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February 05 2010

"Heroes and Villains": another take on Dollhouse's second season. From her blog Asking the Wrong Questions, blogger Abigail Nussbaum critiques season two and the show as a whole, focussing on what she considers to be shifts away from some of the more intriguing elements of the first season. Spoilers for the entire series.

Her (more positive) post, "Alpha and Omega" regarding "Echo" and "Epitaph One" was previously linked on Whedonesque.

Very interesting and in many ways fair. It would be nice if she had acknowledged some of the positive shifts between S1 and S2 though. Different strengths, different weaknesses.
I was uninterested in the plot twists in the last part of the series (post-cancellation), but I thought the questioning of various kinds of identity was still very much first and foremost in the actual concerns of the series; Whedon did have trouble integrating that with the necessary plot twists to bring about the Apocalypse, but it was I thought obvious that identity, and objectification of humans, were the primary concerns of the series, and the plot was just there to showcase those concerns.

Arguably S1 is more obviously "feminist", but only because the objectification of woman as dolls in S1 becomes the objectification of every human being except the few on top in S2: thus showing the logical endpoint of a world in which feminism is not taken seriously.

Agreed, absolutely, that what we got in the last half of S2 was not the story but the storyboard; the Cliff's Notes on the story Whedon meant to tell if he'd had 7 years to tell it. And I think if he had had that time we would not have got the same story in a lot of respects - but all of them plot, not essential concerns. I mean, Boyd wouldn't have been the Big Bad, the world wouldn't have been so easily divided into black and white, but construction of identity, and objectification, would still have been the central agenda.
I'm kind of inclined to agree, to an extent. My favorite episodes of Dollhouse haven't been the ones that have raised the most plot twists, but the ones that have made commentary on human sexuality, especially female sexuality. While I really appreciate that the storylines were closed off, I can't help but feel sorry that we never really got to see the full transformation of a woman with no real life of her own imprinted with sexual fantasies of the rich and powerful into her own woman (we saw an abbreviated version, of course, but it could have been so much more palpable). That metaphor in itself would have made the show one of the great, IMO.

I still love the show though.
People have said a lot of that on here but it's well put and more coherent (because it's from one author rather than 8,195 ;). I will say that I think most of the problems she levels at "season 2" are actually only problems of the latter half of season 2 - the first half maintained the ambiguity of the characters (particularly Adelle) and didn't feel rushed to me. I also don't agree "Epitaph Two: Return" (there's no 'The' AFAIK, much as it might seem like there should be) was cluttered, to me it flowed very naturally considering how much it had to do.

And I completely second her recommendation of 'Altered Carbon' BTW, great "What if ?" sci-fi with some themes in common with 'Dollhouse' (the whole trilogy's good but 'Altered Carbon', being the first book in that world, feels fresher and tighter).
Agreed on many points of the article's author. I liked the questions Dollhouse claimed it would raise, and in some cases did, others barely scratched the surface. I feel with more time and less of a dependance on Epitaph 1, we would have had a much better ride if given more time to come full circle and hit all the points about identity and humanity before the techpocolypse. I did not help that in the final hours, the fun greyer areas of the earlier episodes were gone, and we were more very clearly told "he is bad, she is good". Not 100% black and white, but more up there than expected from Joss. I'm glad this was posted, it's been something bugging me since a few days after the finale, but didn't want to bring up in a week old post.
I do agree with some of the author's points but recognise, as she does, that many of the compromises were not helped by the truncated timeframe.

However, I do think it's worth noting also that the moral ambiguity of the characters was a turn off for a fair percentage of the fanbase. I don't include myself in that number but I'm not about to start selecting how others enjoy themes either.

On another point I second (third?) her recommendation of "Altered Carbon" but would point comic book fans in the direction of the two "Black Widow" graphic novels by the same author, which really deliver the programming/feminist agenda within more of a real world setting, for those not so sci-fi fans amongst us.
I agreed more with this essay than I thought I would. Nice read.
My main criticism of Sons of Anarchy is too much plot, not enough hanging around working on bikes. Late S2 Dollhouse has this problem in spades. I actually would have preferred to have the story told at a more normal pace, even though it would have resulted in a finale that left almost everything hanging.

Most viewers probably would disagree, and I don't fault Joss for playing the hand he was dealt.

