Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dollhouse 2.01: "Vows"

“My entire existence was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest. What do you suggest I do?”

-Dr. Saunders/Whiskey

Watching “Vows” was the most satisfying experience of my TV viewing week. The only other show that even came close was Monday’s episode of HIMYM. This episode was written and directed by television auteur Joss Whedon- you’ve heard his name before on this blog! It’s always a pleasure to view Whedon’s work. I enjoy it so much because it is always thoughtful. “Vows” was on par with, and in some ways surpassed, the best of Dollhouse’s season one episodes, such as “Needs” and “Briar Rose.”

Boyd complains to Adelle early in the episode that Echo’s current mission is the sickest he’s ever heard of- even worse than “Tempura Joe” (I’ll leave the exact meaning of that nickname to the imagination). Echo is getting married. It turns out that Paul has become a client of the Dollhouse. He is renting Echo to be his crime fighting partner. He wants to close cases that he was unable to close while he worked at the FBI. Echo’s new husband is Martin Klar, a notorious arms dealer. Paul is clearly still seriously obsessed with Echo, as we see him pace and do push-ups to distract himself while Echo and Klar share their wedding night.

One of Klar’s minions receives photographs of Echo meeting with Paul, and the jig is up. Klar confronts Echo as she is attempting to rummage through his desk. At first, she has a pretty decent cover story (she wants to know about their “surprise” honeymoon), but Klar slams her head pretty hard against the desk, and the concussion causes Echo to glitch worse than ever. She accidentally says her name is “Eleanor Penn” (her hostage negotiator imprint from the pilot), and there are no longer any excuses. Klar takes her to an airplane hangar, where he is preparing to ship a number of small bombs that are going to become “dirty bombs” with the addition of radioactive material. Paul noticed strange patterns in Echo’s brain, however, that occurred when she was slammed against the desk. Echo’s handler dismissed it as Echo being “a newlywed,” but Paul gets a confirmation from Topher- the patterns were an indication of pain and fear. Paul devises a plan to give Echo the best chance of getting away. He gets captured by Klar’s minions, and when he’s in the hangar with Echo, he smacks her around a bit to trigger her imprint of the assassin from “Man on the Street.” The plan works, Echo and Paul are able to fight their way out of danger, and Klar is arrested.

At the end of the episode, Paul apologizes to Echo for what he put her through. She reveals that she remembers all of her imprints. They surface at different times, but they’re all there. Paul tells her that Caroline is who she truly is, and Echo says that she wants to find all the Dolls’ real personalities. Paul promises he will help Echo with this mission, and he becomes her official handler. Although the first half of this “mission of the week” plot sort of dragged, I was very intrigued by everything from Echo’s confrontation with Klar on. Eliza Dushku displayed superb acting chops in switching through the different personalities as Echo glitched. I also loved the symmetry of this plot. At the beginning of the episode, Echo is dishonestly getting married to Klar (her actual imprint is the spy, not someone simply designed to be Klar’s “ideal wife"), but at the end, she truly, fully becomes bonded to Paul through the Handler/Active bonding ritual. In the scene right before the ritual, Paul takes Echo’s hand as he promises to help her, the image almost deliberately invoking the image of a wedding ceremony.

The B story of this episode is more compelling than Echo’s story. Actually, it might not really be fair to call it the B story, because it has both important plot points and emotional moments that reveal a great deal about some of the characters. Dr. Saunders is having difficulty dealing with the revelation that she is actually Whiskey, a Doll. She first tries to deal with it by pranking Topher. At one point, a clip from Bride of Frankenstein shows up on a monitor instead of a brain scan. In the only real physical comedy of the episode, Topher also opens a cabinet full of rats. “Put the rats back in the maze,” Saunders warns Topher, “before one of them bites you.”

Boyd checks in with Saunders, to see how she’s handling her situation, and Saunders doesn’t really take kindly to it. She thinks that his sudden interest in her now that he knows she’s a Doll is simply pity. Boyd asks her to dinner. He thinks it would be good for her to get out of the Dollhouse for a while. Saunders replies by listing the many phobias with which she’s been programmed to prevent her from going outside. “Every person I know is poorly constructed,” Boyd muses, “Everybody has an excuse for not dealing. But that’s all it is—an excuse.”

Saunders’ mission to torment Topher reaches its height when she awakens him in the middle of the night, dressed in lingerie. She unsuccessfully tries to seduce him, and her motives for doing so aren’t entirely clear. On the one hand, it seems like she is trying to give him what she thinks he wants. On the other hand, she says that she has been programmed so she can’t even stand his smell. A simple recap of what happened in this scene really can’t do it justice. It is absolutely the pivotal moment of this episode. It is all about Saunders starting to realize that maybe there is more to her than her programming and Topher seeing that there are actual consequences to playing with people’s brains. At first, Topher suggests that Saunders find out who she actually is. This makes me wonder if they actually knew each other pre-Dollhouse. That would be a very interesting plot twist. Saunders counters that she doesn’t want to do that because then who she is now would die. It’s an intense push-and-pull Saunders feels, really. On the one hand, she is disgusted by the fact that she’s a Doll, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want to stop existing.

At the end of the episode, Boyd finds a note in Saunders’ office. She has decided to go away for a while to figure out how to deal with her situation. I must say that Amy Acker absolutely stole this episode. Her performance was riveting, from beginning to end. I really can’t say enough about how fantastic she was. I only wish she could be in more than three episodes this season (she has a role on the upcoming ABC mid-season replacement series “Happy Town” that has limited her availability). Although I loved the final few minutes of Echo’s story this episode, I found Dr. Saunders’ journey, and the way it clearly set Topher down the path towards the complete mental breakdown we see in “Epitaph One,” more compelling overall.

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