Most television shows either accept their limitations or transcend them. Dollhouse started out bashing its head against its limitations, before finally leaping over them. And after last night, I'm not sure it still has any. Spoilers and mindwipes ahead...
It's hard to believe this is still the same show that used to serve up timid "engagement of the week episodes" that only hinted at the questions that lurked in its premise. By my reckoning, this makes six outstanding Dollhouse episodes in a row. And what's more, the show is starting to race forward, at breakneck speed, as if to make up for its slow pace earlier.
Was it just me, or did your heart stop too when you read the words "Three months later"? Sure, BSG and DC Comics, among others, have pulled similar stunts before — but in the middle of a random episode?
It was gutsy. And yet, it turned out to be a brilliant move. As usual with the "jumping ahead in time" stunt, everything had changed, and part of the fun was figuring out how. (For a moment, I thought Echo really had just taken a nurse job using one of her imprints, and was just living quietly.)
But more than that, part of the coolness after the three-month jump was seeing how much closer we were to the glimpses of the future we saw in the post-apocalyptic episode "Epitaph One."
So after the jump, suddenly Echo is playing house with Paul Ballard (which feels logical, considering how much they were already conspiring together) and they're in cahoots with Boyd back at the Dollhouse. Meanwhile, Topher has gotten a promotion, and Adelle has gotten a demotion. Most of all, Echo is now fully in control over her multiple personalities and their talents, instead of having them triggered randomly. She's now much more like a superhero (who's occasionally glitchy) than a puppet who occasionally turns into a superhero, and really, thank goodness. I'm imagining the new Echo is like Chuck with the "Intersect 2.0" installed.
Last night's first episode, "Meet Jane Doe," subverted so many expectations, it's hard to know where to begin. For starters, we expected a story about Echo in her childlike "doll" state wandering around for an hour, while the Dollhouse tried to find her — instead, we got five minutes of that, then something totally different. And then, at the end, you expected Adelle to do something cunning and brilliant to regain her mastery of her Dollhouse — and instead, she kissed up to the evil scumbag, Harding. In the second hour, you think Alpha is just trying to take down the men that Echo has had romantic engagements with — but his real target turns out to be Ballard, because Alpha was spying and realized that Ballard and Echo are in love.
Even with everything else that happened last night, it's hard to avoid fixating on Adelle. Her transformation was incredibly painful to watch — first, from steely-but-sensitive mistress of her domain to subservient, resentful underling to Mr. Harding. And then, from underling back to boss — but this time, she's willing to do whatever it takes to please her masters and save her own skin. Olivia Williams was incredible last night — most of all in the scene where she is willing to give Alpha whatever he wants, because that's what she's become. She's lost her self-respect, and whatever shreds of idealism she may have had left, and become a monster. And it's fascinating to watch.
The other big star last night was... Eliza Dushku. A lot of people have doubted her ability to carry this series — including me, on a few occasions. But now that she's playing a more self-aware version of Echo, she's able to bring a lot more real acting to the table. Her scenes with Paul Ballard, where she's in love with him and he's unable to reciprocate because of his whole "Galahad" complex, were brilliant and rich, and she seemed to snap between different personas pretty easily. Dushku's talent has never been mimickry or creating different mannerisms — she's not an Enver Gjokaj — but she's a lot better at handling nuances of emotion. She's always Eliza Dushku, no matter who she's playing, but she's capable of bringing a lot of expressiveness and subtlety. And last night, we saw more of what she can do when she's in her comfort zone.
Meanwhile, once again Topher was ethical-dilemmas guy — turns out the remote wipe device he's been working on is just one piece of a larger puzzle, one that will lead to everyone in the world becoming mind-controlled slaves. Topher cracks the problem of how to program anyone, anywhere remotely — but it's Adelle who hands it over to the evil corporate overlord. No wonder those two are basket cases after the apocalypse.
As Adelle says towards the end of last night's first episode, with the kind of power Rossum has, you don't want to be on the opposing team. Apparently Rossum doesn't just control a sitting U.S. Senator (who's got an excellent chance of becoming President), they also have 22 Dollhouses, with a 23rd on the way — and that means thousands of current and former clients who will safeguard Rossum's interests. And now, they have the means to reprogram whoever they want. Shiny.
It was interesting to see Harding running the Dollhouse, in contrast to Adelle. Her fancy performance was always aimed at creating the impression of a humane, caring service that was therapeutic and philanthropic — much like Inara's "Companion" poise in Firefly. Inara and Adelle even both use tea to symbolize the fact that they're fancy and full of happy empowerment. Harding keeps the tea, but drops the empowerment schtick — he's happy to be a pimp, and his dolls are property. As Boyd points out, the only real difference is that Harding doesn't lie to himself.
So the first episode was, once again, all about how the wealthy get what they want, and the rest of us are just their soon-to-be-broken toys, what with the evil boys' club of rich assholes congratulating themselves in Adelle's office. And then in the second half, we discovered that the wealthy don't always fare that well with the Dollhouse — we meet a guy who blew his entire fortune on engagements with Echo, and get to see a bunch of her other clients killed horribly as well.
Patton Oswalt returns as the tech whiz who needs Echo to impersonate his dead wife, and he's somewhat unsettled to learn that even though he's never planning on hiring the Dollhouse to recreate Rebecca again, she still exists. You can't really delete a program — once a program's created, it has a life of its own.
Did anybody else think Alan Tudyk was channeling Heath Ledger's Joker, just a bit, in his performance as Alpha last night? Maybe I'm on crack. In any case, Alpha was nattily dressed, and was (thank god) doing less of the "crazy talking to myself and snapping between personas" thing, and more of the "super-genius psycopath" thing. I was "meh" about Alpha last season, but he went a lot further towards winning me over last night. Especially after having just gotten such a powerful glimpse of the real evil of the Rossum Corp., Alpha is looking more and more like the lesser of two evils.
I don't have much else to say about the second hour — Alpha's still obsessed with Echo, and wants her to love him. It's a bit underwhelming as a villain motivation, but I think it's partly supposed to be that Alpha is obsessed with Echo because he sees himself in her, and he wants to be able to understand the difference between programmed and "real" emotions. And he knows that Echo's feelings for Paul Ballard are "real," so he wants to be able to see where they come from. Maybe now that Alpha has imprinted himself with Ballard's personality, we'll get something new and different out of it, like an Alpha who struggles with doing the right thing occasionally. We know, from "Epitaph One," that Alpha does turn out to be something of a force for good.
I liked the Actives being turned into killer zombies, which was a nice twist. And the Monty Python references. And Boyd, Echo and Ballard choosing to trust Topher with Echo's secret — wonder how badly that'll backfire? And co-writer Maurissa Tancharoen doing her sassy "I ain't got time for no neurocondensing" act. And Ballard's "My ass does feel very pampered."
Bottom line: This show is now much more clearly about an evil corporation that wants to own your brain. This has been true from the beginning, but it was harder to tell in those early episodes. Now it's pretty clear and straightforward, and the storytelling that can come as a result (with alll of those broken, complicated people, squirming under Rossum's thumb) is going to be magnificent. For as long as it lasts.