Last night, Dollhouse served up a blend of the Borg, The Matrix and The Cell... and then revealed how they all fit together, in a wholly original story. And then we finally learned the secret origins of Rossum. Spoilers ahead.
Over the past few weeks, Dollhouse season two has started reminding me of Jericho season two — both shows came back from cancellation, with a limited number of episodes. Both shows' fans cherished hopes that they'd continue past those truncated second seasons, but the people making both Jericho and Dollhouse seemed aware that they shouldn't save any trail mix for the hike back. Both shows abandoned their slow, incremental approaches and started racing forwards... almost too fast. But I'd way rather have too fast than too slow... or a setup that never pays off.
The other comparison, while we're at it, is that both Dollhouse and Jericho have pretty unique spins on the apocalypse — both involving an evil corporation and entitled assclowns who just have to control everything.
So last night, Dollhouse served up one decent episode, and one great one. In the first hour, we learned, yet again, that you never really leave the Dollhouse. Victor's contract expires, and he gets set free, wealthy but adrift, and unsure why he's in love with a woman he can't remember. He's so used to doll life, he sleeps in his bathtub because it reminds him of his coffin. And then he gets kidnapped/recruited to become a soldier in a new Rossum unit, that's basically a linked group mind. And then in the second hour, Echo, Victor and Sierra get sent to the Attic, where they encounter Mr. Dominic, and a serial killer... who turns out to be one of the founders of Rossum Corp.
The first hour was a slight disappointment, but only a slight one. After seeing so many hints about Victor's war-related PTSD, I figured we were in for an exploration of the ways in which trauma comes back even after you think you've defeated it. Even though Topher seemed so confident that they'd "cured" Victor's PTSD, I assumed we were going to learn otherwise. But after waving a bit in that direction, the episode lurched towards the "hive mind" soldiers thing — which was a really neat concept, and yet another fresh spin on the Dollhouse's tech. (The execution was pretty good, but the "chanting soldier voices" thing veered towards being cheesy once or twice.)
Mostly, instead of being an homage to Kimberly Peirce's underrated movie about PTSD and getting re-drafted against your will, the episode "Stop Loss" served to show us just one more way in which Rossum is evil. And at this point, we're pretty much primed to think Rossum is more evil than a dozen standard evil corporations put together. So it's just as well that the show is moving forward beyond showing us how evil Rossum is — towards explaining how Rossum got that way, and how our heroes are going to fight it.
You have admire how quickly the second episode, "The Attic," ran through all the standard science-fiction cliches for this sort of situation. Echo is in a virtual shared world, along the lines of the Matrix, and then she and Laurence Dominic are being chased by a shadowy serial killer through people's worst nightmares. The first half of the episode was fun, and some of the nightmare imagery was pretty jarring — especially the vision of Echo and the other dolls on tables, with wires going into their brains and tubes going down their throats, as liquid slowly flows into their trays.
There's nothing wrong with a "chasing a serial killer through people's nightmares" episode — we all like a good mindscape serial killer. But it's probably just as well that the episode took a sharp lurch halfway through, when the good guys finally catch up to the evil mass-murderer Arcane — and he's revealed to be a British nerd.
The Attic turns out to be more than just the random hell all of the broken dolls and disloyal employees are sent to — it's a giant computer, made out of hundreds of human brains, all supercharged by experiencing trauma over and over again. It's another neat spin on the show's central "brain hacking" conceit, and then it leads to us discovering the origins of Rossum. Arcane, the serial killer, is actually Clyde, the co-founder of Rossum, who developed "encephalic coding and communication," only to be betrayed by his partner after he imprints someone with a more docile version of his own mind.
And ever since Clyde got sent to the Attic — in 1993 — he's been running statistical analysis and scenarios for the future of the ECC technology. And in all but 3 percent of these scenarios, the ability to read and write brains leads to the collapse of civilization. Presumably, Rossum has access to Clyde's data-crunching, and knows about this — but doesn't care.
Conveniently, Clyde's memory of the name of his partner in founding Rossum, as well as the person who was imprinted with the obedient "Clyde 2.0" persona, has been removed. But it turns out Echo's original personality, Caroline Farrell, discovered who they were before she was wiped and turned into a doll. (We know a lot of time passed between Caroline breaking into the Rossum lab on that college campus and her becoming a doll — so presumably she discovered more about Rossum during that time.) So after Echo and the others break out of the Attic, they know enough to start taking the fight to Rossum.
