Written by: Brett Williams, Special to CC2K
Gray Hour, the fourth episode of Fox's new series Dollhouse, wasn't a groundbreaking triumph, but in comparison to the previous week's episode it was something of a success. Unlike episode three, Stage Fright, which was penned by two people with no television experience whatsoever, Gray Hour was written by the team of Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft. While the work of Fain and Craft is by no means pervasive, they do at least have some experience under their belt, most notably on The Shield and Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, Angel. While this episode does suffer from some of the same problems the previous episodes suffered from, most notably that it's difficult to relate to the main character, it succeeds where Stage Fright failed simply because it is constructed with skill. The narrative actually flows and the story makes sense – as much sense as any episode of this show can. The overall premise is again weak.
Echo is again put into a situation with a potentially dangerous outcome despite the fact that the girl seems to be like a magnet for trouble. Predictably, that potentially dangerous outcome comes to pass and the Dollhouse is once again knocked on its rear. What makes this episode work is the stuff happening on the periphery. The moments with Ballard and Topher (arguably the show's two most likable characters) help open a few more doors onto the overall story and entice us to come back for more. I'm just curious when I'm going to start giving a damn about what's happening when the main character is actually on the screen. So far that's only happened in one episode (The Target) out of four. To use the oft-hated sports metaphor; if you're batting .250 a third of the way into the season and the guys in the front office brought you in expecting you'd be able to at least hit .300 and knock in a bunch of runs, things aren't going well for you. Let's see if Dollhouse can pull itself out of this slump. Overall, I give this episode a 3.0 out of 5.0.
The episode starts with a woman screaming and writhing in bed. Given the history of this show I believe we're to assume that she's having sex. As the camera pans back we find that the woman is not having sex. Rather, she is engaging in one of sex's many possible outcomes; childbirth. And who should be her midwife? Well, our protagonist, that's who! That's right folks, don't you fret none. Our girl Echo is no Prissy from Gone With the Wind. She knows plenty about birthin' babies. Mainly, you know, because Topher built her to. This really does make perfect sense though. I mean, why let someone you trust, someone you've spent the last nine months with, help you birth your baby when you could just have a human robot do it? Why would you give a shit about rapport when you could have a super sexy midwife that you just met yesterday? I can actually see this catching on. It will be the basis for the first spin-off of Dollhouse. Just think of it, a feminist-themed medical drama about rogue actives, each imprinted with the ability to birth some babies, who escape from the Dollhouse onto a hippy commune where they help bring the light of the world to many a thankful woman. It could be called the Stepford Midwives. So yeah, moving on, the baby is coming and it's all thick shouldered which makes the dad worry that it means his daughter is going to be a lesbian. Classy.
After the worst intro ever and only one commercial (thank you Hulu) we come back to Echo in the Dollhouse. She, Sierra, and Victor are all hanging out. Which, you know, they're really not supposed to be doing. They are talking about exercising, swimming, trying to be their best. This is how every conversation they have must go because, really, they don't have anything else to talk about. So we see Topher and Boyd watching them from above and Topher is just the slightest bit wigged, which will be a theme of this episode. The longer the episode goes, the more wigged Topher becomes. He and Boyd are discussing the fact that these three dolls are grouping together. Boyd seems sort of unconcerned but Topher thinks something is going on here. Apparently the dolls don't remember one another in the strictest since. Their wipes, according to Topher, are still working just fine. But some part of them, some intrinsically human part, has them grouping together. Topher compares it to beasts in a herd, which Boyd takes some half-hearted offense to. But Topher's right. "They're kind of bison," he says. Anyway, it's significant because we get to see that the fact they're doing this gives Topher the willies. Maybe things aren't going quite the way everyone had planned. Um…ya think?
Next we see DeWitt and she is screening a new client. Not surprisingly at all, the job that he wants the Dollhouse to perform for him involves a great deal of risk. The kind of risk that requires an extra deposit. The last time a client had to pay that extra deposit he ended up hunting Echo for sport. Given that, I'm certain Echo won't get this job. I mean, why would they knowingly put her at risk again? That would be dangerous and unprofessional.
