Against all odds, Dollhouse is back. Cue the chorus of confused, half-hearted cheers.
K. Tempest Bradford covered the first season of Joss Whedon’s mind-swapping drama for Fantasy, and was never particularly impressed, finding it deeply problematic and frequently nonsensical. I thought the latter half of the season was compelling (and downright loved the unaired epilogue, “Epitaph One”), but I’ll be the first to agree that the show has so far engaged its thematic fulcra—nothing less than rape and slavery—pretty damned clumsily. “Clumsily” being maybe a kind of generous adverb. Dollhouse found its voice, but it hasn’t quite managed to look itself in the eye.
Which brings us to “Vows,” a weird, mixed bag of a season-opener that shows few signs of improvement. We pick up with jarringly little in the way of reintroduction or to-do, as if this was Episode 14 of Season 1. Echo’s on assignment again, this time attempting to capture a wily British weapons dealer who has eluded the FBI (and more specifically, Paul Ballard) for years. How’s she going to catch the dude? Well, by marrying him, of course. We’re never really told why the Dollhouse has taken on this case, or why anyone thinks the plan makes sense. You might even ask why a paranoid weapons dealer is marrying a woman he met only weeks ago. But hey, we get to see Jamie Bamber (BSG‘s Apollo) do his best Bond villain, and that’s kind of fun. Right?
The B plot (otherwise known as the good plot) deals with Dr. Saunders’ realization that she’s a synthetic personality, created to purpose by a jackass twentysomething. Saunders is simultaneously horrified and furious, and Acker plays it raw, drawing better-than-usual performances from everyone who shares a scene with her. Otherwise dullish (or infuriating) characters become fascinating by association: Boyd’s new, creepy warmth toward the doctor and Topher’s reaction to his creation’s self-knowledge both make for absolutely gripping scenes.
Indeed, the drama within the Dollhouse is tense and smart and uncomfortable, finally touching seriously on ugly issues like the traumas and personhood of the imprints. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the A plot is so damned stupid and problematic. When Ballard expresses discomfort over Echo’s sleeping with Apollo in the course of the mission, Echo counters that sex is fun, particularly with Apollo. Really, show? Really? You’re honestly having the constant rape victim shrug off and even celebrate her own rape? I think we’re meant to be creeped out, and I can imagine how one might execute a similar scene thoughtfully, but there’s no insight or nuance here—the whole exchange is built to illuminate Ballard, to emphasize his reactions and his emotions, and with that end achieved the topic is promptly discarded.
Unfortunately, things only get worse. When the operation falls apart and Echo and Ballard are captured by the enemy, Ballard decides to beat Echo in hopes of drawing out one of her old ninja imprints. It works. Later, he tries to apologize, even though he believes she won’t remember the incident. But she does remember, and indeed remembers all of her past imprints now. And hey, no hard feelings for the bruises. (Actually, perhaps tellingly, Echo doesn’t bruise). The beating isn’t endorsed by the narrative, but it’s an event without repercussions for the victim, meant only to illuminate the male perpetrator (he can be ruthless and dark, dontcha know, because this is a morally ambiguous Whedonverse). And that’s Dollhouse‘s blind spot in a nutshell: it deals constantly with real, brutal forms of victimization without ever treating the repercussions that real-world victims suffer, frequently privileging the perspective of the abuser.
There’s some hope that the show may improve in this regard—in Echo and Dr. Saunders we now have two Active characters with persistent personalities, a move the show should have made in Episode 1. (Though it’s worth noting that Amy Acker is only scheduled to appear in three episodes.) “Epitaph One” gave us glimpses of a much smarter Dollhouse, but it’s easier to put together a good trailer than a good movie. “Vows” takes some crucial steps toward becoming a better, smarter show, but also demonstrates that Whedon’s series remains deeply, profoundly flawed.
What do you think? Is Dollhouse headed in the right direction? If you haven’t seen “Vows” and I haven’t dissuaded you, it’s up on Hulu now.
Episode Grade: 5 out of 10