Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dollhouse 2.09: "Stop Loss"

“I’m sad too. But not for us. For him. He’s not ready to be by himself.”


Although I wouldn’t rank “Stop Loss” among my very favorite episodes of Dollhouse (really none of the first episodes of any of Fox’s two hour Dollhouse marathons have achieved that status for me), it was certainly a decent quality episode. Most importantly, it divulged some long-awaited backstory of one of my favorite characters, Victor, aka Tony Ceccoli. Enver Gjokaj, most certainly the stand-out actor to have emerged from Dollhouse’s too-short run, got to show that he excels at more than mimicry- he can handle big action sequences, too. Echo also continued to come into her own, although she became marginally more unlikable in the process. She sees her friends as puzzle pieces to be used in the fight against Rossum. I still, however, find her to be much more fully developed than her alter-ego Caroline. The episode dipped into wells Joss Whedon has used in his work before, but the emotions evoked are timeless and work as well here as they ever did in projects such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

In “Stop Loss” we get another look into what happens once an Active’s Dollhouse contract is up. We got some idea of what happens via November/Madeline, but now we get the chance to see what happens immediately after an Active is released. Victor is nearing the end of his five year contract, and Adelle has rented him out (using her pseudonym of “Miss Lonelyhearts,” of course) to have one last fling with Roger. When Roger humiliates her by saying he’s in love with another woman (Sierra, of course), Adelle is incensed, ordering Victor released from his contract immediately.

Topher stumbling over his words after he finds out that Adelle is Miss Lonelyhearts is one of the most amusing parts of this episode. Topher has really gone from squirrelly creep to a truly endearing character. Despite Adelle accusing Topher of setting up a practical joke, he has no idea why Roger broke up with her. The answer is clear when Victor is woken up, and instead of starting the “Did I fall asleep?” patter, he says “Has anyone seen Sierra?”

Echo is not at all pleased with this news, mostly because she had been planning to use Victor as part of her overall scheme to free all the Actives from the Dollhouse. Adding to Echo’s frustration is the fact that Adelle has moved Paul (who has no brain activity, by the way) to a location Echo can’t get to with the key card Boyd smuggled to her. Echo begins her plan to get Victor back by approaching Sierra at dinner. It’s a sad and thoughtful scene (like much of Joss Whedon’s work overall). Sierra tells Echo that she’s waiting for Victor to have dinner, because he always comes back for his treatments. Echo tells Sierra that Victor isn’t coming back, and she’s upset because she was going to use him to help free everyone from the Dollhouse. Sierra’s response is much more interesting. She isn’t worried about herself- she is worried about Victor being able to survive by himself.

Sierra has good reason to be worried. Tony, now returned to his body, is kind of disoriented in his new life, even if Boyd did set him up at the Hyperion. I love the shout-out to Joss Whedon’s series “Angel,” by the way, even if I did prefer their small Season 1 headquarters to the Hyperion- what does a vampire need with an entire hotel, anyway? Anyway, while at a club that plays Lady Gaga just like the club from the pilot episode (which was responsible for my mildly embarrassing love for Lady Gaga’s music), Tony unsuccessfully hits on a woman that looks like Sierra. He also ends up finding it more comfortable to sleep in the shower of his hotel room instead of the bed- the shower is more like a Dollhouse sleeping pod.

Thankfully Tony’s instincts, honed while he was a soldier, survived his time as an Active in tact. He is awoken when he hears noise coming from the next room. Several guys in full SWAT-team gear have entered his hotel room. Tony admirably holds them off for a little while, but it’s three-against-one, and before long, he’s been abducted. Throughout this episode, I was consistently impressed by how believable Tony was as a former soldier. Enver Gjokaj managed to inhabit the role perfectly- I think it was something about how he changed his physicality once he was Tony. The way he carried himself was completely different, and it made me buy the transformation. Tony finds himself in a starkly lit room, like the typical TV/movie interrogation room. He is confronted by a solder he served with, and this soldier has an offer he can’t refuse. He is part of a unit of “broken soldiers” that operates outside the US Military. Tony jumps at the chance to be a soldier again. A chip is implanted in his neck, and he becomes part of the unit’s group mind. It’s sort of The Initiative from the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets the Borg from Star Trek.

