February 20th, 2009
When Joss Whedon first introduced the concept of Dollhouse, the show had potential largely based on its philosophical ideas, examining who these actives were, who they are now, and who they could potentially be in the future. In the show’s ostensible pilot of sorts, “Ghost,” we only really dealt with these questions on a surface level: we saw an example of the kind of job that Echo could be given, and a small glimpse into who she once was. But that middle question was left more or less unanswered: while we got some sense of complications with the actives and potential hazards, the philosophical questions (morality, ethics, all of that jazz) were never really investigated.
This is the reason why I’m not sure why “The Target” wasn’t the show’s pilot, because with a little bit more introduction to the key values this is a far more interesting hour of television. Not only was Echo’s “case of the week” far more interesting to watch, but the stakes were higher, and more importantly the people whose lives were at stake were people that we were supposed to care about. This episode, using Boyd’s first days at Dollhouse as a framework, show us a side of Dollhouse that is morally questionable, that raises some important questions both about the security of this process and the transparency of Dollhouse’s leadership, and does a lot more to make me excited about this show and its characters than last week’s comparatively pedestrian offering.
I see why FOX would want “Ghost” to be the show’s pilot: it feels the most like a basic procedural, with its kidnapping storyline and its sexy opening story. What we get in “The Target” is much less easy to swallow for people who aren’t Whedon fans, and to an extent I can see the network’s trepidation. However, one of the problems with many procedurals is that you don’t get a sense of character: I’ve read on Twitter that some people don’t even know the names of supporting players on FOX’s new show “Lie to Me,” and that isn’t the kind of show that Whedon runs.
It’s also something that is actually really important to the show’s key themes: the whole idea is that Echo isn’t a real character, that she gets reset each and every week. This makes knowing the rest of the characters, like Boyd, that much more important, especially as it relates to how well non-actives are able to adapt to the world of Dollhouse. When Boyd first arrives, he views the actives as mental cases, people with the thought process of a small child, unable to defend themselves or make any sort of emotional connections. I can’t really blame him for this particular observation: from our experience with them, there is something very uncanny and uncomfortable about the actives when they are in this state.
But the episode is all about two questions: how one’s external view of the actives can change over time for those handling them, and how the actives themselves are able to change and potentially become something very dangerous. I find both of these ideas fascinating, in particular the former. We see Boyd finishing one of his first missions with Echo in the flashbacks, and he just stands there while Echo goes on and on about the date she’s been on, and how after her treatment she is going to call him. He’s not even humouring her, he’s just standing there letting her talk and then eventually agreeing to wait for her so that she can call him once she’s done getting her brain wiped. The eventuality of the experience was all he was focused on, and the actual time itself wasn’t of any value to him.
This is a far cry from what we saw last week, with a fairly consistent dialogue between the two characters, and a scenario wherein Boyd was willing to fight for Echo’s current imprint to be able to solve this particular crisis. We see that in this episode too: when it is clear that Echo is in danger, and Boyd is going off to fight them, he clearly feels something for Echo, primarily because he’s gotten to know her more on a personal level. His relationship with her becomes about the Handler/Active bonding ritual they took part in, the code words that create trust between them working both ways. They might most reductively be simple cues for controlling the actives, but they also should have a profound effect on the Handler as well.
The engagement in the episode, with Echo called out to assist a man (The Middleman’s Matt Keeslar) with some high adventure before eventually learning that he intends to hunt her instead, is exciting to watch, but more importantly there’s a great moment where we see a simultaneous switch in the Handler/Active relationship and the Hunter/Hunted relationship. As Boyd is shot by the arrow and Echo takes his gun, now protecting him from the threat, so too does the client go from hunter to hunted, and the power shifts accordingly. It’s a poignant little moment, and one that makes you understand why Boyd’s view of Dollhouse has changed so clearly. Boyd was a great viewpoint with which to enter Dollhouse, and why we didn’t do so in the pilot still confuses me. The moment when he, this time without instruction, goes and reaches out for Echo’s hand and comforts her out of the wiping process, is actually kind of touching, and a great way for us to get to know his character.
The other side of the episode, of course, was the introduction of Alpha, one of the black marks in Dollhouse’s past. Boyd was brought in to replace another handler who died at the hands of Alpha, one of the actives who was somehow able to access numerous imprints from his past in order to murder numerous actives and handlers in a mass killing spree. This is how Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) got the scars we saw last week, and it’s also an interesting event because Echo survived despite being caught in the thick of things. One has to wonder why Echo was spared when so many others were not, and whether she had some sort of relationship with Alpha that might have resulted in him playing a role in her most recent engagement (the fake Park Ranger having been cut up in a similar fashion).
More importantly, though, it forces us to ask whether or not Echo could potentially go down the same path. Dosed by the “poison” that was in the canteen, if we surmise that Alpha in some way had something to do with this whole affair, is it not possible that it was a poison designed to do as it did, creating hallucinations in her mind of past imprints, of her original personality, of that tragic day at Dollhouse? And if this is possible, those memories must be stored away somewhere, and if she could get at them what would be the consequences? I like all of these questions a lot more than the questions in the pilot, which were all circumstancial. The introduction of Alpha raises questions about whether the doe-eyed, deer in the headlights state of the actives is really reflecting the inner workings of their minds, and whether the ability to access that is closer than you’d think.
All of this amounts to a show that I’m much more interested in, and one that gets a far more ringing endorsement. I really liked watching this episode: it felt thematically consistent, we learned a lot about characters, overarching storylines, and the history of the institution itself, and I can never complain about an episode with both Mark A. Shephard and Matt Keeslar in it. Just a far more solid introduction into the show’s ideas, no question about it.
- The FBI storyline, meanwhile, never got off the ground even with ol’ Badger/Romo Lampkin/etc. around – the photo from the end of last week’s episode falls into Ballard’s hands, and he investigates the cabin from last week and realizes that there was an active present, but the only scene that really stuck with me was his cute neighbour (I almost feel like this role was written for Jewel Staite) and her lasagna. It was a nice bit of levity, and Ballard is going to have to lighten up at some point.
- The episode did suffer from one crippling flaw, though: some of the worst green screen I’ve seen since Heroes’ second season. This is just some embarrassing stuff: I know that the show doesn’t have a huge budget, but the rock climbing, the stuff with the multiple Echos, and especially the scene with Ballard’s informant getting hot and heavy in the car, were all just downright bad. They need a new special effects house, or something, because this isn’t going to cut it.
- One of the other things the episode did well is to let us know not to trust Dollhouse leadership: not only could they be lying about what happened with Alpha, but the head of security clearly has not socialized with the Actives and still treats them like empty boxes he can shove around and attack knowing there are no consequences.