Monday, September 23, 2013

Whedon Week/The Canon #8: Dollhouse - "Belonging" (2009)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

There's an argument to be made for the goodness within the protagonists of almost every Joss Whedon show.  It's easiest for Buffy, which was always a show with a clear sense of right and wrong, and when characters did become evil, they were justly punished for it.  Characters on Angel, on the other hand, often questioned whether they were crossing the line between good and evil, before eventually being assured that they were not.  The crew on Firefly were outlaws, sure, but the lovable kind that you're supposed to root for.  Plus, they're outlaws from a government that's clearly seen as corrupt.  But the characters that run the titular organization on Whedon's most recent show, Dollhouse, are unequivocally people whose morals have been compromised.  Part of the reason why the first season episode, "Man on the Street," is seen as such a turning point for the show is because it's the first one that truly examines how the Dollhouse takes people's lives and identities, all in order to service lonely and predatory clients.

But no episode is better at exploring the deplorable nature of the Dollhouse than "Belonging," the fourth episode of the show's second season.  It starts off with flashbacks of Sierra, before her time in the Dollhouse, when she was just an artist named Priya.  Enter Nolan, one of the Dollhouse's biggest clients, who notices her artwork and tries to court her, only to have his advances rebuffed.  The episode does a great job of exploring power dynamics -- how the powerful use their considerable advantage over the powerless -- when Nolan resorts to seedier methods to win Priya over.  Once he has her in his sights there's nothing she can do, as Nolan drugs Priya so that she appears to be psychotic enough to be committed to the Dollhouse, and he can have her at any time.  Priya's paintings frequently featured birds, and at one point a character suggests that the birds are a metaphor for her -- free but unsure of where she's going.  But the real metaphor is that she's now a caged bird: trapped and only brought out when her master wants her.

For as much as the episode is devoted to Priya/Sierra, it's equally a character piece for Topher.  One of the best decisions that the show made in season 2 was to introduce characters higher up on the chain of command at Rossum.  It gave the writers an opportunity for people like Adelle and Topher to have something to fight against, while never letting them off the hook.  If the show is all about exploring the moral blackness of what is essentially a high class prostitution ring, then season 2 is primarily interested in discovering where these characters draw the line, and clearly "Belonging" is the line for Topher.  Once Echo brings the unsettling artwork that Sierra has been doing to his attention, he begins to investigate, eventually discovering the true nature of Sierra's arrival at the Dollhouse.  It's a real turnaround for Topher, who had been previously depicted as an evil scientist who only thinks of the dolls as his experiments.  "I'm not the bad man," he says early in the episode, but when he's forced to face the collateral damage that his science has caused, he has to take a hard look at himself.  It's what causes him to unleash an altered Priya on Nolan, which results in Nolan's death.

There are many plots moving along at the periphery too, giving us more progress in the slowly building connective tissues in Echo's mind, Sierra and Victor's growing bond, and a glimpse into Victor's pre-Dollhouse past.  It's also thematically hefty to boot, examining and shattering the lies that these characters tell themselves to keep going.  For all of the talk that Adelle and Topher give about how what they're doing is helping people, they are still complicit in ruining Priya's life.  As we see in the scene where Victor has flashbacks to his time in the Middle East before becoming an Active, the Dollhouse only colors over the pain of the past; they don't erase it.  And in the process they've picked up some emotional scars too.  At the end of the day, Priya gets to forget the blood spilled, but Topher has to live with what they've been through every day.

Is this the darkest episode in the Whedonverse?  He's been known to get grim, but "Belonging" is pitch black.  I remember watching its original airing and being slack-jawed, amazed by the boldness of Sierra's tragic origins.  This the last episode before the intense serialization that follows in the 9 episodes that close out the series, and it sets them up well, hinting at the mistrust of authority that drives the explosive events to come.  At this point, the season is only just starting, but it never gets better than this episode, which reminds the audience and characters alike that the Dollhouse is a dirty business, and nobody's slate can ever truly be clean.

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