<p>&nbsp;Fran Kranz and Olivia Williams of 'Dollhouse'</p>

Recap: 'Dollhouse' - 'Getting Closer'

Posted Jan 9, 2010 12:01 AM By Todd VanDerWerff

When "Dollhouse" started about a year ago, a number of critics (and by "number of," I mean Alan Sepinwall) wrote about how the series lacked a strong, central character to hold everything together, meaning that when one sought a center, the only character that could be found was Harry Lennix's Boyd Langton, a cool, calm and collected presence at the center of the Dollhouse's madness. On the flipside of that was Fran Kranz's Topher Brink, a character plenty of critics (including, yes, Sepinwall) found irritating, if not vaguely distasteful, as his sheer joy at rewiring people's personalities didn't seem to leave a lot of room to let in the horror of just what he was doing. Topher seemed like an exemplification of the show's biggest problems, its unwillingness to deal with the uneasy nature of just what was going on in the Dollhouse. (Now, of course, Joss Whedon has alleged that he wanted to push the horrors of the Dollhouse even further without really pointing out how horrific it was, but the network balked. Which makes sense.)

So now, of course, we've seen what appears to be the cornerstone of Topher's eventual descent into surprisingly sympathetic madness, and we've learned that Boyd is one of the two founders of Rossum, the two big bads of the series (and it would sure seem that Amy Acker's Claire Saunders is either working with him or the other half of the Rossum brain trust). The former is terrifically executed, a surprisingly moving portrayal of a guy discovering love and then losing it just as soon as he's found it. It's straight out of Whedon's big bag o' tricks, but it works almost as well as any other time he's pulled it off (see also: Fred, Wash, Jenny). Bennett Halvorson (Summer Glau) wasn't the best developed character ever, and had her death come in season five or something, it would have been even more affecting. But Glau made the most of the character in limited screen time, and the moment when Saunders shot her in the head was both shocking and saddening.

And this is to say nothing of everything that followed, as Topher roused himself from his sadness over losing his true love to reconstruct Caroline's persona because they needed the memory she carried within her head of what Rossum's head looked like. (Another sidebar: How often do Whedon characters meet their true loves and seemingly become smitten with them almost instantaneously? This might be a function of how often his story arcs get truncated, but it's not quite like how the relationships grew organically in the early days of "Buffy.") Everything here was poignant and rueful, as Topher chased away Ivy, forcing her to leave the Dollhouse to go live in a place where she'd keep her brains in her head while he got back to work (and seemed to finish remarkably quickly). I love the framing Tim Minear came up with throughout this episode (like Echo and Adelle perfectly framing Caroline in video footage between them in the episode's early portions), but I'm particularly impressed with how he used the blood spatter in this scene, smeared across Topher's face, spattered against the glowing surfaces of the lab. It's a great scene, but it's never overplayed, always subdued.

I'm less certain on the Boyd reveal, however. It's not just because I like Boyd either. Revealing that one of the best of the good guys is actually one of the worst of the bad guys can be a terrific reversal, particularly if used sparingly and if done in a way that sheds new light on everything the character has done before. Theoretically, it works for Boyd here, but at the same time, it lacks the punch of previous times Whedon has used this particular trick. Every series he's done (save, perhaps, "Firefly") has had a moment when you've realized that one of the good guys is actually bad or has gone bad, and that moment can be thrilling when done right (see: Angel into Angelus). But here making Boyd evil ended up feeling just a bit too predictable and perfunctory. Heading into the episode's final scene, where the Rossum secrets would be revealed, it was just too obvious that at least one of the bad guys had to be Boyd. Adelle was too easy. Most of the other characters wouldn't have made sense in the show's timeline. And with the series' truncated number of episodes, there just wasn't enough time to develop a potential rogues gallery.

Indeed, when I saw the first of the two Rossum bad guys - a rather non-descript character actor - I was somewhat relieved. Perhaps, I thought, the show realized it hadn't had the time to really build to a massive reveal and was just going to cast some interesting actors to be the human face of Rossum. I probably should have known better. It's not that the Boyd reveal is bad, per se, since the show still has some time to make it work, and it is consistent with things we've learned previously about the character. Also, any actions he's undertaken while working at the Dollhouse were clearly undertaken to maintain his deep cover. (It's also worth pointing out that he could kill the Rossum board member in this episode because he knew that the guy would be in another body soon enough.) In the end, the whole thing just felt like it happened because it had to happen. I'm hopeful the show will figure out a way to make it all seem of a piece with what's gone before, but there's so little time.

