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Transmutation: A Character Study - Echo (Dollhouse)

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As Kollin mentioned in his amazing article, it is essential to include the Whedon-verse when having a conversation about excellent character development. Although each character that Whedon and his talented writing teams create is layered and enthralling, one character’s transformation stands out in particular: Echo, played by the wonderful Eliza Dushku in the criminally underrated Dollhouse.

For those who did not watch, Dollhouse is about a shady corporation called Rossum that has developed technology to wipe people’s personalities and imprint them with new ones. Rich clients then rent these “actives” who are imprinted with whatever personality they want, much like prostitution. Ultimately, one active named Echo begins to become self aware and seeks to take down the Dollhouse and Rossum.

In sci-fi and fantasy, many of the great character arcs involve the redemption of a villain/creation of an anti hero, like Damon from The Vampire Diaries or Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And while sometimes there is nothing better than seeing a badass villain turn into a sassy, lovable hero, what makes Echo’s transformation so compelling is that she is literally starting at zero. A total blank slate that we get to see become self aware and make decisions about morality in real time.

When we first meet Echo, she is one of the Dollhouse’s most popular actives and is sent out on mission after mission ranging from hostage negotiator to being the date to a rich boy’s birthday bash, but afterwards is always wiped of these personalities and supposedly returns to being an innocent, almost mindless, person. She begins to grow self aware as the remnants of her imprinted personalities stay with her. A great example of this is in “Stage Fright” (1.03). After she and her fellow active, Sierra, are kidnaped while on mission and Echo goes outside her mission parameters to save both of them, they are wiped and then encounter each other in the Dollhouse. Sierra goes to wave at Echo, but Echo shakes her head at Sierra, as they are being watched by Sierra’s handler and the other leaders of the Dollhouse. This is a crucial moment in Echo’s development because although she had flashes of remembering past personalities in the previous episodes, this was the first time that she showed the audience that she was aware of the good/evil moral dynamics at play. In this scene, she was protecting herself and Sierra as well as beginning to identify herself as the hero and the Dollhouse as an evil villain.

This trend is paced perfectly and continues throughout the first season as she shows signs of self-awareness, which ultimately comes to a head in “Omega” (1.12) when she is kidnapped by Alpha, a former active who grew obsessed with her during his time in the Dollhouse. In this episode, Alpha dumps all of Echo’s former personalities into her and she experiences an overload. This is a major turning point in the series and in Echo’s development as she is no longer just remembering moments here and there, but rather understands what is going on and can feel each personality inside of her, uttering the amazing line, “I am all of them, but none of them is me.” (The Vow, 2.01) The scene is also where she illustrates her understanding of morality and solidifies her mission: to take down the Dollhouse and return all of the original personalities to the enslaved actives. The question still remains however: what about her original personality, Caroline.

Throughout the second season, she learns how to control the personalities inside her all while becoming more and more her own person. This all reaches a breaking point in “Meet Jane Doe” (2.07). After escaping the Dollhouse in the previous episode, it is revealed that Echo has been living on her own and working with Paul, her handler and love interest, to control all of the personalities inside her, accessing the different skills they possessed. Here, Echo is starting to see herself as her own person rather than just waiting for her original personality, Caroline, to take back her body. This causes a very interesting dynamic and challenge as both Caroline and Echo want to take down the Dollhouse and have a valid claim to living in the body, but it may not be big enough for the two of them. Moreover, Echo doesn’t want Caroline to take over now that she is her own person and her only memory of Caroline (which was given to her by one of the DC Dollhouse programmers) is a negative one. Not only was this development written wonderfully, but Eliza Dushku played the part to perfection with guilt and frustration seeping through in her layered performance.

The final step in Echo’s character development comes in “The Attic” (2.10) and “Getting Closer” (2.11), where she realizes that in order to take down the Dollhouse, she has to upload Caroline’s personality and memories into her brain as Caroline knows the identity of the mysterious founder of Rossum. Although Echo wants to be her own person and uploading Caroline could make that impossible, she realizes she has to in order to save the world. After 23 episodes of Echo becoming a fully realized individual, it is extremely powerful to see her come to this selfless decision and ultimately solidifies her transformation from blank slate to hero. When the series fast forwards 10 years in the series finale to a post apocalyptic world, it is left vague how much of Echo is Caroline and vice versa, but it seems as though Echo, Caroline and the other 35+ personalities that live inside this one body have found a way to coexist, with Echo at the helm.

Ultimately, Dollhouse is a beautiful series about morality, exploring the gray area between good and evil and raises important questions that can be applied to real life political issues, like prostitution and the advancement of technology. Moreover, without a compelling lead, this high concept show never would’ve worked and Eliza Dushku’s Echo was up for the challenge, becoming a wonderful vehicle through which to explore these concepts. As I mentioned in the feature introduction article, pacing can be what makes or breaks strong character development and the pacing of Echo’s development was handled a brilliantly. She started from zero and slowly grew to understand the world around her, asking complicated questions about morality along the way. This journey is an epic one and goes down as one of the most compelling, unique, and emotional character arcs in the history of sci-fi television.

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