Monday, December 14, 2009

Dollhouse Tries to Be Its Best

Dollhouse came back with a bang last week, traveling to the DC Dollhouse for a two-parter bound to make any Dollhouse fan feel even sadder about its cancellation. Then this past week saw the return of Alan Tudyk's Alpha, whose "splash of color" cemented his place as one of the most memorable villains of the Whedonverse. Things are looking good for a strong end to the final season, but it does make me wish they had started with THESE four episodes instead of the ones they did.

First up, the DC two-parter, which was jampacked with twists. The anti-Dollhouse senator is a doll! His wife is really his handler! And he can fight better than Wesley Windham-Price ever could! But the real highlight of the DC episodes was Summer Glau's Bennett, a female Topher with a grudge against Caroline. Her awkward tech talk (and one-handed, no less) made her the perfect counterpoint to Topher, and every one of their scenes was hilarious. Well, until he discovered she's a bit psycho and used him to have the Senator whack Echo.

As excellent as the Topher/Bennett scenes were, the person even better matched for Topher was...Topher, as played by Victor. Turns out Victor does a mean Topher impression, nailing every twitch and high-pitched whine. It's in moments like these when Dollhouse reaches Buffy levels, and makes it clear the great potential that's here. It's also interesting how Topher has gone from my absolute least favorite character to one of the best on the show. He and De Witt have really shined this season. But more on her later. Toss in an appearance from Ray Wise of Twin Peaks fame, and I can safely say the DC mission was a success.

On to this past Friday's two-fer, which was a little more uneven but still with just as much awesome. Left out in the world after the DC escape, Echo spends the next three months training with Ballard to be ready to take out the Dollhouse from the inside. I found the time progression a bit confusing - how did she go from doll trance state in the store to fully integrated Echo in just one scene? But the end result is Echo is no longer her character-of-the-week, nor Caroline, but an actual character who may be capable of taking on a protagonist role she never could before. So dramatic faults or not, the episode at least seems necessary.

And the dramatic faults extended beyond the brief transition from "did I fall asleep?" to "let me access that personality for you." Using the immigrant she got locked up while in doll-mode as a test subject, the rest of the episode saw Echo trying to arrange her own prison break so she'd be ready to do it under De Witt's nose. The question throughout was what was so important about that one person, which was never answered outside of Echo felt like she owed her and needed to learn to break people out. And the guards were somewhat over-the-top, even when played by Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce (24 alums two weeks in a row!).

If the Echo/Ballard lovefest wasn't one of the show's finest stories, the De Witt/Harding battle back on the homefront was. As I said above, De Witt has gone from the cold, uncaring Brit boss lady to being one of the most compelling and sympathetic characters on the show this season. Which is why she needed to return to her bitch roots, stealing the (world-destroying) tech from Topher to get back her house from Keith Carradine's smug superior. A good two hours for De Witt, even if not for those in her employ.

On to the second hour, which saw the hotly anticipated return of Alpha. Dashing in his fancy suit and purple tie, he made like Sweeney Todd and went around slashing the throats of all of Echo's most significant clients. It all played like a super suspenseful serial killer movie, and even included a guy blowing up! But things just got crazier as Alpha entered the Dollhouse, using his (potentially world-destroying) tech to turn all dolls into angry warriors as he cornered Ballard in the chair. Ballard may have been left brain-dead, but I'm not too worried for him. With Ballard imprinted within Alpha, it just means Alpha will be coming back shortly.

These past two weeks may give the suggestion that the show can only thrive with high-profile recurring characters like Alpha and Bennett, but it was in the Alpha episode that I really felt the main cast bonding together stronger than ever before. Boyd and Ballard now have the buddy-cop dynamic that works best for their characters and thankfully puts Boyd back onscreen. Echo has a real character and her place in their plotting, and now Topher's in on it too while De Witt stands guard as the capable adversary-who's-sometimes-good. The only missing piece now is Dr. Saunders, who felt more missing than ever as Whiskey's name was mentioned. Biggest mistake the producers did was letting Amy Acker leave.

What's been clear these past few weeks is the Dollhouse writers are determined to get in as much of their story as possible in these final episodes, something we all doubted in the unfortunate crazy mommy episode earlier this season. The dystopian future foretold in Epitaph One seems closer than ever, now that Topher, De Witt, Harding, and Alpha all have the tech that can implant personalities remotely. Next week will go inside the attic, something that wouldn't have happened until season 3 or 4 on a longer runner show. And Echo is now completely past the doll stage and ready to kick ass. There may not be many of us still watching, but we are being rewarded.

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