Saturday, October 24, 2009

Higher Expectations

Dollhouse: Belonging
Season 2, Episode 4

Whenever we talk about Dollhouse, there's the continuous debate between the show's potential and the generally poor execution on several levels. Unlike previously hyped episodes that are supposed to reinvent the series, this episode was the first I've entered with incredibly high expectations. Even if I was able to temper my hopes in the past (I just wanted a decent episode out of "Man on the Street"), after watching "Epitaph One", I circled the next episode by the same writers, "Belonging", on my calendar. If I could have higher hopes than an episode written by the team of Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, adding Bill Riker himself as the director sufficiently did me in. I mean, Jonathan Frakes did direct First Contact, the most impressive Star Trek movie of all time. That's right. I went there Wrath of Khan fans.

Going back to the third episode of the series, when Echo played an unconvincing struggling singer and Sierra absolutely killed as the starstruck fangirl, I became convinced that Dichen Lachman could act circles around the often-struggling Eliza Dushku. And by the time we learned a bit of their back stories - that Caroline chose this life and Sierra/Priya was kidnapped into it against her will - that she was the far more interesting character.

In this episode, which had some nicely handled use of jumping backward and forward in time, we learned that Priya wasn't actually kidnapped by the Dollhouse or the Rossum Corporation, as we were led to believe during last season's "Needs". Instead she turned down the affections of Dr. Nolan Kinnard (played by a creepy without having to try Vincent Ventresca) works with the corporation. After drugging her into madness, he calls in the Dollhouse to help her. It's an incomplete way to excuse Adelle and Topher and other employees of the Dollhouse - that she was kidnapped, but it was the higher forces that are the bad guys, like the Rossum executive Matthew Hardin played by Keith Carradine (Dexter, Deadwood) who excuses Nolan's behavior and demands Adelle hand over Priya permanently.

While the episode makes Topher (generally one of the two creepiest characters on the show) a bit more sympathetic, I don't understand why he couldn't just heal this mentally disturbed girl instead of making her a Doll for five years. The mentally ill can't really consent to the standard Dollhouse contract. And again its not especially understandable why afterwards he doesn't just erase her one bad day and let Priya go back to her life. Besides those two substantive plot holes however, its a great episode. The character development of Victor and Topher is even more interesting than Priya's story and that's saying something.

Between his passion to discover the truth and his remorse in this episode, his breakdown in "Epitaph One" and his scenes with Saunders in the season premiere, Topher has made huge strides this season in becoming a more empatheticcharacter and not just an amoral mad scientist. Previously just the morally empty version of Xander Harris designed to provide cute jokes (that almost never hit as well as the writers planned), Topher has become an almost tragic figure that could figure out any problem, but couldn't see the bigger picture to accept how the work he was doing was utterly wrong. The scene where he and Boyd dismember the body of Dr. Kinnard is handled expertly by Frakes

Despite the early positioning of Echo as the lead and her relationship with Ballard as the somewhat obvious routes for the series to take, the emotional heart of this episode and the series altogether is Victor and Sierra/Priya. When they first meet, Priya is still herself and Victor is one of many Dolls at a party specifically designed by Priya's stalker, with Echo and Victor extolling his many imagined virtues. It's humorous to watch her flirt with him while he mindlessly pimps out Nolan. It's actually moving to see how these characters love each other on such a basic level that it goes beyond who they are and what they know. Victor removing the black paint that haunts her and waiting without explanation or reason for her return after being sent to Nolan are some of the most emotionally moving moments in the series. When confronting Nolan and eventually taking her revenge, Priya has absolutely no memory of him, but know Victor exists and that she loves and will fight for.

For the most part Echo sits in the background, only pushing Topher off on his investigation of Sierra's past. I tend to think that the best episode of each of the first two seasons thus far has used Echo only sparingly. So often, little about her makes sense. We don't know specifically how she is able to remember things throughout various wipes. We don't know why she is queen of the glitches. And for the life of me, I have know idea how she convinced Boyd that she was trustworthy enough to entrust with an access key to the entire Dollhouse. Such a level of trust would be much more in line with the plot so far this year if Ballard (who for no reason besides they needed to avoid paying Tahmoh Penikett this week, is absent) provided the access card. Boyd has been onscreen far too infrequently this year (especially in scenes with Echo) for this development to feel authentic.


Christmas Hampers said...

Use Echo sparingly, I agree.

RutaEmilija said...

I think Echo could have been a very useful character if they developed her more realistically, somehow Caroline feels as much of a doll as Echo, even though she is meant to be a 'normal' if fanatically motivated person.

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