So DeWitt's interview with the client is interrupted by a phone call from a mysterious caller. Whoever is on the other end of the line, she keeps referring to him as "sir." We see her looking through some photos of Victor and Detective Ballard and we get the impression that she's discussing the two of them with whomever is on the phone. The normally cool and calm DeWitt is visibly rattled by this conversation. She's obviously intimidated by this man. So anyway, he apparently wants this situation with Victor and Ballard handled quickly and efficiently. She tells him that Ballard is the kind of man that needs closure and that they, the Dollhouse, are experts in giving people what they want. Ominous much?
We get back to our girl and she's dressed up kind of slutty. You know, the kind of outfit a stripper might wear to a bachelor party if that stripper were Sarah Palin? In this sequence alone she utters the phrase "blue skies" like two or three times so I guess that will be important later on. Anyway, Echo appears to be the entertainment at a bachelor party for a couple of Skull & Bones type kids who are so indistinguishable from one another that I'll just call them SB1 and SB2 for the rest of this review. They're joined by a creepy little bald guy who looks sort of like Richard Chamberlain. SB1 and Echo are making a scene in the lobby of the hotel they're in so the management asks them to take it up to their room.
The next time we see them she is running away from SB1 and SB2 and screaming for someone to help her. The manager from the previous sequence finds her and assures her that everything is going to be okay. Then he takes her to a secure room that's equal parts office cubicle and fallout shelter and I'm thinking, "Yeah, she looks totally safe here." Apparently it's not his intention to do bad things to her. Instead he offers her ten grand to stay quiet about what has happened. According to this guy it's hotel policy to buy off anyone who falls victim to Skull & Bones type kids doing Skull & Bones type shit. So Echo is thinking it over and then she decides the best course of action is to kneelift manager guy in the face. Methinks there be a double-cross a-comin'.
So Echo and the boys meet back up and they're all decked out in black, which means either they're about to do some thieving or they're getting ready to work backstage at the high school drama department's production of Our Town. The boys are doing some explosive stuff and some tech stuff, respectively, while the bald dude just sits around looking nervous. Echo, who appears to be the leader of this motley crew, is in her bra, joking to the boys about how great her rack is. And you know what, her rack is great. I am an admirer of Miss Dushku's, have been for a long time. But this is just pointless. In case you're wondering, she's in her bra because she has to change out of her "Governor of Alaska stripper" outfit and into her "ready to do some thieving" outfit.
Echo runs down the whole plan once again, I assume for the benefit of the audience as much as the benefit of her comrades. Apparently this place they're planning to break into can only be reached from the bomb shelter office. We still don't know what it is they're breaking into exactly, or what they're hoping to find when they get there. Anyway, this place they're robbing is apparently revamping its security system and the changeover requires that their current security system be down for one hour exactly, the "gray hour" as Echo puts it. The plan is so utterly ridiculous that I'm not going to dignify it with explanation. I mean, seriously? These people that want to protect whatever it is that they have hidden in the basement of this place are willing to just go without security for an entire hour in order to upgrade their system? And this upgrade requires that their system be offline in order to upgrade it anyway? This all just seems unlikely.
So moving on with the ridiculousness. The guards, of which there are only five, are going to be patrolling the floor during the gray hour. For some reason the guards aren't allowed anywhere near the vault during the hour for "security reasons." You heard that right. The security guards aren't allowed near the vault during the gray hour for security purposes. Yeah. So anyway, SB1 has his explosives set up and SB2 has a program that will track the guards wherever they are in the building, so things are ready to go.
SB1 blows a hole in the wall and he and the rest of the crew head down a hallway made entirely of conduit. At the end of this hallway there is a vault, some trash cans, and a fucking freight elevator! Why did they need to go through the trouble of sneaking in and blowing a hole in the wall if there was a freight elevator that ran right to the freaking vault?
