Title: “A Spy in the House of Love”
It’s no secret that Joss Whedon is a beloved creator in the nerd community. This isn’t news to you, I’m sure. You’ve already heard about how great Buffy is, you saw Avengers in the theaters at least three times, you know the drill. Listen, I’m not here to talk about that stuff. I’m here to talk about the show that I like more than Firefly, the show that I don’t think gets enough love among Whedonites: Dollhouse.
For those who don’t know, Dollhouse follows the adventures of Echo (played by Eliza Dushku, who also served as a producer for the show), an operative of a clandestine facility known as “The Dollhouse,” which imprints its Actives with personalities to fit the needs of their clients. These personalities range from lovers to assassins, and when the missions end, the Actives revert to a “tabula rasa” state. It’s an interesting premise for a sci-fi drama, and it gives the story a lot of different directions it can go, which is showcased by the episode I’ve decided to focus on: “A Spy in the House of Love.” It’s an episode from later on in the first season, after things started to pick up. See, the issue that many people will have with Dollhouse when they first try to watch (beyond the “Dushku-is-a-kung-fu-prostitute” over-simplification of the show that we’ll discuss later) is that the series starts off rough. The first few episodes are self-contained and don’t represent Whedon’s knack for developing larger stories. Part of this can be explained by the disputes over the pilot episode, which had to be re-worked to fit suggestions from FOX. Granted, “A Spy in the House of Love” isn’t the best or most interesting episode, but it’s structured in an interesting way.
This episode plays around with time and with the unique perspectives of its characters. It opens on a shot of someone being forced into the imprinting chair, but we as viewers are not shown who it is. The only clue we get as to what’s going on is from Echo, who’s standing with her fellow pajama-clad Doll, Sierra, outside the imprinting room. When Sierra voices curiosity as to what’s going on, Echo says “She made a mistake, now she’s sad.” The whole episode is concerned with figuring out what the hell that means.
We then flash back twelve hours, to Echo in the van on her way back from an engagement, talking to her handler, Boyd, about the philosophy of S&M. She’s dressed as a dominatrix; scanty leather, whip, and all. This is one of Echo’s more egregious get-ups, and it’s not as if the show isn’t self-aware here. In fact, Victor’s handler, who Echo and Boyd pass on their way in, off-handedly calls Echo “S&M Barbie.” The show acknowledges the fact that people in the universe see Echo and the other Actives as playthings and sex objects, but it’s clear that the audience isn’t meant to see them that way. The whole dominatrix thing isn’t played sexually; it’s just a casual occurrence, and Echo is in control of her body and her opinions (or at least, the personality they implanted in her is). Much like Whedon’s other work, this show respects and elevates women, even while it’s portraying them as the sex robots of the rich and lonely. That’s a point that may not come across in writing, but trust me when I say that this show is far from senseless objectification.
Once we get inside the Dollhouse, we find out that Topher (the nebbishy scientist often used as comic relief) has discovered evidence of espionage in the form of a mysterious chip in the imprinting chair. We see the ensuing hub-bub from Echo’s outsider perspective, as she wanders around in her emotionless Doll state, looking through windows and watching people yell at each other. All she knows is that something bad is going on, but she has no way of understanding what that is. She goes to Topher in her curiosity, and exhibits a strange new behavior: she sits in the chair and asks him to change her, like he changes everybody else. Echo is gaining some form of self-awareness, a theme which is explored throughout the series and expanded upon in later episodes. It’s the central conflict of the show: having to define who you are in a world where people can be imprinted with new personalities at the drop of a hat. This is a show which tackles issues of identity and self, and that’s part of why I like it so much.
From this point forward, the episode switches between different Actives’ perspectives every commercial break, starting with November and moving through Sierra, Victor, and back to Echo. It’s a pretty genius framing device, since each part of the episode traces the path of each Active and shows how they interacted with Echo through the limited perspective of the opening segment. A conversation that we hear one sentence of when Sierra and Dominic pass Echo in the first part of the episode is given to us in full when we’re seeing things from Sierra’s perspective. All of the stories branch off like that, intersecting with and deepening characters in a way that an Echo-centric episode wouldn’t be able to do. November’s story, for example, shows her returning to her imprint as Paul Ballard’s neighbor. Paul is a disgraced former FBI agent intent on finding the Dollhouse, and, through November, we see how he’s descended into paranoia, with extra locks on the door and articles and yarn all over his wall, mapping out the conspiracy. Through Victor’s story, we find out that DeWitt has been secretly hiring out Dolls to fulfill her own fantasies. For the first time in the series, this ice-cold, British hard-ass has a moment of weakness. The Echo story is also good for character development, since she takes on the role of a master interrogator, sitting down the major operators of the Dollhouse. Among them is Boyd, who gives the best quote of the episode, and also the best summation of the series’ premise: “We’re pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way.” The Sierra story is your typical mission-of-the-week Dollhouse fare, with her breaking into an NSA building and stealing some secret government files to figure out who’s been spying on the Dollhouse. Although it doesn’t do much in the way of character development, this segment does a great job of keeping up the episode’s pace and showcasing the bulk of its action.
That’s ultimately why I picked this episode: it’s incredibly well-paced. It offers both intimate moments (such as November and Victor’s imprints) and energetic ones (such as Sierra and Echo’s imprints). The episode’s ability to switch between these various perspectives and still offer a suspenseful, cohesive story speaks volumes about Dollhouse’s versatility. Everything comes together when Echo discovers that (spoiler) Dominic had a false document planted for Sierra to find, and that he’s been the spy all along. The episode returns to a more complete version of the chair sequence from the opening, but not before showing Dominic smugly reminding Echo that she’s just going to get her memories wiped again. This exchange brings together the whole episode’s point about identity, and about how much of your personality is innate. The cherry on top comes when Topher brings DeWitt a hard drive that he calls “The unabridged Lawrence Dominic.”
Honestly, when I first watched Dollhouse it was because I had a long-standing crush on Eliza Dushku, and I wanted to see her play dress-up. This show is so much more than that. It’s as interesting and clever as any Joss Whedon series, with a great cast of characters that the actors fully embody. It asks important questions about what identity will look like as our society advances, and it all hangs on a main character that evolves from nothing, that starts out as a blank slate and becomes a complex, human entity. When I first watched Dollhouse, I was after a rather two-dimensional form of entertainment, but I ended up getting more than I bargained for. I came for Eliza, but I stayed for Echo.