Friday, October 23, 2009

Dollhouse, "Belonging": Angel and the bad man

Spoilers for tonight's "Dollhouse" coming up just as soon as you tell me about the retirement plan...

In an ideal world, I would devote a lot of time to extolling the virtues of "Belonging," easily the strongest episode of this uneven second season of "Dollhouse" and one of the better episodes, period, of this up-and-down series. I would write once again about how terrific Dichen Lachman is as Sierra (and as Priya), and I would write about how remarkable it is that Topher has become, if not a sympathetic character this season, then at least a much more interesting one than the sociopathic quipster he was in season one. I would write about how well the episode followed up on the revelation in season one's "Needs" that Priya was essentially a slave of the Dollhouse, and how this episode managed to cleverly have its cake and eat it too, by showing how the Dollhouse as an institution could be so corrupted, even as our central characters were revealed to be ignorant of, and horrified by, the truth of the situation. (I might also spend some time wondering why Topher couldn't just do as Priya asked and wipe her back down to her pre-Dollhouse life; with Nolan gone, and the technology they have at hand, precisely why are they keeping her a slave when they know better?) I might write for a while about how good Enver Gjokaj is at playing a lovestruck Victor-as-doll, or about all the delightful malice dripping from Olivia Williams' voice as DeWitt called Nolan a "scumbag one tick shy of a murderer," or about how much I would look forward to the always-terrific Keith Carradine as an amoral Rossum exec. And I would note, as I and so many others so often do, that it's not a coincidence that one of the series' better episodes kept Eliza Dushku's presence to a minimum.

But this isn't an ideal world. Fox has pulled "Dollhouse" from its November sweeps schedule, and will burn through the next six episodes by airing them as Friday double features for three straight weeks in early December. That'll leave three episodes left on the initial order of 13, and while the Fox scheduling chief promised all 13 will air, he never said when, so it could be a while. And based on the ratings so far, and Fox's probably-wise decision to pull the whole abominably-rated Friday lineup during sweeps, I would say that the odds of seeing any episodes past the 13 are virtually non-existent. The show's done, and all we can do now is watch the remaining episodes when they air, hope they're good, and again ask the question about where things went awry.

And lord knows we've already played that game a time or twelve, blaming everyone from Fox (for alleged creative meddling), to Dushku (for a limited range), to Whedon (for placing too much faith in Dushku), to the concept itself (which has led to some terrific episodes like this one but also some flat-to-terrible ones).

And at the end of this particular long, strange week, I don't have the energy to once again play the blame game any more than I have to further sing the praises of all involved in the making of "Belonging." So talk about the good, or the bad, and we'll get back to it in early December, okay?


lilyxt said...

Agree, good episode, very engaging. And of course, they don't wipe Priya down to pre-murder state and let her go because then she wouldn't be on the show :) We already are having to think of ways to get Miracle Laurie back. That is one problem of the premise, if the dolls get to grow, then they really aren't dolls anymore.

I think Fox has been more than fair, although Friday for a younger-skewing audience is far from ideal, but its not like the original time slot worked for it. Even if all the episodes were as good as this, the show might never have been a wide-audience favorite. However, it did not help that the majority of episodes have been disappointing. I would never have stayed with a series this long normally, but since am a bit of a Joss fan I did.

Minor quibble, no one in the Dollhouse cares that Victor and Sierra freely hold hands and lie down in the sleeping pod together? Security is getting lax, Boyd!

MCB said...

I agree, Alan -- easily the strongest episode of the season. But something still bothers me. Let's say Priya was indeed a paranoid schizophrenic, and that Topher cured her. Why does that make it OK for the Dollhouse to engage her for the typical 5-year period? Schizophrenic Priya was in no position to give consent for a contract with the Dollhouse, legally or morally. Therefore, her presence in the Dollhouse would have been morally questionable even if the story Adelle and Topher were fed had been true.

As compelling as the episode was emotionally, I can't help feeling that it also reveals some of the difficulties the writing team has had grappling with the moral implications of the Dollhouse.

William said...

