The concept of brokenness, in all its varied meanings as applied to a person, is explored at length in Dollhouse. Several characters make explicit and frequent mention of "being broken" early on in the first season, drawing attention to this particular underlying theme of the show.
broken, according to Merriam-Webster:
1: violently separated into parts : shattered
2: damaged or altered by breaking: as a: having undergone or been subjected to fracture <a broken leg> of land surfaces b: being irregular, interrupted, or full of obstacles c: violated by transgression <a broken promise> d: discontinuous, interrupted e: disrupted by change f: of a tulip flower : having an irregular, streaked, or blotched pattern especially from virus infection
3 a: made weak or infirm b: subdued completely : crushed, sorrowful <a broken heart> <a broken spirit> c: bankrupt d: reduced in rank
4 a: cut off : disconnected b: imperfectly spoken or written <broken English>
5: not complete or full <a broken bale of hay>
6: disunited by divorce, separation, or desertion of one parent <children from broken homes> <a broken family>
In order to become an Doll, a person must surrender his or her free will. This happens on two levels. First, the Doll candidate must choose to lose free will. Second, the initial wipe and imprint physically strip the new-made Doll of his or her free will.
Although Lubov in "Stage Fright" and an interviewee in "Man on the Street" are both by a consequence- and memory-free lifestyle, seeking "the dotted line," their preference is problematic. Lubov is leading a life he wishes to abandon and forget when he already is, in fact, a Doll who has abandoned and forgotten his former life. The woman in the interview who expresses a wish to be liberated from rent payments and "party with rich people" was juxtaposed with another woman who adamantly declares that "there's only one reason someone would volunteer to be a slave - is that they is one already." According to her, in order for somebody to agree to lose his or free will, he or she must already be completely subdued in someway. Her remarks are given additional weight by her race; her African-American heritage is a visual cue to a period in American history when people of her race were enslaved in a more literal way than she is discussing now. And she is right - the woman who wishes for the dotted line appears to be subdued by economic pressure. Her remarks, dress, and surroundings suggest a working-class background and rough living conditions. When Caroline signs her free will away in "Ghost," it is clear that becoming a Doll is not her will at all, but a something that circumstances and Adelle DeWitt have forced her into; she asks "what choice do I have?" before she unwillingly signs the dotted line the interviewee wishes for so fervently.
Once these "volunteers" have become Actives, they are stripped of everything that is them, including their ability to exert their own wills. Actives in their wiped state have a kind of free will that those on the outside might envy on a day-to-day basis. Their actions and activities are governed completely by whim and routine. They may shower before bed every night because an imposed structure or belief that "hygiene is important," but they mostly move freely from massage to yoga to the swimming pool whenever they like ("Gray Hour"). Ultimately, of course, their free will is extremely limited, subject to the orders of any of the Dollhouse's staff.
When a person joins the Dollhouse as an Active, he or she breaks with his or her former life. Not only do the Actives lose their memories and personalities, but the world at large loses all record of their existence. Although Agent Ballard has pictures and video of Caroline that prove she exists, he cannot find any official record of her despite the resources available to him at the FBI. If the girls the Borodin family traffics do wind up at the Dollhouse, they are even more broken off from their former lives than Echo, who still lives in her own country.
Damaged or Altered by BreakingEdit
As Having Undergone or Been Subject to FractureEdit
No better example of this exists than Alpha. His Tabula Rasa fractured in a catastrophic failure known as a composite event, opening him up to all of his previously imprinted personalities and abilities. The sudden influx of knowledge - knowledge of various skills, knowledge of himself, knowledge of what has been done to him, and of who had done it - drove him on a killing spree in the Dollhouse. This breakage is, in fact, the antithesis of the first definition of "broken:" violently separated into parts. The sudden convergence of all of Alpha's former parts forces a violent episode, in turn damaging and altering the Dollhouse itself. Dolls and staff alike die in the wake of his massacre, and need to be replaced after his departure. Alpha remains a dangerous and unpredictable force living outside of Dollhouse control, potentially attempting to "break" Echo.
