Entering this second, improbable season of Dollhouse, there were a couple of questions that I was looking for the first episode to answer: 1. How much of an effort would the show be making in order to bring in new viewers? 2. How much would the mindblowing revelations of “Epitaph One,” the DVD-only 13th episode of Season One, reflect on how the new season plays out? Short answer to both: Not much at all. Without so much as a “previously on” to get us up to speed on the final episodes of last season—not counting “Epitaph One,” of course—the show immediately dives into the muck of confused identities and bruised psyches, and expects us to get up to speed quickly. This is not a complaint; quite the contrary, it’s a rare thing for TV creators to have that much respect for a viewer’s intelligence and it’s an excellent sign that Dollhouse intends to move full speed ahead, torpedoes be damned.
Of course, that doesn’t keep Eliza Dushku’s Echo from going on a twisty little mission, just as she did for the wash-rinse-repeat formula of first five episodes last season. The crucial difference this time is that you can’t press the reset button on her now like you could then: She’s permanently broken, a glitchy assemblage of personas that sometimes interfere with the one that she’s supposed to carry off. Though we’re led to believe that she’s been assigned to wed a British arms dealer played by Jamie Bamber—best known in nerdkind as Battlestar Galactica’s Apollo)—Echo in fact is serving as a partner to former Agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), whose obsession with her makes the obligatory wedding night rumpus acutely painful for him to snoop on.
Watching Echo get put through another skeevy fictional relationship—even one that morphs into a tense, 24-like spy job against a dirty bomb supplier—seemed for awhile like the show was going on auto-pilot; my heart sank a little to see Barber get reduced to the sort of generic (albeit handsome and charismatic) baddie who does business in an airport hangar. Yet the moment things started going wrong for Echo, the entire subplot came to life, because they weren’t going wrong simply because her cover was blown. They were because she was breaking up like static, unable to get a firm grip on who she’s supposed to be at that moment. The scene in the office between Echo and Barber’s character, where he catches her snooping and starts smacking her around, feature some of Dushku’s best acting in the series—she uses her wits to turns the tables on him miraculously, only to lose herself again in a smaller, quieter moment. Ballard smartly exploits Echo’s cluttered imprints to his advantage when they wind up in a sticky situation (and Battlestar fans, how cool was it to see Apollo and Helo in a scrum again?), but he’s a tough one to read. Having him in the proverbial “lion’s den” as Echo’s handler stands to get pretty sticky.
But the real highlight of “Vows” was the back-and-forth between Amy Acker’s Dr. Saunders (er, Whiskey) and Fran Kranz’s Topher, whom she’s come to know as her diabolical Geppetto. After discovering near the end of last season that she, too, is an Active, Saunders has fallen into a deep, deep funk that’s only occasionally relieved by the pranks and torments she can visit on Topher. Stuffing his office cupboards with rodents is mere prelude to the head games she plays with him later, when she sneaks into his bed as if to prove that she’s not the predictable being her creator has programmed her to be. (Incidentally, she gets line-of-the-night honors earlier, when she says of Topher: “My entire existence was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest.”)
Yet Saunders’ attempt to play mind games with Topher, and suddenly we’re thrust into an intense, exceptionally well-acted exchange that clarifies how she came into being and how his God-like role is more carefully considered than she (and, let’s face it, us) ever assumed. (And I’d like to take this moment to declare that my Topher-hating days definitively over. His role as the show’s resident quipster has exactly changed, but it has deepened now that we know he’s not just a reckless, ethics-deprived science whiz who’s in over his head. There are layers to him, too, and I credit Kranz for showing more range than I assumed he had, especially in this scene and in his big scene in “Epitaph One.”) In any case, their back-and-forth tonight is a stellar example of why I love Dollhouse despite its occasional lapses; where else on network television are you going to get a conversation about the nature of free will? Or exchanges like the following:
Saunders: “I’m not better than you. I’m just a series of excuses.”
Topher: “You’re human.”
Saunders: “Don’t flatter yourself.”
Welcome back, Dollhouse. I missed you.
• More great stuff from the Saunders-Topher smackdown. Topher, insulted by the sexual advances Saunders assumes are his “endgame”: “Hey, I could whip up a love slave any day I want.”
• And still more from Topher: “You don’t know me. That’s the contract. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Not fully, not ever. I made you question. I made you fight for your beliefs. I didn’t make you hate me. You chose to.”
• A light yet disturbing moment with Sierra, who’s come back from a standard call-girl gig in a stuck-up, old-fashioned British socialite get-up: “If you were to tie me down and spank me, I couldn’t be expected to resist, could I?”
• Interesting new tension between Boyd and Saunders now that revelations about her have come to pass. What to make of it?
• Seriously creepy line when Echo’s handler takes her away from Ballard for a treatment: “We have to check the wiring… and the plumbing.”
• Hey look, it’s Wesley from Buffy and Angel! Whedon is poaching cool actors from every dearly departed series he can raid.
• Some nice directorial touches from Whedon tonight, especially that lovely tracking shot that backs away from secret sweethearts Victor and Sierra, and settles on Echo and Ballard. All set to an Elliott Smith track, too.
• Next week’s episode is credited to the writing team of Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, the creators of Reaper.