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Dollhouse

Dollhouse is a drama about a secret company in Los Angeles who can programme the minds of their young 'Actives' with any personality that a client chooses. FOX 2009-2010

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Episode 11 - Briar Rose

28 March 2012

Synopsis: Echo is helping a girl who is struggling with memories of abuse. Adelle gets Laurence Dominic’s personality out of the attic and into Victor to help open a message from Alpha. Alpha has killed someone in Tucson and Sierra is dispatched as a forensic specialist to check it out. Paul Ballard breaks up with Mellie. He follows her as she is picked up by her handler and taken to the Dollhouse. He investigates the Dollhouse building and tracks down the man who must have helped design their underground building. Stephen Kepler is growing his own marijuana and is extremely tense about breaking into the Dollhouse. But they do and Ballard and Langdon fight over the confused Echo. Kepler keeps the other actives sleeping and the alarms quiet until he reveals that he is Alpha. He slashes Victor’s face and intimidates Dr Saunders. Then he takes Echo to the chair, she wakes and makes out with him before they leave together.

The Good: Whether you suspected that Alan Tudyk was Alpha or not, I still think the big twist will have worked on most viewers. That’s because like all great reveals, the misdirection led you away from that assumption. Then once it was revealed it seems so obvious that he was.

The misdirection was the sight of Paul Ballard in the Dollhouse. Ten episodes of intense, joyless work for him had finally paid off. He was the first outsider we have ever seen in the Dollhouse. So to see him walking through unfamiliar rooms which were familiar to the viewer was intriguing and gripping television. His showdown with Boyd really meant something too. The fighting was good dramatic stuff but it was more than the action that was so important. Like any fight worth seeing, the intrigue was in the motivation and relative strength. We know both men want to protect Echo but from completely different perspectives. And we know they are both tough, professional and uncompromising. So there was no obvious favourite making their battle so important and unpredictable. The confused Echo plays the deciding role, choosing the man who has treated her most kindly that she can remember, which made sense.

Finally seeing Ballard in the Dollhouse, finally seeing someone call Boyd out for being a pimp. It was all so intriguing that it throws your mind off the erratic pot smoker who is pressing buttons in the next room. Once he switched and you realised he was Alpha all the pieces fell into place. Suddenly it made perfect sense why this man who couldn’t make his own coffee was suddenly able to manipulate a computer system so expertly despite apparently years of absence since he designed it. It made sense that he knew exactly how the pods worked and where they were. It made sense that he hid his face from Topher and another active. It made sense that he suggested (in an offhand way) that they bring rope to climb down into the Dollhouse.

Once you realise all that you ask why didn’t I always know he was Alpha. Well if you didn’t I would say it was because the misdirection was so well executed. Ballard aside, Kepler was so whiny and weeded up that he was actually ruining the tension for me. I felt his endless playing for stoner laughs was detracting from what should have been a huge moment for the show. But in retrospect it played perfectly into making me not see the obvious.

It was a terrific performance from Tudyk. So whiny and helpless and then suddenly so menacing and brutal. His slashing of Victor’s face was great television. Through his love for Sierra (108), his scenes with Adelle (109) and particularly in his vulnerable Doll state, Victor has become a deeply sympathetic character. To see him so brutally disfigured was an ideal way to make viewers see Alpha as a genuine threat and draw your emotions further into the action. His interrogation of Dr Saunders was very intriguing (see The Unknown) and by now viewers would be hanging on his every word. Then he turned out to be the “Prince” who “rescued” “Echo” from the Dollhouse. I put inverted commas around rescued and Echo because it’s far from clear who exactly she is or what is going on. Again this is excellent television as it should demand the audience come back next week to find out what is going on.

Elsewhere there was a lot more good stuff to enjoy. Further misdirection came from Echo’s mission where the story of Sleeping beauty set up Ballard to be the hero which he didn’t get to be. That story showcased (briefly) the magic of the Dollhouse technology and the good work to which it could be put. It was another attempt to humanise Topher by showing that he came up with this altruistic way of helping people with serious trauma.

Boyd too showed off his morality by defending Ballard’s right not to be wiped. Hopefully that issue will be explored further next week as it is difficult to know what else to do with him at this stage. It was good to hear Ballard make the case that even consensual slavery is wrong. It was interesting to hear Boyd call them “residents” too, that must help him sleep at night.

Victor did a great job playing Laurence Dominic while strapped in the chair. I was very pleased to see him screaming, angry and struggling. That’s exactly how I imagine you would react in such a horrifying out of body experience. Too often on television these understandable reactions are ignored.

Alpha’s plan and logic were really good. The body in Tucson distracted the Dollhouse from worrying about his proximity. He used Ballard to make sure that Echo would be the one who got resuscitated and that there would be a decoy to distract security with. He played the stoner Kepler convincingly enough, though I thought most attempts at humour were too obvious. Except for him spitting his own coffee out immediately. Kepler’s illegal weed garden was also a perfect excuse as to why he was going so far in helping Ballard.

But despite being manipulated Ballard looks good here. He is clever to deceive Mellie into thinking he is leaving so that he can follow her back to the Dollhouse. He is realistic and knows that he will soon be under surveillance again and if they find he knows where the Dollhouse is they will kill him. He also justifies correctly why he can’t save Mellie or indeed any other Doll at this moment. Which I think was important to establish or else it looks like he is being unfair to other victims.

The recycled energy was a really nice detail to help explain why there aren’t huge electricity and gas bills piling up which might arouse suspicion. Topher’s extra layers of computer security was a nice touch, again fitting his personality.

This episode was so full of solid details that it really helped build everything for the last dramatic ten minutes. When you get all the little details right you can get viewers sucked so much further into the story. No part of them is questioning things as you take them on the journey.

The Bad: The only false note for me was Ballard commandeering a doll so easily on the staircase. He has never seen someone in that state before and I thought he figured out what to do far too easily. I could buy him trying it, but he was to sure of himself.

Acting stoned and crazy isn’t easy. There were moments when it grated for me but I forgive 99% of it because it fitted the twist so perfectly.

The Unknown: Who is Echo? Is this a particular personality that Alpha likes or actually something more organic? How much of Alpha’s random speech about machines was actually his own opinion? After all he is a creation of the Dollhouse, his personality is a mixture we assume from the personalities he was once imprinted with. So when he says that this is the future with machines giving us what we need and vice versa, could he believe some of that? We’re all interchangeable he adds. Was he acting the role of Kepler or was that part of a personality he was once imprinted with?

Alpha says with complete certainty that Dr Saunders is lying when she claims that she always wanted to be a doctor. Earlier on Laurence Dominic (in Victor’s body) tries to reason with everyone in the room. He calls them by their first names and when he turns to Saunders he says “Whisky.” That could be the name of the W active in the Dollhouse. Perhaps Saunders is Whisky? Perhaps that explains why Alpha didn’t kill her but left her with a scar. Some kind of test for her perhaps?

If Topher suggested how to help a child suffering trauma then how did he get hold of Susan’s brain scans?

Best Moment: The Alpha reveal.

Epilogue: Built so well, misdirected with skill, setup for next week ideally. This is superb television. More please.

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