Note: Dollhouse originally aired in the US in 2009, and is currently (finally) being shown on Australian free-to-air TV.
This episode, entitled "The Target", is all about the flashbacks! It opens with a scene from three months ago, where an alarm is going off throughout the Dollhouse. Scared Actives are being ushered into their sleeping pods; they don't seem to understand what is happening. There are dead bodies and lots of blood everywhere. Mr Security Chief Lawrence gets the attention of a slightly shocked Topher, asking him what happened. First things first, though: Topher asks if he can have a gun. Lawrence brings him back to task, which makes Topher launch into an hysterical explanation, "Doc Saunders looks like a jigsaw puzzle, and what he did to Samuelson?"
"Who?!" Lawrence shouts. Adelle approaches them with the answer, "Alpha". But of course! Alpha has had a "composite event". But all Actives get wiped after every engagement, Lawrence argues, so how could he composite? Topher, subdued, shakes his head. "He can't ... shouldn't ... did." Well said, Mr Nerdman, well said.
The security team, with Lawrence in front, rush past more blood-stained carpets, more dead people and more pools of blood, all in ominous slow motion. Echo sits in the middle of the shower, surrounded by her dead fellow Actives. She's wide eyed and vacant, saying softly, "They won't wake up". Lawrence and his commandos leave her there.
This is an amazing start to the show, even if it is just a flashback. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode doesn't quite live up to the action, suspense and punchy-dialogue of the first few minutes. All-in-all, however, the flashbacks colour grade should make you feel warm, as it feels so bright and sunny, juxtaposed nicely with all the blood and bodies -- a hyper-reality.
Also, considering the amount of people killed, and the fact that they managed to get at least five Actives asleep, I wonder exactly how big the Dollhouse is, and how many Actives there are in total. It also seems like there are a number of other Dollhouses around, rather than just this one, situatied in LA. I wouldn't mind living at the Dollhouse. The interiors are truly lovely. Let's hope they got all those blood stains removed.
Anyway, as the haunting music of the opening credits ends, Adelle Dewitt explains that Dollhouse Actives are as innocent as children in their resting state, which they call the "Tabula Rasa" -- the blank slate. The imprint process fills it, creating a new personality: a confidante, a friend, "your heart's desire made flesh". And then, once an Active's engagement is completed, all memory is wiped clean.
Adelle is talking to a prospective client, Richard Connell. As calming and manipulative as Adelle is, she sure snaps into business mode quickly. Adelle explains that his engagement has been flagged as a moderate risk to the Active, and, as such, the company requires a small, additional fee -- and by small, she means rather big. Adelle adds, "Just make sure you return her, safe and sound. Otherwise there will be additional costs." Oh Dollhouse writers, could your foreshadowing be any more obvious?
With a crooked smile, Richard says, "Don't worry, I'll keep it low key."
And then it cuts to him and Echo white-water rafting. The two are laughing and enjoying the sun. For someone as skinny as Eliza Dushku, she sure is muscular.
Meanwhile, the stalker van is in the woods, with Boyd inside monitoring Echo's vitals. Boyd is concerned with her heightened adrenalin levels. But Topher, who's back at the Dollhouse, says that it's well within the engagement parameters. Also, because Boyd's location is, as Topher describes "Why would anyone want to be there?", the signals to his van aren't very strong. He asks Topher to clear it up with some technical ... stuff. Topher asks for the magic word. Boyd obligingly says please. Topher was actually looking for Abracadabra, but he'll do it anyway, because he loves Boyd, with "Deep, deep, man love." I like sardonic Topher. He reminds me of Buffyverse's Xander -- except, you know, smarter.
Moving along to FBI agent Paul Ballard, he enters an abandoned old house. It's where the kidnappers had their little shoot-out in the last episode, before Sierra came barrelling down on them, remember? Paul's fellow FBI agents are not pleased to see him. "Doesn't add up, does it?" Paul taunts. Agent Paul points out that the girl who was kidnapped had said "the pretty lady" saved her. Agent Tanaka isn't happy that Paul has been speaking to his victims. Paul ignores him and points out that there aren't any "pretty lady" prints, though some areas have been definitely wiped clean. Paul then finds glasses, the ones that Echo had to wear due to her personality imprint last week. He's finally found something that could lead to actual proof. Good for him!
Back in the woods, Richard is showing off his arrow to *cough* impress Echo. They bond over trying to kill an animal for lunch, as he teaches her how to shoot and kill Bambi. Richard spouts some testosterone-fuelled ideology his father had taught him, thumping is left shoulder with his right palm, "Shoulder to the wheel" -- Earning your way, and if you can bring down something bigger than you with just a bow and arrow, you prove that you deserve to eat it. Surely he's heard of a butcher, right?
She shoots Bambi, and then they're back in their tent, finishing off, umm ... other activities. As she teases him, saying that she's ready for round two, he says that they don't have the time. He gets up, gets dressed and says, "You need to get going". He explains that there is enough daylight for her to make it to the main road, enough time to even hitch a ride before he catches up.
