Friday, September 24, 2010

Paul Ballard - Deconstructing the Hero

One of the predominant themes of Dollhouse is the idea that everyone uses people.  We all use other people to achieve our goals or to make us feel better about ourselves.  Everyone has a fantasy, something they need to survive, and most people will walk over other people to get it.  The interesting thing about this idea is that it is not necessarily something we do maliciously or even consciously.  The human mind, for the most part, is simply designed to think of the self first.  We don't do it out of evil or any idea of worthiness.  It's just how we're programmed.  We all use people, whether we mean to or not and whether we realize it or not.

So, in a world where people are ultimately selfish and acting toward their own agendas more or less constantly, how can there be a hero who, by definition, should be selfless?  Can there even be a hero in this kind of world?  The answer to this question is the character of Paul Ballard.

The idea of a flawed hero is not new.  For quite some time now, the standard hero in fiction has been someone deeply flawed, who manages to overcome those flaws in the name of the greater good, the idea of justice, or any one of a number of lofty ideals.  Paul Ballard, though, is something different.  He's not just flawed; he's completely f**ed up! And he doesn't so much overcome his flaws as his flaws overcome him.

In the very first episode, it is made very clear that Ballard is the 'hero' of the story.  His goal is to bring down the Dollhouse, because he believes that using people is wrong.  He sees the Dollhouse as nothing more than high tech slavery.  For the most part, the audience tends to agree.  (Although, as our perspective is much broader than Paul's, we are able to see the nuance of subtlety that throws the Dollhouse into much grayer territory than Paul realizes.)  But for the most part, it's pretty standard stuff.  Few would disagree that slavery is bad.  Paul looks at the Dollhouse and sees something to be stopped.  The good guy trying to do the right thing.

Except... is he really?  Why does he want to destroy the Dollhouse?  Is it a selfless desire to do the right thing no matter the cost to him (as we've come to expect from our heroes)?  Or is it something more sinister?  Maybe Paul wants to destroy the Dollhouse, not for any selfless reason, but because of an ultimately selfish desire.  Is he the hero because he wants to do the right thing, or does he do the right thing because he wants to be the hero?

Enter Caroline.  The girl Paul doesn't even know.  He takes it upon himself to save her, no matter what.  But he doesn't want to save her because it's the right thing to do.  He wants to save her because he needs to be a hero.  He becomes obsessed with Caroline.  Not the real Caroline, he doesn't know her.  He becomes obsessed with what she represents.  She is the damsel in distress and he is the white knight who will save her.  So ultimately, saving Caroline and being a hero is Ballard's fantasy.  The single-minded obsession that drives every one of his actions.  Of course he tells himself that this isn't the case.  He lies to himself and says that his intentions are good.  But underneath his selfless exterior is hidden a selfish fantasy.  In this way, he is no different than any of the Dollhouse's clients that he considers his enemies.

