Dollhouse: Of Stalkers and Freedom

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Note: Dollhouse originally aired in the US in 2009, and is currently (finally) being shown on Australian free-to-air TV.

I really, really want to love Dollhouse. What drew me initially was what I knew of the premise of this show, which is beyond great: it's thought provoking and deep. So far, the first two episodes have been about establishing the world of Dollhouse; the rules, the characters and their histories, with enough mystery injected to make Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proud.

There have been moments of really great, funny dialogue, and some good emotional elements, but I couldn't really connect with anyone until the last few scenes between Echo and Boyd in episode two, "The Target". The characters didn't feel like they all fit, let alone worked together -- living in their own little bubbles, while Eliza Dushku carried the show. This isn't Echo/Caroline and the Dollhouse. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly all worked like an ensemble right from the get go, between, at least, a few characters. As if the characters were being pushed under the need for explaining the premise in great (and sometimes obvious) detail. Perhaps I shouldn't compare, but that was the strength of those shows.

But after this episode, "Stage Fright", I finally feel like the characters are now sure of their roles in the Dollhouse and are more cohesive, like a solid ensemble should be. I'm suddenly emotionally invested in these characters, rather than just enjoying Topher's derisive humour, feeling for Mellie and being interested in the mystery. It shouldn't have taken three episodes (despite Whedon's reported issues with studio heads), but we finally got here, and I'm glad.

This episode starts at the concert of young, talented Rayna Russell. During a song, one of her backup singers catches on fire, stopping the entire show. The singer is quickly rushed away by security guards. In the audience, there is a young man standing, staring intently.

Back at the Dollhouse, Echo and Sierra are exercising together. Echo catches Sierra when she starts feeling dizzy, because, as Echo says, "friends help each other out". They are being watched, and their exchange shows that they could potentially be more than just "blank slates".

Doctor Saunders thinks Boyd still needs a few days to completely heal from his injuries. Boyd pushes Saunders to certify him; he wants to watch over Echo, knowing that there is some psycho after her. Reluctantly, Saunders agrees. But she also warns him that someone else is watching Echo, too. Boyd is his cool self as he replies that someone always is. Boyd is genuinely concerned about Echo, and although Saunders tries to seem detached or even a bit disgusted by the Dollhouse, she does also seem to care. Seeing her look down on what the Dollhouse does, and what Alpha did to her, I wonder why she stays working there.

Later, Lubov spooks Agent Paul Ballard's neighbour, Mellie, when he tries break into his apartment. He leaves her with a message for Paul to meet him at some address on Friday night. Back at the Dollhouse, Adelle has a meeting with Biz, an old friend and manager to pop star Rayna. He is there to hire an Active as a bodyguard. He's genuinely worried about Rayna, as she seems "moodier than usual". She's also been receiving notes from a stalker. He doesn't want the conventional muscle; she needs someone who will be there to protect her, someone she likes, without her even knowing.

It's high risk, so, of course, Adelle places Echo in the position of backup singer (great choice, considering her well her latest assignments have gone!). Rayna, during Echo's rehearsal, likes her immediately. At this point, as if I didn't envy her enough before, Eliza Dushku really shows what a talented and gorgeous actress she is -- she's a touch above being more than just a decent singer. Why wasn't she in the musical episode of Buffy?! Anyway, Rayna "hires" her. Like there was ever any doubt.

After the opening credits, Saunders stomps over to Topher, asking why Echo has been assigned to a high-risk job when her report indicates that she shouldn't be. Topher shrugs it off, but Saunders is shocked to hear that while Echo is there as a backup singer, she has no idea that she is also there as a bodyguard. Topher then explains that each "imprint" has two separate elements: persona and parameter. In this case: persona -- she's a struggling singer who just got her big break; and parameter -- she must protect Rayna, instinctively and unconsciously.

"It's the beauty of what we do!" I think Topher has the makings of a mad scientist.

Saunders points out that Boyd isn't yet up to high-risk jobs, either, as he is still recovering. Topher points out her use of his first name. Topher thinks Dr Saunders and Boyd get along, because they both disapprove of everything. It must be tough for Topher, with people looking down on his genius.

During Rayna's rehearsals, Echo notices the extra security around. Rayna, on the other hand, seems like super high-strung diva, and the other backup singers don't like Rayna favouring Echo.

At a rooftop party, Lubov complains to Paul Ballard that he hasn't heard anything, and, if he keeps sniffing around, both of them will end up dead. Lubov insists that he is a dead end. And he's also done his research on Paul; he's been given this case, because he's never closed any of his other cases -- so they gave him a case on something that doesn't even exist, even if the technology exists. If it did, Lubov says he would happily sign up and be rid of his burdens. Lubov is, in a weird way, likeable, though I'd like scenes between the two be more than Lubov constantly insisting that he doesn't know anything.

