I saw the Season 2 premiere of the Fox series Dollhouse
this weekend, and it absolutely blew me away. Dollhouse
, by Joss Whedon of Buffy
fame, is about a company that has technology that allows them to "wipe" a person's mind and imprint them with an entirely new personality. It's the sort of technology that could take over the world, but instead, the "Dollhouse" is a sort of high-tech employment service. Wealthy people can request a "doll" with a certain personality and set of skills for a certain purpose. You'd think the most common use for this sort of service would involve kinky sexual fantasies, but surprisingly, clients often put the "dolls," also called "actives" to use as assassins, spies, body guards or hostage negotiators. This allows the series' attractive stars to kick ass in a variety of action scenes. The rather silly premise gave the series an inauspicious beginning and it was almost canceled by Fox in its first season. But it's now poised in its second season to take on much darker and more interesting themes involving alienation, despair, identity crises and the dehumanizing effects of science and technology.
The Season 2 premiere, named "Vows" has former FBI agent Paul Ballard using star "doll" Echo (Eliza Dushku) to investigate an international arms dealer named Klar (played by Jamie Bamber of Battlestar Galactica). Echo is poised to marry Klar in the hope that as his wife she will have access to information to bring him down. It's not really clear why the formidable manager of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt, is allowing Ballard to use one of her "actives" in this way, since Ballard is determined to find some way to bring the Dollhouse to justice and DeWitt knows it.
As Echo goes through with her wedding to Klar, it becomes increasingly obvious that Ballard is falling in love with her. He is obviously tormented as he electronically eavesdrops on her wedding vows. Then in a musical montage, the director cuts back and forth between scenes of Echo's wedding night and Ballard as he attempts to distract himself from thinking about what she is doing with another man. Musical montages usually annoy me because they have become so cliche in current TV shows, but this one was well done, advanced the story, and was actually touching.
Echo blows her cover when Klar catches her snooping for clues about an upcoming arms deal. She almost talks herself out of it by telling him she's actually trying to find out where he's taking her for their secret honeymoon, but blows it by calling herself by a name she went by on a previous assignment. (Echo's mental processes have been a little on the fritz ever since the renegade "doll" Alpha imprinted her with all her personalities at once at the end of last season.) Now that the jig is up, Klar takes Echo to his private jet where he plans to seal his big arms deal and presumably kill Echo.
Actives have "handlers" who are supposed to monitor them and step in if they are in any danger, but Echo's smarmy new handler who took over after her former handler "Langton" became the Dollhouse's chief of security apparently didn't see that she was in danger. It's up to Ballard to step in and save her, and he does it in a most unusual and disturbing way. He punches her hard
in the face 3 or 4 times, reminding her of a former personality with amazing kick-boxing skills. Something clicks in Echo's mind, and she punches out Klar and all his henchmen, but first she smacks Ballard really hard, which seems only fair. Then follows a rather unbelievable action sequence that has Echo clinging to the hood of a speeding car, dodging bullets, and detonating a bomb. She ends up capturing Klar, kicks his ass and pronounces, "The honeymoon is over."
Ballard ends up accepting DeWitt's offer to become Echo's handler, which puts him on the payroll and gives him a good excuse to be hanging around the Dollhouse. As they recite the code phrases that all handlers and dolls recite, they seem to really mean them. Ballard: "Everything is going to be all right." Echo: "Now that you're here." Ballard: "Do you trust me?" Echo: "With my life." It's as if they are reciting wedding vows of their own, and it brings the storyline full circle. But how will Ballard cope as Echo's handler when presumably many of her engagements will involve her fulfilling some rich man's sexual fantasy? How can he allow her to go into situations where she is likely to be sexually abused or even hurt? This will no doubt provide grist for some good storylines in the coming season. (Is the risk of injury why Echo's handlers pulled her in for a pelvic exam after her wedding night with Klar? I wonder if that's standard procedure every time the dolls have a sexual engagement? If so, they must spend a lot of time in the stirrups!)
The very best scene in this season 2 premiere episode doesn't involve Echo or Ballard, but rather the Dollhouse's troubled and scarred physician and the nerdy genius who developed the mind-wiping and imprinting technology. Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) has gone a little bit crazy since she discovered that she's not really a doctor at all, but rather an active called "Whiskey" who was imprinted with the doctor's personality after the arch-villain Alpha killed the real doctor and cut up Whiskey's face. She never liked the Dollhouse's technical guru Topher, but in this episode she has begun tormenting him with cruel pranks. In a climactic scene that's truly one of the best I've seen on television in a long time, she overcomes her intense dislike of Topher to try to seduce him because she's decided that he must have created her to fall in love with him. While he's aroused, he's also freaked out, because she's so frighteningly crazy
. He explains to her that he made her the most complex and "human" of the dolls because he needed someone who could speak up if she thought he was going too far. Topher is such a nerd, though that he can't help but be smug about his creation. When he asks her if she would really have had sex with him, she responds desolately, "I can't stand the smell of you." He gloats, "I did that!", which just confirms for her that none of her feelings are real or genuine. When he calls her "human," she says, "Don't flatter yourself." The creation has judged her creator and finds him wanting. Amy Acker is able to express boundless despair and self-loathing in just a few words. Unfortunately we probably won't see many more scenes like this with Amy Acker because she has taken a role on the ABC series Happy Town
When I first starting watching Dollhouse
, I thought it was Charlies Angels
meets Fantasy Island
--a diverting but mindless platform for its pretty stars--a kind of bubblegum for the mind. But with this season's first episode, the show is finally coming into its own as drama and social commentary. The series poses deep questions like: What does it really mean to be "human"? And are any of us really unique and genuine in this high-tech impersonal world? If you don't already watch Dollhouse
, you owe it to yourself to start.
Amy Acker as Dr. Saunders, in a devastating scene with Topher in the season 2 premiere "Vows."