'Dollhouse' Premiere: Joss Whedon pitches, the cast hits

dollhouse_jamiebamber_elizadushku_290.jpgLast season, Ryan theorized that one of the tragic flaws in the ' Dollhouse' finale was that "There's no catharsis without memory".  And after Caroline/Omega was wiped, what was left?

What indeed. We start tonight with Topher assuring Ballard that there was no glitch in the wipe and that the 39 personalities Echo exhibited are all in the past. Of course, as he makes this assurance, his computer screen fritzes into a video from The Bride of Frankenstein - a trick he suspects Whiskey has pulled. Which means at least one doll has memory. Adelle also remembers Victor, and as she caresses his receding scars, it's clear hat the memories are fond. It's a crack in the icy facade that vanishes the instant he says "You're touching my face", and I have to wonder if Langton noticed it or if he's too busy worrying about Echo even though he's not her handler anymore. He finds her current assignment particularly distasteful and the next thing we see is Echo...walking down the aisle in wedding dress. I'm with Langton, that's just cruel and unusual punishment!

Speaking of punishment, I got the sense that Topher is engaged in more than a little self flagellation. Beyond the fact that he knows Whiskey is aware that she's an imprint and he hasn't given her a treatment, he's sleeping on the floor of the server room. And enduring Whiskey poking at all the weak spots she knows or can guess at, including letting lab rats loose in his office, which activates his phobia. He calls her in her office and she chillingly tells him to "put the rats back in the maze...before one of them bites you". Is this her subconscious way of asking for a treatment - to be put back into the maze/reimprinted? Are dolls capable of a subconscious?

Perhaps, but in the very next scene Langton talks to her about all the expense Adelle has gone to, to rid Victor of the scars Alpha gave him, and he asks if she's wondering why the same wasn't done for her. She says that it's her scars that keep her safe and if/when Adelle remembers that she was more profitable as a doll she'll be wiped again. He tries to reassure her that he wouldn't let that happen and tries to get her to be less afraid. Her response is my favorite moment of the night as she responds "My entire existence was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest, what do you think I should do?". He invites her out to dinner (is that allowed?) but she rattles off a laundry list of phobias that prevent her form leaving the Dollhouse. He tells her everyone is flawed and eventually they realize those are just excuses.

Let me take a moment to mention how very much Amy Acker shines as Whiskey. The scene where she crawls into Topher's bed and in a very convoluted way confronts him about the personality he created for her is intense and heartbreaking as we watch her unravel. Fran Kranz is also fantastic as the moral weight of what Topher's done comes to rest a little more heavily on his shoulders. It seems that as Whiskey refuses to be his self loathing conscience, the task returns to his own hands and I am not at all sure he's up to it. If Epitaph One is any indication...it seems certain he's not.

I don't know what excuses Ballard is telling himself about his interest in Echo, but on her wedding night, he paces, does push-ups and is clearly trying to distract himself from what he knows is going on. I'm wondering how someone would want a wedding with a temporary wife, but it's clear soon enough that the groom (Martin) is not the client. I think the client is Ballard - as Martin is a target the FBI has been unable to grab for years and Echo is playing the part of a double agent collecting intel. Which is confusing, because at the end of last season, I was under the impression that Ballard's goal was going to be finding and capturing Alpha.

There is a strange break in the momentum as Echo is taken in for a treatment, which includes a pelvic exam - a plot point that really drives home what the dolls are often used for, in the most cold and clinical way possible. I know it's a scene that likely bothered a lot of people - but I appreciate that. No one should accept the life the dolls are given and making the audience squirm means that message is being communicated - something I felt season one was lacking. Also in the scene is a startling exchange between Whiskey and Echo, where Echo remembers Whiskey used to be 'number one' and it almost seems like she will pay the price for Alpha's preference for her when Whiskey nearly reaches for a scalpel.

Instead, Echo gets a lollipop and sent back to trap Martin. However, his own spies have pictures of her talking to Ballard and they also know his status as former FBI. Martin confronts his new bride and by "confront" I mean "brutally slams her face into a desk". Which is when the glitching starts and soon enough Echo can't remember which fake name she's supposed to be using. I'm surprised that her Handler doesn't alert the extraction squad, but then realize that's so we can watch Ballard save the day. He waltzes into Martin's airplane hanger and tells him that this isn't the FBI and he doesn't know who he's dealing with.

And that's when things really go downhill for me. I am going to come clean right now and say that I do not like the character of Ballard. I think he is as much a sociopath as Alpha, just with a more stable personality. I don't like his need to be a savior to women who haven't asked for his help, his penchant for rough sex when those women step outside his lines for them, his horrifying dream sequence, his singleminded focus, or his egomanical belief in his own righteousness. Him joining the Dollhouse proved to me that it was never about overthrowing an evil organization and rescuing innocent people - Caroline as an amalgam of them. It was about an inherent fascination with the issues of controlling women. And I completely agree with Adelle when she says that she originally thought he negotiated November's release because he cared so much for her, but she's realized it was just because he was done with her. I know Joss loves to redeem a bad guy, but I'm having a hard time with this one.

As such, him beating Echo senseless to bring on enough of a glitch that he can coax the personality he wants out of her doesn't seem heroic. Does it get good results? Sure - she becomes the kick-ass assassin he wants, takes out all the henchman, and lands the big bad guy. And this is the only place Eliza really shines - when she's...well, slaying. But what does this incident really say about the arc these characters are on? It's hard to tell at this point...but there's enough here that I am ready to strap in for the ride. Especially when the end scene reveals that Echo does remember each and every personality they've given her and knows none of them is real. We take the first step towards Epitaph One with her joining forces with Ballard to find all the real people the dolls used to be. The second step is when Ballard becomes her handler.

I think we all saw Ballard becoming her handler a mile away, but what did you think of the episode overall? Not enough Victor and Sierra for me, the Rossum mention was brief and confusing and the humor at the top of the hour seemed uneven with the rest of the show, but overall I think I can see the stride it could soon be hitting. The question is, will Fox give them more than 13 episodes to get there and beyond?

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