May 8th, 2009
If there is a single common trait amongst Joss Whedon’s best work, it’s passion. There is this impression that Whedon is pouring his heart into every little scene, and it’s almost always clear when Whedon himself is scripting an episode because it feels particularly purposeful and engaging. And, as a result of this, his passionate legion of fans respond in kind, and a fan favourite series is born. Unfortunately, the same series is probably also doomed to criminally low ratings, so to an extent Whedon has been painted with the brush of “Critical Darling, Ratings Failure.”
But to be honest, halfway through Dollhouse’s inaugural season, I didn’t feel Joss Whedon’s passion for this series: the premise wasn’t being used to its potential, the actors weren’t being allowed to dig into their characters, and in a television arena where patience is not a dependable virtue amongst a mainstream audience Whedon waited six episodes before finally delivering something with a pulse. But out of loyalty to a man whose work I admire and who even admitted last month at PaleyFest that he was going through a creative struggle on his end more than network intereference, myself and the legions of Whedonverse fans patiently waited for the show to break free.
And break free it has: starting with “Man on the Street” and extending into “Spy in the House of Love” and last week’s fantastic “Briar Rose,” the series has not so much reinvited itself as it has discovered the proper perspective on its themes and ideas. Even the episodes not quite as effective have helped to introduce key elements in a way that, rather than seeming like a random “This could be cool, I guess” sort of storyline, feel organic in the season’s momentum. Key mysteries were squared away faster than expected, one key reveal was played so well that being spoiled didn’t even matter, and heading into “Omega” there have been a number of critics who have noted that Dollhouse has quite stealthily become the show they most want saved during this year’s upfronts.
What impresses me about “Omega” is that it doesn’t present a cliffhanger, nor does it fundamentally change our knowledge of the Dollhouse universe (although I thought we should have seen it change on its own a bit more); while it confirms just what happened with Alpha, and makes good on a subtle line from Dominic last week that many astute fans picked up on, the episode is more about paying off some of the ethical questions and dilemmas posed over the last season in such a way as to less justify than explain them. While not perfect, slowing a bit in its conclusion and struggling in sections that required comic timing from Eliza Dushku, it was a finale that nicely summed up why this show is most certainly worth saving, while leaving more than enough questions to lay the groundwork for a second season.
The most potent reveal in this week’s episode is what many presumed last week: Dominic, as communicating through Victor, called Dr. Saunders “Whiskey,” which I had presumed was him discussing the use of alcohol as anesthetic or something at the time, but was in reality her active name before she was pulled from duty. The episode’s flashbacks, while ostensibly designed to show us Alpha falling in love with Echo, were more interesting in thefocus on Whiskey, the “old” Echo, the one who was more requested than any other Active and who therefore was truly the “best.” Her scars are not from Alpha’s killing spree but rather from before all of his various imprints were shoved into his head: even before then, his old personality and its flair for cutting emerged and sliced into her face in order to allow Echo to emerge as the new #1.
What follows is what people put together last week: after the real Dr. Saunders was killed, they decided to use their damaged goods (still under contract) to fill a position. I really liked how this played out for two reasons. The first is that, when that first reveal came as what we presumed to be Echo danced out of the shadows to reveal herself as Whiskey, it became clear that Amy Acker should realistically be playing the role of Echo in this series. The episode’s central message, that Amy Acker is superior to Eliza Dushku up until she has her face cut up with scars, applies to the real world as well, and outside of maybe a “who can act like a blanker slate” competition she’s going to win every time. She’s just more capable of wrestling with moral or ethical questions: as she begins to ponder Alpha’s words about whether she’s always wanted to be a doctor, and then eventually discovers that she has more computer skills than were necessary and uses them to confirm her suspicions, she gives a really beautiful nuanced reaction that demonstrates her ability.
The other part of the storyline that I enjoyed is that it gave a somewhat more human side to Topher. Unfortunately, not everyone who quite rightfully despises Topher has been imprinted with that emotion, but the idea that Topher didn’t change Dr. Saunders’ original personality to dislike him less indicates that he considers questions of morality more than we may realize when he’s dealing with situations closer to him. He has to interact with Saunders all the time, so why wouldn’t he make the imprint a friend and confidante considering that we just saw two weeks ago that he programs himself a friend once a year. Perhaps it was pressure from above, but he could have done a lot of subtle things and didn’t – I loved that moment because it finally took the moral and ethical concerns over the Dollhouse process and internalized them in Topher, if just for a moment.
Yes, those issues were also present in the Alpha/Echo storyline, but they were a lot louder. I don’t mean this as a bad thing, per se: I thought that Alan Tudyk was fantastic as the person with numerous personalities, one of which happens to have multiple personalities, and Dushku was in her wheelhouse with the Whiskey imprint (Crystal). The reveal of what, exactly is happening with Alpha was also really interesting: it isn’t that the personalities are constantly switching, but that the inactive personality given to them as actives acts as a switchboard, able to connect to different imprints as the case requires. It does, in some ways, create something of a god complex, and the way Alpha used “gods” as opposed to “god” in numerous instances was a smart piece of writing by Tim Minear, along with his various references to the ancients and everything else in between. Alpha remains a fascinating creation that, considering the ending to the episode, Whedon wants to revisit in the future should he get the chance.
