teamwork and is defeated by the Scoobies joining together; Glory is so dependent on others that Buffy's willingness to act in self-sacrificing ways alone (it's a team effort, of course, but Buffy makes the decision to jump alone). Even in season seven, Buffy can only get the scythe alone, even though she then decides to share it. It's a constant struggle to deal with isolation, and it's important to be able to fight alone when you have to, even if the ultimate message of the series still points out the importance of the community over the lone Western hero.
One of the aspects of Dollhouse that excited me in Season 1 was the generative connections drawn between all of these articulations of self. While some are more obviously manufactured (printy did his job well), many have argued that the notion of an original or essential self is a dangerous fallacy. I loved Echo's progression of integration - she wasn't going back to a default state of her pre-DH self, but rather becoming someone new with each experience. I would agree that Buffy was cloaked in isolation, up until Season 7 (good observation Dana5140). Strangely, DH, for me, is much more hopeful.
While some are more obviously manufactured (printy did his job well), many have argued that the notion of an original or essential self is a dangerous fallacy.

I dunno, to me the "essential self" is built into the premise of 'Dollhouse'. As we see in 'Omega', and from the start i've seen Echo's existence itself as confirming the "soul" i.e. she persists and so by extension there's something there to persist (it's telling to me that Topher is the biggest mocker of the idea of a soul - even in the non-religious, "essential self" sense that atheist Joss probably means it - since throughout the series one of the very few things we've been able to rely on is that Topher is, to a first approximation, wrong about everything).

Don't agree with some of it (e.g. Eliza Dushku not managing the variations since that was one of the more pleasant surprises of season 1 for me - yep, I was a Dushku doubter and i'm happy to admit I was dead wrong) but I think there's something to the isolation idea and the point about becoming aware of losing yourself and how you deal with it, again as in 'Omega' and .

I agree/hope that we'll see more of that (it was touched on in 'Angel', looks like it's being expanded on in 'Dollhouse' and it does feel adult to me since it's sort of analogous to having to set aside your dreams and aspirations as life happens to you. Or maybe at you is more apt, sure feels that way sometimes ;).
I see your point, Saje. But it almost seems like the accumulated self - who Echo is constantly becoming - is denied when we privilege the 'real her'. This may be my desire for the show's direction, and am therefore actively engaging certain ideas where the contrary is clearly present!
Another great quote on this dichotomy comes from the last song in OMWF:

"Understand we'll go hand in hand,
But we'll walk alone in fear."

We join a team for comfort but still harbor fears in isolation.
But then we have River as an example of how it might be to not be isolated enough. Though I guess with River it wasn't really her (psychic) connectedness per se that was the problem it was being forced to connect, whether she wanted to or not.

Ultimately (if you don't believe in an afterlife) we all do die alone, Mal's right. There might be other people there but if they're not in our head experiencing our last experience along with us then we're alone.

But it almost seems like the accumulated self - who Echo is constantly becoming - is denied when we privilege the 'real her'. This may be my desire for the show's direction, and am therefore actively engaging certain ideas where the contrary is clearly present!

Yeah haney-hop, I agree that the "accumulated self" (like that phrase BTW) is denied but to me the show seems to be saying that the accumulated self actually is less important than the "real her" (which isn't a point of view that makes much sense to me in the real world BTW though i'm happy to accept it, up to a point, in fiction).

Must admit that's one area i'm really interested to see develop in season 2 because it's always struck me as a contradiction in Joss' largely liberal perspective - liberalism is surely founded on the idea that experience matters that through it we can grow and change at a fundamental level BUT this idea of an "essential self" (especially one elevated above our accumulated, experiential selves) seems to fly in the face of that. And where Buffy and Angel, having a supernatural basis, allowed for dualism and souls being separate from bodies and so on, 'Dollhouse' seems ideally positioned to dig a bit deeper into the issue within more realistic constraints (because in the real world - which 'Dollhouse' is seemingly set in - it seems to me that the idea of an "us" separate from our bodies and - especially - experiences is basically meaningless).


ETR a 'then'

[ edited by Saje on 2009-07-14 23:11 ]
When I think of Buffy through Firefly, I get far more of a friendship vibe. When Buffy was in full blown superiority-complex mode is when she tended to do things that were rather self destructive. As a result, she isolated herself when she didn't need to. I don't think that's what Joss was endorsing, rather showing a natural disposition of certain people to engage in that sort of thinking, especially when they do believe the world is counting on them.

I actually thought the "essential self" may have been an instance of Joss needing a story telling device rather than a philosophical stance. I only say that because I'm not sure what science he's actually relying on for that kind of claim. And if he's building a mythology for the show, he's already created depression, violent, sweetness, and innocence as "programmable" so I'm not sure how why someone's super-ego would mysteriously remain partially intact. Or why the extremely specific act of cutting people would somehow be a genetic need for that matter... That skirts a little too close to the black and white morality of vampires in Buffy.
Yeah, in 'Dollhouse' it's pretty much a necessary device - without it the original trailer question of "But can you wipe away a soul ?" would be "Yes, yes you can" and that's it, no persistence, no Echo, no show. There're workarounds (Echo could still survive just because the technology's not good enough for instance i.e. her "soul" might not be essential but more just a lucky break because Topher's machine doesn't wipe people quite as well as he thinks) but it'd be amazing if the creators could find a way to subvert (or at least bring into question) the "essential self" thing even though the show seems to fundamentally require it.

