Dollhouse is about a company so eager to please, its employees will be whoever you want. So it's weird how Joss Whedon's show itself is so stubbornly itself, so relentlessly odd. Here's our spoiler-lite preview of tomorrow night's episode!
To be clear what I mean by spoiler-lite here, there will be plenty of spoilers for the first season of Dollhouse — and there'll be incredibly vague statements about what happens in the episode that airs tomorrow night. But no major plot revelations, unless you watch the clips the network released.
For those of you who are totally new to this show, Dollhouse is about a company that rents out programmable people — it has a gaggle of beautiful human beings, whose original personalities have been erased, so that they can be imprinted with any personality (and any skills) you might require. They fulfill your weirdest and most intense fantasies, and take on jobs that no "real" human could do.
You may already know that Dollhouse had two first-season finales: the one which actually aired, "Omega," involved Echo having all of her past personalities dumped into her, and gaining new awareness of her selfhood. (The episode ends with her mouthing the word "Caroline," the name of her original personality.) And the Dollhouse's doctor, Claire Saunders, found out that she's actually a doll herself, named Whiskey — after a rogue doll murdered the Dollhouse's doctor disfigured Whiskey's face, the Dollhouse's head had Whiskey programmed to be the new doctor. The other, unaired finale, "Epitaph One," takes place in a future where the Dollhouse's technology has destroyed the human race.
Tomorrow night's episode, "Vows," follows on directly from "Omega," but has nothing to do with "Epitaph One." You may have in the back of your mind the idea that these people's clever games are eventually going to ruin the world, but the show doesn't do anything to remind you directly.
So Dollhouse now has two dolls who've gained a new self-awareness: Echo, on some level, remembers that she used to be Caroline and retains some knowledge that she's a doll. (That's not a spoiler: It's spelled out in "Omega.") And Whiskey/Claire has found out that she, too, is a doll, and that her "Claire Saunders" persona is a fake. The contrast between Echo and Whiskey, and their vastly different epiphanies, proves to be fascinating: Echo is dimly aware that her "real" personality is Caroline, whereas Whiskey comes to grips with the fact that "Claire Saunders" is a fiction — but that doesn't make Claire Saunders seem like any less of a real person.
Like I said, the contrast between Echo and Whiskey turns out to be bracing, because they're sort of grappling towards a sense of selfhood in opposite directions: Echo is remembering that she wants to be Caroline, the only personality she's ever had that wasn't constructed, but Claire is coming to grips with her identity as a fully artificial personality.
That said, there's one major problem with the episode: The main storyline. Without giving anything away, we see Echo going on an engagement (involving guest star Jamie Bamber) and sadly, the two actors have no chemistry together whatsoever. And even after watching the episode twice, I'm not entirely sure I understand what's supposed to be happening here. It's an "engagement of the week" story (with a twist, of course) that doesn't quite work — and there are so many plot holes, it's hard to even know where to start poking. And then, toward the end, the episode goes to an unfortunately icky place, which you have to wonder if Whedon (who wrote and directed it) had really thought through.
It's a shame, since Dollhouse really needed a standout episode, one which sells us on the show all over again. We needed to see how this show about mind-puppets being prostituted by the technology that will eventually destroy us all could really work as a weekly dose of escapism or adventure. Instead, we get one of the weakest "engagement of the week" stories, in which the show's credibility is stretched far beyond its limits.
The other problem with "Vows" is, I don't think it's all that newbie-friendly. If you weren't at least an occasional watcher of Dollhouse in its first year, the show won't offer you much help.
The good news is, all the scenes not involving Jamie Bamber are potent, and mostly thought-provoking. There are some hilarious one-liners and a few really sick, disturbing scenes that twist the knife marvelously. And any time Amy Acker is on the screen, the show becomes the brilliant, luminous art movie you know it could be. (We only get Acker in three episodes this season, so Whedon is clearly trying to get the most out of her he can in this one.) Harry Lennix brings just as much gravitas and charm to Boyd Langton as ever, and Olivia Williams is even more devious and awesome than ever, despite having to deliver large chunks of exposition. Tahmoh Penikett does a decent job of selling us on Paul Ballard's highly improbable 180-degree turn from FBI agent to Dollhouse stooge, for the most part.
"Vows" does have a great final minute, which sets up a mission statement for the rest of the season and offers us something, and someone, to root for along the way. The episode also sets in motion a few other long-term plot lines which I can't wait to see play out, and which offer loads of potential. All in all, I'm still cautiously optimistic about the future of Dollhouse going forward — and I can't wait to see some of the hints about the future in "Epitaph One" start to pay off a bit more as the season unfolds — but "Vows," as a season opener for a show that barely scraped a renewal, is, well... problematic.