Back when Dollhouse premiered, I had tagged it as a cross between Alias and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. The first seven episodes have heavily favored the former over the latter: Lots of standalone operations where Echo goes out and gets into trouble, mixed with some carefully parsed-out revelations about the innerworkings of an underground operation not unlike SD-6 in its scope, cutting-edge technology, and fiendish manipulation of its own operatives. “Man On The Street” went a long way towards deepening the conceit by broaching the issues of memory and loss raised by Eternal Sunshine; unlike a client looking for a negotiation specialist or a kinky lay, Patton Oswalt’s character was constructing a elaborate scenario to make up for a lost moment in his life. It went beyond mere fantasy, and into the trickier and more emotional business of supplanting memories altogether.
Tonight’s stellar episode, “Needs,” took that idea all the way. Throughout the hour, I kept circling back to Boyd’s line in “Man On The Street,” referring to the Actives: “They’re all broken.” And we can see through their adventures that their minds are haunted, perhaps permanently, by fractured memories that float through the consciences like shards of glass. They were brought to Dollhouse by a need to escape a traumatic past—or at least, that’s how Adele (who may be telling a terrible lie, of course) likes to frame it—and the experience of being at Dollhouse has only produced an accumulation of new traumas on top of the old ones. And that’s to say nothing of the people who run the place, who have their own layers of fucked-up-ness.
Another great thing “Needs” pulled off: It answered the common complaint people have had that no mission seems to go off without a hitch. Personally, I’m not that bothered by missions requiring lots of improvisation—this is drama, after all, and conflict is necessary—but if the place screws up that frequently, those Yelp reviews are going to get pretty toxic. Tonight we got both a greater sense than ever at how many Actives are out there and the information that our four troubled heroes (Echo, Sierra, Victor, and Mellie) are exceptional in their glitchiness. So now an operation that might have seemed fatally flawed to many viewers turns out, in fact, to run a little more smoothly than we might have realized. On the anomalous occasion when things get out of hand with the Actives—as they have with our not-so-fantastic four—Adele and the Dollhouse higher-ups take the threat very seriously.
After Adele holds an emergency staff meeting to discuss the “glitches” that have rendered some Actives ineffective, the episode cuts to a roomful of them (including E, S, V, and M) waking up before their time. They’re all in a strange state of semi-awareness: They don’t know who they are yet, but they’re not blank slates, either, and certainly not in the pacified condition of Actives post-treatment. Basically, they wake up with the realization that they’re being kept against their will—in a prison perhaps or maybe by aliens—and need to improvise their way to freedom. Those “glitches” they’re carrying around are like homing beacons that lead them to the source—much like last week, when Echo found her way to the Rossum lab without knowing how she would have that information.
Here’s what they don’t know after “waking up”: Anything about Dollhouse. This leads to some very funny bits early on, when they’re trying to get a sense of the place. (My favorite exchange of the episode comes when they’re offered banana pancakes. Dead-eyed active to Victor: “I like pancakes.” Victor to group: “We’re all gonna die.”) There’s also some amusing business in the co-ed showers, which is no place for a fully cognizant young hottie to be, and another cool scene in the warehouse space where the Actives’ wardrobes are stored. (Among other things, Dollhouse is a meta-commentary on the medium of television itself, but I don’t have the time to get into that right now.)
The twist is that Adele actually wants the four troublesome Actives to be on the loose. At first, we’re led to believe that they’ve been unleashed as a way of keeping the staff on guard and plugging whatever leaks are reveled in the operation. So when they actually succeed in slipping out of Dollhouse and peeling off into the real world, it seemed like another in a long line of institutional screw-ups. What a relief, then, to find out that the whole escapade was under much tighter control than it seemed: Dr. Saunders (played superbly by Amy Acker) had the idea to allow these four to confront directly the traumas that had been rattling around in their heads, in the hope that they’d find some closure and be more peaceful and compliant Actives in the future. Granted, the scheme still isn’t airtight—Echo beats the hell out of a handler, for one, and there are holes poked in their security apparatus—but I think the risk is worthwhile for them, because it both saves four Actives from the attic and gives them a chance to find out where the ship might be leaking.
As for the four Actives themselves, it was pretty heartbreaking to see them come face-to-face with problems at the very core of their being: Mellie with her daughter; Sierra with that unbelievable sleazebag who violated her long before she was raped by her handler; and Victor, who has quite innocently fallen in love with Sierra without having the ability to comprehend it, much less pursue it. I seriously doubt they achieved the “closure” that Dr. Saunders was suggesting, at least on a permanent basis, and despite the mayhem caused by letting these four loose, the ending does allows for everything to go back more or less to normal. But “Needs” really succeeded in letting in “the tide” of psychological baggage that freights not just Echo and company, but virtually all the major characters on the show. We’re definitely in the soup now.
• Didn’t get a chance to dig into the “villains” on the show (i.e. the people who operate Dollhouse), which is a shame, because this episode leaves you feeling uncertain about just how villainous they are. Echo’s confrontation with Topher—a scene that Fran Kranz, to give credit where its due, pulls off very well—could alternately be read as Topher being a cold scientist unburned by ethics or a guy as screwed up as she is. And I loved the final exchange between Boyd and Saunders, too, where he’s almost fatherly in his pride over Echo’s resourcefulness and Saunders bristles at his high-toned attempt to shame her.
• A light episode for Paul, save for a dream sequence that confirms one thing we already knew (that his pursuit of Caroline is about more than justice) and one thing he should have known (that he’s being bugged). His scene with tech-guy Jimmy led to my second-favorite exchange of the night: “Can I trace where it was transmitting?” “Absolutely, if you were E.T.”
• Dominic on why Actives should be treated less like people than pets: “If your child starts talking for the first time, you feel proud. If your dog does, you freak the hell out.”
• One minor complaint: I wish Echo hadn’t vocalized why she decided to go back into Dollhouse to rescue the others. That sick look of hers when she spots the Active being trotted out in a naughty French-girl outfit says everything that needs to be said.
• It’s ridiculously late now, and there’s still a lot more to talk about. I’ll let you people take over.