Welcome back! After a Dollhouse-free sweeps month in November, the show has returned with back-to-back episodes for three straight Fridays—a bounty for you and a torment for yours truly. (Though I like the continuity of digging into multiple episodes at once as opposed to having them parsed out for a week. If I were a patient person who didn’t have to write or have public opinions about television, I’d be tempted to watch all novelistic TV on DVD.) Before I get down to it, the single grade above reflects an average of the two, but for you ratings-hounds, I’ve included grades for the individual episodes below the write-ups. Moving on…
The Public Eye
Key line: “I think her bad guys are badder than my bad guys.”
So boom, right off the bat we’re thrown into the larger world of Dollhouse with “The Public Eye,” heading past the relatively cloistered environs of the L.A. branch and into the bigger, more insidious schemes of the Rossum Corporation and its many tentacles. And when we’re finally introduced to Rossum’s head honcho Matthew Harding (played by the reliable character actor Keith Carradine) and Adelle and Topher’s analogues at the D.C. division—Ray Wise as Howard Lipman and Summer Glau as Bennett Halverson, respectively—it’s frighteningly obvious where the real power lies in this operation. These bad guys are definitely badder than the bad guys we’ve used to seeing.
Having lurked in deep background for the first four episodes, Whedon regular Alexis Denisof steps into the fore as Senator Daniel Perrin, the crusading Kennedy-esque politician who has Rossum and the Dollhouse in his sights. With Madeleine—or the doll formerly known as Mellie/November—bravely emerging from retirement to blow the whistle on Dollhouse’s abuses, Perrin now has the ammunition to go after the shadowy operation once thought to be urban myth. And he seems like a true believer, too: Not one of the slick, crooked, opportunistic politicians we always see in TV, movies, and, okay, real life, but a straight-arrow willing to risk his neck to bring down a corporation he knows has tremendous power. (His wife Cindy even frets over the possibility of him getting assassinated during the press conference, though we learn not to take her at her word.)
In light of Senator Perrin’s righteous crusade, it was actually a little disappointing that he was not as he seemed. Then again, that was more than mitigated by the fact that he was not as he seemed in two completely fascinating ways: 1. He’s a doll, which was the sort of mind-blowing Dollhouse twist I should have been coming but didn’t (the Cindy factor threw me off). 2. The Perrin that’s been activated by Rossum really does believe what he’s saying and plays the role of crusader with utter sincerity conviction. It’s a rich, tragic irony that he’s really just a corporate tool, forced to lead a narrow public hearing on Dollhouse while distracting from (and further enabling) Rossum’s larger crimes against humanity. Then again, there are already strong suggestions that like a lot of dolls, his programming won’t entirely obscure his underlying will. He may be our D.C. Echo.
Of course, the Senator Perrin character unmistakably recalls the suggestible Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) in The Manchurian Candidate, and like Raymond Shaw, Perrin cedes control not only to insidious corporate/political forces, but to the much stronger woman in his life. As Cindy, the gleaming Stepford-looking monster who turns out to be Perrin’s handler, Stacey Scowley can’t possibly be expected to muster the genteel wickedness of an Angela Lansbury, but she’s enjoyably brash and has a solid right hook. I hope the show explores her devotion to her job—after all, being Perrin’s sham wife for two years meant doing her wifely duties, which she painfully reminds him in the next episode wasn’t a picnic for her— but for now she’s a creature of pure malevolence.
“The Public Enemy” was a very solid episode, hampered just a little by having to do a lot of table-setting for more thrilling episodes to come. (See below.) Moving the show outside the L.A. Dollhouse and into the wider conspiracy means establishing new conflicts and new characters, all of whom are several times nastier than the somewhat ambiguous figures we’ve come to know in the regular cast. Cindy Perrin, Matthew Harding, Howard Lipman, and—oh sweet lord—Glau’s one-armed, sadistic techno-wizard Bennett Halverson now loom like a five-headed Big Bad, and viewers of the 13th episode of last season know where that’s ultimately going to lead.
