Joss Whedon keeps his promises - last night's Dollhouse was a handsome reward to everyone who'd been paying attention to the series' first five weeks, while still introducing the basic premise to the newbies.
Oh, and this write-up includes spoilers, but don't worry... it'll be just like if your husband got together with another dude. Nothing queeny, and you won't even remember the spoilers afterwards.
Okay then. So last night's Dollhouse worked fantastically well on several levels. First of all, it worked on the level of a twisty, turny thriller with all the crazy revelations and mysteries.
Second of all, it ramped up the show's basic themes of "using people" and "turning poeple into what you need them to be" into overdrive. Everybody on the show is using each other and manipulating each other, and making each other over into whatever the situation demands.
And then there's just all the amazing character stuff that we got, about major characters like Paul Ballard but also minor ones like Journeyman's Brother (aka Mr. Dominic.)
And finally, there's all the larger thematic stuff that the "man on the street" interviews highlight, about quite how dark and sludgy a morass of human fantasies this technology dips into. And then we get the concluding statement from the random expert: if this technology really exists, then we are over as a species. We cease to matter.
And you thought Dollhouse had noplace to go as an ongoing series.
So here's what happened. First of all, FBI Agent Ballard gets tired of just being spoonfed by Alpha, and decides to follow the money. You know, like a real agent. And it turns out to be surprisingly easy to find a prominent Dollhouse client: a shlubby geek (Patton Oswalt) who got rich but lost his wife in a random car accident. So every year, on the same day, he pays the Dollhouse to give him a woman programmed to be his dead wife, so he can share his good fortune with her.
I'm really not sure what Ballard's strategy is for arresting someone, when the "Doll" believes she's really the rich guy's wife, but in any case it goes off the rails when the "Doll" turns out to be Echo/Caroline, the one he's already obsessed with. So he flubs it, and Echo gets away. But the Dollhouse's fearless/ruthless leader, Adelle, decides that if Echo flusters Paul, they should get a "second date"... one in which Echo beats the crap out of Paul and then frames him for shooting a cop.
Meanwhile, someone has been sexually assaulting Sierra, during her childlike "wiped" state. The first suspect is automatically her fellow Active Victor, who's already had erections around her. But Echo's handler, former cop Boyd Langton, puts the pieces together, and figures out it's Sierra's handler Hearn, who's taking advantage of the imprinting that makes the "Dolls" trust the handlers without question. (The scene where we see Hearn asking the ritual questions, like "Do you trust me?" and then telling Sierra to lift her dress is super disturbing.) And as Hearn's punishment, Adelle decides to send him to kill Paul's neighbor Mellie... who turns out to be a "Doll" herself, and kills Hearn.
In the end, Adelle has Paul out of the FBI, Hearn out of the picture and all the pieces back in the box. "I played a very bad hand very well," as she says.
Oh, but then there are complications. Like, someone apparently gives Echo a message to pass on to Paul Ballard while she's beating the crap out of him - and the messenger isn't Alpha. My guess is, it's another one of Adelle's mind games, since the message is basically "let the Dollhouse think they've won." But the other possibility is that either the slimy Topher or his cute assistant Ivy ("I live to serve lunch") is secretly working against the Dollhouse. Plus, there are like twenty Dollhouses, and they have some other purpose besides just fulfilling the fantasies of the rich.
So it's interesting that there was so much sex going on in this episode, but none of it was straightforward. Which goes to the heart of something I've thought about Dollhouse for a while. People tend to describe this as a show about prostitution, but probably nobody would pay a million dollars just for fancy sex. Unless their kinks were really unusual. Not to mention, in real life, sex is never just about sex. It's always about other stuff.
So last night, you have Patton Oswalt's character, Joel Mynor, hiring a hooker - except, really, he's staunching the grief of his wife's death and his frustrated need to reward all her sacrifices. You have Paul Ballard, who's definitely using his neighbor Mellie to help him crack the Dollhouse case and also get past his Echo obsession - oh, but turns out she's actually playing him, without even knowing it. And then there's Hearn's sick abuse of the person he's charged with protecting, which is a power trip and based on seeing Sierra as basically a "blow-up doll." (As Chief Tyrol would put it.)
As I said before, all of these characters are using each other, and trying to turn each other into whatever they feel they need. The only difference between the Actives and the other people on the show is, the Actives get to forget afterwards how they got used. Unlike Hearn, who gets made over into a Russian mobster, or Ballard, who gets manipulated into looking like a berzerk maniac. Or Boyd, who needs to be given a bonus so that his acts of humanity and responsibility will be transformed into mere service to the Dollhouse.
The show's ensemble cast was in top form last night, but Eliza Dushku also did a lot to quiet the doubters. Her performance as Mynor's wife Rebecca ("It's porn, isn't it? The Internet venture that suddenly pays off!") was different enough from her turn as Caroline the cocky college girl, which in turn was totally unlike her portrayal of Echo the blank slate. Very few actors could completely fulfill the "chameleon" needs of a show like Dollhouse, but I actually think Dushku is doing pretty great. Plus, we have to get the sense that underneath all of this, Echo has an identity of her own that's developing.
And the fight scene between Ballard and Echo? Was one of the coolest smackdowns I've seen in ages. But then I'm a total sucker for Chinese restaurant kitchen fight scenes.
My favorite scene, though, was probably the last conversation between Adelle and Journeyman's Brother, where he finally admits how much he admires her foxy manipulativeness, and she seems genuinely concerned that Sierra must forget all about her horrible trauma. Ignorance, in this case, really is bliss. But the dolls aren't as ignorant as they're supposed to be, Mr. Dominic replies. Not yet - but we're working on it, says Adelle. The mixture of maternal concern and pure, total evil is amazing, especially coming right on the heels of that scene with the expert talking about how this technology means that we're over, as a species.
All in all, not only a great hour of television, but also Joss Whedon writing an IOU to you, the viewers, for about five more years of fascinating stories about what it means to be people in our new dehumanizing information age. Will you cash his IOU? (Oh, and the good news is, the episode's ratings didn't suffer that much from running opposite the Battlestar finale. Dollhouse still came in third in its time slot.)