‘Dollhouse’ 2.1 & 2.2, “Vows” & “Instinct”

Oh, Joss Whedon.

See, last week I was going to write a post called “Dollhouse is Not Going to Hold Your Hand Anymore.” It was going to be a post about how the show’s season premiere, while it didn’t live up to the fantastic potential of the first season’s unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” had a lot of promise. It pretty much threw the viewers into the river and expected that we could damn well figure out how to swim —  a tactic that works for some of us, who like having to work out what’s changed, what’s the same and which direction we might be headed in this time. Things had clearly progressed without us, and Whedon and his team expected us to keep up.

Where we seemed to be: Echo (Eliza Dushku) is remembering things, kind of. Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is working for the ‘house — kind of. Everyone’s a little suspicious and rattled, especially Dr. Saunders, the active also/once known as Whiskey (Amy Adams), whose grasp on herself and reality was gradually turning fragile.

The episode’s basic plot was a mostly throwaway thing involving an arms dealer (another Battlestar Galactica alum, Jamie Bamber), but it still mattered in that it showed us that Ballard was somehow working for the Dollhouse while being a client — being paid in Echo’s time, maybe? Things, this episode showed, are tangled and complicated, particularly where Dr. Saunders is concerned; she’s having strange conversations with Boyd (Harry Lennix) one minute, and scaring the shit out of the creepy genius Topher (Fran Kranz) the next. She’s falling apart. And then she’s gone.

It was the scene with Saunders and Topher that had me; she’s so cracked, so lost, so trying to form her own world out of the one he, as the Dollhouse’s programmer, has given her. And she’s aware but not; she knows she’s not Dr. Saunders, but she doesn’t know, or want to know, who she is. This one dark, incredibly strong scene managed to pack all the show’s weirdness about identity and malleability and power and control and half a dozen other things into precise bits of dialogue between two characters who clearly could use some more exploring.

It was so promising. It was so complicated. And then it was over, and Saunders was driving away — Acker on the way to Happy Town, though I think she’s supposed to be back later this season. The premiere dropped in one interesting scene with a well-intentioned senator, Daniel Perrin (Alexis Denisof, from Whedon’s Buffy and Angel), who wants to figure out what the deal is with the Rossum corporation, the Dollhouse’s parent company, so we’ve got a new guy outside the house to balance out Ballard’s involvement within. It all worked, in a slightly uncomfortable and appealing way.

And then there was tonight’s episode, “Instinct,” which put us right back at monster-of-the-week-with-a-small-side-dish-of-intrigue.

Spoilers ahead; click here to continue!

Sure, we got Madeleine (the sublime Miracle Laurie, who can steal a scene right out from under Olivia Williams’ nose) back in the picture, at least for a bit; we got to meet the senator’s wife, whom I immediately suspected could be a doll; we got the interestingly elaborate setup for the episode, which involved not just Echo being someone’s wife and mother to his child, but also Sierra being the woman’s best friend; we got the new programming trick that Topher has figured out but, in typical Topher fashion, not really thought through.

But we also got a bland and cliché-littered standalone plot that basically boiled down to a weirdly and ooky commentary on the power of the maternal instinct that pretty much dissolved when the husband character explained, ever so calmly and rationally, that Echo was not in fact the baby’s mother, and Echo, a ferocious and unstoppable mama lion minutes before, just turned and walked away. In the end, we got the character’s best moment of the episode: All this was just so that we could understand that Echo doesn’t just remember who she’s been and what she’s done, but she feels it.

That’s great! And interesting! But there was no more original way to approach that part of Echo’s existence than the potentially murderous mother storyline that felt, fairly or not, like some strange twist of a Lifetime movie of the week? First science masters the maternal instinct, then the maternal instinct kicks the ass of science, then the nice husband fellow just … talks Echo out of her disoriented and ragingly protective state? Sure, Echo is often fragile and not entirely there, but, well, the more I think about this series of events, the less sense it makes.

So. It wasn’t a truly terrible episode, but it was corny — blue light and lightning for the capital-D Dramatic confrontation! Oh, Joss, how could you! — and it was the second week in a row in which Echo’s assignment involves a pretend marriage. Next week, Victor gets sent out as a serial killer. That’s something different. But I can’t help but think it’d be more interesting if we reversed the plots. Make Victor the dad who gets incredibly attached to the kid; send Echo or Sierra out as a serial killer (if you’ve got to do that at all; does this plot not just sound incredibly inane from the word go?). Dollhouse is a show with built-in moral questions, a lot of which surround sex and identity and agency, but it seems like it’s backing away from a lot of those, forgetting that a lot of viewers are deeply skeptical about a Fox show’s ability/willingness to engage with the messy moral issues the show has to address in order to keep it from being a shallow thing that just plays with its characters because it can — just like the Dollhouse’s clients play with their dolls.