Some script pages from Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's new show about mind-wiped agents who can be programmed to become anyone, have turned up online. They show an even creepier side of Eliza Dushku's brainwashed character Echo than you might have been expecting. And they simultaneously make me more excited for Dollhouse and more dubious that a mainstream audience will appreciate it. Do we have to say spoilers ahead?
The script pages are "casting sides," which means they're script pages sent out to casting agencies to be used in auditions. But they appear to be actual pages from Joss' script for the new Dollhouse pilot. It replaces the original pilot, which will become the show's second episode instead. It does a good job of introducing the show's concept, which is that Echo has had her personality erased, and now she can be imprinted with any personality, including any skills, her clients require.
We see Echo embody two people in the new pilot. At the start of the episode, she's the dream date of a guy named Dave, who's kind of a nerdy hipster with rich friends. It's his birthday weekend, and she spends the whole weekend with him. (There are supposed to be "no strings attached," but that rule gets thrown out along with the "no ropes" rule.) Echo lets Dave beat her in a motorcycle race to a party where a bunch of his friends are, and then everybody watches Dave and Echo flirt and dance. Dave gives her a classy little gold heart pendant, and she's really touched. She tells him he's a great guy, and he says he almost believes it, coming from her. Then Dave realizes that Echo's time is almost up, but she says the night is still young. And then her face gets a blank expression and she walks out of the room, like a robot. Dave watches her go, and then a friend asks where she went. He explains that it was time for her carriage to turn into a pumpkin, or words to that effect.
But that's not the creepy part - the rest of the episode supplies that. After she's finished being Dave's ideal dancing kinky-sex-loving woman, Echo gets reprogrammed to be an expert on saving kidnapped little girls from kidnappers. She's Ellie Penn, who has a million degrees in hostage negotiation and years of experience handling difficult situations. She rattles off a huge list of (fake) qualifications to rescue little girls - but we quickly realize that Ellie, Echo's fake personality, has a more personal reason for knowing all about child-molesters who kidnap little kids. Even though she keeps control over the situation at all times, we see her struggling with her (fake) childhood abuse trauma and at one point a single tear rolls down her cheek. It's actually quite disconcerting to see Echo go from sex kitten to survivor of child sexual abuse - and I think that's the effect Joss Whedon is going for. But will anybody go for it?
Echo's child-kidnapping-expert persona is needed because a wealthy Latino businesssman, Gabriel Cristejo, has had his daughter Davina kidnapped by an evil guy named Mr. Sunshine. Cristejo is a shady character, because he has a menacing bodyguard named Chui, but also because we're told he can't go to the police about the kidnapping because of his business interests. But we also know he's a caring father, because we see him admonishing his daughter not to watch some crappy reality show in an early scene. She shouldn't melt her brains with that garbage (does Joss have an axe to grind?) but should be a good kid and be rewarded - with knowledge! It's actually a very cute scene.
So the evil Mr. Sunshine kidnaps Davina and demands $5 million. At first Gabriel Cristejo is unwilling to accept Echo's help - I'm guessing he doesn't know she's just a mindwiped pretender - but she wows him with her expertise. And then she takes charge of the negotiations, offering Mr. Sunshine $8 million and forcing him to call her Ms. Penn. She short-circuits his macho crap and tricks some information out of him. At one point, Mr. Sunshine lets Gabriel talk to his daughter, but Echo cuts off the conversation before Davina can try to tell Gabriel anything and endanger herself. Finally, they make the exchange, the money for the girl, and it predictably goes wrong. Some script pages are missing, but it sounds as though Gabriel and Mr. Sunshine both get shot.
At last, Echo shows up at the cabin where the kidnappers are hiding, along with an old man in a Deerskin mask. She knows all about them, including the fact that they're hiding Davina in the refrigerator (with the power off and the shelves removed.) She knows all about the old man, too, because he's the one who kidnapped her and abused her when she was a child. (And yes, this is just another part of her imprinted fake personality.) She confronts him:
ECHO: I know everything. All the girls he kept, till he was through with them, till he got bored or just broke them down... I even know about the one he dumped in the river... before he was sure she was dead.
The old man looks stricken.
ECHO: It's over. You can't hurt me any more.
He pistol whips her, but she turns back, not even feeling the cut on her cheek.
ECHO: (for his ears only). You can't fight a ghost.
This confrontation convinces the other thugs that the old man will turn on them and kill them, so he can have Davina to himself and abuse her the way he did those other girls. They shoot the old man, allowing Echo to rescue Davina. Later, Echo talks to Davina about overcoming the trauma of her horrible experience. Echo says some parts of it, you just have to do on your own, and other parts, you can't do on your own. Davina asks Echo how she copes, and she says she takes it one day at a time, and the hardest part is avoiding alcohol. Because if you can't control your demons yourself, what good are you?
And then we cut from Echo's speech about not drinking to a shot of Echo in a ballgown, drinking champagne at some fancy event, already a totally different person.
The episode also introduces us to Tahmoh Penikett's FBI agent, Paul Ballard, who's asked about his progress in the Dollhouse investigation. The scene is intercut with a scene of Ballard kickboxing some random guy, almost losing but then rallying at the last minute. We learn that Ballard didn't volunteer to investigate the Dollhouse but was assigned to it instead, and he can't be removed from it because powerful people believe the Dollhouse is real and poses a threat. So far, all he's come up with is incomprehensible scientific reports and hearsay. He's assaulted a senator and caused a major diplomatic incident, but his bosses can't touch him because of those aforementioned powerful people.
So all in all, after reading those script pages, I'm more convinced than ever that Dollhouse will be an addictive viewing experience - and that it may just be a little too weird for most viewers. Although I might have said the same about Lost, so you never know. You can read the pages (out of order) here. [Spoiler TV]