May 1st, 2009
Dollhouse, as a series, is a bit of a chameleon by design: it is capable of being just about any show you want it to be when it comes to the Actives, and as a result it can switch between an action thriller, a procedural kidnapping drama, or even a small-scale social work investigation. However, the biggest challenge that Joss Whedon has faced with the series thus far is the fact that there needs to be some sort of consistent property that is unique to Dollhouse, that gives it an identity which is, if not wholly unique, at least something that defines the series’ place within the current television landscape.
“Briar Rose,” as an episode of television, stands out amongst the series thus far because it manages to do two separate things that the show has been struggling with. Entirely independent of the Actives (well, somewhat), they manage to co-opt the buddy comedy archetype and give it some very strong new life in the hands of Tahmoh Penikett and guest star Alan Tudyk (Firefly), while also providing an honest to goodness thriller within the confines of the Dollhouse.
What makes it work, ultimately, is that neither of these engagements were dependent on someone being programmed, or a new imprint being developed: the show has evolved, slowly but surely, into a series where we know enough about these characters and their motivations that the show doesn’t need to change itself into being one thing or another in an artificial manner. “Briar Rose” may not be the most stimulating episode in terms of its philosophical and ethical ideas (which is an arguable point), but it manages to string together and give purpose to all of the ideas which came before it, making the previous ten episodes seem more naturally paced than perhaps they initially seemed.
It doesn’t solve the show’s identity problems entirely, but “Briar Rose” represents a huge step in cementing the series’ viability if it moves forward into next season.
That next season is seeming more and more unlikely with demo ratings now at 50% of their starting point (which was pretty dangerously low to begin with), but creatively speaking this definitely represents part of a backend upswing which should convince at least some people at FOX that Whedon finally cracked the series’ code at some point along the way. “Briar Rose” is solid on its own, Jane Espenson proving to be perfect for the task of slowly building tension alongside comedy until the point when Alpha enters our narrative, but having had the seemingly random bits and pieces which came in previous episodes at its disposal proved to be beneficial.
It allowed the episode to use some effective shorthand, especially with Echo: when Boyd and Ballard are fighting it out, Echo begins having her, well, echoes of previous engagements, and we see that she remembers Ballard as the man she fought in an alley, and she remembers Boyd as the man who got shot with an arrow and who she trusts. It’s a very simple explanation for why she turns on Ballard, and played out in little flashes is an ideal way to keep the momentum of that fight from being lost. The show got to a point where it could show the images and know that we as viewers understand the concept of the echoes, and it was something which could be used as a narrative point without exposition and without the need for the characters to unpack just what is going on.
For the most part, Espenson really deftly handled what could have been some really clunky thematic work in the episode as well, as the eponymous fairy tale was an anvil of a metaphor for our situation. However, what worked about the execution was that it fit perfectly with the turn of the episode: when it is finally revealed that Alan Tudyk’s neurotic scientist is really hyper-intelligent, knife wielding Alpha, you realize that the Prince in the story isn’t necessarily Ballard but may well be our resident serial killer, who rescues and appears to be in love with Echo. Yes, it was a bit cute when Echo was programmed with someone who had overcome their imprisonment at a young age, as the irony of this coming from an active was impossible to miss, but the fact that the role of Prince shifted as the plot did was just the right variation to keep it from being too contrived – allegories or metaphors are fine if they’re used for context and not definition, and I think they walked that line here.
In terms of that opening engagement for Echo, it was never a highlight of the episode despite being a really fascinating use of the technology: the idea of actually having (essentially) a version of yourself from the future speak to you in order to give you an inspirational path was certainly an intriguing example of how the Actives could be utilized. In many ways, it was an expansion (Read: actually entertaining) of the Pilot’s storyline, with the hostage negotiator who had a similar experience in her own childhood. However, it was a much smaller story here, a nugget of interesting theoretical perspective that the episode than transcended very quickly. That’s how you best tell small stories like that, as an almost prelude to the action at hand.
Said action first took the form of the rather hilarious buddy comedy duo of Paul Ballard and who we later learn is Alpha, first posing as the environmental engineer who designed the Dollhouse. Tudyk was great in the entire episode, but playing off of Penikett’s straight man was highly entertaining from start to finish. Ballard meant business in this episode, and while it was a bit too convenient for the Dollhouse not to be paying attention to their surveillance in knowing that Ballard had followed November to the entrance the way in which Alpha tricked him into finding the engineer and then used him to enter Dollhouse was extremely entertaining even ignoring the twist at the conclusion simply because of how funny they were. Tudyk always got a lot of comic material as Wash on Firefly, but there were some absolutely great pieces of dialogue here that he nailed out of the park: he and Espenson make a strong pairing, there’s no question about that.
