Last episode we found out that RUSSIAN DUDE is actually an Active called VICTOR, sent by the DOLLHOUSE to impede FBI PAUL’s investigation into them. Then FBI PAUL got shot! It will take more than that to stop him though …
We open with a gorgeous establishing shot of a vast, snow-capped MOUNTAIN RANGE, an unknown building complex perched atop it. We hear the sound of a woman’s impassioned moans as the shot cuts to said woman in a bed, somewhere in the building. She is GIVING BIRTH. I think we were meant to assume upon first hearing the sound that it would be Echo getting up to whatever with a client, which is just a gross fake-out considering that nothing she does with her clients is consensual on her part. Anyway, Echo is there, as the MIDWIFE EXTRAORDINAIRE. The woman giving birth and her man partner of whatever description are freaking out, but Echo is SUPER RELAXED and chatty, which apparently aren’t qualities you can find in a real midwife. Or maybe the couple just couldn’t find one who was willing to deliver a baby in the mountains in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Either way, these people are so extra, and apparently rich enough to drop cash on hiring the Dollhouse to bring their baby into the world. Their little Lucy is going to grow up with a skewed perspective of how shit gets done. Also apparently she has ‘Linebacker shoulders’, which I understand means they’re broad (and thus extra effort to get through the birth canal). MAN PARTNER clearly knows less about American Football than even I do, because he thinks this means that his daughter will be a lesbian, and this is just a throwaway joke but let’s park on it for a moment.
This is the kind of joke that a show without LGBTQ characters makes to acknowledge that yes The Gays™ do exist – just not on the show. I’m 95% confident in my memory that there are no gay or bisexual characters in Dollhouse, certainly not within the core cast of characters. Why is this? I don’t know, but I like to think that had the show come out today in 2016, there would be some form of LGBT representation. A lot has changed on TV in this regard in the past 7 years. Let’s not forget that when Dollhouse premiered, Glee had not yet started airing, and regardless of that show’s faults, it did in many ways normalise the supposedly radical idea of introducing gay characters. Since Glee broke onto the scene, swathes of shows – many of them genre shows – have made sure to include gay and bisexual representation. Two of 2015’s biggest headline-grabbers, EMPIRE, and How To Get Away With Murder casually introduced a host of gay and bisexual characters and pointedly dismissed critics of this decision. In the genre arena, in just the past 3-4 years we have seen gay and bisexual characters appear in the likes of Orphan Black, Arrow (and by extension Legends of Tomorrow), The 100, Wynonna Earp, Lost Girl (which is almost its own separate category), Pretty Little Liars, True Blood, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, Defiance, The Walking Dead – and its spinoff Fear the Walking Dead –, Jessica Jones, my sun and stars Person of Interest, and many more, and Supergirl has just cast its Maggie Sawyer.
I would like to preempt any comments of “Sophie, don’t forget that Joss Whedon’s previous show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) had several lesbian characters” because 1) I ain’t ever gonna forget, and 2) although this is true, and indeed the first prime-time lesbian sex scene on US network television aired on that show, Buffy also featured one of the most egregious examples of a lesbian death in media. Not only that but since Tara was killed off in 2002, her death was probably the most famous and referred to manifestation of the ‘bury your gays’ trope – until 3rd March 2016, when The 100 killed its beloved lesbian character, Lexa, in a scenario that bore so many similarities to its predecessor that it played like a sick parody. The rest is history.
In fact, almost all of the above mentioned shows have killed off lesbian or bisexual characters, often in brutally violent circumstances, which is to say that in many ways 2016 is barely any more progressive than 2009 with regards to its LGBTQ representation. Simply having LGBT characters is not enough, particularly if they are mistreated or not written authentically. And yet, it isn’t possible to improve upon your representation unless you have representation in the first place, and representation a joke about Linebacker shoulders is not. In ‘Stage Fright’, TOPHER excitedly suggested that Echo may have a romantic encounter with her female client, and now we have this throwaway comment in the very next episode. Does a show get to joke about representation when it doesn’t actually have any? I think not. It’s a slap in the face to its LGBTQ viewers to say “hey, we know you’re out there. We can’t be bothered to give you a voice, but here’s a shout-out“.
