With last night's double-header, Dollhouse swung firmly back towards "best thing Joss Whedon's ever done" territory. There was only one slight problem... the weak subplot involving Summer Glau. Mega spoilers below!
So I totally did not see the revelation concerning Senator Daniel Perrin coming — that he's the doll and his wife is his handler. It was one of the coolest plot twists I'd seen in ages, and yet it totally made sense once the show explained it.
It goes like this: the evil Rossum Corporation has tons of power and influence, but the bastards in charge wanted more. They wanted their own puppet as a U.S. Senator (and maybe, eventually, as president.) So they kidnapped Daniel Perrin, the scion of a powerful political dynasty (think of him as Fred Kennedy or something.) And they took the dissolute party boy and reprogrammed him to be a fiery crusader for justice, with tons of political ambition. Daniel Perrin 2.0 quickly became a senator. And then they decided their lucrative, illegal Dollhouse operation was getting too much attention, so they decided to have their puppet Senator investigate these rumors — only to disprove them and exonerate Rossum completely.
Of course, poor old Madeline aka November would have to be the sacrificial lamb, stepping forward as a former doll only to be revealed as a crazy woman and then destroyed. But you can't achieve total political power without crushing a few people along the way.
Alexis Denisof did a fantastic job of bringing Senator Perrin to life, and the Dollhouse writers managed to find yet another fascinating twist on the idea of people's identities being erased and rebuilt: Here was someone the Dollhouse had made better. They'd taken a worthless shell of a human being and turned him into a good guy — except, of course, for the part where he danced to their tune. An extra layer of weirdness comes from the fact that they didn't just build a fictitious persona for him — they layered on a new personality on top of his old one, so that when he realizes he's been reprogrammed, he has a hard time separating his real life from his fake one. His fake marriage to a woman who loathes him is a new level of creepy from a show that seemed to have emptied its creepy-bag already.
The other big twist, of course, is at the end, when Perrin has killed his wife under the control of Bennett Halverson (Glau). And he starts to think that maybe it wouldn't be quite so bad to let the Dollhouse erase his memory of what happened, so he can go back to thinking of himself as a fine, upstanding senator. Who cares if it's a lie, or if the real murderers will get away with it? It's the easy way. And then Echo points out that Perrin didn't kill his wife, Rossum did. But if Perrin lets Rossum erase his brain again, then Perrin really did kill his wife. When you put it like that, there's no choice, right? Perrin has to do the right thing and hang on to his real memories.
Except he doesn't. The next time we see him, we think he's about to step up and expose Rossum, but then we realize that he's taken the devil's bargain. He's chosen to let Rossum wipe his mind one more time, rather than deal with the reality of his life. (Not unlike Sierra last episode, choosing to remain a doll rather than remember that she killed her tormentor.)
This was such a smart, challenging two hours of television, it's a crime that it's not the new 24 or House. Just rewatch the scene where Perrin is trying to explain to Echo that she's a doll, before he discovers he's a doll himself — his horror and disgust are so palpable, and then it turns out that he's the thing he's been describing all along.
If only this show wasn't airing on a Friday night. Or if only it actually appealed to the kinds of brain-damaged idiots that this Microsoft ad seems to think are watching:
It's Dollhouse for dummies! I will refrain from making any snarky comments about Microsoft's opinion of its own users' intelligence.
Meanwhile, November is all fired up to do the right thing — and you know it's not going to turn out well, even before you understand how she's being set up. She's still a puppet, even though she's no longer a doll. And just standing up and telling the truth about the Dollhouse is never going to work, because they can discredit her so easily. Weirdly, it's the best argument I've seen so far in favor of Ballard's decision to go work for the Dollhouse instead of continuing to work against it — there's no way to destroy it except from the inside. The scene where Ballard finally gets to talk to November and explains to her his version of events is pretty heartbreaking, but you can easily see why she's not won over. All she sees is another person trying to control her, and not being nearly as subtle about it as the Senator's people.
Ballard can't protect her from her own bad decisions, and when he realizes that, it's a crucial step towards him being less of a meathead. I actually love Ballard, but it's about time he got over his "knight in shining armor" fixation — and it's especially cool to see him starting to cast that off in an episode where the "you're my knight in shining armor" thing turns out to be a conditioning trigger for a mindwiped slave.
Adelle and Topher continue to be the best double act on television — the limo scene was great — and both of them had some great moments this week. After seeing Adelle acting a bit like a whipped puppy with Mr. Harding lately, it was great to see her regain her backbone and move to protect November. And the ball-grabbing scene with Ray Wise, cartoonish though it was, still totally ruled. Meanwhile, what's a better double act than Adelle and Topher? Two Tophers! Yet again, Enver Gjokaj proves that he can do pretty much anything, as he creates a spot-on impression of Fran Krantz.
