'Dollhouse': Obsessed with illusion

Elizadushku_dollhouse_240 Talk about wasting a great idea on a lousy execution. Life extension via an active is a fascinating concept, and worthy of building not only an episode, but an entire series, around it. But " Dollhouse" chose to use the idea in service of a lame "whodunit" in which almost no one likeable or remotely interesting was involved. It was a weak start to the final leg of its initial season.

If you had to pinpoint a theme of this week's episode, it would be "roleplay." Specifically, it revolved around three storylines in which at least one person was aware of the fake nature of the interactions being played out. Again, an interesting concept! "Roleplay" is at the heart of each active interaction, after all, but this narrative triptych each featured a variation on the normal theme.

Variation #1: Julia, Child

Enter Margaret: women of leisure, rider of horses, total cougar. She dies mysteriously while riding her prized horse King's Ransom. Turns out, however, that she foresaw this fate, and spent the previous 18 months downloading her memories into the Dollhouse databanks in order to Miss Scarlett her way to the truth in the wake of her death. The suspects? Everyone, naturally. Mo' money, mo' problems.

The show narrowed down the suspects in the way most crime shows do: by going through the most obvious ones first and generally widdling down to a surprise twist by the last commercial break. So, once signs pointed immediately to her Manwich of an ex-husband, you could rule him out. Soon as Sir Beefcake fingered the family drunk, we could check him off the list. Photographic Emo Daughter spent so much time crying and updating her MySpace page that she never really factored into the mystery. This left young, debt-ridden, and unwittingly Oedpial complex-ridden son Nicholas.

Nicholas realizes early on that the mysterious "Julia" was in fact his mother, the very woman he killed with a steroid used to boost King Ransom's sale price in the wake of her death. How did he know? He frequents the Manhattan branch of Dollhouse, naturally. Or at least he did before taking too many high-priced risks on Wall Street. He tries to trick Julia/Margaret into writing a posthumous letter blaming Bill Biceps, but anyone who heard Victor (posing as a wealthy businessman and horse enthusiast) call King's Ransom a "$4 million dollar bet" knew Nicholas was the guilty party. Even without that tidbit of knowledge, I knew he was evil simply by virtue of his perpetually raised state of his shirt collar. That's a classic evil tell, y'all.

THAT, friends, is the story they chose to tell using what Boyd referred to as the very end of morality itself: eternal life. Rather than explore this complex and provocative topic related to the Dollhouse's purpose, they employed it in the service of a cross between "Harper's Island" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." If I found anything interesting in this storyline, it was in Adele once again using company resources to provide her with a facsimile of happiness. If anyone should be aware of the imitation of life that the Dollhouse provides, it should be her. But she's not the only one acutely aware of sham lives falling under their spell.

Variation #2: Frag Reflex

Go Topher, it's ya birthday, we're gonna run diagnostics like it's ya birthday. In a B-plot this week, Topher turned Sierra into...well, him, essentially. It's a gift bestowed by Adele once a year in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in her one-man teching crew. Interesting how the one man who snarks on the assembly-line way in which actives are filled and erased to request one of his own as a special, yearly gift.

I think we can safely assume that while some employees go home from the Dollhouse after their shift ends, Topher does not. His only means of friendship is a once-a-year geekathon picked from one of the "sleepies." Just like Adele, he's both hyper-aware of the falseness of the relationship and yet helpless to resist Sierra's charms. It begs the question again of the Dollhouse's purpose: does it manipulate the active's mind to affect the client's heart? Time and again we're seeing emotion triumph reason, which indicates a world in which the overt knowledge of simulated humans may ultimately not even matter.

Course, it's hard to tackle such weighty subject matter during laser tag., again, interesting theory, but an execution that falls well short. If only there was a person who accepted the lie against his will and hated himself for it. Oh, wait... 

Variation #3: Gonna Wash That Doll Right Out of My Hair

Ballard's got himself a problem. He's still on leave from the FBI, but still tasked by the mole inside the Dollhouse to keep Mellie both close and unaware of her true nature. What's a boy to do? Well, cook crappy pasta and lift fingerprints off her wine glass. That's Day 2 of FBI School, people.

He sneaks into the FBI, and gets the only person who wouldn't detain him on sight to run the prints. And sure enough, the print gets a hit...a LOT of hits. Multiple aliases, multiple pictures, and then, poof, all gone, along with any records of such a print. Ballard's coworker starts to believe his stories about the Dollhouse, and I know who's hacking into the FBI mainframe: Ferris Bueller! He's come a long ways since altering his absentee records.

Upon his return to his apartment, Mellie insists that she'll be whatever he needs, no questions asked. This leads to a bout of rough hate sex, only it's Ballard hating himself while having sex with her. I'm pretty sure he'll be taking that shower until next Friday night. Once again, Ballard failed to curb the side of his psyche sexually attracted to those within an organization he hates. In some ways, taking down the Dollhouse is removing that side of himself he finds most loathsome.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into this plotline. It's possible. But his sexual confusion seems intimately (pun intended) related to the pathological way in which he pursues the organization behind the objects of his obsession. Whether it be an innate character trait or something borne of an unknown connection with the Dollhouse has yet to be seen. But hopefully we'll learn more by season's end.

And yes, the "end" is near. Just a few more weeks to go, and hopefully they focus less on stand-alone engagements and focus solely on the Alpha mystery. If the previews are any indication, I'll get my wish.

What did you think of the show's return? Did Echo's mission interest you more than it did me? Who's most unable to resist the "roleplay" of the Dollhouse: Adele, Topher, or Ballard?