Sierra's always been one of my favorite characters, and Enver Gjokaj is some kind of machine that was built in a lab specifically to be one of the best actors on TV, so I enjoyed the episode; but I was reminded of a comment that I've seen from a couple of other people here: Eliza Dushku really isn't bad at being Echo. She's not good at being Echo being somebody else, but when she's just playing Echo, and Echo's evolving personality, she can really hold her own with the other cast members. I also liked DeWitt's dawning realization that the Dollhouse isn't a nice place that solves good peoples' bad problems, although her thing with Topher was a little bit strange. I know Epitaph One showed that it heads in that direction, but it seemed abrupt here.

It's such a shame that the show's not long for the world. Epitaph One laid out so much potential, and although this season hasn't completely lived up to it, it seems like this show's real strength is in its long-term arcs. Maybe next time Joss'll go with a cable channel where a Dollhouse-sized audience will be perfectly suited to let him keep on keeping on.

OldDarth said...

Wow! What a great episode. Mind blowing in fact. And surprise, surprise... not. The less Eliza, the better the episode.

Anonymous said...

The best episode of this season so far. Great performances and a great twisted storyline culminating in the end of the bastard Noah who I've been waiting to die since the episode Needs.
I love how Topher was put through a moral crisis, which shows how much he has changed from the man he was in the beginning of the series. Since the Alpha incident and the mess with Saunders, Topher has been growing a bit of conscience now that Saunders is unwilling to play that role for him anymore.
I love that Boyd was given more screentime this time and some scenes with Echo which we haven't had in a while.
I also love the scenes with DeWitt especially the one with the Rossum bigwig. Has anyone notice that DeWitt has been drinking more and more lately? Could we be seeing the Dollhouse taking a personal toll on her?

Tausif said...

Alan to reply to your question about Topher making pre-Dollhouse Sierra I think he couldn't do that because then the Dollhouse higher-ups would know and Adelle would be fired and he and Boyd would at the very least would get in trouble with the law if not something more gruesome directly from the Dollhouse. Like Topher, Adelle DeWitt also takes good care of her toys (Joe Hearn killed by November in the first season).

In terms of the blame game. I believe Fox is to blame for wanting to simplify the concept/mythos of the show which made it harder for Whedon and co. to get to the more complex metaphor"y" part of the story.

Eliza Dusku was offered a star development deal from Fox which is why I think Fox wanted to make the show about her (I believe this was before Tru Calling). She realized she wanted to do a great television show so she brought in Joss Whedon (the gouda pizza she kept talking about).

Megyn said...

Dichen Lachman as Sierra Sierra is a mess I don't like the part she plays at all.

Tom M said...

Alan, the format of your review pretty much read my mind. I was all set to come on here and comment and extol the virtues of this particular episode. Then I was gonna follow with the huge BUT laid forth in the teaser that the show would be absent for November sweeps and then come back with a "very special 2 hour event" situation (which for the record, I used to love as a little kid when I thought it was a good thing...then I grew up and learned about burn-off economics and realized it's actually a death knell for a show). Your sentiment pretty much echoes mine. I'll be sorry to see it go when I feel like there's still life left in it, and I guess just hope for some miraculous ratings uptick, but...yeah, a shame, especially on what I felt was the strength of tonight.

Anonymous said...

I feel that Topher being a doctor who deals with people in an amoral fashion is a commentary on what Whedon and company think of Gregory House.

domino87 said...

Agreed w/ the consensus, easily the best ep of this season. Excited to see Summer Glau on the next ep but it's a damn shame we won't see it till December.

I don't blame Fox as the sole reason for the low ratings, but they certainly didn't help the cause with the scheduling. The lead in is two of the worst comedies to ever air on television. On Friday night. Which is basically as big of a wasteland for new TV as Saturday night. What did they really expect? I think it would have done much better on Thursday with Fringe as it's lead in. Fringe's numbers are strong enough that they didn't need the Bones lead in.

Fox is gonna break my heart again with a Joss Whedon show. Frickin Deja Vu. And don't even get me started on Arrested Development...

GersonK said...


