Welcome to the Dollhouse (season 2)
Thursday, October 08, 2009 | Author: Mad Typist

Good news. Dollhouse is back!

Bad news. It might not be back for long!

The ratings for the new season of Dollhouse have been abysmal. Ratings for the premiere were pretty bad, but dropped even more the next week. This is a sad thing, because I really liked some of the stuff I saw in the last few episodes of the season. And then I finally got around to seeing the infamous never-aired 13th episode, "Epitaph One" and that desire to see more Dollhouse was further strengthened within me.

First things first: if you haven't seen Epitaph One, you need to stop right now and go download it on iTunes or via Amazon's Unbox site. Ironically, the best episode of Dollhouse ever (and seriously, it's good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the finer episodes of other sci-fi series such as BSG, Lost and Babylon 5) is the one episode that will probably never air on regular television. Anyway, obviously this post will contain spoilers for that episode, so do yourself a favor and see it first - you deserve to experience its mind-blowing revelations without being spoiled.

Here's some thoughts, based on what I saw in Epitaph One, as well as the first two episodes of Season 2:

Eliza Dushku is not a bad actress. Contrary to what a lot of people think, she's had some moments where she's shown what she's capable of bringing to the table. Consider the scene in epsiode 1 of season 2 ("Vows") where her new husband (played by scrumptious BSG vet Jamie Bamber) attacked her. Her face ran an incredible gamut of emotions, and you really felt the persona's wit and intelligence, as she was convincing enough to delay her fate for at least a little while.

The problem with Dushku is that I think she's better in a supporting role. Her natural charisma is best utilized in the role of a foil for other characters. In the lead role on Dollhouse she's being asked to be, in many ways, the straight man among characters. This isn't her strong point as an actress, and it's compounded by the fact that her character is still too broad - we have a great sense who Victor, Sierra and even Mellie/November are, but I feel like Caroline is still too poorly fleshed out to be worth cheering for as a protagonist.

However... watch Epitaph One, and you finally (FINALLY!) get a sense of what Dushku might be able to do with the character, if Echo is allowed to finally evolve into a persistent character. She's shown hints of it in the first two episodes, as we're made aware that Echo DOES retain some level of consciousness about events, even as she's being driven by her various personas. Epitaph One shows us what Echo will eventually become - a master personality who can simultaneously have consciousness at the same time as her current persona.

The real star of the show, though, is Whiskey . I enjoyed Amy Acker's work on Angel (especially once her Illyria personality emerged), but I never would have guessed at how great she'd be in this very limited role on the show. Part of it is definitely her skill as an actress, since she's proven she can be more versatile than Dushku. But part of it is also that Whiskey's just simply a more interesting and compelling character than Echo. Echo is just trying to get back to who she was - Caroline - and that's not that interesting for me (partially because I found original Caroline to be sort of annoying). Whiskey, in contrast, will probably NEVER go back to being who she once was. Her struggle with her sense of self - what it means to have a soul, what it means to question every impulse you have - is so much more profound because of that fact.

It was interesting to see Whiskey struggle to understand who she was with the Dr. Saunders personality embedded in her. Her pain at knowing that her phobias were something that someone else intentionally embedded into her was really visceral. I also found it really fascinating that the scars that once used to cause her pain now became a safety net of sorts for her, as she reasoned that remaining "broken" in that way was an insurance policy against Adelle Dewitt re-enlisting her to serve as an Active.

We can see in Epitaph One that many of Dr. Saunders strongest personality traits live on in Whiskey even after she reverts to Doll form. The poignant ending of that episode shows Whiskey once more serving as the caretaker to the lost souls roaming the Dollhouse (or what's left of it). We also see that perhaps a part of her never conquered her fears of leaving, despite the semi-hopeful ending of Vows.

I still have trouble seeing how this show is going to get from the present to the results of Epitaph One. I love so many of the ideas of Dollhouse, but my ongoing struggle as a viewer (and as a fan trying to get other viewers interested) with the show is that often the execution isn't living up to the ideas being pitched each week. For example, it's nice to see Alexis Denisof (a.k.a. Mr. Alyson Hannigan) pop up as a senator investigating the Dollhouse, but those scenes are a classic example of how the show often violates a central rule of writing: Show, don't tell. We see the senator yelling about how BAD and EVIL the Dollhouse/Rossum is, but we don't really get a good sense of why that is, exactly. In the present tense, the Dollhouse seems by and large like a particularly high tech brothel. 90% of the viewing audience doesn't really understand the endgame present here, because the show is mostly concerned with having characters TELL us things could get bad, instead of showing us just what that means.

