Dollhouse’s third episode into the season explores the issues of performance and gender. Entitled Belle Chose (French for “Pretty Things”), the episode begins with a bizarre performance of sorts. A weird male, in a nondescript room that appears transplanted from a mini-mall, is talking to a group of immobile women. The women are posed like mannequins yet they look very realistic. Only when one of the women try to escape the clutches of this demonic incarnation of George McFly, does the viewer snap out of the Uncanny Valley reverie.
Terry Karrens (Joe Sikora), the George McFly look-alike, loses control of the situation and kills the escapee in a fit of rage. Since Terry’s uncle Bradley Karrens (Michael Hogan) is a major shareholder with the Rossum Corporation, the Dollhouse enters the equation. Flustered, Terry leaves his bower of bliss to enter the outside world. Bradley brings Terry to the Dollhouse, since a car hit Terry.
In an emergency procedure, Terry’s personality gets dumped into Victor (Enver Gjokaj). Topher (Fran Kranz) notifies Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) that Terry has the personality profile of a serial killer.
Adelle, ever resourceful, calls on Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) to interrogate Terry. Ballard chips away at Terry’s façade. He thinks Terry Karrens are both names for girls. Terry only begins to crack when Ballard shows Terry his body lying in a coma.
Gender and Performance
Gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act… a “doing” rather than a “being”.
In the B Story, Echo (Eliza Dushku) is imprinted with the personality of Kiki, a rather ditzy college girl. She is assigned to get seduced by a college professor. Due to complications, Bradley escapes with Terry (more accurately, Victor-as-Terry).
Adelle strong-arms Topher into performing a “remote wipe,” a dangerous procedure associated to the disaster in “Epitaph One.” In the ensuing debacle, Victor and Echo switch imprinted personalities. Echo becomes Terry, confusing her captives when she returns to Terry’s hideout.
Victor becomes Kiki. Paul eventually finds Victor dancing away. The scene is played for comedy until Victor begins hitting on a frat boy. Ballard, finding Victor, contains the violence and offers a scene of emotional tenderness in an episode filled with manipulation, seduction, and deceit.
Essence and Appearance
Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola
The Kinks, “Lola” (1970)
Victor’s transformations are worth examining in detail. As an Active, Victor has his body imprinted with two different personalities. Victor-as-Terry is a chilling persona, reminiscent of Norman Bates and Dexter, a human devoid of empathy and compassion. Conversely, Victor-as-Kiki is a joyous, energetic, and social persona.
The monstrosity of Victor gets flipped, from the asocial monstrosity of Terry to the social monstrosity of a masculine Kiki. The tension between essence and appearance threaten the social order. Terry can only preserve his perverted interpretation of the social order through horse tranquilizer injections and recreating his childhood bliss. (The injections also come across like a grotesque parody of the Botox trend. People freezing their faces with poison in the desperate need for acceptance and to appease their sense of vanity.)
Victor-as-Kiki disrupts the social order of the bigoted frat boy. Some react to gay men with violence. (Both the Sopranos and Six Feet Under contain story arcs dealing with barbaric acts of homophobic violence.)
However, Victor-as-Kiki is not gay, not in the sense that David Fisher (Six Feet Under) is gay or Willow (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is gay. Victor literally has a female possessing his male body. In the Dollverse, the body is reduced to a carrying case for the personality imprint. Since an ebullient college girl is in possession of Victor, his actions read as gay. To reiterate, he acts like a gay man, but he is not a gay man. Since the Dollverse deals in bodies and personalities, one starts to wonder “What ‘is’ is?”
Is. To be. “To be or not to be.” While the episode offers a reductionist reading for the gay male (= girl in man’s body), it also attempts to parse challenging concepts. Tackling the ultimate question, the purpose of being, offers no easy answers.
With Belle Chose, the Dollhouse delves deeper into the muddy chaos of bodies, personalities, ethics, and violence.