At some point this summer, Joss Whedon obviously realized he's got his 3 million and change fans and just decided to go for broke in pleasing them. His show is apparently cheap enough now that doing that is going to be enough to keep it running for a while, and that's all he really cares about anyway. Whedon can occasionally let things down on the micro level, but he's always playing a huge game on the macro level, one where little tiny bits of information hook together into larger story arcs that hook together into giant, world-shattering stories that legitimately Change Everything. Whedon occasionally spends a lot of time messing around, but that time messing around almost always adds up to something bigger, which explains the fierce loyalty his fans and many critics have toward his work. Would anyone have stuck with "Dollhouse" through its rough patches if it were from anyone else? (Well, if David Chase or David Simon wanted to make "Dollhouse," perhaps.)

To that end, Whedon doesn't even bother to do a previously on segment in tonight's season premiere, "Vows." He assumes you've seen all of "Dollhouse "season one (though maybe not the unaired episode "Epitaph One," which, more on that later), and he assumes you can keep up. His confidence in the viewer is exemplary, especially on network TV, but it also proves slightly disorienting. For a guy who traditionally starts his stories a little too early and lets them simmer very slowly, it's odd to see him getting so in medias res so immediately.

[Recap of Friday (Sept. 25) night's "Dollhouse" after the break...]

Echo (Eliza Dushku) and Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) have apparently spent the summer slowly falling apart in different ways. Echo's been running a long con on some sort of arms dealer (Jamie Bamber) at the behest of Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), who is now working for the Dollhouse proper. At the same time, she's experiencing more and more of her old personalities, though they have yet to completely surface (seemingly). For her part, Dr. Saunders is dealing with the recently revealed fact that she's actually a doll named Whiskey but that she wants to keep with the life constructed for her by Topher (Fran Kranz). Which sort of makes him her god. Which can't really be that fun because … well … he's Topher.

The biggest weakness for me in "Dollhouse" has been Dushku, who's an actress who often seemed over her head in season one. Her personalities often boiled down to acting tics or accent choices, rather than seeming like the sorts of fully formed personalities that Topher was supposedly creating for Echo to utilize. Seeing Acker playing the old Whiskey in the two-part season finale only made this all the more excruciating, since she was so much better at dancing frantically between personas, and figuring out who might have played the part of Echo better than Dushku was became something of a game for armchair casting agents everywhere. (My picks? Katee Sackhoff and Adrienne Palicki. Though Whedon clearly prefers small brunettes.)

"Vows," though, does a much better job of playing to Dushku's strengths while she, simultaneously, has learned better how to modulate the multiple personalities aspect of her character. Rather than try to push too far one way or the other, the show and the actress are meeting each other halfway. Echo's still the least interesting part of the episode for most of its running time, but toward the end, she gets a really great moment that Dushku plays surprisingly well. Basically, the storyline of Echo making the arms dealer fall in love with her so they can get married (and, good God, that didn't take long) was kind of boring for the show's first half hour until one of his associates manages to grab a photo of her with Ballard.

It's here that the show gives the standard procedural plotline that is the episode's bread and butter the science fiction tweak that makes it Dollhouse. When her new husband begins to smack Echo around, the old personalities start to surface, leading to the great line, "Who did they make me this time?" Dushku delivers the line with a surprising world-weariness, and it's a great act out. As Echo is spirited off to the airport, Ballard stops the men at the hangar, then proceeds to hit Echo in the face until she manifests the kung fu fighting persona from the first season's "Man on the Street" (a nice callback to Whedon's last directorial effort on the series). At which point, she proceeds to take out all of the thugs and leave reasonably intact. The scene where Echo riffles through her personality with every face punch is definitely Dushku's finest acting moment on the series, and the last beat we get of her – insisting she needs to find her "real" personality of Caroline – lines her more nicely up with the kind of tough girl Dushku plays well. [It also bears stating that Sarah Michelle Gellar was never better on Buffy than when Whedon was directing her, and Whedon was directing Dushku in this episode as well.]

It was the Saunders and Topher stuff, though, that really made the episode for me, as it indulged Whedon's love of writing tiny one-act plays that thread through his episodes and play up larger themes and big ideas that fascinate him. If the first half of the Echo storyline was tossing a bone to the people who expect a normal TV show and the last half was tossing a bone to the people who expect a science fiction TV show, the Saunders/Topher scenes were hardcore Whedon, not for the uninitiated. I can't imagine a non-Whedonite stumbling across Saunders asking Topher if he is her lord and master or ranting to Langton (Harry Lennix) about how she's built to be confined to the Dollhouse. This stuff -- What makes a person a person? What makes a god a god? Can we overcome our own demons or are they inborn to our very personalities? -- is the stuff that gets Whedon up in the morning, and he plays it to the forefront in a fantastic scene where Saunders attempts to seduce Topher, only to have him get freaked out by it and launch into a lengthy debate about their dual roles as creator and creation. [Saunders says she's just a series of excuses, to which Topher replies, "You're human" and she comes back with "Don't flatter yourself." Awesome.] It's easy to see, now, why Whedon was so insistent on bringing Acker back, even as he'd lost her to a midseason show, and why he was sad he wouldn't get more of her this season. Saunders' story – that of discovering what is real is less real than what you thought – is so compelling that I almost wish the entire episode had been turned over to it.

The more persona-of-the-week stuff on "Dollhouse" is always going to be less interesting than the series' biggest of big ideas, but as season two continues, I'm hopeful the two will be better integrated than they were in season one. In "Vows," at least, both the Echo and Saunders storyline deal with the thought that you are not who you say you are, that, at some level, you're always deceiving everyone around you or attempting to play a part because that's what you think you were born to do, even if that's simply not the case.

 

Some other thoughts:

While I was initially disappointed to find that the "Epitaph One" crew was not returning in this episode, I don't think the episode greatly missed them. It would be nice to see them again, just to get a sense that this is all still heading toward apocalypse – mostly because I really love knowing where the story is going and seeing the details fill in on the way – but I can completely understand why this one would have been overstuffed with them there. Whedon is also probably trying to figure out both a way to elegantly cut between timelines and a way to get everyone who hasn't seen "Epitaph One" caught up.

Best exchange? Topher telling Saunders that any guy in his sleep could be aroused by Fozzie Bear, then saying, "Well … not Fozzie Bear."

Even though the show is much cheaper to produce now than it was in season one, apparently, I didn't really see it? The episode still looked handsome in high-def, and the one big stunt – the car blowing up – seemed pretty solid. Also, Eliza Dushku looked great in a wedding dress. Though you probably don't need to be told that.

 

Discussion point for the week: How much is Whedon's vision of this show driven by his view of the writer building characters out of composites of other people, perhaps people they know in their real lives?