Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.
I have some nitpicky issues with the standalone storyline of this week’s episode, and of course I’ll get to them in a second, but the table-setting for the fabled Episode Six: Where It All Comes Together (courtesy of Joss Whedon and Patton Oswalt) has me pretty stoked. Though I’ve more or less enjoyed all but the third episode—the one with Echo as a backup singer to a mentally unstable pop star—the bits of information and intrigue that have been parceled out about the Dollhouse, its behind-the-scenes machinations, and Echo’s continuing self-awareness are starting to trickle into a flood. My feeling is that like Alias—the show Dollhouse most resembles, in my opinion—the week-to-week missions may vary in quality, but the master-plotting stands to be awesome.
First off, a big thanks to my friend and cohort Noel Murray for covering last week’s show, which I liked to about the same degree he did. I’d also like to thank him for giving me some perspective on these creature-of-the-week episodes by likening it to Charlie’s Angels, and arguing for the fun of frivolous, disposable television. Since this is a Whedon show, I’ve perhaps been guilty of freighting it with expectations that aren’t necessarily in keeping with the spirit of the episodes that have unfolded so far. And granted, I’m still waiting for an emotional investment in these characters that I’m not getting yet. But until then, why not enjoy the (bumpy) ride?
The opening in small-town Arizona immediately called to mind my two favorite Robert Mitchum movies: Out Of The Past, which also brought trouble to a dusty gas station, and The Night Of The Hunter, which cast Mitchum as a Bible-thumping charlatan given to singing “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms.” Turns out the episode is closer to the latter, as a busload of sheeple under the spell of a charismatic religious cult leader/ex-convict named Jonas Sparrow drives into town for supplies from the general store. On the back of their grocery list is a cry for help, “SAVE ME,” which is a chilling callback to the murmurs of dissent that rippled through Jonestown hours before the Kool-Aid came out.
As always, we get the obligatory explanation about why the authorities—or, in this case, a Senator who must be accommodated, given his certain power to bring the whole operation down—would want an active, rather than an FBI agent, to infiltrate Sparrow’s compound. The argument is that Sparrow’s antennae would be sensitive enough to twitch if a Quantico graduate were sent in, and that a true believer was needed to convince him to let his guard down. The twist? Echo is imprinted as a blind woman of visions, and cameras are planted in her eyes to give ATF agents a clearer sense of who they’re dealing with and what sort of arsenal (huge, as it turns out) Sparrow has at his disposal.
There are a whole lot of logistical problems with this premise, starting with the fact that Sparrow’s bullshit detector should have never stopped bleeping around Echo (or Esther, as she’s called here). Being the paranoid, anti-government type, he does throw a lot of suspicion her way after she wanders onto the compound—interrogating her pointedly, shining a bright light into her eyes, et al. And you definitely get the sense that he’s never really comfortable with her and might take a long time trusting her. But the fundamental problem for me is this: Sparrow knows he’s not a prophet. He knows he’s every bit the Mitchum-like charlatan. So when Esther talks of visions and recognizing his face from a dream, that should be proof enough that she’s an imposter.
The other disappointment was that we never get much insight into how the cult functions, what its belief and labor systems are, and what kind of people are under the sway of a leader who, frankly, isn’t all that inspiring. There are at least three characters—Sparrow’s right-hand man Seth, the lanky young man who seems to connect strongly with Esther (before spitting in her face later on), and a woman who protects her in a motherly way—that might have left a deeper impression had the episode been a two-parter, or more wholly committed to its standalone plotline. But it all comes to an end too abruptly, and well before we get a richer sense of Sparrow and his flock, or how Echo/Esther might have upset the rigid conformity of the place.
Fortunately, the juicy master-plot developments carried the day. First off, there’s evidence of more flaws in Dollhouse imprinting system when Topher (who, yes, is a not-endearing Xander so far) discovers that Victor has been experiencing “man-reactions” when he stares at Sierra in the communal shower. This blows a hole in the idea that dolls in their non-active states are supposed to revert to child-like obliviousness—hence grown-ups allowed to shower together—until they’re imprinted with higher knowledge. The failures of the wiping system are starting to mount (too much for Dollhouse to securely operate, one would think), and that’s just the stuff Topher and the gang knows about!
What they don’t know could, as the expression goes, kill them. Laurence Dominic, the security head played by the awesome Reed Diamond of Homicide fame, has picked up a bad scene from Echo, whose off-the-script behavior patterns are similar to those exhibited by Alpha before he went off the farm. So unbeknownst to his boss Adelle (Olivia Williams, who it should be said is also awesome), Laurence inserts himself into the ATF-stoked chaos at Sparrow’s compound to take care of Echo his own way. He doesn’t succeed and, in the final scene, a wiped Echo sees him from a distance. Perfectly.
• “Sneeze-ure.” Shut up, Topher.
• Didn’t even get a chance to dig into Paul’s discoveries, though his spotting of Echo/ “Caroline” during the compound raid ultimately led to another dead end. And more access for his hot casserole-wielding neighbor, eh? That can’t be good for him.
• “Let’s start with the last three months of shower tapes.”
• “I believe I spotted a tumescent,” says Dr. Saunders. Amy Acker really knows her way around this kind of dialogue better than Fran Kranz at this point, doesn’t she?
• Really didn’t like Echo’s sudden transformation from helpless blind woman to asskicker. Why not keep her vulnerable? The big crowd-pleasing moment (“He has a message and that message is ‘Move your ass’!”) fell flat for me.
• So very, very stoked for next week. Aren’t you?