Written by: Brett Williams, Special to CC2K
Brett Williams offers up a detailed, in-depth analysis of the latest episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse
Critics and naysayers be damned. The Target, episode two of Joss Whedon's newest show Dollhouse, blew the doors off of the first. The first was too slow, too cold, too inhuman? Where is Joss's signature humor you say, where is his great sense of pacing, his strong and well realized characters? They're here, in The Target, free of the overlording hand of the Fox network. In last week's article I defended the show's premise and its pilot episode. I admitted that while the pilot definitely hit some snags, I thought there was enough there to build a good show on. After this week's episode, I can confidently proclaim that I was right. If every episode from here in is as good as The Target, we might have another serious Whedon success on our hands.
This episode was written and directed by longtime Joss collaborator Steven S. DeKnight. DeKnight had the unenviable task of extracting the positive from the pilot episode, shaving the negative, and giving us a product in just the second episode that we as fans could really get behind. He succeeded admirably. The Target gives us a more detailed glimpse into the world of the Dollhouse, introduces us to the dynamic that Detective Paul Ballard has with his co-workers (not a good one), blows up the screen with some seriously thrilling heroics, and injects the whole package with a strain of humor and tenderness that we've come to expect from a Joss Whedon show. One almost gets the impression while watching this episode that the pilot, if it had gone without being interfered with, would have been something more akin to this.
The show opens on a flashback that takes place three months before the current timeline. There is an alarm going off and one of the doctors/nurses/doll herders is attempting to get a group of obviously frightened and confused Dolls into bed. They don't understand why they're being sent to bed without a shower.
Next we see the Laurence Dominic, the man who appears to be the second in command of the Dollhouse, leading a group of armed commandos. He encounters Topher and Dewitt, the director, and they inform him that Alpha (who we assume is the naked gentleman from then end of episode 1) has had a "composite" event. It appears that a composite event is what happens to a Doll if for some reason the wiping of their memories doesn't hold. In this case, the composite event made Alpha into a frighteningly efficient killer cutting a red swath through the Dollhouse. The Dollhouse is awash with blood and terror. Alpha, it is plain to see, is a ten megaton badass. But for some reason, this ten megaton badass left Echo alive.
We jump ahead to the present where DeWitt is briefing a new client. This scene is important not just because it sets up the conflict for this episode but also because we get a glimpse of how DeWitt really feels about what they do. She tells the client that what they do is not a trick, that they offer the truth. For a price, of course. She informs the client, a dashingly handsome young rapscallion, that the things he wants to do with Echo are dangerous enough that it requires a small extra fee. He jokes, "Small, huh?" "To my employers, yes," answers DeWitt. This is subtle, but it gives us the impression that DeWitt, who we have assumed is numero uno on the food chain around here, actually answers to someone higher up the ladder. Who could it be?
Cut to Echo and the client, Richard Connell, whitewater rafting. They seem to be having a good time. The actors have good chemistry together and it shows on the screen. There's some more humor here, some more sexiness, some more, ya know…Joss. The one important thing that comes out of these sequences is "shoulder to the wheel." Connell tells Echo that his father believed in "shoulder to the wheel," in always working for what you want, never waiting for a handout. He tells her that hunting is important because you shouldn't be allowed to eat something you can't kill and nothing deserves to live if its not willing to fight for its own life.
Ballard finally shows up and we see him roll up on the scene of last week's climax, the house where Echo rescued the kidnapped little girl. We see an FBI crime scene unit blanketing the house. There are two detectives working the scene, one of whom is played by Mark Sheppard who played the character of Badger on Firefly. Nice nod to longtime Joss fans. His detective, Tanaka, seems to be at odds with Ballard. He keeps giving him hell about the Dollhouse, talking it down, making fun of him for being assigned to such a ridiculous case. Ballard is trying to get information about the crime scene since it just doesn't add up. The second detective, the non-Badger one, is being a lot more helpful, much to the obvious chagrin of his partner. It would be easy to read simple asshole cop versus hero cop dynamic into this, but for an FBI detective Tanaka is surprisingly inept at his job. I got the feeling as I was watching that Tanaka's attempts to disparage Ballard might go beyond normal workplace loathing. Perhaps Tanaka is trying to hide something? Keep your eye on him.
