From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Dollhouse: After the Fall

Well, all wildly uneven things must come to an end, and Dollhouse‘s last couple months have been as twisty and unpredictable as its most recent episodes. The show went off the air during November sweeps, only to be unceremoniously canceled and blasted into the world two episodes at a time in December. With only two episodes left in the chamber, now’s a good time to have a look back at the half-season that was. Spoilers, of course, for everything through 2.11, “Getting Closer.”

The Public Eye

Whew, boy. The pace: it picks up. Senator Perrin (Alexis Denisof!) meets a former Active willing and able to testify against Rossum, and that Active is none other than the former November, Madeline. The L.A. Dollhouse gang comes to suspect that the Senator’s wife is a sleeper doll manipulated by one of the other houses, and Ballard and Echo rush off to Washington to save the day, armed with a device that can wipe any doll within a certain radius. The rescue goes sort of funky-shaped when it turns out that the Senator is the doll, and his wife his handler; the wipe device reverts Perrin to his default state and Echo to her composite personality, and both flee. After Echo fills the Senator in on the full extent of Rossum’s crimes, he resolves to attend the Senate hearing that he was programmed to call and really bring down the house instead of whatever Rossum meant for him to do. The D.C. Dollhouse catches up with the pair, however, and hauls them to the lab of Bennett Halverson (Summer Glau): Topher’s analogue in the D.C. house, and an old friend of Caroline’s with a major grudge. Bennett proceeds to torture Echo, and Topher and Adelle fly to D.C. to clean up the mess.

I like Dollhouse best when it’s a spy show, I think, and this episode delivers on the fast-paced action front. The Senator-as-doll reveal is fantastic, and Stacey Scowley steals the show as Perrin’s venomous handler-cum-wife. It’s good to see Miracle Laurie again, and you get the sense that the overall story is driving forward at last. One of the best hours of the show’s run.

The Left Hand

Via flashback, we learn that Caroline left Bennett to die in some sort of explosion years back, resulting in the crippling of one of Bennett’s arms. Hence the torture. Adelle and Topher arrive to reclaim their Active, and inadvertently facilitate Echo and Perrin’s escape. Topher and Bennett nurse creepy/adorable mutual crushes as they attempt to locate the runaway Actives, but when they succeed, Bennett remotely programs Perrin to kill Echo. Topher hits Bennett, Echo and Perrin hit one another, and eventually Perrin is returned to himself, but no before his handler/wife dies in the crossfire. Perrin reaches the Senate hearing, but he’s hardwired to carry out Rossum’s plan, which is to level the most serious charges imaginable against the company and then systematically dismantle them, laying the blame on its largest competitors. It’s a pretty good twist. Even more stunning: Echo finally escapes from the clutches of both the L.A. And D.C. Dollhouses.

dollhouse-lefthand

My wife walked in during the middle of the episode, as Perrin and Echo strip down and cut the GPS tracking units out of one another’s necks. “God this show is exploitative,” she said, and it was hard to argue with her; everything about the shot was jarringly sexual, and not just sexual, but deeply creepy and male-gazey: Echo bent over a sink and Perrin behind her, brandishing a knife. The episode as a whole is twisty and compelling, but moments like this sort of hammer home the point that even at its best, the show perpetuates the same crap it ostensibly criticizes.

Meet Jane Doe

Skip forward three months. Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we? Rossum decides to shake up the management in the L.A. Dollhouse, putting Harding in charge and retaining Adelle as an assistant in order to humiliate her. Topher is less than thrilled with the new paradigm, and after he’s asked to further develop his remote-wipe tech, he snoops behind the scenes to figure out exactly what Rossum is up to. Meanwhile, Paul does his best to look busy, because while his mission is to find Echo, he’s kindasorta already found her. And shacked up with her. And, with Boyd’s help, started training her for a full-frontal assault on the Dollhouse.

And Echo? Finally, finally, finally a full-fledged and persistent personality. Do you want to know why Dollhouse was canceled? Because they didn’t bother to write an actual lead character until the latter half of the second season. Composite Echo isn’t a particularly compelling character, but she’s the sort of kickass Whedon-y lead that Dushku knows how to play, and it works. It’s such a necessary and exciting paradigm shift that I’m willing to ignore the awful, muddled plot and pace of the episode. Paul and Echo plan to break an innocent woman out of a tiny Texas jail, since Echo’s responsible for the woman’s imprisonment (due to a pre-theme song sequence of events too stupid to recount), and our heroes figure this’ll be good practice for the liberation of the dolls. Mostly their planning involves a lot of sweaty sparring, which Echo wants to cultivate into sweaty something-more. But Paul resists her advances, reluctant to exploit the fact that she’s programmed to like and trust him.

