Dollhouse (2009)


One of the moral paradoxes of the 2009 season of television is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Built around an urban legend about a secret organization who “rents” individuals out imprinted with the personality of your choosing, the probably short-lived series revolves around a young woman named Echo. Formerly called Caroline and an animal rights activist, she was recruited out of a mess made of her personal life and signed a five year contract as a Doll. Wiped of her original personality and imprinted with everything from a backup singer to a housewife, Echo fulfills the hopes, wishes, and dreams of her highly paying clients.

The very premise of the series in its nature is immediately offensive, because the viewer instinctively finds the notion of selling yourself into slavery repugnant. The Dolls know nothing outside their individual imprints and remember nothing after they are “wiped” at the end of each mission — except for when things go wrong and true personalities start seeping through. In the season finale, one character asks if they really think it is possible to remove some one’s soul, which is essentially what makes them who they truly are, from their body. Topher, the genius behind the technology, scoffs, “Their soul??” Admittedly, Whedon is not religious and introduces all sorts of unpleasant things into his various franchises (homosexuality in the Buffy series, sexual shenanigans in Firefly, misguided spirituality in Angel, and moral ambiguities in Dollhouse), but it is interesting to note that no matter what the series, there are often revelations about mankind, humanity, redemption, and interestingly enough, Truth.

In Buffy, the two leading vampires on the show, Angel and Spike, went through surprisingly deep redemption. Angel, “cursed” with a soul, attempted to earn his way to salvation through good deeds and making up for his past sins, whereas Spike started out as a heinous monster and then, wishing to be worthy of the heroine, literally went to hell and back to obtain a soul so that he could be redeemed. (Thus, in the end, Spike was the better man for having chosen salvation.) There is no obvious symbolism or meaning in Dollhouse… or is there? Topher might scoff at the belief that people have souls and you cannot erase that from their human bodies, but the truth is that throughout the series, the Dolls are constantly on the verge of self-re-discovery. Echo remembers certain things about her past, like her name. Victor feels a strong sense of love (an emotion he should not have) toward Sierra. And one character toward the end realizes she knows nothing of herself, and comes to the understanding of what she has lost.

In their original, wiped state, the Dolls are innocent, trusting, child-like, and mindless, rather like human newborns who have not been taught the evils of the world — manipulation, dishonesty, hatred, fear. But even wiped, some of them start to comprehend their past and memories. Alpha reveals his true nature, which is Evil. There is so much to contemplate about the principles and messages of the story — the nature of right and wrong. Is it okay for people to willingly sell themselves, to “check out” of their consciousness? Is it okay for other people to pay for the Dolls to live out their fantasies? Moral ambiguities that most of us would answer “No, it’s not okay” to, but then there are the characters themselves. Is Topher evil for being the mastermind? One might say yes… but it is evident in his treatment of the Dolls that he loves and respects them. In fact, all he wants from them is once a year to have someone to play laser tag with. And yet, for all his attempts to infiltrate the Dollhouse, the FBI agent also takes knowing advantage of one of the Dolls. Is that not evil?

We are fortunate to live in a world where such decisions and judgments lie beyond our reach, distant on a television screen. Or are we as far from this as we think? Either way, one thing is certain — whatever happens to us, nothing can change the nature of our soul, because that is the center of who we are, and bears the mark of our Creator.

3 Replies to “Dollhouse (2009)”

  1. Ever watch Babylon 5? They had a form of execution called ‘The Death of Self’. Basically they wipe the worst criminal’s minds and create a new personality with memories for them. What is most relevant about the episode to me is the argument that wiping one’s mind is a form of death.

    So basically Dollhouse was this extremely dark show for me, where the characters were murdered (and, I will posit, raped, as the dolls had no ability to give true consent) over and over again to satiate the lusts of the powerful. This basically made the show unwatchable for me.

    1. I haven’t, no, but I guess I can see where Joss got the idea! He seems to thrive on controversial content that makes the audience uncomfortable. It may even be his trademark.

  2. Dollhouse is one of those shows that I enjoy despite of the loose morals. It would have been much more spectacular if the sexual content and violence was trimmed and during some episodes there was actually a point to Echo being a doll instead of a slave to the sexual desires of a man. (The feminist in my cringes at the “glorification” of that job.)

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