The first time I watched Dollhouse, I thought it seemed eerily familiar. The spacious rooms, the nice-looking people having lunch, everyone trying to be their best. Then I realized: the Dollhouse was my office.
For over ten years, I worked for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. At our peak, we had three buildings within four square blocks, each with its own cafeteria. We had our own branch of a major bank, a mailroom, and a doctor on the premises. We even had yoga.
All of our needs were met. We never had to leave.
I loved it. The place was like a second home. Every day I knew where I was going and what to expect. I’d take the same bus every morning, sometimes with the same people. I’d pick up a coffee and go to my floor where my desk and computer were waiting. I’d log in and check my email, my calendar for any meetings. I’d do my work. I’d do my best.
Last year, I quit my job to move to San Francisco with my boyfriend and write full-time. I enjoyed the idea of freedom more than the reality. For the first month, I wandered around like a dumb show. What would I do about lunch? My workouts? What if I needed a doctor? I had no health insurance and no one to take care of me. I wondered if I wanted back in with company, back with, essentially, the Dollhouse.
More than any other show on television, Dollhouse most accurately depicts life in the workplace. Whereas The Office points out the banality of everyday office life and Better Off Ted the hypocrisy of the corporate world, Dollhouse portrays workers so deeply entrenched in their jobs, they don’t even know they’re in them.
My co-workers often slipped and said they “lived,” instead of sat, on their floor. Some regularly put in twelve-hour days, often continuing to work at home via Blackberrys and laptops (remote wipes and imprints, anyone?). There was nothing as brutal as the Attic, but not playing your role could lead to the death of your career, at this particular company and in the industry. You might as well be in a coma.
In The Office and Better Off Ted, the characters are defined individuals. Pam is the put-upon yet nurturing receptionist with the heart of an artist. Jim is the prankster, sarcastic yet sweet. Dwight is the buffoon, while Michael is the innocent – even as he’s being face-meltingly offensive – and often the voice of morality. In Better Off Ted, the characters are broader – Veronica the wonderfully cold and conniving boss lady, Linda the earnest worker bee, Phil and Lem the endearingly goofy scientist duo, and Ted, the straight man reacting to everyone’s lunacy. But they’re still individuals, and encouraged to be so. Otherwise, we wouldn’t watch the show.
Aside from “management” (DeWitt, Topher, the handlers, and security) and the infiltrator (Ballard), in Dollhouse all individuality is erased. The dolls are blandly happy employees with names from the letters of the alphabet. When they show any humanity, management is disturbed: Victor’s “excitement” at seeing Sierra in the shower, Victor and Sierra’s “grouping,” Echo’s beginning consciousness and problem-solving.
Employees at my company were expected to adopt a conservative, process and rule-oriented way of thinking, so specialized that the company was often reluctant to hire people from the outside, preferring to hire “within.” The more time one spent at the company, the more valuable one became. Employees were often referred to as assets. When a long-term colleague left, it was often said that the company had lost X number of years of knowledge. If only our brains could have been downloaded.
As in the Dollhouse, management looked down upon even a sliver of one’s “real” self peeking through. One couldn’t deviate from the business casual uniform without a talking to. One couldn’t complain about working long hours or weekends. Meetings were supposed to be long and boring. Your dreams and aspirations weren’t your own but the company’s.
The Office and Better Off Ted are full of signifyers pointing out the lunacy of worklife. Michael tries to act the part of management but fouls it up ridiculously. Pam stares at Michael – see, everyone in the Office, Michael is ridiculous. Jim looks at the camera – see, audience, Michael is ridiculous. Better Off Ted peppers its episodes with ingenious send-ups of “inspirational” corporate messaging (“Veridian Dynamics. Diversity. Good for us”).
Dollhouse represents not the lunacy of corporate life, but the horror of it. The dolls have no idea they’re dolls. They feel content. They enjoy being taken care of, and curling up in their cubicles – I mean, cubby holes – at night. They sleep and have no dreams.
