A couple of notes before I begin: 1. Some of you on the boards were keen to note the incongruities I failed to point out in the end of the second episode last week. Basically, we were asked to make a leap between Senator Perrin being self-aware and him going back to doing exactly what Rossum wants him to do. Seems like a scene missing. Am I wrong here? 2. And speaking missing scenes, the Chicago HD broadcast of “Meet Jane Doe” was all mucked up for about 10 or 15 minutes in the middle of the episode. I was able to get the basic information about Echo and Ballard living together during Echo’s three-month hiatus from Dollhouse and we see their involvement in training and smooching and whatnot. Or at least that’s what I could glean from fast-forwarding through all the scratchy, glitchy crap. So I apologize in advance for my review of “Meet Jane Doe” being a bit incomplete.
Meet Jane Doe
Over at HitFix, my frequent A.V. Club cohort Todd VanDerWerff makes the intriguing suggestion that “Meet Jane Doe” would have been ideal pilot material. (He says it “re-imagines the show as the mid-90s NBC series The Pretender.) I think that’s a great observation, and one that’s telling of the hour’s merits: For one, we’re enjoying a much more confident show than the one that stumbled out of the gate in Season One, victimized in part by network impositions, but perhaps also by its own identity problems. For two, this is largely a standalone episode that, save for a few plot points that carry the larger story forward, could bring newcomers into the show. And three, as Todd notes, it would have been cool to start with Echo as a nurse trying to break a brutalized immigrant woman out of prison, then fill in the details of the Dollhouse later. As a pilot, the episode would have been an exciting jailbreak on its face, and then whoop, out goes the rug, Dollhouse-style. To paraphrase The Simpsons, Todd, your ideas intrigue me and I could like to subscribe to your newsletter.
That said, I know there’s some resistance in these parts—and yes, within me, too—to episodes that are heavily Echo-centric, but “Meet Jane Doe” was better plotted and more exciting than most and Eliza Dushku was well within her comfort zone. It begins with the wiped, “blank slate” Echo left to wander the streets, rummaging through dumpsters for food and so lacking in basic knowledge that she takes a store clerk’s sarcastic comment about money growing on trees seriously. There’s a part of me that would have liked to see more time devoted to Echo’s babe-in-the-woods situation; it’s interesting not just because she’s an adult discovering the world anew, but because Echo is haunted by all the fragmented personalities fluttering through her brain. To have her reduced to someone child-like and vulnerable—a true doll again, basically—seems like relief.
But then, after an incident where she shoplifts some food for an illegal immigrant, gets caught by the police, and conveniently rediscovers some of the ass-whomping identities that lurk within her, the show pulls one of its trademark mind-blowing twists by leaping three months ahead. That’s three months in which Adelle and her best men couldn’t track down their most special asset, and three months where she’s had the terrifying freedom to find her own way and set her own agenda. Turns out that Echo has kept her focus on the wrongly imprisoned woman, whom she’s been treating for injuries as a nurse. Her attempt to break the woman out of jail is proof that the show isn’t mere head-trip; it can also pull off a conventional suspense sequence with aplomb.
More interesting than Echo—and really, the show tends often to have elements more interesting than Echo—is the transformation of Adelle as she seeks to regain control over the L.A. Dollhouse. [And sorry for the big leap myself there: As I said earlier, the FOX HD broadcast here in Chicago wiped out much of the Echo-Ballard stuff for me.] Lately, as the show has expanded and we’ve seen the nefarious folks running the Dollhouse operation and its D.C. branch, our regular cast of characters has seemed a little soft in comparison. So bracing as it was to see Adelle display her own ruthlessness this episode, it was perhaps a necessary reminder that she’s at the top of the pecking order for a reason.
With Keith Carradine’s bigwig Harding unhappy with the way Adelle is managing things, he’s taking over her affairs for the time being and it’s immediately apparent that Harding will go further to accommodate his moneyed clients than Adelle ever would. Harding meets with a noxious rich dude who “wants to satisfy vagaries,” which in his case mean vagaries of a De Sade-like nature. Then later, there’s talk of cherry-picking the best dolls in the L.A. branch for a new operation in Dubai. Given the choice between acquiescing quietly to Harding’s demands and becoming, in Topher’s words, “the coldest bitch on the planet” to take her operation back, Adelle chooses the latter.
