Okay, so I was talking to Eliza Dushku earlier today. (How’s that for shameless name-dropping? It’s like we’re old chums or something.) Our discussion will run later in the week, but the line she was pushing on the show was that it really kicks into gear starting with the sixth episode, which is written by Joss Whedon. She was quick to add that she’s not at all dissatisfied with the episodes before it, but the overall impression is that the first five were constructed more as standalone episodes that might hook the casual viewer while the back half of the season unfolds in more serialized fashion. (She also said that Whedon’s voice as a writer comes through more clearly than it has so far, which is great news given how little of it was evident in the premiere.) In the meantime, I think we’re supposed to be patient until the show finally hits its groove—provided that FOX is similarly patient, of course, and the network has spotty history at best. (Looking at the ratings, there’s reason to feel both hope and dread. For more on that, check out a Newswire post I wrote about it earlier in the week.)
If the episodes leading up to #6 are anything like tonight’s very entertaining “The Target,” I for one have all the patience in the world. Once again, the episode didn’t have the feel of a Whedon show, exactly, but advanced the overall story arc further than I expected and the standalone subplot, a twist on The Most Dangerous Game, was tightly plotted, exciting, and full of genuinely unexpected turns. At a minimum, it confirms my belief that the Dollhouse formula is fundamentally sound, flexible enough to go wherever it wants with the one-off “imprints” while constantly posing and addressing questions about the place itself and the varied motivations of the actives and their keepers.
The main thread pairs Echo with an outdoorsman named Richard (Matt Kesslar) who appears at first to be another in a line of extravagantly wealthy men looking for the perfect date, with no attachments. Right away, this raises an issue that I had with the opening of the first episode: That the Dollhouse functions often, if not primarily, as an escort service, which makes it an awfully icky and exploitative operation. For a second tonight, I thought that maybe the romantic aspect of these dates was relatively chaste and that boundaries had been established, but Echo goes all Faith on her client in his tent. Anyway, Echo does what she’s supposed to do and fulfills all the nature-loving fantasies (whitewater rafting, rock-climbing, bow-hunting) that girlier girls presumably wouldn’t do for him. But alas, Richard turns on Echo and makes her his prey.
That’s a solid enough twist, but even better was having Echo’s handler Langdon (Harry Lennix) nearly neutralized by a thug-for-hire posing as a police officer. It was nice bit of misdirection to have Langdon and his partner successfully talk themselves out of trouble by pretending like press members seeking direction, only to have the friendly local cop plug holes in them with a handgun. You expect them to be taken off surveillance duty, not put in the line of fire themselves, and it’s a fun pre-commercial shock. It also underlines a major theme of this episode: The intimate, surrogate father/daughter relationship between an active and her handler, which of course Whedon explored to great effect with Buffy and Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
How clever, then, to intercut Echo and Langdon’s misadventures with the hunter with Langdon’s introduction to Dollhouse three months earlier, in the aftermath of a mass slaughter perpetrated by a former active with the codename “Alpha.” Among other things, we get to see the coding process that bonds Langdon to the childlike Echo; it’s an artificial, machine-dictated bond, of course, but what makes the moment so poignant is that Echo accepts it much like a duckling coded to follow its mother while Langdon reads from a script, uncertain that he’s made the right choice even being there, much less feeling a deep connection to a total stranger. “From this point on, she’ll always trust you,” says tech super-nerd Topher (Fran Kranz) to him. “You’re about to become the most important person in her life.”
So what a great payoff when we see that three months later, in this sticky situation with the hunter, that Langdon’s feelings for Echo have clearly deepened while hers have basically stayed the same. Yes, she’s as (artificially) trusting of him as she was when Topher worked his magic, but she goes “tabula rasa” after every mission, so there’s no real growth on her end of the relationship. But he remembers everything and has already become a father-figure to her; whatever his feelings about the organization itself—and he definitely seems ill at ease—it’s more than a job for him at this point. Echo’s got him hooked.
• The dialogue is still mysteriously workmanlike for a Whedon production, save for Echo’s awesome zinger about knowing how to use a gun: “Four brothers, none of them Democrats.”
• Ballard hasn’t shown many layers yet beyond his capacity as super-determined FBI guy, but tonight’s episode did a nice job of thickening the plot on that front by having him discover things about Dollhouse and about Echo’s true identity while also setting up Dollhouse’s all-seeing top brass (Olivia Williams and Reed Diamond) as more active adversaries in the future.
• Very happy to see the show reaching back into the dark history of Dollhouse itself. The “Alpha” arc will be in development all season, I imagine, but there’s plenty of room to get into the origins of the place down the line. I thought the chronology of this episode was handled very well.
• Another ghost in the Echo chamber: The “shoulder to the wheel” move.
• Dushku very much in her element this week: A spunky tomboy who kicks ass? Yep, she can handle that.