Moving on. Echo gets her hands on the vault and in about twelve seconds she has cracked the extremely difficult locking mechanism without so much as a tool set. I swear, I have had to suspend so much disbelief for this show that my disbelief looks like a bunch of beef hanging in a freaking meat locker. Any minute now the Rocky theme is going to start up and Sylvester Stallone is going to start training to beat another culturally insensitive opponent by pounding my disbelief.
Once inside the vault we find out that the weasely bald guy is the group's art expert and that the vault is apparently used to house various bits of rare or controversial art. So yeah, weasely bald guy will from here on out be referred to as Baldy the Art Weasel. We find out that they're looking for the Parthenon. One of the SBs, I'm not sure which, remarks, "Isn't that kind of big?" Astute, SB. He's quite right, the Parthenon is rather big. And I should know. There's a true to life replica of it in the middle of my hometown.
We jump from this to a scene of Detective Ballard at home and thank the gods for it. Once again this moment with Ballard, much like the moments with Topher, is a breath of fresh air. Whenever Ballard or Topher are on screen there is usually some advancement of the overall plot of the show. It's unfortunate that we have to sit through forty minutes of boring, pointless, self-contained stories just to get the ten minutes of actual plot development in each episode. Anyway, Ballard is just sitting around, looking over the prescription they gave him for the gunshot wound in his gut, watching a little…home shopping network? Yeah, anyway. All of a sudden Ballard spins around and pulls his gun on someone in the shadows. It's Victor. Apparently he just picked the lock and got himself inside. Ballard's just ready to shoot him, skip all the bullshit. Which to his credit is a sound plan, considering the last time he talked to this cat he ended up shot in the gut. Victor is pleading with him for help, explaining that he really didn't set him up, that he just passes along information. So Ballard gets crazy and starts shoving the picture of Caroline (Echo) in his face. Victor doesn't know anything about her but Ballard's not buying it. He wants to know if she's the reason the Russians tried to kill him, but Victor really doesn't know anything about her. He does know that whoever gave him the information that led to Ballard getting shot was middle aged with a Georgian accent. So Ballard, because he's really just a good guy in a bad guy's world, agrees to help Victor out. The condition is that Victor will disappear, that Ballard will never have to hear from him, or about him, ever again. One of the things this scene has that the majority of the episode is missing is genuine emotion, genuine humor. It's too few and far between.
We get back to the vault and find that apparently they're not looking for the whole Parthenon but just pieces of it. Well, that's a relief. Stealing the entire Parthenon piece by piece would prove about as tedious as watching episode three of Dollhouse. The two good looking thieves, the ones that aren't going all crazy for the art porn, keep trying to figure out who it is that could have hired them. Echo keeps reminding them that the client is anonymous for a reason and it's usually a bad idea to try and figure out these things, as most people who choose to be anonymous want to remain anonymous. These guys aren't really the most professional bunch. Maybe they used to be bodyguards for international pop star Rayna before taking up this line of work. I don't understand why they even care who hired them. As long as everything works out and they get paid, why does it matter? Just shut up and do the job Skull & Bones.
While they're arguing Baldy the Art Weasel runs off with something in a bag. It's obviously something he ought not have. In his hasty escape he stabs SB2 and then locks all three of his accomplices into the vault. So yeah, he gets away and Echo makes a call. It's Boyd. Yay! She informs Boyd, who I assume she believes is part of the crew, that Baldy ran off with the loot and that he'll have to head him off and finish the job. Boyd tells her it won't be a problem and then there is some interference over the line. The interference sounds a lot like a 28.8 modem trying desperately to connect to the interweb. Echo drops the phone, looks the SBs in the eyes, and asks, "Did I fall asleep?" Well, that's not good.
Back at the Dollhouse Topher is going on about neural modulation and how he is pretty much a god amongst very nerdy men. He is talking to an impossibly cute Asian girl with a nose ring and a PhD who I'm assuming is his intern. The two are bantering, flirting even, so Topher doesn't notice immediately when Echo's vitals start spiking. The intern informs him that there appears to be a problem and he wigs again. This is the second stage of Topher's wigging.
