Written by: Brett Williams, Special to CC2K
As a fan Dollhouse, the last thing I wanted to see the show do in just its third episode was take a step back. The third episode of the new Fox show was in every way weaker than the second, last week's complete triumph, The Target. While Stage Fright was far from a complete waste, it wasn't the follow up to a great episode we were all expecting. A large part of this could stem from the fact that Joss Whedon employed his brother Jed and Jed's girlfriend, Maurissa Tancharoen, to write the episode. The last time this creative team collaborated with Joss was on last year's smash internet hit, Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog. Jed and Maurissa were responsible for a lot of the music that you hear in the movie and Jed himself is a composer of burgeoning talent. While no Whedon fan can debate the great work Jed and Maruissa did on Dr. Horrible, the same cannot be said of their first foray into television writing.
The episode starts out with a musical number from diva pop star Rayna. She's sort of a hybrid of Beyonce and Rhianna and she's all attitude, baby. She's working the crowd into a fervor when one of her dancers walks in between some less than fancy pyrotechnics which go off at the wrong time and light her up like the human torch. Oops!
Cut to the Dollhouse where DeWitt and Rayna's manager are discussing the events of the previous night's show. He's obviously a returning client, usually availing himself of their trade sexually, but this time he needs something else. He and DeWitt have a good rapport with one another, like maybe they've slept with each other or something. It's probably that whole "British" thing. Smarmy British types flock together, right? Anyway, he's there to contract Echo to protect Rayna because apparently the world-renowned pop star's bodyguards just aren't enough to keep her safe. Apparently she doesn't like them, thinks they cramp her style. It's weak reasoning for needing an active, but hey, more security couldn't hurt, right? Rayna's manager wants a girl who can be a part of Rayna's inner circle, a singer and dancer, and in that way can protect her by being closer to her than the security (who are, by the way, omnipresent) can be.
We also find out from the manager that this stalker of Rayna's can apparently elude their security guards with no problem. No explanation as to how he does it, just simply that he does it. I don't know how much you guys know about private security details, but they tend to be ex-members of special forces units, ex-CIA or Secret Service. They're the kind of guys who work for companies like Blackwater. In a word, they're badasses. But I guess Rayna's stalker has some sort of diva-loving freaky invisible ninja stalker skills that these badasses just can't seem to handle. Whatever.
So Echo shows up and sings for Rayna, who likes her and immediately gives her the job, because if she didn't then it would be a pretty short episode. Which, honestly, would have been a reprieve. There is nothing about Rayna to like, therefore it's hard to get behind our heroine protecting her, whether she's just a puppet or not. We're supposed to care that Rayna is threatened, but she's just sort of an ass, so we really don't. It's a poorly realized character.
Then we are briefly subjected to what may be the worst television intro ever. The theme is just awful. As a little comment diversion for the afternoon, why don't you guys try and figure out a theme song/intro combination that's actually worse than this one. Moving on.
We see Topher for the first time this episode and it's a breath of fresh air. He may be a pompous little shit, but he's also one of the more endearing characters on the show. Also, he's the only one that's ever actually funny. He and Dr. Saunders are having the kind of shouting match that teenage siblings engage in. She's mad because Echo is being sent out on another high risk mission after she had her flagged for nothing but romantic style engagements. She has a pretty valid freaking point which Topher of course steps all over. He reminds her that her last romantic encounter turned out bloody so maybe this high risk encounter will turn out romantic. Because what's more romantic than hot lesbians? Nothing, that's what. Not a damn thing.
So we find out from Topher that Echo's imprint makes her want to protect Rayna at all costs. She's going to be a singer and a dancer, but they program her with an inate desire to just keep Rayna safe. Topher tells Dr. Saunders its better to have someone who wants to protect you rather than someone who is paid to protect you. The only problem with that logic is the fact that private security guards for major pop stars are paid very well and they tend to take their jobs very seriously. But I digress. We also find out that Sierra, whom we met in the firs episode, is being sent in as Echo's back-up. This is insurance in case Echo and her handler, Boyd, aren't up to the task. Um…if you think they might not be up to the task, why send them in anyway? It sounds risky to send your best active and her handler into a potentially risky situation when your lead Doctor says they aren't even ready. But that's the kind of wacky reckless shit they love to do in the Dollhouse. Because they're reckless and unprofessional? Nope. It's because Fox thinks the casual viewer should be able to come into any of these first few episodes and get what's going on. So those of us who aren't casual viewers are forced to sit through another self-contained episode dealing with much of the same issues that were dealt with in The Target, just not as well. Did I say I was digressing? I should do that.
