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The overshadowed, underrated leading women of Dollhouse

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Aug 24, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

No matter your opinion of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon’s short-lived, high-concept science-fiction series, it’s hard to argue the fact that it created some really fascinating, complex characters. Beginning as mere seeds in the pilot with set goalposts for what they would eventually blossom into, the series' principle figures grow into fully realized people with pieces of themselves that no viewer could have predicted, even if the show’s writers had many elements of their arcs all planned out. Unfortunately, many of these characters are left in the dust when Dollhouse is dismissed as a series.

Here’s where we have to issue a disclaimer: Dollhouse is naturally complicated by the fact that many of the characters have two distinct, semi- to completely permanent parts of themselves: their Active personality and their original personality. For the Active characters like Echo (Eliza Dushku), Sierra (Dichen Lachman), and Victor (Enver Gjokaj), we chiefly see them through one of their imprints while they are on an engagement. Any time we see them in their “childlike Active state” in the Dollhouse, they don’t have that many defining traits, but this is the most intimate of spaces in which they exist. Thus, we’ll be talking holistically about them as both their Active and original personalities.

Credit: Fox

Any non-viewers confused yet by all this show-specific terminology? Let’s back up and do a quick crash-course. Dollhouse follows the activities of the L.A. Dollhouse (there are 23 around the world), a secret center (which flaunts its urban legend status for the city’s elite) whose services include renting out (or effectively trafficking, as many are manipulated into being in the Dollhouse) individuals known as Actives for any number of services known as engagements.

These Actives (or “dolls,” hence the title) have their memories and personalities wiped and instead imprinted with a new personality, made up of one or more personalities from actual people. All of the people in the Dollhouse have, supposedly, volunteered for this with the promise of great riches after five years — but we later learn that many members of the Dollhouse were manipulated into “service” versus time in prison or other less favorable conditions.

Credit: Fox

Nearly all the men (and, perhaps not coincidentally, non-Actives with power and free will) on the show had some combination of an obsessive savior complex (see: Paul Ballard), self-absorbed behavior (see: Topher Brink), and amoral attitudes (see: Lawrence Dominic). In contrast, Dollhouse’s two leading women, Echo/Caroline Farrell and Sierra/Priya Tsetsang — in both Active and original personality form — were ballsy, badass individuals who had distinct, selfless approaches to breaking out of the institutionalized systems they were manipulated into. Although their Active states were supposed to “wipe” their original personalities, their true selves always shined through, making both Caroline and Priya essential assets in both present-day and the future techno-apocalyptic world that the show takes place in.

With this high-concept premise, intriguing characters need to exist, otherwise it’s just a concept with no substance. As such, the ones who really set the tone for the series were the two leading women, both of whom were Actives: Echo (Active)/Caroline Farrell (original personality) — who notably began to exhibit self-awareness of her Active self — and Sierra (Active)/Priya Tsetsang (original personality). As the show went on, it became more and more difficult to separate the Actives from their original personalities, especially as Echo began to gain more complete self-awareness, and as the series began to suggest that the Actives’ original personalities ultimately had an impact on the wiped personalities and behaviors of the Actives themselves. In the case of the three lead actives, Echo was particularly inquisitive, Sierra was more passive and kept to herself, and Victor was instinctively protective of Sierra. (Victor/Anthony's unrelenting love for Sierra/Priya that manifested even when his mind was wiped is another fascinating element of Dollhouse and the Active characters like Victor. We'll give rights to one man and one man only.)

Credit: Fox

A radical embrace of development beyond the constraints of the contested, controversial premise of the institution of the Dollhouse itself is what makes these characters so interesting and incredible. This was aided by the show’s season finale flash-forwards, entire episodes of a techno-apocalyptic future set 10 years in the future depicting the fates of certain characters, and the consequences of the imprinting technology. Eerily, because the show aired and was set in 2009-2010, for viewers watching now, this became the present. The final episode of Season 1 was set in 2019 Los Angeles, while the final episode of Season 2 (and de facto series finale) was set there in 2020.

When it comes down to it, the heart of the show really is the characters, namely, Echo/Caroline and Sierra/Priya. Dollhouse even has an episode dedicated to Priya’s backstory (Season 2, Episode 4, “Belonging”) and a multitude of scattered flashbacks of Caroline’s backstory — from her investigation of Freemont College with her boyfriend to her involvement with Bennett Halverson (Summer Glau) at the University of Tuscon. 

Credit: Fox

Echo/Caroline Farrell, is, of course, Dollhouse’s protagonist, hero, and leading woman. Once she started to become self-aware and the mind-wiping became less and less effective, Echo began to embrace her identity as an Active, and at one point was scared of the potential consequences of erasing her identity and permitting the identity of Caroline to return. However, she eventually embraced this and Caroline became a part of her. Caroline and Echo are, of course, inseparable, and the show made less and less of an effort to distinguish between the two by its end. While other characters like Sierra and Victor are restored to their original personalities as Priya and Anthony, respectively, Echo is the only one to retain her Active personality, having developed a fully human self. Echo’s ultimate “superhuman” skill as an Active was the ability to retain multiple personalities at the same time, not merely switching between them in a modular fashion, like Alpha (who started to suffer from all the colliding personalities), but to synthesize them in harmony into one cohesive person: Echo. She could also swap between them at will, allowing a personality to temporarily regain control, but this was simply another one of her skills and devices to use at will. 