The most successful dolls are those who most fully take on their imprints while forgetting their original selves. In “Omega,” we learn that before Echo arrived, Whiskey – aka Dr. Saunders – was the number one doll. While her skill was in forgetting, Alpha was the opposite: he couldn’t forget who he really was.
Whiskey and Alpha can be likened to those workers who, respectively, so fully believe in their work, they lose themselves, and those who cannot reconcile their work and outside-work selves, rather like women with the almost impossible task of balancing family and career. It seems one must be like Whiskey, forget and focus, or like Alpha, remember everything and go mad.
However, Echo is like neither Whiskey nor Alpha. Soon after she arrives, she becomes number one, but unlike Whiskey, she begins to remember her imprints, and unlike Alpha, she’s able to maintain these many selves at once.
Of course this is direct opposition of what the Dollhouse wants. Soon Echo becomes too good at her job. Like Frankenstein’s monster and Rabbi Loew’s Golem, she’s the invention who turns against the inventor, the star employee who becomes a threat. And like Cassandra, she’s the only one who sees the truth.
The truth-teller in a corrupt workplace is a common theme in film and television, from Tom Cruise’s character in The Firm, to Mulder in The X-Files, to Norma Rae, to Karen Silkwood.
The first is perhaps Maria in the silent classic, Metropolis (1927). In a world divided between a lavish city and an underground factory, the factory owner’s son, Freder, is shown the plight of the workers through Maria, a Christ-like figure. While she sympathizes with the workers, she implores that they resist a violent revolt and instead wait for a peaceful mediator – the “heart” between the “brain” (the planners) and the “muscle” (the workers) – in the end, Freder.
However, before Freder can act, Maria is captured by a mad scientist set on revenge against the factory owner who stole his love, Freder’s mother, dead from childbirth. The scientist extracts Maria’s essence to activate her robot version. Evil robot Maria incites the workers – not before doing some crazy “erotic” dancing to wreak havoc with the surface world – the workers revolt, and destroy the machines. This results in a flood in which the workers think their children have drowned, not knowing the real Maria has saved them. Blaming her for this destruction, they capture her robot version and burn her at the stake.
The similarities between Metropolis and Dollhouse are striking. The stark divide between planners, or management, and workers; workers living far below the surface of the “real” world; the incite to revolt by a beautiful woman; and the revolt leading to chaos and destruction. However, there are as many differences.
Moloch, the monster machine, literally feeds off workers’ bodies. Rossum’s mainframe feeds off people’s minds. As industry moves from manual to intellectual, workers’ brains become the assets, their bodies only vessels. In Metropolis, technology, represented by the scientist, and business, the factory owner, are divided. In Dollhouse, they’ve merged. Technology has become the business.
But the most significant difference is that while real Maria and robot Maria are two separate beings, “real” Echo and “robot” Echo are one in the same. At first the split between Echo’s selves is apparent. The real girl, or Caroline, is put in a box, while the doll or robot, Echo, is a blank slate till imprinted. Soon Echo begins developing her own self through both the imprints and her own experiences, eventually encompassing Caroline and even Paul. She’s all things at once – the worker, the planner, and the mediator. She’s both the blissfully ignorant (those above the surface) and the abused worker. She’s the insider and the infiltrator. She’s the virgin (human Maria) and the whore (robot Maria). She’s robot and human. She incites the revolt and saves the child-like dolls.
As technology advances, the more it conforms to our bodies. Keyboards and mice have given way to multi-touch screens. Tiny ear buds have replaced giant headphones. The paralyzed can use their minds to move a cursor on a computer. Those with missing limbs work their artificial arms and legs through brain waves. “Put me down!” Pam tells Michael in The Office as she’s Skyping with Jim, as though she has become the computer.
The interface is disappearing. Like Echo, we and our technology have begun to merge.
In “Hollow Men,” Echo seems to have destroyed the remote wiping technology. However, we quickly learn that this isn’t the case. Technology has prevailed like a virus, and the world is in chaos and ruin.
