"I think her bad guys are badder than my bad guys." - Echo
"The Public Eye" is like the "Dollhouse" version of one of those Daily Kos diaries where the diarist rants about how the Obama administration's incremental pragmatism has crushed said diarist's greatest hopes and sold out the political left. Though it was produced quite a while ago, it's on a Joss Whedon show, Whedon's a renowned lefty, and there are just too many parallels throughout to think that it's not a bit of "be careful what you wish for" storycraft. Also, like any good Daily Kos diary, there's a little George W. Bush bashing thrown in for good measure. Though, to be fair, very few Daily Kos diaries have two women beating the crap out of each other underneath a bridge somewhere in the D.C. area (though more should).
[Full recap of the first part of the "Dollhouse" return after the break...]
The central figure of "The Public Eye" is Senator Daniel Perrin, set up earlier to seem like the season's big bad, the guy who would set all of the plots in motion and keep things humming along. At the time, I said that it was neat to watch Whedon make the guy who would be the good guy on any other show into the bad guy here, even though his motives (shutting down the Dollhouse) are unquestionably good. So far, much of the Perrin material has been more portentious than anything else, as Perrin (played by the always capable Alexis Denisof) looks over papers and says boilerplate stuff about shutting down this menace to society while his Stepford wife coos helpfully in the background. The wife was one of the worst things about this equation, someone who seemed just a little off. This led a lot of people to conclude that she was a doll, spying on Perrin, myself included.
As soon as this episode introduces the notion that Cindy Perrin (Stacey Scowley, who's been bouncing around TV bit parts so small most characters don't even have names since the days of "Buffy") is probably a doll - a lot of her background information doesn't match up - it perhaps becomes a little too easy to guess the show's true twist, especially for longtime Whedon acolytes. Whedon loves the twist that you don't see coming, so any time he seems to be heading in one twisty direction, it usually makes sense to head toward a similar twist that nonetheless accomplishes an opposite story goal. In this case, that means that Daniel's the real doll, and when Adelle (Olivia Williams) starts sending people in to remove Madeline/November/Mellie (Miracle Laurie) from his clutches so she won't testify before the Senate against the Dollhouse, she's walking right into a trap set for her by the good folks at the DC division of the Dollhouse.
At first, the idea that Perrin's a doll makes no sense, but the episode quickly lays in the groundwork. He's still Daniel Perrin. He was born as that guy to one of the Dollhouse universe's foremost political families. But after he bombed out of college and became a drunken washout of a black sheep (hello, Bush parallels!), he was "improved" by the Dollhouse to become the righteous crusader for all things good that he is today. But, of course, he's not actually a righteous crusader, even though he wants to believe he is. His mantra with Cindy - designed to keep him cool and collected when his programming starts to go on the fritz - tries to hammer home that he's a "white knight" and she his damsel in distress, but in reality, he's as much of a pawn as anyone on this show, part of an elaborate plot on the part of Rossum to rather mainstream its technology, take out a rogue branch (the LA office) and make people less concerned about the sorts of tech the corporation is inventing all at once. It's a crafty plan, and it mostly hinges on no one figuring out the secret about Perrin, a secret the LA Dollhouse people stumble on accidentally.
Now, there's something to be said for this application of the Dollhouse technology. Who wouldn't want to be able to quit smoking or get the ambition to finally finish that novel or learn to resist fatty foods solely through the help of a swiftly administered treatment? And what might you sign away to be able to get these sorts of abilities? Though the show has yet to return to the hellish future of "Epitaph One," the season has been laying the groundwork both for how the Dollhouse tech might be mainstreamed and for how it will go horribly wrong. Even if we're not cutting between two timelines, showing the audience the world of "Epitaph One" turns out to be a genius move, allowing all involved to give even the most innocuous of Dollhouse applications the sinister sheen they need to give the show its dark edge.
And while the conspiracy stuff in the episode -DC Dollhouse is using Perrin to take down the LA Dollhouse, which will give him the latitude he needs to pass any laws Rossum wants passed through Congress (and, presumably, maybe even give him a leg up in a presidential race) - is airtight and almost perfectly plotted, the audience barely able to stay one step ahead of the show while it races toward its climax, what's best here are the barely suppressed political parallels.
