Discussion of “Belle Chose” — Episode 3 of Dollhouse (2.03)


Hi folks. I’m bringing to the top here, a Dollhouse discussion that’s been going on in the comments to the previous post. Please join in. Click here for background music!

Absolutely. I agree, Janeaire.

The “belle chose” reference, by the way and off the top of my head,  is to the Miller’s Tale, and “Alycoun” is — forgive my French — a conniving little bitch (sorry) who plays around with a lusty lover while playing a rather cruel trick (but a very funny one) on her elderly old husband. On the other hand, she’s also the victim of a May-December marriage. At least, that’s the way I recall the tale and it it important that it is told by one of the two “low-class” working characters who are on the pilgrimage. Chaucer’s self-aware, pre-Whedon reflections on genre conventions and social class!

It is possible, given the allusion here to The Miller’s Tale — oh, I forgot, there is “a clerk of Oxenford,” in other words a university teacher, in that tale — that little Kiki is playing around with her sexual power to tease this much older man. Or is he her chosen, sophisticated partner? In any case, she certainly “gets” the Chaucerian tale, which is very raunchy and X-rated, by the way, which they are using as code between them.

UPDATE: there are two Allisouns in Canterbury Tales.  The one our professor is thinking of  (I watched the episode again) is the Wife of Bath, who is a much-married lady who likes to make her husbands work for their living (in the bedroom). She wears spurs and is a “whip.” The lines Echo reads in his office are describing her. Now the tale she tells is fascinating, a fairy tale about “what women want most.”  She herself argues that it is mastery over their husbands. The tale suggests instead that it is self-sovereignty; when the Knight gives the Ugly Old Hag he has married the choice of who she will be, it breaks the spell and she becomes beautiful and faithful.

Some commenters out there (on whedonesque) are saying that at least the professor didn’t exercise the power of his position to coerce one of his real students. He turned it into a *harmless* sexual fantasy instead. I have a lot of trouble with that. Is it “better” to hire a programed human body-and-soul and use her instead?  (As Matt did in the dream girl episode, “Ghost,” the pilot episode last season.) On the other hand, how do we even know that the client asked for a full sexual encounter? Maybe the tag “romance” on this engagement wasn’t simply code for “sex.” Echo rises from the chair saying she “wants to dance.” Could the professor have wanted and paid for a “dance”? A “lap dance” so to speak, from out of his own era of medieval history….  (We might also ask where they got the Kiki imprint from, but that might be going beyond the show’s conceits, which we must happily accept and stay within.)

Also, I disagree with viewers who are talking about how Paul Ballard was aroused by seeing Echo naked. Of course, no doubt he was, but I don’t think that was the point. He was deeply uncomfortable with the whole inappropriateness and invasiveness of the fact that this gorgeous, sexually mature woman standing before him had a childlike mind that could not know that she was not a little girl — or that her nakedness might be sacred and precious and not to be taken lightly or casually. (Going back to how I think Paul Ballard treasured his loving intimacy with Mellie, before he realized she was a doll, and that he enslaved himself to the Dollhouse, which he hated to do, in order to set her free. Because he loves her. I don’t think that was a casual relationship for him at all. And he’s disgusted at himself for his rejection of her because she was something she couldn’t help being at the point when he met her) Anyway, that shower scene is a kind of allusive play on Adam and Eve, who in their state of innocence “did not know they were naked.” Ballard is totally opposed in every fiber of his being to what he is doing as Echo’s handler, and being inside the dollhouse. And his assurances to Echo that he will protect her and “bring down the dollhouse” are helpless gestures. She doesn’t even know yet what “bringing down the dollhouse” means. Yet.

Echo is feeling her way (emotionally, or empathetically as you say, Janeaire) to the emotional truth of her situation. Sometimes reading even the comments of Joss fans, I feel some people are being too crude-fibered in their responses to the action in this series; their dismissiveness and their summarily reductive comments kind of wound me…. What’s more important, they aren’t doing justice to the traditional humanist themes of this show, which cherish human dignity and autonomy.