I would think the higher ups would be less suspicious of "he vanished and took her with him" than of "he vanished without her and now she's back in the Dollhouse."

DC reader said...

Definitely the best ep of the season so far. I loved how seemingly all the characters were presented with either a new level of moral ambiguity, or a new level of knowledge about others or the Dollhouse itself.

Do you think Echo intentionally let Boyd see her book, knowing he wouldn't be able to see what she scratched on the inside of her pod cover? (My TV's too small to read what she had written; were there any coherent thoughts? At first thought it reminded me of "Memento".)

What was with DeWitt's repeatedly touching Topher?

Finally, I had no idea Jonathan Frakes had developed such directing chops! Great out-of-the-box choice, Joss!

Charles said...

Did anyone else have their inner Walter White scolding Topher for dissolving a body in a bathtub?

rosseau said...

My minority report: although well made, the episode wasn't believable. Topher suddenly has morals? So Priya in self defence kills the man who drugged her, held her captive for a year and repeatedly raped her, so she gives up her freedom in order to forget what should be a justified and guiltless act? That was the main issue for me: the last five minutes. Otherwise, I agree that this was a strong episode, compared to other episodes of this very flawed show. But I do wish some of the philosphical dialogue wasn't so high school drama level obvious and clunky.

rosseau said...

It occurs to me that maybe Priya requested that she just forget the justified murder and the last year and she thought she would still have her freedom. So Topher lied and made her an active again. If this is the case, then it negates my issues with this episode.

Anonymous said...

On the unbelievability of the ending: If the rossum corp really is "everywhere' then setting priya free would likely end in her being spotted & picked up by them, then they would figure out that the story didn't add up, esp if she had no memory of the guy. If she's still @ dewiit's dollhouse, then they can protect her from that. I assume rossum knows enough dirt on nolan to not be too surprised that some of it caught up to him.
On the bad episodes in the series: If the series plans to be around for a while, then I assume they can't get to the good stuff too quickly. Anything that moves close to real resolution changes the nature of what the series can be like for future years. So formulaic episodes seem like an attempt to not run out of rope too qucikly.

Anonymous said...

Really good episode. The cast each displayed excellent work here; even Eliza.

I think the main reason for the low viewership is the format of the show. Even though I was very moved by scenes in this episode, there was still plenty of vile stuff going on. The general public is turned off by this kind of material. The show really belongs on SyFy.

There just isn't a broad audience for shows like this. Seemingly only some "reality" and procedural dramas are able to draw network-size audiences anymore.

'Dollhouse' was doomed from the very beginning. This 2nd season is a lucky gift for us fans. I plan to enjoy it while I can.

Rich in Denver

MattB said...

I blame the writers/Whedon for essentially wasting all of the goodwill and excitement from the end of last season with a bunch of boring, story-of-the-week episodes to start this season. If it turns out that Fox was to blame for that direction, then I shift the blame.

Question: did we ever see the previous Sierra, the one DeWitt asked Topher to give a report on prior to his meeting Priya in the mental hospital? Do we know anything about that?

Art Fleming said...

Is there any realistic amount of hope for a pickup by another network when the show is cancelled?

Chuchundra said...

Was I the only who flashed on, "Holy crap, Agent Lundy found the Dollhouse!" when they first saw Keith Carradine's face? The thought of Dexter/Dollhouse crossover fills me with a weird sense of glee.

I was somewhat confused about what was happening at the end of the episode. Is Priya going back to the Dollhouse because she can't live with the knowledge of what she did and what happened to her? Are they doing it to protect her? To protect themselves? It's very unclear...and not in a good way.

nfieldr said...

Chuchundra said...
Was I the only who flashed on, "Holy crap, Agent Lundy found the Dollhouse!" when they first saw Keith Carradine's face?

Not me... I thought "Holy crap, Wild Bill found the Dollhouse! And he got a haircut!" :-)

renton said...

Why do I think Fox will burn off at least 2 of the last three episodes up against the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics?

Anonymous said...

