Well, we can say this about tonight’s episode for sure: No one on the message board guessed Alpha’s identity right.
Meet your special guest star: This season’s Big Bad! After weeks of speculation about the former doll who had amassed extraordinary power and slaughtered many (save for Echo/Caroline) before breaking free of Dollhouse, it turns out that the show wasn’t really interested in the whodunit it seemed to be setting up. And to that I saw “good” for several reasons: 1. The obvious “who” would have been Paul, given his obsession not only with blowing the lid off Dollhouse, but on Echo/Caroline specifically. Turns out Paul was duped for the umpteenth time, plus we now have a situation where his self-righteous damnation of “consensual slavery” may not be in line with the full and much murkier truth behind the operation. 2. Since the Alpha character has been more a lingering threat than a present threat throughout the vast, vast majority of the season, it doesn’t feel like a cheat that his real identity is someone we’ve never met before. Were he wreaking havoc with the frequency of Whedon Big Bads past, then maybe it would be less forgivable. 3. Alan Tudyk was fucking gold in this episode.
Whedon fans of course recognize Tudyk as “Wash,” the affable and irreverent pilot of the spaceship Serenity on the late, lamented FOX series Firefly (and the movie Serenity, of course). The non-converted—and if you’re one of them, go watch Firefly now and thank me later—may also know him as the E! Entertainment Television executive in Knocked Up. However you know him, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him like this. In the dual role of a neurotic, agoraphobic “environmental systems consultant” and the utterly terrifying Alpha, Tudyk doesn’t play anyone resembling “Wash” (save for the former’s penchant for wisecracks), but he certainly has the range (and the brawn) necessary to nail them both. In fact, this was the one episode where I found myself fantasizing along with everyone else about having an actor/actress other than Eliza Dushku in the lead: Tudyk would have made a hell of a good doll. And hey, in the prequel spinoff that FOX is now rushing to production in bizarro world, it’s a go!
So after last week’s throat-clearing standalone episode, Dollhouse turned its attention entirely to the main plot for this, the penultimate hour of the season (at least of the 12 that are airing) and quite possibly the series. And once again, it paid serious dividends. With Paul’s discovery of Mellie’s doll-ness a couple of episodes ago, he finally got the jump on Dollhouse after getting played over and over (and over) again. So I guess it shouldn’t be that big a shock that Paul gets played once more, this time by Tudyk, who in the guise of the environmental consultant that masterminded the facility’s “closed system,” has Paul escort him right back into the place. As Paul busies himself with trying to rescue Caroline and bust up the joint, Tudyk’s Alpha takes advantage of the distraction to wreak all sorts of havoc (and claim Caroline for himself).
Tudyk has a blast as the jittery environmental science savant who grows “carrots” inside his apartment and is “not comfortable having people in my home who are not delivering Thai food.” And Jane Espenson, a longtime Whedon vet and highly accomplished TV writer (Gilmore Girls and Battlestar Galactica scripts are also on her long résumé), gives Tudyk plenty of snappy dialogue. On Earth Day: “Once we die out, Earth is going to have a ‘People Day.’ One day a year, she’s going to laugh and laugh and shake our bones.” To Paul: “This is like one of those buddy cop movies where you’re the hard-nosed badass and I'm the guy who hates buddy cop movies!” And then once we discover that Tudyk is really Alpha, the actor stops on a dime and that weak, doddering guy we saw in the first two-thirds of the episode snaps into a steely, face-slashing maniac. Just as suddenly—for me, anyway—we realize that Tudyk has got some gunboats for arms; he’s physically very imposing and very convincing as Alpha.
As for the Echo subplot, which had her placed at an orphanage (?) to help a troubled girl, I’m slightly less convinced. Was that whole subplot just for the Briar Rose metaphor or can we expect some follow-through on it later? I’m pretty certain that the former is the case, and while I will admit it’s a highly effective metaphor that carries through the Alpha/Echo reunion in the closing minutes, it’s still a disappointment that Echo’s time with the girl is cut short. Topher’s idea to imprint Echo with a mature, best-case-scenario version of her disturbed young charge is clever, and it would be nice to see a doll interact with a client multiple times over several episodes. When Echo leaves the girl for the day, she’s made a breakthrough, but there’s a lot way to go; it’d be nice to see the full arc.
But hey, I’m nitpicking. “Briar Rose” did everything a penultimate episode should do: Threw a lot of good energy on the main plot, sprung a couple big revelations, and sent us hard-charging into the finale. Bring it on…
• Unfortunately, I won’t be your guide to the finale, which really bums me out. I’m heading out of town next weekend, but I’ll make sure my replacement is more than up for the task.
• Didn’t even get into the hand-delivered techno-message sent to Mr. Dominic, but that was another gripping element of the episode. Enver Gjokaj, who plays Victor, pulls off an uncanny imitation of Reed Diamond’s Dominic. I’d have chuckled in appreciation if the scenes weren’t so intense.
• Nice nod to Battlestar from Topher, who calls the troubled orphan girl “all frakked up behind recognition.”
• Topher on his feelings of pride in devising an imprint for Echo to help the girl: “Everyone wants to be righteous when they can afford it.” That line, in a nutshell, explains the complicated morality of the people who work inside Dollhouse.