There are many lenses one could look through when it comes to Joss Whedon’s short-lived television series Dollhouse. From feminism, issues of consent, rape, existentialism, it’s all there. There’s even evidence for a “technology will be the death of us” argument. None of the them wrong, all of them leading to some fascinating discussions if you find the right people to discuss them with. Dollhouse isn’t the only Whedon property that begs for analysis — Buffy the Vampire Slayer is taught in classrooms, Angel and Firefly can result in some interesting philosophical debates surrounding the larger narrative and the characters that make up that narrative. But Dollhouse is darker and grittier than the other three, with the trademark Whedon Wit only there in nuances, making the show criminally maligned by not just general audiences, but fans of Whedon as well.
That isn’t to say Dollhouse didn’t have its fans — they were few, and they were mighty as Dollhouse narrowly escaped cancellation after its first season. The show aired on FOX from 2009-2010, and detailed the story of a corporation called the Dollhouse, a place where Dolls — people who have their initial selves/memories wiped by super advanced technology (we are often reassured it’s voluntary, but the moral gray area of this is obvious) — walk around in a spa-like environment in a child-like state. Because they have been wiped, their brain is now free to become anyone through imprints, and clients of the Dollhouse can rent them and do with them whatever they desire. Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the person in charge of the Los Angeles Dollhouse, pitches the Dollhouse as a fantasy, often citing that they give people what they want and using it as justification for the continued existence of what is essentially prostitution. There’s actually an oddly beautiful explanation Adelle gives to a client in S1E2:
In their resting state, our Actives are as innocent and vulnerable as children. We call it the Tabula Rasa, the blank slate. Now imagine the imprint process filling it, creating a new personality; a friend, a lover, a confidant in a sea of enemies. You heart’s desire made flesh. And, when the engagement is completed, all memory of you and your time together will be wiped clean….What we offer is truth. Everything you want, everything you need, she will be. Honestly, and completely.
Adelle’s monologue plays over a montage of the imprint process, and it’s hauntingly beautiful, the idea of it. Of course, that’s the kicker.
I recently rewatched both seasons of Dollhouse and while the concept was still intriguing and certainly had me thinking again about all the lenses through which one can view the show, what I was really hung up on was the character of Echo (Eliza Dushku). And that’s how I want to look at Dollhouse this time around.
What most likely turned some people off to “Dollhouse” when it originally aired was the fact that the main characters were different people every week, making it hard to connect and find a grounding presence within the show. There was no clear-and-cut good guy to root for, considering the ensemble of characters consisted of the morally ambiguous people who ran the Dollhouse and a righteous FBI agent whose motivations for taking down the Dollhouse became borderline obsessive. Still, familiar faces were there — Echo was played by “Buffy” alum Eliza Dushku, Alpha by “Firefly” cast member Alan Tudyk, Dr. Saunders by the always wonderful Amy Acker from “Angel.” The familiar faces help with that connection, but it’s the Dolls, also called Actives, that intrigued me the most on my first and second watch.
Echo, as she’s called while in her Doll state, was formally known as Caroline Farrell, who’s reasons for becoming a Doll are murky at best and revealed through flashbacks throughout the entire show. At first, it’s Caroline who we have to save, and that’s the driving force for Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), who gets notified about Caroline’s disappearance and connection to the Dollhouse through an anonymous outside source. But eventually, we realize Caroline isn’t the main character here — Echo is.
Dollhouse doesn’t get really good until the sixth episode ‘Man on the Street,’ with the first five episodes acting more as procedural story lines detailing specific engagements Echo goes on — in one, she’s a highly skilled thief named Taffy; in another, she’s a backup singer for a popstar. In episode five, ‘True Believer,’ she’s even blind. But these first few episodes play heavily into Echo’s character development throughout all of “Dollhouse,” a character development that is subtly one of the best character arcs on television. And that’s because Echo’s very nature is at first glance quiet and unassuming; as a Doll, she’s basically a child. An empty child, but a child nonetheless. But it’s clear early on why these early episodes are so important, despite them largely not being the best in the grand scheme of things. Rather, I’d argue those episodes are there for the sole purpose of building up the character of Echo. She gets wiped after every engagement, reverting back to her Doll state, but every time she is, we see a glimpse of Echo remembering a specific imprint — a hand movement, a catch phrase, anything that related to her previous imprints, it was clear Echo remembered them, if only in nuances. She may not understand why, but that’s part of her development — she works everything out, even after being constantly wiped and essentially having to start all over again. In the later half of season one, she becomes much more vocal as a Doll, even going so far as to suggest to Topher, the guy in charge of creating the imprints, to imprint her with the knowledge of a spy so she could weed out the spy within the Dollhouse. As a result, Echo saves the Dollhouse herself. By the end of season one, she composites, meaning all of her imprints get dumped into her head at once so she has roughly 40 full personalities in her head. She eventually gets wiped again, but it doesn’t matter — Echo remembers everything. By season two, she’s pretty much her own person, but still has a lot of learning to do. But watching her learn and sneak around the Dollhouse playing spy is great. There’s triumph every time she becomes more aware and those working at the Dollhouse become more wary of her.
Echo’s character development into a full person and not just a vessel for Caroline creates an interesting discussion about the nature of memories — is it memories that make up a person, or is someone just inherently themselves, always and forever? All of Echo’s imprints come with a full background that feel very real to her, but they never actually happened to Echo. But to Echo, it feels like it did, wholly and completely. It’s a tough moral quandary to tackle, but Dollhouse does it effortlessly. While they do sort of answer their own question — by the end of the show, Echo is fully her own person — the show does a fantastic job of making us still feel wary about the topic.
There are many ways to look at Dollhouse, but Echo is a great starting point that will eventually lead to those others. Echo is an endlessly fascinating character, in much different ways than Buffy or Angel or Willow or Spike. She’s feels underrated simply because Echo herself is underrated in the narrative of the show. It’s all slightly fantastic, and I won’t ever stop thinking about it.
Katey is a writer and film and television critic. She maintains Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of the past decade, and definitely deserved Best Picture at the Oscars. Follow her on Twitter, where her Twitter bio says she live tweets her progress of “The X-Files,” but that hasn’t actually happened in a really long time. Follow her anyway. It’ll be a laugh, probably.