In the Vault now and SBs 1 & 2 are freaking out and Echo is freaking out in her own confused and timid sort of way. They start trying to talk her down as if she's just having a bad trip. That's not working. So SB1 hits her, which I suppose is a genuine thing to try in that situation but…yeah, nobody likes watching defenseless girls get hit.
Outside, Boyd corners Baldy and demands that he give him the bag. Baldy starts yammering about how he has a buyer who is going to pay him twice as much as he was already making for the job, that he is more than willing to let Boyd in on it. Boyd and his big damn gun ain't hearing it. Honestly, it looks like it's all Boyd can do not to bust out laughing at the guy. He takes the bag, Baldy scampers off, Boyd shoots him through the back of the leg. Boyd, you poor man. You need a better job.
Back to the Dollhouse. Topher is freaking out to DeWitt and Dominic. Dominic informs her that Boyd checked in to tell them that he had to go after Baldy and that the boys and his girl were trapped in the vault. Dominic, who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, is all like, "that could cause her vitals to get all wonkified." Okay, he didn't say wonkified, but you get the picture. Topher is all like, idiot, I crafted her to be so cool under pressure she'd make polar bears freeze. No way something as dumb as that is causing this problem. Dominic is all like, maybe you fucked up, to which DeWitt says, "Something's wrong." See, she knows something is actually wrong, because she trusts Topher, and because, you know, she isn't a fucking idiot. Topher tells them Echo isn't answering her phone. Apparently this makes Mama DeWitt mad, that he reached out to her without consulting her first. Topher is like, lady, adrenaline, caught in the moment, protocol- schmotocol. Which is perfectly reasonable, seeing as he's just human. They dial up the convo Echo and Boyd were having when she spiked and hear the 28.8 modem noise at the end of the call. Topher wigs even more. He is yelling that what just happened shouldn't happen, couldn't happen. He tells DeWitt that she's been wiped remotely. She's like, "You said remote wipes weren't possible." Topher's like, lady, I said they were bad voodoo, untested, that I can't fuckin' do it, but I never said it was impossible. God he's just the best character on the show. She asks how it can be undone and he told her that it can't be undone. DeWitt, despite the problem, is concerned that the engagement is completed as planned so that they don't lose face as a company. There's a lot of rational in this room. I'm not sure if I can handle it. It's so in contrast to everything else that's going on. DeWitt asks Topher if Echo will be okay and he informs her that being wiped in the real world is going to be traumatic and frightening. The Dollhouse makes it as easy on them as they can with comfy chairs, throw pillows, and nice crispy lettuce. According to Topher, Echo could turn violent or end up in a coma. Without their help, she's in deep shit.
We get back to the vault. SB1 is again trying to fix Echo, to remind her who she was before everything went crazy. Echo just keeps regurgitating everything he's saying because she's incapable of anything else. In this state, all she can do is form simple thoughts and do what she's told.
They get us back to the Dollhouse quickly this time. Sierra is being imprinted with the same imprint they gave Echo for the vault job. DeWitt is there with her and she informs Sierra (the imprint's name is just too silly to repeat) that they need her help.
The episode moves quickly back to the vault where SBs 1 & 2 are starting to get pretty worried. Echo seems to be perfectly okay with just hanging out. I mean, she'd probably rather be showering communally, but looking at art she can't possibly understand seems to suit her just fine. She stops on a painting that's supposed to be representative of Picasso's work. It bothers her because the girl is all "broken." SB2 explains to her that art isn't about understanding, it's about feeling. That this guy, he painted what he felt, not just what he saw, and that was important. You see, he's teaching Echo without teaching Echo that it's better to just trust your instincts than to believe everything you see. SB1 tosses in that you're either broken or you're the one doing the breaking. If you hadn't guessed already, this is the obligatory weekly "someone teaches Echo about who she really is without actually meaning to" moment. The only nice thing about it is that, with the exception of The Target, this works better than any of the previous versions.