Wouldn't it be refreshing to see trailers for a series finale, "Tune in for the exciting final episode! You won't believe your eyes! Nothing will be resolved!"

[ edited by janef on 2010-02-06 03:44 ]
Can't say I agree, since I forced myself to watch season one out of loyalty and I looked forward to every episode of season two (and wasn't disappointed.)
Jane, you pretty much nailed the dilemma. You can either have a quarter finished portrait of nuance or a fully formed rush job.
Me too. I almost wish that there had been the future standalones and the rest of series two had been kept at a reasonable pace.

Having said that I do think we needed Echo to be aware. A series two made up of Echo finding her identity, Topher's conscience emerging, Paul sinking into love delusion and hypocrisy, Adelle walking they grayest line imaginable and Whisky mentally disintegrating and rebuilding herself would have been absolutely perfect for me.

Yes, I wanted the moon on a stick.
I mostly disagree with this one. It seems to me that the author had a personal agenda, that being the desire to see DH narrowly focused on "a critique of rape culture".
I don't doubt that if the show had been given more time, we would have gotten more of this. Although you could make a case for the view that Belonging made this point so powerfully and definitevly that it dotted the i's and crossed the t's on that issue - time to move along and broaden the lens, which is exactly what they did, in the short remaining allotted time frame.
I would have hated to lose the harder SciFi aspects of the show, as well as the broad character ambiguity, to a narrowing of the focus to one issue.
I would have hated to lose the harder SciFi aspects of the show, as well as the broad character ambiguity, to a narrowing of the focus to one issue.

Unless, as the article argued, character ambiguity was a thing the show lost while widening the scope. And (looking at Paul as the primary example, but there are of course shades of that in each and every character) I am inclined to say that that is a valid point.
Adelle became out and out good towards the end. As did Topher. As did Dominic. Bennett was softened towards the good before dying. Hell, even Alpha became a lapsed psychopath. Conversely, Clyde became out and out evil, as did Boyd. Only Echo arguably became more grey. So i'm inclined to agree - once the battle lines were drawn (i.e. with Adelle's declaration of war), characters generally became more polarised and less ambiguous.

I suspect that may well have been intended all along as an endpoint BUT it felt more pronounced and less "earned" (except arguably in Topher's case, though even then i'd rather it had longer to percolate) just because of the time pressure.
I'd say that the article is a bit narrow in saying the show was about rape culture to begin with. That was there in spades, but I think Dollhouse was a show about the problems of our culture as a whole, of which the rape culture aspect is a huge but not all-consuming part.

The second part of the show was about finishing the show. And while I felt E2 was a very emotionally satisfying conclusion, I'm beginning to think about one of my rules of writing: bad endings are worse than no ending.
This has been my complaint as well ManEnough. Ironically, I find it interesting that it is being brought up as a problem with the second season, when many people I discussed Dollhouse with had a problem watching a show "about rape culture" in Season One. So it seems to me to be a subjective preference rather than a real problem.

And I loved the ambiguity up to a point, but at the end of the day I always felt that it wasn't the ambiguity that people were angry about losing. After all, ambiguity generally goes away when you're in a war with allies and enemies although it may change dynamics a bit. And it's also very hard to sustain ambiguity because you either have to make the character never make a choice (not dramatic) or constantly make contradictory choices which is only realistic for only a little while unless you're writing a character with psychological instability. The anger usually showed up when the ambiguity was removed and the character that remained wasn't the person people wanted to see.

Quick examples off the top of my head of fan angst or mixed reactions: Paul and Boyd. Quick examples of net positive reactions: Alpha, Adelle, and Topher. To be fair, some of it may be because the rush made things seem unearned, but to be fair the other way you can't really rule out the characters we saw in their final incarnations based the available show either.
And it's also very hard to sustain ambiguity because you either have to make the character never make a choice (not dramatic) or constantly make contradictory choices...

Not really, you just have the characters make choices that could be construed as "for the greater good" (even when it condemns an innocent - e.g. Priya/Sierra - or it's wrong by most of our moralities or it's to the detriment of the show's hero, Echo). This worked very well with Adelle and Dominic for instance. Or with Ballard, you show him turned on by Echo-as-Kiki and then disgusted by his own response. Or with Echo, you show her - an ostensibly good character - murdering an innocent. In other words, you show people sometimes acting the "wrong" way for the "right" reasons and vice versa, just like real life.