We get back to the woods and the episode really heats up. We find out that Connell's intention this whole time was to hunt Echo. He gives her a five minute headstart and then goes after her. While she's running, we get another Alpha flashback.
We see Boyd being hired by DeWitt and Dominic. He gets a rundown of how the Dollhouse operates and why he is needed. It turns out that Alpha murdered Echo's handler in his escape from the Dollhouse. Boyd requests to see the body and determines that Alpha has the skill of a precision surgeon to have done something like what he's seeing. He theorizes that something so deadly and precise would take time, to which Dominic informs him that it took "eight seconds." That's right folks, Alpha can make you look like a human paper doll in about eight secons. Scared yet?
We get back to Ballard before we get back to the woods. Ballard finds the envelope from the pilot with his name on it tucked into his mail. It appears that Alpha managed to walk right into the FBI and put this folder into Ballard's mail without being stopped. Shiver. The folder contains the picture of Echo with her real name, Caroline, on the back. The plot doth now begin to thicken.
Flashback time. Boyd and Topher are talking about the Alpha incident. Anytime anyone mentions Alpha it looks like Topher swallows his own tongue. You can tell that Alpha scares the hell out of him, but also that he feels responsible in some way for what happened. Boyd appears uncomfortable with his new job, unsure of what he's doing, and he deals with that by acting cold and emotionless toward the dolls. He inquires as to whether the actives Alpha murdered even fought back, to which Topher tells him they wouldn't know how. When Boyd asks why they aren't imprinted with default defense mechanisms, Topher informs him that efforts to do that in the past ended up in blood.
We finally get back to the woods and things continue to go nuts. Topher, the uber-geek imprinter of the dolls, is retasking a Dollhouse satellite so that Boyd can get better coverage of Echo's vitals deep in the woods. Just the knowledge that they control various satellites gives us yet another glimpse into just how powerful and over-reaching the Dollhouse can be. We find out that Boyd and his partner, a useless redshirt whose only job was apparently drive the van into the woods, have been ambushed by a man pretending to be a park ranger. Boyd manages to subdue his attacker and alert Topher to the issue. Boyd gets all badass on the guy and finds out that he was sent there by an anonymous employer in an attempt to slow down the Dollhouse response team. Looks like it worked.
Echo comes to a cabin in the woods. Inside she drinks some water from a canteen and finds a dead ranger inside the closet. He has a walkie talkie on him that Connell begins using to communicate with her, to taunt her. We find out soon that the water she just drank was drugged with some kind of hallucinagen meant to slow her down. Echo is in the middle of threatening her attacker when the drug takes hold and begins to cripple her.
We flashback again and while it may seem here on paper (screen) that these constant flashbacks would kill the flow, they actually offer a nice contrast to the breakneck pace of the present day story in the woods. They're also extremely important because they show how the relationship between Boyd and Echo progresses. This flashback shows Boyd and Echo during their handler/active imprint session. Topher informs him that this is important because it changes Echo so that she will perceive Boyd as the most important person in her life, the one person that she can trust unconditionally. They set up a series of triggers that come into play later in the episode. Boyd seems skeptical throughout the entire scene, especially when Topher informs him that he must hold Echo's hand throughout the procedure. But in that moment, when he touches her hand, the two share what passes for a moment of genuine tenderness and in that twisted world.
Echo feels the effects of the drug. She will begin to see visions of different versions of herself over the course of the next few scenes. The first vision she encounters is of herself from the video at the end of the pilot. She is confused, the drug causing her to flash back to memories that should have long since been erased.
Boyd finally gets free and makes it out to Echo. She recognizes him but in her current state she can't place why. He gives her one of the embedded phrases, "Everything's going to be alright." "Now that you're here," she responds. This is an important scene again because Echo doesn't seem to quite buy it. She is continuing to question how it is she knows him. Then she informs him about the drug, telling him that she's having flashbacks, memories that she doesn't recall living, like the video, and the day Alpha escaped. Boyd is obviously troubled by this, but he doesn't have time to worry about it. He tries to reassure her that things will be okay. Then he gets shot from behind with an arrow. If you're a Joss Whedon fan, you TOTALLY knew that was about to happen.