The problem is that, for all it's excellence, Epitaph One isn't technically a "real" episode. While it's available online, it's never aired, and therefore a good chunk of the viewing audience has never seen the actual scenes that demonstrate (instead of just telling) what the Dollhouse tech can really lead to. For example, there's a great scene in Epitaph One where the Higher Powers send down a messenger personality that gets imprinted onto Victor. It's then that we see exactly what the larger plan behind the Dollhouse really is - permanently selling the bodies of the Dolls to rich and powerful clients who wish to live forever. Epitaph One also establishes that in the future the technology has evolved far enough so that ANYONE can be imprinted remotely, even without being specially fitted as the Dolls in the present are. Topher posits that you could robo-call a whole city and instantly have an army of mind-wiped slaves. These are two totally chilling scenes and really help the viewer understand what's at stake in this particular universe. But again... they're stuck in an episode that hasn't aired, and so it's hard to consider them part of continuity.

One of my complaints about Dollhouse is that it sometimes moves too slowly. I think the second episode, "Instinct", is a perfect example of that. After the drama of the finale, plus the season opener, the show had a good head of steam going. So, it was disappointing to see the show take a step backwards and produce a monster-of-the-week format episode immediately after that. The problem is that what was great about Epitaph One - the passion of the various characters, the urgency you felt as a viewer, the dark and driving tone of the show - are often not present each week. It's very frustrating.

Random thoughts:
  • The most important thing ever: Victor's face is back to normal. Yay! It's also interesting that Adelle obviously hasn't totally given up on her affection for him.
  • Victor still loves Sierra.
  • Boyd loves Whiskey. I thought Whiskey was being a little unfair with Boyd, since it seemed pretty clear to me last season that he was attracted to her, even before he knew she was a Doll. Epitaph One shows that this relationship does progress, even if they sadly don't end up together. Amy Acker just totally killed me when she tearily confessed that she wished that they would have had more time together before the world went to hell.
  • Whiskey's psychological warfare with Topher was amazing to watch unfold. Not only did Acker bring her A game, but Fran Kranz was also incredible as we saw Topher really struggle with the idea that this game he's been playing at might be more harmful and dangerous than he ever realized. Many people have criticized the character for being too flip about his work - I've even seen people accuse him of being a sociopath. But I think that between Vows and Epitaph One you can see that Topher is anything BUT an uncaring sociopath. Indeed, we see in Vows that his happy-go-lucky persona has begun to crack, as he's confronted by the result of his handiwork in the form of a vengeful and psychologically damaged Whiskey. You can see the pain he feels at the realization that Whiskey chose on her own to hate him. In Epitaph One we see the final end for Topher, as it appears his role in orchestrating the literal end of humanity has driven him insane, reduced to a weeping child.
  • I'm disappointed that you had Apollo and Helo back together in the first episode, and neither of them had their shirt off. Boooooooo. Dimly shot wedding night scenes are no replacement of a full on daytime shot of Jamie Bamber topless.
  • You know what, show? It's not immortality if your consciousness doesn't survive. That's Whiskey's whole point about giving up the Dr. Saunders personality. That consciousness would cease to exist if they put a new personality into her. What the Dollhouse tech does is NOT the same as transferring your consciousness to a new body. It's making a copy, and that's a totally different thing. It's cloning your mind, not transferring it. If you were to clone me, and I was then standing in a room with my clone, I wouldn't go, "Oh, well, I can totally die right now, because hey I'm still going to live on." No, you'd go, "Hmm... better kill my clone before it gets any funny ideas about stealing my place."
  • Apparently in the future Alpha is an ally, so I guess we don't have to worry about him getting killed off any time soon.
Anyway, we'll see what happens the rest of this season. FOX hasn't canceled the show yet, but on the other hand, keeping it exiled on Friday night and paired inexplicably with their new sitcom Brothers (not exactly compatible demographics) isn't doing it any favors either.

In the meantime, let's enjoy what we've got. Summer Glau is guest starring on a future episode (as is Michael Hogan and Keith Carradine), and hopefully we'll start getting much closer to the events hinted at in Epitaph One. Hopefully you enjoyed this belated review - did I do my best?

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On 10:56 AM , Michael said...

I figured that you would be pretty happy that Victor’s face was surgically restored. I’ve never been too sure about Enver’s abilities as an actor throughout all of season 1. I’ve found Dichen Lachman, who plays Sierra, and Amy Acker to be the two strongest actors on the show, but with the recent episode Belle Chose I felt that the range of three characters that Enver played, dollhouse doll, serial killer, and Echo in Victor’s body, finally showed that he can act and can act well. I’m hoping that they’ll continue to give him roles that showcase his abilities.

The issue I primarily have with Eliza is that I find it very hard to see her as any of the characters she plays. Most of the time I see Eliza, the actor, playing each of the different characters. It’s only been on a few occasions, such as in the Instinct episode, that I actually felt she was the character she was playing.