The Wife:

This weekend, I was able to watch the original Joss Whedon pilot for Dollhouse (included on the DVD that comes out Tuesday, July 27), as well as the futuristic mind-fuck that is the unaired “Epitaph One.” And even though I have some slight misgivings about certain things in Whedon’s original pilot, I ultimately believe that it would have set the show up for a better, more consistent run, leading ultimately to “Epitaph One,” which is one of the most interesting episodes of science-fiction television I’ve seen in some time. Let’s look at these things one at a time:

“Unaired Pilot”

The only thing I didn’t like about this pilot is that it reveals that Sierra and Victor are dolls right away. Therefore, if this had been the pilot, the Victor reveal that happens a few episodes later wouldn’t have been shocking. Nor would have Echo witnessed Sierra’s making and called into question her own making. However, for all that was sacrificed, the episode managed to explain a lot about the business strategy of the Dollhouse in a very believable, naturalistic way. In fact, the opening scene here is of Miss DeWitt explaining the process to a skeptical client. Likewise, there’s a scene where Topher explains to Boyd, not quite as new to the operation as he appears in the reshoot we all saw, how his tech works and why he’s so concerned over the dolls flocking together. Sometimes, these parts felt a little too “telly,” but in the end, I really didn’t mind them. A pilot should establish your universe, and Whedon’s original pilot does that a lot better than the one Fox made him rewrite.

And if there’s any positive spin I can put on not having the Victor/Sierra introductions appear a few episodes in, it’s that Echo’s problems don’t surface right away and it establishes the possibility that her “evolution” might also be happening to other dolls. There’s also a better character introduction to Whiskey, although it still doesn’t affect the game-changing 11th hour reveal that she’s a doll. It simply hints about the Alpha problem earlier and actually answered my question about how many people in the Dollhouse’s employ were aware that Whiskey was a doll. It’s clear from a scene she shares with Topher (about how pro bono engagements with purely altruistic purposes are good for the dolls’ health) that he, as well as others, are aware of what she once was. They simply do not address it.

I do like that this version of the pilot established a prior connection between Echo and Ashley Johnson’s character who, in the finale, has Caroline’s personality uploaded into her. It would have been great for Fox to have allowed that to stay so that the season finale would have included a great big payoff for those who had been watching since day one (“Honey, I am you,” Echo growls at alcoholic Ashley Johnson, in a delightful bit of foreshadowing before launching into a screed about how she once was addicted to booze and men. Echo is a better Cleaner than Benjamin Bratt is, and I appreciate that altruistic engagements can still involve kicking out barstools from under people.) And it would completely explain why that particular mall employee is the one that Echo and Alpha as Mickey-and-Mallory kidnapped, as she would have looked familiar, thus triggering Echo’s memory issues.

There’s also not a hint of Mellie/November to be found, which is great, because Miracle Laurie was always the worst part of this show.

But the most important and necessary part of Whedon’s pilot is the way in which it establishes Echo’s relationship to Paul Ballard. See, she was originally sent to kill him, in the guise of a woman looking for her lost sister (“Caroline”), and, once she got close enough to him to seduce him, she’d off him and rid the Dollhouse of the Paul Ballard problem forever. But Echo fails to kill him, and though she is called off her mission before she can snuff his life out in his hospital bed, this gives Paul Ballard a good reason to be obsessed with this woman who looks like Caroline and why it’s vitally important for him to find the Dollhouse.

Whedon’s original pilot only makes me wonder how much more solid the whole series could have been had Fox not asked him to make the series conform to some sort of case-of-the-week format. This episode definitely felt more like a Whedon episode, from ass-kicking ladies to corporations with less-than-forthright intentions to excellent character building and witty zingers. (More Topher = more goodness.) All I can say is that I’d have loved to see the show jump off from this point, rather than where it actually started. I can only imagine how much better it would have been.

The house that Echo built.

The house that Echo built.

“Epitaph One”

If you regularly read my Dollhouse posts during the season, you would know that one of my chief complaints during the course of season one was that the show always skirted issues of consciousness and embodiment, both physical and digital, as well as other cyberpunk-esque conceits. Here, Whedon treated us to a future, only 10 years down the line, in which the technology employed at the Dollhouse and other similar houses has gotten out-of-hand and basically caused the apocalypse. Not only has most of the world as we know it been destroyed by weapons technology from China (obviously, this is prior to the Sino-American alliance of Firefly), but there’s also an all-out war between natural humans and those with imprints, specifically those who have been imprinted so often that they no longer have a memory, roaming the land, it seems, like vacant zombies, capable of basic human function but incapable of emotion or real thought. The “actuals” have taken to tattooing themselves with birthmarks of their own names so that they never forget who they are – something which, for the sake of my continued work on tattoos and body marking, I hope is further explored as Dollhouse progresses.

In this episode, a group of actuals are heading underground to find a place called “Safe Haven,” and find themselves inside ruins of the Dollhouse. They’re mission is to protect a little girl, who turns out to not be quite what they thought she was, and by encountering Whiskey and experimenting with Topher’s chair on a captive “blank slate,” they learn about what happened to the Dollhouse that made things get so bad. Among these incidents: Victor and Sierra also underwent the multiple consciousness uploading processes that Echo went through, allowing them to be many people simultaneously; the Dollhouse acts as an underground safe haven, with Miss DeWitt heading up vigils for people’s memories, as forgetting seems to be a plague affecting the world; Topher, unable to cope with the fact that his technology, a technology he revolutionized so that uploads would happen in minutes, rather than hours, has wrought such horrors upon the world, is reduced to a blubbering mess, sleeping in the pods the dolls used to occupy and desperately trying to find the right math to fix things. There are many other things we learn here, but no image was more powerful for me than the image of Topher, scratching symbols into the walls of his pod with chalk, rocking back and forth in Miss DeWitt’s arms and crying, a mere shell of the brilliant, confident man he once was.

I think “Epitaph One” gives us an excellent look at where this series could go, getting darker and darker as it progresses. I’m not sure I’d like to see Dollhouse play out for 10 years (nor should it, as it would be hard to maintain being your best as a doll once aging takes its toll), but I’d love to see Dollhouse function on a five-year plan, exactly the length of each doll’s contract, building a momentum toward this destructive and horrible future, preferably with some episodes like “Epitaph One” thrown in. Lost revolutionized and reinvigorated its narrative by tossing in some flash-forward storytelling, and I think that Dollhouse would do well to include a few glimpses into the future, as well. I like every idea presented in “Epitaph One,” and I liked its execution. I’d like to see more like this, and it gives me great hope for the potential of this series.

The Husband:

If IMDb is to be trusted (which is should be about 80% of the time), the show is intended to run, as mapped out, for five years. This is a good, comfortable number, as that is the longest amount of time any Whedon show has lasted on one network. So it’s optimistic while still being realistic. And if you’re like my wife and you pay attention to the show (which I clearly did not do nearly as well), then you’re already ahead of this information and now I look like a fool. But hey, at least I’m confirming your estimates.

As far as “Epitaph One” goes, I hope more people don’t complain about its spoilerishness, because I don’t really look at it this way. For one, I don’t think anybody behind the show has said whether or not this episode should be considered canon. Then again, I didn’t listen to Whedon’s commentary on the disc, so I can’t be certain. Maybe Whedon mentioned something at Comic-Con this past weekend that could illuminate this discussion. But I do know that he mentioned (at least allegedly, as I read this on a blog review of “Epitaph One”) that even if it is canonical, we have to realize that the memories we see throughout the episode can’t be entirely trusted, as memories are, by nature, not always the truth.

But I often subscribe to the Sophocles version of storytelling mentioned in what I refer to as Ebert’s Theory of Sophocles vs. Shakespeare as found in his review for Road to Perdition, which raises the question of whether or not a reader/viewer wants their story’s conclusion fated/preordained/foreshadowed. Oftentimes, by knowing the direct ending of a story, it does not spoil what comes before but makes the events even more suspenseful, exciting and even heartbreaking. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Cycle, we know how it’s going to turn out, but we don’t know why, and it makes the story that much better. It’s obvious from Death of a Salesman what is going to happen at the end, so it’s the journey that is the important element of that play. And, to go way-mainstream as an example, knowing that a major character was going to die in the Ministry of Magic battle climax in Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix (thanks to a shrewd marketing move by J.K. Rowling), that climax was that much more dangerous and readable, as almost all of the major participants within the fight came close to death at one point or another. (Ebert oddly misses the concept that, in most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, we are told almost immediately who is going to die, or at least that there will be a mega-bloodbath, but whatever.) And for Dollhouse, I don’t mind the “spoilers” at all. It’s the journey that matters. It’s Sophocles.

Lost is Sophocles. You heard it here first.