Confused? Yeah, so is Echo. And then she's full-scale freaked out as he picks up his bow and arrow. Cue Crazy Man Number Two. He's considerate enough to give her a five-minute head start before he comes after her. Let the games begin! -- Oops, wrong fandom.
As Echo begins running through the woods, we cut to another flashback. It's Boyd's first day and Adelle welcomes him -- while people are still cleaning up the blood stains. Maybe she should have delayed his welcoming. I think Adelle needs new security people. I'm not sure how they hire people, either, because Boyd seems surprised by what the Dollhouse does. AS an ex-cop, he's been hired to be Echo's Handler; his predecessor was killed by Alpha. Scar-faced Dr Saunders also helpfully points out that Boyd is currently standing in his predecessor. Ew.
When viewing one of the dead bodies, Boyd sees that the cuts made were precise, surgical and positioned to cause the most pain, and that whoever did it took their time. Lawrence points out that it took only eight seconds; not possible, unless imprinted with the necessary skills and knowledge. Boyd is horrified, but Lawrence shrugs it off. It's not his department. All he knows is that Alpha accessed multiple imprints that should have been erased. Boyd asks why Alpha didn't kill Echo.
Later, Lubov is driving his car when Paul calls to threaten him some more about the Dollhouse. Poor Paul keeps getting teased about the "non-existent" Dollhouse by his colleagues, but then he finds the envelope that Alpha had put together at the end of the first episode, the one with Caroline/Echo's photo in it.
Back in the forest, Boyd's driver notices a local ranger pull up. After Boyd and his driver pretend to be lost, the local ranger turns out to be a faux-local-ranger. He pulls his gun out and shoots Boyd's driver dead, then points his gun at Boyd with a smirk.
Jeez, are all Americans crazy? Or just in this show?
Time for another flashback. Topher meets Boyd for the first time and so begins some of my favourite interactions, with a disdainful Boyd and snarky Topher. Boyd points to the Actives below, and asks Topher if they even put up a fight, which he explains that they wouldn't know how; not without an imprint. Boyd asks what we're all undoubtedly wondering -- why don't they imprint them with basic ninja skills? Topher explains that they did that once, resulting in, "Blood, screaming, dying." Ah, Alpha, you crazy dog.
When Topher asks Boyd what he thinks of his new girl, Boyd responds, saying that she isn't a girl. "Just an empty hat, until you stuff a rabbit in it." This is where Topher's earlier "Abracadabra" reference lies. There seems to be some spectacular dialogue in this show, but only during the expositional, sarcastic moments. Which I guess is fair. You can't have an "empty" Active sprouting snark.
Out of the flashback, and then we're back to more of Echo running, falling, hurting herself. Truly, this part of the episode story line is getting tired, even though it is only now that Topher notices Echo's really high "not so good" squigglies. But Boyd says that everything is alright, except for the gun pointed at his head. He then gets all ex-cop on the Lone Ranger, and, with his gun accidently going off, Boyd is inadvertently cut off from Topher, but manages to subdue the ranger.
Back at the Dollhouse, Lawrence is complaining that agent Paul Ballard is a threat and he wants to "neutralise" the risk -- or, in non-villain terms, kill the guy. Adelle thinks he's over-estimating Paul, and says measures are being taken. Topher rushes into the room to let them know of the Echo situation, which Lawrence will be happy to know is the "kind you need to shoot" at.
Echo is still running and then spots a cabin. She rushes in, she drinks from a water canister, which turns out to be drugged, and then finds a ranger, dead and hidden in a closet.
Freaked out, she takes his walkie-talkie and calls out for help. But who's on the other line? Yep, her crazy bowman boyfriend. Lovely little cat-and-mouse game, isn't it? Tom and Jerry would not be impressed, I certainly am not, with all the running and screaming and non-interest.
And, with her soap-opera look of horror, it's time for another flashback. She and Boyd are there for a Handler/Active imprint, which requires a direct line of sight. Echo will now always trust Boyd without hesitation or question. There's a script that Boyd has to recite while he's holding Echo's hand awkwardly. It's a mix of a sweet and scary moment with Echo and Boyd exchanging trusting words, such as:
Boyd: "Everything is going to be OK."
Echo: "Now that you're here."
If this were a romantic comedy, we'd all be "nawww"ing right about now. But it's not, and we are all a little freaked out.
Back to the woods, and Richard explains that the drugs won't kill her. It sounds like Alpha has hired him to mess with Echo as she starts to hallucinate, seeing herself from back in college. This seems a little contrived, and the chase is entirely too drawn out, acting like a boring vehicle for the flashbacks.
Back in the van, Boyd is trying to fix up the tech gear in his stalker van with the faux-ranger tied up. With the help of strategically placed bullets, the imposter ranger explains that he was hired by some guy over the phone to stall the response team. With that information, Boyd knocks him out with the butt of his gun. Boyd doesn't really mess around.