Do you think the second season would improve if one out of every two episodes this season features a B-storyline following Caroline in girl form and the two future rebel fighters from Epitaph One as they journey towards Safe Haven? The future storyline would change in the following seasons as we get past the journey to Safe Haven and move on other things for the characters to go through.

Sam said...

renton said...

Why do I think Fox will burn off at least 2 of the last three episodes up against the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics?

Probably because you were an Arrested Development fan? I had the same thought.

In season one I figured I was watching this just because I felt like watching something, and there were some things in its favor for me going in, but I didn't really care about it.

I may have felt this way after the good episodes in season one, but right now, I'm going to miss this show.

FoundNemo said...

First off: Caroline writes "Mountains are safe" on her pod. The safe place that she leads people to in Epitaph One? Where is she getting her info, about this and the storm she tells Boyd about? I assume she's referring to the impending telephone apocalypse (ha--think how sinister those Verizon commercials would seem!). Something Caroline knew? Something some other character is telling her? Precog? Hypersensitive natural human instinct? Anyway, see the bottom of this comment for all I could make out on the pod ceiling.

I disagree with the comment that Topher's moral development is sudden. From the way it was portrayed, I believe that Whiskey's decline and troubling revelations shook him tremendously, and that this has acted as a catalyst for growth. Like Echo, he is becoming self-aware. Less like a child. We've seen hints in the last few episodes that he's evolving, but it took the unambiguous horror of Sierra's background to clarify the extent of that evolution.

What is Boyd up to? I'm not entirely convinced the keycard was from him. Whedon could be tossing out a red herring for those playing the speculation game about the spy. Although if my inclination is to dismiss Boyd as too obvious, does that strengthen the case for him? Darn you, Whedon.

Left side of pod
-I am trained to kill
-My son killed me
-I'm a believer
-I have a right to survive
-My husband bought the house
-Blue skies
-I love my baby
-The baby isn't mine
-I love
-Women are whores
-I tried to [wake or make?] [shape?]

Right side:
-I am nobody
-Friends help each other
-I was blind
-Shoulder to the whe[?]
-Ghosts aren't [?]
-Mountains are safe
-Topher makes me ex[?]
-Dominic was bad Go[?]
-November [?]
-Victor loves Si[?]
-Sierra l[?]
-[Other stuff I can't read]

Karl Ruben said...

Firefly, by all accounts, was a clear casualty of executive incompetency and/or indifference, but DH seems to be much more of a complex case.
To unravel exactly what went wrong requires a savvy and insight into the business side of things that's far beyond my reach, but I'm commenting on a blog post on the internet, so I'm just gonna go ahead and half-ass an analysis anyway.

It seems to me the creators started out with a deep and multifaceted, morally ambiguous show with a sky-high concept. When Fox demanded a show that could provide self-contained episodes, the creators (foolishly?) decided to hold on to their original ideas, and try to superimpose the network's notion of the show on them. Which resulted in the opening batch of episodes of the first season, unfortunately half-baked enough to turn off both whedonites and genre fans on one hand, and the casual viewers on the other.

When the show then found its (creative) groove in the second half of the first season, earning it a renewal, Fox then proceeded to screw it out of a chance with spotty promotion and unkind scheduling leading into the second season. As for the (again) half-baked nature of the first episodes this season - well, if you were the showrunners, how exactly would you tailor a show such as Dollhouse to suit a completely incompatible lead-in, in a brutally unforgiving position on the schedule?

Armchair quarterback solution: Fox should have kept The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and tried to build on their sci-fi night concept from this Spring. Such a line-up might also have dissuaded SyFy from programming their new Stargate show against it.

As for my own feelings on the show... I thought I was going to be able to stay sanguine about its inevitable demise, but damn if this episode didn't destroy all chances of that happening. The thought of not getting to see the path from this point to "Epitaph One"? Heartbreak. Over a frickin' tv show. Again.

Patrick said...

I love Joss's work on Buffy, and hate network meddling as much as anyone, but the unaired pilot is a total disaster, burning through story concepts with no emotional engagement whatsoever and just totally off on a tonal level. The aired pilot was pretty terrible, but the unaired one is probably worse.