The Wife:

The Dollhouse season/series finale (and I’m betting it’s the latter) was certainly some of the series’ finest work, confirming my Dr. Saunders-is-a-doll theory and engaging in some interesting cyberpunk conceits. As a finale, I think this episode admirably wrapped up the season and, since the central arc was essentially completed, could serve to wrap up the series, as well. But, as any good season finale-that-might-be-a-series-finale should be, there are open doors through which to proceed should FOX get Dollhouse a greenlight for 12 more episodes. (Or 13. Depending.)

When Alpha abducted Echo from the Dollhouse, he stole all of her former imprints, and destroyed the backup copy of her original “Caroline” personality. Topher struggles to find out which of her imprints he would have uploaded into her before absconding, and discovers that it was never one of Echo’s imprints at all, but one of Whiskey’s.

A tall glass of Whiskey.

A tall glass of Whiskey.

Three or so years ago, Whiskey and Alpha were sent out on a paired engagement, basically playing Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers in some dude’s totally weird torture/porn fantasy. Alpha, programmed with a personality prone to paranoid delusions, started to take things too far, which in turn called in the handlers to break things up, but not, of course, until after the reveal that the silhouetted woman he was working with wasn’t Echo at all, but Whiskey . . . and after Whiskey and Alpha proceeded to have some totally hot foreplay with their captive. (This is, I guess, the only reason one should ever want to be kidnapped by Mickey and Mallory, because otherwise that’s a pretty fucking terrible idea!)

And here’s where I take a moment to thank Joss Whedon for giving us Amy Acker in stripper clothes. She’s so much more beautiful and has so much more range than Eliza Dushku that I’d rather watch a spin-off prequel about her character. I mean, really, Dushku has basically only been Faith for most of this series, whereas Acker has been someone completely different than Fred. And we already know she’s a great actress. Let’s all take a moment to shudder in remembrance of the Ilyria arc on Angel.

But as to the Mickey-and-Mallory imprints, it seems Alpha chose them in part because his Mickey personality was dominant at the time, and in part because it was the most convenient way to go on a kidnapping spree. He and Echo-as-Mallory, only minutes out of the Dollhouse, kidnap a young girl named Wendy and drag her back to Alpha’s lair. He was astute enough to call in a bomb threat to the building and lock everyone else inside the Dollhouse so they’d have greater difficulty finding him, and Paul Ballard (who also doesn’t have a whole lot of range or characterization, thanks to Tahmoh Penikett) puts himself in charge of reconstructing what happened on the day Alpha went rogue.

It seems Alpha was obsessed with Echo from the day Caroline strode into the Dollhouse for her pre-Activation tour. Caroline makes a comment about how the Dolls all seem like zombies waiting for tasty brains, which I thought was a pretty cute, sly nod to her Hulu commercial, as well as an accurate assessment of living without a personality. Per the Mickey-and-Mallory flashback, it seems Alpha was routinely paired with Whiskey on engagements, as she was, at the time, the Dollhouse’s most requested Active. And because of his fascination with Echo, he one day took a pair of scissors to Whiskey’s face during art class, eerily demanding, “Whiskey, let Echo be number one.” And so Whiskey was broken, and Alpha was to be given a full diagnostic, wiped and then sent to the Attic (despite his protestations that “I was making art”). During the diagnostic, though, he resists, creating that famous composite event where all of his former imprints uploaded into his brain, causing him to not have multiple personalities, but to be multiple personalities, as other brains shifted, randomly, into his own consciousness at any given moment. And so that killing spree occurred, in which he preserved the one person he thought was different and special: Echo.

At his power plant lair, Alpha uploads Caroline’s brain into poor unsuspecting Wendy with his own version of Topher’s chair, and forces “Caroline” to confront her own body. This was absolutely my favorite part of the series so far, as I felt it finally engaged in some commentary on theories of consciousness and embodiment rather than just bringing something up through a moral lense (such as the show’s constant dialogue about slavery and freedom, which also is brought up in the most eye-rolling way possible during this otherwise great scene). Alpha shows “Caroline” her body and chastises her for abandoning it, making a strange bid to privilege the corporeal and temporal over permanent, ethereal cyber-consciousness. I found this bid to punish Caroline’s mind for abandoning her body especially strange in light of Alpha’s next assertion that, if he makes Echo like him, they can be supreme beings, gods or supermen (or, literally, the Alpha and Omega), because they are not one person with multiple personalities, but one body comprised of many people, able to shift in and out of consciousnesses at any minute.

To make her into Omega, Alpha uploads all of Echo’s imprints into her, hoping that she will do as he did when he emerged from his composite event and destroy her original consciousness. In this case, to kill “Caroline.” But Echo as Omega seems to have a slightly better grip on reality and juggling multiple consciousnesses than Alpha does, and realizes it’s pretty insane to destroy one’s primary consciousness, so she instead swings at him. She disagrees with his theories on the übermensch, because even though they may be everybody, in the sense that they are many people, they still aren’t someone without their original personalities.

That notion of being “someone,” I think, is what Alpha’s addled brain is rallying against by destroying his own original brain and asking Echo to destroy hers. To Alpha, a body with just one brain in it, one consciousness, is to be “someone,” which is to be less than “everyone,” privileging a multiple consciousness, an ever-shifting collective over the singular, individual consciousness. I really like this conceit as it subverts the notion of what it means to be an “everyman” in narratives. This whole time, we’ve looked at the Dolls as “everymen,” capable of having attributes projected onto them, but now we’re asked to read Alpha and Omega’s composite personalities as “everymen” in a literal sense, which renders them godlike, in Alpha’s conception, and, therefore, utterly singular. Uniqueness here is achieved by subverting the traditional notion of an “everyman,” and that’s pretty clever.

Barring that reading, I would find it very odd for Alpha to spend time punishing Caroline’s brain for abandoning her body, when he went on to destroy his own. Especially when he utters the most cyperpunk line in the entire series as he uploads Caroline into Wendy: “A body’s just a body. They’re all pretty much the same.” And he’s right: bodies aren’t special, but consciousness is. This show’s entire conceit has privileged the consciousness over the corporeal, uploading new people into blanked out bodies and sending them off to do the extraordinary or the ordinary. A body is only meat and flesh and organs, something that can be marked, scarred, broken or destroyed while the consciousness, especially the kind that is downloaded or uploaded at will, that lives on. And I couldn’t be happier that Dollhouse finally made it to a point where it engaged in its own conceits. (Props to you, Tim Minear!)

Thus ends our brief, poorly-executed literary theory section of this post. I promise only summary/brief commentary from now on.

While Alpha, Wendy/Caroline and Echo/Omega are having theoretical fun in his lair of doom, Ballard manages to get the bomb threat called off so he and others can go hunt down Alpha and their missing Doll. Sierra and November are imprinted as thieves, for some reason, in the one plot thread that never actually goes anywhere, which I think was added just to make Ballard uncomfortable at seeing the woman he kind of cared for uploaded with a new personality. He also discovers that Alpha and some of the other original dolls were taken from a prison population, and that, as a convict, Carl Craft (later known as Alpha) was also prone to carving up people’s faces and kidnapping. (So perhaps one never leaves one’s original consciousness behind, even when erased?)

Meanwhile Dr. Saunders tends to Victor, whose lovely face will now be scarred worse than her own. She’s actually not very kind to him, reminding him that he will never, ever be able to be his best again, that he’ll basically suffer the fate she suffered: being uploaded with a new personality for the remainder of his contract with the Dollhouse and working on the inside, as a Doll with scars is a broken Doll. (I’ll spare you more theory/analysis on bodily marking, abjecta and the horrific powers of scars, even though I assure you I really, really, really want to say something about it.) You see, once Whiskey was broken by Alpha, and he killed the original Dr. Saunders (who was an old dude who liked lollipops), they made her useful by uploading his skillset and temperament into her body. I feel so badly for Victor, whose life will never be normal again. He won’t notice it now, but when his contract is up, he will. Maybe Topher can make one of the Dolls into a plastic surgeon and fix most of Victor’s scars. He’s almost too valuable to lose as a Doll.

Why couldn't she climb to the top of the ratings? She can do practically everything else.

Why couldn't she climb to the top of the ratings? She can do practically everything else.

Back in the power plant, Echo agrees that she won’t kill her own consciousness (after the world’s most eye-rollingly on-the-nose speech about how she has 37 different brains in her head and not a one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave, especially when there’s a black president), Alpha threatens to break Wendy’s personality so that she can never have it back, revealing his plan to basically live out his days kidnapping people, and putting Echo’s consciousness into them so that she can repeatedly kill herself (and yet never kill herself . . . which is where his argument descends into crazyville). She chases him outside to save Wendy’s consciousness and literally goes out on a limb for the girl, crawling on a construction beam to get to the wedge. Conveniently, Boyd and Ballard have figured out where Alpha’s lair is by this point and Ballard manages to position himself right under Echo, catching the wedge as it falls and saving the girl. Alpha escapes (thus setting up the chase to continue should there be a next season).

