“The world is a very simple place…at first. Then, as we grow up, it grows around us, a dense thicket of complication and disappointment. Unbearable for some. And even for the luckiest of us, still sometimes more than we can handle. Less than we’d hoped.”
These words never made it into the episodes of Dollhouse that aired on television, but they are the first ones spoken in the unaired pilot, “Echo.” The first image is that of our heroine, the titular Echo, but the words come from my personal favorite character on the show, Adelle DeWitt.
Adelle, played by the incomparable Olivia Williams, is the director/manager/boss lady (her official title is never actually specified) of the L.A. branch of the Dollhouse. The first few episodes of the show paint an imposing portrait of Adelle. We see her as the cold, ruthless matriarch, with fabulous clothes and scathing English wit, willing to do anything necessary to serve her own interests. The very context of the show frames her as morally dubious—after all, her entire business revolves around mind-wiping young people and renting them out to do the bidding of the super-wealthy—and even beyond that she’s not exactly warm and fuzzy. Even when engaging in pleasantries, her demeanor is so poised and elegant that it’s icy. It’s the cool, calculating vibe that we’ve come to associate with so many scheming matriarchal figures in media, from the evil queen of Snow White to Cersei Lannister—incidentally, the kind of attitude that’s more commonly villainized in women than in men. As with many important aspects of the show, it’s only after those first few episodes that we begin to peel back the layers and see what really makes Adelle tick.
Even though the words I opened with aren’t in the series proper, they are particularly iconic to me in the way they reflect Adelle’s mindset. When you look past the veneer, you can see in them the portrait of Adelle as a former idealist grown sad. She has hardened herself to the cruelties of the world, and profited by that hardness, but never lost sight of what she’s lost. She has a protective soul, trying to express itself in an exploitative world.
The only specific given on Adelle’s life prior to running this Dollhouse is a reference to her once working in a “division that grew replacement organs out of stem cells.” We’re not sure how or why Rossum moved her from there to the Dollhouse, but any way it shakes out, my point is that it’s a job she seems destined for—in a way maybe she herself doesn’t fully, consciously understand. In the cold, heartless machinery of exploitation, it offers an opportunity to occasionally do a little good, to give some people, as she phrases it, “what they need.”
Of course, part of what requires the aforementioned peeling back of layers is that Adelle would never express any of these feelings to anyone else. Part of having the job she has means playing her cards close to the chest at all times. The respect of both her staff and her peers and superiors within the Rossum Corporation relies upon her being hyper-competent and hyper-confident. Beyond that, there’s the itty-bitty little exacerbating factor that the Dollhouse is also illegal and underground. This means that Adelle needs to be even cleverer and even more cautious. It also means that in order to sleep at night, she, like so many of her staff, has to assert her own sense of morality in what few places she can afford to.
In the sixth episode, “Man on the Street,” Echo’s handler Boyd Langton discovers that one of the Actives, Sierra, has been raped multiple times by her handler while in her helpless doll state. When Boyd puts a stop to it and apprehends the perpetrator (his name is Hearn), Adelle insists on giving him a salary bonus. He says he doesn’t need it, but she responds that she needs to give it to him. It’s the first big indication of the guilt lurking underneath her ice-cold façade, and the implication of that went over a lot of people’s heads on first viewing because of just how strong that façade is—and how remarkably subtle Williams is as a performer.
The thing is, Adelle already knows what Hearn defiantly tells her in a later scene—the Dollhouse is a perfect environment for enabling this kind of abuse. Hearn tries to justify his behavior: “You put a bunch of stone foxes with no willpower and no memory running around naked, did you think this would never happen?” For all that he is the most despicable kind of scumbag—and the show makes no bones about that—his observation has some merit. Adelle may approach this business from a high-minded point of view, but the secretive and illicit nature of the Dollhouse means that most people willing to work there will not come from a place of such conviction.
That’s one of the other dangers of running the Dollhouse—there aren’t many people that Adelle can trust. Later in the first season, her own right-hand man, head of security Laurence Dominic, is revealed to be an undercover NSA agent feeding them intel on the Dollhouse and its technology. I think for Adelle this betrayal stings all the worse because it’s not a question of her own ethical boundaries—Dominic isn’t a problem because he’s a loathsome human being like Hearn, but because he’s simply a liability to the Dollhouse. It’s a cruel reminder to Adelle of how dangerous trust can be.