Back to Echo, and just before a performance, she points out to Biz that there is no security at one of the elevators. Topher, over an ear piece, explains to Boyd that Sierra will be "coming into play" soon, which is another element that makes this episode a little more interesting! Two Actives will possibly be working together. Boyd acts almost like a father to Echo, getting nervous about Echo's first performance. It's cute how he acts like a mother hen. And again, I think my favourite part of this show is the small interactions between Topher and Boyd. They bounce off each other really well.

As Topher and Boyd discuss Rayna, the person Topher is currently "wiping" in his Chair of Doom is revealed: it's Lubov -- who is actually Victor. I'll be honest: this surprised me. With all the rather obvious foreshadowing that had been occurring before this episode, this was a nice turn of events! Maybe I should have known, but I'm glad I didn't. Though now I'm wondering who else in the show will be revealed as Actives? I suppose this is what Adelle meant when she said that the Paul Ballard situation was being handled.

As Rayna's show is about to start, the young man that was staring earlier is coming in with the rest of the audience. Sierra is also backstage, posing as Audra, the winner of Rayna's "Number One Fan" competition from Australia. Convenient, as the actress, Dichen Lachman is actually from Australia. At least we get a real Aussie accent! The young man, obviously Rayna's stalker, positions himself in some dark room within the concert hall. His crutches were hiding his gun, which he begins to assemble during the performance. He then leaves. Also, Boyd would be proud, as Echo puts on a good performance.

After the show, Rayna and Echo enter a party in her honour, though Echo is concerned whether it's safe or not. Rayna is relaxed; it's a party! But Rayna's stalker is there. Audra, in bumbling fan mode, is also there, and Rayna has to be nice to her. Echo is a little disconcerted that everyone just does whatever Rayna tells them to do. A guy starts to approach Rayna, and Echo shoots up and flips him out of reach, surprising everyone. Turns out he was just a photographer, but clearly her "parameter" is in full action.

Back at FBI HQ, Agent Ballard is on the phone with Lubov, who gives him an address to an abandoned building, where people may have been held captive by the Russian family that Ballard thinks is smuggling people in for the Dollhouse. Ballard goes there, only to be met by thugs who beat him up. He, with his super FBI skills, overcomes them, even though he gets shot. Unfortunately, none of them know about the Dollhouse, and with three dead/unconscious thugs around him, he manages to call the ambulance before collapsing. Proof that Ballard is capable of more than just being threatening.

Back in Boyd's stalker van, Sierra's handler makes it clear that he's pretty damn relaxed as his girl "only comes into play" when things will get really extreme. Boyd is investigating Rayna's possible stalker, but Sierra's handler isn't bothered in investigating someone else's problems.

Backstage, Echo goes into Rayna's dressing room. Rayna goes on about how this will be her best night. Echo notices that she is still getting fan mail from her stalker, and that she is, in fact, corresponding with him. Rayna blows up at Echo, explaining that she doesn't understand, that he is her number one fan, and then she stomps her diva butt out. Echo looks over her numerous flowers, and notices notes under each one, basically saying that he's going to kill her.

Echo works it out: Rayna's stalker is going to kill her, and that's what she wants. She wants to be "free". She's just as messed up as her stalker. As the performance starts, Rayna's stalker prepares his gun from across from the stage. Rayna is on stage, looking for her stalker, but then introduces Audra to the audience as her "number one fan". Her stalker points his gun. Echo tells Biz that she knows "he" is there. Biz tells the stage manager to stop the show, but he doesn't listen. Kneeing him in the groin, Echo rushes on stage, and, with a stage light, tries to find the shooter. She spots him as he starts to shoot, and Echo pushes Rayna down to get her out of the way. They rush Rayna off stage.

Back in Rayna's dressing room, Rayna blows up at Echo for shutting down her show. Echo saved her life, but Rayna insists that she was going to give them a real show -- her death. Echo is shocked. Rayna thinks that everyone wants to see her die. She's clearly having a breakdown. She's tired of trying to be what everyone wants to be, because she isn't real; she's just a "fantasy". The irony of her saying this to a Dollhouse Active is not lost us.

