Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dollhouse: Omega

"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" is a phrase from the Book of Revelation and is meant to denote the one god.  It comes, of course, from the Greek alphabet in which Alpha is the beginning and Omega is the end.  Whedon played with those themes in tonight's season (and maybe series) finale of Dollhouse.

Spoilers over the fold.

Alpha of course is the Alan Tudyk character we met last week, the doll gone haywire who slashes people's faces and who has abducted Echo.  It turns out that Alpha was accidentally imprinted with 48 different personalities, the personality of every imprint he ever used when he was a doll. It also turns out that the "real" Alpha had the personality of a serial killer.  Alpha's plan is to imprint Echo with every personality she has ever assumed and turn her into someone just like him.  He is Alpha, she will be Omega, together they will be a god or gods.   But while Alpha is excited for their beginning, it turns out that Echo sees herself as the end of Alpha.  She tries to take him out, but she doesn't succeed.

I liked this episode but not as much as last week's episode. It was a good season finale but it was uneven, brilliant in places and with gaping holes in others.  I got the feeling that they ran out of time and had to cut some scenes.  I certainly could have used a scene in which Boyd convinces Ballard that they have to return Echo to the Dollhouse at the end.  Maybe they never wrote it but I could have used it.  Or at least some scene to set us up for Ballard going to work for the Dollhouse.  Maybe that was supposed to be a shocking moment, but I just found it confusing and thought I missed something.

Tim Minear wrote and directed this episode and I think it is interesting to compare this episode with Jane Espenson's episode from last week.   I liked last week's episode better, it seemed to flow better.  The violence in last week's episode was shocking; the violence in this week's episode seemed designed to shock but mostly didn't.  It just made me want to change the channel.  Perhaps the problem is that I don't like violence in film, I've never actually seen the movies Bonnie and Clyde or Natural Born Killers and you couldn't pay me money to sit through either of them.   And while the standards of network television limit the violence, Minear was certainly going for that effect.  At one point I just thought ... ugh, men.    And what I meant was that male writers and directors often rely too much on visuals including violence instead of tight storytelling.

But there were parts that I thought were brilliant. At one point Alpha imprints the personality of the original Caroline on an innocent bystander that they have abducted and Caroline is confronted with herself in the wrong body looking at her own body (Echo) inhabited by someone else.  It also introduced an interesting twist in the plot line about Caroline because when Echo decides that the Caroline personality needs to come back to its own body and be free, Caroline declines because she signed a contract and is going to live up to it.  There follows my favorite line when Echo says: "I have 38 brains and not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave, especially now that we have a black President."  And Caroline says "We have a black president?" 

There are so many things to talk about with this episode.  Mostly why on earth Ballard chose to go work for the Dollhouse at the end.  Perhaps its because I never liked Miracle Laurie's portrayal of the Mellie character and never really liked Penikett as Ballard, but their whole relationship never rang true to me so the idea that Ballard would go work for the Dollhouse (would sell his soul, so to speak) in return for freeing November and canceling her contract just didn't ring true to me.  Even the idea that he wanted to hunt down Alpha didn't work.  He could have done that on his own.  And the idea that he would want to keep an eye on Echo doesn't work.  He is appalled by her slavery; he shouldn't buy into any idea of assisting the slavedrivers.  This decision was so confusing and so out of character that it didn't even really shock me.  I just thought it was poor writing. 

Did anyone else like the Echo with 38 personalities the best of all the various Echo's we have seen this season?  Dushku handled it well.  I'm not a big Eliza Dushku fan but she hasn't annoyed me in this role. I think it is an enormously challenging role to change personalities within episodes and between episodes with very little repetition or chance to build a character.  Sure it would be nice to see an actress of the caliber of Meryl Streep do this role, but I'm ok with Dushku now that the rest of the ensemble is getting equal time.  I liked this composite personality and for the first time I felt sad when she was wiped.  I know all those personalities would probably have driven her literally insane but still ... I felt let down when she went back to being a wiped doll even if she did remember "Caroline."  

And did anyone else think that Ashley Johnson was a much more likeable Caroline than Eliza Dushku was?   I don't think it was the way the character was written, I think it was the softness of the actress.  Her voice, her visual image, the way she approached it.   I don't necessarily think this is a good thing or that they should have cast someone different, I just think its interesting that words coming out of the mouths of different looking and sounding people can have a different effect on the listener.  We are more than our thoughts, we are judged by how we look and sound and by our manner.  Unfair perhaps.