The best thing about this episode was the way that viewers at last could, if they chose, connect with Echo. Some are refusing to do so even here, and finding her “earnest” morality in her final scene with the victimized women to be simply a ho-hum plot gimmick (Echo’s getting a soul, we’ve seen this before, so what?). This is a kind of defensive distancing, like the “eww” reaction to the breast-feeding episode. If we aren’t looking at ourselves in the mirror at every juncture in the episode (any episode) we aren’t getting it. Or so I believe. Actually, I don’t understand how people fail to identify with and care about the dolls in their “wiped” states. They are not blank slates. They are not personality-less. They are children. They are trying to follow, like children playing self-consciously “tea party,” what they suppose must be the script of the adult world around them, and their naivete about what their world is really like is the most shattering commentary of all.

That necessity to look at the “mata” level applies to the lines of dialogue given to the women in the cage, which some are saying was too flat and broad and stereotypical. Here again, every time you think something is not working, take a look for the commentary the action makes upon itself. These are ordinary people under duress. And one of them turns out to be a genuine leader and a hero, and another turns out to be totally and viciously without scruples or conscience. Just a typical slice of humanity…. That’s pretty edgy, really.

Finally, I’m pretty sure, Janeaire, that Terry has flat-lined in the final scene. And there’s a whole other possibility to Echo’s “Goodness gracious” comment at the end. (It isn’t just that there’s still a serial killer inside of her — creepy!! I agree with you that there’s much more to it than that) Echo’s comment could be made to Terry, and it could be irony. Echo sees that poetic justice has occurred (or been carried out), and that the monster won’t hurt any more women and their little boys. “Goodness gracious,” she says to him. She’s glad. I mean, that part of us, the reptilian part of us that acts without empathy, in some sense has to be put to death or “contained” inside of each of us. Your reactions, Janeaire, are on the side of Mercy, while I guess I am enunciating the claims of Justice on the other side of the equation. Mercy and Justice must “kiss each other” (and that is called Grace)…. But Echo’s single witty utterance can mean all these things. It’s a proffer that’s multi-valued.

So, what do the rest of you think. Join us!

7 thoughts on “Discussion of “Belle Chose” — Episode 3 of Dollhouse (2.03)

  1. I love where you’re going with this Janet. Peel back the layers, and there’s so many of them, so intricately interwoven, I don’t think it’s easily dismissed. I know it’s going to take a lot of writing on my part to really express what I’m seeing in it.

    I love the juxtaposition of Paul and Echo in the Garden of Eden. The roles are reversed – Paul has bitten from the apple, and is “aware” of their sexuality. He is already fallen, while Echo is still blithely innocent. And Paul is likewise uncomfortable with the role of Handler – waiting around at the beauty parlor, or sitting in dark places reading books and eating stale pizza. This is not what he’s envisioned for himself. And he feels really uncomfortable with himself – he says so to Echo, that he struggles to figure out what is right. It’s made even more ambiguous for him because Echo is more than happy to be an angel who brings people what they need.

    So when the opportunity to interrogate a “sick little twist” comes his way, he is invigorated. Now he can see clearly with his black and white perspective, and he revels in his righteousness, which justifies (at least for him) how he exercises power. Look at how Adelle watches him on her own monitor, how she leans in, smiling, nodding her head…

    And yes! The Dolls are Children of Eden in their wiped states. This is what’s left when everything that makes up the *ego* has been removed. In a sense, the Dolls are closer to God because they have much less separating them.

    Yes, the resolution is a moment of Grace, in so very many ways. You describe it perfectly! A kiss between Justice and Mercy.

  2. You know, there is one thing no one seems to be saying about Paul Ballard. Maybe my next post will be on this.

    Yes, he is very much a straight arrow. He believes in human dignity and autonomy. That’s why he defends Victor when he’s leaning on his chest! That’s why he became obsessed with Caroline’s forced slavery and exploitation by the Dollhouse in the first place.

    But that doesn’t mean he loves or wants her. Of course he is sexually aware and yes, he is aroused by her because she is sexy to the max. But it is hugely problematic and uncomfortable for him that he is aroused at times by her. He wants to save her, not rape her.

    And that’s why he reacted so strongly, with so much fierce inward conflict, when he learned Mellie was a doll. He loved her and he wanted her, and she was a doll. There was no real consent there, yet he would be breaking her heart by distancing himself and giving her up.

