March 27th, 2009
We make choices, and then we live with them. And then we die with them.
After undoubtedly its finest hour last week, “Echoes” has a lot to live up to, and for the part it succeeds – no, the episode doesn’t reach those heights precisely, but what it accomplishes is something different in a way. Whereas last week did a lot of strong work in regards to establishing Paul Ballard’s purpose and emphasizing the moral grey area for the Actives being used in various ways, this week returned to what last week’s episode really didn’t delve into, the wonderful irony in Echo’s name in particular.
We saw in the season’s second episode that Echo is experiencing her former life, or something aspects of her past identity, in a way that the other actives are not, but in this episode a mysterious toxin created by a mysterious corporation with mysterious ties to Echo’s past life as Caroline emerges which creates this effect in every other active. The episode has some balance challenges, as the humans who receive the drug replace traumatic visions with hilarious lack of inhibition and dominate parts of the episode, but for the most part there’s a good combination of light-hearted fun and a more serious tone.
Still, the above quote captures the very idea of how people are recruited into the Dollhouse: they are given a chance to live for five years without consequences for their choices, that part of their life wiped away for the police or the courts, and then a promise that they won’t even have to live with their choices once they finish their five-year term. It’s a complicated process that I don’t feel we’re supposed to trust, and even if the episode didn’t make me care about Caroline, it at least made me really interested about what she represents in this story.
And that’s still a good bit of momentum, which keeps me engaged with a show that had lost me a few episodes in.
We’ve seen the effects displayed in “Echoes” before, as Echo ingested them from the canteen during the, we presume, Alpha-organized hunting session in “The Target.” That raises all sorts of questions about Alpha’s access to drugs of this nature, drugs he knows will affect the actives in certain ways, but more importantly in this episode we have to remember that Echo’s, well, echoes were activated without the use of the drug. While it took a lengthy exposure to the drug for Victor to find himself back in a warzone, for example, Echo was entirely disconnected from the drug when she overrode her programmed persona in favour of reverting back to parts of Caroline’s identity. Now, I’m presuming that the flashbacks were more for our benefit than hers, and that her true “echoes” didn’t emerge until she was given the large dose of the drug, but nonetheless she was engaging with a persona that isn’t supposed to exist anymore.
Echo asks herself at one point: “How can you not remember something and remember it at the same time?” It’s a legitimate question, and Sierra’s echo being an experience she had as an Active (the sexual assault) as opposed to one from before implies that this isn’t just reverting back to their old identities but anything that has been wiped but not truly wiped. The same happened with Mellie, of course, as all of her traumatic memories of her time with Ballard returned, and she actually became a legitimate security risk when she remembered the secret trigger code that activates her inner killer. It’s a major security problem, and one of the problems with the episode is that they resist making the connection that I’ve made with Alpha. Of course, they can’t make the connection, since no one but Echo knows what she experienced in that field, and since her memory was wiped there’s no way it’s going to get to them. That’s a convenient narrative excuse, but I hope the show addresses it with time.
The other problem I have with the episode is that I still don’t care about Caroline as a character. What glimpses we got of her here were of a stereotypical and personality-less animal rights crusader who, admittedly, stumbled into something she didn’t expect when she discovered that the Rossum Corporation were doing human testing of all things. It works in the episode because there’s enough exciting tidbits to let us ignore how uninteresting she is. For example, the Rossum Corporationg having been responsible for the research that likely enabled the dolls to even exist raises some key answers, and gives us a sense of what kind of position we’re dealing with – Dewitt seemed to indicate that there was some tension there when in her, er, altered state, and I’m curious to hear more on that front in the future.
The thing that struck me most about the storyline, though, was the smallest of things: I don’t care about her boyfriend who got shot, or that she went on the lam directly after, but the title card for the flashbacks read “A Few Years Ago.” Now, the vagueness of this could be purely technical: they don’t know how long the show will run, and if it were to only run for two seasons they could make Echo’s “exit” after five years easily match up with the finale should they decide to do so. The other alternative, which is possible unless there was a title card I missed in the pilot, is that a few is actually more than five, that Echo has been cooped up in Dollhouse for longer than we realize. It seems unlikely: the professor knew her, and the camera seemed pretty new, for example. But it was a question that was raised, and my obsession over it should indicate just how uninterested I was in Caroline’s fate.
I had more fun with the human side of this storyline, which shall from now on be referred to as “the episode where everyone became just like Topher.” I was disappointed the episode didn’t pick up on the conspiracy within Dollhouse at all, and I never like a lack of Amy Acker in my television series, but I do have to admit that seeing Dewitt unwind with a pantless Topher contained some really nicely unhinged work from all involved (Dewitt on the trampoline was a particular favourite of mine). The same goes for Boyd and Dominic – Reed Diamond got to have a lot of fun with it, and while Lennix was more understated in his role the piano scene was still pretty effective.
As for Ballard, he gets the episode off: he scares off Mellie by clearly wanting to keep investigating Dollhouse, she runs off for a treatment and then off on a vacation of some sort, but there’s no progress made and we never see him connect with anything even close to it. I found it interesting that he either hasn’t shared with Mellie about the conspiracy, which is good considering that his apartment is bugged and she’s a sleeper active, or else was so affected by the dead guy in his apartment that that’s become his new obsession. Either way, I do hope we get to the internal mole within Dollhouse in time, as there’s a lot of potential there.
Overall, there’s enough ideas here to keep things afloat: the main storyline was clearly solved as soon as you realized that he wasn’t experiencing the effects of the drug the same as his friend, implying he had already had it break down in his system, and the way the conclusion mirrored so closely her real experience was more contrived than not. However, those shortcuts will work as long as they’re surrounded by some intriguing ideas as they were here.
- Clyde Ambrose wasn’t much of a character for being at the head of this corporation – I wish we could have seen more of the impact of that, primarily because it feels as if Rossum was integral to how Echo got into the program, and even if I don’t care about HER I do want to know what happened once she jumped out that window (on instinct? out of fear? Who knows).
- The ideas of sending out the actives as a force of immune agents is kind of problematic when they clearly don’t know to what degree they are “immune;” having so many in one place seems dangerous, and although I know the humans were incapacitated surely someone could have been informed and sent more after them. We don’t know how many there are, but there seemed to be some walking around below.
- Mehcad Brooks wasn’t given anything to do as Sam, but I spent the entire episode trying to recognize him – IMDB tells me he was on Desperate Housewives, but clearly I’ve wiped Season Two of that show out of my memory, and for good reason. I don’t think he’s got enough range to ever show up as a real Doll, though, so I have to hope he ends up at another Dollhouse.
- I find Topher’s overally personality kind of grating, and it was way too annoying when he was ALSO being affected by the drug (an excuse doesn’t help), but I do enjoy his sense of humour in his programming: seeing Dominic get outranked by the actives because Topher had made Victor NSA was kind of awesome.