The show portrayed ambiguous characters to great effect for most of its run IMO. The problems came because people (as it turns out) don't particularly like their characters ambiguous (or at least, not for very long), they want a "family" like 'Firefly', Buffy and 'Angel' had. To some extent I get that. Ambiguity is hard - it's complicated and tiring and uncomfortable because it never gives you a safe place to stand, you always have to think about every decision a character makes and they might do things you don't like.

The anger usually showed up when the ambiguity was removed and the character that remained wasn't the person people wanted to see.

Not for me personally, for me it was removing the ambiguity full stop. I.e. the version I wanted to see was the ambiguous one in every case except (arguably) Topher's (where, for me, the messed up character taking responsibility for his actions was more satisfying than the basically functional, amoral character that wasn't).

That said, ambiguities being simplified out is just a symptom of a show coming to a climax - sustaining ambiguity is very doable BUT having a final fight full of ambiguity is much harder (because for the very last fight, we need to know whose side we're on). It was inevitable in other words, it's just a pity that (in some cases, IMO) it was a bit rushed.
I wanted the ambiguity too, for some of the characters (for whoever the writers intended it for, really). Adelle, for instance--her journey/arc might've been that much more satisfying if it hadn't been rushed/forced. I'm happy with what the writers and Olivia Williams gave us in the time they had, but I feel she was a character that maybe got shafted the worst.

I know it comes down to personal preference, but I think it's a bit sad that many viewers (and I'm not just talking about those who complained about the ambiguity in this series) weren't willing to give the gray characters a chance (and to be fair, Dollhouse's characters were a way more true representation of convincing gray than, say, Spike, where certain influences usually forced him to take a certain side post-Season 3). Or those who did stick with the series, continued to ask for more clearly defined "sided" characters or just wanted more "good" ones. We've seen that, it's most shows on television (especially network), I don't want to see that every time.
This whole topic is complicated slightly by the problem that (IMO) when Dollhouse struggled to do the ambiguity, the show wasn't good enough to carry it. And I don't think that was because of the ambiguity. I didn't dislike early season 1 because of compromised characters and a multi layered exploration of rape/exploitation. I disliked it because it did those things badly. There were many parts of season 2 where I felt they did those things extremely well. It was only at the very end that everything went Early Learning and we had the binary character types going on.
The problem all along with 'Dollhouse' (IMO) has been that it's sometimes difficult to tell if you're disliking the show because it's badly done or because it's actually quite well done but deliberately making you uncomfortable. There's a discomfort that we, as viewers, are "in on" and then there's what I think of as true discomfort where we're not quite sure whether we are or not. S1 (with its ambiguities about consent and complicity and so on) mostly fell into that latter camp for me, S2 more the former ('Belonging' for instance is a phenomenal episode but its position on the issues is clear-cut and conventional - Sierra is being raped because a) she remembers the trauma, feels traumatised herself and b) Priya in no way, not even the debatable way that Caroline/Anthony/Madeline did, gave consent. Added to that, Nolan is a scumbag. There's no grey there, no ambiguity, no questions - we all already know what we feel about her situation).

I'm happy with what the writers and Olivia Williams gave us in the time they had, but I feel she was a character that maybe got shafted the worst.

I can understand that to some extent Kris. Not because Adelle was particularly badly handled towards the end IMO more because, of them all, her character was so beautifully balanced for most of it - you could read nearly everything she did as "for the greater good" of her actives OR as selfish and often cowardly (and often both at the same time also made sense). It was very telling to me that the people who hadn't seen Adelle's earlier decisions as grey and driven by a sort of pragmatic means/ends but still ultimately moral thinking (by her own standards) were so quick to believe that she'd fully turned to the dark side. If she'd already condensed into the evil madam for you then her helping Rossum destroy the world as we know it made perfect sense, if she hadn't then it was fundamentally inconsistent.

Any disturbance of that balance (and as I say, it's inevitable) would seem to be a waste. But it didn't feel all that rushed to me because she mostly stayed herself up until the end of the present timeline. The biggest changes we saw in her (towards Topher) had had 10 years to occur - almost any character change is believable with that in mind.

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