Rayna thinks that being killed will be her freedom. Echo thinks she's weak, and an angry Rayna fires her. Audra/Sierra is outside, trying to get back in. Security tells her to go around the back, but, as she does, the stalker guy kidnaps her. He sends Rayna a video saying that her actions have made him kidnap Audra. He doesn't like that Rayna called Audra her number one fan. He wants to meet her in person, and it's revealed to Biz that Rayna has been in contact with him. Biz slaps her, and Rayna rushes away. Echo is there to collect her stuff, and Biz asks, "shouldn't you be with her?" -- even though Rayna fired her. Echo agrees, and, though she doesn't know why, she "has to help her".

Back at the Dollhouse, Lawrence informs Adelle that Audra has been captured, apparently to draw the stalker's attention away from Rayna. Doubtful; she seems like she's just a star-struck fool, really, but Lawrence takes the credit anyway.

The stalker wants Audra/Sierra to sing Rayna's song into the camera. He doesn't like that she got to be near Rayna, to smell her. Creep factor? Super high, but not as high as Echo's hunter from the previous episode.

Echo confronts Rayna again. She wants to help, but Rayna doesn't want to hear any of it -- she doesn't even want to do anything. They've called the police, and so she can shrug and continue with her shows. Crazy factor? Beyond Britney Spears. Anyway, Echo hits her over the head with a chair, insisting that she will help save Audra/Sierra. Because "friends help each other out". Which sounds like Echo's personality is leaking into her imprint. Will any tech ever be foolproof?

Gun-toting security men storm Mr Stalker's house, but it's empty. There is a message on his phone, though. It's Echo, who says that she has Rayna and wants to make an exchange. Lawrence is not happy, and picks up Topher by the collar, asking what the hell is happening; whether he's doing it on purpose, or he's just terrible at his job. Topher, just slightly fazed, replies "neither" -- love him -- but Lawrence tells him that Echo is off task. He pushes Lawrence, and tells him back off. Go Nerdman! As he puts it, one of them is a genius and the other is a "security man in a very nice suit". I'm glad he stands up for himself. However, when Lawrence asks why Echo would kidnap the girl she's meant to protect to trade her to her stalker, Topher is speechless. "That does sound kinda bad." Yeah, just a little.

Back at the concert hall, up in the catwalks, Echo is holding a tied and gagged Rayna. Mr Stalker approaches with Audra/Sierra, who is also tied up. Echo wants him to let Audra go in exchange for Rayna, who he can then kill, because she wants to die -- and Echo and nobody else cares. Audra quietly says, "I would". Cute!

Boyd is down below, looking for them. Mr Stalker explains that it's about giving Rayna what she wants. Rayna is crying, and Echo rips off the duct tape on her mouth. Rayna starts a spiel about being sorry, she doesn't want to die, she doesn't want to hurt anybody, blah blah. Boyd is up there now, pointing his gun at Mr Stalker, ready for a command to shoot. Adelle, back at Dollhouse HQ, says not just yet.

Mr Stalker says that he doesn't want to hurt her. Echo taunts them all, making Mr Stalker angrier. Echo pushes Rayna off the catwalk, but she's tied up and doesn't fall very far. Just kinda ... hangs there. Mr Stalker freaks out, giving Echo the opportunity to disarm him and knock him unconscious. Echo rushes to help Audra, then Rayna. I'm still not sure about the importance of Audra, or how she was helpful, if at all.

Lawrence is complaining to Adelle that Echo is increasingly becoming a threat that could compromise the organisation. I really dislike him. Adelle disagrees, saying that Echo took the mission parameter, and Boyd finishes her sentence to Dr Saunders, saying, "and did even better". She is creating new solutions to problems. It's impressive, but Saunders points out that this isn't always a good thing in the Dollhouse.

While Rayna sings "Freedom" (written specially for the show -- and brilliant!), Mellie is shown looking for Ballard in the hospital. Echo, in the Dollhouse, notices people staring at her, and when Sierra walks by with a smile and about to talk to her, Echo shakes her head, indicating not to. They walk by, quietly ignoring each other, though clearly, even in their "wiped" state, they are becoming friends -- which, I'm guessing, they shouldn't be.

This episode had so much more going on than previous episodes. Between Lubov being revealed as Active Victor, and Echo and Sierra showing personalities in their wiped states, the Dollhouse storyline is getting meatier. I also like that there are now more character interactions.

Questions:

... Which other characters do you think will turn out to be Actives?

... Why do you think Lawrence has such a vendetta against Echo?

... How will Echo and Sierra's "friendship" affect the Dollhouse?

... Who else thinks Mellie is just adorable?

Dollhouse airs Mondays, at 10pm AEST on Channel 11.

Read our recaps of episode five, episode four, episode two and episode one.

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