"My whole existence was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest. What do you suppose I should do?" -Dr. SaundersI had initially planned to do a full column review of the new season of "Dollhouse," but time and space limitations during Premiere Week meant I eventually ended up combining it with my "FlashForward" review in one long column. By doing that, and therefore by focusing on the structural links between the two - that "FlashForward" has an excellent premise and iffy execution, while "Dollhouse" has the opposite combination - I had to leave out the larger point I would have made in a "Dollhouse"-only review, which is this:
"We are lost, but we are not gone. Will you help me?" -Echo
What "Dollhouse" is about theme-wise is fascinating, and what "Dollhouse" is about story-wise is only sometimes interesting.
What episodes like "Man on the Street" and, especially, the unaired "Epitaph One"(*) showed was that the dramatic meat of the series wasn't in Echo's missions, or even in Ballard's attempt to take down the Dollhouse and save Caroline, but in those much larger questions of identity, and of the moral implications of being able to erase a person and make them into someone else entirely.
(*) The "Epitaph One" world was originally going to be revisited in this episode, but Joss Whedon said those scenes were cut for time, and he's not sure exactly when this season he can get back to them. If you missed them over the summer, you can read some of my concerns about how the show will deal with the non-airing of such an important episode in the grand scheme of things here and here.
So Echo's undercover assignment for Ballard in "Vows" didn't do a whole lot for me - even if Jamie Bamber's guest appearance, alongside Tahmoh Penikett, made for another "Battlestar Galactica" smackdown between Apollo and Helo - until Bamber started smacking Echo around and inadvertently brought her prior imprints back to the surface. It's easy to get on Eliza Dushku for having a more limited range than the part calls for, but I thought she did a very good job in that scene, both as her undercover FBI agent character was trying to convince Bamber, and then after her brain went haywire again. And her kung fu fighting character from "Man on the Street" is always welcome.
But really, there was a lot of treading water in that story until we got to the climax of that mission, and then to Echo telling Ballard in the Dollhouse that she remembers all of her personae in some way. (I still don't quite understand, or care, why Ballard was so invested in using Echo to bring down this guy, nor why DeWitt indulged his desire to do so.) Echo retaining her old imprints, and Ballard becoming her handler, were both revealed in "Epitaph One," but those moments were still well-played, and compelling as part of the larger "Dollhouse" world.
The highlight of "Vows," though, was the Dr. Saunders storyline. Because the fate of "Dollhouse" was very much up in the air last spring, Amy Acker signed on to do ABC's midseason show "Happy Town." So she'll only be in 3 of these first 13 episodes, though Joss said on a conference call last week that those three "will be extraordinarily memorable," and "Vows" certainly qualifies.
Saunders' struggle to accept that she's really Whiskey - and that she'd rather stay Dr. Saunders then "die" by going back to her true identity - was really well-played by Acker, and the sort of story that typifies "Dollhouse" at its best. Eliza busting out kung fu moves or Dichen Lachman in a Jackie O pillbox house are fun and all, but where "Dollhouse" really gets gripping is when it's asking these existential questions about identity and the soul.
Of course, it doesn't hurt if these questions are being asked while a half-naked Amy Acker is trying to jump Topher's bones to mess with his head, which made the scene sick and funny even as Saunders' story was getting darker. And I should say that, between "Epitaph One" and "Vows," I'm coming to not hate Topher quite as much as I used to. I still don't think Fran Kranz is as funny as Joss and company think he is (or want him to be), but having the show more overtly question the morality of the Dollhouse - and making Topher have to hear and absorb those questions - he's becoming less of a wacky sociopath and more of a tragic figure. He's worked so hard and so fast proving he was the smartest kid in the room that he's only now coming to realize he should have slowed down to ask "Should I do this?" before he asked "Can I do this?"
A few other thoughts:
• Victor's face is healing, which means he'll be back on assignments soon (and which explains why his face is fine in "Epitaph One"). And there's a good explanation for why Saunders hasn't had her own scars repaired.
• One early part of the undercover story that I liked: the editing of the sequence where Ballard sublimates his feelings for Echo by working out while she consummates her marriage to the arms dealer. As DeWitt puts it later, "Fighting crime by listening to Echo have sex - it's terribly noble."
• Another Whedon alum joins the proceedings, with Alexis Denisof as the mysterious Senator Perrin, who somehow knows about the Dollhouse and is publicly angling to shut it down. Hmmm...
• This is the first episode at a standard length for a network drama, as opposed to the 50-minute "Remote-Free TV" cuts that "Dollhouse" and "Fringe" got to make do with last year. Joss said last month that he was relieved to not have to fill so much time each week. The downside, though, is that at the 50-minute length, I imagine they could have made room for the "Epitaph One" stuff.
What did everybody else think?