In working my way through a second viewing of the series Dollhouse, I believe I have now reached the point at which Mr. Lousy and I can finally now watch episodes in tandem. This might be just the right spot for our summit.
“Echoes” is one of my favorite Dollhouse episodes. I won’t say favorite because I’m re-evaluating as I make my second trip, and I don’t want to be presumptive, especially about my own tastes.
I know the episode has notoriety for its humor: everyone goes on a weird drug trip and it’s hilarious.
True and not true. There is a lot more going on besides straitlaced control-freaks flipping out on something between highly potent weed and LSD. The weaving of the comic, the tragic, character revelation, and partial exposition proves that the series could produce not only a fantastic episode, but also an episode that would move the story forward (by looking backward), plant clues about motivations and deceptions, and propose further questions about the human body/mind connection/disconnection, this time through chemical, rather than neural manipulation.
The episode was written by Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft, who were also showrunners for Dollhouse. The pair had previously worked as a team on Angel, and before that The Shield, which I watched very occasionally and wished it had been regularly.
Their status as showrunners is quite evident to me as a work through the series a second time, as suggestions abound about what’s to come, though I won’t point them out and ruin Mr. Lousy’s party. I will say this: Previously, I’d thought that the series being cancelled was actually a blessing because it prevented missteps that made chunks of Angel and Buffy (Cordelia’s possession/pregnancy/coma resulting in the goddess Jasmine on Angel; season seven of Buffy) rather unenjoyable for me. However, the Dollhouse creative team had its ducks in order, and the show may have stayed course even had it escaped cancellation after two short seasons. Whedon, Fain, and Craft knew where this series was headed, and they
were steering ever so subtly, a fact quite evident by the middle of the first season. I became more aware of this in “Gray Hour” (S1e4), also written by Fain and Craft, and now have my ears on red alert: there was an end game that they were working towards, even with seemingly tossed off, almost random lines of dialogue that I appreciate only on my second time through.
Sure, there were explicit flashbacks of Echo as an animal rights activist planning to expose Rossum for animal testing, with an introduction to her ill-fated boyfriend, as well as an explanation for how she ended up in the very unfortunate position of sitting across the table from Adelle DeWitt making the deal that launched the series.
As I understand it, this exposition was set up as a linear presentation in the original pilot, then jettisoned for a jigsawed rollout of how Caroline (Echo’s real name) ended up on the wrong side of the negotiating table with DeWitt. Although I would like to see the original pilot,
the above fan, RazMan, and I believe they made the right decision in with the fragmented structure, especially with “Echoes,” which successfully works a great chunk of missing exposition into the story. Moreover, the fragmentation makes sense with the theme of memory loss/robbery and reconstruction. It’s patchwork.
In this episode, the patches form a coherent pattern that reveals itself in an unexpected turn: Dolls on drugs.
Drugs. College. Multinational corporations with hidden agendas. They all go together, right? Well, they make the last element central here: Put shortly, Rossum has been developing a chemical that tampers with memory to further control on the human brain. Somehow, we’ll find out later how in a twist, the chemical has gotten loose on a university campus, leading to one rather ugly death and a lot of other students – and at least one staff member – tripping wildly and publicly.
I must mention now that the history professor flipping out on the sidewalk is portrayed by future Oscar™-winner Octavia Spencer. Her tripped-out character wobbling blissfully down the sidewalk is probably not a career highlight for the actress, but the appearance isn’t just for laughs. The professor recognizes Echo as Caroline, even through the drug-induced haze, and attempts to re-connect. This is the first time Echo hears her real name and makes direct contact with someone from her real life.
Caroline, however, is traveling under another Imprint (one of the sex-purposed ones, who we have seen before, racing motorcycles and engaging in light bondage), and doesn’t understand when her former professor calls her out, though a part of her does recognize the woman. In fact, Caroline, even in her Imprint persona, recognizes almost everything about the campus and the Rossum lab; she just can’t name it. Echo is glitching even before she arrives on the scene, and once she’s exposed to the drug, she, and we, get a semi-clear view of how she and Rossum intersected, and a rather explicit (though not wholly complete) explanation of why she ended up a Doll.
Caroline had been tracking Rossum for years, but she had no concept of the direction that the corporation’s research was leading. She was out to expose the HOW. Far more terrifying is the WHY. And it’s going to get more terrifying.
Echo is glitching. It’s happened before. It infuriates Dominic. It troubles Topher. It intrigues Adelle.
Topher and Adelle! Put them in a room together when they’re not mutually terrified by a possible Alpha massacre, and you’ve got wry humor spinning off the screen!