Back at the Dollhouse, Topher discovers Rossum’s intent to covertly develop remote imprinting technology, which would allow them to turn anyone (everyone!) in the world into a doll at will. Being stupid, he draws up plans for such a device and then tells Adelle about it. He’s terrified of what the tech could do, so I’m not really sold on any of this, but whatever. Adelle betrays his trust, takes the plans to Harding, and earns back her executive position. Just in time for Paul to arrive with Echo in tow. Dum dum dum.

A Love Supreme

dollhouse-tudykIn which Whedon and company assure us that they enjoyed The Dark Knight very much, thank you. The Dollhouse gang realizes that someone is systematically killing Echo’s past “romantic” engagements. Someone, of course, is Alan Tudyk, who does a pretty good job of channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker without ever quite aping him; Tudyk cackles giddily and wears nice suits and blows things up, and he does it all quite well. Echo and gang attempt—with limited success—to save the remaining targets, but Alpha breaks (once a-freaking-gain) into the Dollhouse, informs an increasingly nasty Adelle of the insurrection brewing under her nose, and moves to dispatch his true and final target: Paul Ballard. Echo realizes too late who Alpha’s really after; by the time she finds him, Alpha has already wiped Ballard’s brain clean and imprinted himself with the dude’s big, sexy personality. Will Echo love him now? No. No, she won’t. She proceeds to kick his ass, but stops short of killing him, since he has Paul inside of him. Alpha escapes, Paul’s body is on life support, and everyone is sad.

It’s a twisty episode, and Tudyk is fantastic. I can’t reiterate enough how nice it is to have a persistent Echo, and how much better Dushku is in that one role. My biggest complaint here is that Echo is so damned forgiving. She spends the better part of a lengthy exchange with Ballard defending and sympathizing with the folks who “engaged” her “romantically.” On one hand, I think this is meant to disturb us a bit—even though she’s a composite, Echo doesn’t exactly transcend her many programmings, and she’s been programmed to love or want these people. On the other hand, it makes the skin crawl, and given that we’re constantly reminded how Special Echo is, I can’t help but wonder whether the writers want us to draw a connection between her almost supernatural benevolence and her Specialness. More damningly, we’re obviously meant to like and sympathize with Special Guest Star Patton Oswalt in a way that we were never asked to sympathize with, say, Creepy Rapist Nolan Whoever from a couple episodes back. I’m not saying Oswalt should have met some symbolically appropriate doom or whatever, but the writers seem to actively resist the notion that he’s as much a rapist as that other Obviously Scary and Violent guy, and that really reinforces my feeling that they’re just not equal to their subject matter.

Stop-Loss

Victor’s contract expires, and Anthony Ceccoli is returned to life — sans the PTSD he developed during a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Anthony’s uncertain reacclimation to the world is well-rendered, and Enver Gjokaj is exactly as brilliant as you’d expect, but the episode doesn’t dwell for very long on the man-out-of-time thing. Instead, Anthony is kidnapped by a bunch of Blackwater types, who are abducting former dolls and using their Active architecture to build a private military hive-mind. I appreciate the gonzo X-Files-iness of the premise, but the execution falls more than a little flat. The hive-mind never seems particularly effective; its constituents merely walk in lock-step and think the same thing over and over in some very silly voiceover.

Anyway, Echo learns of Anthony’s abduction and decides to save him from the hive-mind. Her plan? Wake up Priya and haul her into the pseudo-Blackwater base. (Poor Priya has had like the worst 24 hours of all time.) The plan works, of course, except Adelle finds out, and throws our three heroes into the Attic. Very solid cliffhanger, and it’s nice to have Anthony and Priya around. Yay for protagonists with persistent personalities!

The Attic

Fun fact: the director of this episode, John Cassaday, is the same John Cassaday who illustrated Astonishing X-Men during Whedon’s run. In the most surreal moments of “The Attic,” Cassaday’s direction reminded me a bit of Guillermo del Toro, which is certainly a point in the huzzah column.

So what is the Attic? Enemies of the Dollhouse are wrapped up like ground beef in plastic trays and made to relive nasty nightmares over and over. Sound sort of needlessly cruel and unusual, right? After escaping her own nightmare (because she’s special like that), Echo stumbles into the nightmares of others, ultimately hooking up with Anthony, Priya, Mr. Dominic (yay!), and Clyde, one of the original inventors of the imprinting technology. Clyde exposits, a lot, revealing that:

1. He was betrayed by the other inventor of the tech, whose name has been erased from his memory
2. Caroline knew the second inventor’s name
3. The Attic is an organic supercomputer, overclocking its human processors with nightmare adrenaline and then networking everyone for Ultimate Computational Power.
4. Expository dude has been running statistical analyses in his head since he was betrayed, and in 97% of his projections, the world ends “Epitaph One” style.