Back at the Dollhouse, Ballard agrees to contract for DeWitt to help track down Alpha, but only if November’s contract is voided and she gets to return to her own life, which was pretty sweet and unexpected of Ballard to do, and proves that, in some small way, he did care about Mellie, even though she was never real. And Echo? She gets wiped clean, at least for the foreseeable future.

I’d be surprised if Fox gives Dollhouse a second season, but with such a strong sweep (save for “Haunted”) heading into the finale, they’d be remiss not to. It’s not the smartest show on TV, but it tries hard enough to be. And I’d rather watch something with which I can engage than something that doesn’t ask me to at all.

The Husband:

Hell, I can ignore about half of the Dollhouse episodes and still be confident enough with the other half, especially the last two and the Rashomon episode, to demand a second season. Just like Buffy and Angel, it took its time to get its intelligence and cleverness past the network and finally become a true Whedon show, one of big ideas, big laughs and big action. While I felt the first handful of episodes really talked down to its viewers (something that FOX surprisingly does not do very often with its dramas, and far less so than the #1 network, CBS), it finally started asking us to put the pieces together, and play along with the show as it progressed through its actual mytharc.

As I didn’t really give a crap about this show for a few weeks, I was surprised at how emotional I felt during this finale, especially during the Alpha flashbacks. This may have a great deal to do with how much I have grown to love Amy Acker over the last nine months while I watched Angel, but also my extreme amount of respect for Alan Tudyk as an actor ever since I saw him in A Knight’s Tale. (It took me another three years to discover that he wasn’t British.) The moment he slashed up Whiskey’s face was probably the series’ best moment, one of both great despair and, in a really fucked up way, love. I’m so glad I called the fact that Whiskey only became Dr. Saunders after she was slashed up, and that she wasn’t necessarily the second Doll, and that it in turn gave me a reason as to why Dr. Saunders would be afraid of Alpha, even if she wouldn’t have remembered him as an activated active and not as Whiskey.

While my wife geeks out on cyberpunk, I’m more interested in the broader concept of a soul, or in this case, how despite being a superpersonality, Alpha original form, Carl Craft, tends to dominate and thus fucks up the rest of the Dollhouse by basically being Jack the Ripper. It explains away some of the contradictions in Alpha’s “quest” versus his own killer instinct, the highbrow and lowbrow of what’s going down in that fried brizzain.

Ballard still sucks, though, but now that he’s in cahoots with the Dollhouse, maybe he can redeem himself as a character if the show gets renewed.

Which brings me to the renewal question. I wholeheartedly think that had FOX not dumped it on Friday nights, pairing it with the sinking second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it would have definitely earned a second season. Can you imagine how Fringe would do on such a shitty night with such a shitty pairing? Why not put Dollhouse on Mondays after either House or Bones (the ever-shifting hits of different proportions)? I think going up against Heroes, which some might consider stupid, would actually be a great concept. Heroes is hemorrhaging viewers each week, viewers who’d do better with the similar-but-better Dollhouse, so FOX could easily snag those viewers away, viewers who’d perhaps prefer something a bit more rewarding. And at 9, it could basically take all of those viewers who love Chuck at 8 but ignore Heroes (…as I raise my hand…), because Chuck was designed for Whedonites, the smart nerdy crowd who’d follow Adam Baldwin anywhere. It’s a dirty tactic, sure, but it’s not a new concept.

Come on. Even if many great shows have failed ratings-wise this season, at least they were given a second chance after the WGA strike. Money is money, so wouldn’t you love to capture the intelligent 18-34 bracket who are smart enough to have a disposable income? Because those people are called Whedonites.

The Wife:

I have mixed feelings about the most recent installment of Dollhouse, and that’s odd to say considering this is the penultimate episode that will be airing. But I couldn’t stand the first half of this episode. The Sleeping Beauty story was far too heavy handed, and the sections at the beginning with the young Susan meeting the older, wiser “best possible future” version of herself were the most insufferable of all. It’s perfectly fine to allude to the fairy tale (and I think there ultimately was a good payoff for its use at the end, albeit one that I think produces a very complicated reading), but it isn’t fine to lay that allusion on so thick that it isn’t an allusion anymore and it becomes completely insulting to your audience.

Echo-as-Susan tells little Susan to think of herself as the prince when she reads the story, to think that Briar Rose willed the prince into being, thus saving herself, but in the end, it’s Alpha that imprints Echo/Caroline or whomever she is with that personality, and I am uncertain what we’re supposed to assume about his act of heroism here. I think the best and most likely reading is that Caroline made a pact with Alpha before they both entered the Dollhouse to somehow destroy it from the inside, with Alpha “malfunctioning” and going rogue in order to manipulate Ballard into letting him back in so he could save Caroline, which is the personality I’m presuming he imprinted Echo with, prior to their make-out session. However, does that count as Briar Rose/Echo “dreaming” her prince/Alpha into being, and thus saving herself? I suppose it does, since the plot was hatched long before she became one of many sleeping beauties in the Dollhouse.

So, completely insufferable Sleeping Beauty allusion aside, once Ballard and Alpha-as-Stephen A. Koepler-who-designed-the-Dollhouse enter into the inner sanctum, things got really good. My husband has long since wondered why the Dollhouse has such a terrible security system, and I came to the same conclusion with this episode. Even thought the place is underground, that doesn’t mean a secret corporation should be so damned easy to access! This place has barely a fraction of the kind of security protocols a bank vault has, so it’s basically been begging for Alpha to come back and slaughter everyone, etc.

I told you not to touch my organic, medicinal, personal-use carrots!

I told you not to touch my organic, medicinal, personal-use carrots!

It is, however, pretty clever on Ballard’s part to break up with Mellie in order to track her back to the main site of the Dollhouse, and then to track down the man who designed the sustainable environmental life support system that an underground building would need . . . and much more clever on Alpha’s part to engineer Paul’s manipulation to get himself back in. And even cleverer to affect such a horrible, annoying personality as to not arise any suspicions that he may, in fact, be a killer Doll.

There were some great payoffs once Ballard and Alpha were inside the Dollhouse as well. I really liked the moment where Alpha refuses to go down the stairs that don’t have risers for fear something will reach out and grab him, which was reiterated when Ballard battles Boyd and Echo reaches out to grab Ballard’s ankles and trip him. This was, perhaps, the best payoff to that Sleeping Beauty story, as Echo (basically asleep as a human being) manages to defend herself. I also enjoyed Alpha’s confrontation with Claire Saunders, as he lovingly fondles the face he carved up, moments after taking a blade to Victor’s face.

There was also some good misdirection before these wonderful reveals occurred, in which some Alpha-like murders turn up in Tucson and so Adele imprints Mr. Dominic’s consciousness onto Victor in order to get access to his USB files. There’s a wonderful moment when Dominic realizes what’s happened to him and he cannot handle being uploaded into another body, which is probably the first true cyberpunk crisis I’ve seen on this show. (Also, the actor who plays Victor does a pretty good Reed Diamond impression.) Dominic-as-Victor suggests they look for Alpha in Tucson, so they send Sierra out there to examine the body as a forensic biologist . . . and she discovers that the body was killed in L.A. and brought to Tucson and that it’s the body of one Stephen A. Koepler, which was a stellar reveal as Alpha had done such a convincing job of being Keopler until this point.

Also, I definitely got some confirmation for my theory that Claire is an Active when Dominic screams out “Whiskey” and she shirks away, trying to pass it off as though he just wanted a drink. I find it hard to believe that the folks who run the Dollhouse would be ignorant of their own naming conventions, so perhaps Claire is a Doll made by someone else, masquerading as a real person? (Whiskey, by the way, is the phonetic equivalent of W, the letter right after V for Victor.) If she’s Whiskey, then I have no idea how the Dollhouse chooses to name its Dolls. I had assumed they went in alphabetical order, in chronological sequence, which would make Alpha the first and Zulu the last. Surely, I thought that Claire would have really been Bravo, someone with the Dollhouse so long that the other Dolls would have no idea she was one of them. But she’s Whiskey. And I no longer know if there is a logical system in place for the naming of Dolls. Curious, that. But mark my words: Claire Saunders is an Active. And her name is Whiskey.

Because the end of this episode was so damned good, I’ll try my best to forget that the beginning of it ever happened. I am really looking forward to the upcoming season/series finale, but it’s a pity we won’t get to see Felicia Day’s to-be-unaired 13th episode until the DVD release.

The Wife:

I think my husband will most definitely disagree with me, but I was very much not into this whole “solve your own murder/attend your own funeral”-Agatha Christie-Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-style plot in the most recent edition of Dollhouse. He said something to me during the show that if he were to use the Dollhouse, he’d be using it to solve mysteries, which is fine and all, just not this mystery. Just not this way.

