If nothing else, "A Love Supreme" seems decidedly intent on getting Alan Tudyk cast in Quentin Tarantino's next movie. It's got the weird musical choices on the soundtrack, the use of odd locations and the decidedly atypical manner of Alpha's speech patterns. As Tudyk drops back in to the series, now bent on killing off as many of Echo's prior romantic engagements as possible, he seems to be coming in from some other show about serial killers who wear snappy suits and offer up droll patter as they dispatch their victims. I realize that sounds a lot like "Dexter," but it's a little less concerned with its hero's sociopathy and more with him being wicked cool.
[Full recap of "A Love Supreme," the second of Friday's (Dec. 11) two "Dollhouse" episodes after the break...]
That said, "Dollhouse" has always been concerned with Alpha's sociopathic tendencies. It just tends to view them through the prism of the idea that they're an offshoot of the things the Dollhouse does to people and that Alpha can't really be blamed for having them. He was driven mad by technology seemingly designed to drive people mad, and anything he does, while his "fault," technically, is also caused by the circumstances that created him. He's a sociopath whose evil has a very clear lineage, the kind of supervillain we find most comforting in genre works specifically because it's easy to say, "Well, he's that way because of this and this," because of the lack of ambiguity.
All of that sound like a slam against Alpha when it probably shouldn't be read that way. When Tudyk entered the series last season as the unpredictable bad guy, it gave "Dollhouse" a shot in the arm heading into the finale, sending the show up and over the hump and capping a string of very impressive episodes that redeemed a lot of folks' faith in the show. It was the kind of thing the show needed, apparently: an interesting, completely balls-out villain who brought a note of over-the-top comedy to the show. In Whedonverse terms, Alpha was the Spike of "Dollhouse." But where Spike was able to be fairly palatable as a regular for a little while, Alpha necessarily needed to remain tucked away in the background of the story.
If "A Love Supreme" isn't quite up to the four episodes preceding it, that's perhaps by necessity. The story is cranked up to such a level at this point that a slight breather to allow everyone's favorite nutball to enter the Dollhouse and wreak havoc is understandable. But at the same time, this is the first episode to have much of its tension sapped by the existence of "Epitaph One." If we know (or are reasonably certain) that both Alpha and Ballard are still alive in the "Epitaph One" world, then it makes any tension involving either character essentially moot. Sure, we know that Echo is likely not going to die because of "Epitaph One," but we knew that going in, since she's played by Eliza Dushku and the series is fairly dependent on her. The same could likely be said of Ballard, but Alpha's continued existence is much more of a spoiler to the tension in the scene.
That said, the central idea here is a pretty good one: Having Alpha turn all of the Dolls into killing machines bent on the destruction of the Dollhouse staff effectively turns the episode into a zombie movie, and the jolts and scares therein are pretty great. In particular, I was fond of the way that Adelle's attempt to escape ended up trapping her further, with the hands of the many Dolls pressed up against the glass of the windows, creating a series of threatening, frightening silhouettes. Right after the last episode seemed to send Adelle back to pure baddie territory, this episode went about restoring some of her nuance, though she's still a little too explicitly targeting Echo to be anything approaching a "good" guy. At least her motivations make sense.
One of the things that was problematic in the episode was the fact that Echo's time in solitary didn't seem to last all that long. That said, this may stem directly from the fact that Fox is airing two episodes right after one another, so where it would have seemed like a week of Echo in solitary under a normal scheduling plan, it seemed like five minutes in solitary under this one. That's hard to hold against the show, but maybe a bit more could have been done to show just how being trapped in solitary was destroying Echo, eating her apart from the inside out. At the same time, Eliza Dushku continues to impress with her ability to slip from one Echo persona to another, now seemingly on a dime. Her work in the various scenes with Patton Oswalt's Joel Mynor was quite well done, as she slipped in and out of the Rebecca persona just like that. She's maybe not as big and obvious at the personal shifts as Enver Gjokaj or Dichen Lachman, but Dushku is creating something different and engaging nonetheless.
Speaking of which, it was great to see Lachman back in tonight's two-hour extravaganza after losing the thread of her last week. Her various personas in these two episodes were fun - particularly her weird riff on a film noir gun moll in this one - and I very much enjoyed her going from homicidal maniac to default doll state as Topher zapped her with his remote wipe ray gun. Gjokaj didn't get anything as showy as last week's Topher impression, but he was, of course, consistently reliable, and his psychoanalyst character from the beginning of "A Love Supreme" was yet another small triumph for the guy who's turning into one of TV's most consistently interesting actors.
I'd like to come up with more to say about "A Love Supreme," since I enjoyed the episode overall, but the whole thing felt curiously weightless after the four preceding it, all of which sung with the sort of dark mythology this show has built up over its run. "A Love Supreme" is a very entertaining lark, and there are lots of interesting hints about where everything is going buried throughout its running time, but the overall sense I got from it was that the show needed to take a break from the forward momentum and the best way to do that was to go back to the Alpha well. Alpha, of course, is a terrific character (his emergence from Adelle's closet is a series highlight), but at the same time, I'm often more interested in the show when these characters are defeating themselves. There were elements of that in "A Love Supreme," but it mostly remained a fun monster movie. Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn't to the heights this show can reach.
Some other thoughts:
*** Next week looks to be full of mythology-advancing goodness, however. I won't spoil it for those of you who avoid the "Next week on" promos, but I'm very excited indeed.
*** Also very good in these two episodes is Harry Lennix's Boyd, whose past is one of the things I'm most sorry we won't get further hints about. Lennix has brought a quiet sense of decency to a show that often threatened to be about very evil people, and that makes him one of the show's best characters.
*** This week's "'Dollhouse' didn't catch on because..." article comes from Jaime Weinman, who writes about how no one would ever want to be a doll here.
Finally, this week's question o' discussion: What, exactly, are Rossum's long-range plans? I get that they're developing this tech for a reason, but it sort of seems self-defeating.