April 3rd, 2009
There was a moment early on during “Needs” that really struck me, because it really captured why I appreciated the episode more than I, well, needed it.
It was when the episode zoomed out from its logical protagonists, four actives unhinged and uncontrolled within the system, to remind us that they weren’t operating independently; how could they, considering the fact that the show is all about how they have no memories, how they have given away their free will, their independence to this corporation to be used as they see fit. Instead, we are told quite early in the great escape of Victor, Sierra, November and Echo that this is all part of some big scheme.
On the level of the show presenting a fascinating case study for psychological testing, “Needs” was a really intriguing investigation into the morality and ethics of the project itself; unfortunately for the episode, it was following the characters who didn’t know that this wasn’t all real, who truly believed there was something at stake. The result was that every time we returned to those characters out in the wild, or Echo in her mad dash through the halls of Dollhouse, our perception of the stakes was far inferior to theirs, and part of the episode’s potential (to see these actives and to begin to relate to them in their “former” forms) was kind of taken away when we knew that the “evil people” wanted this to happen, that this was all part of a grand scheme.
Part of my problem with the series as a whole has been how it has felt particularly micromanaged, as if we as the viewer are actives being fed little bits of information at a time. I liked the idea of this episode, but part of it did feel like it was an excuse to work in some questions while at the same time maintaining that shroud of control. It was most apparently when Adelle was confronting Echo: since we already knew that Adelle was in on the plan the entire time, the urgency of the situation wasn’t entirely clear. There was a moment where they seemed to insinuate that this wasn’t part of the plan, that Echo shutting off the power was a problem that needed to be solved and Dominic was sent off to deal with the situation. But then, all of a sudden, Adelle is quietly in control, talking Echo down without a note of panic in her voice, not even a modicum of surprise.
There was their chance to give this entire operation some stakes, but it felt like it was missing: something on the other end was absent. I don’t know if it was that we didn’t get to see Saunders speak up until the very end, or that Echo only had to go through some stupid handler as opposed to Boyd to get to the gun cabinet, but something about it just felt like they were in a video game, where all of the bad guys were the same generic model and where the big boss is just going to sneak out at the end. The pace of the episode just kept going all over the place, and what potential there was in this setup was in many ways foiled by the show’s own setup: the show clearly cares more about the people running Dollhouse than the actives, as even in an episode where the “real” people returned we spent most of the episode from the perspective of the overlords.
This all being said, it’s actually a good step forward in dealing with the ways in which the different actives interact with one another. The idea Saunders had was a good one, although I have to wonder if Topher has any limits of what he can program if he can be that specific; programming them to search for closure, and then go to sleep, was a really convenient plot device, but the result was what the episode hoped for. We learned that the closure they were all seeking varied across the board, and was mostly related to the reason they were placed into the Dollhouse…or, more accurately, why they agreed to be placed.
We saw the start of this last week, and even back in the Pilot with Echo, the idea that the period before entering into the Dollhouse was one of great trauma and stress, making them susceptible to Adelle’s offer: a lot of cash, five years of your life, and an existence free from whatever event has caused you to consider this. For Echo, we thought we knew it was the loss of her boyfriend and the events which took place in “Echoes;” however, that her closure was to “free everyone” seems to indicate otherwise. We know there was a period between when the boyfriend was shot and when she eventually came in, a game of cat and mouse apparently ensuing where Adelle and Caroline had a rivalry of sorts, so I’m curious to know if something during that period would spur this emotion, or if it was just residual “Free the Animals!” from their trip into the science lab.
A few interesting to note about Echo: the first is that Topher was still ambiguous about how long she had been there, so this whole five year period is still kind of up in the air for her. The other is that her memory that she kept was not that she needed everyone to escape, but rather that she saw the mountains, that it would be safe there. We don’t know what those mountains represent, but it seemed as if her heroism was in some way connected but ultimately never achieved. The other thing, of course, is the phone call to Ballard at episode’s end: was that Echo stumbling onto the file in Saunders’ office (we saw her enter on the security feed) and just calling the number, or was it something that someone (who, we don’t know) programmed in order to get word out to Ballard from the Dollhouse. If he’s able to trace the source of the message, he and his own Topher can try to pinpoint its location, so there’s some potential there.
For November and Sierra, they had two opposite experiences: Sierra appeared to have been forced into Dollhouse, as Nolan (her boss? or something else?) had her committed at great personal cost so that he would be able to control her, to own her and to know she would always be subservient. It was a tough scene to watch, mainly because the guy playing Nolan was not a great actor and because Sierra not ACTUALLY knowing what had happened made it a one-sided altercation where the one-side wasn’t a great actor, but it does indicate there are some people who aren’t like November, who seems to fit the mould pretty well. She lost her daughter, and that loss was so powerful that she wanted it wiped away.
Victor is still a mystery since his need was so short term: was this because his love for Sierra was so powerful, or because his actual element of closure he needed (we saw in “Echoes” some sort of wartime situation) was so powerful it was still being repressed? It’s hard to know for sure, but I was convinced the active returning from a war engagement would trigger something, but it never happened.
Overall, there was a lot to like in this episode: I found Victor and Sierra a lot of fun to watch overall as the actors seemed to have good chemistry when in character mode, and the opening sections before it was all revealed as part of a giant scheme had some good tension to them as they tried to learn how to become like Actives. However, once you realize that it’s all a game, the fun leaves and it becomes just one giant experiment, and I guess I just find that less enjoyable to watch. It’s interesting, certainly, and I think the show can do good to build off many of the things to be found in the episode, but as an hour of television they could have played with perspectives a bit less, just given us the security struggle on the ground as opposed to Adelle watching the cameras. It would have given more power to the revelation at episode’s end, and I feel it would have made for a better episode overall.
But, at the very least, another step forward.
- I wish Whedon had written this episode, if only because I think scenes like the first time out of the pods after having woken up as “themselves” would have been a lot sharper: a lot of the alien/serial killer talk felt vacant and distant, and the dialogue just didn’t have the Whedon punch to really introduce us to these characters for the first time in three instances.
- Amy Acker continues to play Dr. Saunders with a really interesting morality: here, she believes that it is more important to keep the actives stable and secure than to let them into the world, caring about them but not believing what they are doing to be wrong. It seems to cross her off the list of candidates for Ballard’s mole, but if it’s not her who could it really be? Saunders is clearly sympathetic (see: her reaction to Dominic’s simile), but at the same time she is a realist, not an idealist.
- I’m really curious to see how they come back from all of this: that’s three episodes in a row dealing with pretty big and substantial ideas that affect the stability of the actives, and I just am not sure that there’s an easy way to transition back into standalone episodes. If they’re not going to at all, that takes some real skill, but I don’t know if they really have a choice.