Meanwhile, back at the Dollhouse. Sierra is angry because the job was supposed to be hers, which it sort of was, only it was Echo's with the same imprint, but she doesn't know that so she's angry. Anyway, Dominic and DeWitt are trying to convince her to help them get Echo and her accomplices out of there. It doesn't make much sense that they have to convince her at all. I suppose it's possible that Topher didn't have enough time to tinker with the imprint therefore she won't just do whatever they tell her to. That at least would make sense. Too bad they didn't bother to tell us that.
Back to Topher and the intern. He's still wigging. She seems unconcerned and judging from this sequence I think its likely that she is part of whatever is going on. Topher is going on about how "he" had to do this, "he" had to do that, and she pipes up with "Or she." Maybe she's interested in tackling double standards in a moment of crisis, or maybe this is the writers' way of hinting at something down the road. Topher seems to think this must be a "they," that a group of people must be responsible for this. He's up in her face saying things like, "I defy another programmer (she's another programmer) to build the layers of protection and nuance into these imprints that he does. This is a conspiracy, says Topher! She's just cool as a cucumber, which she would be if she were, say, one of the "bad guys."
Topher finally gets a hold of Boyd and tells him about the remote wipe. Boyd calls DeWitt and she's all like, if there were anything you could do I'd have you do it. He's rightfully pissed since someone is once again fucking with his girl. Boyd isn't happy with DeWitt telling him to just sit back and hope for the best so he makes Baldy tell him where the access point to the vault is. This requires decidedly less damage to the knee caps than Boyd is fond of delivering. Boyd has gun in hand and it looks like he's getting ready to play cowboy. Seriously Boyd, new job. DeWitt then turns to Sierra who says all she needs to fix this problem is a phone. Then she has some scotch because she's very pleased with herself.
Back to the vault where SB2 and Echo are hanging out looking at a painting of, you guessed it, a blue sky. SB2 is really scared so he pulls something out of his bag that appears to be a suicide solution. SB1 shows up and takes the syringe away and decides that when the guards finally get there and open the doors that they will shoot their way out. Which, since he thinks there are only five guards, is not all that bad a plan.
Back at the Dollhouse we come back to Topher and the intern once again. He says some Japanese name; Takahashi. Apparently this Takahashi is a Japanese programmer who Topher fears might be gunning for his job, a professional rival if you will. But, Topher informs the girl, Takahashi is really just a hack. In his opinion there's only one person in the world capable of doing the remote wipe and that person is supposedly dead. Or maybe she's sitting right beside you Topher. Who knows?
DeWitt, Dominic, and Sierra again. Sierra is dialing and dialing and dialing to no avail. Dominic is making Sierra explain the plan again, I guess for our benefit. It involves glass and some kind of lock triggering mechanism and the glass needing to crack not shatter or else they'll be trapped. Here's the thing. If this goes wrong, they're trapped. That's all you need to know. Sierra dials some more but still nobody is answering. She's about to give up. Then Echo conveniently notices at the last second that she has something in her pocket, something that, presumably, has been ringing and vibrating this entire time. Unfortunately it's too late now for Sierra's first convoluted plan to work which isn't a problem since she has an even more convoluted plan to replace it. So she's walking Echo through it and…it's the same plan. Echo appears to be having fun. She has a drill, but this is kind of weird since without an imprint wouldn't Echo not even know how to use a fucking drill? Oh man, Rocky is beating the hell out of my disbelief.