Something intrinsic about Alpha makes him prone to this kind of brokenness; he is in some way a broken or corrupt soul. In contrast to this is Echo, who retains her sanity and autonomy even after Alpha subjects her to the same kind of composite event.
As Violated by TransgressionEdit
Dolls in their inactive state are particularly vulnerable to abuse by their handlers, as proven by Joe Hearn's rape of Sierra in "Man on the Street." She maintains her a token piece of her will, saying that she does not want to "play the game," but has no ability to offer any other resistance to his advances. Because the Dollhouse stopped defaulting Dolls with combat skills after Alpha's composite event, they have no ability to defend themselves, and are easy prey to physical and sexual transgressors.
When investigating this rape where a handler took advantage of his Active's lack of will, Boyd Langton explicitly states that the Dolls "are all broken." At the close of the investigation, Langton throws Hearn through the glass wall, shattering it as Sierra's will had been shattered.
As Disrupted by ChangeEdit
Becoming an Active is a huge change and disruption - as is each individual wipe and imprint. Because of this, Actives are constantly broken and rebroken, or, as Topher puts it in "Gray Hour," reborn. Life itself, imprints and Actives aside, is a constant process of disruption and change. "Gray Hour" asks if we really do break as a result of these disruptions when Echo faces the most dramatic disruption yet, and a mirror which shows her herself as she faces that disruption.
Halfway through the meticulously planned art heist, one member of the team absconds with the loot, leaving Echo and the others trapped in a vault of art with the clock ticking down until security discovers them. This should be no problem for Echo's imprinted personality Taffy, except that Taffy is wiped remotely from Echo's brain immediately after she's trapped. Echo must then face change and birth trauma without the "throw pillows and perfectly crunchy lettuce" of the Dollhouse. At first, Echo appears "broken," failing to even progress past the script she normally recites upon waking from a wipe. In her companion's dichotomy of people in the world who either "wind up broken or do the breaking," Echo is broken. Even when given explicit instructions from Sierra as Taffy, Active extraordinaire Echo fails to break out of the vault.
However, other experiences in the vault and Echo's own adaptability lead her beyond her broken state. She encounters a surrealist portrait that unsettles her and which she declares to be "broken" in a reversal of the Lacanian mirror stage. In this stage of human development, a baby sees itself in a mirror, and for the first time sees itself as a whole person made of perfectly unified parts. Fingers are part of hands, and move in conjunction with each other. This vision of a perfect whole, however, contrasts with the baby's disjointed sense of self. Fingers are individual elements over which the baby has little or no control; the baby feels broken compared to what it sees in the mirror. Echo, however, sees a painting of a broken person who has "started off whole, and somewhere along the line, the pieces...[got] broken." Like the baby, Echo finds that the painting makes her feel "funny" because she does not quite recognize herself in it. Unlike the baby, Echo is a whole person with control over her own actions and sees a broken image. The sympathy of one of her teammates helps her to understand the painting and her own capabilities.
At the climax of the episode, Echo manages to dig into her internal resources and find an escape route, carrying her injured and helpful teammate with her. When she meets her handler, she explains, "This one is broken. I'm not broken." Langton agrees. Disruption and change must not always break people, no matter how apparently broken they already are. She again asserts "I'm not broken" towards the end of "A Spy in the House of Love" after Laurence Dominic tells her she is.
When Dr. Claire Saunders discovers her memories are not real, she is disturbed and upset. However, she is attached to the identity she knows well and the truth is too alarming to uncover with a greater sufficiency; she does not want to discover who she was before she became Dr. Saunders.
When the November persona Mellie is cruelly rejected by Paul Ballard and cannot discern why, her whole world is turned upside down. Her memories of rejection from previous boyfriends and the heartbreak she feels when her only real love wants nothing more to do with her are too much to bear, and she is about to commit suicide when her handler apprehends her.
Having an Irregular, Streaked, or Blotched PatternEdit
The Active Whiskey was Alpha's first target: he intentionally scarred her so she would no longer be as beautiful and desirable. Damaged, Whiskey was imprinted as Dr. Claire Saunders who remembers being attacked and surviving, which has left her scared and scarred.