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The Appeal of The Idiot Hero - A Closer Look At Paul Ballard

RachM

I'm busy. I'm brooding.
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-Major spoilers for both seasons of Dollhouse ahead-

Paul Ballard is a character who cops a lot of unwarranted flak, both from the fandom and In-Universe. He is often dismissed as insignificant, useless, overly-obsessive and just downright stupid. His pursuit of the Dollhouse and by extension Echo are both seen as unhealthy and ridiculous and he is often put down by fans and by characters within the show, all of which is a real pity and does a true disservice to his character and his characterisation over the show.

Due to Dollhouse’s short run coupled with its’ narrow focus on Echo, there is not a massive amount of background given to the other characters. We know virtually nothing about Paul’s life pre-Pilot, but the little we are told is somewhat revealing. In his first scene, we are informed that Paul was once a good agent, one of the FBI’s best. His life started to unravel when his wife left him, affecting his work and causing his performance to become erratic. It was at this point that the Bureau shunted him into a department which was intended to be a dead-end – the investigation into the Dollhouse.

This is actually a very important point, and one which should be remembered when discussing Paul’s obsession with the Dollhouse (and later with Echo, which I will also touch upon). Paul neither pursued nor discovered the Dollhouse on his own. He was assigned a case which many believed to be a dead end, mostly to get him out of the way and give him something redundant to focus on, where he couldn’t make trouble. However, as Paul discovers, the Dollhouse is very much a reality, a horrifying institution which deals in human trafficking, slavery and potentially murder. And Paul, being a Lawful Good type as well as a genuinely good person, can’t let the investigation go once all of this is discovered. He knows that the Dollhouse exists, he knows that innocent people are being trafficked and abused, and he refuses to let it lie, despite the Bureau’s insistence that he should. Paul’s obsession with the Dollhouse and bringing it down is actually an indicator to the goodness of his character, as opposed to the very negative light it’s usually shown in.

But what of his creepy obsession with Echo, you ask. Well, again, this isn’t your typical stalker-with-a-crush case. As with the Dollhouse investigation, Echo was sent to Paul. Paul had already been investigating the Dollhouse for months when Alpha sent him the photo of Echo, which changed the game significantly for Paul. Whereas before he knew that the Dollhouse was operational, all of its victims were nameless and faceless. Once Echo’s picture is sent to him, he suddenly has a real, living, breathing person to focus on, someone whom he can actually save, which is why she becomes such a focal point for him. The Dollhouse is no longer a faceless monster, it is a real place, holding a real person. And once he sees Echo in her Rebecca Miner persona, the reality hits even harder, as Paul now has definitive proof of what is going on behind the closed doors of the Dollhouse.

And it must be noted that Paul fights his obsession. When Joel Miner rightly points out that Paul is indulging in a fantasy, playing the role of the Prince going to rescue the trapped Princess, Paul takes a step back, looks at himself, and decides to focus on the real girl, the one who is flesh and blood and doesn’t stir up his ridiculous hero complex. He turns away from the fantasy and chooses the reality. Which makes it all the more devastating when Mellie is also revealed to be a Doll, shattering Paul’s world again and making it near-impossible for him to separate fantasy and reality anymore, to be a real person involved with a real girl, to lead any semblance of a normal life. The Dollhouse has infiltrated his life, and they will never allow things to return to normal for him.

Now, all this being said, Paul Ballard is not without his flaws. In fact, one of the reasons he is such a great character is because he is deeply flawed. As the title of this piece suggests, he is a classic example of an Idiot Hero, rushing in without thought, charging into the fray without a plan, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind him for people to follow. He is arrogant, headstrong and doesn’t often listen to others. He’s got a big, good heart, but he is often ruled by his emotions and has a hard time looking at things outside of his narrow black-and-white view. He also never knows when to quit, which both serves him well and becomes detrimental to his cause.

Despite what I’ve discussed, one of Paul’s biggest flaws is his obsessive nature. While there are valid and obvious reasons for both of his obsessions over the show (the Dollhouse and Echo/Caroline) the degree to which he immerses himself, the lengths he goes to in order to prove his theories and the obsessive nature of his investigation are all alarming at times, and they clearly have a detrimental effect on his personal life, his love life and his work life. He ends the first season with no job and seemingly no prospects. He has proved that the Dollhouse exists but ends up in a Cassandra Truth situation. His obsession has ruled his life for so long, he doesn’t quite know who he is without it, as evidenced by his lack of direction at the start of Season 2 and his uneasy truce with the Dollhouse.

I think one of the more interesting aspects of Paul’s character is that he is truly the only character to never trust the Dollhouse. Even when he joins them, it’s to try to take them down from the inside, to protect Echo and to save Caroline. He never views the Dollhouse in a positive light and is never swayed in his belief that what they are doing is wrong and immoral. He is also the only character to broach the subject of “souls”, to point out that while the Dollhouse may have the technology to “wipe” a person’s original personality, they can’t erase their soul, their true essence, all of which becomes insanely tragic and ironic when Paul himself is imprinted with his own personality. Confronted with the realisation that he is a Doll, Paul must learn to adjust to his new existence, and if Dollhouse hadn’t been cancelled, I think that particular event would have made for some amazing characterisation.