With all this handy data in hand, Echo breaks out of the Attic and saves Priya and Anthony. Clyde and Mr. Dominic elect to stay behind, saving prisoners from their nightmares and undermining the Rossum supercomputer.

Meanwhile, Topher has managed to revive Paul by imprinting him with his own personality, but he had to remove a part of his brain in order to install the Active architecture. Which part of his brain? Tune in next week, kids! In one final, surprising twist, it turns out Adelle is on the side of the terrifying British angels after all. Having suspected that the key to Rossum’s plans might be somewhere in the Attic, she’d sent Echo there to help bring down the corporation. The whole gang gathers in Adelle’s office in a kind of badass war council, with dramatic music and everything. It’s hard not to pump your fist a little bit. This episode really shouldn’t have worked, but I’m a sucker for mythology, and it managed to deliver a season’s worth of exposition with relative elegance.

Getting Closer

Geez, the gang’s all here. I mean, seriously: pretty much every Dollhouse character is in play apart from Alpha. Bennett Halverson, Mr. Dominic, Dr. Saunders, even Mellie—it’s pretty cool, and lends everything a fittingly epic feel.

With the knowledge that Caroline has met Rossum’s Big Bad and founder, the L.A. House is tantalizingly close to learning his identity. But there’s one big problem: the backup disk of Caroline’s personality is broken. Topher, Ballard, and Anthony abduct Bennett (and rescue Madeline) from the D.C. Dollhouse in the hope that she might be able to reconstruct the drive, but Bennett refuses until Echo offers to let her do anything she wants to Echo-as-Caroline. Meanwhile, Dr. Saunders returns to the Dollhouse for no very clear reason, and reveals that she and Boyd have been living together since her escape.

Via very well-paced and surprisingly involving flashbacks, we learn a great deal about Bennett and Caroline’s past together. Caroline’s apparently been after Rossum for some time, and went to college specifically to befriend Bennett, who she’d learned was on Rossum’s radar. Eventually, she uses Bennett to enter and blow up part of a Rossum building, which brings us to the flashback we saw through Glau-vision a couple of episodes back. It plays a bit differently this time, with Caroline sacrificing herself to save Bennett’s reputation.

Back in the present day, Topher and Bennett flirt (with intermittent violence) as they repair Caroline’s drive. Honestly, this feels more like creepy fanservice than anything else—one more ticky-box on the to-do list. Just as the proto-couple puts the final touches on the hard disk, Rossum busts in and all hell breaks loose. Boyd shoots a bunch of ranking Rossum executives in defense of Adelle, then flees (after the tearful goodbye to Dr. Saunders last seen in “Epitaph One.”) Dr. Saunders shoots Bennett in the head, presumably as a screw-you to Topher. The boy genius manages to finish the hard drive patch up while still covered in Bennett’s gore, and Echo boots up Caroline. The Big Bad?

Boyd.

This is all pretty compelling TV as you’re watching, but it gets more annoying the more you think about it. (Actually, that’s a pretty good tagline for this season of Dollhouse as a whole.) You could play a Whedon Staples drinking game here: love thwarted by sudden death? Check. Betrayal by a major character? Check. Shocking revelation of a Big Bad (which they’re doing over on Buffy: Season Eight as well)? Naturally. It’s all so obviously by the playbook that it’s kind of distracting, and honestly, none of these developments seem quite right for this series. Was there any pressing need to introduce a Single Major Villain? Does it even make thematic sense to have such a figure, when the kind of social programming that Dollhouse ostensibly tackles is diffuse, decentralized, never reducible to a single person or organization? I’m willing to give Whedon and company the benefit of the doubt, but I seriously doubt they’re going to be able to give us a satisfying rationale for why the shadow executive of the world’s most powerful corporation would put himself constantly in harm’s way when he has an army of puppets (and second bodies) at his disposal. I’ll eat my words if Mutant Enemy blows our minds, but it seems like a stupid, messy bit of plotting to no particular purpose beyond a brief shock.

Plus: We finally get Amy Acker back, and the episode totally wastes her?

Not your best, ladies and gentlemen. Not your best at all.

eric-newEric Gregory spends too much time writing and hiding from the light. His stories have recently appeared (or are forthcoming) in Interzone, Black Static, Strange Horizons, Apex Book Company’s The Blackness Within, and other cool venues.

He blogs semi-regularly about books, writing, food, and sundry.

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