Two pieces of bad news: First off, Scott’s out of town tonight (and Zack, Scott’s designated replacement, is having cable issues), so I’ll be guiding this first (and only?) season of Dollhouse into port. Second off, and perhaps more problematic... I’m not a Dollhouse true believer.
Don’t get me wrong: I like the show, and I really want to see it renewed. But unlike Scott and other critics/fans, I never felt that Dollhouse fully made the creative leap that Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku claimed it had after the fabled Episode Six. If anything, I felt the heightened emphasis on the show’s mythology detracted from what made it potentially special. I enjoyed the somewhat silly, personality-a-week concept, especially when deployed as cleverly as it was in “Haunted,” where Echo was imprinted with the personality of a woman trying to solve her own murder. (Granted, the episode ended kind of lamely, but the premise was cool.) Having everything at the Dollhouse go haywire so early and so often to me called too much attention to how rickety the “imprinting” idea was to start with. And I really didn’t like spending so much time with the dolls in their passive state, where they resembled characters from Parts: The Clonus Horror.
That said, if in fact Dollhouse is no more, it did go out at pretty close to full strength. I wasn’t as blown away by “Man On The Street” or “Needs” as some, but I dug the fractured storytelling and major plot developments of “Spy In The House Of Love,” and I thought last week’s “Briar Rose” was one of the best hours of TV I’ve watched this spring, landing on the same tier as Lost, Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad. Even though I knew the big Alpha-reveal was coming—curse you, Twitter!—I thought the performance of Alan Tudyk and the episode’s careful balance of humor and suspense was just about everything a Joss Whedon could want from one of his shows.
Alas, I can’t rate “Omega” quite that highly. It’s a very good episode—borderline brilliant at times—but at crucial moments it fell short for me. Often I found myself admiring what writer/director Tim Minear was trying to do more than what he actually achieved.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First a recap of what happens in “Omega:”
Picking up where “Briar Rose” left off—with Tudyk’s bumbling stoner character revealed as the rogue active Alpha—“Omega” begins with Alpha on the run with Echo, transporting a kidnapped woman in their backseat. But there’s an unexpected twist. At the end of “Briar Rose,” Alpha imprinted Echo with the personality of a woman who loves Alpha passionately, and it was briefly implied that this woman might be Echo’s original personality, Caroline—or at least a version of Echo/Caroline who’d had romantic misadventures with Alpha in the past. Early in “Omega,” in a creepy flashback, we see Alpha out on a job with a client who paid for a sort of Natural Born Killers experience, asking to be involved in a spree with Alpha and... Whiskey. And just who is Whiskey? A doll whom Alpha would later attack and permanently scar, forcing the Dollhouse to repurpose her as “Dr. Claire Saunders” (borrowing some know-how from their former doctor, whom Alpha had recently slain).
Back in the present day, Alpha leads the now-Whiskey-like Echo to his secret hideaway in San Pedro (spiritual home of the Minutemen and Don Draper), so that he can elevate her consciousness the way his has been elevated. It seems that after Alpha went rogue, Topher attempted to put him in the chair and sort through his past personalities to determine what went haywire. But since Topher can’t do anything right, what actually happened was that Alpha had all his prior personalities buzzed into him at once, just before he escaped the Dollhouse for good. Now he wants Echo to undergo the same multiple-personality procedure, and to experience the same letting-go of her original self that he once did. A major part of his plan: to imprint his kidnap victim with the original Caroline personality, and then kill her.
Meanwhile, Ballard—who can’t get his former bosses to believe that he’s found the actual Dollhouse—agrees to work with Boyd to track down Alpha. Through good old fashioned lawman legwork, they learn that Alpha used to be a prison inmate named Carl Craft, and that Carl Craft has a thing for abducting women and cutting them up.
I’ll get to what happens next in a moment, because the way “Omega” played out was very intriguing, and was one of the things I most liked about the episode. And since I want to end on an “up” note—because again, I do like Dollhouse—now’s the best time to articulate what didn’t work so well for me.