The next time we see Echo she is hanging out with Rayna's back up singers. She's getting fitted for her stage costume which necessitates her standing around in a bra while everyone else is full clothed. I mean, why not right? Eliza Dushku's hot, lets make her stand around in underwear for a while. The singers inform Echo (whose name on the job is Jordan but that's too confusing so we'll call her Echo) that the number of bodyguards has been doubled since the pyrotechnics problem and that the manager also added an entire security detail. So now we have even more highly trained security personal who apparently couldn't stop an eight year old from stealing a Snickers bar from the local drug store.
Next we see Ballard and, like Topher's scene before, it's a breath of fresh air. Ballard is a major character in the show but after three episodes we don't know much about him. It's frustrating, because he's one of the more interesting and endearing characters on the show, and since he's the only real contact we get in a heroic way with a real, fully-defined human, he should represent the audience's voice. Instead he's just barely there, sort of sliking through the shadows of each episode. Perhaps that's the intention of the creators, to have Ballard sort of slowly worked into the framework of the overall story, sort of a slow burn. But it seems more likely that with Fox declaring that the first few episodes should be easy for casual viewers to pick up, Ballard's development has to be kind of stunted. It's unfortunate, because you want to like him. They just don't give you much of a chance. So anyway, we find out from his Russian contact that Ballard is kind of a screw-up. The only reason the FBI has assigned him this case is because he can't close cases, and since the Dollhouse is a case that is impossible to close, they thought it would be perfect for him. The contact tries to convince him, like everyone else, that he's nuts and that the Dollhouse doesn't really exist. But Ballard, god bless him, ain't buying it. Because if he did, ya know, there just wouldn't be a show.
The scene then jumps to Boyd and Topher. These scenes are usually the most humorous and therefore most human of each episode, but this time it's just sort of flat. The dialogue just doesn't pop, most likely due to the reasonable lack of experience on the part of the episode's two writers. This scene is important though because at the end of it we see that Topher is wiping Victor, Ballard's Russian contact. This brings up a lot of different questions. Is the Dollhouse using Victor to keep tabs on Ballard? Has the Russian mob contracted with the Dollhouse to keep tabs on Ballard? Is this definitive evidence that the Russians and the Dollhouse are have a symbiotic relationship?
We get back to the main storyline and Sierra (who is going by the name Audra) comes into play. Her story is that she believes she's won a worldwide video contest for Rayna's number one fan. This affords her the opportunity to spend a couple of nights hanging out with Rayna, which honestly is no freaking picnic.
This sequence also introduces us to our stalker for the first time. He's a total weakling, hobbling around on crutches. He looks just like those illustrations you'd always see in the back of comics. You know the ones, where the 90-pound weakling is getting sand kicked in his face by the big tough guy, and then Charles Atlas shows up and tells him to send off for his bodybuilding kit, and so the kid does and then he ends up gettin' all swolled and kicking sand in the bully's face at the end? Anyway, he looks like one of those kids. Incindentally, he also looks like the long lost redheaded brother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the one their parents thought was just too ugly to keep so they left him on the steps of some Hollywood orphanage. So for the remainder of our recap the stalker will be referred to as Gingerhaal.
So anyway, Gingerhaal sneaks easily into the venue and gets into some part of the club that isn't a balcony but still offers plenty of room and a perfect line of sight for some sniping. Then he takes apart one of his crutches and proceeds to pull out the pieces of a sniper rifle. Gingerhaal then puts together the sniper rifle and does nothing with it. This is the most heavy-handed, literal example of the old "gun above the fireplace in the first act, better fire it in the third act" adage. Yes, you guessed it, they'll be firing it in the third act.
We cut to Rayna, Echo, Sierra, and the other singers and dancers at a party. The party is taking place in a pretty swank looking club and it appears that it's a private sort of party. But then again, maybe it isn't, because Rayna says she definitely doesn't know all the people there. Then we see Gingerhaal standing at the bar sipping a drink and I'm like, Wha-huh? How the hell did he get in there?! Even if this isn't a private party, no club in their right mind would let a weasly dork like that into their inner sanctum! Especially not on a night when there's going to be a party for this super famous pop diva. Who is running security for this girl, the freaking keystone cops?! So yeah, he's just there, chillin' like a, well…like a villain. Then some autograph hound (who let these people in?) comes up to Rayna with his hand in his pocket and Echo thinks he's got a gun or something so she beats the holy crap out of him. After three episodes, this stands as the most pointless and inexplicable scene in the entire show. Seriously. I've seen it twice now and I still can't wrap my head around it.
