Much as the TV junkie in me will miss the back-to-back blocks of new Dollhouse episodes, and as convenient (if time-consuming and sleep-depriving) as it’s been to knock out two recaps at a time, I’m now quite relieved the rest of the season will play out one per week, starting on January 8th. Why? Because of the quandary I’m finding myself in tonight, having to remember what I wanted to say about the first episode while picking little chunks of my brain off the floor after the second. As Echo would say, “Here goes everything…”
“Congratulations, you’re a free man.” With those words, Victor’s contract finally expires at the Dollhouse, but of course he’s not a free man, even if the last five years of his life really felt like it floated by in five seconds. As the title “Stop-Loss” suggests—“stop-loss,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is when a soldier is involuntarily called back to active duty beyond their original commitment—Victor’s experience mirrors that of a military man who returns from service and then gets shipped out again before he’s fully reoriented. The episode lays on the metaphor thick, but it’s elegantly and pointedly incorporated into the story, making strong connections between Rossum’s shenanigans and our increasingly corporatized military. (This at a time when the planned surge in Afghanistan will adds as many or more contractors to the warzone as it does soldiers.)
Before Victor gets whisked away by Rossum again, however, I appreciate the lonely scenes where he returns to his old life without really knowing how to process it. Part of it is Sierra, of course: As we learn in the terrific opening with Victor and Adelle’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Sierra has left such an indelible imprint on Victor that it cannot be wiped clean. Even as studmuffin “Roger,” he can’t bring himself to function as “a programmable love doll for pathetic souls,” which is the ultimate humiliation for Adelle both as the operator of Dollhouse L.A. and as an attractive woman in need of a romantic fix. (Topher’s hilarious recollection of jokes he made about “Miss Lonelyhearts”—“What have I said to you about her? Octogenarian, walker jokes, the thing about the ‘early bird special’”—is the maraschino cherry on top.) In any case, the Victor-Sierra connection has gone from adorable to something more deeply, tragically romantic. They miss each other, even when they’re in a state where they can’t place who precisely it is they’re missing.
Beyond that, those shots of Victor (for clarity’s sake, I’ll keep calling him by his doll name, rather than Anthony) simply going back to his apartment or into a club and not knowing what to do with himself are really affecting—and again, true to the military angle the episode was pursuing. If you’ve seen The Hurt Locker (the A.V. Club’s choice for #1 movie of the year, as you’re no doubt keenly aware), I think there’s a connection to be draw between Victor in these situations and Jeremy Renner’s character shopping at the local grocery store while on leave. Seeing the restless Victor go from the bed to the bathtub to sleep is the capper: Like other PTSD sufferer, he may have left the war, but the war hasn’t left him.
I was initially wary of Victor getting scooped up by an underground, Rossum-connected military group, but maybe that was my Initiative allergy acting up a little. When they implanted Victor with the chip that integrated him into their Borg-like hive mind, however, I was mightily impressed—and even more impressed an episode later, when the Attic revelations came back to mass, brain-harvesting functionality. It’s long been a staple of anti-war genre pieces (zombie films especially) to show how individuals are folded into the mindless whole, but “Stop-Loss” takes that concept to a fresh place. The techno-coolness (and creepiness) of Rossum soldiers literally in lock-step with each other—hearing one another’s thoughts, seeing what everyone sees, conforming to a plan without question—was both novel and presented some interesting conundrums for how Echo and the gang could play their groupthink against them. It was, of course, predictable that Sierra would liberate Victor’s mind from the dictates of his microchip, but no less affecting for it.
What else to talk about? Here and in the next episode, the plotting is giving Dushku’s Echo the opportunity to kick ass Faith style whenever possible, which the actress is more than capable of doing. Echo’s recent ability to harness the 40+ identities in her brain has made her a powerful force—and, as we see in the next episode, uniquely vulnerable as well. And “Stop-Loss” also features the continuation of Adelle’s dark side, alternately boozing up in self-pity and pulling off ruthless power plays in trying to gain leverage over her deteriorating branch. Can’t say enough about how good Olivia Williams is here and elsewhere: She’s sexy, icy, vicious, yet also desperately sad and determined and strong. “Cruella DeWitt” one minute, a vulnerable mess the next. Great stuff.
• If you’re on Twitter, send your congratulations to Kate Comer (@katecomer), an A.V. Club reader, actress, and Whedon superfan who appears on this episode as the last person to tell Victor it’s time for his treatment. Well done, Kate. You made getting a treatment sound like appropriately appealing prospect.
• “And the war?” “Still going.”
• Favorite line-reading of the night, from Williams to Echo on Ballard’s treatment: “No need to fret. He’s receiving top-notch care.” The drunken, sarcastic twill in her voice sells it.