    I think he willingly gave himself to the Dollhouse, though it went against every fiber of his being, in order to purchase the freedom of the woman he loves. And now he is honor-bound to stay away from her. I think this is why he is so hang-dog and hurting and unhappy in the first episodes of season 2, in addition to having to be inside the Dollhouse, and having no way in sight to bring down the Dollhouse or to protect Echo…. His promises to Echo are hopelessly hollow gestures at this point.

    Finally, the ultimate irony. When he accidentally is thrown into Mellie-Madelein’s path (notice his total focus on her and his tender concern for her), she does just what she has always done. She instantly mistakes his concern for Echo as Echo being the object of his central passion as a man. “Lucky girl,” she had said, standing there holding the lasagna as he shut the door in an early meeting between them. She never sees herself as really in the running. But for Ballard, their relationship was more than sexual and was not a fling. He isn’t built that way. We haven’t far to look, either, for why she supposes she can’t possibly seriouslyt compete with someone like the girl in that photo of Caroline she sees Ballard carrying, not when he is such a hunk…. That too plays right into the themes of the show about our programmed self-concepts.

  3. I think Paul Ballard is rather confused about what he wants. Yes, he did love Mellie, but she’s dead now – or rather, she never existed, because she was a fiction, a creation of the Dollhouse. She was designed to push the buttons of Paul Ballard; she was custom-made. Hence her self-deprecation, her pose as someone who needed rescuing emotionally. Paul wants to be a hero.

    When we go back to Briar Rose, we see how Paul’s relationship turned with Mellie. He *knows* that she’s a lie, and when she says that he’s “killing her”, it’s both literally and figuratively true. And here’s what he learned in that scene: that she was *perfect* for him. She was *exactly* what he wanted, and he realized then that he no longer wanted perfection. And so he treats her as less than human, as completely unnecessary to him, and this leads her to suicide – well, until the “divine intervention” of the Handlers. They aren’t there for Mellie, though: they are there for *November.*

    You’re right: he sacrifices himself to the Dollhouse in exchange for Mellie’s freedom, but he might not fully get it yet. He’s really saved November, and Madeleine is a sort of *entailment* of November. Oh, what a great name, Madeleine, and sadly most in the audience don’t recognize or revel in the resonance of Proust and Lost Time. If Paul thinks he saved Mellie, he’s really “saved himself”, because Mellie is simply a mirror to his wants and desires.

    His sacrifice ends up being a fall, because he has had to let go of his certainty, his righteousness. He is thoroughly humbled, even undone, for he comes to realize that he doesn’t know near enough about what he’s seeing to make sense of it all. The very existence of the Dollhouse undermines any kind of ground from which to make his judgments. In terms of Campbell’s Heroic Journey, Paul is now in the Belly of the Whale. He’s crossed the threshold from the Ordinary World, and he is now in the Special Place, through an act of self-sacrifice.

    Did you notice how Maddie had her pain wiped away? Without that grief, without that wounding, she paradoxically ends up being less than she used to be. I thought she lacked some compassion. She was more doll-like than Mellie. It’s funny, Topher proclaims that she’s leaving without a scratch, but then she knocked into the floor lamp and receives a scratch on her forehead. Paul doesn’t even get the satisfaction of saving November, because Madeleine doesn’t want to remember. Paul can’t save November from herself.

    So Paul’s still playing his hero myth, he’s just in a different phase right now. It started not just with Mellie, but also with Caroline; they were concurrent. He’s in the Dollhouse with a mission to save Caroline, who is on a hard drive wedge in Topher’s office. His “sacrifice” is also a cover for learning the territory, and he has to know it well if he’s going to effectively navigate it.

    As far as he knows, this was Caroline’s choice. Furthermore, Echo seems to be perfectly fine with the arrangement… and she is very different from the other Dolls. In a sense, she knows the territory better than anyone, because she’s living in it. Paul needs to know Echo, but not in the biblical sense – and he’s quite good at setting this boundary for himself. He can’t help but look, once, and then he stays focused on the soul before him. His sexual attraction isn’t problematic, because he has some discipline. He doesn’t love her – not yet. I think he does by the time he comes to know Caroline, and then his desire might be more of an issue.