So at this point the episode feels like it should be almost over, then you look at the clock and there's still half an hour left. Egads the pacing is bad.
Oh hey, Ballard again. That's nice. But wait, he's talking to Victor who we know is an Active now and so that's bad for Ballard, right? Yeah, it is. Victor tells him to go to this abandoned hotel, that if the mob was holding girls somewhere it would be in the basement of said hotel. So Ballard goes and, predictably, is set upon by some mookish Ivans bent on kicking his skinny butt. So they do, but then he goes all Muay Thai on that ass and kicks their fat butts for a bit, but then one of them shoots him, so he kicks that guy's butt extra-hard. Then he calls an ambulance.
This scene brings up an interesting problem. If the Dollhouse, or the mob, or both, or whatever, want Ballard to stay away, why don't they just leave him alone? Seriously, just leave him the hell alone. Look, Ballard isn't a private detective, he's a federal agent. He isn't doing this because some grief-stricken widow or some fabillionaire hired him to do it, he's doing this because it's his job. Even if he wanted to quit, which I really don't believe he does, kicking the crap out of him to get him to stop looking for you isn't going to convince him. First of all, he doesn't quit the case until either A. it's solved or B. the FBI tells him too. Second, if you don't want him to think there's a Dollhouse then don't go anywhere near him. If you beat him up, if you shoot him, then he's going to know he's onto something. If you leave him alone, eventually he just gets demoralized and the FBI has to fire him. But when you try and kill him then he knows he's close to figuring something out you don't want him to know! Maybe the people running the mob are the same people running Rayna's security. If not they should get together and compare notes. Maybe one would come up with some even dumber ways to do their jobs that the other hadn't yet considered.
Back to Rayna and Echo. Echo is checking out all these flowers and fan letters that Rayna has lying around, even though she's not supposed to be receiving any new mail. She says that all the stuff is old, but Echo finds a letter referencing the previous night's show and she knows something is up. Echo discovers that Rayna has been communicating with Gingerhaal in secret, in effect egging him on. Echo tries to figure out why she'd do that (thanks Echo, because honestly we were all wondering that same thing) and Rayna throws some, "You don't know what it's like to be me," shit all up in her grill. Then Echo's all like, "Oh no she didn't," and then they're all like…ugh. So Rayna storms off and Echo gets out this giant whiteboard and a big red marker and spells it out for the audience in giant letters. You see, Rayna wants to die, she wants this crazy ass Gingerhaal guy to do her in, so she can be "free." Thank god Echo is there to explain that to us out loud, because honestly, it just wasn't freaking clear enough already.
Then we get a scene that will not be winning any Emmys for best editing. Okay, let me see if I can give you the play-by-play. Rayna is on stage singing a song that is a pretty heavy-handed metaphor for her current situation. Echo is running around trying to find English manager dude. Gingerhaal the Ninja Stalker is back in his cubby hole putting together the sniper rifle we already saw him put together in the earlier scene. So then Rayna stops mid-song and starts talking to the audience, telling them she wants them to meet someone special, and she's staring out over them the whole time, obviously looking for Gingerhaal. But Gingerhaal is struggling with his rifle the way a virgin struggles with a condom. Rayna is getting impatient, so she turns and welcomes Sierra, you know, her real number one fan because that's what the contest she didn't really win says, out onto the stage.
So then Echo finds English manager guy and tells him what's what. Since he knows that she's an active he's all like, "Stop the show!" and the promoter, who wants to get paid and thinks Echo is just some scantily clad back-up singer, says no way. Interestingly enough, he also says there is no way that psycho guy could get into the building with all the security he has in the place. Ah promoter dude, you know not your folly. You know not the danger inherent in underestimating the powers of Gingerhaal the Stalker Ninja. For this you will surely pay. So Echo's all like, screw this guy. She runs onto the stage and instead of just dragging Rayna off the stage, she grabs a spotlight and starts trying to find the guy with it. I'm not sure how finding him is going to protect Rayna. I am, however, certain that pulling her scrawny ass off the stage would keep her from being shot. So yeah, Echo finds the dude and then he panics and shoots, but apparently his stalker ninja skills don't translate to guns because he doesn't hit a damn thing. So then Echo drags Rayna off stage and Gingerhaal fires again, at what I'm not sure, but it doesn't matter because he still doesn't hit a damn thing.