 

On the other hand, this was a much better vehicle for delving into the past of Caroline before she became Echo than a similar season one episode. That season one episode made Caroline out to be a bit too much of a do-gooder, which resulted in the character seeming too bland to be worth investing sympathy in. Since that point, the show has realized that Echo's much more interesting when she's conflicted, and giving her conflict about returning to her former life has been one of the biggest conflicts the show could throw at her. Showing us the relationship between Bennett and Caroline ends up being the best possible way to illustrate the ambiguity the series has been ladling onto the Caroline character this season, even as it's careful to point out that she's not exactly bad, just idealistic. The character has developed more nuance, even as Echo has become something closer to superhuman, and this ends up playing better to Eliza Dushku's strengths.

 

In general, it was a good episode for all of the ensemble's members, as it darted between three years ago and the present. Maybe my disappointment over the Boyd reveal is just stemming from the fact that I don't terribly want him to be bad. I know, of course, that this all ends in tragedy, but a part of me is hoping that the LA Dollhouse can pull off this impossible mission, can bring down their corporate overlords. It's in moments when we can observe the quiet camaraderie between these people or when the Dollhouse sets the Dolls free or when everyone tries to figure out what to do about November or when the show circles back to "Epitaph One" in a scene that now plays much more sinisterly that I realize just how much the show has grabbed me in only a handful of episodes. I'd rather not see a "Save 'Dollhouse'" campaign succeed because I think the show's cancellation is one of the things that has made it so good, but it still doesn't mask just how much I've come to love this show and these characters.

 

Some other thoughts:

 

*** I try to think about celebrity pairings as little as possible, but something about the couple that is Eliza Dushku and (very brief) guest star Rick Fox strikes me as strange. Not quite sure what it is, though I have no real beef with either of them.

 

*** I'll miss Ivy, who was probably my favorite of the show's recurring players. Had she been the big bad, I might have been more charitably disposed toward the twist, though it would have made even less sense.

 

*** Wait ... Whiskey's the one that sends the gang from "Epitaph One" off to find Caroline. Does this mean that she's leading them into a trap? Hrm ...

 

*** Speaking of shows about women being subjugated by massive cultural monoliths that slot them into predetermined roles they're unable to break out of and speaking of blatant self-promotion, come back on Sunday for the first of my "Big Love" recaps for Hitfix. (I wouldn't bring it up here, but I've found the "Big Love" audience is surprisingly wide-ranging and has substantial overlap with science fiction fans for some reason.)

 

This week's question: What's up with Saunders? Sleeper agent? Or the other half of Rossum's no-goodnik team?

 

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  • Default-avatar
    www.SoDepCatTuong.com (guest)
    Really???

    Quang - http://www.SoDepCatTuong.com
    January 9, 2010 at 4:05AM EST
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  • (guest)
    Really??/

    Quang - http://www.SoDepCatTuong.com
    January 9, 2010 at 4:15AM EST
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  • Default-avatar
    mr_subjunctive (guest)
    I might be wrong, of course, but so far, it seems like the metaphor that framed the show originally was that it was about finding identity and integrity in the face of a world that wants to use and enslave you in various ways. More or less. And so the overall arc of the show was going to be about Echo progressing from doll to individual, getting her own identity established and turning into a real person. Who would probably have superpowers, because Joss can't write anything without a superpowered girl in there somewhere.

    What we're getting instead is a show in which anybody may do anything or be anyone at any time for any reason, so long as it's shocking. (Kepler is Alpha! Dominic is the mole! Boyd's evil! WhiskeySaunders is evil! Ballard's evil! Adelle's evil! No she's not, it's all a secret plan to save the world! Mellie's a doll! Dr. Saunders is a doll! Victor Lubov is a doll! Senator Perrin's a doll! Everybody's a freaking doll!) I liked "Buffy" in part because nobody else at the time wrote shows that rewarded you for paying attention to what was going on and who the characters were established as being, but with "Dollhouse," it feels like I'm actually being punished for remembering anything, because anything that happens can be completely undone two episodes later.