Back to Echo lying on the ground. When she looks around, she is surrounded by bodies that have strange bloody cuts all over them, like back in the Dollhouse shower. A shadowed man stands over her, holding a knife dripping blood.
Agent Paul is just opening the door to his apartment when his neighbour, Mellie, opens her door to say a cheery hello. She's very pretty and nervous. She clearly likes him and is making an excuse just to see him when she notices Caroline/Echo's picture. She asks if she's in trouble, while Paul says she's not in any record, so he's trying to find her. Quietly, as he leaves, she mutters, "Lucky girl".
Back in the woods, Echo is running some more. Dear lord, can this story arc end already? She finally runs into Boyd who says that he isn't going to hurt her. He begins his scripted dialogue from the flashback. "Everything is going to be alright." Stammering, Echo replies, "Now that you're here."
Thank god. Hell, even Boyd is relieved. And then he gets hit with an arrow. Ouch!
The next flashback shows Echo and Boyd's relationship developing. Boyd is disdainful, but when an imprinted and annoying Echo randomly gives Boyd a hug, you can tell she's starting to grow on him. It's a strange faux-father/daughter relationship, but makes me like Boyd all the more for it. He genuinely cares for the girl.
Back in the woods, with Echo supporting a bleeding Boyd, she wonders how she knows Boyd and why she can trust him. She explains to Boyd that because of the drugged water, she saw a man standing above her with a knife, but she can't see his face. She doesn't even know if Boyd is really there. She's so sure Richard will find them and kill them.
Boyd interrupts her, telling her again, "Everything is going to be alright". But she doesn't respond like she normally does so Boyd says it again, "Everything is going to be alright". To which she replies that everything is not going to be alright, all hard-ass like, that you have to put your shoulder to the wheel, and she mimics Richard's arm thump from earlier. She decides to go after Richard, but Boyd knows she doesn't have the right imprint.
Suddenly, she asks if Boyd trusts her. Surprised, he responds truthfully, "With my life." He hands her a gun, which her imprint conveniently knows how to use.
Time for a showdown.
Now, Echo is hunting Richard. She shoots, but only grazes his arm. They face off: bow and arrow to gun. It's a little exciting after all flashbacks and boring running. His arm is shaky and she is still woozy, so not the best battle of strength here. With a lot of taunting, almost putting down their weapons and then misfiring, she charges at Richard, tackling him to the ground. Then she really has at him, getting a number of good punches in. I can't help but cheer for her. Us girls should all learn how to punch like that.
But then Richard, with all his manly strength, pushes her off and starts to strangle her. Frantic and still hallucinating a little, she manages to get her grip on a loose arrow, which she then stabs Richard in the neck with. Ouch!
As he dies, Richard reveals that he had been sent specifically after her. Anyway, Echo has no idea what he's talking about and he says, one last time, "Shoulder to the wheel."
Echo goes back to Boyd, who is bleeding against a tree. She curls up next to him, and it's sweet, though this clearly isn't a normal Handler/Active relationship. Back at the Dollhouse, in Topher's dentist chair, she asks her usual, "Did I fall asleep?" This time, Boyd is there and responds, "For a little while". He holds her hand and I challenge you not to be moved by the relationship. This is the part of story-telling that Whedon does best.
Adelle is in her office, grumpy at missing the fact that Richard was a psychopath. His paperwork was intricately fabricated, and the ranger was killed. They are both certain it was Alpha. The big Alpha reveal/attack shall be awesome -- I hope. He's fast becoming my favourite "villain".
Being the rent-a-cop that he is, Boyd also pieces it together: it was Alpha. But Dr Saunders disagrees; they were told that they had found Alpha and had put a bullet in his head. Boyd is sceptical. And here is the crux of this show, as explained by Boyd: Alpha kills nearly everyone, but leaves Echo untouched, and then some nut job hires another nut job to kill off Echo. Whoever it is, it all leads back to Echo.
Just before the end of this episode, Lawrence steps in front of Echo while she is heading to do whatever Actives do in their downtime. He taunts her, and says that if it were up to him, he'd put her in the "attic" (which means ... what?) or the ground. I really don't like him.
And -- if this whole episode hasn't creeped you out yet -- Echo, while looking like a vacant-wiped Active, thumps her right shoulder, a la Richard's "shoulder to the wheel".
I'm getting a little tired with the personality-of-the-week-gone-wrong storyline dragging on, as it only really lets Eliza Dushku show her scope as an actress. It slows the series down, and not in a good way. I'm sure they could have killed off Richard much sooner, while revealing Alpha's involvement and Echo's possible self-awareness in a critically suspenseful way. Not that it matters much; they helpfully (and obviously) point us in that direction, which is apparently needed for the brainless audience that we are.
... Why do you think Alpha went postal three months ago?
... Why does Alpha seem to have an obsession with Echo?
... Why do you think Echo is starting to remember things, even from before she got drugged?
... Who else wants head of security Lawrence dead (or tortured, at least)?
... Would you enlist yourself to become a Handler or an Active?
Dollhouse airs Mondays, at 10pm AEST on Channel 11.