But even without this special ability, Caroline herself was not someone to be reckoned with. Caroline Farrell was a college student and animal rights activist whose discoveries of illicit human experimentation and research methodologies launched her into an extensive direct action anti-corporate campaign, going as far as destroying physical buildings and escaping multiple captors who tried to turn her against her own mind. Even when she was wiped, Caroline lingered in the background as she (as Echo) continued to risk her life in the Dollhouse to ensure the eventual release of the rest of the Actives. In the unaired pilot, Echo already appears to exhibit signs of self-awareness, whispering the name “Caroline” to herself after an encounter with Ballard. It's actually the same moment that occurs at end of the first season when it eventually aired on Fox, but Whedon originally suggested that it could’ve occurred much earlier. Spooky!

Although she refers to herself as a “terrorist” while taking action against the power of the Rossum Corporation that supports the Dollhouse, Caroline’s actions are more aligned with violent direct action versus provoking terror and causing bodily harm. This an important distinction to make, especially in a series that walks on hot coals when it comes to morality and ethics. With every step she took to take down Rossum, she put others first and, with her biggest endeavor, wanted to ensure that everyone was out of the Rossum headquarters in Tuscon before she blew it up. When she discovers that there are human subjects in the building being tested with early Active tech, she decides to abandon the mission and changes her objective to save them, putting human lives first. (Naturally, this backfires when she forgets the bombs are set to go off anyway, permanently injuring Bennet, who wanted to flee, which established Bennett's vengeance against Echo/Caroline — but the initiative was there.)

Credit: Fox

Sierra/Priya Tsetsang’s story is very different than Echo/Caroline’s and marked by a different struggle, informed by her status as an immigrant and woman of color (Dichen Lachman was also the only leading woman of color on the show). Priya Tsetsang was a talented but struggling amateur artist who emigrated to the U.S. from Australia, and was used by Nolan Kinnard, a sexual predator who appeared to take a liking to her artwork, only to go to great lengths to silence her and force her under his will when she discovers his egregious desires. With Priya as a survivor of sexual assault, it’s even more frightening when Sierra’s handler is discovered to have been assaulting her while in her Active state, an event so traumatic that it even affects her personality as an Active.

The show introduces Priya’s entrance into the Dollhouse as one of the key set-pieces, with Echo stumbling into the imprinting room while Priya is being mind-wiped (and appears to be in great pain). We also learn that Priya came to the L.A. Dollhouse from a mental institution, where she appeared incoherent and unstable, and making her an Active was taken by Topher (the L.A. Dollhouse programmer) as the “humane” thing to do. However, it’s revealed that she was actually drugged by Nolan into having hallucinations and sent to the institution that he owned, all for the roundabout purposes to pay his way into having Active Sierra imprinted for his own fantasies and whims. (Talk about yikes.) But in a turn of events, she went on to eventually subdue and kill her abuser after corporate powers demand she is relinquished to him and she fights for her life to escape Nolan’s grasp once more. Yet Priya seemed to always get the short end of the stick, forced to personally clean up the traces of Nolan’s death, as he is a Rossum executive.

Credit: Fox

Priya was restored with her original personality later in the series after escaping from the Attic, the Dollhouse’s mind-and-body-prison for “misbehaving” Actives and other people. She committed to the anti-Rossum cause by risking her life and dying and reviving in order to escape, a feat otherwise thought to be impossible (but initially proven wrong by Echo). After returning to her original personality of Priya, she emerged as one of the leaders of the present and future resistance, in spite of past trauma and the potential re-traumatization or harm to herself that could occur by engaging with the rebellion. In the future resistance, she became one of the integral members of the agricultural commune housing and supporting members of the cause, raising her child as a staunch pacifist and single mother — and a woman of color and immigrant. If this isn’t god (goddess?)-tier, I don’t know what is.

Where both Echo and Priya end up as people at the end of the series is perhaps most telling and enlightening. Caroline’s approach to Rossum was to take it down by force, destroying the crucial infrastructure that she knew to be harmful. Conversely, Priya was led into the rebellion against her will, but continued to support the efforts in a way that she knew was both effective and aligned to her own beliefs. Caroline and Priya also led the group to deploy an electrical signal invented by Topher that “reset” everyone who had been previously imprinted and recovered everyone to their original personalities — a full-circle moment as this is Caroline’s original goal before she became Echo. Although viewers were never able to really get a full sense of Echo/Caroline and Sierra/Priya, simply as a consequence of the show’s structure and split focus on two personalities, the fact that these two markedly different women were able to coexist and collaborate in a series that uplifted both women is a testament to Dollhouse itself and its crafting of complex, resilient characters who went through so much and continued to persevere to the bitter end.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.
 

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