Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dollhouse: A Spy in the House of Love (Episode 9)

I've been convinced for some time that Dollhouse would not be renewed by Fox. And part of me couldn't blame them. It is an odd concept for a television show and would be hard to sell even if Fox hadn't screwed up by forcing the first five stand alone episodes. But if episode six had been the first episode the show might have had a chance to build an audience rather than lose audience share as the season progressed.

I was reconciled to the idea that this was going to be a one season show and I was just thankful that Fox committed to showing all the episodes that were made. And while the show had been getting more interesting I still wasn't attached to it. I wasn't going to miss it if it was taken off the air.

Until I saw tonight's episode.

Wow. A Spy in the House of Love was the best episode of the season so far and it was the first episode in which Whedon proved to me that I could love this show.

First, the structure and the writing of the episode were fantastic, not to mention the directing. The episode begins at (almost) the end of the story with something "bad" going on up in the "chair room" where Topher holds court. Lots of flashing lights as Echo and Sierra are calmly watching from below. Sierra wonders what is happening and Echo says "she made a mistake, now she's sad". It isn't clear who "she" is. Then we flash back to 12 hours earlier to see what leads up to that moment. But the episode keeps the audience off balance by overlapping the stories of the various dolls so that the time periods are constantly overlapping.

Off balance is the key to this episode. All audience expectations are destroyed. But of course the writers start the flashback portion with what the audience now expects - Echo as sex object this time in dominatrix garb. What better way to destroy expectations than to start with the usual expectations. Not to mention that the dominatrix garb may serve to distract some from paying too much attention to the fact that Victor is off for his ninth engagement with "Miss Lonely Hearts". Victor sports a British accent and is smarmily smooth in this persona. He heads off in the black van with his handler and the audience for a time assumes he simply isn't going to be a part of the drama of this episode.

The drama is that Topher discovers a chip in the imprinting system that lets someone access the imprinting process and alter the imprint. DeWitt is off at a meeting off premises and Dominic is in charge. So he has Topher imprint Sierra with a persona that can access the NSA and discover who the mole is. In the meantime Echo notices that everyone is unhappy and offers to help Topher. She, in fact, shocks Topher by telling him that he changes people and he can change her to help him. Then she climbs in the chair on he own volition. From that moment all expectations are out the window.

It turns out that DeWitt (DeWitt!!!) has been hiring out Victor under the guise of "Miss Lonely Hearts" and she is not at a meeting outside the office unless you count shacking up in a beach house with Victor in his "James Bond" persona as a meeting outside the office.

November is sent back as Mellie (I still can't stand her acting) and she is imprinted before the chip is found - turns out that her body is is secretly programmed to tell Ballard that Mellie is a doll. Much to Ballard's shock.

Dominic turns out to be the the mole; he is discovered by Echo In her Kung Fu Sherlock Holmes persona. But not until he tries to set up Topher's assistant Ivy as the mole. (Although Victor has the James Bond persona in the episode it is Sierra that gets the secret agent mission and the cool gadgets.) Once DeWitt finds out she sends him to the attic - which is the horrible "bad" thing that began the episode. I'm going to miss Reed Diamond - although we all know that Joss Whedon likes to have actors come back at unexpected times in his series.

It was, I thought, a fantastically written episode. The writing credit that is shown on screen in the opening credits went to Andrew Chambliss whose only other writing credits have been "staff writer" on two other Dollhouse episodes. This is his first full writing credit. If he really did do most of the writing of this episode then Whedon needs to keep him around. But ... although the title credits do not list them, IMDB also gives co-writing credit to Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen (who collaborated on Dr. Horrible) and, most importantly in my opinion, Jane Espenson. Espenson came on as consulting producer for the last few episodes and this is the first writing credit she has. The end of BSG may be the best thing to happen to Dollhouse because having Jane Espenson with a writing credit on Dollhouse could be the glue that holds the whole thing together.

In addition to all the action and all the surprises of the episode we got a lot of character development as Echo "interviewed" the various characters. The interview with Doctor Saunders was interesting. She never leaves the Dollhouse?

Of course there are still lots of questions. Most basically - how is Echo continuing to evolve? Is it natural or is it some subliminal imprint? The whole time Echo was watching what was going on it felt like she was a spy on a secret mission. The idea that she had access to the mainframe during the time she was investigating seems too good to be true to me. Somehow. At the beginning when she says to Sierra "she made a mistake" it wasn't clear who she was talking about. At the end I assumed it was DeWitt. But that means she remembers something about what happened. Of course she could also be talking about herself. If Dominic was the mole she ended her best shot at being saved. Despite the fact that he tried to kill her. Twice.

Although it seems unlikely that Dominic was the person sending messages to Ballard. He worked for the NSA. Why would he have sent messages to an FBI agent? But it is also unclear what his intentions were with respect to the Dollhouse. When he fights Echo he tells her that she is dangerous and is an Alpha waiting to happen. This is not someone who wants her to be found by Ballard. When confronted by DeWitt he said he was sent to make sure the Dollhouse didn't bring itself down. He says that the technology needs to be reigned in and controlled but he doesn't want it to be destroyed. On the other hand, in the van with Echo he smiles because, he says, one day she'll be erasing them and they won't see it coming?

Finally, let me say that Enver Gjokaj continues to be my favorite actor on this show. And yes we can talk all week about the whole DeWitt/Victor arrangement.