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Dollhouse: Man in The Streets as Western

Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse suddenly got interesting, by which I mean, of course, Dollhouse just shifted into western territory, both literally and generically. Although the setting of Dollhouse has heretofore been unclear to me, the recent episode “Man in the Street” specifically places the series in Los Angeles, and much of the episode is concerned with establishing the relationship between the events in the story and its setting in this western city.

The episode begins with a clip of a news report, with the camera following a reporter as he walks away from the corner of 6th Street (moving perhaps down Hill Street?) and eventually beneath a street sign identifying the location as the Jewelry District, and indicating directions to reach Spring Street, Grand Central Market, and Pershing Square. “Dollhouse,” the reporter comments, “For some people in Los Angeles, those words have another meaning, a darker meaning. . . . The Dollhouse is one of LA’s most enduring urban legends.” Other clips show interviews of regular citizens commenting on the idea of the dollhouse, with different people offering different metaphors for what’s taking place at the dollhouse (a brothel, slavery, good work if you can get it, etc). In the video clip of an African American woman who asserts that the humans kept as dolls in the dollhouse are enslaved (“Volunteers! You must be out of your mind!”), the Palace Theatre is clearly visible in the background.

By placing characters in front of such well-known landmarks, by visibly (if not ostentatiously) including street signs in the shots, this episode represents a shift in the portrayal of the Dollhouse as a place that  heretofore  seemed hidden in plain sight, if not underground, then potentially anywhere, but specifically nowhere.  This attention to the details of a western place also coincides with (and may signal) a generic shift into the western, especially as this episode focuses on Paul Ballard, the FBI agent obsessed with finding and exposing the Dollhouse. From Ballard’s perspective, Dollhouse is a captivity narrative, and he is the searcher, the Ethan Edwards character seeking to free not Debbie Edwards but Caroline (Echo’s name before she became a doll). And Ballard is every bit as obsessed as Ethan Edwards (“Getting shot didn’t even make you pause, did it?” comments one of his co-workers).

Ballard has been involved in the series from the beginning, but this is the first episode in which he takes center stage. And the western elements of this episode may not indicate a general shift in the milieu of the series so much as they indicate that we are seeing the world from Ballard’s point of view, that we are within his fantasy, as it were, in which he is the cowboy hero who will redeem the captive and return her to civilization.

At this point in his investigation, Ballard has identified Echo as the missing Caroline. As a way of getting an inroad to the hard-to-find Dollhouse, he has started staking out potential clients (relatively few have the wealth to hire the services of the Dollhouse). He settles on an internet mogul named Joel Minor, who, it turns out, is indeed a Dollhouse client, and who has requested Echo be imprinted with the personality of his deceased wife. When Echo shows up at Minor’s house, Ballard almost has her in his grasp, but she is whisked away by her handler.

The motivation for Ballard’s quest is called into question during a conversation with Minor, after Echo has left the house. Minor suggests to him, “You have a fantasy. I think your fantasy is about my Rebecca” (the name of his wife, the role Echo was playing). This conversation suggests that the elements of the western that we see in this episode may in part be window dressing for Ballard’s fantasy, which we participate in, as he is our point of view character for the episode. It will be interesting to see if the series continues to take notice of the LA setting in episodes that aren’t centered around Ballard.

The emphasis on the LA setting also suggests another intertext to consider when thinking about Dollhouse, and that is the film Blade Runner, parts of which were shot (if I’m remembering correctly) in and around the Jewelry District (dressed up to indicate a future LA). There are similarities between dolls and replicants. How do you tell a doll from a real human being? How do we know thatthe  person beside us isn’t a replicant? We meet more than one person in Dollhouse who turns out to be a doll in disguise, carrying out the Dollhouse’s nefarious commands while seeming to be a best friend, lover, etc.

I also thought there were a few moments that visually suggested the street scenes from Blade Runner, which makes me wonder if Ballard and Blade Runner‘s Decker might have some things in common. At Joel Minor’s house, Ballard takes out 3 or 4 trained security guards. Do his extraordinary fighting skills suggest that he may be more than just your average human? Could Ballard himself be a doll? If so, whose agenda does he advance?

Well, I guess we’ll find out as episodes continue to air.

This post was originally published on The Official Blog of the Western Literature Association.

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