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The Fascinating No-Consent Fantasia of Dollhouse and Mad Men

  • 10/22/09 at 2:35 PM
Three incredible actors who deserve other gigs if their show gets cancelled.

Three incredible actors who deserve other gigs if their show gets cancelled.Photo: Adam Taylor/FOX

Tonight's episode of Dollhouse, "Belonging," absolutely blew me away. I've been a deeply ambivalent quasi-fan of the series all along, but this single episode affected me more, and upset me more, than anything that came before — which is the built-in contradiction of Dollhouse, that the better it is, the sicker it is. Without getting into serious spoilers, tonight's show concerns Sierra's backstory, and it's the most straightforward representation yet of the show's obsessive concern: rape fantasies. I mean this in a good way.

As briefly touched on during last year's episode "Needs," Sierra (played by the fantastic DIchen Lachman) was a hippie Australian artist on Venice Beach, the obsession of a rich man. She turned down his come-ons and he schemed to turn her into a doll, a repeat rental for a million creepy fantasies. The technological-roofie concept is of course at the core of Dollhouse, but it's also a recurring trope in the rest of Whedon's shows: on Buffy alone, Warren mind-controlled his ex-girlfriend, Spike created a Buffybot to fulfill his needs, and Willow cast an amnesiac spell on her long-term lover. If you're a resentful Whedon nerd, you've got mind-control issues, a sexually charged situation his series tend to at once oppose in theory and play out in a cathartic way in practice. (As Dollhouse in particular demonstrates, it's awfully hard to distinguish these things when your sex slaves are mincing around in tiny tank tops.)

"Belonging" pushes that sex-slave theme to its limits. It bubbles over with unsettling insights into the Dollhouse's ethical status, fueled by brilliant performances by both Lachman as Sierra and Fran Kranz as Topher, whose status as Sierra's creator/brainwasher is given tremendous complexity (he's regretful, he's complicit, he's innocent, blood is on his hands). In other words, it's a serious treatment of ideas that came across as queasy in the show's "fun" episodes, which often had the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too effect of necro-porn like CSI. In contrast, "Belonging" is (in a very unpedantic way) a genuinely radical feminist plotline, a truly unsettling metaphor about "false consciousness," the social condition that results when someone is convinced to crave something they don't in fact want at all. The moment one Dollhouse character shifts from one type of slavery to another is almost too hard to take. It's the kind of episode Andrea Dworkin would love through all four acts, and again, though I am certainly no Dworkinite, I mean that in a good way.

So what does this have to do with Mad Men?

Aside from the fact that they are both created by men who studied feminist film theory at Wesleyan, the shows don't resemble one another explicitly: Dreamlike as it can feel, Mad Men is a period drama, Dollhouse a sci-fi allegory. But like Dollhouse, it's become increasingly clear that Mad Men is at heart Matt Weiner's nihilistic vision of a pre-feminist universe, a near-McKinnonite nightmare in which women are brainwashed into making choices that feel individual, but are the result of psychological pathways so narrow as to be suffocating. Even a sassy broad like Joan, so socially confident, vibrating with sexual power and emotional savvy, feels compelled to marry simply because she risks obsolescence as a single woman of 31. When her fiancé rapes her, she has a few choices: She could end the relationship, a humiliating social and financial dead end. She could scream, and become a laughingstock, the subject of pity and scorn. Instead, she moves forward, brushing the humiliation off and putting on that white dress that is her own Dollhouse contract.

The German nanny has even less choice: Pete's social power is so transparent that when he blackmails her into sex, she gives in — and though he feels guilty, it's likely for the adultery. Given the way men treat women in his world, it's unclear he even knows what he's done wrong.

Weiner's world is not a simplistic one: Sal gets sexually blackmailed too, and like the nanny if she'd continued to protest, he's fired. And it's important to remember that Don Draper himself, that swaggering ultramale, was pressured into sex by Bobbie just last season, when she thrust her hand down his pants in that car during a hailstorm — if he said no, he'd lose the account. Nonetheless, it's clear that if the men on the show have restricted choices, the women's are far grimmer, both economically and psychologically: As Gail Collins' wonderful new book When Everything Changed points out, in 1960, "women accounted for 6 percent of American doctors, 3 percent of lawyers, and less than 1 percent of engineers." Sheer dependency makes it nearly impossible for even the most lively young woman to see one's life as anything other than an extended game of Mystery Date — a pretty bad bet in the end, even if nobody is literally inviting them into a van for a relaxing "treatment."

Related recaps: Dollhouse: Many Unhappy Returns
Mad Men: The Masked Ball [Vulture]