I’ve been reading Thomas Foster’s Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory and I have come to realize that the interesting things about Dollhouse, to me, reside in the fact that it’s constantly bordering on some really heavy theory and criticism regarding cyberpunk fiction tropes and, more importantly, issues of posthumanism. I’ve sadly not read William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, but in Foster’s critical study of posthumanist bodies, I realized that the entire concept of Dollhouse has its roots in Neuromancer’s Molly, who rents her cyborg body out for money for people to upload their own consciousness into. She’s a meat puppet, a kind of cyber prostitute. And so are Echo, Sierra, Victor and November.

It's such a shame that these bodies are frail and weak.

It's such a shame that these bodies are frail and weak.

When Adele’s friend Margaret is uploaded into Echo’s body after her death, she sets about on the plan she’d conceived one year prior to her death (when she was rich and suspicious) to reintegrate herself into her family as another person, Julia. She would be a ghost at her own funeral. I think there could have been something really cool with the concept of uploading a dead person into an Active and then having to hunt down that person when they realize they can have “eternal” life as an uploaded consciousness in a new body, but Margaret instead went to her second death voluntarily, citing that she knew Adele would easily catch her. That’s consistent with her character, yes, but I’m surprised that more Dollhouse clients haven’t thought about uploading their consciousnesses to Dollhouse files and making arrangements to have their personas uploaded into new bodies from time to time, allowing them to experience life after life. That is, after all, a major trope in posthuman narratives, the idea that bodies are unimportant, only as vehicles for consciousness and that eternal life is achieved not through deity, but through technology.

Dollhouse is always skirting these tropes, but never really engaging with them. I don’t find this problematic, just curious. I’d have liked the “solve your own murder” plot more if it were attached to another character, something that didn’t involve race horses and old money and Oedipal complexes, but something more criminal, something darker. Something engaging and, most of all, something in Eliza Dushku’s tough-gal range. She wasn’t nearly as bad in this episode as the guy who played Margaret’s son was, though. He is the worst on-camera cryer. Truly.

The Husband:

Yes, I proclaimed halfway through the 42 minutes that I really liked the episode so far, and got a very funny look from my wife in response. I am quite aware that the episode was silly and majorly un-Whedon (even though one of his brothers was a co-writer), but for some reason I really gravitated toward it. It felt like it was from a different show, but that’s not entirely a bad thing due to the show’s central conceit. Let’s put it this way – it felt like a good episode of another show. It was simply that I felt it was a good use of the Dollhouse, and that ten episodes in I think that the detective episodes capture my interest the most. (Except for the mystery of who’s shooting at the pop star. That sucked balls.) If we’re talking about the best detective story this show has had, it would obviously be last week’s episode as the three Actives crossed stories, and that is indeed the level each episode should be aiming for. I’m just sick of how many plots revolve around Actives malfunctioning, because it’s already old hat.

Or maybe I like stories where spirits return to stalk their family post-death, like Hello Again or Chances Are. I’m sure there are more serious films about the same thing from better directors than, say, Emile Ardolino or Frank Perry, but my concept of spiritual rebirth is sadly focused entirely on the wacky 1980s.

And the bad cryer? He learned that leftover pain from his short stint on the rightfully canceled Bionic Woman last season. And Convicted. Because that sucked.

The Wife:

Of all of Dollhouse‘s good episodes, I think this one is arguably the best of the series, especially because it contained two really great twists that I did not in any way see coming. Well, three if you count that chip . . . the thing upon which this plot is founded.

With Adele DeWitt out on leave, Lawrence Dominic is put in charge of the Dollhouse and on his watch, Topher finds a chip in the chair, a chip that could alter the imprint he put on any Active, like Echo, for instance. If he programs a cheerleader, that chip could make her a cheerleader assassin. So Dominic puts the whole Dollhouse on lockdown and imprints Sierra as a spy-catcher to find out who amongst them has betrayed him. The only people allowed out are Victor, send on a routine Miss Lonelyhearts engagement, the tenth of his missions as the paramour of the octogenarian, and November, imprinted again as Mellie and sent back into Paul Ballard’s life.

Ballard has started to go totally nuts in her absence, obsessing over Echo’s last message to him and using his time without a badge to become a conspiracy theorist. In the middle of a romantic embrace, Mellie snaps into November mode, delivering a message to Ballard the same way Echo once did. She reveals that she is an Active and that the Dollhouse has found out that someone is sending him information. She urges him to stop discussing the case with Mellie, as she is a spy, but to continue his investigation into the Dollhouse’s purpose.

“You can make people different. You can make me help.” – Echo

Even in her Doll state, Echo realizes that Topher changes people. She offers to help find out who the spy is by asking him to imprint her. He does so, imprinting her as an interrogation and body language expert, and she begins questioning the interior of the Dollhouse while Sierra is sent out to infiltrate the NSA and steal covert documents that would reveal who is leaking Dollhouse information. Sierra’s adventure is pretty cool; she dresses up like a cute Asian NSA agent and knocks her out on a train, makes herself some contact lenses with her phone so she can fool the retinal scan (uh, I totally want that technology – is that standard with an iPhone these days?) and takes out a security guard who catches her stealing, all in 4″ heels with amazingly gorgeous zippers up the back. From Sierra’s report, she pegs Ivy, Topher’s lab assistant, as the mole, but Echo thinks its Mr. Dominic. He is none-too-pleased with this accusation and gets into a crazy broken-glass fight with Echo before she bests him and forces him to admit this by dangling him out a window.

Dude, I am so not afraid to cut you.

Dude, I am so not afraid to cut you.

As for Victor, it turns out that Miss Lonelyhearts isn’t the 80-year-old woman his handler has been lead to believe he’s seeing, as he delivers roses to some random octogenarian, but speeds off in an Aston Martin to meet up with Miss DeWitt. They share a romantic weekend together, fencing and making love, until DeWitt enters the bedroom, clothed and crying. We later learn that she has been betrayed, as Echo delivers Lawrence Dominic to her for her judgment. He tells her that his mission was to keep her from bringing the Dollhouse down herself, and that by baiting Paul Ballard, he has driven Ballard further from the truth. Nonetheless, having worked by her now-betrayed side-by-side for three years, she condemns him to the Attic, which, by the way, is a complete mind-suck where the Dollhouse basically downloads your entire brain and turns you into a vegetable. Death without dying, and pretty frightening to watch, especially because Dominic manages to fire a shot into DeWitt’s stomach before his mind is completely blanked.

As DeWitt applauds Topher for using Echo to find the spy, he informs her that Echo came up with the idea herself, meaning that she’s still evolving and that the wish-fulfillment exercise suggested by Claire didn’t entirely work. Still, DeWitt thinks this might be useful, as without Dominic in the way, there’s no one to complain about Echo’s “brokenness,” suggesting, as Echo herself does, that her brokenness is actually an asset. She does, however, ask Topher to delete the Roger persona for the Lonelyhearts engagements, as Miss Lonelyhearts has realized how indiscreet her passions are, and Boyd gets bumped up to Head of Security, leaving Echo in the lurch as she bonds with a new handler at episode’s end.

I liked the way this episode was told, too, in addition to its content. I liked the framing with the BDSM engagement in the cold open, as it set us up to think about trust and trustworthiness, which is exactly what this episode was about. It was brilliant to show us how Echo realizes what’s going on, as well as to then follow each of the four imprints to see how they added up to what Echo was seeing. It kept me guessing, as I totally wouldn’t have seen that Lonelyhearts reveal coming, nor would I have necessarily suspected Dominic. My previous inkling was that Dr. Saunders was a spy, but now I return to my original thought that she, too, is an Active – just one that never disinhabits her very useful imprint. She mentioned in her interview with Echo that she never leaves the Dollhouse, so I have to wonder if, at the end of a day, she also cozies up in a pod.

I wonder, though, where the final episodes of this season will take us now that no one will be sending messages to Paul Ballard anymore. Perhaps Alpha will find him before the Dollhouse finds Alpha?

The Husband:

Can we agree on a couple things?

1.) Ballard is a terrible detective.

2.) I’m getting pretty fucking sick of every problem this show encounters comes from within their own headquarters, either through technological fuck-up or evil mole shenanigans.

Yes, it’s a pain in the ass how nothing ever seems to go right at the Dollhouse, and for such a secretive, mythological company, they have terrible security problems. That’s why I liked the episode “Man on the Street” so much, because it was more about the outside issues everyone was encountering, so much so that the Actives had to take on several different personalities in the same ep.

I am just doing my best not to look suspicious! And to cover up for Dan Vassar  . . .

I am just doing my best not to look suspicious! And to cover up for Dan Vassar . . .