While “Echoes” has gained popularity for the comic relief of placing the Dollhouse non-Dolls into a trippy state, I found equally funny the early scene in which corporate head Clive Ambrose has come to DeWitt’s office with news of the Rossum drug-release fiasco looking for a solution, which Topher may possibly provide. Olivia Williams and Fran Kranz have already established such distinctive characters, with Adelle DeWitt: intimidating, hyper-self-controlled, hyper-controlling, stiff, tailored, armored, and somewhat sphynx-like in her sometimes unreadability; and Topher: goofy, brilliant, socially inept, rumpled, virtually self-censorless, and freewheeling enough so that his gesticulating and stuttering as he forms thoughts make him readable even when his actual dialogue comes in spurts rather than streams.
They are almost polar, and putting them in Adelle’s pristine office for a very formal meeting makes for some uproarious comedy; that is, if you find Topher’s percolating train-of-thought rippling about and ruffling the feathers of the stern CEO, while Adelle firmly re-directs Topher, sometimes verbally, other times with a glare, and at one point, I believe, just with a slight tilt of the head.
This is where the ongoing story, the writing, and the acting pay off: Adelle almost imperceptibly tilting her head in disapproval followed by Topher stammering as his fingers manically draw ideas into the air. The contrast is sublime.
Their routine really erupts when they discover that the drug is not ingested, nor airborne, but rather transmitted through physical touch. This realization occurs, unfortunately for them, because they have just unknowingly been dosed themselves. Topher, mistakenly believing that the Dolls are immune to the effects of the chemical, exposes off-assignment Mellie to the chemical with an injection, and then puts her in the chair to monitor her brain activity in hopes of finding an antidote.
In the meantime, Adelle and Topher have unwittingly exposed themselves through touch, and in a conversation they hold while Mellie’s brain scan lights up like a Christmas tree, their banter becomes rather… odd. Topher, out of character, critiques Adelle, as being too… he can’t find the word. Adelle suggests “British” and makes a declaration about pronouncing her r’s. Now something is up. DeWitt wouldn’t have even dignified Topher’s character observations with a response, and now she’s musing aloud about her own British-ness.
Before long, they have both kicked off their shoes, Topher has lost his pants, and they are climbing around on the rails near the activation chamber like it’s a jungle gym. The character contrast is evaporating, and the humor moves from sublime to slapstick. It still works.
Then we’ve got Mellie, who we will soon come to know as her Doll name: November.
I have to stop there because I need to write an entire post about Mellie. I’ll limit myself for once. Here Mellie partially activates her own default imprint, that of “killing machine,” by stating her own trigger phrase, or at least the first part of it. How is this possible!
Topher made a false assumption – the drug does indeed work on the Doll brain, even though part of it has shut down, but instead of making the Dolls comically loopy, as it does Topher and DeWitt at the headquarters – and Dominic and Langton at the campus – the drug takes longer to kick in for the Doll brain (maybe not so long with direct injection), and when it does, rather than sending the mind on a trip, it triggers suppressed memories.
Mellie conjures her own activation key, much to the chagrin even to the wigged out Topher and DeWitt, though even in the face of possible demise at the bare hands of the killer Doll, the comic tone continues, with the two of them squabbling over who should approach Mellie, who is literally a partial phrase away from snapping both their necks.
Topher insists DeWitt approach her; DeWitt counters, “I’m your superior!” to which Topher retorts, “in every way,” before making it clear that, as usual, DeWitt would have to do the dirty work. The usually deadly serious Dollhouse turning farce comes as a pleasant surprise and deserves its place in a Joss Whedon pantheon of funny, though like most other entries in such a collection, you’d have to know the characters to understand the humor.
Angel as a grumpy puppet, anyone?
The superior crack also introduces something into the Dollhouse that had not yet been addressed so explicitly: hierarchy. If power were a pyramid, the bottom layer would be the Dolls, who in their inactive state resemble lobotomized members of a feel-good, no-think cult wearing pastel uniforms. Next would be handlers: Boyd Langton has to follow orders, and Sierra’s handler faced an abysmal fate after abusing what little power he had. Dr. Saunders might be just a notch above them. Then… I would guess Dominic, who is sort of “chief henchman” in a suit, in competition with Topher, whose strengthening status derives from how much he knows and controls with his knowledge. After them, DeWitt. She’s head of operations at the L.A. Dollhouse unit, though she’s still answerable to some sort of board of the Rossum Corporation, in this episode represented by the appearance of Clive Ambrose. Even his name screams upper-echelon.
Once Adelle’s guard is down, I believe shortly after her exposure, she remarks that the only reason he has his job is that he couldn’t do hers. And let’s face it, who could? Still, Adelle would normally never critique the Dollhouse aloud, nor would she reveal any resentment toward her own superior. Cracks are showing.