So why did I say that the Summer Glau parts didn't work for me? Well, the stuff between Bennett and Topher was great — the nerd bonding, the rivalry, the scheming against each other, the flirting. I could have watched it for hours. The bit where Topher decides she's too pretty to be as smart as she is was a tad annoying, but also utterly believable. And I loved it when she's flattered that he tried to tase her. That was twisted and sweet and totally awesome.
But the rest of Glau's performance, for whatever reason, just did not work. I think it was the writing more than Glau's acting — they were trying to do something arty, and it fell flat. There were too many scenes of Glau soliloquizing and repeating weird phrases over and over, to show that she's tightly wound and psychotic. And the whole business where she has a vendetta against Echo because Echo's original personality, Caroline, left her crushed under some rubble just felt a bit contrived. It felt like way too much of a coincidence. And I just could not buy that Bennett would let the Senator and Echo escape, just so she could keep pursuing her vendetta against Echo a bit further. The whole thing felt, frankly, flimsy. And Glau struggled mighty to sell it, but the whole "psycho geek" routine felt a bit too close to a glitchy Cameron from Sarah Connor Chronicles. "Will you please make sure? Will you please make sure? WILL YOU PLEASE MAKE SURE?"
I think it was the fact that this is supposed to be such a huge operation for Rossum, and yet Bennett bungled it so hugely — first by torturing Echo when she was supposed to be mindwiping the Senator, then by letting the Senator escape, and finally by turning the Senator into a psycho-killer — seemed just a tad much. And I just couldn't buy into the "I got hurt in an accident and you ran away, so I'm obsessed with destroying your mindless shell even though you don't remember me" thing. It felt a bit forced.
Glau was a joy to watch whenever she had scenes opposite Fran Kranz. But the rest of the time, her scenes dragged the story to a halt. But I'm sure your mileage may well vary, and feel free to let me know in the comments!
But generally this was another fantastic outing — bringing the show up to four brilliant episodes in a row. There are so many ideas embedded in this story about what makes us who we are, and how much we're slaves to our programming — even the Bennett storyline, which fell flat for me, had an interesting spin on how she's a slave to her compulsion for revenge. It was depressing to see so many ads for Human Target, a show based on a comic book that explored similar ideas of identity and selfhood during its most recent Vertigo Comics incarnation but which is tossing all of those ideas away in favor of a dumb bodyguard storyline. Dollhouse is the show that fans of Peter Milligan's Human Target comics actually deserve.
Wee tidbits: We've had several hints lately that there was another Sierra before the current one, and that Adelle got a bit too attached to her, and it ended badly. I wonder what are the chances we'll find out what that's about before the show runs out of episodes?
Also, yet again we get another person telling us how special Echo is — this time, it's Bennett, saying that Echo has this magical ability to make people love her (or something.) I'm beginning to think she's turning into RTD's version of the Doctor, and we're going to have people saying that Echo is fire and ice and dragons and a lonely god and the reason the Earth doesn't turn backwards. Still, I'm willing to let it pass, since Echo being special turns out to be important in the post-apocalyptic world we're heading towards.
Also, more hints that Caroline wasn't a particularly nice person... and suddenly, Echo doesn't want to go back to being Caroline. After insisting in "Omega" and this year's season opener that she's just waiting for Caroline to come home, she's now gone over to Whiskey's point of view — if Caroline returns to Echo's body, then Echo is killed. So she'd rather remain Echo, and let Caroline rot in a wedge? It'll be interesting to see if that becomes an issue soon.
I love that the DC Dollhouse's Actives are named after Greek gods, like Hades and Aphrodite.
"This is the same tech that turned Echo into a serial killer." "We said we wouldn't dwell on that. He's dwelling."
"You just woke up a lot of people — and they all think you're a bitch!"
"How about the Senator beats his wife?" "The Senator doesn't beat his wife. The Senator loves his wife." "Lucky wife."
"No, no, you're very pale. White. Pinkish white. I mean, your skin. Your skin is like a pig. Because it's pink. People assume that pigs are bad, but I like them. I love them."
"Wasabi peas." "I'm excited and scared."
"Imagine John Cassavetes in The Fury as a hot chick." "Which you know I often have!"
"Oh, it's very nice." "She was kind of a hooker." "Mmm Hmm. How about while I build the magic bullets, you work on adapting your gun?"
"The Senator is filibustering."