I have to admit, I was a little worried about this episode going in. The screener that FOX sent out to promote the magical Joss Whedon-penned sixth episode (which actually lived up to billing) also included the eighth episode, but skipped over “Echoes,” which led me to suspect that it was either a placeholder or subpar. Happily, it appears to be more the former than the latter, but it would be inaccurate to say that it’s a standalone in the same spirit as the first five. There are some important revelations and advancements here, and I strongly suspect that from “Man On The Street” on, we’re going to get tangled up pretty thoroughly in master-plot stuff. After last week, the Dollhouse training wheels are officially off, and newcomers to the show will just have to play catch-up from now on.
An imperfect but very satisfying balance between goofy stoner(ish) comedy and shadowy corporate chicanery, tonight’s hour started answering some questions about the origins of Dollhouse and Echo’s involvement with it, while holding many of the characters in the sort of debilitating (though temporary) hocus-pocus that would happen often on Buffy and Angel. The X-Files opening finds a near-naked college lab student behaving erratically before smashing his head repeatedly against the window, all while two of his friends are rendered helpless by their own giddy, punch-drunk behavior. As it turns out, the nefarious Rossum Corporation runs the lab and its evil genius leader, Clive Ambrose (Philip Casnoff), wants every Active engaged in containing a virus that could eradicate the campus quickly. (In a classic bit of sci-fi plotting nonsense, the experimental “memory drug” that needs containment doesn’t affect the Actives because their memories are thoroughly wiped. In theory, anyway.)
The Rossum job sends the Actives to campus sporting pretty advanced job titles, including a CDC higher-up in Sierra and an NSA badge for Victor—which, in a running gag that continually pays dividends, thoroughly outranks poor Dominic, who’s relegated to lowly Rossum security man. (“Now you’re experts. Four hours ago, you were discussing your love for applesauce.”) Meanwhile, Echo is off on an escort job with the motorcycle-loving hotshot from the first episode, but a flash on the Rossum building is enough to trigger her to revisit the past. Through a series of flashbacks from a few years earlier, we discover that she and her boyfriend tried to break into the building to expose Rossum’s cruel animal testing practices. And most importantly, we discover that Rossum and Dollhouse are linked, and that one serves as a pipeline to the other.
I suspect we’ll learn a lot more about the Rossum-Dollhouse connection in the coming weeks and seasons, should Fox choose to renew it, but what I’m liking about the show—and what this episode handles very well—is that it now feels like an updating of the paranoid ‘70s political thrillers that came out after Watergate. Back then, it was the fear of all-powerful government control that pervaded movies like The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor, but now that fear has been transferred to the modern all-powerful boogeyman of the faceless, heartless, murderous corporations. Like those films, Dollhouse roots for the little guy, those victims and rebels (or victims turned rebels) who fight against forces that are much larger than they could ever conceive. They may not stand a chance, but people like Echo and Paul are not accepting their assigned roles—Echo constantly deviates from script (and clearly knows more than she lets on) and Paul won’t give up his pursuit of the truth, even if it means putting his adorable new girlfriend Mellie in danger.
As I said earlier, the runaway virus conformed perhaps a little too closely to the needs of the plot. It was initially seen as a danger for the entire campus, especially once it was determined to spread airborne or through touching. But then later, we find out that it’s only deadly in large doses—meaning the student was murdered, and that its effects would eventually dissipate, so finding an antidote wasn’t necessary. It also caused some goofy, erratic behavior and did in fact affect the Actives in unanticipated ways, bringing some repressed memories (like Sierra being raped by her handler) shimmering briefly to the surface. That’s one wacky virus!
But the zaniness did bring out some terrific comic relief from characters who aren’t normally funny. Reed Diamond was particularly funny as Dominic, who went from bitterly resenting the authorities of his doll superiors to babbling helplessly from the virus’ effect. There was also the wonderful Olivia Williams as Adele, who poked fun at her snooty imperiousness (“I’m very British. I don’t say hard R’s”) and even jumped around like a kid on a mini-trampoline. And still another great effort from Harry Lennox’s Boyd, who had a hilarious non-reaction to Echo refusing treatment: “Wow,” he says with a laugh. “Did not maintain control of that situation.” As Myles McNutt observed on his blog, it was as if all the characters turned into Topher. And so long as it’s not Topher being Topher, I’d consider that a good thing.
• A lean episode for Paul, who lost his girlfriend for a while. (Looks like Dollhouse’s efforts to scare him off didn’t take, in that respect. He’s still more interested in tracking his obsession with them than protecting a potential love.)
• The framing scene gives us an idea of how dolls become dolls: Put in a compromising spot, Caroline/Echo and newcomer Sam are persuaded firmly by Adele to sign away five years of their lives. With both, she begins by saying, “My offer is this,” which immediately calls to mind Michael Corleone in The Godfather, though she’s offering them more than nothing at least.
• Hooray for Rilo Kiley’s awesome song “Portions For Foxes” in the background during a flashback scene. “Bad news, baby I’m bad news,” is a pretty appropriate theme for where Caroline is taking that relationship.
• Great to see such a massive influx of thoughtful comments after last week’s episode. Lots of theories floating around that hadn’t occurred to me at all.