That said, if it's just a device it's one that seems to crop up in most/all of Joss' fiction (his characters develop but the idea of a soul or at least of "something" that drives them when they've apparently lost everything else, as with Mal, is sprinkled through Buffy, Angel, Firefly and even going back to e.g. Alien:Resurrection where Ripley thinks about throwing her lot in with the Aliens but ultimately retains enough of her "Ripleyness" to embrace the human aspect of her DNA fusion). Which makes me think it's either a "myth" Joss believes is just necessary to telling heroic stories (i.e. that part of being a hero is fighting against the loss of self) OR it's something he thinks is actually true.
I dunno, to me the "essential self" is built into the premise of 'Dollhouse'. As we see in 'Omega', even composite/integrated Echo "just knows" that none of her aspects are the "real her" and from the start i've seen Echo's existence itself as confirming the "soul" i.e. she persists and so by extension there's something there to persist

I think that definitely seemed to be what Omega was saying. But I'm going to wait and see. There was an interview with Craft and Fain a little while back and the interviewer said something like 'and the apparent answer the show gives is that people have souls'. And one of them said (something like) 'well, yes, the apparent answer - but then there's episode 13'.

it's telling to me that Topher is the biggest mocker of the idea of a soul - even in the non-religious, "essential self" sense that atheist Joss probably means it - since throughout the series one of the very few things we've been able to rely on is that Topher is, to a first approximation, wrong about everything

Not really convinced by that. Topher seems a pretty clear stand-in for Joss and the writers and Joss has said as much himself. When Topher was dismissive of the idea of souls ('I'll leave you guys to your God stuff') I thought the show was presenting it as a reasonable viewpoint rather that saying 'that's exactly what Topher would say.'
I tend to agree with haney-hop that Dollhouse is actually not answering the trailer question ""But can you wipe away a soul?" as a Yes/No-Question. Echo's journey through season 1 did touch upon and recall Caroline (thereby invoking some soul-essentialism), but it also made clear in "Omega" that she and Wendy are two different people.

So, as I see it, the show argued that while there is something left of the past in all of us (Alpha is also an example of that point), our constant struggle in the world is to piece ourselves together from all the various experiences and layers we encounter throughout the life, even as they seem very sloppy, removable, wipeable. So, while the show is constantly undermining Topher's abilities and the imprint chair through Echo's awakening and Alpha's technological anomaly, I ended up being very assured that Topher is right: That chair is the premise of the show. They didn't negate it's effect in the end (which a soul-essentialistic POV would kinda want to do). The relativity of identity it evokes (and that sad confusion that it brings with it) is not the Big Bad of the show, the abuse is.

There was an interview with Craft and Fain a little while back and the interviewer said something like 'and the apparent answer the show gives is that people have souls'. And one of them said (something like) 'well, yes, the apparent answer - but then there's episode 13'.


I don't recall that interview, but I would be happy to read it. You got a link? :)
I cannot agree with Dana5140 about Buffy. For me, Season 7 ends with her more alone than ever. When I was watching Chosen's last scene for the first time, with all that dialogue-noises of everyone saying nonsenses about the collapsed mall all around, and the girls asking "What do we do?", I remember my hubby mumbling "you son of a b_". And he was speaking about Joss, obviously. It still creeps me out, how you can tell something without actually saying it through a dialogue. Yes, a lone journey has ended, but another lone journey has just started and it's even worse _as we can see in the first issue of the S08 comic books, when Buffy, after passing by everyone working, arrives at the castle tower, alone as usual, and thinks "I miss my mom [...]. And I miss that sex". You have read four pages and The Big Topic shows up again.

It is true that all characters in the Whedonverse cope with this loneliness in different shades, although I see Echo's story more focused in the journey of self-discovery, which will be her journey to freedom eventually.
It's still difficult to see exactly what point Joss is trying to make in Dollhouse. Sure, we've gotten the point that the Dollhouse can't really wipe away a person's soul. But we got that in the final moment of the first episode. It's just the first step. Whatever broader commentary Joss is going to make about community/individual identity, etc. is not going to be clear until later, though we can see the outlines of it right now.

But it's important to understand that Joss gives no final answers. It's always more complicated than that. And I like the shows specifically because Joss doesn't give pat answers and recognizes that real life doesn't give them. Joss's character's lives are messy and complicated just like ours. Some things "meant to be" don't happen. If there is any singular message in Joss's shows is that shit happens and you move on, changed for the better (or worse), but changed nonetheless.

It's basic narrative, actually. Getting your characters from one place to another. It's amazing, but not all TV writers seem to grasp that. Joss does.
I'm not sure how I'd phrase that in a pithy manner, but I guess "alienation within community" is more the theme ....

That's pretty succinct, ern, I couldn't agree more.

This was not the point that Buffy, at its end, was driving home. It was that it is possible to share power and to work together, not alone. That's what made it compelling in S7, when Buffy, who was alone for so long, realized this and Willow actuated it.
Dana5140 | July 14, 17:33 CET

I agree Dana - but then, I don't read the comics (just can't get into the format). But even without following the continuing story, I can also understand ........

I cannot agree with Dana5140 about Buffy. For me, Season 7 ends with her more alone than ever.
Small Blue Thing | July 15, 11:41 CET


Such is the genius of Joss in dichotomy land. ;)

Loved the article, except I disagree that Eliza wasn't up to the task of taking on so many different personalities. I think, with a couple of minor mis-steps, she did a brilliant job.
Such is the genius of Joss in dichotomy land. ;)
Shey | July 15, 13:35 CET


Amen! XDDD

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