At the end of the day, Paul is actually a really well-written character, with depths that the fandom just doesn’t seem interested in looking into, which is a real pity, because if you can see past the hero complex and obsessive nature, Paul Ballard is a fascinating and endearing character, who – as with everything on this show – had a lot of untapped potential. It’s just a shame that so much of the fandom doesn't see this.
 
GraceK
GraceK
Love all of this .

Taake

Maybe it was taquitos. Maybe he lived for taquitos
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At the end of the day, Paul is actually a really well-written character, with depths that the fandom just doesn’t seem interested in looking into, which is a real pity, because if you can see past the hero complex and obsessive nature, Paul Ballard is a fascinating and endearing character, who – as with everything on this show – had a lot of untapped potential. It’s just a shame that so much of the fandom doesn't see this.
It is a great and thoughtful post, and though I can agree that Paul has good sides, it just doesn't outweigh the bad for me. Now, I don't all together hate Paul, but fascinating and endearing is where I'm like, yeah, nope! My heart breaks for him when he finds out about Mellie, e.g. and I get that he was pushed to search for the Dollhouse and that Alpha sent him Echo's picture but it's still a bit shrug, so what?

Well, again, this isn’t your typical stalker-with-a-crush case. As with the Dollhouse investigation, Echo was sent to Paul.
Guess he just had to fall in love with her then. Wanting to rescue her, fine, focal point for investigation, great. Attempt to fight the obsession, super. But all of that is just the fluff, Alpha didn't dictate Paul's obsession with her. Paul got caught up in that above mentioned hero complex and the hot girl. It is off that I as a viewer, in Briar Rose, don't want him to save Echo from the Dollhouse, because he does come across as a stalker-with-a-crush. If I as viewer know that the Dollhouse is bad, but still, emotionally, feel that the 'hero' is worse and don't actually want him to succeed… that's not good writing.

That said, later on, I often want to root for Paul, but his obsession with Echo/Caroline does get in the way for me, because it is creepy, it's so shallow, and I don't think the show handles it well by having her fall in love with him as well, this just intensifies the creepy for me. If they, post-Mellie reveal, had steered him away from romance plots, I think I would've liked Paul a lot better, because when I see him fight I think he's a superhero, when he wants to take down the Dollhouse he's admirable, same with his constant distrust of them, I love him when he tries to talk to Madeline but then lets her walk away, but when he's around Echo...

I just don't think you can blame the disinterest on the fandom, blame it on the writers who made Viewers disinclined to look beyond the characters flaws and seek the hidden diamond within. If you take a character like Spike, he's also obsessive in his nature, yet people don't have to be encouraged to look past that in order to see an interesting character.

Basically, Paul serves a good purpose on the show, but I don't think he was well-written (if anything, like Connor whom I do love but can see faults in nonetheless, the writers made him too one-note), if he had been audiences would've been able to connect to him in some way. His general impopularity suggests that they never really found a good footing for him and that the writing probably should've taken him in a different direction than it did.

Love the actor though, he creates some ground for likeability, even when its hard to connect to the character.
 

GraceK

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I found it hard to root for Paul when he became an employee of the Dollhouse and then Echos handler. That’s when I started to feel angry about him. I have such complex feelings about Paul!!! I’m annoyed he advocated for Mellys release and not Caroline’s, even though I guess logically I understand why? But then I think about the episode where Echo is imprinted as a mother, and she’s convinced her baby is stolen, and I see Paul believing in this lie he tells Melly that’s it not real, that she won’t remember, and I realize that he has fully adapted to the evil rationale the dollhouse perpetrates, and he has done it to someone he claims to love. 🤷🏻‍♀️ It takes on a dark tone when he becomes her handler because she’s bound to him now, and trusts him completely. Just like she loves and trusts Boyd 😒 and Paul may be a good guy, but it’s a very iffy relationship. I do love him though so geez 🥺🥺 like I said I never know where to land on him cause he really is a heroic character.

I actually like Alpha. Because as completely messed up as he is, he is actually completely upfront about it. Once he gets her out the door in Briar Rose, he lets her in on the truth and gives her a reality check. Then goes on to murder all her clients 😂😂😂 it’s horrifying but at least it’s a true portrait of what this technology actually is, and then he seems to evolve somehow into a better human being. Yeah I think Alpha is fascinating.
 

RachM

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I feel like I should make it clear (because I didn't before) that I don't like the Paul/Echo relationship. I do find it a bit creepy and I didn't feel like it was developed organically. But, I dunno, there's something about Paul that makes me want to defend him, and I think the fact that Echo keeps getting thrown in his face (the Dollhouse deliberately sends her to him one more than one occasion) makes it easier for me to understand where his obsession with saving Caroline comes from (but I do admit freely that his obsession is alarming at times, as I said in the original piece).