And what really makes the episode work is that, when eventually it is revealed that this is actually Alpha, I was able to appreciate the skill involved despite having been spoiled months ago. It was no secret on the internet that Tudyk had been cast in the role, and while I normally avoid spoilers I didn’t care enough about the series early on to bother evading the various posts across the internet. Now that I’m a bit more involved in the series, I would love to know how people who didn’t know that Tudyk was going to be revealed as Alpha reacted: no, it wasn’t entirely surprising considering that the Tucson story with Sierra was not being given enough time for it to be anything other than a red herring, but nonetheless that terrifying moment of revelation where Alpha cuts into Victor was just extremely well executed.
A lot of this is based on Tudyk’s performance, as he manages to go from hippie marijuana growing scientist to evil genius in a slow but subtle shift: you can start to piece it together when he puts on a tight t-shirt and is more buff than we expected (similar to how Alpha appeared in the beginning), but even as he begins to input computer commands you begin to sense that this is more personal than it initially seemed. Tudyk eventually transitions beautifully into the sinister and evil Alpha, and it’s clear that Whedon was quite right in feeling that Tudyk could capture the multitude of personalities which exist within the character. That balance of super genius (who uses Ballard and the post-Dominic chaos as a way to infiltrate the Dollhouse) and serial killer is a really intriguing character, and one that I hope we get to see a lot more of beyond next week’s finale.
Of course, there’s also the revelation of why Alpha went to these lengths, as it is revealed that he thinks himself to be Echo’s Prince of sorts in this real life fairy tale. We knew that he had a special connection with Echo considering that he both spared her life in his initial attack and had that tape of her when we saw him at the beginning of the season. What isn’t entirely clear is just what state their relationship, obviously a sexual one considering they have a feverish and bloody makeout session, exists in: Alpha had to program an imprint for Echo to recognize him as a lover, so does this indicate that while an Active he developed a relationship that was later wiped away by Topher and Adele following the incident? Or is this simply a fantasy he created and clandestinely utilized? It’s got a lot of really interesting implications either way, but I’m really curious just what it represents and how it initial developed.
What makes “Briar Rose” work so well is how well is speaks to previous episodes: the fight between Ballard and Boyd is a perfect example, as the dialogue in the fight is between the man who has been driven to the point of a one-minded goal and the man who from the inside knows the complexities, has had the same moral quandries, but better understands the system. It’s a great sequence where Ballard really should stop and ask questions, as Boyd is giving him ample opportunity to do so, but yet continues fighting and in many ways dooms Echo in the process considering who is waiting back in Eden (or so Alpha calls it). We have enough knowledge throughout this episode, both in receiving more hints at Alpha’s true identity and in having seen all previous episodes, to both understand how it could be resolved and knowing that these personalities aren’t likely to figure that out in time.
The result is a deftly plotted hour of television which demonstrates the ways in which the second half of the season have been slowly building to an episode that utilizes that knowledge to introduce a “big bad” in a way that feels entirely organic. And while one could argue that some earlier episodes were “better” by some sort of objective measures, no episode from the first season thus far made me more excited about the show’s potential than this one.
- The fairy tale allegory was the most prominent, but the Eden reference seems to indicate that Alpha and Echo may be Adam and Eve, right down to the letters of their first names. That brings in a whole new level of allegory that the episode didn’t speak to in great detail but could become more important as time goes on.
- The scene wherein Dominic is taken out of the attic and placed into Victor’s body was as terrifying as it was to Topher, and indicated another way in which this technology really is creepy. Also creepy: was that actually Reed Diamond’s voice coming out of Victor? Or is Enver Gjokaj an extremely good chameleon? Regardless of whether it was the voice or not, he nailed Diamond’s angry body language, so it was a really unsettling scene to watch.
- I am writing this a fair while after watching the episode, but I think my favourite joke in the entire buddy comedy duo was definitely the “I wish we had some rope” line that called back to Alpha’s insistence that rope might be helpful. It makes total sense when you consider that he knew how they were entering and was trying to covertly help Ballard along for his own selfish purposes, but it struck me as really clever at the time.
- Unfortunately, since I watched the episode, numbers came out indicating the rather huge ratings drop: the show is at a point where people just aren’t watching it, so it will be interesting to see if FOX has enough justification for renewal, and just what they would do with the series should it return.