Man on the Street (1x06) is a pivotal episode in this regard.  In that episode, there is a very telling conversation that takes place between Paul and Joel Myner (Patton Oswalt), a Dollhouse client, where Joel basically says that Paul is no better than he is and might even be worse.
Mynor: No, no, you have a fantasy. We all do. We need it to survive, and I think your fantasy is about my Rebecca. 
Paul: Her name is Caroline.
Mynor: Right.
Paul: A few years ago, she was a student, and then she had her identity ripped from her so she could play love slave to every loser with a wad of cash.
Mynor: But then the brave little FBI agent whisked her away from the cash-wielding losers and restored her true identity, and she fell in love with him.
Paul: It doesn't go like that.
Mynor: I saw how you were with her. It was-- it was almost cute.
Paul: We're not here to talk about me.
Mynor: Hey, I don't have to be here at all. I mean, you're not going to arrest me. Pretty sure you're not going to kill me, so... if we're going to talk, we're both going to talk. I mean, she, she changed things for you. So you're the head of this FBI task force to uncover the Dollhouse, and you're working hard, you're chasing leads, you're cracking skulls, but it's just work. And then you meet this girl or you... you see her somewhere, huh? Caroline? And suddenly... it gets personal. Tell me you haven't thought about it. You know, her, her grateful tears, her, her welcoming embrace, her warm breath. Are you married?
Paul: Was.
Mynor: Oh, that's... Is there someone in your life right now?
Paul: This is getting old.
Mynor: Of course not. No, there's no room for a real girl, is there, when you can feel Caroline beckoning? You know, I have to say.  I think your fantasy is even sadder than mine.
Of course, Mynor is completely right about Paul.  Paul isn't a hero.  He is a sad man who has a sad fantasy about saving a girl he's never even met, and he is in complete denial of that fact.  Yet, something about what Mynor says strikes a chord.  So Paul feels the need to prove him wrong.  Prove that he does have a life outside of his fantasy.  So what does he do?  He goes immediately home and sleeps with Mellie.  By sleeping with Mellie he thinks that he is proving Mynor wrong, proving that he does leave in the real world.  And yet, in trying to prove him wrong, he ends up proving him right.  He doesn't love Mellie.  He uses her, as we all use people, to fulfill a need he has.  Specifically, the need to be righteous. He doesn't want to accept that he isn't after the Dollhouse in the name of justice and the greater good of all mankind, but instead because he needs to play the part of the hero.

So the ultimate question that is posed by Paul Ballard is whether a true hero can really exist in a world as overwhelmingly self motivated as ours?  Or are our heroes doomed to be deeply flawed glory seekers, desperate to fulfill some pathetic need to be good?  Does it even matter why a hero is a hero?  Perhaps the mere fact that they do good things makes them a hero, regardless of whether that desire arises from a place of selfishness or selflessness.  Maybe to expect selflessness is too much, and we should settle for positive-minded selfishness.

Of course, Paul Ballard's story isn't over in Season One.  In a way, it is only the beginning of his character's journey.  At the end of Season One, Paul infiltrates the Dollhouse, and he spends much of Season Two being forced to adjust his worldview according to what he learns in the belly of the beast  (Much like Angel in Season 5 of AtS).  But, seeing as I don't have Season Two on DVD yet, and am not confident in my ability to remember it in any kind of ordered manner, I will not discuss Season Two yet.  But when I feel like it, I will no doubt write a follow up to this.

Closing Thoughts:

  • I love that Mellie turns out to be a doll.  It puts Paul's using of her into much sharper relief.  One of my favorite moments in the series is when he knows she's a doll and sleeps with her anyway.  Afterwards, he is in the shower and she asks if he is going to go looking for more Dollhouse clients.  He says, in a moment of beautiful self-realization, "I've found one."
  • One of the major problems with Season One of Dollhouse, narratively, is Paul's story.  Because we, the audience, know so much more about the Dollhouse than Paul does, his search for it tends to become pretty dull at times.  This is very unfortunate, as thematically, his story is one of my favorite parts of season one.  It's disappointing that this couldn't work equally well thematically and narratively.  Of course, it does finally pick up pace at the end (who could ever forget the buddy-cop duo of Alpha and Paul?)
  • As great a character he was, Paul was never a very good FBI agent.  For one thing, he sucked at making people like him.  Even I was put off by him at first.  He seemed to have one friend at work, and even she didn't seem very enthused whenever he came to her for help.  Considering how early they had him get fired from the FBI, part of me wonders why they even bothered having him work there at all.  Of course, without that, we would never have gotten all of those amazing moments with Mark Shephard.
  • Speaking of Paul being fired from the FBI, did anyone else think it was really funny how often he claimed he was from the FBI after that?  It was almost a running gag.  He was essentially a vigilante, but he kept flashing a badge and seeming all official.  I just thought that was funny.
  • I really like Tahmoh Penikett.  I think he was one of the better actors on the show.  (Not as good as Enver Gjokaj, but comparing anyone to Enver is unfair.)  I look forward to seeing him in Battlestar Galactica whenever I get around to watching it.

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