The concept of the show makes no sense, and has no relevance to the real world, and that makes it difficult to emotionally engage with what's going on. There's no sense of consequences for anything that happens in the Dollhouse, for example, killing the clients who hire them nearly every week. If this is a word of mouth thing, which it must be since it's underground, wouldn't word get about about the many people who died using the Dollhouse's services?

I think it'd be worth at least acknowledging the absurdity of much of the show, as Joss did on Buffy, so we can get past it, or use it for good story material. As of now, there's a ton of plot holes and lacking character motivations obscuring anything good the show is actually doing. The show's failure isn't Fox's fault, it's the fact that it's just not a particularly good or consistent show.

And, as a sidenote, I find it hard to blame Fox for Arrested Development's cancellation, the show got to air nearly 60 episodes, that's a pretty good run for any series. And, it's been a show that got many more viewers in its post show life than it had when it was airing.

Sam Hobart said...

So the two best episodes of Dollhouse (this and Epitaph One) were both written by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon (they also wrote Stage Fright but I'm giving them a pass for that one since it was in the first 6). Not sure what that means but thought I'd mention it.

Mica said...

I have a question: at the beginning, on the party, Pryia talked to an imprinted Viktor. Ok. But the girl she talked was Caroliine, right? Not Echo yet (as Sierra was a doll before Echo).
Am I corret? Was that really Caroline on a Rossum party?

Anonymous said...

Mica -- I think that it is a consistency error. Caroline had to be an implant at the opening. One of the other Rossum guys had commented that the whole event was very expensive, and it seemed like everyone was dollhouse affiliated.

I never saw Epitaph One, so maybe this would be explained there, but what ever happened to the attic (which I recall from Season One was like the inner hell of the Dollhouse). I like Sierra (and Dichen Lachman), and wouldn't want this to happen, but since dolls are never permanent (Priya was the second Sierra), why wouldn't she have been put in the attic? (Although, then again, Echo should have been there by the end of Season One -- and arguably Whiskey/Dr. Saunders earlier this season.)

Alan Sepinwall said...

Not Echo yet (as Sierra was a doll before Echo).

Sierra was not a doll before Echo. We saw Sierra's first imprint happening in the series premiere (which there was a flashback to in "Belonging"), while Echo had been there for a while.

MattB said...

That was Caroline-as-Echo in the opening scene. If you go back to the pilot, she was already in a dollhouse when we saw Priya being initially imprinted/wiped.

I disagree with the commenter that said the concept is absurd - the "present day" version of it certainly is (if so many rich people know about the Dollhouse, how is it a secret?) - but I think the glimpses of the future we saw in Epitaph One (with technology and corporate greed having destroyed society) is not absurd at all.

MissNellie said...

Lets all chant -- Tuesday night, Tuesday night, Tuesday night! Back to back with Fringe, which is dying on the vine on Thursday night. Are the ratings for SYTYCD really that great that it is not worth a try? Why not at least try that Fox, it has to be better than a burn off!!!

Other than that, I was also confused as to why Priya wouldn't leave after it is discovered she was forced into this, or how it would be OK to make a paranoid psychotic into a doll. Suspension of disbelief aside, it was a phenomenal ep filled with little, interesting things, from Victors flashbacks to more discussion about the missing doctor. As long as the story is arced to give us closure I can live with two seasons. Maybe BBC America has conditioned me to accepting that two years is OK a series run.

Patrick said...

I disagree with the commenter that said the concept is absurd - the "present day" version of it certainly is (if so many rich people know about the Dollhouse, how is it a secret?) - but I think the glimpses of the future we saw in Epitaph One (with technology and corporate greed having destroyed society) is not absurd at all.

That's fair, but what's the show actually about? Epitaph One was one episode, the show itself is about the present, where both of us agree that the concept is absurd. Whedon chose to construct the show in that way, and it just doesn't work.

Mica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mica said...

Oh, thank you for explaining. I confess I don't remember Pryia coming to the Dollhouse for the first time (I don't have a good's been to long since I watched the first episodes). But now things made more sense to me.

