I’d be the first to admit that Dollhouse isn’t the show that many people thought it might be. The natural flow that other Joss Whedon projects have exhibited is missing and it all seems rather too contrived at times. But on the upside it’s generally got better as the series progresses, even if that improvement is agonizingly shallow ramp.
The fifth story ‘True Believer’ is a strange mix of the good, the bad and the tantalising of this production. It had the potential to be exceptionally interesting, but blows it all towards the end in a somewhat lob-sided third act.
It starts with a bus of cultists going shopping in a small town hardware store, and making the locals feel uncomfortable. They got on my nerves, singing and smiling almost immediately, so I had some sympathy with the reaction of one auto-mechanic, who wanted to pick a fight. It didn’t really help that they seemed to number around 15, and bought a box that appeared to only contain washing line and rolls of gaffer tape. When they leave, their shopping list has ‘Save me’ written on the opposite side.
Meanwhile, Dollhouse is entertaining one of its most important clients, a senator. He wants an active to help the FBI investigate the cult by getting inside the compound where they live.
The cunning plan is that they’ll give Echo an implant that allows them to see what she sees, and give her an imprint from a deeply religious person who is blind. The thinking is that the cult won’t suspect a blind person, and they can gather evidence from a remote video feed of what she sees that will allow them to raid the compound.
The flaws in this are rather obvious; if you can’t see, you won’t focus, and you may not even open your eyes or look in a useful direction. But none of these things struck the writers at any point. It may be thinking about things to any degree is frowned on in the Dollhouse team.
The surgery isn’t without its risks, although Adelle DeWitt brushes these aside and tells them to modify her immediately. We then have a really silly scene where she’s given the eye surgery, which appears to involve putting a big spinning drill bit through the front of her eye, even though we’ve been told it’s no worse than corrective laser treatment. This was exceptionally dumb, and it didn’t really help that Olivia Williams, who plays Adelle, seems to be trying to do an impression of Judi Dench as ‘M’ with her clipped responses to everyone.
Boyd drops Echo off at the compound so she can convince them that she’s been sent to them by God. The leader, Jonas Sparrow, shines bright light in her eyes, apparently the best way to detect FBI insurgents it appears. But rather stupidly they do this in a room where they keep all their guns, giving the FBI outside the evidence they need to raid the compound. At this point the friction between Boyd and the lead FBI man surfaces, as Boyd wants to get Echo out before the mayhem ensues.
It doesn’t take long because it seems that the FBI has employed their dumbest agents on this job, as they trip the security system before they’ve even got inside the fence.
There is a little twist here, where we find that it wasn’t the cultist who wrote ‘Save Me’ on the shopping list, but the FBI leader wanting to get a reason to break up the movement. I suspect that in an earlier draft of this script a complete turnabout existed where the cult was the good guys, but then they put in that they had more guns than the Taliban and that altered the dynamic.
At this point the cultists do what you’d expect if you’d seen Waco and get everyone in a single building and set fire to it. By now Echo can see again, because the self-appointed saviour gave her a smack around the head, undoing the delicate surgery they performed with the giant drill bit.
She has a ‘revelation’ that she’s been given sight by God to lead them all out, and she knocks out Jonas with a candle holder. Actually it’s what she hits him with is so big that I was actually surprised his head didn’t come clean off.
Everyone but one loony leaves the burning building; he spits in Echo’s face and gets punched out for his trouble. She’s about to leave when Jonas comes around, and he’s been left holding the AK-47, conveniently. An FBI-type figure enters the room and shoots him dead, before revealing he’s nasty-man Laurence Dominic. He doesn’t like Echo, so instead of saving her he knocks her out with the butt of his gun and leaves her to die. She doesn’t because Boyd then turns up and carries her to safety.
It’s not a great plot, but it suffices I guess. I’m sure religious cults wouldn’t appreciate the 2D way they’re portrayed, but they’re unlikely to have a TV to be offended, I guess.
What I was a lot less keen on was a curious undercurrent they decided to thread through this and the Dollhouse location bits, which was about the loss of innocence, represented by the snake in the Garden of Eden. In Dollhouse this is represented by Victor getting erections while showering with Sierra in a non-imprinted state. The hint, and we’ve had it before, is that the actives are starting to retain personality between wipes. This is then sledge-hammered home at the end when Echo walks out from her mind wipe and they ask her if she can see, she looks down at Dominic and says she can see just fine. Clearly she remembers him leaving her to die, and at some point it will be payback time.
The few small twists they threw in this story were welcome, but insufficient. We need some really good ones, like that Dominic is imprinted or that Paul Ballard becomes an active, or that given a codeword Echo can switch between multiple personalities, or something really crazy.
I’m sure they’ve planned a long drip-feed of minor revelations, but this show needs some big ones soon or we’ll never actually get to see those episodes. At the moment this looks purely like a lightweight vehicle for Eliza Dushku, and not remotely what fans of Joss Whedon had hoped for. Unless it gets much, much better I can’t see this getting more than the 12 episodes they’ve commissioned.
Check out our review of episode 4 here.