It’s tempting to blame technology. Without it, there’d be no Dollhouse. Without Topher’s improved imprinting process (which interestingly enough acts much like BitTorrent, which quickly pieces together shows and movies in out-of-sequence bits, rather than chronologically, and which, interestingly again, is how some viewers were able to watch the unaired “Epitaph 1,” the episode where we learn how Topher sped up the imprinting process), the Dollhouse and Rossum wouldn’t have been as successful as they were.
The real culprits are the reasons behind the technology – greed and disregard for human life, much like in the finance industry today. The dolls spill into the street like laid-off bankers and analysts wandering out of the wreckage of their former employers. Sure, they have a few bucks from their severance packages, but who are they now if not dolls/bankers/analysts? They’ve returned to their original selves, but what does that mean? Do they even know who their original selves were?
Even deeper roots lie below greed and disregard: fear of death and the fear of dying alone. Mr. Ambrose thinks he’ll beat death by transferring himself from body to body the way finance bigwigs believe money will immortalize them. Burke, on the other hand, uses remote wipes and imprints to surround himself with “family” so that he’ll never be alone, like the celebrity surrounded by an entourage of yes-men.
The Dollhouse peddles in fantasy. The dolls are whomever their clients want them to be, whore or life-sized avatar. You can pretend to have love, to be young again, and to live forever. Many successful businesses do the same. The entertainment industry provides escape; advertising gives the illusion of meeting all your needs through a single product; and the beauty industry claims that a jar of cream will turn back time.
Other industries prey on fear, the flip side of fantasy. This pill will keep away sickness, pain, and death. This face-lift/tummy tuck/liposuction will keep you young and beautiful, and you’ll never be alone. You must go through all these security checks and give us your personal information or else the terrorists will attack.
The Dollhouse is also a fantasy in and of itself. While in Metropolis, the workers are obviously miserable and toil in terrible conditions, the dolls seem happy and live in what looks like the best spa ever. While in Metropolis, the fantasy (the surface world with its Eternal Garden) and reality (the workers’ grim underworld) are separate, in Dollhouse they’ve merged.
The same could be said of some real-life companies – below the surface of beautiful offices, enthusiastic employees, and corporate messaging (“Veridian Dynamics. We’re a family. . .We love our family, which is why we work nights, weekends, and major holidays, because that’s when families should be together. Families. Yay.”) is the often unsavory true intent of the companies.
In the end, technology is what saves the world in Dollhouse. Perhaps because of the compression of the series, the show seems to leap directly from the destruction of the remote wiping/imprinting technology to chaos, just as in Metropolis, when the workers kill the machines, they inadvertently destroy their own homes and (they think) drown their children.
In “Epitaph 2,” Topher, the tech genius, finally thinks of a way to give everyone back their original selves and builds the device to do so. He volunteers to go to DeWitt’s office and set off the device, sacrificing himself in the process.
However, he wouldn’t have been able to do it alone. The workers (former and would-be dolls) help bring him back to the Dollhouse, the only place he can develop the device. Management (DeWitt) gives him the only place high enough for the device to work, her high-rise office. At the last moment, Topher sees the wall of pictures of his old friends. “I remember,” he says.
In Metropolis, peace is achieved only when the factory owner, its workers, and the mediator reach detente. In Dollhouse all parts of the Dollhouse must work together to save the world. Only when the mind, muscle, and heart come together can evil be overcome.
“I think therefore I am,” Descartes said all those years ago. Dollhouse seems to prove this at first. When people’s original selves – or minds, or souls – are taken from them, they’re empty vessels. Mr. Ambrose threatens to live forever as he moves his “self” from body to body, casting each one off like a snake shedding its skin.
However, the body Mr. Ambrose moves into changes him. He was someone allergic to shellfish; in Vincent, he’s someone who can eat as much shrimp as he wants (“Epitaph 1”). Without her original self, Echo still manages to become someone. This is only partially from remnants of her imprints; she also develops her own self through her experiences and decisions as Echo.
But Mr. Ambrose will only change so much. Even as a little girl, he’s still an asshole. Without our minds, we’re empty shells. Without our bodies, we’re floating intangibles, whether in heaven, hell, or cyberspace. Without our hearts, we’re cruel, greedy, and self-serving. To be our best, we need all three.