If you read my last Dollhouse review you’d have gathered I didn’t much care for that story, yet the one before that I really enjoyed. In the emotional rollercoaster this show represents, I’m riding high again this week. In episode 8, the show plays out an interesting scenario that takes the characters in some unusual directions.
Needs starts with Paul Ballard having a nightmare about Caroline (Echo) coming to him for help, which turns into sex, and then Mellie appears and Echo dies. It’s a weird dream, but it represents his personal need to save Caroline from something he doesn’t actually understand.
But back at the Dollhouse they’re well aware of the issues they have with their actives having recollections of the past, but unsure how best to deal with it.
Their fears appear entirely founded when the five ‘actives’ in Echo’s group wake in the night and are entirely aware of their predicament, even if they can’t actually remember who they are.You wonder why this doesn’t trigger an obvious response, because they wander around with the other bobble-heads like they’re on parade. But it soon becomes apparent that this bubble of self awareness has been manufactured by the Dollhouse, possibly as a means of testing the handlers and security systems.
There are some nice Whedon-esque chunks of dialogue in this sequence, although the episode is credited to Tracy Bellomo. When Victor encounters another passive inhabitant of the Dollhouse who expresses her like of pancakes his response is, “We’re all going to die!”
Eventually this self-aware team is whittled down to four when Mike is captured, convincing the rest that they need to escape now or become docile like him. Their escape is far too easy, and they make it into the underground parking lot below which Dollhouse resides. At this point, Sierra, Victor and November (Mellie) take a vehicle to make good their escape while Echo decides she selflessly needs to save everyone and goes back to get them.
As time goes by, each of these characters remembers more about their past, so in a sense, this story gives us more backstory for them and reveals more about their real personalities. This is vital, because as viewers, if we’re ever to form an empathy with the characters, we need to know who they actually are, and not who they’ve been programmed to be.
November remembers she has a child, Sierra that she was violently raped and Victor that he has a connection with Sierra. It’s for each to resolve these things for them to complete their respective rat runs.
Echo wants to free everyone, which seems a tall order, but she eventually leads all of the actives from the Dollhouse after she takes Adelle and Topher hostage at gunpoint. They all walk into the sunshine, and Echo spontaneously collapses.
It’s then explained that the good doctor’s notion was to let these unresolved needs play out, and once they had, then the actives would return to a controllable state. They’ve been programmed to become unconscious once the need was satisfied, although that did rather assume it would be.
For Sierra that’s attacking one of the men who raped her, for Victor its finding love, for November it’s grieving for the child she lost, and for Echo it’s letting everyone go.
However, but for a final scene, this would have been an entirely empty story. Because status quo is achieved at the end where all the actives are passive again and the Dollhouse is returned to relative normality.
The twist is that Paul Ballard has realised that he’s been observed in his apartment and has solicited some help in combating this surveillance. In the final scene he’s putting his mobile phone back together, and once it’s working, he receives a voice mail message that Echo sent from inside Dollhouse before she was re-assimilated. She tells him she’s in Dollhouse and she’s underground. It’s a small clue, but maybe Ballard can follow that lead.
There were some interesting parts to this story, not least the hints that we get about how unconvinced both the doctor and Boyd are about what they’re doing in this facility. I think it also hints that Adelle DeWitt is far too confident at times, when she’s not actually got the control she imagines.
But what really elevated this episode were some excellent performances, especially from Enver Gjokaj (Victor) and Dichen Lachman (Sierra). Amy Acker as Doctor Saunders was also quite convincing, although I think the scarring on her should be fixed; it seems implausible that – given their resources – they wouldn’t try to eliminate this disfigurement by now.
Dollhouse needs to develop some consistency, not only in the quality of the stories but also in tone. Season one is slated to be just 13 episodes, so it’s got just another five to deliver that uniformity. Dollhouse for me has elevated itself to ‘interesting’, but needs to show more ambition.
Check out our review of episode 7 here.