It takes guts to turn your heroine into a horror-movie monster, and sorta mean it. Last night, Echo's propensity for going beyond her mission parameters finally turned scary and wrong. Won't somebody think of the children? Spoilers below.
Last night's Dollhouse is never going to be most people's favorite episode of the series, but it was pretty interesting and had some neat ideas — it's the sort of episode that will look great when you view the whole season on DVD, in one go. In fact, I couldn't help wondering, as I watched it, whether Joss Whedon and his new showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas were more consciously making the show for DVD viewers, since that's where all the eyeballs actually are. Oh, and this was the first script by Reaper creators Butters and Fazekas.
As a stand-alone piece of Friday night entertaining, "Impact" was a bit frustrating because you really didn't have anyone to root for until towards the end.
I think the episode actually stumbled a bit, by not making the client of the week sympathetic earlier. When we finally do start to see Nate Jordan's caring side, it's an unexpected revelation. (There was a moment, though, where I did wonder if Nate had just somehow bought a baby from somewhere, and then hired Echo to be its pretend-mom, and there was some crazy, deeper scheme at work here. And that was a nice bit of misdirection, actually.) For most of the episode, Nate appears to be an evil jerk, who's hired a surrogate mom in lieu of a plain old nanny.
It turns out Nate has hired the Dollhouse to create a caring mother for his newborn son, because he's incapable of forming an emotional attachment with the boy himself. We find out, towards the end of the episode, that this is because Nate's real wife died in childbirth and he foolishly blames the baby for it. But Nate's emotional distance from his son winds up causing more problems, because Echo (who believes she's Nate's wife and the baby's mother) thinks he's having an affair or doing something illegal. And then, through a wacky misunderstanding, Echo thinks Nate is planning on killing her and getting rid of the baby, so she runs.
And then, as the episode progresses, Echo starts to seem more and more demented and out of control, until we get the scene excerpted above, with the lightning and the knife and the weird horror movie cliches. Since Echo never seemed to be in jeopardy in the episode, and we scarcely cared about Nate, it seemed like we were mostly supposed to be worried that Echo's glitchiness would harm the baby somehow.
You have to admire Butters and Fazekas for coming up with a new spin on the show's central questions about mind vs. body. This time around, the central problem is that Topher has figured out a way to tweak Echo's mind so much, she actually lactates and can breastfeed "her" baby. This, Topher later concedes, may have been "a bridge too far." Echo becomes so attached to the baby, it makes her become paranoid and over-protective, and even after her mind has been wiped, she retains the emotional/physical connection with the baby in her Doll state. The episode subtly (to its credit) reinforces this idea that the mother/child bond is stronger than Topher's mental software, by talking about how the child "imprints" onto the mother early on.
But really, just like last week's episode, this week's was the tale of two Dolls. One current, one sorta former. Last week, we saw the contrast between Echo's desire to rediscover her "original" personality, Caroline, and Whiskey's desire to remain Dr. Claire Saunders, even though she knows that's not a "real" personality. This week, we saw Echo suffering because she still remembers her imprints after they're erased, and struggling with the pain of awareness — and meanwhile, we caught up with November, who has no memory of her time as a Doll, and is totally happy about it. It really is true — November should be on the Dollhouse's promotional DVD. She seems to have reintegrated into "civilian" life with no difficulty whatsoever.
And here's a random thought — what it Melanie/November is the "name" that Senator Perrin has, who can help him bring down the Dollhouse? I don't have much to say about the scenes of Alexis Denisof as a crusading senator, except that his accent seemed to wobble quite a bit. And there's definitely something weird about his wife. Is she a Doll? Is she going to be mind-wiped? The episode sort of faked us out when she went to answer the door, and we thought something had happened to her.
The only other thought I had is that I've figured out why so many of the show's leads are looking weird this season — it's the HD cameras. Eliza Dushku keeps saying they're filming in HD now, and it allows them to film much more quickly. But honestly, Dushku, Tahmoh Penikett and Fran Kranz are all looking a bit strange now: every line on their faces stands out in sharp relief, and Kranz appears to be wearing eye shadow. Maybe the show's lighting is weird with those cameras? Just a random thought.
Sadly, Dollhouse dipped to a new low, 2.1 million viewers. So enjoy your mind-wiped identity crises while you can, kids.