    I have enough invested in the show, by this point, that I'll watch the last two episodes, but I feel like I'm being Battlestar Galacticaed. (If the big reveal at the end of "Epitaph Two" turns out to be that Echo's an angel, would it really make any less sense than anything else that's happened so far?)
    January 9, 2010 at 2:27PM EST
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    • Default-avatar
      IGPNicki
      I will reply down here since I can't seem to reply to your reply... no, i was actually referring to Angelus and the reviewer talking about Whedon relying on these big reveals. I can't explain why, perhaps because when they did Angel becoming Angelus the WTF moments weren't so overused in television, but I never felt that way.
      January 9, 2010 at 4:44PM EST
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    toresimonsen (guest)
    I am trying to save Dollhouse.
    http://toresimonsen.wordpress.com
    January 9, 2010 at 3:23PM EST
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      Trekscribbler
      Good luck with that.
      January 10, 2010 at 3:58AM EST
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    IGPNicki (guest)
    Hmm, I disagree with Joss Whedon doing these big WTF moments. This isn't BSG. Angel was an inevitable thing to explore. How long can you really do whiny, in-love vampire plotline? He did do it in Angel, btu that's about it. This feel more organic to the plot, unlike the Lost/BSG WTF moments. Boyd's background's always been mysterious. He's not just let Echo get away with a lot of stuff, but he's even helped encourage it, which we learn now is for some ulterior motives. He was unhappy being promoted and not being Echo's handler anymore. He's always had a "connection" with her. I hate that it was Boyd too, I really do. Even within last night's episode, I was thinking how much I love having Boyd around... but wow...just wow. lol, although I admit when mr_subjunctive lists all the "reveals" I do see where he's coming from.
    http://www.igp-scifi.com/dollhouse-episode-guide-2.html
    January 9, 2010 at 3:40PM EST
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    • Default-avatar
      mr_subjunctive
      You misunderstand: I'm not talking about "Angel" the show, I'm talking about [SPOIILERS FOR BSG SEASON 4:] the angels in "Battlestar Galactica."
      January 9, 2010 at 4:12PM EST
    • Default-avatar
      mr_subjunctive
      And I *know* this isn't BSG. I'm afraid that it's *turning into* BSG, which also abandoned any pretense of having actual characters a couple episodes into Season 3 and then started changing personalities of established, well-drawn characters more or less at random in order to produce WTF moments.

      I'm not opposed to characters changing. I'm not even opposed to all of the "Dollhouse" characters changing: Topher's development has been remarkably well-handled, I thought, as has Echo's. But over the course of the show so far, Adelle, Boyd, Dominic, Ballard, WhiskeySaunders, and Bennett have all been sort of randomly thrown to and fro according to the whims of the script. It's like the writers are forcing the characters to change depending on what the script needs, rather than changing the script to fit who the characters are.

      I know I'm in the minority on this. All the comments I'm seeing everywhere are all like, "my mind, she is blown," and everybody's just tickled to death with Whedon for this amazing roller-coaster ride he's taking us all on. [shrug] To me it feels shallow, cheap, and manipulative (in a bad way).
      January 9, 2010 at 4:43PM EST
    • Default-avatar
      IGPNicki
      mr_subjunctive, just to be clear, I was only referring to you in the last sentence (i can see how it's confusing)... everything else (including BSG/Lost comparisons) were directed at the reviewer.
      January 9, 2010 at 4:48PM EST
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      mr_subjunctive
      My apologies.
      January 9, 2010 at 4:57PM EST
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    warrenpeace
    But how do you know Boyd's actually evil? Nothing at the end of that episode gave the impression that Boyd was evil now. Fair enough, he's the other head of Rossum and therefore presumed to be evil, but all the things he said to Caroline made me feel like there was some sort of plan and there was no way of knowing what it was and therefore whether it was evil or not. Then they left it hanging.
    January 9, 2010 at 7:49PM EST
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    KenDoll (guest)
    Here's something no one has thought about. We know the "head" of Rossum isn't a guy named Rossum. He's sort of a scatter-brained (and easily tricked) goofy guy who is a genius with science and who apparently has copied his mind into other bodies.

    This remind you of anyone?

    Yep, I'm thinking TOPHER is actually a copied-version of the Rossum head-guy, but altered enough so he doesn't realize it (until he gets his own trigger word). How'zabout THAT?
    January 9, 2010 at 10:46PM EST
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    renov (guest)
    big big fan of dollhouse and big love, strange little combo there, i know... also like glee and dexter which seems odd
    January 10, 2010 at 11:55AM EST
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    CM (guest)
    One of your major premises doesn't hold water.

    They never revealed Boyd as a big bad and in fact the strong hint is that he's one of the good guys as is the head of Rossum.
    January 15, 2010 at 1:16PM EST
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