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.