Boyd and Echo are hard at work sleuthing in an effort to bring Victor back to the Dollhouse. They find out that someone had been accessing Tony’s records on a regular basis to make sure his release was still on schedule. His records are also now associated with Scytheon, Rossum’s defense contractor subsidiary, particularly a project called Mind Whisper. With a little help from Topher, they find out the bad news. If they don’t rescue Victor soon, Victor (and Tony) will be lost to the group mind forever. Adelle could care less about Victor’s fate- in fact she appears to not be in favor of any rescue attempts when she’s coherent enough to string a couple of sentences together. She spends most of the episode falling down drunk. Confrontations with both Echo and Boyd don’t seem to do any good, although it appears that a quick dip in the communal shower might. I figure that the Shower of Reflection was supposed to be some sort of visual short-hand for Adelle’s thought process, but it was a little too abstract to work for me.

The rest of the Dollhouse crew, thankfully, is much more proactive about the situation. Topher and Ivy load up Echo with any imprint that could possibly be helpful, leaving only “Naughty Pirate Wench” unused. Echo now has military and acrobatic training. There’s also one final step. They have to turn Sierra back into Priya. Priya is outraged that Topher brought her back without erasing her memory of Nolan, but she calms down after a beer and an explanation. Echo thinks that Priya might possibly help Tony regain his sense of self. Priya remembered Victor, so they hope that Tony remembers Sierra too.

Echo and Priya manage to infiltrate the Mind Whisper bunker by purposely getting caught. Tied to a chair and blindfolded, Echo uses her imprint of the blind woman from “True Believer” to successfully fight off the soldiers holding her in custody. She then frees Priya, and they’re off to try to figure out how to free Tony. Tony catches up to them pretty quickly, because as part of the group mind, he saw Priya when the other soldiers saw Priya. His first instinct is to attack, and he comes close to strangling Priya before he can break free of what the group mind is telling him to do.

Once Tony gets back in control of himself, Echo sets a new plan in motion. She wants Tony and Priya to hold down the hallway while she goes and tries to figure out how to overcome the group mind. Tony and Priya find themselves in battle pretty quickly, and one of my favorite moments of the episode is when Tony sweetly introduces himself to Priya in the middle of the fight. Victor and Sierra, now Tony and Priya, will always be one of television’s most adorable couples, surpassed only by Ned and Chuck of Pushing Daisies. While Tony and Priya are getting to know each other, Echo implants a chip in her own neck so that she can try to contradict the orders of the group mind.

Tony and Priya manage to stay alive thanks to an old Army buddy of Tony’s who remembers Tony long enough to disobey his orders and get killed by the other soldiers for his trouble. Echo helps too, of course. Since she’s hooked up to the group mind, she starts issuing contradictory orders, trapping the soldiers in a sort of paradox. It reminds me of the classic sci-fi way (used to hilarious effect in Futurama) to subdue a robot- give them an unsolvable paradox. Echo tells the soldiers to go home just as they’re about to fire on Tony and Priya.

Echo, Tony, and Priya take an SUV for their trip back to the Dollhouse, with Echo driving and Tony and Priya chatting happily in the back seat. Listening to Tony and Priya talk about what they remember about each other from their time as Victor and Sierra (Tony knows Priya likes pancakes with strawberries, for instance), something clicks in Echo’s mind. Perhaps it’s remembering her time with Paul, but whatever it is, Echo softens a little and relents from her “I need to use people to achieve my goal” mindset. She wants Tony and Priya to leave right then and there and start their life together.

Tony and Priya agree, and Echo is just about to tell them how to look her up after she frees everyone else from the Dollhouse when the three of them all slump over, noses bleeding. Adelle has been made aware of the situation and has used the Disruptor to get her Actives back. It’s a classic example of what Whedon fans lovingly call a “Jossing.” Tony and Priya only had minutes of true happiness before everything was taken away from them again. Such moments are fairly typical of Joss Whedon’s work and are too numerous for me to list here. I would criticize relying on the same trope over an over, except that somehow it manages to work on me every time.

Adelle has had it with being out of control of her House, and she takes drastic measures to quell the growing insurrection. She’s sending Echo, Victor, and Sierra to the Attic. Topher and Ivy aren’t at all happy about the idea, and Topher has to be threatened with the Attic himself before he goes ahead with the procedure. Boyd has to be hauled off by security guards. I think it’s safe to say that although Paul is still a vegetable and unable to weigh in on the matter, if he had been able to, he probably would have used some of his muay thai skills on Adelle right then and there. The Attic is a visually disturbing place. It’s very stark, and its inhabitants are placed in metal boxes that are covered over with what looks like Saran wrap. This clearly isn’t the end of the adventure, though. After Echo is sealed in, her eyes open.

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