We follow up that action packed romp with a Ballard in the ambulance scene in which Ballard appears to die. In keeping with the theme of this episode, which is apparently "really bad editing" we don't actually find out Ballard's ultimate fate until the last five minutes of the episode. Which, from this point in the show, is still a loooooong way away.
So back to the big happy diva loving family. Echo and Rayna are doing that "bitch, please" thing again. In case you didn't get it when it was spelled out for you before, Rayna definitely has a death wish and she was definitely hoping to go all Kurt Cobain tonight. She's super pissed at Echo for screwing it all up and Echo is super pissed at her for being a freaking idiot. Echo tries to talk her out of her death wish, tries to convince her that being rich and waited on hand and foot isn't all that bad, but Rayna's goddamn insane so it doesn't work. Then Rayna fires Echo. Yeah, that ain't going to stick. To top off this little cat fight, Sierra goes and gets herself kidnapped by Gingerhaal. So, I guess it's a really good thing that she's there, right? I mean, because, her getting kidnapped is good for the Dollhouse, right?
So yeah, Gingerhaal makes this video of him taunting Sierra. He's a big, angry, jealous ninja stalker baby. He wants Rayna to give him what they agreed to, you know, the killing? So he's holding Sierra hostage till he gets it. Rayna, despite Echo telling her that Sierra's life is in her hands, doesn't seem to care. Then Gingerhaal tells Rayna to call him and it finally dawns on English manager guy that she was in cahoots with the crazy bastard the whole time. So he slaps her, which is totally out of character, even for a slimey guy like him. Also, it doesn't make any sense for Echo not to beat his ass. I mean, she kicked that one guy's ass just for looking at her wrong, so why isn't she kicking English manager guy's ass now? Maybe he's not a real threat. Oh god, I just don't care.
So we get back to the Dollhouse and DeWitt finds out from Dominic that Sierra has been kidnapped. She is strangely comfortable with it. Apparently Sierra was sent in to the action in case they needed someone to draw the kindapper's focus away from Rayna. It's not entirely clear…wait, it's not clear at all…how they expected her to do that, but apparently getting kidnapped works. So they plan to send a team in to extract her, deal with Gingerhaal, and get this thing wrapped up. But that squirrelly little Echo has other plans, as oft she do.
So Echo confronts Rayna again in one more, knock down drag out "bitch please" fest, but this time Echo isn't going to put up with her. Rayna is all like, I don't care about that girl, so Echo beats her up and kidnaps her. When the extraction team gets to Gingerhaal's hideaway they find that he, and Sierra, are gone. They also find a message on his 1987 answering machine from Echo. She's setting up a sort of prisoner exchange. Rayna for Sierra. Oh man is Dominic going to be mad or what?!
So yeah, he's mad. So mad that he pushes Topher into a wall and growls at him about how crappy he is at his job and how crappy Echo is and damnit this place is just so damned crappy all the time you pencil-necked geek! So Topher has to take him down a peg by reminding him that he, Topher, is a genius and that Dominic is just a glorified security guard. Topher tells Dominic that while it may appear that Echo is off task, sometimes these things just play out differently than they expect. Then Dominic tells him that Echo is going to trade Rayna for Sierra and Topher is all like, "gulp."
Back to the prisoner exchange. Echo is brokering the deal, Gingerhaal is threatening Sierra, Rayna's mouth is duct tape but if it weren't she'd probably be wimpering something about not wanting to die. Hey, it's Boyd! He'll save the day. So yeah, Echo rips the tape off, Rayna screams, which allows Boyd to figure out where they are. And hey, what do you know, Rayna is wimpering about wanting to be let go. She starting to think maybe she doesn't want to die after all. Now Boyd has a shot on Gingerhaal, he can take him out with one bullet and end all this craziness and they can all go home for brain wiping and shower time. But DeWitt says no, give it a minute.