For now, we go back to the IMPRINTING FACTORY: ECHO’s midwife persona is wiped, and Topher looks more concerned than usual as she leaves for lunch. He has observed that she and a few of the other Actives are grouping together regularly. Echo invites an adorably uncertain SIERRA to sit with her, and they converse earnestly about their mundane lives. There’s some careful blocking and framing in this scene, which eventually reveals with a pan to the right that VICTOR is also eating with them. TOPHER tries to explain to LANGTON that this flocking behaviour goes against the Actives’ programming, that it’s deeper than memory and speaks rather to INSTINCTUAL SURVIVAL PATTERNS. He wonders if the three Actives had a past connection with one another before they volunteered to become dolls; Langton is skeptical that they even volunteered in the first place. We already knew Langton feels conflicted about his work, and he already voiced to Dr Saunders in the past his belief that the Dollhouse higher-ups are likely keeping secrets, but here he really illustrates how deep his distrust runs. He doesn’t just want to protect Echo because he is her Handler; he considers the possibility that whoever she was before may not have even elected to be an Active but was instead made one against her will. Potentially this means that he will protect her (and perhaps other Actives) not just because it is his job to, but also out of a sense of duty to seek justice for an innocent person who cannot protect themselves. Langton could prove to be a great ally to Echo and her pals.
LA Dollhouse bigwig, Adele DeWitt meets with a new client in her office, which has enough large windows to excite Rachel Duncan. Her client wishes to keep the details of his Engagement secret, even from her, but we all know things never play out this way. At any rate, the Dollhouse computers have calculated a very high risk factor to this job, which is an indication to us viewers that the Engagement is not as it first appears. DeWitt is interrupted by an incoming call, which she answers with some trepidation. It’s her MYSTERY BOSS, whom she has alluded to once before, and he seems agitated by FBI PAUL’s investigation into the Dollhouse. DeWitt reassures MYSTERY BOSS that the situation is being dealt with, what with Victor on a long-term Engagement to obfuscate. She wants Victor to play out his task to a natural end: “[Paul] needs closure, and we are experts at giving people what they need”.
Apparently what we need is Eliza Dushku in more leather, for that is what we are blessed with. Echo is now ‘Taffy’, checking herself in the mirror of a high-end hotel, adjusting her cleavage and cheerfully declaring “blue skies”, which for some reason is her catchphrase. It’s certainly got nothing on “five by five”.
Taffy has been ‘hired’ for the ‘bachelor party’ of three white men: one of them is WESLEY from Netflix’s Daredevil, the supposed groom-to-be has no remarkable features so I shall refer to him as STANDARD WHITE DUDE, and the third is skinny and clearly the odd one out with a shaved head and glasses and may or may not be a Professor but he looks like an Igor so I shall call him IGOR. They are causing quite a scene in the hotel bar, what with Taffy’s risqué attire and excitable behaviour, so they are asked to move the party up to their suite, and to suiten the deal, the hotel employee offers them Champagne on the house. Eliza Dushku brings a lot of energy and charisma to the role of Taffy, which creates a neat counterbalance to how the character acts later in this episode.
We next see Taffy running out of her suite, screaming down the corridor as she is chased by WESLEY and STANDARD WHITE DUDE, her blouse ripped open and lipstick smudged like it’s a Lana Del Rey song. She bumps into the same hotel employee and he takes her down to a basement office where he offers her a sweet $10k as hush money if she signs an agreement to not hold the hotel responsible for her mistreatment. Obviously this hotel is quite blasé about sex workers being abused on its premises, so I have no qualms with what happens next, which is that Taffy KNOCKS OUT the employee, and reassembles her team. You see, Taffy and the fake bachelor party-ers are there to gain access to an underground vault next door. It’s a neat twist that makes the client-of-the-week formula a little more interesting. Taffy oozes confidence and competence and takes charge of her merry band of thieves, announcing that they are now operating on Taffy Standard Time, and telling them to blog about her boobs which I guess is technically what I am doing, so that was unexpectedly meta. WESLEY wonders how they have never heard of her considering she is supposed to be ‘the best’, and yo I’ve said it before: the Actives are like ghosts that flit in and out of peoples’ lives leaving nary a trace behind. This is how people like Paul end up catching just a whisper of their existence. Taffy gets her team through the vault door and they enter the ‘gray hour’, the time between one security system going offline, and another starting up. To be honest that sounds like some shit security. Person of Interest‘s Team Machine would never have been afforded so much time.
Meanwhile FBI PAUL returns to his apartment, discharged from hospital, and finds RUSSIAN VICTOR cowering in the shadows. Victor insists that the Russian mob now want him dead, but FBI PAUL is not especially sympathetic, on account of the GUNSHOT WOUND he acquired after following Russian Victor’s fake tip-off. Look, I know that Victor is under instructions from the Dollhouse, but leading FBI PAUL to the Russian mob is plausibly something the Russian mob would ask him to do. So what exactly are the Dollhouse’s orders? Or were they really the ones who delivered FBI PAUL to the mob? That would certainly explain why they are now scrambling to halt Paul in his investigation for good, considering a bullet to the gut was not enough to bring him down. DeWitt said she would not sanction a hit on a Federal agent, but she probably would not be above maneuvering the Russian mob into a position where they are able to kill him. I don’t know, it might be a while before we get answers on this.
TEAM TAFFY find that the vault is filled with stolen art (mostly counterfeits) and antiquities, and it transpires that they have been sent by GREECE to steal back a small frieze from the PARTHENON. That’s right, the Greek government has decided that enough is enough and they want their damn temple sculptures back. I guess they figured that the Parthenon Marbles was too much to sneak out of England, so they’ve gone for a smaller piece in the US. I would actually love to see life imitate art here, and find out from tomorrow’s news that a covert team of highly skilled thieves have re-‘acquired’ the so-called ‘Elgin’s Marbles’ from the British Museum, perhaps led by a young, vivacious brunette chick in leather boots. Hardly anything in that place was gained legitimately anyway.
As it happens, IGOR unsurprisingly is a shady bastard, and he runs off with the frieze, stabbing WESLEY with a conveniently placed sword, and locking the rest of the team inside the vault. With 31 minutes of the GREY HOUR left, Taffy calls LANGTON, who is outside in his NONDESCRIPT BLACK VAN, and asks him to intercept IGOR and finish the job. She says she knows how to get out of the vault but before she hangs up there is some WICKED BAD INTERFERENCE on the phone line and the canted angle lets us know all has GONE TO SHIT. Taffy looks up at her two remaining team members in confusion and asks, “did I fall asleep?” Whaaaaaaat?
TOPHER is giving an informal lecture on brain mapping to an Asian-American chick, who is presumably a co-worker, and who is appalled by his groceries list. Her name is IVY, and she calls him out on his privilege abusing, but she also says things like “I do worship at the altar of your genius,” which is just gross. Why was that line written? We know TOPHER is immodest and ego-centric; we don’t need to see the Asian chick heap undue praise on the white dude who is already treating her as his live-in maid/the beneficiary of his wisdom sharing. Unless … IVY could be an Active. TOPHER would totally programme his companion as somebody who showers him with praise but who is also intellectually competent enough to keep up with his ideas and conversation. We know nothing about his personal life but it’s entirely plausible that Topher is lonely enough to construct somebody who wants to spend time with him. Somewhat alarmingly this is not an uncommon theme within the Whedonverse; Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Buffy-bot was created as Spike’s sex-toy, and based on the ‘girlfriend’ robot of its creator, and Mr Universe in Serenity had a lovebot wife. Topher wouldn’t need to build a robot to be his companion when he can instead simply reprogram a human. I actually don’t remember anything further about Ivy, so I will have to wait to see if she is a construct of Topher’s imagination, or simply a character for him to bounce ideas off of. Anyway, he tries to incentivise her to do his shopping with promises of sharing more of his genius. Topher is super douchey, you guys. Ivy ignores him because Echo’s vitals are spiking on a nearby monitor. She interrupts Topher’s ego trip to point it out and he tries to call ‘Taffy’, which is unsuccessful because in her current state she has no idea what a phone is, let alone what to do with one.
Echo/Taffy is rocking back and forth on the floor of the vault, shaking and repeating “should I go now?” over and over. It’s what she asks Topher every time she comes back from an Engagement and is reverted to her blank slate state. STANDARD WHITE GUY postulates that she is suffering from “hysterical woman syndrome” and slaps her, so you know I’d be okay with his face getting ripped off (spoiler alert: Taffy ends up injecting him with something deadly, and he gets shot at a bit, so that’s good enough for me).
Next door, IGOR is fleeing through the deliveries entrance of the hotel, but is stopped short by Langton who appears at the top of the stairwell like he’s the badass protagonist of some film noir flick. Langton cocks his gun threateningly, and seriously now I want to see Harry Lennix get a starring role in a hardboiled detective movie. With Candice Patton as his promising young apprentice, because a girl can dream. Anyway, IGOR hands over the marble frieze and tries to make a run for it, so Langton shoots him in the leg, and then we get a really cool bird’s eye view over the stairwell as they ascend to street level.
Topher panics at DeWitt while SECURITY LAWRENCE is a lake of calm, reporting that Langton has checked in, and so surmising that Echo’s vitals must have spiked because of how the Engagement went south. Topher knows that’s not the explanation.
“I wove more than one thread of unflappable into that tapestry,” he says to DeWitt, who is also unflappable and looks like she’s about to give Topher a stern talking to. “Echo could have an exploding belly bomb and her heart rate shouldn’t go past 65bpm.” Topher went against protocol by attempting to contact Echo, so he gets his stern talking to, and then SECURITY LAWRENCE pulls up the audio of Echo and Langton’s phone conversation, and they hear the WICKED BAD INTERFERENCE noise. Fran Kranz does a very good job at expressing full-on DISBELIEF, which is mostly a lot of Topher spluttering and waving his arms and puffing his cheeks out. DeWitt has the ability to cut through his distress and convince him to explain and she soon realises what he is wittering on about.
“You’ve stated that remote wipes aren’t possible.”
“I’ve said they’re untested. I’ve said they’re a very bad, bad idea. I’ve said I can’t do them.”
“How do we undo it?”
“We … don’t?”
DeWitt looks like she is thinking about JIGSAW PUZZLES again.
“Somebody out there figured out our frequency, hacked into our call – and that’s not even the hard part.” Of course, Topher absolves himself of blame.
This is HUGE NEWS, guys. Basically, in order to wipe an Active of their currently installed persona, Topher requires them to be sat in the chair in his IMPRINTING FACTORY, but somebody out there has managed to crack the technology required to remotely wipe an Active, without the chair, without close proximity. Obviously wiping an Active mid-Engagement is not likely to be of much use to anyone, but it does send a message to the Dollhouse. More than that, it’s a threat to their security and the integrity of their technology and the work they do. Obviously it is something that Topher and DeWitt have discussed in the past, and we can see how shaken Topher is by the reveal that it is in fact no longer a hypothetical. The immediate threat, however, is to Echo:
“Being wiped is not unlike being born … In here we minimise the trauma with throw pillows and perfectly crunchy lettuce; there’s no conflict. But out there it’s all fluorescent lights and forceps. Right now, Echo is experiencing extreme sensory overload.”
Actually, Echo is mostly appreciating art, and we find her staring at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers down in the vault. She moves onto a Picasso portrait, which makes her feel ‘funny’.
“This guy painted what is,” WESLEY explains. “This one’s saying how we start off whole and somewhere along the line the pieces start to slide. We get broken.” It’s kind of sweet that he’s giving her an art lesson whilst he’s bleeding out on the floor.
Echo is really intrigued by the painting, and actually it reminds me of something she said to Langton two episodes ago after she hallucinated seeing ALPHA standing over her in the shower back at the Dollhouse: “I can’t see his face. I don’t think he has one.” (Obviously the reason his face was obscured by shadow was primarily to keep his identity hidden from viewers, but it is interesting that Echo is also having difficulty identifying him.) Let us not forget that the beautiful Dr Saunders looks like a jigsaw puzzle – thanks to Alpha – with scars of incisions running across her face (I’m very sorry to say that AMY ACKER is sadly missing from this episode). We still don’t know why Alpha harmed only the Doctor’s face, considering he killed everybody else he encountered on his slaughter-cum-escape (except for Echo, of course) but it’s also something we shouldn’t ignore. There is definitely a running theme here of faces that are hidden or altered in some way, much like that in the Picasso portrait, and obviously it speaks to identity, or lack thereof, or even identities altered. Hmmmm ALTERED IDENTITIES. Caroline started off as a whole person, but along the way the pieces of her identity were removed until we were left with Echo. Does that make Echo broken? WESLEY suggests as much to her. They admire another painting, of snow-capped mountains, and it’s pretty fucking ugly but they seem to find some comfort in it. Echo remembers that when she’s in the mountains, her name is different. And something to do with lame jokes about lesbians.
Whilst they stare at art and await their imminent arrest, the Dollhouse staff meanwhile are working hard to extract Echo, and what better way to break out a highly experienced mastermind thief but to use a highly experienced mastermind thief. The same one, in fact: SIERRA is imprinted with the Taffy persona, so for the first time we get to see two different interpretations of a persona. While Eliza Dushku brims with energy, Dichen Lachman is all lithe and long-limbed, moving with cat-like deliberation, and almost sardonic with her line delivery. Her Taffy is furious that some other chick swiped her art vault gig after her 10 months of prep and research and having to learn how to lap-dance. It’s actually hilarious watching DeWitt have to act like a scolded schoolgirl to keep Taffy on-side and on-task, and when she takes a call from Langton, she has to be very careful with how she responds to his questions, considering she has an Active within eavesdropping range. It’s a lot of fun to see the boundaries between the various characters getting crossed more and more; Topher in his employer’s office, an Active in the faculty’s domain rather than the other way around, and so on. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this, especially when we see how it affects the comfort levels of those characters who actually have an awareness of their surroundings. Sierra!Taffy calls SECURITY LAWRENCE “nervous Nelly” and thinks “he’s actually kind of sweet”, and I challenge DeWitt to deny that she is at least a bit amused.