I also think Amy Acker was great in this episode in which she is officially disclosed to the audience as Whiskey (Jen you were right), an active who was "a bad influence" on Alpha but who is now imprinted with "Dr. Saunders."  Her portrayal of her slow realization that she is a doll was perfect.    

But despite the periodic brilliance in the episode, there were odd holes.  First, does it not seem odd that Dollhouse doesn't have offsite backup like most businesses do?   Why does DeWitt need Ballard to help find Echo when she could just imprint an FBI agent personality on an active?  How on earth could Alpha create a "chair" that works perfectly no matter how brilliant he is (I think this goes to prove that he was imprinted with Topher at one point but why don't they tell us)?  And didn't they tell us in one episode that putting someone in the chair who hadn't been wiped would kill them?   Or at least not work?   Why did DeWitt disclose to Ballard that The Rossum Corporation was behind Dollhouse? And why does the county not secure that power plant?  This is the third time it's been used as a lair.

From an ongoing plot point of view, there are lots of things to discuss. Why did Topher and DeWitt lie to Ballard about the progression of Alpha's disintegration?  Did the fact that the "crime spree'" client revealed to Alpha that he wasn't real, that the situation wasn't real and that Whiskey wasn't really his girlfriend result in the disintegration?  Or was it already starting?  And why do Topher and DeWitt lead Ballard to believe that it was the imprint of the multiple personalities (one of which is a multiple personality) onto Alpha that caused the problem?  There was already a problem.  Alpha slashed Whiskey's face before that happened.  Alpha became obsessed with Echo before that happened. Alpha was in the chair at the time of the incident because he was disintegrating. 

And when the dolls sign their contracts do they know what their bodies will be used for?  I wasn't clear if they did know or if they just thought they would be living in a spa like environment being pampered but a bit brain dead or if they knew what they would be used for.  Echo (who makes it clear she understands that spa life is better than lair life) doesn't get an answer out of Caroline on that issue (or any other issue).

And is Whiskey's contract up but they just won't release her because they DIDN'T take care of her and her face is slashed?  Or will she eventually be released?  I also felt like there was something missing in the explanation of why Alpha slashed Whiskey; or maybe it was a lack of understanding of why Alpha became obsessed with Echo.  (And by the way, how did Alpha get the college video yearbook of Caroline to send Ballard earlier in the season?)

If there is a season next year, it will be interesting to see how Whiskey's awareness of her doll status impacts her.  Another thing that would be interesting is for Whedon to explore the impact on Victor of the slashed face.   He can no longer be "his best" but why does your best require you to have a perfect face (a similar question as to why are words coming out of Ashley Johnson's mouth more likeable than when the character is played by Eliza Dushku.  How does physical image impact the effect of the words you say and actions you do.)   

Alan Tudyk again stole the show.  Amidst all of the mediocre actors that Whedon often surrounds himself with he will occasionally happen upon an incredible actor and Tudyk has turned out to be one of them.

On a macro level I feel like I finally got this show.  Finally.  And watching Alpha helped.  Whedon (not uniquely) likes to create a Big Bad for a show, but he likes to create the Big Bad on two levels:  the personal and the institutional.  Buffy never just fought individual Big Bads (even when she fought The First). Buffy fought the alternate demon dimension that was a Big Bad and we knew if she couldn't defeat its representatives then our world would be overcome by it.  Human beings as we know them would cease to exist and would just be shells inhabited by demons. The Hell Mouth was the specific structure by which the danger emerged, but closing the Hell Mouth at Sunnydale did not mean that the evil was entirely defeated.  It was still there, it had simply lost it biggest and best outlet.  So the end of Buffy was a victory but we knew it wasn't an ultimate victory.

In this series, the Dollhouse is the outlet for the underlying evil of what people will do to other people:  enslave them, prostitute them, use them as objects, feed their vanity for profit, etc.   But most importantly  the Dollhouse was created by people who think it is ok remove an individual personality so that the body alone remains as shell to be inhabited by others.  As Alpha said, it doesn't matter what body you are in. Until tonight's episode when Caroline confronted her own body (and Echo as the body confronted Caroline and asked how Caroline could have abandoned her), I never really got how the dangers of the Dollhouse are so similar to the dangers of the demons in Buffy.  (I felt like Echo when she arose from the chair in Bride of Frankenstein mode and announced that now she understood everything.)  It is such a similar concept, that humanity itself is threatened once this can be done on a large scale just as humanity was threatened if the Hell Mouth opened and the demons could take over bodies. And just as there were multiple Hell Mouths, there are multiple Dollhouses.  Defeating one Dollhouse won't defeat the ultimate evil, it will just arise somewhere else.  But you have to start somewhere and bringing down this Dollhouse is somewhere.

