'Dollhouse' puts the shoulder to the wheel

Harrylennix_dollhouse_240 Hey, Fox, did you watch tonight's episode? That should have been your Dollhouse pilot. Not because it was perfect. Far from it. But it was miles beyond last week's meh-fest. There's work to be done, but the show's starting down the right path. Put it this way: it's currently halfway between horrible and Dr. Horrible.

Maybe I'm just overly aware of the show's premise, but almost nothing from last week's episode was necessary to dive into the show's concept and mythology as laid out in tonight's episode. Vacant people that can be programmed? Check. Checkered morality throughout the organization that does the programming? Check. Horrible incident involving a now psychotic and vengeful Doll? Check. The biggest addition to the mythos: for some reason, Echo was spared Alpha's initial rampage that left many dead and at least one (hi, Dr. Saunders) terribly scarred.

"Why did Alpha spare Echo?" will be the spine upon which Whedon and Company will hang their first season of the show. That basic arc will allow them to layer in various "Engagements of the Week" while slowly slipping in tidbits of background that will eventually enlighten Echo's centrality to the overall mystery. This week's engagement managed to fulfill both roles nicely: it gave us a decent enough contained plot while bracketing the entire hour with Alpha's puppet master-esque machinations.

Turns out this week's client (think Green Arrow by way of Patrick Bateman by way of Outward Bound) was in fact hired by Alpha for the ultimate purpose of shaking Echo from her stupor. Supposed playboy Richard O'Connell didn't just say, "Prove you're not just an echo," so writer/director Steven S. DeKnight could throw in a cute meta-line our way. That line comes from Alpha's own lips, imprinted upon "Richard" in a way similar to the "neural lock and key" programmed by Topher. This week's engagement was designed by Alpha for the specific purpose of unlocking those keys inside Echo's brain and create a "composite" of personalities and memories.

Let's go over Alpha's basic plan: create a false background for the client, using his knowledge of the Dollhouse's screening process against them. Create a scenario in which Echo is proficient at various activities useful in secluded areas where satellites don't cover. Hire a secondary man to ensure backup can't arrive in time once the fit hits the shan. Then, finally, dose Echo with a substance that will take the electrical impulses already racing in her brain and essentially send them down alternate tracks.

Why? To ensure she's aware. To ensure she's like him. Lord knows how many versions of himself Alpha sees. But clearly, the "anomaly" described by Topher cut up his mind the way he know cuts up bodies: "tiny little cuts," to borrow a phrase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Doc. OK, maybe more than tiny, but certainly surgical. In Alpha's twisted mind, he did Echo a favor by putting her through this week's excursion: he's waking her up. Does he want a partner? Does he want justice? I wouldn't dare venture a guess, but all we need to know now is Echo is central to accomplishing his endgame. Echo's final moment, in which she instinctively remembers Richard's "shoulder to the wheel" move, shows his plan is starting to work.

Intercut between the action in the not-so-great outdoors were glimpses into the past three months, from the time Alpha escaped through Langdon's arrival onto his eventual pairing with Echo. Looks like the Dollhouse decided to beef up security on Echo after Alpha's bloody little jaunt through the joint, and hired an ex-cop as her ongoing protection. Given Langdon's skepticism towards the project, I'm surprised a) Adelle risked exposing the operation to him in the first place, and b) that he eventually decided to take the job at all. However, his handler/active imprint session bonds him to her, letting we the viewing audience know that his devotion is to her, not the Dollhouse itself. Watching Langdon in that scene was almost akin to watching a father witness the birth of his child. And given the childlike way in which the dolls float about their prison, it's not a terribly incorrect analogy.

In Agent Ballard land, he visited the climatic scene of the pilot episode. In between analyzing the crime scene, he managed to have a nice Battlestar Galactica reunion with Mark Sheppard (aka, Romo Lampkin). Helo and Romo reiterated the "no one believed in the Dollhouse except for Ballard" plotline, making last week's version of the same scene unnecessary. (As unnecessary as the entire freakin' pilot. Sigh. Deep breath, Ryan. Deep breath.) After that, Ballard did little else except receive Alpha's envelope and brush off his neighbor's offer of hot, steamy "lasagna." Which is, I guess, what the kids are calling it these days.

In my recap last week, I bemoaned the fact that Fox hired Joss Whedon and then tried to de-Whedon the show they commissioned him to make. I stand by that, but after watching tonight's episode, I'm wondering if Whedon himself is trying to move beyond his own oeuvre with this show. You can still hear his familiar cadences coming off Topher's lips, and thematically it feels at home in the Whedonverse, but tonally he's potentially pushing himself into new territory. The subject matter itself (human trafficking, free will, the suppression of the soul) necessitates a new approach. And given his track record, I'm more than willing to traverse into this untested area.

Did the second episode have you breathing a sigh of relief, or a sigh of exasperation? Do you find Alpha's obsession with Echo compelling? Will Echo's "personality of the week" hinder your engagement with her fate? Leave your thoughts below!

Ryan puts the shoulder to the blog over at Boob Tube Dude.

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