I just don't think you can blame the disinterest on the fandom, blame it on the writers who made Viewers disinclined to look beyond the characters flaws and seek the hidden diamond within. If you take a character like Spike, he's also obsessive in his nature, yet people don't have to be encouraged to look past that in order to see an interesting character.
You're right, the Spike comparison definitely works, and I was wrong to make such a broad statement. I just feel that Paul has more layers than fans seem to see but you're right in saying that it's poor writing and not the fandom's fault. Maybe "well-written" wasn't the best way to describe his character, but I still think there's more to him than meets the eye.
 
GraceK
GraceK
Agree. And that’s why I’m so conflicted 🤷🏻‍♀️😫

Taake

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I feel like I should make it clear (because I didn't before) that I don't like the Paul/Echo relationship. I do find it a bit creepy and I didn't feel like it was developed organically. But, I dunno, there's something about Paul that makes me want to defend him, and I think the fact that Echo keeps getting thrown in his face (the Dollhouse deliberately sends her to him one more than one occasion) makes it easier for me to understand where his obsession with saving Caroline comes from (but I do admit freely that his obsession is alarming at times, as I said in the original piece).


You're right, the Spike comparison definitely works, and I was wrong to make such a broad statement. I just feel that Paul has more layers than fans seem to see but you're right in saying that it's poor writing and not the fandom's fault. Maybe "well-written" wasn't the best way to describe his character, but I still think there's more to him than meets the eye.
I definitely understand the impulse, sometimes when I've watched the show I get frustrated because I want to root for Paul as mentioned, I want to like him. He has some great moments, especially with Mellie/Madeline like the "I'm nobody" and later when he lets her go at the airport, already mentioned I know. Finding out she was a Doll was increadibly striking, and I did root for him when he broke up with her and then followed her to find the Dollhouse. There are non-Mellie things too of course, but it's like these things are moments of greatness that have trouble sticking to the character's overall impression.

But I definitely feel like he had the potential to be a much more layered and likeable character, they just didn't manage to truly get this across in the writing. So I'll agree that there's more to him than meets the eye, but I wish they would've been able to articulate that better.

But this is where I also fault the show for what you mention - the narrow focus on Echo.
I feel like the writers felt that Paul had to be intimately connected to Echo in order for it to make sense for him to be so invested with finding and taking down the Dollhouse. I disagree with that. I feel like your post touches on Paul's ability as a character to be the great, obsessive cop who believes in, and cares for, justice and doing the right thing, So I feel like they made a mistake by centering his story around Echo, he should've been more independent of her. But that's part and parcel with me wishing they would've been more interested in the whole cast as a collective, even if Echo was the lead.
 

thetopher

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Ballard is a cliche. The 'rogue cop/FBI guy on a mission' done to death. That's why its hard to root for him, he's dull.

But in S2? He actually gets a bit more interesting because he's compromised. I still can't invest in the whole Ballard/Echo thing though.
 
Taake
Taake
Some of us like that cliché :P

WillowFromBuffy

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I think it is very important that Paul gets flack from characters in the universe. That is where his appeal comes from. He is the hard boiled pulpy film noir investigator who acts according to his own sense of justice.

But I also think that many viewers make the mistake of dismissing characters whom a show invites them to question. The show wants us to question, but that does not meant that we should write him off or vilify him.

There are two very interesting conversations in Man on the Street. First, there is Joel mocking Paul for his hero complex. Second, there is Sierra's handler pointing out Adele's hypocrisy. Both Joel and Sierra's handler have a good point. Joel is right to think that Paul needs to be the hero. Sierra's handler is right to say that Adele's justification for the Dollhouse is thin, because they are "IN THE BUSINESS OF USING PEOPLE!"

However, it is easy to make a logical leap here. Paul's intentions may be partly motivated by vanity, but does it follow that his cause is unjust? The Dollhouse may be exploitative, but does it follow that regular rape is permissible?

Just like a Philip Marlowe, Paul exists in a world where it is hard to be good, because the world and the people that live in it are completely amoral. Everyone is an Adele or a Topher or a Joel. There are no damsels, because everyone is complicit, and it is hard to single out a bad guy. So, Paul does what every 20th century hero has to do: He perseveres. He accepts the humiliations, and the beatings and the smug talks about how he is useless and misguided. He is fine with being ridiculous and he knows he is playing the long game.

"You might not be punished and l might not be alive, but this house will fall." There is something inspiring about that. And really, if you could imagine yourself as a character on Dollhouse, who would you be? Would you be one of the Dollhouse employees, one of the clients, one of the dolls who gave up their freedom or would you be the idiot hero who stood up to it all?

And so what if Paul has his own fantasy about Caroline. As Adele's spiel goes, everyone has a fantasy. Everyone is conceited. Paul does the right thing. Maybe Caroline will fall into his arms at the end ... or maybe not. If you spend every day doing what you think is the right thing, should you feel bad for hoping that someone will notice and love you for it?

Before I started watching Dollhouse, I was told that I would come to hate Caroline. I don't. She's much like Paul, even if she is not a hard boiled FBI agent. She's an idealist and a romantic. I thought the reunion between Paul and Caroline inside Echo's head was ... nice.
 
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GraceK
GraceK
I never came to hate Caroline.
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