Okay, I’m going to keep this briefer than usual, because I’m coming to the episode late and the end of the week has ground me down to a nub:
After four solid weeks of heady, plot-advancing episodes, Dollhouse clears its throat before the homestretch with “Haunted,” the first real standalone, monster-of-the-week type hour since Echo infiltrated the religious cult over a month ago. In the time in between, as many of us have marveled over the uptick in quality, I’ve seen a lot of commentary that not having Eliza Dushku front-and-center in every episode has been a healthy development for the show. I can understand that to a degree: Echo isn’t as interesting as some of the other characters (Adele, for one; Dr. Saunders, for another) and Dushku doesn’t have the acting chops to pull off all the parts she’s been given. But then, think about Sarah Michelle Gellar: I don’t know a single person who considers Buffy their favorite character in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Gellar isn’t that brilliant an actress, either. Yet in both cases, I think you need them as the emotional center, even if there are cooler planets orbiting around them. So there’s where I stand on that issue.
As for “Haunted,” I thought the concept was by far the most intriguing of the standalone episodes so far, which made the merely decent execution a little disappointing. Having the conscience of a newly dead woman imprinted on the young, fresh body of an active opens up all kinds of existential possibilities, even before you learn that the woman was murdered. Haven’t we all, in our vainest moments, wondered what the scene would be like at our funeral? Or even more generally, to listen into conversations about what people really think about us? Then again, perhaps we’d pay for our vanity: Maybe the people we thought would be weeping copious tears turn out to be stone-faced and indifferent. And maybe also our perceptions of who we were and how we thought others felt about us were, in fact, completely wrong. Those would be some damned painful revelations.
Now that I think about it, the biggest problem with “Haunted” is that there’s any need for a murder mystery at all. Just the drama of Echo as Margaret, the dead heiress, coming back to her life incognito in the body of another woman would be more than enough to sustain an episode. Having her solve a whodunit (Could it be her gold-digging boy-toy Jack? Or her bitter grown children? Or her estranged drunk uncle?) winds up distracting from a potentially richer idea. Just think about how powerful the Patton Oswalt story was in “Man On The Street,” where he summons the imprint of his dead wife to create a memory that they never got to share together. To me, the discoveries that Echo/Margaret makes about how everyone really felt about her are far more intriguing than her solving her own murder, even while I realize there’s some overlap. Still, the sheer ingenuity of this premise took the episode into more compelling territory than most of the other standalone episodes so far.
In other business, I really liked how Paul’s relationship with Mellie has darkened now that he knows that Dollhouse has been using her to spy on his activities. It’s heartbreaking to see Mellie, who doesn’t know this essential fact about herself, try to puzzle out why Paul has shut down on her emotionally and won’t share any information about his investigation. It’s not like Mellie is actively shaking him down; she just liked the intimacy of it. And we’re seeing a very ugly side of Paul, too: He doesn’t care about this lab-constructed woman any longer, and his sense of bitterness and betrayal manifests itself in hate sex. “I will give you what you need and let you take it from me,” she tells him. What an awful, awful situation for her.
On a lighter note, we had Topher using Sierra for his bogus “annual anterior insular cortex diagnostic,” which was basically his excuse to have a like-thinking playmate for a day. Their back-and-forth was a nice relief to the heaviness of the bigger subplots—loved the exchange on “classic sci-fi errors”—and the payoff, with Adele knowing about Topher’s secret scam and allowing it to happen was a nice twist.
Only two weeks left, unless Joss somehow arm-twists FOX into slotting the 13th episode.
• “Margaret, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. You’re dead.” —Great pre-credits stinger there.
• “ ‘Al dente’ is Italian for ‘Ow, my teeth!’”
• This is the second time in a week—17 Again was the first—when a body-swapping situation led to a Back To The Future moment between mother and son. In other mini-trend news, I’ve seen three straight movies (Adventureland, Crank: High Voltage, and Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past) that have prominently featured REO Speedwagon songs.