Close Readings: A Scene From Dollhouse

While it ran only two seasons totalling 26 episodes, Dollhouse (2009-10) marked the beginning of a sea change in narrative modalities which, while familiar from some new streaming series now, were too ahead of their time for the series’ ultimate survival in its historical moment.

Not every series has a lynchpin moment, one you can point back to and say, “this is where the s**t started spiralling out of control towards the narrative outcomes of the series finale,” but Dollhouse sure did, and in retrospect, the scene I analyze here below, was it.

Part of the labor of my doctoral work on genre narrative modalities, entailed a task familiar to even Intro Film students, and equally applicable to television: shot-by-shot analysis of a sequence. Film and television are audio-visual media, and examining what image and sound are accomplishing at that detailed of a level can yield insights into a text that extend far beyond its moment under the microscope.

If you haven’t seen Dollhouse, fair warning, it’s all spoilers from here on out. (And if you haven’t seen Dollhouse, you should probably do that. It’ll mess you up, but in a good way?)

Sequence from Dollhouse Ep. 1.11 “Briar Rose”

(aka The moment Topher suddenly is forced to realize just how frakked this all is)

Context: DeWitt has ordered Topher to place Victor in the chair, restrain him, and then imprint him with Dominic’s wedge so that “Dominic” can be questioned under controlled circumstances. As Dominic revives, he at first doesn’t realize that this body is not his own, expressing annoyance, (“Oh. I’m in the chair. Of course.”), and DeWitt requests information of him, where I begin this sequence.

(Shot 1) A close-up of Dominic’s (Victor’s) left arm in restraints as the hand moves and (Shot 2) a close-up of Dominic’s face (Enver Gjokaj, as Victor) as he demands, “Whose hands are these?”

(Shot 3) Topher (Fran Kranz) appears disconcerted by the situation, and though this is an extremely brief shot his reaction is still worth noting because it is the first instance in Kranz’s performance in the series that the viewer can detect a flicker of ethical dismay on Topher’s part about what his job entails. (Shot 4) Dominic demands, “Whose body am I in?”

and (Shot 5) DeWitt (Olivia Williams) glances away without speaking, leaving (Shot 6) him to demand of her in steadily increasing agitation “Victor?”

(7a) is another reaction shot of Topher, now exhibiting marked discomfort with the situation, exhaling “Oh. . . kay. Okay,” shaking his head vaguely and closing his eyes momentarily before (7b), he glances away from Dominic, slightly turning his shoulders away first, left hand coming up in a gesture distancing himself from both responsibility for and the unpleasantness of Dominic’s real distress, for which he seems unprepared, as

(Shot 8) he turns in the left foreground of the frame and walks a few steps away before turning back to face the chair, disappearing from the frame as he does so and placing himself slightly behind DeWitt’s current position and to her left, perhaps seeking some degree of protection from her as Dominic begins to struggle with his entire body against the restraints and (Shot 10) screams in close-up.

Commentary: At the level of performance, the sequence showcases two actors whose range is vital to the series’ reliance on strong performances by its actors to create compelling and consistent characterizations despite the rushed and fragmentary nature of the narrative, with its many temporal gaps and complications. Kranz is notably understated in this scene, mostly relying on subtle shifts in body language and small gestures (in contrast to Topher’s usually animated and expansive gestural tendencies) to convey the reactions Topher seems to be having difficulty verbalizing, such as the two separate gestures in Shot 7, and thus conveys the situation’s impact on his character without being the focus of the scene. That focus goes to a startling breakout moment in the series for Gjokaj, whose performances had been consistently impressive but not yet this exceptional: here displaying an uncanny ability to duplicate or strongly evoke details of body language, facial expressions, and vocal modulation that creates a nearly perfect illusion of the other actor’s presence. With the accuracy of his conjuration of Reed Diamond’s earlier performance as Dominic, it is entirely believable to a viewer that this is Dominic’s persona in Victor’s body, and its eerie quality seems a reasonable prompt for Topher’s marked reaction of ill-ease.

Stuff just got real.

Written content in this analysis excerpted and slightly modified from the Author’s doctoral dissertation, copyright 2014, filed with ProQuest under her real name, all rights reserved. All greyscaled screencap images taken from same dissertation, and taken/presented for analytical usage only.

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