Episode six of Dollhouse was widely hyped as the point where the show kicked up a gear, probably so that the fans would hang in there through the opening episodes, which ranged from mediocre to mediocre with a side helping of exploitation cake. And surprisingly, while it doesn’t live up to the hype, coupled with the episode before it does give me hope that there’s something more to the series than I initially thought.
The first four episodes were hampered by a mission of the week which never convinced me that there was any need for a doll, rather than a similarly skilled person who would do the job for a lot less money. I wouldn’t mind an unconvincing scenario so much if it was entertaining. Episode five, ‘True Believer’, was the first sign that there was the potential for something better, with a more convincing need for a doll and a less predictable plot, as well as more scenes with a fully-clothed Eliza Dushku, but it still fell some way short of greatness.
‘Man on the Street’ is another step up in quality. In Joel Myner’s hiring of a woman to pretend, if only for a day, that the woman he loved is still alive and well, we get a situation I can see that someone would hire a doll for, instead of the non-active with the same skills who could do the job for a lot less money and a lot less hassle. It’s even briefly sympathetic, until Ballard punctures it with the difference between his fantasies and Myner’s – however unhealthy his fantasies about Caroline/Echo are, he isn’t using an innocent to make them come true. And the final scene, where Echo returns to complete the assignment cut short by Ballard, nicely conflicts our sympathy towards Myner with the inherent skeeviness of the dollhouses, and guest star Patton Oswalt pulls off a tricky role which could easily have been unredeemably loathsome. (Even if it was distracting when I spent the first scene wondering why he was so damn familiar.)
It’s also the episode where Ballard gets to be more than the cliche of FBI agent chasing the case no one else believes in, even if I suspect some of it is unintentional. It’s clear that while he might be a good investigator, he’s also obsessive about this case, and not afraid to use violence against anyone who he sees as standing in his way, although I think that what I’m supposed to take away from the fight scenes is how enjoyably badass he is, not how much he enjoys a fight. This being a Joss Whedon show, once he got to the happy post-coital scene with his neighbour it was inevitable that something horrible was about to befall her, and while the revelation of her secret active identity is not much of a revelation, I’d rather have that than have her end up dead, and it sets up the potentially interesting conflicts when Ballard realises what and who she is. And is an FBI agent really supposed to reveal the details of his cases to the woman next door, even if she does make him lasagne?
The third pairing, and probably the least satisfactory, is that of Sierra and her rape at the hands of her handler. Despite the red herring of Victor, her handler was so obviously dodgy that the identity of her abuser wasn’t a surprise, and it was deeply unsettling because of both the doll’s downtime personalities being so naive and childlike, and the speedy resolution of how Sierra would be just fine now he’s out of the way. My interest in this development is more for the character of Boyd – I want to see just how a character who feels so strongly about Sierra’s abuse that he punches a man through a plate glass window can reconcile that with working for the Dollhouse, which performs the same abuse on a wider scale, and how he fell so far from his presumably moral and upstanding past as an officer of the law.
The episode also delivers some hints about where the overall plot is heading, with the Dollhouse revealed to be an international organisation which does not necessarily exist just to provide the doll’s services. This makes sense not just because the Dollhouses themselves take some hiding, but because it gives them a purpose beyond the rather unconvincing mission of the week assignments. And there’s a mole in the Dollhouse, which I am hoping will be Topher, if only because I still find him to be creepy and arrogant and not at all funny.
Dollhouse stil has an uphill struggle to get past the problems inherent in the premise – it’s noteable that the best episode so far is one which keeps Echo and her assignment in the background for much of the episode. I still can’t see where it can go in the long-term, because the more they engage with the disturbing nature of the dollhouses, the less I want to watch them try and do a fun personality of the week episode. For now they’ve demonstrated enough potential to keep me watching.