'Dollhouse': Good reception, bad signal

Oliviawilliams_dollhouse_240 If you had told me I'd find an episode of about a pop singer's protection more enjoyable than an episode about a heist gone wrong, I'd have told you to leave me at the mercy of a Russian mob specializing in human trafficking. And yet here am I, having watched a Dollhouse episode long on ideas but short on drama. With a central mystery that simply wasn't remotely mysterious, what remained was essentially a chamber play in which our nominal hero sat around, passive and paralyzed.

The heist in question? The recovery of an Elgin Marble, named after stolen pieces of the Parthenon obtained by the English in the early 19th century. The set-up? A would-be high-rolling bachelor party in a swanky hotel, replete with a "pay off any prostitutes that get beaten while on premises" policy. (I know I always check for that feature while browsing Expedia.) This cover was only part one of the mission; by staging a fake attack, Echo (posing as "Taffy") gained access to a wall adjacent to a vault containing priceless artwork. After subduing the guard, her former partygoers joined her as part of a four-person crew.

"Taffy"'s programming dictates confident sexuality, provocative dress, excellent thievery skills, and its very own catch phrase: "five by five." Whoops, wrong show: it's actually "Blue skies." Everything goes fine, until two things happen. First, the antiques expert on crew decided to steal the sculpture for a higher bidder while sealing the rest of his crew inside. Secondly, a mysterious someone manages to wipe Echo's mind while she's on the phone with Boyd. The result? An infantilized Echo, immobilized without the key phrases that usher her from Topher's Wiping Chair to yoga class.

While the Dollhouse scrambles to fix Echo remotely, she largely remained on the floor for the rest of the episode, fixated on the artwork around her. A wounded member of her makeshift crew, Walton, guided her through Art 101, with Echo fixated primarily on a Picasso piece. She claimed it was "broken," this week's buzzword. According to Walton, Picasso aimed to show that while humans start out whole, they eventually start to "slide." Kinda sounds like what's going on inside Echo's brain: she's sliding out of her conditioned wiring bit by bit.

With Echo out to lunch, unable to process her post-wipe state without the soothing environment of the Dollhouse (finally giving purpose and function to its aesthetics), Dewitt brought in a back-up plan. Or, a back-up file. All depends on your perspective. She had Topher download Taffy's personality into Sierra, so we the audience had the odd experience of watching Sierra acting like Echo when she acted like Taffy, right down to the catch phrase. Unable to access the vault in time, she managed to (sorta) talk Echo through the escape via the same phone that managed to wipe Echo in the first place.

All of this sounds like an action-packed episode, but it was really a character study. Problem was, there was no actual character to study: while it was interesting to watch an essentially newborn baby look at art for the first time, her time inside the vault evoked pity but little insight into her character. We didn't get any insight into her pre-Doll life; we only got further confirmation of how debilitating it is to have your life in the hands of people that prevent you from any sense of self. Maybe some viewers needed to see this fact hammered home in an unsafe environment, but to me it felt redundant.

As for Alpha-as-the-remote-wiper...not much of a mystery there, eh? The show only has one threat at this point. Maybe they'll eventually peel back layers and show how Alpha has help on the inside, but for now, if something goes wrong with Echo, there's only one place to look. The biggest plus to this plot point? That the show deployed it so soon. It's paced as a thirteen-episode limited run, almost as if the writers don't trust Fox to give them anything more than that. So Echo's journey towards self-awareness, along with Alpha's overarching plot, are moving with more than acceptable speed.

If only the same could be said of Ballard's plotline. Restricted to two small scenes with Lubov, he did his usual "I want answers!" schtick with his would-be informant. Looks like Dewitt's feeling the heat from some higher ups about his search, which gives his investigation some credibility while giving insight into Dewitt's position in the company. The answer? Two words: middle management. Here's my hope of hopes for Dollhouse: that they don't pull a Ballard-is-Alpha-only-he-doesn't-know-it plotline. Think Ben/Glory from Buffy with more kickboxing. And inexplicable nudity. No thanks.

Other thoughts about tonight's episode:

  1. What on earth was up with the midwife intro? I know the American health care system is messed up, but I refuse to believe this couple's HMO is more expensive than hiring a Doll.
  2. Three words: Chekhovian gas canister. As soon as you saw that, you knew it would factor into their escape.
  3. Enjoyed how Taffy2 forced her own programmers to negotiate her payment before helping Echo. To me, that showed how Sierra is potentially like Echo in terms of making unexpected choices within the determined parameters.
  4. Speaking of these two, I enjoy that they are lunch buddies with Lubov. What I didn't like was that the crucial look at the end of last week's episode seemed completely ignored this week. Can't figure that out at all. I'm down with all three slowly coming back to life, as it were. It's groovy (and probably best) if Echo's enlightenment happens quicker than the others, but I hope she's not solo in her awakening over this season. (Maybe these eps are being aired out of order?)

In short: provocative ideas, less-than-provocative drama. I don't think it's too much to ask for both, considering the pedigree of talent involved. Slowing down the action to reveal character works...unless your character is a cipher. Then, not so much. It's just one of those tricky things inherent to the out-there concept upon which this show is based. I'm still onboard with the show, but just found this week's ep a touch lacking in comparison to the last two.

But that's just my opinion: what did you think? Did you think the episode was "blue skies" or did it rain on your parade? Is Ballard's investigation interesting or moving at the speed of real-time geology? And just how high up does the management at the Dollhouse actually go? Leave your thoughts below!

Ryan eats at a table for one over at Boob Tube Dude.