When Joss Whedon went around telling everyone that the March 20 and April 3 episodes of Dollhouse were the ones to watch, I wondered what that meant about last night's installment. Now we know. Spoilers!
Last night's episode, "Echoes," wasn't completely terrible - it was still better, for my money, than the tube-top-wearing backup singer episode - but it was definitely a disappointment after last week. And considering how much heavy lifting it had to do, in terms of introducing the backstory of both the Dollhouse and Echo, it flubed pretty seriously. Still, it's just a bad episode, and every show has them.
Interestingly, we reviewed a big chunk of the episode's script back in November, and it seems like it underwent a huge rewrite since then. (Other Dollhouse casting sides I've looked at seemed to make it to the screen more or less unchanged.) So it seems like somebody knew something wasn't working here, but they didn't know how to fix it.
(On the plus side, in the televised version, Echo/Caroline doesn't knit her boyfriend Leo a penis costume. And Echo isn't actually an off-duty dominatrix, just a girlfriend who ties a guy up.)
So in last night's episode we found out that the Dollhouse has ties to the shady Rossum Corp., which is run by an evil Nobel Prize nominee named Clive Ambrose. And all of that mind-wiped frolicking is helping to pay for Rossum's research. Back when she was Caroline, Echo and her boyfriend Leo infiltrated Rossum's labs on their college campus, and they got caught. Leo got shot, and Echo got into big trouble, leaving her with no choice but to sign up for five years as a brain-dead toy.
In the present day, someone has O.D.-ed on Rossum's "memory drug," which causes people to go bonkers and lose all their inhibitions. (And how glad are we that nobody spent five minutes singing "I'll Bring You Home Kathleen" last night?) The original victim commits suicide, but then it turns out the drug's effects are spread by touch - wha? - and the campus starts unraveling.
The Dollhouse sends in an "army of Actives" contain the situation, on the theory that Actives are immune to the drug because of their artificial memory blocks. (They don't send Echo, perhaps because she has a history with that campus and Rossum, but she shows up anyway.) Unfortunately, the Actives eventually succumb to the drug, and it causes them to start remembering stuff. And meanwhile all the Dollhouse employees start going nuts, including the usually icy Adelle DeWitt.
Oh, and I almost forgot... Paul Ballard (Tahmoh!) is in the episode too. His mindwiped girlfriend tries to blackmail him emotionally into giving up the pursuit of the Dollhouse, but it doesn't take. For some reason, all the Paul-Mellie chemistry is lacking, now that we know she's a Doll.
We could pretty much be here all day listing everything that was wrong with last night's episode. Topher massively crossed the line from "amusing" to "annoying." We did not need to see the bondage enthusiast from the first episode again. The "Naked Time"/"Naked Now" riff just did not work, because people just sort of acted stoned and it was boring to watch. The Dolls remembering stuff felt sort of shoehorned in. Echo's flashback boyfriend was annoying and said things like "That's my girl" too often. There was absolutely no sense of urgency in this episode: "We've got to find the antidote for the drug, before it... wears off. Oh."
And most of all, the episode's big revelations felt more "Earth-patting" than "Earth-shattering." Given time, all that stuff about the Rossum Corporation being the nasty underbelly of the pretty Dollhouse could be compelling, but it wasn't last night. And given how easily the super-secret drug leaked out, it seems like the Rossum Corp. is actually more incompetent than the Dollhouse, which is kind of sad.
But let's focus on the good parts. There were a few, really. There was some nice dialogue, especially during the brief parts where Victor and Sierra are actually being competent as the NSA guy and the CDC gal. "I haven't heard a good 'flesh-eating strain of something horrible' story in ages." "I've always wanted to go to a frat party." I loved Victor putting Journeyman's Brother in his place, since while Victor is programmed with the NSA guy's personality, he really does know more than Journeyman's Brother.
The scene (featured above) where Caroline and Leo get inside the lab and we see fetuses and hints of some kind of weird brain hacking going on was genuinely creepy. And since we know the Dollhouse already exists at this point, the brain-hacking that Leo's looking at can't simply be the mind-wiping technology. It has to be some new extension of that, or some other means of turning people's brains into goo for profit. Be very afraid.
Speaking of which, in the first scene, Adelle tells Caroline they've been doing this dance for two years. Does that mean two years elapsed between Caroline breaking into the Rossum lab, and Caroline becoming Echo? Was she on the run for that whole time? What else did Caroline find out while she was running from Rossum, and what could she have done that was bad enough for her to agree to a mind-wiping?
And I did like the ending, where Sam the evil guy gets offered the same deal Caroline got. You mess with Rossum, you wind up one of its puppets. And yeah, that whole line about how the Dolls chose to become Dolls is seeming more and more like a convenient fiction. (On a side note, I really hope that Adelle doesn't start developing a conscience, as was hinted during her drunken freakout. I actually prefer cold, heartless Adelle. A lot.)
So... the bad news is, last night's Dollhouse lost a few viewers, on top of the previous week's attrition. Sarah Connor Chronicles actually gained a handful of viewers, which only means that Dollhouse and Sarah Connor now have almost the same viewership. Honestly, I'm glad that relatively few newbies saw last night's episode, for obvious reasons. Here's hoping a bunch of new viewers will check out next week's exciting-looking Dollhouse: The Awakening episode: