Dollhouse: Van Halen’s Law

By
Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/Fox
Show
Dollhouse
Episode Title
Instinct
Season
2
Episode
2

If you're still watching Dollhouse, you already know where you stand on the Eliza Dushku issue. A lot of people we know like to complain that she's the show's fatal flaw. Sure, she was great as Buffy's rebel-slayer foil, but no way is Dushku riveting enough to hold down the center. And we kind of agreed until late last season, when we remembered that in Joss Whedon's world, there is no center. His shows always rely on ensembles, complicated choruses through which he weaves countermelodies of ambivalence and moral tension.

It took Whedon an entire season to fully set up his premise, by which time he had alienated many potential fans with the misconception that Dollhouse was just a show about a hot brainwashed chick lending out her body for cash, and then baffled the other viewers who actually wanted to see that hot-brainwashed-chick series. But the DVD-only "Epitaph" episode (which you should rent, if you haven't already) made the scope of Whedon's intentions clear. Now he's letting all the players loose, and Dushku's Echo has become just a cog among many in the dark wheel that is Rossum Enterprises (even if the opening credits — a slideshow of Dushku in every sexy pose imaginable — suggest otherwise).

Although this episode is structured around one of Echo's "engagements" — this time she has been imprinted with the persona (and breast-feeding abilities) of a newborn's mom — that plotline seems less compelling than the subtle friction between Dollhouse employees. Last week, Dr. Saunders/Whisky confronted Topher, who admitted that he programmed her to disagree with him — and to be turned off by his pheremones, so he wouldn't be tempted to take advantage of her (Perhaps Letterman could learn a little something from him?). This week's episode opens with a verbal pas de deux between Topher and Paul Ballard, who has now crossed the line from Echo's savior to Echo's handler.

Both men are complicit in Echo's situation, but they deal with it very differently: Topher is a font of clever Whedonesque quippery, while Ballard is hunky and clench-jawed. "I'm not going to lie to you, I kind of blew my own mind this week," Topher enthuses to Ballard, who, well, clenches his jaw. "I made code for the brain that changed the body." While Topher talks, he fiddles with a plastic monster figurine, an obvious metaphor for Echo, the human figurine who serves as his own customizable Barbie. "Arguably I could program the brain to fight cancer. Or be telekinetic. Or not to have that gag reflex when you eat sea urchin."

Ballard looks unimpressed. Or maybe that's his excited look. In any case, he perks up a little. "So you can do all that to me with this chair?" He had been caressing the brain-zapping chair when Topher came in; maybe in his own creepily paternalistic way, Ballard wants to feel Echo's pain.

"Not you — to an active," Topher explains. "I can't fiddle with the mind until it's wiped clean. The human mind is like Van Halen. If you just pull out a piece and keep replacing it, it just degenerates."

Ballard looks studly, but admits that he doesn't understand. "Ooh, but it's so cute that you're trying!" Topher coos.

Is it obvious yet that we love Topher? He is the ultimate Whedon proxy, the nerdy genius who brags breathlessly one minute and then the next, feels deeply uncomfortable about the ramifications of his own work. We’re not sure what we’re supposed to feel about Ballard, though: He sees himself as a gallant hero determined to help Echo find her real self and escape the Dollhouse, but he is also creepily, patronizingly fixated on her. And in the meantime, he is collaborating with the people who are pimping out her body every episode.

This week, Echo's mind has been altered to make her a new mom, complete with postpartum exhaustion and a voracious love for the baby she has been hired to mother by a client whose wife died in childbirth. But when Echo spots photos of the dead wife and becomes jealous, the client tries to call the whole thing off and take his baby back — triggering a horrific, protective panic in Echo, who flees with the baby.

Also unspooling in the background is a plotline featuring Alexis Denisof as a senator who is picking up the Dollhouse investigation where Ballard left off, and a glimpse of Mellie/November's post-zombie life. Having done her five years of voluntary service as an Active, Mellie (now known as Madeline) has been paid in full and now lives a life of independent wealth. But Adele asks her to return to the Dollhouse for a checkup — and a bit of repartee with Topher. He gives her a clean bill of health, and she certainly is aglow. (Apparently being sapped of all your anxious thoughts and memories is better than Botox.) Just as this happy customer is about to leave the faux-spa prison forever, a shrieking and kicking Echo arrives on the scene. In mourning for her baby, she has to be knocked out before she can be carried to the brain-zapping chair.

Madeline looks startled. Perhaps it was easier to walk away from the Dollhouse with fistfuls of cash, happily ignorant about what happened to her body while she was out of it. We know when someone house-sits our apartment, we don't really want to know what gross stuff went on there while we were gone, as long as it's all tidy when we return. But Madeline quickly regains composure and comforts Ballard, whose jutting jaw indicates that he is upset by Echo's agony. "She'll forget everything," Madeline assures him. "No more pain, no more grief. They did it for me."

Echo doesn't seem able to shrug off the agony so easily. After a failed attempt to wipe her brain, the episode devolves into a horror-movie cliché, with Echo returning to the client's house to retrieve her baby in the middle of a spooky thunderstorm, toting a giant carving knife. "Mommy's home!" We know Whedon likes to play with genre conventions, but this one was a little too clumsy to swallow.

Luckily, the episode distracted us with plenty more substantial knots to untie. Like, who the hell is Echo now? A wounded maternal instinct trapped in an empty shell? (As Topher admits, "Perhaps triggering lactation was a bridge too far. Live and learn.") A bad Van Halen cover band? Her supposedly vacant brain seems to have a will of its own, not to mention the residue of all the personae that have been imprinted on it. So what happens if and when Ballard finds the "real" Caroline — will he have the heart to wipe out Echo?

Also, who supplied the senator with inside information, and what's the deal with his awkward wife? Is she an Active, or just a bad actress?

And finally, considering that this is a show about technology so sophisticated it may bring down humanity, couldn't Fox come up with a better app for Dollhouse than this "virtual Echo" desktop? Once again, Dushku's sexy body just keeps getting in the way.