Whedon has done a lot of shows about magically powerful women and the men who protect them (Buffy had Giles, River had Simon and Mal), which is sweet - hey, at least they aren’t actively seeking to take power away from those women - but also paternalistic and troubling, and in Dollhouse he seems to know and specifically address just how creepy it is. Lots of parallels have been drawn between the “handler,” Boyd, who is a protective father figure to Echo, and Giles, who is a protective father figure to Buffy, and those parallels are correct. However, this time around, Boyd is also directly invested in keeping Echo powerless: he’s the guy in the creepy van, who takes her back to the Dollhouse to have her self taken away once she’s served her purpose, and if she were a whole person, she might not need him at all. The question of whether he loves her enough to help her free herself is continually raised. Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who wants to “save” Echo, is also implicated: a hero, sure, but also weirdly and sexually preoccupied with “saving” a girl he doesn’t know so that she will love him, a person just as involved in projecting his desires onto a blank slate as any Dollhouse client. The show doesn’t steer around that fact. You don’t hate these men - you love them, in fact - but Whedon is far more willing than ever before to implicate them in the oppression that he condemns. He’s toyed with ambiguity and complicity before, but this time around, ambiguity and complicity are what the show is about.
This. I loved Dollhouse for its complications and especially for its relationships. They were complex, way more than they first appeared to be, and there were imperfect aspects to all of them, and I think that made them real and believable, and frustrating and wonderful.