Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dollhouse Recap: Vows

As the second season opener for Dollhouse, Vows has a lot to accomplish.  It has to establish the new status quo for the season, giving the viewers an idea of what to expect.  It needs to deal with the fallout from Omega, especially the revelation that Doctor Saunders is actually an active.  Most importantly it needs to hook new and existing viewers, getting them to commit to the upcoming season.  Vows mostly succeeds at these goals, although it is not without it is flaws.

As something borrowed, the bride has chosen her personality

The episode begins with Echo being wiped of the thirty-nine personalities she was imprinted with by Omega.  Topher assures Ballard that there won’t be any glitches just as an image of the bride of Frankenstein appears on his monitor.  Topher assumes it is Doctor Saunders messing with him, as she has apparently been doing since she found out she is an Active.

Adele and Boyd discuss the Echo’s most recent engagement and the fact that they are working with Ballard.  Boyd is not very happy with it, but Adele shoots him down.  She notes that the engagement is part of the deal that they made with Ballard to keep him from exposing them.  Either they honor the deal or they will be forced to kill Ballard to shut him up, a prospect Adele would rather avoid.

Adele and Boyd run into Victor, who has been receiving treatment for his scars.  Adele ostensibly checks out how Victor’s scars are coming along, but she basically fondles his face, a fact that does not go unnoticed by Boyd.  Boyd takes one more opportunity to express his distaste for Echo’s current assignment, calling it “sick.”

We then cut to Echo’s assignment. She is walking down the aisle in a wedding dress.  When she reaches the altar, the priest intones, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are gathered hear today…” before it cuts to the opening credits.

This opening sequence is basically an effort to tie up the loose ends of Omega before moving forward.  It seems a bit rushed, but I am glad they at least are talking about the unlikely turn the show took by having Paul Ballard join the Dollhouse.

After the credits, we get to see the rat's nest that is Topher’s bedroom.  He wakes up and makes the thirty second commute to his office.  Topher’s assistant Ivy is there, trying to work through the backlog of actives.  While Topher and Ivy talk about Autumn being the busy season, Sierra walks in requesting a treatment.  Topher says he needs his morning caffeine and leaves Ivy to handle it.

The situation is a bit odd since no one called ahead to say Sierra was coming and because she is still wearing the outfit from her previous engagement.  Ivy begins to question the situation when Sierra tells her she would prefer a treatment from someone other than an “oriental” like Ivy.  This causes Ivy to rush Sierra through the process.

Topher returns to find  rodents in his cupboards.  He realizes this is Dr. Saunders messing with him again.  Topher confronts her over the phone, but Dr. Saunders simply taunts him by reminding him that she is, after all, his creation.  If she is acting out, maybe Topher simply isn’t as good as he thinks he is.

On her end, the call is interrupted by Boyd.  He is bringing in the results of Victor’s reconstructive surgery and uses the opportunity to ask why she doesn’t get her scars treated.  She bluntly states that if she gets her scars treated they might just put her back into service as an Active.  Boyd assures her that he would never let this happen, but she defuses his arguments by noting that he never was that interested in her until he found out that she was an Active.  She wonders if his newfound interest is pity or simply a kink.

Boyd throws Dr. Saunders off balance by asking her out to dinner.  She tells him that she never leaves.  That she hates crowds, sunlight, and open spaces. She bitterly notes that she is “simply built that way”.  Boyd tells her that everyone is “poorly constructed” and has excuses that hold them back, but that in the end they are all merely excuses.

I would just like to note that Amy Acker does an amazing job in these scenes.  Doctor Saunders is clearly starting to crack up, and Amy portrays this with an incredible amount of nuance. 

Back at the wedding, Echo and her husband Martin talk like newlyweds while Ballard listens on.  The scene then shifts to Echo’s wedding night, where we get to watch her husband undress her before shifting to a surprisingly long sex scene.  Sequences of Ballard waiting around are intercut with this sequence, including the disturbing (if humorous) scene of him doing push-ups while Echo’s husband pumps away.

The next day has Echo coming to visit Ballard at his stakeout post.  It soon becomes obvious that Echo was imprinted with the personality of another FBI agent and that they are performing a sting operation against Martin, who is apparently an arms dealer. 

They are interrupted by Echo’s handler, who is bringing in Echo for a treatment.  He notes that these long-term assignments are tricky, and they need to check out “the wiring” and “the plumbing”.  Ballard says he wants her back as soon as possible, to which Echo’s handler ironically notes, “You’re the client”.

Speaking of which, a defaulted Echo is shown getting “the plumbing” checked by Doctor Saunders.  While she is getting checked out, Echo flashes back to a previous engagement where her and Whiskey were apparently checking each others plumbing out in a less clinical fashion. 

Echo suddenly calls Dr. Saunder’s “Whiskey”, which elicits shock and a bit of horror from her.  Echo notes that Whiskey was “number one”, but that she doesn’t remember the rest.  Dr. Saunders bitterly notes that Alpha cut up her face so that Echo could be number one.  Disturbingly, Doctor Saunders’ hands linger over a scalpel as she says this. 

The scene then turns to a press conference, where Senator Daniel Perrin announces that he is investigating the Rossum Corporation for “withholding medical advancements”.  Adele and Boyd are watching the press conference on TV with some concern.  The assume someone leaked information about the Dollhouse to him, and Boyd is suspicious of Ballard.  Ballard, who conveniently enters at that exact moment, brushes this off and casually accuses Boyd. 