President Obama has one of those unique qualities that few politicians have but most of the great ones (purely in the sense of campaigning) do: It's remarkably easy to project any set of beliefs you want onto the guy. So while he campaigned on pledges that were only slightly left-of-center and while he was always a neo-liberal technocrat, it became easy for his more conservative supporters to think that he was more conservative than he was and, more importantly, it was remarkably easy for his more liberal supporters to think that he was more liberal than he was. "Hope" and "change," always more references to Obama hoping to bring a systemic change to the way Washington did business from the bottom up, became grandly sweeping ideals in the eyes of many of his supporters, who seemed to expect him to ride in to Washington atop a magisterial stallion, quell the conservatives in his own party and reduce the Republican party to ruin. Instead, he's been mostly reduced to trying to figure out how to pass incrementally left-leaning legislation in a system that favors cautious conservatism.
I was, it should be stated, an early Obama supporter, and my politics lean pretty heavily leftward (except for on gun control, for no discernible reason), but I have trouble getting on board with these frustrations (except in cases where Obama and the Democratic party itself are very obviously dragging their heels, such as the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell). It's always seemed to me that any change will come from a very slow process of rebuilding a lot of things that were torn down. Rebuilding - of a house, of a sports franchise, of a country - always takes time, and I'm willing to grant latitude in this regard, no matter how much certain news stories may worry me. At the same time, I can feel, viscerally, what it is to many Obama supporters to have this many Democrats in Washington again and seemingly not be getting anything beyond some very modest economic packages done. It feels, increasingly, like better than what we had before but still something that can never quite stand up for the little guys the Democratic party purports to represent. Obama was "our" corporate-controlled politician last year, but he was still a corporate-controlled politician. Just like Daniel Perrin.
Perrin, like Obama, talks a good game. Perrin, like Obama, seems to really have his heart in the right place. Perrin, like Obama, is being buffeted by forces he can't quite understand. And Perrin, like Obama, is rapidly realizing how little control he has over any given situation. Unlike a lot of lefties, Whedon and his writing team (including the excellent Andrew Chambliss, who's credited on tonight's episode) don't seem to think Obama is someone who tricked us all to gain marvelous power. Through Perrin, they're saying that there's no way to trust anyone. Big money will always corrupt. Corporate power will always turn people from white knights into dingy men watching their wife fight Eliza Dushku beneath a bridge. And even if you're going to stand up against the system, you have to accept that being a part of a system automatically gives you less power as an individual. Echo may say that Cindy's bad guys are badder than her bad guys, but her bad guys are still bad guys. Maybe the LA Dollhouse is the new way of doing business, but everyone involved in it is still involved in sexual trafficking. Politics, like mind wiping, is dirty business, and it tends to dirty up everything it touches.
Whedon's major theme has always been the ways that communities and individuals interact and relate to one another, something he's explored with communities that have had clear leaders ("Buffy") and communities that were more democratic ("Firefly"). While all of his characters are interesting individuals, they still have very specific roles to play within those communities, and any time you're a cog in any machine, it leaves you slightly dehumanized. "Dollhouse," then, is playing around with those ideas more fully, with notions of how getting involved in a messy organization can mess you up, with how no one is a white knight, with how even people who work for evil corporations can have good streaks (and vice versa). It's too bad this show has been officially canceled, because "The Public Eye" is the first episode of season two to fully live up to the show's potential.
And it's only part one!
Some other thoughts:
Come back for part two, which should go up shortly after this one.
I didn't even say anything about Whedonverse favorite Summer Glau. There was a lot of hype about how Glau should have had the Dushku role back in season one, when it seemed like the show would never figure out how to write to Dushku's strengths. I rather disagree, since I think Glau's a fine actress, but in a very limited range. That said, this part played to her limited range perfectly, and the cliffhanger (the revelation that she knows Echo from somewhere) was well played.
Now that we know "Dollhouse" is no more, it's time to check out just why Whedon thinks the show took so long to gel and some of the things that he thinks kept it from clicking with an audience. His interview with Maureen Ryan is a really fine piece of self-assessment with some good questions from Ryan.