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03 May 2009

Dollhouse: “Briar Rose”

By // TV

Please. Please. Please. Please. Don’t read this if somehow magically you don’t know the huge Dollhouse spoiler that involves Alpha. I’ve warned you. Here, I’ll warn you again. Don’t Read this if you haven’t seen this week’s episode and/or if you have mercifully avoided spoilers until this point. There, you’ve been adequately warned.

In this week’s episode (“Briar Rose”), Dollhouse finally revealed its true colors and purpose. Dollhouse is about nothing more or less than the essence of humanity and our future as a civilization. All the epic, dark themes that have been presented in the past ten episodes are starting to completely crystallize.

We start with Echo, this week imprinted with a grown up version of a troubled young girl in an attempt to help save said girl from her haunted past. I spent the first half of the episode wondering who the hell would pay for this, but it turns out it’s something even bigger than that. We’ve heard the people who work at the Dollhouse say, repeatedly, that they believe they’re helping people. This week, Topher approached something like “pride” thanks to his pro-bono work trying to save this girl. It’s a sweet example of how they justify their lives of pimpage and whoreage, but it turns out to be something much, much more: a near perfect metaphor for the undercurrent of the semi-misogynistic saviour complex exhibited by Ballard (and to a perverted extent, Alpha) towards Caroline.

But the story with Echo is really just a metaphorical framing device for the rest of the episode. Ballard, using those old fashioned detective skills, tracks down Stephen Kepler, played by Alan Tudyk!!!!!! as the most typical Whedon-verse creation of all time, complete with intense Buffy-esque speak and nervous mannerisms. Kepler apparently at one point designed the eco-system of the literally underground Dollhouse and is now a “medicinal carrot” growing paranoid genius living by himself in LA. Ballard, with Kepler’s help, breaks into the Dollhouse, and the two of them actually get so far as to open up the Doll’s sleeping pods, injuring Victor in the process. Where we see Ballard flat out leave Mellie in his quest to get to Caroline- but more on that later. Caroline is awoken, and Ballard, Prince-like, takes her by the arm and starts to try and leave the castle. But as we well know by now, the people who run the dollhouse are not idiots, and if you spent the first half of this story wondering why the hell Dollhouse security is so poor (especially with a stand up gent like Boyd running the show now), you were justified. Turns out Boyd could have turned the hounds of hell upon Ballard as soon as he entered, but wanted instead to talk Ballard out of attacking. Then, after a minor verbal confrontation, Boyd and Ballard start making with the punches, and I noticed an interesting thing — I was on Boyd’s side. Whenever Ballard hit Boyd, I got all angrified. Maybe it’s because Ballard’s been in a super dark place of late (hating on Mellie, not shaving, threatening people with uber-violence) whereas Boyd has been pretty stalwart, but it was still a really interesting reinforcement of just how morally ambiguous this show is.

After the fisticuffs, Boyd and Ballard end up back in Dewitt’s office. Dewitt seems to prove everything Ballard thinks is wrong with the Dollhouse by threatening to mind wipe him, while Boyd remains his moral self and says that the punishment does not even sort of fit the crime. While they’re debating these moral issues, all freaking hell breaks loose.

Okay, I lied. I’m not done warning you. Please. Please. Please. Stop reading right here if you don’t know how this episode ended. STOPPPPP.

So Victor, who was injured during the doll-freeing portion of tonight’s episode, is found by Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker, for those of you who don’t pay attention to character names like me!) and brought into her exam room for fixing up. This leads to one of the semi-patented Victor-in-blank-state line reads of “People were fighting on me.” Victor really is the best blank-stater of all the dolls.

Just as Saunders is going all motherly on Victor, Kepler shows up and begins slashing the hell out of Victor’s (beautiful) face. Yep, that’s right boys and girls, that ain’t Kepler we’re seeing, and there’s a reason why he looks so good in a Doll’s t-shirt and why he keeps hiding his face whenever Ballard has to fight his way through Dollhouse staff. Turns out, Tudyk is ALPHA, Dollhouse’s boogey man in the closet, who killed the real Kepler and dumped him in Tuscon so that Ballard would help him break into the Dollhouse and set Echo free. He’d previously made somewhat more moderate attempts to break Echo out, including deprogramming her while she’s on mission to help her learn to cope while in her blank state and sending a man out to kill her while she’s on mission so that she would develop more self-sufficiency. It turns out, Alpha’s been training Echo for what’s to come.

