Two more episodes of Dollhouse aired last night, and since my city is covered with snow, I was actually home last night to watch them. This series still has some Big, Sexy Hospital elements to it (part of last night’s second episode, “The Attic,” involves Eliza Dushku’s Echo on a teamup with a character she really has no reason to trust or work with, but the synergy between the two actors still had me giggling with glee). But the more Dollhouse really digs into series mythology, the more I think, “Wow, this is a really cool sci-fi concept which somehow got dressed up as a borderline softcore riff on women-in-danger cliches.” That’s really too bad, because now that the series is almost over (the final three episodes will air in January), we’re finally seeing some extremely interesting reveals.

It’s the blessing-and-a-curse feeling I got from the fifth (final) season of Angel, which I found to be kind of a painful slog until exactly the point when cancellation was announced. The episodes after that are some of my favorite genre-TV ever, so part of me was extra sad over the cancellation, and another part was going, “Why didn’t you show us the good stuff when there was still a chance at renewal?” (Quality doesn’t guarantee renewal, of course, but at least when a good show gets canned for lack of viewers, the ‘enlightened’ among us can rail against the public’s bad taste; I can’t exactly blame anybody who gave up on Dollhouse. And I’m mostly kidding about being ‘enlightened’; unless we’re talking Freaks and Geeks, because how do we live in a world that didn’t love that show? /digression)

I don’t want to spoil last night’s episodes. (And note to Dollhouse viewers who haven’t seen them yet: even if you usually read spoilers, I think last night’s reveals are good enough to warrant watching the episodes fresh). But there was a moment in the first episode, “Stop-Loss”, that made me think about what’s been going on in the series up to this point. Some basic info in case you’re not familiar with Dollhouse: many of the main characters are “dolls,” ordinary people who are recruited (through varying degrees of coercion) to allow their minds to be wiped and reprogrammed with the brain patterns of other people, in order to do whatever the Dollhouse’s clients want them to do — sometimes sex, sometimes special security or fighting skills; whatever the week’s plot requires. This is kind of a cool idea at its core, but one of the things that made it hard for me (and I’m sure for others) to get into in the show is that the dolls themselves didn’t seemed to have any personality. They just wandered around the house, smiling and looking brainwashed. Any attachments we could develop were to the actors — primarily Enver Gjokaj’s Victor, Dichen Lachman’s Sierra, and Eliza Dushku’s Echo. The first two, basically unknown before this series, have turned out to be fantastically versatile and talented performers, and I’m wishing them best luck in post-Dollhouse projects.

Dushku is a little tougher to talk about. I, like a lot of Whedon fans, have enormous amounts of goodwill to her because of her performance as Faith on Buffy and Angel. Unfortunately, what it takes to be a successful regular character on most TV shows — the ability to do more or less the same thing week in and week out, in an appealing way — is a lot different than what Dollhouse asked of Dushku-as-Echo. (The contrast is especially visible with a character like Faith, who was always recurring rather than regular — so she really didn’t have any bad or filler storylines; she showed up when there was something for her to do, then went away when the story was finished.) So, as much as I loved Faith, I’ve never been able to get a sense of Echo.

Gradually, we’ve developed some sense of who the dolls were before they came to the Dollhouse: Echo was an activist named Caroline, Sierra was an artist named Priya, and Victor was a soldier named Tony. In “Stop-Loss,” for plot reasons, Echo-as-Echo ends up in a conversation with Priya-as-Priya (not her doll self). Echo mentions Sierra (the doll persona that belongs to her body) and Priya wants to know who Sierra is. Echo, who has gradually been shown to develop a somewhat integrated sense of self, in the way other dolls haven’t and thus should have the best idea of what it means to be a doll, says, that Sierra is “Priya, without the complications.”

This, to me, is a totally fascinating idea. That the dolls themselves are not actually blank slates, but the simple baseline form of their personalities, without the memories and attendant traumas and neuroses. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is what we’ve seen on the show. The dolls, acting on their own, have come across as blank. Not even childlike, or infantile; anybody who’s been around small children knows they’re anything but blank. But even if the dolls had been portrayed as children, I don’t think that’s the same as what Echo’s statement implies. I’m not a psychologist, but I think it’s fair to say that children process experiences differently than adults do. “Priya, without the complications” doesn’t so much imply Priya as a child, as it does Priya as an amnesiac. I’m thinking of the Buffy episode Tabula Rasa, where the gang all wakes up with no memories, as a result of a spell gone wrong, and have to try and figure out who they are based on clues. It’s a favorite episode of mine (most of my favorite Buffy eps are ones that break format in some way) because we get to see the characters unconsciously fall into the groupings and behavior patterns that are natural to them, which sometimes are the same ones that their conscious selves have adopted — and sometimes really really aren’t. The Willow and Tara who fall in love in Tabula Rasa really are Willow and Tara without complications (in the real world, with their memories intact, they’re in the process of a bitter and emotional breakup).

I definitely wish that the “without complications” formula was closer to what we’d seen of the Dollhouse from the beginning. Have the dolls be real, distinct people who just happen to be brainwashed not to want to defy authority, or to escape, or whatever. Honestly, based on that paradigm, I think it’s easier to understand why anyone would want to be a doll in the first place. Nobody wants to imagine themselves drifting around like a zombie. But spending a few years surrounded by pretty people, having all your baseline needs met, and coming out with all the things that currently scare you in the world having a chance to run their course without you having to worry about them has a certain appeal. I mean, those motives aren’t entirely different from the reasons most of us go to grad school. I can see signing Adelle DeWitt’s contract and thinking, “Well maybe in five years the job market will be better.”

Since I mentioned Adelle DeWitt, a final note. I’ve discovered a lot of people don’t even realize Olivia Williams appeared in X3 as scientist Moira McTaggart. It’s just a short cameo, but let’s add her to the list of actor/characters who could come back a new X-Men movie and make me want to see it. Olivia Williams, Anna Paquin, and Ellen Page as your core cast? Hellz yeah. I’m pretty sure Fox is too afraid of girls to do this, though.

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