There's something strangely awesome about a show that advertises using nekkid women, and then devotes a huge chunk of an episode to the enterprise of turning a hunky man into a eunuch. Dollhouse spoilers ahoy!
Joss Whedon famously said that a movie is an answer, but a television show is a question. His first TV show, Buffy, asked pretty much the same question in every episode of its first season: can a young woman who's called upon to save the world also have a normal life? But Dollhouse has managed to ask a new (and weird) question with each episode. You may not have liked all the questions it's asked so far, but at least it's stayed lively.
Last night's episode, of course, had a classic A/B plot structure - with a dash of Tahmoh Penikett's FBI Agent Ballard digging for dirt on the Dollhouse.
In the "A" plot, there's a crazay religious cult in Arizona, and an overzealous ATF agent needs an excuse to bust the ex-con cult-leader. So a U.S. Senator gets the Dollhouse to turn Echo (Eliza Dushku) into a blind religious zealot... whose eyes are turned into actual cameras, in one of the series' more science fictional premises so far. This means that Echo does not wear halter tops, tube tops, miniskirts, thigh-high boots or babydoll dresses - so it's a big change for the series right there. (Based on the previous episodes, I was sure the scary religious cult was going to have an all-miniskirt uniform for female members.)
And then in the "B" plot, as showcased above, Victor (Enver Gjokaj) has been getting inappropriate erections during his mindwiped "doll" state. He's supposed to be a loverboy when he's programmed to be one, but when he's in neutral, he's supposed to be perfectly childlike and asexual, hence those coed showers. The show has stressed how dehumanizing and wrong the Dollhouse's methods are in previous episodes, but I suspect that this visceral example probably hit home a lot harder, especially with the male viewers. And it definitely adds a new dimension to the whole "prostitution" aspect of the show's premise - unlike, say, Firefly's empowered Inara, the "Actives" only have sexuality when it's convenient for their owners. Oh, and it's officially true now that Echo is not the only Active experiencing glitches. The whole storyline is played for laughs, but it's super disturbing once you stop and contemplate it - especially the idea that Victor is being "scrubbed."
As for the "A" plot, I liked it a lot better than I expected to. At first, I thought, "Oh, it's ripped from the headlines - of the early 1990s." But then I found myself liking its Big Love-esque crazy compound people more than I expected. For one thing, it took the obvious observation - hey, these cult people are brainwashed, and so is Echo! - and got it out of the way in the first five minutes. And then never referred to it again. (A lesser writer would have built up to that observation over the whole course of the episode, and then unveiled it with a big "Ta-da" at the end.) For another, the cult members had just enough personality not to feel like total sheep, especially the one woman who kept saying things like, "This is just like Zion Ranch!" and actually challenging Jonas the crazy cult leader from time to time. Also, the plot moved fast enough that I didn't feel too bogged down in the "are these cult people really bad or not" question, with the ATF agents moving in by the episode's midpoint.
Oh, and the scene where the drill is descending towards Echo's eye, while her handler Boyd talks about her skill at "getting in" to places, was really fucked up and awesome.
And then you had the "miracle" where Echo's sight gets restored, which is a nice twist to throw in. It has all sorts of theological resonances, including the whole Saul of Tarsus thing the episode mentions early on. And it leads to a fun debate about the "meaning" of Echo's miracle - does it mean they should all light themselves on fire and expect another miracle to save them? Or does it mean, as Echo says, that she got her sight back so she could lead them out of there. Any episode which leads up to someone saying, "God brought me here. He has a message for you. And that message is, 'Move your ass!'" I so totally want that embroidered and framed on my wall.
It didn't hurt that last night's episode, "True Believer," was written by Tim Minear, author of many of the best Angel and Firefly episodes. (Including the Firefly episode "Out Of Gas.") A man who could write an hour of television about two old men playing Scrabble, and it would rock.
People accuse Dollhouse of getting off to a slow start because the first half-dozen episodes are meant to be newbie friendly. But actually, it feels to me as if the plot is rocketing along at top speed. Not only is Echo showing tons of signs of awareness and selfhood, but her owners at the Dollhouse are noticing. They're even having conflicts over how to handle it. The nominal boss, Adelle DeWitt, wants to make use of Echo's somewhat greater resourcefulness, but her underling Mr. Dominic (aka Journeyman's brother) sees Echo as a liability. And Dominic has a point - Echo is showing signs similar to the ones the rogue Active, Alpha, showed before his "Composite Event." (And it seems like Alpha is trying to make that happen.)
So, to sum up... I loved the "B" plot, about Victor's erections, and what they mean, and what to do about them. The livestock are getting out of control! And I sorta liked the "A" plot, a lot more than I thought I would. As for the stuff about Agent Ballard, I would happily watch Tahmoh Penikett play Scrabble for an hour, even if it wasn't written by Tim Minear, and he definitely had a few cute moments. And he's making progress, even if it's only because Alpha is spoon-feeding him. And soon, Ballard and Echo meet!
What did you think?