But this was, despite its problems, a damn good episode. I always like the Rashomon approach to storytelling, as it’s not necessarily what’s coming up next that’s important to a story so much as what has already happened. It also takes one moment and allows it to evolve several times over until its life is no longer unexamined, and is therefore worth watching.

I did find it a little strange that Sierra was able to so convincingly pull off her disguise despite being a completely different kind of Asian woman than her target. (The actress is Nepalese, in case you were wondering.) Her story, however, paid off in wonderful amounts of tension, as her fate in re: the rescue helicopter wasn’t even seen, and only brought up again several minutes later as Reed Diamond does his best to hold onto his final bits of Dominic before, as the actor would know, he was to be completely wiped clean of mind and sent to the Attic. (Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun…) As a fan of the actor, I hope to god they keep him on as an Active, especially so I can make more random references to such shows as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Journeyman (as I did when he appeared on that two-parter on Criminal Minds this year).

Oh, and using Echo as a spy hunter was a great and proper use of this show’s central conceit, much better than being a fucking midwife.

And as my wife and I have finally finished watching all five seasons of Angel, all I can say about this show is the following:

More Amy Acker, please.


The Wife:

Eliza Duskhu was right: Dollhouse is officially totally on an awesome streak. “Man on the Street” was a seriously game-changing episode that had exactly the mix of ass-kicking awesomeness and sentimentality that I look for in a Whedon show. We finally got a good picture of the kind of person who might use the Dollhouse for romantic engagements in Patton Oswalt’s Joel Minor, who hires Echo every year on the anniversary of his wife’s death to live out the moment he never got to have with his beloved Rebecca before her life was cut short in a freak accident that very day. And yet, for that sweetness, Joel was dynamic, as well, in his confrontation with Paul Ballard, who finally caught up to Echo in this episode on her engagement with Joel. Joel called Ballard on his bullshit, comparing the agent’s desperation to find a mythical agency to Joel’s own desire to recreate his lost wife. It was all good stuff.

Even better? The excellent reveal that someone inside the Dollhouse is using Echo to communicate with Paul Ballard to lure him to them. Because I didn’t think of this and I like to give credit where credit is due, my friend Magen thinks that Amy Acker’s Claire Saunders is the one co-opting Echo’s body to deliver her messages, citing evidence of Claire’s shifty eyes and familiarity with the imprinting process. I’d add that it isn’t altogether un-possible for it to be Topher’s assistant, either. But Claire seems like a good bet to me.

I even liked Boyd’s plot about finding Sierra’s rapist and going all rogue on him. First of all, it is super fucked up for a handler to abuse his relationship with an Active, especially because the Active-Handler relationship has been conceived of as parent-child in nature. This was all extra-creepy to me because it carried with it all of these incestuous, pedophilic undertones. And frankly, Sierra’s handler got what he deserved. He did something fucked up and died in an equally fucked up way. Yeah, about that . . .

Where the bloody hell are those crisps I was promised?

Where the bloody hell are those crisps I was promised?

The big reveal that Mellie is an Active would have been much cooler for me if the fact that I regularly use IMDB hadn’t totally spoiled it. Way to go, IMDB. Way to change a character’s name halfway through the season. The minute I saw that her name changed from Mellie to November, I was like, that girl is an Active. I suppose for people who hadn’t yet caught on to the whole NATO Phonetic Alphabet naming system for Actives, that wouldn’t have been a spoiler, but I grew up a sailor’s daughter. That was definitely spoiled for me. Nonetheless, the execution of that reveal was pretty awesome in its own right, in which a call to Paul Ballard’s answering machine wakes up the killing portion of November’s brain so that she can murder Sierra’s handler, her own potential murderer. This was a truly ruthless way to do that guy in, and I think it demonstrated a particular ballsyness to Olivia Williams’ character in addition to showing us something super cool.

The show built on the momentum from “Man on the Street” by giving us an episode, “Echoes,” that looks deep into Echo’s past as Caroline. While everyone else from the Dollhouse is out pretending to be the government containing a potentially lethal drug exposure at Fremont College, Echo is off on a romantic engagement with her boy toy from the first episode. In the middle of their light bondage play, she turns on the TV, sees the Rossum Building at Fremont College and feels the instant need to leave. You remember all those other times Reed Diamond thought she was going off task? Well, this time, she really was.

“Man on the Street” utilized an excellent framing device by peppering the story with news interviews of real people’s opinions on the legend of the Dollhouse. “Echoes” builds upon this narrative frame foundation by showing us how Echo wound up at the Dollhouse and the events that lead up to it. Seems that while Caroline was at Fremont College, she discovered that one of the school’s major donors was into some heavy animal testing and she convinced her boyfriend at the time to help her break into the lab and film the abuses there. Once inside, they discovered that Rossum Corporation, the company that owns the Dollhouse, had started experimenting on humans as well. Her boyfriend was killed, and she was captured and presented with a deal over tea: give the Dollhouse five years of her life, and she will walk away scot free.

Seeing the college triggered something in Echo that made her remember and want to reenact the event that ultimately lead her to the Dollhouse, and this leads her into the main plot full of craziness at Fremont College. That drug the other Actives are trying to find is a powerful memory drug that, when administered in large doses, makes people trip balls. With no hippocampus, the Actives should theoretically be immune to it, but as Topher and Olivia Williams realize that it’s administered from person to person by touch, it’s already too late and every single person involved in the mission is tripping balls. For Topher and Olivia Williams, this is really funny, as they too are tripping balls. Some favorite Joss Whedon-y quotes from their drug-trip:

  • “I find lentils completely incomprehensible.” – Miss DeWitt
  • “I’m very British, don’t you think?” – Miss DeWitt
  • “You haven’t seen my drawer of inappropriate starches.” – Topher

Reed Diamond is also affected with the giggles (he tried to pet an invisible cat, for God’s sake) from exposure to the toxin, and when he sees Echo in the hallway of the Rossum building, he confronts her and apologizes for trying to kill her:

“I tried to burn you to death – who does that?”

But for Sierra and Victor, the drug affects them much more slowly, but also much more intensely. Instead of tripping happy fun balls, they both have bad trips, where Sierra flashes back to her recent rape and Victor remembers being a soldier and failing to rescue a woman from a warzone before she died. Back at the Dollhouse, even November starts to glitch, flashing back to her last engagement. You know, that one where she killed a guy all of a sudden.

After all of these shenanigans, it turns out that Echo’s guide through the Rossum building is also the person responsible for the death of the graduate student that started this whole crazy mess. But even after dosing her with the drug, she can’t shake the echoes of her first time in that laboratory and ends up chasing him out of the building the way she chased her dying boyfriend, pinning him to the ground so that Boyd et al can capture him and retrieve the other vial of the drug that he had hoped to sell to a rival company.

Stir of echoes.

Stir of echoes.

Another excellent echo? Drug-Stealer Sam ends this episode where Echo began it: having tea with Miss DeWitt, being propositioned for a stint in the Dollhouse.

Dollhouse delivered what was promised, and I am definitely in it to win it for the rest of the season.

In another Whedonverse-related note, did you guys know that Andy Hallett passed away yesterday after a long battle with congestive heart failure? I’m not even done with season 5 of Angel, but that makes me really sad. Please honor his memory by reading this post from PopWatch’s Mandi Bierly. It made me a little misty earlier.

The Wife:

I know that plots involving infiltrating religious cults/compounds never go well, but I have to say that I actually really liked this episode of Dollhouse. First of all, it proved to me for the first time in this series so far that Eliza Dushku actually has range in her role as a blind religious zealot. Second of all, it provided us with our first real mission for which someone would definitely want to hire an Active. And I don’t just mean the idea of needing a real person, rather than an undercover agent, to infiltrate a cult situation; I mean the fact that the Dollhouse blinded Echo and turned her into a human camera.

I would know your face anywhere.

I would know your face anywhere.

The call to infiltrate the cult comes from a high-up senator who suspects the religious compound of having an arsenal there that could potentially endanger the faithful, thanks to a tip ATF Agent Lyly received from a shopkeeper who noticed the back of the compound’s weekly shopping list had the words “Save Me” scribbled on it. So Echo becomes Esther Carpenter, a girl struck blind by the good Lord at the tender age of nine who truly believes that taking her sight was part of God’s plan to help her see her path. So she hitchhikes (via Boyd, who tells the ATF that she’s his inside agent, although I wonder if he told them about how she’s a human camera) out to the compound in Pleasant, Arizona and endears herself to its leader, Jonas Sparrow, by telling him that she had a vision of him in which he told her to come to him. Doubtful that she is a true believer (or even truly blind), Jonas tests Esther to make sure she’s not a government agent. She passes his test, not noticing at all that he has put the barrel of one of his many shotguns right in her face, and then later welcomes her into the congregation.

