Why I Loved Last Friday's Dollhouse Premiere

I've watched the first episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse a few times now, and I love it more than ever. It's taut, exciting, and a good intro to the show's challenging concept. Spoilers aplenty...

In Dollhouse's first episode, Eliza Dushku plays four different people. First she's Caroline, a young woman who's gotten herself into some undisclosed trouble and is willing to sign her life over to the mysterious Dollhouse organization to get out of it. And then she's a sassy young biker chick, who's just fallen in love with a guy who looks like Rob from Cloverfield. And then she's Echo, an empty vessel who's just had the fictional "sassy biker chick" persona hosed out of her head. And finally, she's reprogrammed with another persona, uptight hostage negotiator Ellie Penn. Most of the episode is about Ellie trying to save a kidnapped girl, and then it turns into Ellie trying to get closure on her own history of being kidnapped and abused - which turns out not to be fictional.

Here's why I loved the episode:

Why I Loved Last Friday's Dollhouse Premiere

1) It did a great job of introducing the show's concept. If you've been reading io9 regularly lately, then you'll be very familiar with the idea behind Dollhouse already: an organization with a very yuppie-spa headquarters has a whole bunch of "Actives," people whose personalities have been erased to make room for whatever personality a paying client wants. But casual viewers didn't necessarily understand the ins and outs of this idea, and the episode did a really good job of explaining the ground rules without resorting to the kind of spoon-feeding that certain other Friday-night shows employed. Watching it a second time, I was struck by how much information we got in there. Like, what happens if you start asking an "Active" about the Dollhouse? He/she just leaves and goes back there.

2) The main storyline was cool on many levels. When I first read a chunk of the episode's script way back, I wasn't sure if I would really like the "hostage negotiator" plot. But in practice, I thought it really worked well. On the surface, it worked great as a Proof Of Life-style hostage thriller. And then, just under the surface, you have the realization that Ellie isn't really a real person, and in an sense her hostage negotiations are a kind of puppet theater, with the slimy/awesome Topher as the puppetmaster. And below that, there are all the questions about identity that this raises. Like Gabriel says at some point, it's cruel to put memories of being molested into someone's head - and he's referring to Topher, not just to the molester. Echo/Ellie is being made to suffer because that's part of Topher's "art." (Which makes Topher, in some sense, a stand-in for Whedon torturing his characters.) And then you're led, inexorably, to the contrast between the kidnapped little girl and Echo/Ellie, who is still a prisoner and a slave at the end of the episode. (The contrast of the mindless Echo with the full-of-fire Caroline, via videotape, reinforces this.) It's not a happy, feel-good ending at all.

Why I Loved Last Friday's Dollhouse Premiere

3) In some sense, it was about a character we never met. As we're told, Topher doesn't just create the fictional persona of "Ellie Penn" out of thin air - she's a composite of real people whose minds were scanned at some point. (And the "sassy biker chick," we see, had a whole childhood as well.) The real-life abuse victim who became part of Ellie Penn killed herself a year ago, and she never really escaped from the creepy old guy. But in a sense, she gets her revenge/justice on the old guy, through Ellie. I like how the old guy is "the ghost" that you can't fight at first, but later, it's Ellie. You can't fight a ghost, as she says a couple times.

Why I Loved Last Friday's Dollhouse Premiere

4) Creepy creepy creepy. I feel like I've used the word "creepy" to describe Dollhouse many times. When I read a big chunk of the script for last Friday's episode, I used the headline "Dollhouse Is Even Creepier Than You Thought." Here's what I wrote back in August:

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?

I still think that sums it up pretty well.

Why I Loved Last Friday's Dollhouse Premiere

5) Shirtless Tahmoh. Okay, so the kickboxing scene was kind of random and cheesy, but it was also the least complicated moment of sexiness in the episode. And Tahmoh Penikett is pretty much awesome as the FBI guy who's barking up the wrong tree in his search for the Dollhouse.

6) Harry Lennix. The real great surprise of the episode was Harry Lennix, who plays Echo's "handler" Boyd. He's the one who looks after Echo and makes sure her "engagements" go well, but he's also deeply aware, on some level, that what he's doing is wrong and is the worst kind of slavery and exploitation. He's the one who fights for Echo to remain Ellie when everyone else wants to erase her right away, so that she can save the little girl and make all the suffering worth it. (Apart from Tahmoh's Agent Ballard, Boyd is the one character the show lets us root for and sympathize with without feeling sick to our stomachs at the same time.) Which brings me to...

7) You end up rooting for the scumbags. The Dollhouse is a nest of evil and exploitation, but in this episode, they're doing god's work, saving a little girl. There's no way to feel good about the way the Dollhouse is going about the job, but you're glad to see it get done. With BSG going off the air, where are we going to get our dose of moral gray areas and hopelessly compromised characters? Dollhouse looks to be our best source.