Last night’s Dollhouse was advertised by FOX as an “Event” and Whedon himself hyped it by saying that 6 and 8 were the real pinnacle of the beginning of the Season. I have to say though, I was a little… dare I say it?… disappointed.
It’s not that “Needs” wasn’t a good episode, rife with metaphoric and character awesomeness, but if you’re expecting the type of show changing insanity of Episode 6 (or even the type of show changing insanity seemingly promised by a preview that featured the line, “Echo?” “Not anymore.”), you’ll be disappointed.
Let’s start with what I did like: The beginning Ballard fantasy sequence, which was basically en excuse for Eliza and Tahmoh to make out, and to feature more naked Ballard scenes. But it also served to fully articulate how far down the Echo-rabbit-hole he’s falling.
The basic plot of tonight’s episode (which is inherently spoileriffic to discuss, since the episode was a twisty mind frack of an episode that played upon our lack of knowledge, so please don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode) was that Dewitt, seeing the way that the glitches and the mistakes keep growing and growing inside the Dollhouse, decides they need to turn to radical measures to fix up their house. Throughout the episode, they play with our understanding of exactly what is going on. Then all our main dolls wake up, suddenly their normal selves (Caroline, etc.). This provides us with an excellent opportunity to get to know their real selves, and unlike the time spent with Caroline last week, it was pretty great. Non-doll Victor was all sorts of awesome love (in fact, Victor is quickly becoming one of the hidden strengths of this show. He’s the only actor who does everything from blank state to comedic love slave to russian informant with equal aplomb), and australian-accented Sierra was great. Their love story, before now only seen through man-reactions in doll state, was really brought to the foreferont, and it was all the adorable, chemistry beautifulness that I’ve come to expect from Whedon-love. Caroline was much less annoying, and, although I still think she’s a dummy for going back into The Dollhouse once she had the opportunity to escape, it’s starting to feel more like a character choice and less like a failing. Mellie’s storyline was sad, and all, but god was that dress they put her in awkwardly fitting.
The doll-awakening is played intentionally ambiguous for awhile, and this works well. Are we meant to think Alpha or the inside man are finally making their big move? That’s the closest we got to a theory, until this.
Dominic: Four actives are attempting to escape.
Dewitt: Right on Schedule.
BAM WOW! Cut to commercial break.
So, it peels out, that Dewitt in fact not only knows of the brewing would-be mutiny, but she’s using it to test her security systems. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on it, when Echo triumphantly leads Dewitt and all the other dolls out at gunpoint and we’re left to think “WHAT THE FRACK?” She collapses to the ground. Everything you thought you knew and saw is completely different.
It turns out that all the dolls, “broken” as articulated by Boyd two weeks ago, are haunted by the lives they once lived and the experiences they had. You can wipe a mind, but you can’t erase the past no matter how much you try. In an attempt to help characters who no longer live the lives they need to fix get over the issues that led them into the Dollhouse’s grasp in the first place, Saunders came up with a plan to revert them to their original programming, sans memories, and allow them to find the closure more often than not denied to them. It’s a beautifully structured metaphor that plays out dramatically.
The overall structure of this week’s episode is classic Joss Whedon. He sets us up to believe we’re watching one type of episode, and then in the last ten minutes completely flips the setup by returning to a scene we thought we had already experienced. (See also: Angel “Power Play” and Buffy “Enemies”) It works well, and also is symbolic of how much this show wants to play with what we think we know.
This episode also gave us a lot of opportunity to explore the confines of the show’s more ambiguous characters. Topher truly believes he’s doing good in the world (and it went a long way towards making me love him that rather than being pissed or scared when Echo breaks into his lab and cuts the power, he’s impressed). Dewitt has her own, strict rules and beliefs in regard to the Dollhouse. Saunders is as damaged morally as any other person in that hellish place. For the third episode in a row, Boyd got to play the least ambiguously good guy, but I’m starting to wonder, how long can a good man take part in bad things without becoming weak (or worse yet, bad himself)?
There’s also hints of further backstory, such as Dewitt telling Caroline, “you couldn’t live with the consequences of your actions.” It’s got to be more than just a boyfriend getting hit in accidental fire during a misguided animal rights campaign. The Sierra into Doll storyline is still playing with the rape themes, and I’m hoping she gets to play more than sexual victim in the future (albeit a badass, australian, sexual victim).
On top of that, we also got a pretty big fleshing out of the way the contract works, or at least the way that Topher thinks it works. And we get to see the scope of our individual dollhouse franchise, which helps to repress any qualms we might have with the idea that none of the missions we see seem to go off without a hitch (there’s actually a lot of dolls we know nothing about, doing their jobs effectively and without needing major saving a la Echo).
I found myself annoyed through a lot of this episode by what I was perceiving as obvious plot holes. Then, as if he could hear my brain, Whedon fixed it. Why would Echo and one gun be able to completely dismantle the Dollhouse? Oh wait, she couldn’t (they’re playing her). Why would only the dolls we care about be affected by the awakening? Totally intentional. Why would Dewitt risk all these dolls just to test her security and not even program in some sort of failsafe? She wouldn’t. Why would I watch a whole episode (a whole, hugely hyped episode) just to have it all hit the reset button at the end? We wouldn’t.
The only true forward momentum in this episode happened in the last four minutes. After all the Echo, Dewitt, Mellie, Sierra and Victor shenanigans, we cut back to Ballard, whose been back in fact finding mode all episode (since his early on steaminess with Eliza). Just when I was ready to write the whole episode off, he gets a phone call from a pre-mind-wipe Caroline, dropping tantalizing hints and propelling him forward into the next episode.
In contrast to last week’s review, I feel like this one is almost too positive. Oh well. Great Whedon episodes are like rich novels.
Dominic (explaining the dolls): If you’re child starts to talk, you’re proud. If you’re dog starts to talk, you freak the hell out.
Caroline: definitely feeling kind of lab ratty.
They don’t remember who they are, but Victor remembers the New York starting lineup from 1996? (and hehe, he’s a Mets fan, aka the good kind of New Yorker)
Mike (the last doll) was the classic Red Shirt from Star Trek. And if you don’t get that reference,y ou’re probably a lot cooler than me.
Kickin’ girl fight between the handler and Caroline.
Topher: I am BTW. Afraid of the dark.”
Caroline: (re: Dewitt) then you are one sick bitch.
Caroline (also re: Dewitt) Your unbearable truth lady? You’re not as important as you think you are.
Saunders: (explaining her whole scenario for this episode) Just the priority cases. Let the tide come in. It’s the only way to wash it back out.
NEXT FRIDAY?! WE have a spy inside the dollhouse.
I feel like Dewitt says at least once every episode “I should have seen this coming.”