And, maybe its just me, but the danger Whedon envisions in Dollhouse seems so much more frightening than the danger of Buffy because I know demons are a myth but, as a fan of Star Trek (and Firefly), I often like to believe that the technology in science-fiction television could come true some day.

Whedon, however, knows that viewers need more than a conceptual evil, they need a character to be the Big Bad. That was a problem during the early hours of Dollhouse.  We all agreed that the concept behind the Dollhouse was bad but we had no individual who symbolized the evil behind the Dollhouse.  The people who work at the Dollhouse aren't particularly likeable but they also aren't Big Bads.  One gets the feeling that if an agency for good showed up who could use their talents to the utmost and pay them exorbitant sums of money, they would be just as willing to work for good.  They are cogs in the machine and the only question is which machine they are going to work for. 

So  we had no Big Bad to latch onto through most of the season. Whedon had Alpha lurking in the background during the season and we didn't know what to make of him because we never saw him and the only opinions we had on him came from characters we didn't trust.

Then he appeared and Alan Tudyk took what the writers gave him and created an outstanding Big Bad who (if the series is renewed) should be an amazing Big Bad all next season.  I think it was a stroke of brilliance for the writers to have created an Alpha who started out with a real personality that was a potential serial killer.  That takes away most of the sympathy we the audience would have with him.  There is no thought of "Oh, if he could only get back to his real personality everything will be fine."  No.  It won't.  Alpha is now "the one who needs to be destroyed."  

But in true Whedon fashion, Alpha is the red herring.  An amazingly fun red herring, but still a red herring. Because we still don't know who the real Big Bad behind the entire concept of the Dollhouse is.  

So when do we find out the answers to all our questions?  My guess is never.  I don't see Fox renewing this show.  Does it deserve renewal?  From an artistic point of view, yes.  I would not have said that at episode five of the season, but Whedon turned it around and created something compelling starting with episode six.  The last six episodes contained outstanding writing, directing and acting (mostly). I certainly hope it will be renewed, but shows don't get renewed on artistic merit alone and the ratings for Dollhouse are in the tank. 

Television is a business and the business model of network television just will not support carrying a show that few people are watching.  That's just reality.  I suspect that the only reason this show is not already canceled is because Fox thought it made financial marketing sense to wait.  Fox knows that Whedon is a talent with a big fan base and business acumen tells them not to burn bridges.  They already angered that fan base when they canceled Firefly (a much stronger show out of the gate) mid-season.  All Whedon fans went into this season of Dollhouse certain that Fox would pull the plug after only a few episodes without "giving it a chance".  By waiting until the end of the season they can say they gave it a chance.   And, truthfully, I would not hold it against them if they canceled this for pure financial reasons.  I'm a pragmatist. 

They can only renew if they have a plan for turning the ratings around.  And it is really hard to see how they turn the ratings around on this show.  Moving it to a night other than Friday would help but it is a show with inherent problems no matter what night it is on.  The concept is troubling, the changing personalities of the "dolls" make it hard for newcomers to attach to characters, and the plot is ... convoluted.   They could possibly overcome the last problem but it would take effort. Showing the show again over the summer wouldn't help because all the new viewers (and 'second chance' viewers) will get stuck in the weeds of the first five episodes just like the original viewers did.  Even many long time Whedon fans gave up on this show during the first five episodes.

But Fox has solved the convoluted plot problem before, for instance when it ran X-Files. I remember I got hooked on X-Files, which I didn't watch the first season, when I stumbled upon an hour long pre-season "summary show" and understood the story and the mythology enough that I checked out the series.  With the advent of hulu this might work for Dollhouse.  Might.  Fox could show the summary show a few times at the end of summer, put it on hulu and not take it down the entire season and then advertise it during those hulu commercials they show (by the way did anyone else think those commercials were a tad creepy in the context of the Dollhouse premise?  creepy in a good way I mean.)  That's the only idea I can come up with to try to save it, and even then they might only get back the hard core Whedon fans that abandoned the show.  Because the first two problems are still with us.  It would be a big risk for Fox to commit to another season even with that kind of plan.  I hope they will, but I just don't see them doing it.