Burdened last season with negative early buzz, abysmal ratings, and a terrible time slot, Dollhouse seemed destined for oblivion. But its weightier themes — the plight of women in a male-dominated society, the existence of a soul, and acting as a form of self-erasure — are balanced with clever plotting, dorktastic pop-culture references, and Eliza Dushku’s spectacular stomach. That the show is back is miracle enough — what creator Joss Whedon does now with his genuinely upsetting premise about a world where you rent people to help fulfill your fantasies almost seems beside the point.
Or so it’s tempting to think when watching Friday’s ordering of the fallout from last season. This table-setter episode puts Echo in a horribly boring assignment as the bride of an evil arms dealer, played by Battlestar Galactica alum Jamie Bamber). Putting aside the considerable attention paid to Echo’s cleavage, the important stuff doesn’t go down in the A-story — it’s the character machinations happening in the corners that mattered.
Ballard has said good-bye to the FBI (and November/Mellie) so that he can remain in the Dollhouse and keep a close eye on Echo, who can now recall the different imprints she’s been given. Last season, he was obsessed with rescuing her, which tipped over into an uncomfortable fixation. Now that he’s her handler, sworn to helping her rediscover her original Caroline persona, we’re wondering if he’ll be able to let her go if/when she “finds” her true self.
The other, less promising development finds Dr. Saunders discovering that she used to be an Active named Whiskey, who was permanently imprinted with the personality of the Dollhouse’s slain doctor. This inner struggle basically amounts to Saunders kvetching to Chief of Security Langton, who suddenly has the hots for her. For a writer lauded for his female characters, it’s odd that Whedon has Saunders slip on a slinky nightie and crawl into Topher’s bed because, um, he did the imprinting, and she figures that sexually tormenting him is a dandy way to get her revenge.
By the time Saunders first leaves the Dollhouse, we’re supposed to be blown away by the drama of it all. But her story line feels like a less interesting variation of the identity crisis that the show has been nicely developing for Echo. Dollhouse is struggling a bit to regain its equilibrium. Still, we can’t be too hard on it — maybe, like the rest of us, Whedon’s still reeling from the show’s reprieve.