Boyd tells her not to worry, that "everything's going to be alright." But this time, to his surprise, she resists it. "No it isn't, everything's not going to be alright." She knows that he won't stop coming after them until they're both dead, so she decides to take the fight to him. Echo is using what Connell taught her, that nothing should be allowed to live if they can't fight for their own life, to find the courage necessary to go after him. Then, to his surprise, she asks Boyd if he trusts her, turning the whole handler/active dynamic on its head. He says he trusts her with his life, gives her one of his (conveniently) two guns, and sends her out to get badass on this douchey extreme sport human hunting jackass. Which is, of course, what our girl does.
She turns everything back on him, using the walkie talkie to taunt and terrorize him, shooting him the arm much like he shot her in the leg at the beginning of all this, and straight up scaring the shit out of him the way he has her the whole episode. Now she has him on the ropes. The two finally confront each other in a clearing, pitting bow & arrow versus gun. But getting shot isn't a good way to end such an epic tussle, so the two end up wrestling and punching and getting downright vicious. Connell gets the better of our girl and starts choking her out, which is when she sees the third and final vision, herself as a doll without an imprint, pleading, "I'm trying to do my best." And then Echo does, grabbing the nearby arrow and jabbing it into Captain Asshole's neck.
As Connell is bleeding out he lays down the bombshell of the night. "He was right about you, you really are special." Echo wants to know what he's talking about, but he dies before she can find out. We assume that he's talking about whoever employed him, and it seems likely that the employer is Alpha, but we don't know that for certain. Alpha spared Echo when he had a chance to kill her before, so why hire someone to try and kill her now? Was it just to test her, to see if she were worthy of being saved in the first place? Or is some other force entirely the one at work here?
Echo finds Boyd and crawls into his arms. He holds her, comforting her, keeping her safe as they await for the Dollhouse extraction team to arrive. This is the culmination of the journey we've watched tonight, from Boyd as the cold and emotionless bodyguard to the warm and protective father figure. He loves this girl, no matter who they make her out to be. Then they take them back home, Echo is wiped again, and everything is as it should be. Right?
Back at the Dollhouse we see DeWitt reading Dominic the riot act about Connell. The Dollhouse's rigorous background check is supposed to guard against psychopaths like Connell being able to engage an active. Dominic informs her that it worked because everything about Connell was fabricated. All his paperwork, his backstory, his whole life was a complete work of fiction. Richard Connell was never a man at all. Someone is trying to beat the Dollhouse at its own game and DeWitt is obviously shaken by the realization.
Cut to Boyd and Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker). We find out that the fake ranger who Boyd interrogated was found murdered by the extraction team. He didn't die from the wounds Boyd gave him. Dr. Saunders has him on the autopsy table and she and Boyd are taking a look at him. He says that the man's cuts are reminiscent of Alpha which Dr. Saunders fairly unconvincingly says is impossible. She stammeringly tells Boyd that Alpha was hunted down and killed, to which he says, "They would never lie to us about something like that, would they?"
The episode ends on Dominic and Echo. He encounters her in the commons area and taunts her, confident that she can't register anything he's saying and that she won't remember anything he tells her. He doesn't like Echo, doesn't like that things tend to go wrong around her. If Dominic had his way he'd lock her up or put her in the ground. He walks off, convinced that he's just speaking to a hollow shell. Then Echo slaps her shoulder the way Connell taught her earlier in the episode, giving the impression that the memory wiping just isn't working.
Echo hears an echo.
This episode was stellar from start to finish. I hesitate to give it a 5.0 out of 5.0, simply because we don't know yet everything that the show is capable of. But I'm confident in saying this episode is a 4.5 and in comparison to the pilot it was downright phenomenal. Honestly, you could start Dollhouse with episode two, The Target, and be doing just fine. So, like I told you last week folks, this show is going to keep getting better so just strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride. And remember, that Mutant Enemy logo at the end of a show stands for quality.
And don't forget, if you don't have a nielsen box but you want to help boost the show's ratings, watch it online at fox.com or hulu.com. Networks track everytime their shows are viewed on official sites such as hulu, so everytime you watch Dollhouse online you're doing the show a favor.
See ya next week!