The alarm in the vault goes off and the jig is apparently up. The police will get there in seven minutes, the guards in about forty-five seconds. DeWitt and Dominic have resigned themselves to defeat. Dominic tells DeWitt that he'll likely need to eliminate Echo and DeWitt stops him. She fears Boyd has grown too attached to Echo to do what needs to be done. She tells him to get Ramirez and Hutchins on standby. I suppose they're like cleaners or something for the Dollhouse. Dominic tells her he's sorry and it almost seems genuine. DeWittt appears to be genuinely sad, worried. Dominic leaves her to her thoughts and takes Sierra to be wiped. Topher learns that they've likely lost Echo. He also looks very sad. Man, for a group of people who are supposed to remain detached they sure do seem to have a rough time of it.
Back to the vault. SB2 is trying to teach Echo what to do to keep from getting shot. SB1 gives her a gun and tells her to fuck that guy and just shoot whatever gets in front of her. He threatens to shoot Echo if she doesn't start shooting guards. She looks like she doesn't even know what to do, which makes perfect sense, since she doesn't. Where the hell is Boyd?! SB1 is freaking out, yelling, so Echo takes the initiative and jabs him with the syringe, knocking him out. Gunshots go off and the guards are firing and all hell is breaking loose. SB2 throws out a smoke grenade for cover and tells Echo that she can get out by running around the corner. What? What corner?
Boyd shows up and gets down to the tunnel entrance. Why he didn't just take the freight elevator I'll never know. Maybe that elevator is busted. So anyway, he gets there right as Echo is dragging the injured but helpful SB2 out of the tunnel. Boyd gets them both out of there.
We finally come back to Victor and Ballard. Just like the previous week we get a Ballard thread and then they wait until there's about four minutes left in the episode to revisit it. Frustrating. Anyway, Ballard is his usual calm and collected self, Victor is not. Ballard explains to the little spaz that he tricked him, set him up with that phony offer of help just to keep him in town long enough to make sure the FBI put him on every watch list in existence. He informs Victor that if he so much as thinks about leaving Los Angeles that the feds will be on him like flies on shit and that he, Ballard, will personally leave him on the Russians' doorstep. Victor can't believe what he's hearing, can't believe that the FBI would let this happen, and Ballard drops some, "I've got nothing to lose" shit on him. The more I see of Ballard the more I think he would have been better as a former agent turned private investigator, trying to finally solve the case that cost him his career. Oh well, what do I know about interesting characters. It's not like I'm a writer or anything, right?
In the Dollhouse again and we see Echo being wiped of all the memories she accrued after she was remotely wiped. I didn't even think she could store memories once she'd been wiped. I guess that makes it significant then. DeWitt and Dominic have the piece of art that Boyd recovered. She tells Dominic to make sure to get the piece to the client as soon as possible. Oh and by the way, why don't you leave Baldy the Art Weasel with him too. Man Baldy, you are so dead.
Topher shows up and tells DeWitt that Echo isn't permanently damaged and that none of her memories from the vault are lingering. He hangs around, obviously nervous, afraid he's going to be disciplined. He asks about Alpha, mentions that nobody else would even come close to being able to achieve a remote wipe, to pull something like this off. DeWitt tells him he needs to sign this sheet of paper which he thinks is his pink slip. He is understandably worried, since I don't think the Dollhouse is the kind of place you just quit, if you catch my drift. Instead of firing him, DeWitt informs him that she's upping his security clearance. Go Tophs! Promotion! Margaritas after work with cute Asian intern are DEFINITELY in order. Topher seems to think that this means he's right, that DeWitt lied to them, that Alpha still exists. She tells him that in fact he is right, that regardless of their reach they are not all powerful, and that Alpha is a threat. She's drinking as she tells him this so she is obviously rattled. The last few jobs for her have just been a whole lot of bad. DeWitt says she'll tell Topher everything she knows about Alpha and he'll in turn come up with a way to stop him.
The final scene is understandably Echo in the Dollhouse. She starts out with a swim in the world's tiniest pool then moves on to, you guessed it, the communal showers. Once finished with her shower she stands in front of a mirror that has steamed over and precedes to draw a small illustration on it that is reminiscent of the painting of the girl she saw in the earlier scene. She regards it for a long moment then wipes (oh, the symbolism) it away and…scene.