The creation of the Esther personality took some very thoughtful writing on Tim Minear’s part, relying on some skillful use of lesser-known Old Testament lore. Esther informed her king and husband about an outside plot to destroy their people and, through her warning, managed to save them all. When Jonas welcomes her into his fold, he reminds his congregation that the biblical Esther was “born for times such as these,” and he sees their Echo-Esther in a similar light. As he gives his sermon comparing the two Esthers, Agent Lyly, having seen video footage from Echo’s camera-eyes of the arsenal buried underneath the compound, wants to open fire wile Echo and the other faithful innocents are inside. Boyd tries to stop him, but fails and one of Lyly’s agents hits the compound’s tripwire, putting Jonas Sparrow on high alert. He turns on Esther, accusing her of bringing the ATF agents down upon them and he strikes her face, at which point the camera lenses are knocked loose and Esther once again regains her sight, making her able to stop his hand before he strikes her a second time.

Boyd figures out that Lyly tipped off the media and wrote the help note himself after reviewing the security tapes from the convenience store – a desperate ploy on Lyly’s part to make a name for himself as the man who brought down the compound. As the ATF waits to see the compound’s next move, the news cameras broadcast a glimpse of the compound’s faithful moving from one building to another. Echo is among them, and back in L.A., Paul Ballard catches a glimpse of the Caroline he’s been searching for as she moves across the screen.

Under the threat of destruction by the ATF, Jonas gathers every member of his flock in the compound’s church and orders Brother Seth to light the building on fire. He now believes that Echo, like the Esther of the Good Book, was a warning of things to come. He instructs her to read a passage about Nebuchadnezzar’s test of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednago, three brothers who survived a fiery inferno due to the Grace of the Lord. When Esther realizes what Jonas’ plan is, she tries to convince him to let everyone leave, citing that God would not have restored her sight if her purpose was to die. When he won’t let them leave, he asks her to pray for grace and so she strikes him down and frees everyone in the church as the Esther of the book effectively did for her people. Jonas wakes as the flames crawl higher and is prepared to take Esther out in the fire with him, until a SWAT-outfitted Reed Diamond bursts in and shoots the shit out of the so-called prophet, striking Echo with the butt of his gun before he disappears into the flames. (Man, he really doesn’t like when missions don’t go the way he thinks they should, does he?) Shortly thereafter, Boyd enters and places a gas mask on Echo-Esther’s face. She recognizes him, but thinks it is because he is an angel she saw once in vision. After the smoke has cleared, Paul Ballard arrives looking for Caroline, but finds nothing useful amongst the ruins.

Other than the plays on the story of Esther, I appreciate Tim Minear’s use of the story of Saul of Tarsus as a metaphor for Esther’s journey as well as Echo’s life. To quote Echo-as-Esther:

“Saul of Tarsus made it all the way to Damascus after he was struck blind and he became a new person.”

For those not hip to 13 years of Catholic school, Saul of Tarsus was a wanton man, until the Lord struck him blind and he repented, converting to Christianity and becoming a new man in Damascus: Paul the Apostle, who went on to spread the word of God through his numerous speeches and epistles. This indeed happens to Echo-as-Esther once she reaches the compound and refuses to let innocent people die for one man’s blind faith (which is really selfishness and not faith at all), as well as to Echo herself every day of her life in the Dollhouse, struck memory-blind with each wipe.

Meanwhile, in the Dollhouse, Topher notices that Victor is having sexual arousal responses in his Doll-state, which he brings to Dr. Claire’s attention. The two pour through the shower records to observe Victors “man reactions” and realize that he only has them around Sierra, meaning they are not residual imprints from his romantic engagements. (Claire mentions that she has previously warned the Dollhouse staff about the dangers of repeated imprints, which definitely raises some questions about what might happen to someone who always impersonated a cage fighter.) When Claire and Topher bring up the subject of Victor’s reactions to Sierra to Olivia Williams, she orders that he be completely scrubbed and will have to be closely monitored from now on. She fears that his “impropriety” will spread amongst the Dolls like a cancer and disturb the innocence of Dollhouse life, much in the way cult leader Jonas Sparrow feared an outsider would ruin his idyllic compound. I appreciate that parallel between the Dollhouse and the compound, but I’m more interested in the idea of Victor’s sexual response as an expression of his basic humanity and the fear amongst the Dollhouse up-and-ups that their Actives express any kind of humanity at all.

Fearing that Echo be put on the compound job in the first place, Reed Diamond tells Miss DeWitt that the Dolls should be adaptable, “they should be predictable.” Adaptability, just like responding to sexual stimuli, is all too human. And any Doll that becomes “too human” gets sent to “The Attic,” which is exactly where he recommends Echo be sent.

The Wife:

This episode had a couple of good twists tossed in, starting with the female moaning at the beginning, which I think led all of us to believe that Echo had been hired to perform some very amazing oral sex on this lady. However, it turns out that those are birth moans and, inexplicably, this couple has hired an Active from the Dollhouse to serve as midwife for their home birth. I have never questioned the premise of hiring an Active instead of an actual expert until I saw this opening. If you want to get a call girl who won’t remember she was with you, or, say, a hostage negotiator or a thief, then I get that, but why would you hire an Active to be your midwife? I get that it serves as a visual metaphor for what will later happen to Echo in this episode (essentially being reborn into the world due to a serious, terrible mistake), but really? Who would do this? If you’re going to hire a midwife, why not just hire someone who has actually trained his or her whole life for it and who will remember birthing your child and will probably go on to help birth your other children, too? That’s the kind of relationship people want to develop with the person who helps ease their children into this world. I just . . . I don’t understand.

Back at the Dollhouse, Topher notices that Sierra, Victor and Echo always have lunch together at the same table. He worries that they are forming instinctual herding bonds, and he doesn’t know how that will affect his work or theirs. Then F. Murray Abraham shows up to hire Echo to do a very high risk job.

(Husband Note: My bad. I actually did think it was F. Murray Abraham, then told my wife to write that down, only to find it’s lookalike Tony Amendola. I guess I thought that if F. could show up in the shitty Star Trek: Insurrection, he might be genre-nerdy enough to jump into a Whedonverse. Once again, my bad.)

Cut to her dressed as a hooker, but slipping something secret and thief-esque into her boot, which makes me go, “Oh, okay. She’s a thief posing as a hooker.” But then, after Echo-as-Taffy and her male companions go up to their room, she runs screaming down the hallway with a busted lip, into the arms of a security guard. And I go, “Okay . . . maybe she’s just a hooker?” The security guard takes her to his office and offers her $10K in hush money if she doesn’t propose any legal action on her assailants or the hotel. And then she beats him up and calls in her posse. I should have stuck with thief. I appreciate the twisty-turnyness in this very elaborate set-up, because it was really cool, but one of the main reasons I suspected she was a thief all along is that Echo’s hooker outfit was very similar to everything Alexa Davalos ever wore as Gwen, the electrically charged jewel thief, on Angel. You know who wrote this episode? Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft, two Angel writers who penned a bunch of the Gwen-heavy episodes in Season 4. Am I surprised to see a sexy lady thief who’s very dangerous come out of these two ladies? No. I am not. Especially when you put her in PVC boots and a red top . . . just like Gwen.

Taffy don't take shit from no one.

Taffy don't take shit from no one.

Like Gwen, Taffy is very good at breaking into stuff. She knows a lot about security systems, and how the best time to rob them is during the grey hour – the one hour when everything is shut down so that the system can be upgraded. Taffy and her crew break into a museum vault during this time in order to steal some pieces of the Parthenon, stolen by Ottoman Turks. Only the antiquities expert makes off with the loot and locks Taffy and her two other companions in the vault. She calls Boyd to help get her out and stop the thieving thief, but their call gets interrupted by a remote wiper, erasing Taffy entirely and leaving only Echo, newborn in this cold world and very confused. She keeps asking if she can go now, scared that there’s no Topher to tell her she can do so if she’d like.

At the Dollhouse, Topher realizes something’s when he sees Echo’s vitals spike. He, Reed Diamond and Olivia Williams play back her call to Boyd and Topher realizes that the worst possible thing that he thought was previously impossible has occurred: Echo hass been wiped. Remotely. This means that there’s someone out there who not only knew about their technology, but got Echo’s cell phone number and hacked into their radio frequency. This is not only bad for Echo, but bad for the Dollhouse.

While Topher programs the Taffy personality into Sierra in order to help get Echo and her team out of the vault, Echo’s team members try to break her out of her crazy-person amnesia. One of the guys, ready to give up on life, teaches her about art, and how it reflects who we are. Echo reacts strangely to a Picasso painting, saying how broken it looks. Her other companion explains to her that she can either be broken, or she can be the one who does the breaking. Sierra-as-Taffy calls in and instructs Echo to bust out of the safe using some resin she’s stowed in her bra and boot, along with a drill. The crucial step is that Echo cannot move her hand while running the drill, but she’s not precise enough to do this and sets off the alarm, leading her more militant companion to drag her into helping him shoot his way out. Deciding not to be broken, she stabs him in the neck and helps her wounded, arty companion out, managing to escape just in time to be met by Boyd, who ran off on his own to save her the minute Topher called and said something was wrong.