So it gets more heated, there's some yelling, Gingerhaal doesn't understand what's going on and he's obviously out of his depth. Rayna is crying about not wanting to die, Gingerhaal is threatening everyone, so then Echo threatens Rayna and Gingerhaal freaks out and stops yelling, so Echo kicks Rayna off the catwalk but it's like Batman, she's all trussed up so she just hangs there and doesn't die, but Gingerhaal thinks she's going to die so he rushes Echo who then easily kicks his stalker ninja ass. Guess he wasn't that scary after all. Echo pulls Rayna up and she's all like, "I don't want to die," and Echo is like, "I know."
What makes all of that interesting is the fact that Echo could have easily protected Rayna without trying to retrieve Sierra. But some part of her wanted to make sure that Sierra was safe as well. Is this part of her compositing, a result of her issues with the brain wiping? Well of course it is, but DeWitt doesn't necessarily see it that way. We get back to the Dollhouse and she and Dominic are having a chat. Dominic thinks that Echo is a risk, he wants to send her to some place called "the attic." Dominic believes that Echo went off mission and endangered everyone involved. DeWitt does not agree with him. She tells Dominic that she thinks Echo performed superbly. She protected Rayna from the person that wanted her dead, it just so happens that person was Rayna herself. DeWitt also believes that the way in which Echo handled the situation insured that Rayna would never be a danger to herself again. Whatever you need to tell yourself so you can sleep at night, darling.
We see Boyd and Dr. Saunders together and they seem to be getting pretty chummy. Probably because neither one of them really believes that what they're doing is right. Anyway, they're talking about Echo, about how she seems to be able to think around the pieces they build her out of and come up with new solutions to the problems they throw her at. Boyd remarks again that Echo is "special," which prompts Dr. Saunders to remind him that being special isn't always a good thing in the Dollhouse. "Sometimes," she says, "the best thing to hope for is good enough."
So then we see Rayna singing and they use her song as the soundtrack for the last few frames. The first thing we see is Ballard in the hospital. He's awake, so I guess that means he's alive. His cute, lasagna cooking neighbor from The Target shows up at the hospital and stares at him through the glass the way a kid looks at puppies in a pet shop window. I don't know how she knew he was in the hospital since there's isn't a relationship that seems overly close. She's probably a fucking doll too.
Next we see Sierra walking through the Dollhouse and Echo approaching her from the other direction. Between them is Sierra's handler who seems to be a real son of a bitch. Sierra notices Echo and moves toward her, smiles, and makes like she's going to say something to her, then Echo shakes her head "no" at her and the two walk by in silence. This is the most interesting thing that happens in the entire episode and it is the last thing that happens in the entire episode.
In retrospect, this episode wasn't that good. My first reaction to it was slightly warmer than my second reaction. Originally I was a little easier on it, giving it a 3.5 out of 5.0, but after scrutinizing it further I have to retract that rating. If not for the bits about Victor (Ballard's informant) being a doll and Echo and Sierra developing a friendship, the episode would have been unwatchable. Because there was at least some small development of the overall plot, I'll give it a 2.5 out of 5.0, but I'm not willing to say it was any better than that.
The story wasn't that believable, the characters were one-dimensional and impossible to relate to, and the structure and pacing of the episode left a lot to be desired. While there's no denying that Jed Whedon and his girlfriend Maurissa Tancharoen are talented people, they just don't have the experience necessary to write for television at this level. In Stage Fright, that was painfully obvious.
The good news is that things seem to be looking up. In an interview with The Onion's AV Club this week, Eliza Dushku confirmed that the first few episodes of the show are a bit frustrating. She said that Fox's hand in those first few shows was pretty evident. Apparently, that's why all three of the shows have been these little self-contained entities that each spent a lot of time explaining the premise of the show as a whole. What is supposed to be reserved for the pilot episode Fox is insisting the show's creators stretch out over the course of four or five episodes for the benefit of the casual viewer. While it makes a certain kind of sense from a business point of view, it does make it difficult for the show to build a significant audience that is compelled to come back each week. Eliza said in the interview though that Fox backs off with the episode Man on the Street, which is the first episode that Joss will write and direct since the pilot. She said in the interview that starting with Man On the Street the story is all Joss, all the time, and that things get a lot better toward the end.
Also, this week saw the release of a fairly reliable casting rumor involving a former beloved Joss actor and the character of Alpha. Want to know more? Well, let's discuss it in the forums.
Keep tuning in. Next week's episode looks a lot better. Who knows, maybe Dollhouse is like Star Trek movies. Only the even ones are good.
Until next week, keep watching and keep debating.