It’s with a sense of apprehension that I greeted the second season opener of Dollhouse, after what wasn’t an inspirational first run. There’s a whole lot of things about Dollhouse that I don’t accept, like the idea of expensive hookers, but for at least two stories in the original run it transcended that banality and showed a glimpse of something greater.
The early parts of Vows confirmed some of my worst fears while offering the occasional crumb of hope. The good side of the show came through in a lyrical exchange between the mischievous Dr. Claire Saunders, who is now fully aware that her personality is a fabricated one, and Boyd Langton, newly promoted head of security.
Boyd invites her to dinner, but importunely she can’t go because Topher has programmed her to never leave the Dollhouse through a range of phobias. “I’m just not built that way,” she tells him is an edgy repartee. And then before that’s even made me smile, enter Echo (Eliza Dushku) walking down the aisle to marry Jamie Bamber, because that’s what he wants. Was this Dushku’s personal fantasy that must be fulfilled for her to accept a second run?
Anyway, Echo might be having ‘fun’ but her new associate, ex-FBI agent Ballard, isn’t, grinding his teeth in his observation point while Echo and her wealthy punter get it on.
But then, when I’d almost given up already on this series, they throw a lovely curveball at us. Echo is entirely aware she’s not getting married, and the dupe in these proceedings is Bamber’s character, Martin Klar, who is actually a nasty arms dealer.
But it’s more twisted than that. Echo’s imprint is of an FBI partner of Ballard’s, who thinks she’s been working with him for three years – according to Ballard’s crib sheet.
Echo goes for her treatment, which involves an examination by Dr. Saunders and from being light and fluffy the story takes a dip in the deep end. Echo has a flashback of a sexual encounter with Dr. Saunder’s when she was active Whiskey, and calls her by that name. Whiskey explains that Alpha cut her face so that Echo would become ‘No.1′, a rather dark and possible obtuse reference to ‘the prisoner’.
For one moment it hints that Whiskey would like to give Echo some scaring too, but she picks up a lolly rather than a scalpel and sends Echo on her way.
The inhabitants of the Dollhouse have their issues, but the entire organisation has now become the focus of an ambitious politician, who announces publicly that the Rossum Corporation (they fund and run Dollhouse) is withholding medical advancements.
Boyd thinks that it’s Ballard that’s tipped off the Senator, but Adelle still wants Ballard to become Echo’s handler; it’s all expediency with a dash of mistrust.
Having set that plot running they launch another two in quick succession, the first being that someone close to Klar is on to the duplicitous Echo, and the other is the continued obsession of Dr. Saunders with Topher, which has now turned weirdly sexual.
This is one of the best scenes Dollhouse has thrown up so far, and the best acting that Fran Kranz (Topher) has delivered so far too.
Topher rejects Dr. Saunders and then tries to explain why he made her the way he did. He tried to make her as whole a personality as possible, so she’s question his decisions, but that turned to her disliking him completely. But then it goes seriously theological, as Saunders talks about being a personality in someone else’s body, too afraid to die when she has her real identity re-imprinted. Powerful stuff and a much deeper thinking than this show normally allows itself.
From there we go back to Echo, who looks in over her head with gunrunner Klar. Her game is up, and Echo has to use all her abilities to get out alive. She’s doing really well until she gets concussed and says, “Who did they make me this time?”
Luckily for her, Ballard intercepts Klar and the now entirely confused Echo, who appears to be cycling through her personalities like the wheel of fortune. This is the precursor to an action sequence where Ballard must punch Echo to stop the wheel at a personality with combat skills, like it’s that easy. Cue stunt double making Dushku look good, and Klar being not so tough.
Honeymoon over, bad guy bagged, not sure why they needed Bamber other than he plays Mr Nasty quite effectively.
With that tied up in a neat bow, the show returns to the Dollhouse for a few quick revelations before the credits roll. The first is that Dr. Saunders has gone outside, breaking some of the restrictions Topher put on her personality, suggesting she’s got beyond her programming. And, Echo tells Ballard that when she’s not imprinted she can still feel all the personalities she’s had and remember what happened, to a degree.
This was something she talked about in the DVD extra episode Epitaph One, as being a feature of the future her. Ballard promises her that he’ll help her find all the real people that occupy her head, because they’re lost but not gone, as Echo puts it. The upshot is that Ballard is now her handler, predictably.
Oh boy, so many ups and downs. From the outset this show has shown real potential which it’s squandered almost completely on sub-plots that would make Knight Rider blush. The show is about multiple personalities, that doesn’t necessitate that the show should also have them.
The acting and writing in some parts of Vows was great, but what went between wasn’t remotely as appetising. Having been given this second series chance, Dollhouse needs to grab it with both hands and not repeat the mistakes of the first run.