Meanwhile, Adele attempts to recruit Ballard to be Echo’s new handler.  Ballard unconvincingly says, “I don’t work for you.”  This causes Adele to retort, “No, you work for the betterment of mankind.  Fighting crime by listening to Echo have sex.  It’s incredibly noble.”

This is a great line.  It sums up Ballard’s increasingly suspect moral certainty and his bizarre obsession with Caroline in one simple sentence.

Meanwhile, Echo returns to Martin’s house.  Martin gently chides her about being gone to long and the two head upstairs for more newlywed sex.  Elsewhere, Martin’s right-hand man has managed to snap some photos of Echo and Ballard together.  Obviously, the whole house of cards Ballard has built is about to come tumbling down.

Back at the Dollhouse, Topher wakes up to find Dr. Saunders, who is wearing nothing but a black slip, nuzzling him.  He freaks out while she tries to seduce him.  As Topher tries to figure out what game she is playing, Dr. Saunders tells him this must be why he programmed her to hate him.  The end game must be to make her fall in love with him, right? 

Topher tells her that she was designed to challenge him and fight for her beliefs, but that he didn’t program her to hate him… she chose to do that herself.  Dr. Saunders breaks down at this point, uncertain of how she can go on knowing she is just a man-made imprint.  Topher suggests that Adele may be willing to re-imprint her original personality, but this gives Dr. Saunders no comfort.  Whoever she was is not who she is now, and she doesn’t want to “die” even if she isn’t sure how to live.  Dr. Saunder tells him that she is nothing but “a series of excuses”.  Topher disagrees, telling her that she is “human”.  “Don’t flatter yourself,” is her reply.

Echo wakes up and realizes Martin is not at her side.  She immediately begins snooping around, but Martin walks in on her.  She tries to play it off, but he smashes her head against a desk.  He then confronts her with the picture of her standing next to Paul Ballard.  Echo makes a good effort to play it off.  In fact, she almost has him convinced until she glitches and calls herself by the wrong name.

A short while later, Echo and Martin are in his limo where he shows her some miniature explosives he is selling to a client who hopes to use them to build dirty bombs.  He is obviously keeping her close until the deal is done, but it is clear he intends to get rid of her as soon as he can.

Ballard calls Topher concerned about a spike in Echo’s bio-signals.  Echo’s handler had dismissed this as more sex, but Topher quickly identifies it as pain.  Topher wants to send in the cavalry, but Ballard is worried that Martin will kill her if they do that.  Instead, he decides on a “much worse plan”, namely to go in alone.

Well, at least he recognizes what type of plan it is.

Ballard walks in and demands they let Echo go.  When the confrontation gets intense, Echo begins to glitch into other personalities.  Realizing what is going on, Paul begins to get angry with her, even striking her repeatedly.  Eventually he screams at her, “the Chinese Restaurant, you remember that!” 

Ballard is hoping she will switch into the killer personality she had when she attacked him there. This has the desired effect as she immediately switches into assassin mode and begins kicking ass.  She takes down several heavily armed guards and her husband without breaking a sweat.

A short while later at the Dollhouse, Echo is back in the chair, getting her mind-wiped.  Adele notes that Ballard “got his man”, and that he caught clues that Echo’s handler missed.  Boyd goes to visit Dr. Saunders, but only finds a note saying, “I am running out... of excuses”.  She is shown driving away from the Dollhouse.  Victor is shown with his face fully healed, and him and Sierra are shown walking while holding hands.

Ballard walks over to Echo to apologize for not “being his best.”  He tells her that he is only trying to do what is right, but he no longer seems to know what that is.  He admits he should have gotten her out right away and apologizes for what he put her through, even though she doesn’t remember.

To his shock, Echo tells him she does remember.  She knows that sometimes she is someone else, and says that she still feels them inside.  She asks Ballard which one is the real her, and he tells her her name is “Caroline”.  Echo says she wants to find her, and help her fellow actives find their lost selves as well.  She asks Ballard to help her.

The episode ends with Paul Ballard becoming Echo’s handler.

The Good

Amy Acker made this episode for me.  When I saw Omega I was hopeful that hoping the revelation that Dr. Saunders was an active would lead to an interesting character arc for the character.  I just didn’t expect the payoff to be so soon.

Dr. Saunders is cracking up, and is it any wonder?  She found out not only isn’t she real, but she was created by someone she hates.  No one wants to meet their Maker only to find out he is a “sociopath in a sweater vest”.

Dr. Saunders is also smart enough to realize there is no happy ending for her, even if she hasn’t seen Epitaph One.  She knows her body belongs to someone else.  Dr. Saunders has to assume that when her contract runs its course, Adele will restore that she will cease to exist and be replaced by the original owner of the body. 

The Bad

I felt the main plot of the episode was somewhat lacking.  It felt like something to fill the time and an excuse to have Eliza strip down to her underwear from a wedding gown.  It also got downright ludicrous at the end.  Seriously, the arm dealer’s bodyguards should have put an end to Ballard’s antics long before he got Echo to glitch.

Eliza’s portrayal of Echo also seemed a bit off to me in this one.  I think my biggest problem is with her “default” Echo persona.  In first season you could instantly tell if you were dealing with a default Echo or an imprinted Echo.  The line is much fuzzier this time around.  I know should blur as she is becoming self-aware, but she simply seems a bit too aware.  Hopefully Eliza will be able to nail this as the season progresses.

In Conclusion

Not a bad season opener.  I wish it had been a little friendlier to new viewers, but it certainly delivered for the existing ones.

4 out of 5 dolls