About the Dollhouse being a secret, I would buy the concept if the clients were only powerful high politicians, mafia, high phamarceutical industriy and things like that. Not normal rich people as we see. A Professor? A normal doctor? Impossible to have known of the Dollhouse and it still be a secret to the FBI for example. Only if they are too deeply connected to Rossum, but it's very unlikely.

Billiam said...

Here's my question: if the show was perfect (no crappy early episodes, a flawless lead actress, etc) how would the ratings differ? I'm just not sure if this the type of show that would have caught on under even great conditions. But I could be wrong.

Also, I love watching bad people deal with the morals they do have.

And we are definitely due for a Boyd origin story. His beginnings were hinted at in this episode during the body-disposal scene.

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain to me why Whedon works with Fox rather than a cable network like Sci-Fi (scy-fy) or showtime or whatever?

It seems pointless for Whedon to even come back to FOX. And, I don't even think they're all to blame for this show.

Anonymous said...

Hats off to Jonathan "Commander Riker" Frakes for the directing. The shot where Sierra rises in silhouette in front of her painting, having just killed Nolan, was gorgeous.

Also, evil Nolan was Fun Bobby from Friends

Eldritch said...

"Billiam said...
Here's my question: if the show was perfect (no crappy early episodes, a flawless lead actress, etc) how would the ratings differ? I'm just not sure if this the type of show that would have caught on under even great conditions.

I have no basis for thinking this other than optimism, but I believe ratings would have been much better. The show began with higher ratings which have dwindled.

If you haven't yet seen the unaired pilot, you should get it and view it. Despite what has been said about it officially, it was a terrific episode.

It covered the same material in a single episode that the first six or more actual episodes slowly covered. It was smart, fast moving, and exciting. If it had been allowed to set the tone for the 1st season, season one would have been as good as "Belonging."

Somewhere (maybe here in Sepinwall's blog) I read about a theory that proposes it's harder to win back viewers whom you've lost than to attract new viewers. Maybe that's why the recently improved episodes haven't drawn corresponding ratings numbers.

Amy said...

In regards to a few questions here, I could be mistaken, but I THOUGHT it was implied (or said) that the dr. had drugged Priya to make her brain act as if it was paranoid/ schizophrenic so he could get her into the Dollhouse?

Great episode, it stinks the show hasn't had any consistency. That's what is actually hurting it...whoever is at fault for that I'm not sure, but if all episodes were this good, I know the show would be in a different situation.

Unknown said...

I will second the "dammit, we'll never see how this becomes Epitaph" remark.

Yeah, this show is kind of horrific, but also brilliant. Too bad all the various factors...well, Joss should never EVER work on regular network TV. Period. And I say this as someone who doesn't bother to get cable and wouldn't even see it before the DVD's come out...but hey, if things didn't get canceled.

I have to repeat a line from a previous episode: "Topher has ethical issues. TOPHER!" Oh my. Who knew he'd grow a conscience?

Yeah, it doesn't make sense to have Priya stay in the Dollhouse, unless she wants to take advantage of having the murder mind-wiped.

Hanineal said...

Priya stays in the Dollhouse because she wants to stay with the man she loves, Victor. Yes, she has to stay a Doll, but she's can accept that as long as they're together.

Anonymous said...

This was one of the better episodes but I fear it is too little, too late. I'm just so bummed with this show right now. As a Firefly fan I've been making myself watch Dollhouse this season. That's not a good sign right there, I'm making myself watch, hoping for some of the Firefly magic. Some of the acting is really great - Priya/Sierra, Victor, Boyd, Alpha, Saunders/Whiskey. The rest is very uneven.

Attempting to catch up I recently watched the Alpha and Omega episodes. Wow, Alan D is just so great with any dialouge and any circumstance. Then we have Eliza D. as Super Echo in what should be a pivotal, arresting moment of awakening and discovery and she's delivering the lines like she's a tween on a Disney Channel TV show!

In contrast, the acting and writing on Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy were so powerful this week that is just shows how Dollhouse is not living up to it's potential. Bah!

Chip said...

Unnecessary shots at Dushku. She ain't that bad man