Topher manages to fix everything and wipe Echo clean of the memories she formed while operating as herself on that job. (Of course, she seems to still remember that Picasso, drawing a fragmented version of herself in the steam on her mirror and then wiping it away.) He goes to Olivia Williams and tells her that the only person he thinks capable of perpetrating that remote wipe would be Alpha, so she ups his security clearance so she can tell him everything they know about Alpha (whom everyone in the Dollhouse has been told is dead, apparently), and he can tell her how to stop him.

Meanwhile, Victor’s been running around as Lubov, telling Paul Ballard that he needs his help in disappearing from the world so that the Russians don’t kill him. Paul threatens to put Victor on the FBI’s Most Wanted list so that he’ll be an easy target. Ballard is tired of being jerked around by this man he does not know is an Active, and he believes it will be easier to get information about Victor’s dead body. That’s probably true, in that a lack of information will be a wealth of information.

Overall, I’d weigh this episode more on the side of good, as Craft & Fain were able to supply us with some good twisties, as well as supply an engagement that furthered the mytharc of the show. The metaphors about birth and art were both a little heavy-handed, but overall, this was one of Dollhouse’s better episodes. We’re two and two so far, for those who are keeping score.

The Husband:

While I feel that it was a cheap trick to set most of the episode in one location – come on, even the bargain-basement cheap WB budget for Angel didn’t limit the show’s imagination that much – I thought this episode is definitely the best overall one so far, with most of its elements rising up to a certain standard. It was zippier, it was funnier – I think Topher is turning out to be one of Whedon’s better characters, and he in turn is making Olivia Williams act her ass off – and it was far better written. I didn’t even mind the art metaphors that somewhat plagued my wife’s brain, or that Amy Acker didn’t make an appearance, because for once the mission was of actual interest.

I also think that turning Sierra into another Taffy was the coolest thing the show has done so far, even if she was relegated to stay at the Main Office at the Dollhouse and simply bark orders into the phone. It was the concept that was cool, and when all else fails, that’s a good place to start.

Besides, it’s entirely understandable that they didn’t send Sierra-As-Taffy into the vault, because if Echo somehow became Taffy again (or, at least, had little bits of Taffy still in her brizain), then the best that could happen if the two Taffys interacted would be some major “who am I and what is this life?” personality conflicts that would end in bloodshot, and the worst that could happen would be that thing they warn you about in the Back To The Future series, what with the whole space-time continuum fabric being ripped and whatnot.

So Dollhouse, just open up your world a bit more and we could be looking at darn good season. At least, if this episode is of any indication.

The Wife:

“Target” was significantly, significantly better than “Ghost” and calmed all my fears about how this concept might ruin itself. I believe in you, Joss. I never should have doubted because you are, as always, smarter than me and you always know what you’re doing.

“Target” introduces us, through flashbacks, to the events of three months prior, in which the Active known as Alpha went all crazy-face and destroyed nearly everyone in the Dollhouse. Of the Actives, only Echo and a few others survived, with Echo experiencing the worst of it: the only Doll still standing amid a literal shower of blood and bodies. Her handler was killed during Alpha’s massacre, and poor Amy Acker had nasty things done to her face. We learn all this as Boyd learns it, when he is brought in to replace Echo’s old handler. It seems Alpha went rogue because he experienced a “composite event” in which he had echoes of personalities he should have been wiped off, causing him to go nuts and slaughter everyone he could get his hands on. No one really knows why he chose to spare Echo, but it seems that Echo, too, might be starting to remember things like Alpha did.

Never shoot until you're sure you'll hit your target.

Never shoot until you're sure you'll hit your target.

She gets sent on a fantasy date with an outdoorsy sort of fellow. They white water raft. They rock climb. He teachers her how to shoot a crossbow. They have sex. And then he tells her to run, because he plans on hunting her. Now, when I heard Olivia Williams tell this client that there would be an additional fee for the kind of engagement he requested, and then saw them rafting in the great outdoors, I was pretty sure he was going to try to kill her, I just didn’t think it was going to be in the exact same way as the human hunting episode of Criminal Minds. As she flees from him, she finds herself in a cabin where Richard, her fantasy-date/hunter, has planted a drugged canteen. Tripped out and disoriented, she starts hallucinating alternate versions of herself, and then falls into the rapids and nearly drowns. When she resurfaces, she remembers being the only survivor of Alpha’s massacre.

While Echo’s off on her fantasy date, Boyd has been monitoring her from the woods in his surveillance van, and we get to learn more about the relationship between an Active and his or her handler. Each Active is imprinted with their handler’s voice and ultimate trust through subliminal call-and-response programming. At the end of an engagement, all a handler needs to do is tell the Active that “everything’s going to be all right” and the Active will immediately respond with “now that you’re here.” This keeps the Actives from experiencing serious health risks during high-risk engagements, and also allows the handlers to immediately control the Actives after any engagement. This answers so many questions I had about how the Actives knew their handlers when imprinted with different personalities.

A park ranger encounters Boyd’s van out in the woods, and quickly reveals himself to not actually be a park ranger, shooting Boyd’s driver and taking Boyd into his custody in the surveillance van. Boyd manages to fight the guy off and then heads out to save Echo when he notices how spiky her vital signs are getting (he was unable to see before because Topher’s satellite feed got knocked out). Once he finds Echo, he tells her that everything’s going to be all right, even though her fantasy date manages to pierce his side with an arrow. Echo explains the things she’s been seeing or remembering, and vows to kill the man whose been trying to kill her. Boyd tells her that she simply doesn’t have the right training for this, struggling to not tell her that she simply isn’t the right personality at this point in time to kill someone, but Echo insists that she’s a fast learner. Boyd hands her one of his guns, and Echo proceeds to hunt her hunter, facing off against him with weapons until he wrestles her to the ground where she manages to off him by driving a fallen arrow into his jugular.

Meanwhile, Badass Government Agent Guy Paul Ballard is just a step behind the Dollhouse, poking around the site from which Davina was rescued. Firefly‘s Badger tries to tell him that the Dollhouse just doesn’t exist, just like how his coworkers at the FBI continually tease him about chasing a fairytale, but he finds Echo’s glasses, assuring him that he’s not on a total wild goose chase. At work, Paul receives a package containing a picture of Echo back when she was Caroline, the same package we saw being shipped by a naked mass murderer at the end of “Ghost.” I certainly hope that the mass murderer in question is Alpha, and I think the wounds on the bodies surrounding him in “Ghost” and the wounds on the bodies he slaughtered in “Target” are enough proof to make that connection.

After Echo kills her fantasy date, Reed Diamond and team sweep in to clean up the mess, and we learn that “Richard Connell” was entirely fake, which is why he passed the background check. No ordinary fantasy date, “Richard” knew about the Dollhouse and was sent to specifically kill Echo, explaining his somewhat cryptic chide for her to learn to hunt in order to prove that she’s “more than just an echo.” From this, we know that at least two outside agencies are after the Dollhouse, because I’m pretty sure “Richard Connell” and his not-a-park-ranger friend were not working for FBI man Paul Ballard. And I doubt they’re working for whoever (Alpha) sent Paul Ballard Echo’s photograph.

Knowing that Echo survived a massacre at the Dollhouse gives me someone to connect to, as does seeing how Boyd came into play in this wacky arena. If every Dollhouse episode is as good as this one, I will be in it for the long run.

The Husband:

While I definitely consider all the backstory stuff to be damn fucking good, I still feel that all of Joss Whedon’s shows – even bits of Firefly – are a little bit too low-rent for my taste. I know he prides himself on being able to get by on a very low budget, but goddamn does it show sometimes. A little intricate and creative filmmaking can cover up the worst of his weaknesses, such as shitty special effects or reused sets, but it’s almost like he delights in looking cheap.

Now, the Dollhouse itself looks rockin’, but all the Most Dangerous Game stuff looked like locations from Grizzly Adams. Maybe they could have done at least a little bit with the camera other than just follow the actors around, running through trees and hiding. It’s worth a shot. Put some filters on. Play with the light. Work some post-prod action.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. I’m always saying story first, and I definitely believe in that above all else. But the story was solid, so why not at least put some effort into establishing a better mood for your show? Because even when it’d be obvious that certain planets on Firefly were just the Simi Valley or Santa Clarita, at least the CGI work on Serenity was top-notch.

The Wife:

So here’s the thing about Dollhouse: the concept is really, really cool (a group of blank humans that can upload new personalities and become anything you want them to be, hookers or heroes, depending on the situation), but the concept itself might be what ends up holding this show back. Let me explain.