• Adelle out cold. Topher: “After we’re done here, can I go to her office with a Sharpie?”
• Spooky final shots of Echo, Victor, and Sierra going into the attic. My favorite touch: The tightly-stretched cellophane covering up the tank. Dolls going back in the box.
What’s the proper reaction to this episode, other than an inarticulate “gah” or a text-friendly OMFG? Here we finally get to the world revealed by “Epitaph One” and like that hour, it’s so disorienting and mind-blowing and brilliant that a bloggy insta-reaction can’t do it justice. I just want to watch it again, or, barring that, stir restlessly in bed as its nightmarish abstractions play in my head. But I abide…
So here we learn what The Attic is all about. To be honest, I tended to think of “The Attic” as more a euphemism than an actual thing, a place where damaged (or troublesome) persons were tucked away in cold storage and braindead. As it turns out, the “cold storage” part isn’t all that far off, though I guess the (amniotic-like) fluid baths are probably kept at a comfortable temperature. But I was completely wrong about the “braindead” part—no, the Attic-dwellers are not conscious or anything, but their brains are not only active but hyper-active, part of a networked series of identities that’s been greatly enhanced by the imprinting process. (Let us now pause to admire the genius of that revelation. Now, onward.)
Of course, we don’t learn about how The Attic works right up front. First, we have to get abused by some freaky mindscapes, as Echo, Victor, and Sierra contend with the consequences of being immobile while your mind is working overtime. Back when this show debuted, one of the major points of comparison for me was Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and I think “The Attic,” more than any single episode so far, makes that connection clear. Here we have a collection of characters who are still holding onto fragments of memory, even when Topher’s machine is supposed to wipe them clear. And now, in the Attic, they’re all literally wandering around each other’s headspace, living out nightmares that keep repeating themselves as if on a loop. There’s Sierra dreaming of making love to Victor, who suddenly morphs into Nolan’s zombified corpse. There’s Echo dreaming of escaping with the gang, but instead rendered helpless as they’re gunned down. There’s Victor back at war in the Middle East, but waging an endless metaphysical battle against himself. Not to mention that legless Japanese dude eating pieces of himself. (“Now the meat won’t be fresh,” he laments, after getting his throat slashed.)
Then we finally get to “Epitaph One” territory—and it’s not exactly the future, but a vision of the future that’s so prescient there’s no real difference. (“This isn’t a nightmare. This is the shape of things to come.”) And it all comes courtesy of Clyde (Adam Godley), one of Rossum’s co-founders and the wizard behind its ruinous technology. Clyde did what a lot of scientists have done from Einstein to Topher to the gang in Real Genius, innovating technology for purpose they’re late to fully grasp. After getting stabbed in the back by his partner, who produced a more compliant Clyde 2.0, he’s been relegated to The Attic since 1993. (The identities of the partner and Clyde 2.0 have yet to be revealed, but I think there are some clear suspects out there.) With the Rossum “mainframe” in place, Clyde has had plenty of time to speculate about where this innovation could lead humanity, and according to his statistical modeling, “all but 3% of [possible scenarios] include the end of civilization.”
Has a network show ever been this unremittingly bleak? While seeing Echo and the gang come together at the end, determined to fight, was pretty rousing, the apocalypse suggested by this show here and in “Epitaph One” is not of the escapist 2012 mold but more of the hellish Cormac McCarthy variety. I’m grateful for its uncompromising nature, and grateful also that Topher and others are around to cut the tension with some wit every once in a while. Episodes like “The Attic” convince me that Dollhouse will be remembered long after it’s gone, because it’s a record (an imprint, if you will) of our current anxieties about war, corporate control, and the grim uncertainties of the future. (Also: Some Whedon guy is responsible for it, and I understand some talk about his comings and goings can be found on the Rossum brain-meld that is the Internet.)
• 1,700 words and not one spared for Ballard, whose brain was picked clean by Alpha and could only be revived by Topher’s installation of “active architecture.” To quote Jon Wurster, half of my favorite comedy team, Scharpling & Wurster, Ballard was “madder than a rattlesnake at a Thai wedding.”
• Speaking of Ballard, Topher’s football metaphor was a highlight: “It’s like his brain is a football team and I’ve got this whole new set of brilliant plays, but it doesn’t matter because the quarterback’s in jail for dogfighting.” To have the “Wildcat formation” be the eureka moment was also ingenious.
• Zombie Nolan: “Rigor mortis… the new Viagra.”
• Sensational twist involving Adelle. Probably should have seen it coming, but it was well-hidden by the necessity of her having to bring her operation back up to speed.