Last night's Dollhouse episode is being called "the sexy bow-hunting story that should have been the pilot." But to me, it was our first glimpse at some deeper layers of the show's mythos. Spoilers below.
To be honest, when I first read about last night's episode, I wasn't that jazzed. Echo gets programmed to be the perfect outdoorsy companion for a rich wack-job, and they frolic in the woods together. Then he suddenly turns murderous and wants to put her head on his mantlepiece or something. Hunt hunt hunt, the end.
But actually, it was way better than I expected. For one thing, the Most Dangerous Game riff was pretty fun - and it featured The Middleman himself, Matt Keeslar, as the hunter, which is always a big plus.
But also, the show managed to throw in a lot of extra kinks that added to our understanding of the show's backstory - without losing its "standalone episode" feeling. In particular, we got a ton of flashbacks to the massacre by the rogue doll, known as Alpha. In a possibly related development, we got a few more hints about the naked guy we saw at the end of episode one. Agent Paul Ballard got an unexpected new clue in his perpetually dead-ending Dollhouse investigation. And we got to see a bit more about how the Handler-Active relationship works.
Honestly, my favorite part of the show was all the stuff about how Boyd and Echo are bonded in an almost father-daughter relationship. The whole hand-holding, call-and-response thing was unbelievably disturbing, and yet moving later on, when you realize that Boyd has started to care about Echo as more than just a piece of property.
The show keeps finding new ways to let us know that all of your social ties are created by meaningless rituals. All of our personae, all of our most sacred relationships are largely a result of going through the motions. And yes, we're all dolls to some extent. The only difference between us and Echo is we never get to see our programmer. By the way, have you noticed how squinty and old-man-like Topher is, when he starts getting pompous and info-dumpy? He's like a raunchy old sage trapped in a young man's body. It's kind of weird and magnetic and awful.
And then there's the mystery of Alpha. Is he just an Active who went berzerk? Or is there more to it than that? What made him have a "Composite Event," and is the same thing going to happen to Echo? In fact, by sending her into a situation where she's being hunted near to death by a bow-wielding psychopath and dosed with hallucinogens, is Alpha trying to make Echo have a "Composite Event"?
And yeah, all the flashbacks to the Alpha carnage do manage to make the hunting-in-the-woods stuff feel more urgent and interesting, and elevate it beyond the simple cult movie cover version it actually is. (Fun dialogue like, "You know what gives someone the right to live? Not hunting them!" doesn't hurt as well.) At first, Echo starts hallucinating stuff from her forbidden past, including her life as Caroline and Alpha's slasher spree. But then, when she's cornered and about to be perforated, she finds courage and resourcefulness that aren't actually part of the personality she was imprinted with, so she can take this asswipe down and save herself.
This is why I have so much hope for this show being something beyond simply "personality of the week completes a mission." Already, in the second week, Echo is so much more than just her programming. And the show is managing to show this without being clumsy or excessively spoon-feedy.
And then there's the incredibly welcome appearance of Badger/Romo/Manservant Neville himself, as a fellow FBI agent who thinks Tahmoh's Paul Ballard is full of shit. Supposedly Romo will be in more episodes coming up, and I can't wait to watch the two nerd icons butt heads some more.
It wasn't a perfect episode, by any means: like last week's, it was a tad too long, probably because the "remote-free viewing" thing means fewer commercial breaks and 50 minutes of story instead of the normal 42. I didn't quite understand what was supposed to be happpening with Tahmoh's neighbor, which I think was down to the actor who played her. I'm hoping we don't see Echo have a breakdown in every episode.
But for the most part, it's pretty great stuff, and it does what you'd want the second episode of a new show to do: deepen the mysteries while delivering a fun self-contained story. What did you guys think?