Happy to see that the mannequins from Nip/Tuck's opening sequence are getting work.

Happy to see that the mannequins from Nip/Tuck's opening sequence are getting work.

I found the pilot to be very intriguing, although perhaps not a total wow. We learn enough about Echo to know that she is essentially a blank slate. She wound up working for the Dollhouse because she did something bad (I’m just assuming that this is what happened to Faith after she broke out of jail and helped Wesley save the world from Angelus), and now she’s not that person anymore. We first see her being some dude’s fantasy birthday date: the kind of girl who will kick his ass in a motorcycle race (or let him win because it’s his birthday), and then light up the dance floor. But then she gets called back to her handler and has that memory entirely erased, zapped out of her head. For Echo, this feels just like she’s fallen asleep, and she wakes up devoid of personality. Eliza Dushku, who I really only know as Faith, does a good job of creating a blank stare to represent the personality-less doll version of Echo, coupled with line readings that remind of what it must be like for a child to experience something new and confusing. (When she sees a new Active being blanked out, she remarks, confused that the girl seems to be in pain, “She’s not sleeping.”)

And when a Dollhouse client’s daughter is kidnapped, Echo is recruited to become Eleanor, a hostage negotiator – stern and scholarly and all-business. As Eleanor, Echo does everything by the book. She neatly arranges a trade of money for the little girl, but something goes wrong at the dock when she sees a man she knows, which causes her to have an asthmatic reaction that ends up getting the client shot, causing her handler, Boyd, to intervene by taking out the shooter. And why did Echo know this man? Because Eleanor did. The personalities imprinted on the Actives, it seems, are composites from real people, and real strengths come with real weaknesses. Boyd didn’t understand why Topher, the Dollhouse’s chief imprinter/eraser, would program the Actives, who should be superhuman, with any flaws at all. It is our flaws, Topher argues, that drive us to succeed. We make up for those shortcomings. Eleanor, then, is nearsighted (which he can program Echo to experience) and asthmatic, both things that ultimately drove her to become a successful negotiator. But there’s one part of her personality that really drove Eleanor, or at least one of the people “Eleanor” was composited from, to become a good hostage negotiator is exactly the thing that crippled her on the docks: as a child, she was abducted by one of the men who abducted Davina.

Clearly, Faith's life has taken a very drastic turn for the better.

Clearly, Faith's life has taken a very drastic turn for the better.

The folks at the Dollhouse want Echo to be blanked immediately, considering the mission to protect the client botched, but Boyd, who is just as personality-less as blank Echo and seems to exist merely to point out issues in the narrative, insists that they should continue their mission and help the client by getting his daughter back. Instead of erasing Echo, Topher merely upgrades her and Boyd and Echo-as-Eleanor go on to rescue little Davina with the help of newly recruited Active Sierra, who Echo saw being blanked out earlier in the episode and who entered the mission in the role of a SWAT team leader. After all of this, both Echo and Sierra are blanked out and return to sleep in their Zen little floor coffins, thinking, I presume, of nothing at all because they have no personalities.

Throughout all of this, some badass government agent is looking for the Dollhouse and Olivia Williams and Reed Diamond are busy trying to protect their clients so that the Dollhouse can continue to operate, as it would surely be destroyed should badass government agent man ever find it. Someone other than that badass government agent man might be looking for the Dollhouse, too, if that shot at the end of some mysterious murderous figure watching Echo’s video yearbook from back when she was Caroline College Girl is any indication.

Amy Acker is also around as the Dollhouse’s staff doctor, who definitely has something going on given that she looks very suspicious in every shot. She’s either a spy, or maybe an Active herself, as she is oddly fascinated with the blanking room. Or maybe she’s just like Boyd, and feels a little uncomfortable with the company she’s chosen to work for. I can’t quite tell. Just like how I can’t quite tell yet if Dollhouse will succeed or not.

As cool as Dollhouse is in concept, there is a problem with its main character actually not being a character at all. Joss Whedon is a smart guy, and I realize that this is his exact intent, to fuck with conventional storytelling and present something fresh and unique, like a show where the main character actually doesn’t have a personality at all, for instance. I want to have faith that Whedon will pull this off, but I am a little skeptical at this point. I’ve heard that Echo starts remembering things, but so far, we’ve only seen her remember what she should remember when she’s got another person’s personality. Without Echo having some of her own Echo/Caroline memories surface, she will be very difficult to relate to because we won’t know who she is. I’m sure Joss will break her out of this soon, so I’ll definitely hang in to wait and see a little longer with Dollhouse. But until Caroline starts to break though, to whom am I supposed to relate? Boyd? Amy Acker? I’m inclined to lean towards Amy Acker, because I like Fred so much, but alas, she’s only a guest star, so I doubt she’ll be around for too long.

Some random observations:

  • I do not know what the fuck was up with Badass Government Agent Guy’s Raging Bull sequence, but he was fighting Toa from American Gladiators, and that’s wicked cool. Toa, by the way, is The Rock’s cousin and stunt double.
  • I really hope we learn about some of the male Actives, and I hope that the male Actives are hired for sex missions just as often as the female Actives are.
  • I’m glad that every Active is named in accordance with the military alphabet according to when they arrived at the Dollhouse. We know there’s an Alpha, an Echo and a Sierra (the 19th, and therefore, newest member), so I also assume there’s a Bravo, a Charlie, a Delta, a Foxtrot, a Golf and so on. The twentieth Active will be Tango, and that’ll be a totally sweet name.
  • Even though Echo is just Echo because she was the fifth Active to join the Dollhouse, I like that her name also holds an expectation that she will indeed experience some echoes of her former life. I also like the mythological implication that she’s merely doomed to parrot back information that people supply to her, devoid of her own thoughts and feelings. Joss Whedon is so smart.

The Husband:

I think I’m coming down on the show in the same way. I think it’s much better than the half-assed critical drubbing it got last week, but I have to chalk a good deal of that up to people so used to the perversely quippy glee of Buffy or the remarkably deep mythology of Angel that nobody was really going to be sated. Hell, I know several Buffy fans who outright do not like Firefly.

But here’s the thing. I think in its half-season, Firefly is an overall better show than either Buffy or Angel. No, it wasn’t allowed the depth of either of those two, but had it continued into seven seasons (like Buffy) or even five (like Angel), we would be worshipping at the altar of the Browncoats.

My relationship with Whedon is strange. I fully admit that I might like Firefly the most because it was my true introduction into the Whedonverse. Sure, I had seen an occasional episode of Buffy throughout the years (once I heard “musical episode” when I was in college without a TV, you better believe I Limewired that shit immediately), but it never hooked me, and it wasn’t even until two years after it was canceled that my cousin Gabe handed me the Firefly boxset, watched the first two episodes with me, and let me pretty much mainline it for the following week. I’m also far more into sci-fi than fantasy/monster stuff, so that worked against me, too.

Finally, I watched all of Buffy over the course of a year, some with my wife and some without. It took me a long time to really dig it, because it had been so hyped as one of the greatest shows ever, and it’s hard to live up to that. But I nearly hated the first season, and feel that s2 has some major issues and is saved mostly by the presence of Spike, still the best Buffyverse character by a mile. Something just wasn’t working. Even now, after seven seasons, I don’t think it’s brilliant. I’m sorry. I didn’t care about the ascension, I didn’t care about the Lindsay Crouse experiments, and I really didn’t care about Tara.

However, when the show is on, it is fucking amazing, but there are far too many lame/boring/outright terrible episodes to truly classify it as one of the greats. It has so many flaws, but in the end the mythology is so immersive and the characters so focused that I now admire the show like hell. It just isn’t all there for me. But that’s the price you have to pay when you have 144 episodes. Some of them are just going to be bad.

My wife and I are not done with Angel, but we only have one full season left to go, and so I can say that while Angel takes itself far more seriously than Buffy (something that always bothered me about the more female-driven show), I think it sometimes gets up its own ass in all of its mytharcs that it forgets to be enjoyable. But I appreciate that the show is different enough from Buffy that I can enjoy aspects of each.

But Firefly speaks to me. It shows a matured Whedon, a more economical storyteller, somebody with a better understanding of when to tone down the comedy and when to really up the pathos, and a better director. And yes, I fucking love Serenity. That may be one of the purest science-fiction films since A New Hope.

Dollhouse, I fully understand, is a bit of a compromise between Whedon and the network, and technically, this is okay. People underestimate the usefulness of a savvy producer, one who knows how to draw in bigger audiences, but I’m also surprised with how mysterious everything still seemed even with the re-shot pilot. Did I understand everything that was going on? No. It needs a bigger injection of energy (that’s not saying it desperately needs comedy, because I’d rather the show have its own personality), but I’m extremely intrigued, and, like always, I try not to judge a show until at least six episodes in.