• Perrin on his wife: “She’s perfect. It’s like she made her just for me.” Me: “Oh yes, of course, she’s a doll. That makes sense. She can go active and rub people out whenever necessary.” The show: “Wrong again, idiot.”
• The remote wipe gets expanded to a convenient handheld device. And true to the tragic reach of the technology, it’s supposed to cover a range up to 10 feet, but wipes closer to 50. Works for twisty thrills and for one terrific pratfall.
• Topher awesomeness, on new doll Kilo: “Isn’t she so cute and tiny? I love it when a doll’s name is so on the nose. [awkward pause] Because she weighs one kilo. [another awkward pause] It’s a unit of measurement.”
• Glau gets a great introduction here. Just the question “How many sugars?” made me want to crawl under my desk.
The Left Hand
And with the setup that was “The Public Eye,” there’s a phenomenal payoff of “The Left Hand,” an action-packed hour that begins with Bennett torturing the hell out of Echo and ends with the news that Senator Perrin is being groomed lead the country into capital-F Fascism. It’s incredible to me that a show this complex and politically edgy is on network television; then again, it’s being cancelled because of anemic viewership, so there’s that to consider, too.
The intensity of the episode was strong in every direction: There was the agony of Bennett, with her Dr. Strangelove arm, taking Echo as close as she can to the attic by hitting her with “blinding pain” and the vague promise that “when we get to the ‘why,’ that’s when it gets really bad.” There was the knife-twisting by Cindy Perrin, who’s now free to talk openly to her husband about the disgusting sacrifice of being his pretend wife. And finally, poor Madeleine/Mellie/November gets rewarded for her courage by being hung out to dry and forced back into the Dollhouse. Some potent stuff all around, and confirmation that the show is raising the stakes considerably from here on out. Seeing the force of evil that the Rossum Corporation truly represents really throws the vulnerabilities and moral gray areas of our L.A. denizens in sharp relief.
At the same time, “The Left Hand” was hardly a miserablist wallow, no matter how dark it got. In fact, it may have been the most purely entertaining episode to date, thanks to the geeked-out interaction between Topher and Bennett and the comedic brilliance of the two Tophers concept. The latter first: Though bearing more than a small resemblance to the great Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode “The Replacement” from Season Five, which had two Xanders squared off against each other, the two Tophers concept was just as inspired, if only for further proof of Enver Gjokaj’s versatility as Victor. Imprinted as Topher to hold down the fort while the real Topher is off commingling with the D.C. crowd, Gjokaj’s Victor finds some comic sweet spot between merciless parody and uncanny impersonation. Topher’s communication with himself led to some fine metaphysical schtick throughout, and once they got together, the two Tophers were amusingly chummy. Much like Xander, Topher amuses himself more than he does others.
As for the Topher/Bennett material, that was both funny and revealing, with Glau and Fran Kranz playing their uneasy mutual admiration to the hilt. Topher is in awe of Bennett’s skills; that projection of her beautifully crafted brain next to his comparatively remedial one makes the distance between them embarrassingly plain. And yet Bennett, as powerful and nasty as she can be, has something of a schoolgirl crush on Topher, too, and approaches him like some sweaty-palmed nerd, nervously commenting on how his skin looks pink like a pig’s. Topher later describes her aptly as “John Cassavetes in The Fury as a hot chick,” but at that moment, she’s awkward, even winningly so.
There’s plenty more to unpack in this episode—Adelle’s impressive show of strength against her smug D.C. counterpart, Bennett dramatically bloodying her head to mislead Topher, the death of Perrin’s wife, the sad fates of November and Echo—but I’ve gone on long enough already and am probably too tired and punch-drunk to say anything coherent about these developments anyway. All in all, a great night for the show, with intimations of greater nights to come.
• Bennett to Echo: “We take God from you, too. You really are a shell.” Hell hath no fury, clearly.
• “You just run the house and wait for yourself to call.”
• You have to love Topher’s excuse for his crappy-looking brain: “She was kind of a hooker.”
• Victor as Topher: “Should I go now?” “For the love of God, yes.”