  4. What about the immanence of personhood and personal history in the body, though, something you are always championing? We ourselves know the characters in Dollhouse mostly through their bodies. Sierra and Victor have an embodied attraction between them that seems to persist through their different states….

    I guess I mean that although Paul did realize “Mellie” had been designed for him and programmed to adore him, and thus is a false image of his own desire — I agree about all that — nonetheless he still couldn’t help loving “her,” and I think this goes deeper than maybe I hear you allowing. When they meet again, and she is Madeleine, there is still this chemistry between them. When they are face-to-face they open a space of being between them, where they both come alive. And whatever state she is in, it is something rooted in their physical being and in whatever is that core selfhood we’ve been seeing can’t be wiped…. But they really don’t know each other yet.They have no genuine history together yet. And she always seems to be at sea about him, not crediting herself as what she potentially can be with him and what he can be (only) with her….

    Think I’m a hopeless romantic? I think Paul’s love for this woman in her depths, if I may say so, is built into the future of the show. But no matter what, I am absolutely fascinated to see more of what’s going on with Madeleine. How much she’s been tinkered with, and why. Oh, and thanks for the point about her being “without a scratch” and then bleeding. I missed that. She is wounded whether they think so or not…. Echo/Caroline is always wounding her, just be being there, by being in Paul’s life….

    Another question I’m pondering. Isn’t it possible that though she doesn’t remember it, living through those several years as a doll yet enabled her to work through her grief? (Like Echo “feeling” her past imprints?) Plus the catharsis that Adele arranged for her and the rest of the dolls in “Needs”? She’s not okay, that’s for sure, but I’m not sure her grief for her daughter was wiped or needed to be. It will be fascinating to see where the writers will go, with this condition-in-limbo Madeleine seems to be in. In any case, she isn’t free like Ballard probably thought she’d be.

    I can’t stand not having an episode this coming week.

  5. You are a romantic!

    I think it’s quite possible that Paul loves *November*. November is the *soul*, and that’s where true love occurs, doesn’t it? He had to let Mellie go, because she wasn’t the entailment of November, Madeleine is. But he doesn’t know Maddie, and he might not want to. Maddie was going on about how she was in all this pain, and Adelle made it “all go away,” and this was her motivation for signing up with the Dollhouse in the first place. I think her grief was tampered with (wiped or “not remembered”) and I don’t think that was good or wise. So she thinks she’s gotten out of the Dollhouse, but she hasn’t: the *light* shows us that we need our scratches, we need our scars.

    This is actually the position of Claire Saunders, who knows she’s a fiction, doesn’t know her “true story” and is probably estranged from her Whiskey-soul. Her scars, which she refuses to have taken away, is what gives her some humanity, some compassion. Unfortunately for Claire, she is beset with self-hatred. I wonder if she is going to play a key role in the breach of Dollhouse tech out into the world, and if Whiskey’s role in Epitaph One is a reflection of Claire’s larger character-arc.

    Anyways, we all have to be wounded, don’t we, in order to empathize with the pain of others? And there’s no getting around it, for the unfolding and flourishing of our selves is not easy, it’s painful. It’s been painful for me and for those around me. I liken it to the acorn, who is traumatized upon cleaving open for the tree shoot to emerge. Only after becoming an oak tree does this being realize that the initial wounding was sacred.

    So while I can see a longer-term relationship unfolding between Paul and Maddie – and it certainly appeals to the romantic in me – it isn’t going to happen until Maddie comes back and insists on revisiting her grief and claiming some value from it.

    I love this short hiatus, because I have so much to write. Having a break between episodes buys me some time! I have at least two more essays just to finish up my thoughts on Belle Chose.

  6. Way to go! But I’ve been working through last season’s episodes, and the scenes between Paul and Mellie just vibrate with life and with connection. And at the same time, she is always putting herself down and thinking he couldn’t really want her over Caroline. She invents her rival. When that glitch occurs in the actives because of the Rossum virus (what an episode) and they all relive their traumatic memories, November is reliving wondering if he is thinking of her when he’s making love to me… not her daughter’s death. Hmmm….

    Hey, thanks for reading my other posts, Jane. Wish I had more time to respond right now.

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