Let’s start with the first appearance of Whiskey, which made me gasp at the instant it happened, and then left me completely unmoved for much of the next hour. One persistent problem with Dollhouse has been that it’s very difficult to stay invested in characters that are essentially blanks. I know that problem was supposed to be solved by “Needs,” which revealed some of the dolls’ backstories, but I never felt I was watching anyone but “Sierra” and “November” and “Victor,” so what happened to them—in the past or present—never had much emotional pull for me. Finding out that Dr. Saunders used to be a doll was a fairly punchless revelation, ultimately. And if I can jump ahead momentarily to the very end of “Omega,” the two big moments in the denoument—November being set free as a favor to Ballard, and Echo settling down into her sleep-chamber muttering “Caroline” to herself—struck me as effective in the abstract, but not the actual. Because I’ve never been made to feel that these women’s essential humanity means anything to them, the restoration of same—or potential restoration, in Echo’s case—didn’t have much meaning either.
Another long-running Dollhouse flaw—the inability to properly integrate the Whedonesque quippiness into the gothic grimness—was back this week with a vengeance, after seemingly being solved last week. The heart of “Omega” comes after Alpha floods Echo with all her past personalities, and discovers that rather than making her just like him, it makes her his antithesis. Very cool stuff (for reasons I’m about to get to). But the resultant battle royale between Alpha and Echo certainly couldn’t hold a candle to Buffy vs. Angel at the end of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s second season. For one thing, we don’t have enough invested in the characters. For another, even though I’m not a Dushku-hater by any means, she couldn’t deliver bad-ass lines like, “Time to rinse and spit” with anywhere near the oomph they needed. (The woman imprinted with Caroline was actually much more impressive, muttering “I kick ass” as she watched herself knock Alpha around.)
Similarly, I didn’t get a whole lot of pathos out of the sliced-up Victor saying, “I’m not my best anymore,” especially when compared to the newly rogue Alpha saying of his original slash-spree, “Was I not my best? I was making art.” But then again, the very existence of that Alpha line—and Tudyk’s delivery of it—shows that this episode had plenty of indelible moments too. I think particularly of Caroline touring the Dollhouse for the first time and saying, “When does the hankering for tasty brains kick in?” Or New Caroline trying to shout some sense into Echo by pointing out, “You’re in a lair! An evil lair!”
And though the mix of humor and action and sentimentality down the stretch in “Omega” didn’t fully synch-up, I’m going to be wrangling for a while with the implications of the big showdown between Alpha and Echo. He feels that if he gives her access to all her selves, she’ll become a kind of ubermensch. Instead, she becomes an every-mensch. She feels such sympathy for all the people she’s been that she can’t feel superior to anyone... except for Alpha of course, who’s clearly a nutjob with all his ramblings about wanting to imprint multiple women with Caroline (so he can kill her over and over) and his demand for a blood oath. (“The pre-Hellenic Minoans knew it for God’s sake!”) All those gender-studies profs who’ve dissected Buffy over and over are going to have paper-fodder for years thanks to this episode.
In the end—if this is the end—Dollhouse never satisfactorily answered the question of whether it’s possible to completely wipe away a person’s soul. More damningly, it never quite gave a good reason to care about that question—at least in my eyes, anyway. But I’ve got to hand it to Whedon and his trusty team of collaborators for trying to make an action-packed, off-beat sci-fi/fantasy show that confronted big issues of self head-on. Any show that can build a big fight scene around the philosophical battle between empathy and selfishness is a show that deserves respect. And—oh please, oh please—a renewal. Because like the re-awakened Madeline, I feel like I just got here.
-“Three names. Always ominous.”
-The only downside to the arrival of Alan Tudyk on the show last week was that he makes Fran Kranz (playing Dollhouse's resident Wash/Xander) look all the weaker.
-“I don’t know why Alpha would imprint her as a background singer unless he was starting an evil band.”
-I really liked the effect Minear used to convey Alpha’s multiple personalities: the quick cut followed by a fresh Tudyk line-reading. Very unsettling.
- “Why is there a tall, morally judgmental man in my imprint room?”
-Clever of the Dollhouse creative team to use to the Beck song from Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind over the closing montage. (Also clever: the use of "In Dreams" during the torture scene.)
-“One of my personalities happens to be a multiple personality.”
-By the way, I'm aware that this isn't really the final episode of Season One. There's an epilogue that we won't see until the DVD set comes out. Will it deal with the other Dollhouses? Or what the true purpose of the organization is? So many questions....
-Hey, Whedonites! My TV Club Classic posts on Buffy The Vampire Slayer return in three weeks. Target date for first entry: May 28th. And then I plan to post every Thursday through to the end of August: roughly three episodes in each entry until Seasons Three and Four are complete. Hope to see you there.