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Identity and Memory in 'Dollhouse'

Ryan Jawetz

While all of Joss Whedon's shows examine the nature of personhood, none does so to the degree of Dollhouse. Here the role of memory in establishing identity is examined.

Cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” These are the founding words of modern Western philosophy. When Rene Descartes famously came to this conclusion more than 350 years ago, he thought it self-evident. At first glance, his argument against doubt does seem foolproof. If I can doubt my own existence, I must be able to think, and if I am thinking, then I must exist. Open and shut case. But there is a vital question that Descartes overlooked: What is the “I”? This is the motivating question behind Dollhouse. Coming out of the gate, Dollhouse appeared to be little more than a well-written retread of Alias or Charlie’s Angels. But by the end of its second and final season, Dollhouse had delved into issues of personal identity more deeply than most metaphysics textbooks. Although subject to network interference and a sadly truncated 26-episode run, Dollhouse maintains a remarkably coherent conception of what it means to be a human being. Furthermore, Dollhouse confronts the difficult questions of moral responsibility and free will that arise from the vision of identity presented on the show.

At the outset, competing notions of identity confront the viewer. The very first scene of the aired pilot features an exchange between Caroline Farrell (soon to become the Doll called Echo) and Adelle DeWitt, the head of the Los Angeles Dollhouse. DeWitt notes that a Doll is a “blank slate,” upon which other personalities can be imprinted, and eventually to which the original personality is returned. (The show assumes that mapping peoples’ brains can yield complete “maps” of their personalities as well. For the sake of argument, I will not dispute that premise here.) Caroline notes, astutely as it turns out, that it is impossible to wipe a real slate completely clean: “You always see what was on it before.” This conflict provides the framework for the show. The Dollhouse personnel, primarily Adelle DeWitt, Topher Brink, and Laurence Dominic, reject the idea that Echo could resist the imprinting process and (initially) attempt to understand her aberrant behavior as a random occurrence; they view it as a consequence of the imprecision inherent in neurological manipulation. However, over the course of two seasons, it becomes clear that Echo’s behavior is not a mere statistical fluctuation.

The Dollhouse exists to provide a service that cannot be obtained in any other fashion. As DeWitt explains to a client, when a Doll is on an engagement, he or she is not playing a part; there is no pretending. A Doll imprinted to be in love or to be a trained killer will love without reservation and kill without remorse. At the same time, there is a level of subterfuge involved. Dolls are unaware that they are Dolls, but the clients obviously are not. The emotions that the Doll experiences are real, but the informational mismatch between the Doll and client suggests that this reality is a subjective thing. Indeed, it is a reality bounded by the limitations of the engagement; when the engagement is done, the Doll is wiped, and the person who they had been is once again nothing more than ones and zeros on a hard drive. What, then, are we to make of this constructed truth?

In the publicity leading up to the airing of Dollhouse, the sixth episode was repeatedly touted by many of the actors and writers as the first time that the intended nature of the program would emerge clearly. This episode, “Man on the Street,” featuring beloved alt-comedian Patton Oswalt, is the first moment that the full range of possibilities offered by the Dollhouse becomes clear. Oswalt plays Joel Miner, an Internet mogul whose wife Rebecca died without knowing of his success. Every year, he uses Echo to recreate a moment he never had with his wife: showing her the house he had secretly bought them with his first big check. For this engagement, Echo is imprinted with Rebecca’s complete personality and memories. In a sense, she is Rebecca. Everything that made Rebecca who she was has simply been transplanted into a new body. From an objective point of view, Rebecca no longer exists—the person who was born to that identity, in body and mind, already died. But for one day a year, there is a living person who has a subjectively identical experience to that of Rebecca.

If we consider that person to be Rebecca, then our conventional idea of continuous identity is flawed, or at the very least outdated...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.

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