The genius of “Meet Jane Doe” is that Adelle’s short-term victory plants the seeds to what we know will be long-term apocalyptic catastrophe. By giving up Topher’s extraordinarily powerful remote wipe device to Rossum in exchange for control over her Dollhouse, she gets what she wants without fully grasping the potential consequences. (A panicked Topher, no innocent for fiddling with dangerous science himself, has a better idea about it.) Two of this episode’s writers, Maurissa Tanchareon and Jed Whedon, were also responsible for the great, unaired “Epitaph One” from Season One, so it’s fitting that they be the ones to give us this subtle hint into the future.
And Adelle’s directive to keep Echo unwiped for a while, despite Echo’s piercing headaches: Badass.
• Failed to note another major development in this episode: Echo is starting to gain some control over the 36-odd imprints competing for space in her conscious. That makes her adaptable and dangerous, and draws her that much closer to Alpha.
• Harding: “Anything in the name of progress.”
• Hoping to see more on the split between Echo and Caroline, based on the idea that Caroline might not be the person Echo wants to get back to being.
• How wonderful was it to see Sierra and Victor smooching as scientists? Give them completely different identities and these two are still made for each other—which, of course, made Harding’s plans to separate them all the more painful to consider.
A Love Supreme
Hoo-boy, what an exciting episode. The return of Alan Tudyk as Alpha and Patton Oswalt as Joel was almost too much for your humble critic to bear, but I soldier on…
The cold open finds a man a trailer park reminiscing about a woman programmed to love him and how much it surprised him that he loved her back, enough to blow his entire fortune on engagements. In light of Oswalt’s appearance later in the episode, it was a good reminder how much these “romantic engagements” mean than simple tricks, at least on the client’s end. (It’s still basically sex slavery for the doll.) Then there’s the big reveal: Tudyk’s Alpha, blade in hand, giving this wistful man a one-liner (“You want to know the saddest part? The ending.”) before slashing his throat.
Earlier this evening on Twitter, a Canadian tweep and former SEE Magazine editor Paul Matwychuk (@myelbow) wrote: “I love Alan Tudyk as much as anyone, but wow, am I sick and tired of self-amused, monologue-prone supergenius serial killers.” I’ll admit to feeling a little of that tonight; the talking killer in general is a honking cliché even before you get to the permutation Paul describes. But Tudyk is the difference-maker for me: That I still associate him with the lovable pilot from Firefly helps with the fun cognitive dissonance of his serial killer here, but mostly, Tudyk approaches the role with the kind of malevolent flair that Malcolm McDowell brought to his character in A Clockwork Orange or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. He makes a meal out of every line, but this diabolically cruel monster is still Tudyk, that smiling, ingratiating jokester from Firefly. For now, I find him riveting… in small doses.
For his part, Oswalt is again a revelation, continuing the mix of geeky humor and subtle pathos that helped make his previous episode, the famed Season One game-changer “Man On The Street,” the cancer-curing marvel that it was. If you’ll recall, his Joel was maybe the first instance in Dollhouse where a client’s relationship with a doll was a deeper and more sophisticated than an average fantasy hook-up. Echo was playing the role of his late wife Rebecca, and their every encounter was a chance to live out a moment—the purchase of their first home—that they never got to share together. And yeah, okay, they did a little fucking, too. Joel never claimed to be a saint.
This time, Joel’s return is tied to a horrific string of murders perpetrated by Alpha, who’s knocking off Echo’s former clients one at a time. The idea is to bring Joel into the Dollhouse for protection (“This spa looks super-fortified,” he quips), but the Alpha who infiltrated the place so easily the first time doesn’t meet much resistance on the second. (Alpha’s scheme to activate the dolls en masse leads to inspired chaos, like a comedic take on the “House Of Blue Leaves” sequence in Kill Bill.) Joel’s reunion with Echo is made extremely poignant by the news that Joel has moved on and has another woman in his life. Their final scene together really shows Oswalt’s ability to evoke deep reserves of feeling in an economical way, which is similar to what Bill Murray does at his best. Seeing Oswalt consider “Rebecca” for the last time in this episode reminded me of my favorite Murray moment in Rushmore, where Max Fischer finally introduces him to his dad. It’s a lovely bit of reconciliation.
• Not a lot of Enver Gjokaj in either episode, but he scored whenever he had the chance. Loved his throwaway line as a scientist assisting Topher. He finds Echo in a perfect childlike state, but when Priya walks by: “naughty and completely aware of it.”
• It was also fun for Topher to discover that Echo didn’t really need him to handle her imprints: “I am obsolete. This must be what old people feel like. And Blockbuster.”
• Adelle not softening any: “I’ve moved beyond chivalry, on to self-preservation.”
• Great twist for Alpha to use Joel as a “bait-and-switch” to wipe out Ballard. I really should see these things coming, but I never do.