In the second episode of the first season of Dollhouse, Echo is sent on an engagement with an overactive outdoors-type man that spirals out of control while Ballard gets closer to Caroline. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.
Okay, this episode was great. Like, shit, this is what I’m going to want from the show as we continue forward. A great story, one hell of a great sense of character development, a mystery that’s continually bewildering without being confusing, and Boyd Langton. I REALLY LIKE HIM AND I THOUGHT HE WAS MOST CERTAINLY GOING TO DIE IN THIS EPISODE OH GOD WHAT HAS JOSS WHEDON DONE TO ME.
Anyway, I want to open this by talking about how creepy the idea of the Dollhouse is. More so than in the first episode, it’s really clear to me how utterly fucked up this all is, and I think this show could have easily careened into EW GROSS NO territory. That’s not to say that you should accept and like the premise, and I imagine for some of you, this was probably a bit too disturbing. I’ll give you that, and I won’t blame any of y’all if this isn’t your thing. It’s just strange to watch Eliza Dushku playing a character who isn’t real. In this case, you start to like Jenny, but then you have to rectify that with the fact that she is a creation. Topher made that identity, so… do I like Echo? Is Echo’s joy real? Should I feel happy for Echo if she’s having a good time? On top of that, you can’t ignore how utterly scummy some of these characters are, particularly Richard Connell and Dominic. Both make no reservations about treating the Actives as nothing more than shells, and it’s just way fucking weird to me. Look, this whole cast is technically complicit in treating the Actives horribly, but at least some of them act somewhat like what they’re doing is wrong or inappropriate. Like, at least Dr. Saunders and Boyd have expressed reservation towards dehumanizing these people. Granted, that doesn’t get them off the hook, but wow. The willingness in which Topher, Dominic, and the company’s owner will completely detach themselves from their Actives is horrifying to me. (Oh god, I don’t want to Google that woman’s name, but I did not see one instance where another character spoke Olivia Williams’s character’s name. IF I GO TO GOOGLE, I WILL BE SPOILED.)
So while I’m still dealing with this incredibly strange sensation, I really am enjoying this show so far. There are two major things that accomplish this:
1) The use of flashbacks to explain Alpha
I love a good serialized mystery, but my patience can be tested if a show takes too long to address the mystery it’s trying to sell me. (With two exceptions: LOST, which is a mess at times but was so fun, and Rubicon, which unfolded its mystery like a 70s paranoia thriller, so the slowness is a positive aspect of it.) It’s why I couldn’t hang with Alcatraz beyond the first six episodes or so. And while Whedon has been great about distilling his serialized stories in the past, there were so many “mysterious” elements in the pilot that once “The Target” started addressing them, I got worried that I couldn’t keep up.
Instead, this episode openly addresses Alpha, Boyd’s beginnings, Echo’s unique characterization, and Dr. Saunder’s facial scars. By doing this, I’m introduced to the concept of the Alpha, an Active who managed to access multiple imprints and give them to himself apparently??? Oh, and then he murdered his previous handler by surgically slicing him up in eight seconds, killing all of the Actives aside from Echo, and sparing Dr. Saunders and Topher. Like OKAY WHAT THE FUCK. I’m guessing he discovered who he was? Or, as I should say, what he once was and what he became. Why else would he do that to everyone around him? But why spare Echo? Is Alpha totally that naked dude from the end of the pilot? Wait, why was that guy naked? No, don’t answer that. ANYWAY, the point is that I was intrigued by what I saw. The Dollhouse has had problems with the implementation of their program, and some of those “problems” were SUPER VIOLENT AND CREEPY. Whatever inspired Alpha’s “composite event” is left unanswered, as well as the reason why he didn’t kill Topher, Dr. Saunders, and Echo.
Basically, I want to know more. This serialized plot is pulling me already. Unfair. So Alpha is the one contacting Paul Ballard, and he killed the one hired by Connell. Oh god, why??? I NEED TO KNOW THESE THINGS. And yet, that’s not the best part about this episode.
2) The character development between Boyd and Echo.
In general, I prefer characters over plots, so it’s great that this show hasn’t sacrificed one for the other. But I never expected to develop such intense feelings about Boyd and Echo so quickly. While the flashbacks gave us more information on the way the Dollhouse worked, I was more shocked that I started to understand Boyd’s treatment of Echo. He was brought in to replace Samuelson, who was murdered by Alpha. His stoic, strong nature is one of his positive qualities to the powers that be at the Dollhouse, so it was magnificent to watch him slowly open himself to Echo over the course of his time with her. He was brought in not only as a replacement, but as a way to stabilize chaos. It’s why he’s so averse to the process Topher creates to bond himself to Echo. He doesn’t want to be close to her, he wants no attachments, and he doesn’t think it’s necessary.
And then, when he sees the creepy way in which she immediately looks up on him like she is a child, his opinion changes. It’s such a surreal moment for anyone to see, and it goes back to what I said in the beginning. It’s fucking unsettling, y’all, to see trust built in seconds through chemical manipulation. Again, I don’t think this absolves Boyd of any responsibility for what he does with Echo, but I appreciated the subtle construction of some sense of affection that Boyd has for Echo. Now, when he greets her after an engagement, he’s watching her trust him implicitly when he never earned it. And that’s what this episode drives home, isn’t it? You have to earn what you get. You do not deserve things by default. And when Boyd hears that from Echo later, I’d like to think that made an impression on him.
That’s probably just my own reading of the situation, but sweet baby jesus, how intense was the scene where Boyd finds Echo in the forest? Or when Boyd is shot by Connell’s arrow and Echo tells him to trust her? LOOK, I LIVE FOR THESE MOMENTS. It is such a private, emotional scene, and I was shocked that something like this was in the second episode. BLESS.
Otherwise, this was still a great one-off story. Richard Connell is horrifying, the story was tense and scary, and I’m getting a better sense for how this is going to work. The dialogue felt a bit more like it was Whedon-esque than the pilot did, but I’m still happy that this all feels so wonderfully un-Whedon. It’s new. It’s different. And after having spent so much time on Mark Watches with the man’s work, it’s really awesome that I can still discover a different side to him.
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