One of the few people she can trust is her tech wizard programmer, Topher Brink. On the surface, these two ought to drive each other crazy, and frequently we do see his smug, snarky irreverence and childish sense of humor grate on her nerves. Yet there’s also a very peculiar bond that grows between them. Part of the reason Adelle and Topher’s relationship is so compelling is precisely because it is so difficult to describe in any kind of short hand. She’s not quite a surrogate mother or a surrogate big sister, even after guilt starts to take a severe toll on his mental state and she becomes his caretaker. She’s not really a mentor, or a teacher, not most of the time anyway. I wouldn’t even call them friends in the usual sense of the word; that is, they’re not “buddies” or “pals.” I guess the most analogous imagery would be that of a captain and her crew. She’s his boss, but by the end of the show she’s also his ride-or-die.
They are both people of thoroughly compromised morals, but the distinction between them makes their dynamic really spark. Adelle knows the score. She knows she has to be ruthless and conniving to do the job she has. She knows that if she can’t be “the heartless bitch,” then she’ll lose what middle-management power she has. She knows that there’s a very difficult line between wanting to hold onto that power in order to do good, and wanting the power for its own sake. She knows that whatever idealistic dreams she once had are long gone, and she has to make do with what she has.
By contrast, Topher is an innocent. He’s a man-child. He does unscrupulous things because he simply never learned to consider questions of morality. His genius has allowed him to get very far very early in life, and allowed him to avoid any negative consequences for his actions. When he starts to face moral quandaries, he’s not prepared for it. It’s almost as if he’s surprised by his own capacity for empathy. For all that he starts the show dismissing any concerns of morality, his is a very loving and tender heart; it’s just taken him until his twenties to understand that fact. No one’s taught him how to be this way, especially not Adelle.
In this area, as in so many others, we see a dichotomy to Adelle’s behavior. On the one hand, she encourages Topher to keep being his brilliant and morally oblivious self because that’s part of what makes him so good at his job, and therefore such a perfect asset to her. On the other hand, she also does it to spare him from having to live with the guilt she does. I think some part of her recognizes how innocent he is, and wants to spare that. Their job requires moral flexibility, and if his comes without the emotional cost that hers does, so much the better. As far as she’s concerned, he doesn’t need to consider the consequences of his actions. That’s her job. She’s in charge. She carries the weight.
For all that fans have often made the comparison between Joss Whedon and Topher—the smart, funny, quippy guy who creates new personalities and is then very cavalier about them—Whedon himself has said that he sees his strongest analogue in the show as being Adelle. Hers is the story of leadership and responsibility, and given that this was his fourth show as creator and executive producer, Whedon had plenty of experience ruminating on those particular burdens. Like him, and like anyone in a leadership position, Adelle takes the blame when things go wrong. I’ve mentioned how hard it is for Adelle to trust anyway, but I was only talking about professional trust in that case. Before things really go to hell in the story’s endgame, there’s no one at all Adelle can trust on a personal level.
That’s why one of her most important relationships isn’t with a person at all, but an imprint. Her recurring secret engagement with one of her own Actives, Victor, under the pseudonym “Miss Lonely Hearts” is not merely a matter of no-strings-attached sexual satisfaction with a handsome young man, but it’s the one time in her life when she can let her guard down. This imprint, “Roger,” is her one and only personal confidante. He’s the only person with whom she can be vulnerable. He’s the only person who ever sees her cry. He’s the only person she can let in close enough to comfort her. The irony of Adelle using an Active to fulfill her own needs is not lost on her, and she suffers plenty of insecurity over it, but…well, there’s that word again: “needs.” Adelle’s entire perspective on her work is about fulfilling people’s needs—emotional and spiritual, as well as physical—and while a certain amount of that is obviously self-justification, a certain amount of that is very true.
Adelle needs to be able to be vulnerable with someone or she can’t do her job. She also needs for this person to be completely compartmentalized: someone who has nothing to do with her work (well, in a sense), someone who can’t divulge her secrets, and someone who can’t be used against her as leverage. Opening herself up to anyone else could threaten her job, and possibly the safety of the Dollhouse itself. More than that, I think she believes she wouldn’t be as good at her job if she couldn’t be strong for every other real person in her life. It’s more than her professional responsibility; it’s how she’s wired. It’s in that part of herself that even the imprinting technology can’t touch. If she were turned into an Active herself, that part of her would still find a way to manifest. The way that Echo needs to liberate, and Victor and Sierra need each other, Adelle needs to take care of people.
In the endgame of the series, Topher’s technological breakthroughs on behalf of the Dollhouse have brought ruin to society, wiping the minds of most of the world and allowing Rossum executives to rule over the wasteland, but Adelle is still a leader and a caretaker. While many of our heroes sacrifice themselves in order to restore the human race’s minds back to what they were, Adelle lives on to shepherd the survivors into a better future—to help them rebuild the world they need.