The cracks are more obvious between Topher and Dominic. First, Dominic is angry that Topher has programmed Victor to outrank him at the scene of the campus. It’s a double-punch: Topher purposefully places not only himself, but also an imposing, wildly confident, and comically commanding Victor – in another great performance from Enver Gjokaj – above Dominic’s head. After Victor’s federal agent persona dresses down him before the entire squad, Dominic is left to mutter bitterly, “An hour ago you were discussing how much you loved applesauce.” Even the angry, frustrated Dominic is funny here.
He gets funnier! When the drug affects him, he gets particularly loopy, dangling his gun around, whining because it’s so heavy, and confessing to Echo in a chance meeting that he’s sorry he knocked her unconscious and left her alone to be burned alive. “I mean, who does that?” he asks a still confused Echo, who accepts his apologies as she marches to the lab.
Is Dominic all bad? Part of him is sorry for trying to murder Echo/Caroline. Does the part revealed only by some sort of hallucinogen count?
Do the drugs open the door to a part of the mind that exists suppressed or unknown, or do they create sentiment or sensation from nothing? How do foreign chemicals affect being? Dominic confessing and begging forgiveness, Topher running amok in his underwear and sock feet, Adelle prattling with loose lips, and of course, Boyd, insisting that he has everything under control, by playing piano in a makeshift mental ward – there is something to what comes out of these characters as they fall under the influence. It’s not ether. It’s them. Rather than having foreign Imprints foisted upon their brains, their minds lose inhibition and another facet of their being slips out.
There is nothing comical, however, about the drug’s effect on the Dolls. The memories that begin
flashing are more than glitches: they are deep trauma bursting through layers of heavily programmed Imprints and deeply buried Inactives. Mellie jumps to her near murder and subsequent murderousness. Sierra, in the Imprint of some kind of pathologist, flashes back to the rapes by her handler. Victor gives a glimpse of his former life as a soldier with a battle scene ending in an ominous explosion.
These chemical-induced fragmentary flashes of murder, rape, and war put up a dark contrast to the spaced-out Dollhouse staff.
And then there’s Echo. She’s glitching as soon as she sees the news report about trouble on the campus, particularly around the Rossum laboratory, but when the student, Sam Jennings (Mehcad Brooks) she was leading to the lab turns out to be a corporate spy and gives her a massive dose via standard chloroform-method, she experiences far more than the now-familiar glitches. She’s transported back to the moment when she and her boyfriend were trapped in the very same lab where she stands drugged and left to die, and we get to see what she sees in the past: a desperate attempt at escape ending in her boyfriend’s death and her capture on the greens of the campus. In the present, she wrestles Jennings to the ground, but her boyfriend is lost to her forever.
The Dolls on drugs are not funny. But they tell us plenty.
Note on the writers/showrunners: Is it coincidence that Whedon has two women taking the lead here, or does he purposefully want women pulling some strings on his dolls this time around? They are doing a magnificent job. I just didn’t realize it the first time because I didn’t see how coherent the story would become. Mr. Lousy may want to investigate Craft and Fain’s young adult series: Bass Ackwards and Belly Up and its sequel, Footfree and Fancyloose. They look way too upper-class and girly for Raúl, but maybe someone else could do an investigation. I believe the two were also part of the recently cancelled Secret Circle, which I never watched. They may have a new show in the works: The Selection based on the novels by Kiera Cass. These also look too upper-class and girly for Raúl, so I may rely upon Mr. Lousy once again for a review.
Note on Eliza Dushku: Although I hated her outfit and her Active’s date in this episode, I thought her performance was stronger. She didn’t have to dance, and she can run convincingly. I guess I am softening a bit on her on this second outing. She was the producer, so she did have a major hand in her character, and she was ready to address the sexual exploitation, ickiness and all, head-on. I’m not sure how much of that might be the vanity appeal of wearing sexy clothes – and I HATED her sexy clothes here – but Dushku is willing to make her character as sexually manipulated as the other Dolls. Maybe we need to extend a peace offering. Could the show have gotten off the ground without her?
Note on the closing of the episode: We’ve now seen how Caroline ended up a Doll. The same fate awaits Sam Jennings, the student acting as corporate spy who’d stolen a vial of the chemical to sell to Rossum’s top competitor – and I shudder to think of their business line. In the end, he is sitting across the same table from DeWitt with the same tea set between them, and like the other Dolls, he’s out of options. You don’t turn down Adelle, even if it means five years of your life doing unimaginably horrible things that you will never remember – if you survive. We’ve seen the recruitment. We’ve seen the deployment. What will we see when a Doll reaches the end of the contract? It’s coming.