But why the hell would he do that? Alpha’s a self-sufficient psychopath with a killer instinct. Why is he so fixated on little old Echo? Is it the kewpie doll eyes and fantastic butt?

No. We’ve spent most of this episode thinking about the nature of humanity and salvation. Alpha-as-Kepler has even given us a lot of insight into his fatalistic view of where the human race is heading. If the future of humanity is just like these dolls, to be nothing more or less than a compilation of memories that are interchangeable and can be programmed in to be other things (as reinforced by the creepy subplot this week whereby Dewitt downloaded Dominic inside Victor to help get information out of him), than we’re doomed. Or at least that seems to be the logic. But Alpha wasn’t just interchangeable; no matter what science did to him, he compiled memories, transcended his programming, proved there’s something more than just circuitry going on up there. And that makes him (almost) unique.

Except for Echo. I’ve purposely referred to the woman who Ballard wants to save as Caroline and the woman who Alpha wants to save as Echo, because I think Paul Ballard would be perfectly happy to download the tree-hugging Caroline back into her pretty old body and send her back out into the streets. Alpha wants to understand the (far more interesting, in my opinion) Echo, with all her compositing, self-protecting, glitching glory. As we can see in the previews for next week, he wants to understand what that means for humanity, to dissect the relationship between memories and personhood. And if along the way, he happens to download some badass chick into Echo (who is that girl!?) and have hot monkey sex with her, so be it.

So where does this leave us? Echo and Alpha escape, Victor’s bleeding on the ground, and Dewitt, Boyd and Ballard are going to have to team up to bring down Alpha. Jigga what? Next week brings us the possible last ever episode of Dollhouse, and a whole bunch of questions that need answering. But that’s the thing about Joss Whedon shows, I am 100% certain that the answers to those questions will be fulfilling. With nearly every other show I’ve ever watched, the finding out was almost always a let down. Just see my review of the BSGfinale, or that moment on Bones when we find out about Zach or the Serena-killed-someone reveal on Gossip Girl. All shows I loved, but the plotting on a Joss Whedon show is simply without parallel on television. The man knows good story and satisfying conclusions, and although I hope next week’s episode is just the conclusion of this particular season, I know it will be a satisfying ending.

Random thoughts/greatness:

  • I didn’t even really get to talk about how hateful Ballard has become, scorning Mellie to the point of suicide and wanting to leave her unconscious doll self in that pod for all eternity. It’s as if the prince from the fairy tale showed up and said, “meh, bitch shouldn’t have touched that spindle if she didn’t want to end up sleeping for one hundred years.”
  • Ballard: Eden wasn’t a prison.
    Kepler/Alpha: Are you kidding? The APPLES were monitored.
  • Boyd: Sorry agent, Ballard. You don’t get the girl. (and therefore summing up the entire saviour complex of Ballard in one perfectly delivered line)
  • Kepler/Alpha: This is like some buddy cop movie where you’re the hard nosed FBI agent and I’m a guy who doesn’t like buddy cop movies.
  • I also didn’t really get a chance to get into how intense the Victor/Dominic scene was, and how great Enver Gjokaj (the actor who plays Victor) was in it, or how terrifying/dehumanizing/amazing it was to see Dewitt’s response to it.
  • Nor did I get to talk about how Topher is officially becoming a character I can root for, and how impressed I am by the slow roll out of it.
  • Or how much this week’s imprint played into Dushku’s skills as an actress. She was guarded, wounded, but ultimately a noble creature. Sound anything like Season 7 Faith to you?
  • I’ve only got one complaint, really, about this week’s episode. STOP. HURTING. VICTOR. NOW. I know this is a Joss Whedon show, and that therefore the people I love will probably die in a hazy storm of bullets or debris or sword slashing, but NO. STOP IT RIGHT NOW, JOSS.

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