There was also something lovingly sadistic about the idea of Alpha masterminding resurrecting Caroline in another body (Ashley Johnson, who I remembered vividly despite not knowing from where exactly) just so he could show her the abuse being done to her. It was a pure serial killer moment, thrilling and all that, but it was also a good way to return to the idea of “original” personalities. What Alpha became was, in many ways, his fantasy: his original desire to cut up women was given possibility through all of these different skills and personalities to contribute to the process. For Caroline, though, things are clearly more complicated than that: although Wendy ends up dying before we can learn what precisely had happened to her to drive her to the Dollhouse, it is clear that she was running away more than she was being put away (Alpha, of course, was one of the correctional facility pickups).
Unfortunately, the storyline started to go off the rails once Alpha went so far as to turn, or try to turn, Echo into Omega: he apparently hadn’t self-evaluated enough to realize that Echo wasn’t going to go down without a fight, or that her actives wouldn’t react exactly as his would. It’s as if the original personality, Caroline in one case and Carl in the other, is the variable: depending on their world view and their reasons for entering the process, it seems that the bleedthrough alters their “ascended” state accordingly. The problem with this section wasn’t the science itself, but rather that Dushku just didn’t have the chops to pull off this all-knowing character.
Minear wrote the scene pretty sharply, but he wrote it with a really satirical tilt: the new and ascended Echo had some really cheesy lines (the one about rinse and spit was particularly ridiculous), which would have worked in the hands of, say, Alan Tudyk. But Dushku didn’t really give them any punch, just saying them as she said the more serious lines. It led to a conclusion that felt tonally inconsistent: after the scenes in the power plant were so complex, dark and moody, we got the most lazy of chase sequences and the hanging hard drive caught by Ballard at the last second. Whereas last week was this huge and enormous climax with a big reveal, this week most of that was paid off in secondary storylines and we got a conclusion that required me to but Eliza Dushku playing someone with 48 personalities in her head instead of 0…and that’s a stretch I couldn’t make.
This isn’t to say that the conclusion didn’t work, especially for Ballard. It was clear at the end of last week’s episode that Ballard would be engaging with the Dollhouse more in the finale, but I felt the benefit of his real world approach was both realistic and, perhaps, unnecessary considering that Boyd was standing right there and was capable of the same thoughts. Still, his conclusion was the one that rang the most true: his decision to use his leverage to release the doll he truly loved instead of the one he tried to save was noble (even if he was saving the ex-con as opposed to the person who was clearly perhaps actually more noble in her reasons), and his comment that he is “nobody” was cryptic enough to indicate that he remains highly unsure of this whole business despite agreeing to be a part of it in some capacity (contractor was the word used).
My one concern is that the episode felt like it needed to present a larger change in the Dollhouse itself: considering that criminals are clearly not good choices for actives, I wanted to see Adelle pull a number of them off the floor in order to wipe them and send them off. While plenty of ethical questions were raised in this episode that we’ve had from the very beginning in terms of this being, essentially, a form of slavery, having them come from Alpha as opposed to someone rational shouldn’t be enough reason to sweep them under the rug. While I note above that I like that it wasn’t a “game-changing” finale, I think that at the same time there needed to be more reaction from the characters themselves to these events.
I guess it kind of came down to the question that Ballard poses: you might erase their mind, but can you erase their soul? It was a strong metaphor for what might explain Echo and Alpha’s, and for that matter everyone else’s, imprints rising to the surface despite their minds being hollowed out to make room for more, but the show can’t risk seeming as if no one else in the Dollhouse has a soul either. I think we needed a bit more of that, from Adelle especially, for me to totally buy into where we left things.
At the same time, we left things at a really intriguing point where Ballard has new ideas to bring to the table, where Topher might be a bit more aware of his imprints’ impact, where Dr. Saunders is becoming perhaps the most self-aware active we’ve seen yet, and where Echo is whispering “Caroline” before going to sleep at night. While it didn’t quite keep up its plot momentum until the very end, what Dollhouse leaves on is a very solid episode, and yet another indicating that we have yet to see all that Whedon deserves the right to show us.
Have a soul, FOX: it’s earned it’s season two.
- Great song choice of Beck’s cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” for the final montage, both because it’s a great song and because of the rather cute connection between the general premise of Dollhouse and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for which Beck recorded the version of the song. Music was strong all around – loved the Roy Orbison in the Bobby/Crystal flashback.
- I absolutely loved a great moment in the Alpha/Echo pipe fight where Tudyk let out this really girly “ow” after being hit – Tudyk was great at bringing out the various personalities, and that was one great little sequence for them.
- The episode got a bit too hokey at a couple of points, but I think the “Black President” line was the one that bugged me the most: felt way too heavy-handed.
- Victor’s scars are definitely deeper than Whiskey’s, and their discussion of “How can I be my best?” was some of Amy Acker’s best acting in the episode: November, Sierra and Victor all took a backseat in this one (and Miracle Laurie’s November is now gone for good), but they did some great work this season and I’m curious to see where their characters go next year.
- Always great to see Mark Sheppard back, even if for only a few seconds – Ballard’s FBI gamble was cleared up way too soon (wouldn’t they arrest him for calling in a fake bomb threat on the spot? And how could he be so sure they would react that exact way?), but any excuse to see a fan favourite is fine with me.
- Enjoyed Topher’s explanation that Alpha isn’t a person, but rather people, ala Soylent Green. So he’s the Soylent Green of human beings, I guess.
- The show remains very mum on just how many years Echo has been in the Dollhouse, which I presume is a trick in case the show runs for more than three or four seasons – still, a flashback to “A Few Years Ago” is kind of ridiculous.
- There were some promo shots of Sierra and November in full bounty hunter gear, but nothing ever came of them here – guess they were cut for time, which I guess makes sense in the grand scheme of things.