“Dollhouse” finally flicks the Awesome switch

I completely understand why my colleague John Paulsen bailed on “Dollhouse” earlier in the season. The show was running in place, a series of self-contained episodes with nothing hanging in the balance. The only takeaway from a couple of the shows was that the dolls were still remembering things after they had been wiped, and were keeping this a secret from their handlers and Topher. The subplot involving FBI Agent Paul Ballard seemed stuck as well. He knows the Dollhouse exists, but has neither the proof nor the support of the agency to pursue it. Yawn.

Then came last Friday’s episode, where “Dollhouse” creator Joss Whedon launched the show into space.

He first played with the idea that Echo, Victor and Sierra were engaged in a secret alliance with the news that Sierra had been having sex and was suddenly terrified of Victor. It doesn’t take long for Boyd, the Dixon to Echo’s Sydney Bristow, to realize that the perp is a fellow handler, and DeWitt gives the handler a choice: take out Mellie, the nosy neighbor of Agent Ballard who Knows Too Much, or get sent to the Attic. (Man, I can’t wait until they finally show us what that place looks like.) Ballard, who’s out getting takeout and realizes that Mellie is in danger, races back while making a call. We see Mellie’s phone ringing as the handler is slowly choking the life out of her. Then the answering machine picks up, and we hear…DeWitt. “There are three flowers in a vase. The third one is green.” Ta-da, instant can of whoopass. Mellie beats the snot out of the handler, killing him in seconds. Then DeWitt says, “There are three flowers in a vase. The third one is yellow.” Poof, she’s back to being “normal” Mellie.

Holy crap.

“Don’t arrest me yet. She hasn’t heard my bit about the KFC bowls, it kills ’em every time.”

This was awesome on a number of levels. For starters, I never suspected that Mellie was a doll. She doesn’t quite have the body type that the other dolls have, though that actually makes her a perfect choice for a role like this. Second of all, the dolls can be activated and deactivated by remote voice command? Again, holy crap. I’m assuming that the third flower in that metaphorical vase is red. What happens to a doll when she uses that line? Does it make them catatonic?

Whedon also pulled another neat trick in doing a story where someone uses the Dollhouse for harmless, and rather sweet, purposes. Patton Oswalt guest starred as an Internet millionaire who planned on surprising his wife with a brand new house, but she was killed in a car accident on her way to see it. So every year on the day of her death, he hires a doll to relive that moment that he never had with his wife. Awwwww, isn’t that cute? Gee, maybe the Dollhouse isn’t so bad after all, right? Mmmmm, wouldn’t go that far, but it does make the ethical aspects of programmable people slightly grayer than it would appear on the surface.

The episode’s Big Reveal, though, was the fact that there is a mole in the Dollhouse, and they used Echo to send a message to Agent Ballard that he has an ally on the inside. On the surface, it would appear that the only person with the ability to slip that kind of thing under Topher’s nose would be his underutilized assistant Ivy, but does she have access to enough information to bring the Dollhouse down, and would she have known that there are over 20 Dollhouses around the world? Doubtful, which is why my money is on Dr. Claire Saunders (my beloved Amy Acker) as the mole. She was horribly disfigured by Alpha, which gives her motive, and as their medical chief of staff, she would have access to lots of data. Plus, you have to know that Whedon isn’t going to recruit Acker for the show and then have her spend most of the time on the bench.

The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s possible Whedon waited too long to get the show rolling. The show isn’t cheap, and Fox certainly has it in its sights when time comes to trim the budget. It needs a huge spike in ratings — it actually needs a better time slot, but that’s another story — but will they get one? If Whedon delivers another episode as great as this one, that should be enough to rally the Browncoats into action. Stay tuned.

  

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