Once again, the star of last night's episode was really Olivia Williams as Adelle — her arc moved awfully quickly, but it was still pretty amazing to watch. In the first hour, she has one last fling with "Roger," her perfect lover who's installed into Victor's body — only to have Roger confess that he's in love with someone else... Sierra. Even a pre-programmed lover won't love Adelle. "Roger" only rubs salt in the wounds by scoffing at the idea that Adelle would be pathetic enough to hire a programmed doll to love her. This rejection, and evidence that Adelle has lost her grip on the Dollhouse by not preventing Victor and Sierra from "grouping," sends her into a tailspin, and she spends pretty much the rest of the episode drunk, while everyone around her schemes. Echo bursts in to tell Adelle that they're not equals, and Boyd tells Adelle that she needs to find the old Adelle quickly, or he'll help take her down.
And then Adelle takes a shower with the Actives, and when she comes out, she's apparently sobered up a bit — and chosen her side in the fight between Rossum and the human race. We think at first that Adelle has finally discarded the last little piece of her soul and become "Darth DeWitt" in full — but then it turns out she sent Echo to the Attic on purpose, to discover Rossum's secrets.
If these episodes had aired on a weekly basis, this progression would have felt a lot slower, probably — Adelle losing control of the Dollhouse to Harding, selling out to get it back, turning into a bitter shell of her former self, and then finally making her choice. But even getting all six of these episodes over a three-week span, it still feels like a pretty intense journey, with Olivia Williams fully investing you in Adelle's downward spiral.
Once again, I also really liked Echo — especially the bit where she went shopping in the Dollhouse's imprints and turned them into an all-you-can-eat skillset buffet. After so long of Echo being helpless and glitchy and confused and headachy, it was just beautiful to see her turning her previous source of weakness into an amazing strength. And yay for Echo taking on an army single-handed and winning, by hacking their brains with her super-brain. If we didn't already know the good guys were going to lose, I'd say maybe Rossum had created the engine of their own destruction.
And I wonder if Victor and Sierra are gone for good — are they just Tony and Priya now? Their love has overcoming brainwashing and programming, and now it's overcome a military hive mind as well. I wonder if we'll get to see what it is that drives them apart in the future?
Speaking of which, it seems like we're leaping over the flashforwards in "Epitaph One" at amazing speed now. I'm having a hard time figuring out where those segments fit into all this. I'm guessing we've already passed by the sequence where Echo is programmed to be a Russian girl and complains to Ballard about her headaches — when did that happen? Right before Alpha's visit? It doesn't seem like the sequence of events allows for that. (Or did that scene purely happen in Echo's nightmares inside The Attic?) And then the scene where the Rossum scumbag Mr. Ambrose takes over Victor's body and announces that the Dollhouse is now renting out its Actives to become spare bodies for rich people — did that happen during the three months Echo was away, but before Mr. Harding took over the Dollhouse? I'm a bit confused at this point.
In general, though, Dollhouse is delivering unforgettable characters and a mind-blowing spin on its basic premise, and it's really fully become the show it's hinted at from the beginning. It's going to be a long three weeks' wait to see our heroes posse up to take on Rossum, and I'm hopeful based on the past few weeks' incredibly strong track record that the revelations about Caroline's past aren't going to be disappointing. (It helps to know that the next episode is written by Tim Minear, the man who can do no wrong.) Even if you were hoping the show would plunge us into the post-apocalyptic Felicia-Day-on-the-run future right at the start of the season, you can't deny that getting to see the building blocks of that future sliding into place has been amazing. This show may be on its way to cancellation, but we're going to be seeing people building on it for years to come.
Also, I hate to be a broken record, but the more we see of season two, the sadder I am that the show didn't put its best foot forward. The season's first two episodes were just so lackluster, compared to everything that's come after, that it's depressing to look back on them. I get very sad when I think of the fact that Fox sent out DVD screeners of "Vows," the I-married-a-boring-arms-dealer episode, to every TV journalist in the country, thus generating bad or no buzz. What if Fox had mailed out the Sierra/Nolan episode instead? Or any of the episodes since then?
Anyway, there are just three episodes of Dollhouse left, including two present-day ones and then a return to the post-apocalyptic future. Now that the show has already proved it's not holding any plot (or character) developments back for a later that'll never come, those last three episodes are going to be the most anticipated television of January, as far as I'm concerned.