But Whedon promised from the start that the back half of the 13-episode season would turn toward more provocative, less predictable storytelling, along the lines he and his writing team had originally envisioned… and he wasn’t wrong. Over the last few weeks, the show has delivered in spades, stepping up to a much higher level.
The sixth episode, “Man on the Street,” was a strong harbinger of the shift in direction, fleshing out the concept and the character ensemble, and answering some nagging questions. But the really dramatic turning point was the ninth episode, “Spy in the House of Love,” which aired on April 10.
“Spy” was a jaw-droppingly good television episode, and one that unquestionably deserves to be called “Whedonesque” in the best sense of the term. The teaser before the credits sets up a mystery that runs through all of the segments that follow, each one of which flashes back slightly then moves forward to approach the story in a different style and from a different character’s perspective, filling in tantalizing details along the way.
The first act dramatically shifts the dynamic between two secondary yet important characters, former FBI agent Ballard and Dollhouse sleeper agent Mellie, in a scene that is both totally unexpected and, psychologically, one of the downright creepiest things I’ve seen on TV in ages. It also drops significant clues that contextualize the rest of the story and hint at developments to come.
The second act is a classic spy/action thriller, bringing the NSA into the plot while simultaneously poking some subtle tongue-in-cheek fun at the show Alias.
The third act is a touching yet unsettling romantic vignette that casts a whole new light on Dollhouse boss Adelle Dewitt, and simultaneously plants in her mind the idea that she herself may not be quite who she thinks she is.
The fourth act is a detective story that ingeniously has Echo (the show’s putative star Eliza Dushku) interrogating the Dollhouse staff, illuminating both the relationships among the characters and the rationalizations they use to justify being part of the organization… and ultimately revealing a mole in a development that is genuinely surprising and yet, in hindsight, completely logical. (No spoilers from me!) Moreover, the revealed character’s motivations play out in a way that leaves it clear (although unstated) that there’s still someone else working against the organization from the inside, playing a longer game.
The coda reprises the opening scene in a way that’s all the more chilling now that the details are known, and ends with an unexpected shift in the roles of the remaining characters that will certainly have consequences in the episodes to come.
So: each segment of the episode was dramatically satisfying in its own right; the episode as a whole was greater than the sum of its parts; and in itself it was clearly only a part of a larger story that’s still developing. By the criteria I was discussing just a few posts back—strong ensemble, complex mythology, philosophical depth, irreverent humor—this is very nearly as good as television gets.
After a week off, the tenth episode, this past Friday, stepped back into more of a space-filler role… but the upcoming episodes promise to amp up the intensity once again as the season builds to a climax.
If one hasn’t been watching the show so far, this week is probably not a good time to start: there’s too much backstory, almost all of it interesting and important. But the last five episodes (including the two I linked above) can still be viewed on Hulu, or one can order the entire season on DVD, available as of July 28.
The network shenanigans (including the Friday night timeslot) doubtless haven’t helped the show’s ratings. We don’t know at this point whether Dollhouse will be picked up for a second season. (Heck, at last report Fox isn’t even planning to air the 13th episode produced, a coda to the 12th-episode climax, for arcane contractual reasons.) The renewal decision is due to come down in late May, after the final episodes have aired but before the DVDs hit the market. In the meantime, all viewers can do is advance-order the box set, and hope such a show of support might incline Fox to do better by Whedon and his fans this time than they did with the painful cancellation of Firefly a few years back.
As the Chicago Tribune puts it, the show “has ripened into a poignant and twisted meditation on identity, memory and exploitation.” I have no idea what direction Whedon and company might take this show and its concept given a full-length season to work with, but I’d love to find out.Tags: Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, television