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?