For now, Topher is back in his office, panicking some more about the REMOTE WIPE while Ivy restocks his fridge and calls him out for assuming the perp is a ‘he’. PREACH IT LOUDER, IVY. Topher actually reckons a ‘they’ is more likely, and no, Dollhouse is not about to introduce a non-binary antagonist, but rather the sheer complexity of the work that went into the hack supposedly had to have been carried out by a group of people, or rather “a gigantic, multi-pronged conspiracy”. Thinking it through some more, Topher suspects a man called Yumio Takahashi could be responsible; “he’s always gunning for my job, he loves the beach”. So a man all the way over in Tokyo is aware of what Topher’s job is, which has to mean that he works for a Dollhouse over there. This isn’t just an American enterprise, then, but a global one. Yikes.
Ivy, ever the voice of reason, points out that endangering the LA Dollhouse’s most prized doll would not be the best way to advance one’s career in said Dollhouse, and then Topher does that thing that so many women experience in professional settings, where the guy completely ignores what she says, but reaches the same conclusion like she was of no help to his thought process. She even gives him a look. We feel ya, Ivy. Also, Topher refers to himself as “Dewitt’s number one son”, which is just a throwaway line but boy does it say a lot. One of the few things I recall about this show is how Topher and Adele DeWitt’s relationship develops and I’m really interested in seeing that unfold again. Does Topher view DeWitt as a mother figure? There will be a lot to unpack in the future. I like that we see Topher struggling to figure out what is going on here, and he has to run through a few different theories until he decides that there is only one person capable of achieving the remote wipe. But as far as Topher is concerned, that person is dead. Hmm, where have we heard that before?
FBI PAUL returns home, and while he promised Russian Victor that he would try to help him, he actually spent the day at his office putting out a BOLO on him and making sure Victor’s face is advertised all over the FBI networks. Russian Victor wants a new identity; “I got a good American accent” he says adorably, and here we have an American actor playing a fake Russian putting on an American accent. Enver Gjokaj is so enjoyable to watch. FBI PAUL is having none of it, though, and kicks him out. Russian Victor looks so forlorn and for good reason: he is as good as dead, with both the Russian mob and law enforcement agencies on the lookout for him, and FBI PAUL knows that if the Russians get there first, what they do to Victor’s body will tell him a lot. I think FBI PAUL still really believes that the Russian mob are connected to the Dollhouse, which is just so naive, bless him. “I know how the Russians kill. … I know what body parts they like to chop off and what message they want to send,” he says. Mate, I’m pretty sure the only message the Russians want to send you right now is ‘fuck off and leave us alone’. And what if the FBI get to Victor first? Then you don’t receive any messages from the Russians. It’s no wonder Paul is the laughing stock of the Bureau, if he’s constantly not thinking actions like this through.
Echo runs out of time to admire paintings and attempts an escape from the vault, via instructions from Sierra!Taffy (after eventually figuring out how to use the phone), which unfortunately does not go to plan because Echo is essentially a TALKING CUCUMBER (WESLEY’s words). One interesting takeaway is that when SECURITY LAWRENCE tells DeWitt that he will inform Boyd of Echo’s impending capture (“he may have to neutralise her”), DeWitt says to put somebody else on the job: “I’m beginning to suspect he hasn’t the proper distance.” So DeWitt has begun to notice that Langton feels a personal connection to Echo, and views protecting her as not just his job but also his duty. Also the Dollhouse is willing to put down one of their most sought-after Actives in order to protect their interests. So ultimately the Actives are all disposable to them. That’s hardly surprising, but it’s not comforting either.
There’s a gunfight in the vault and the colour palette in this scene is so cool – the warning lights of the alarm system are blue, rather than the usual red, and contrast nicely with the greenish glow outside when the vault door is opened by the security guards. Echo escapes when WESLEY creates a diversion for her. She takes him with her, and when Langton arrives at the tunnel they knocked through from the hotel office, she tells Langton that WESLEY needs fixing because he’s broken. Langton is obviously awed by his resilient, programming-defying Active, and offers her a hand.
“I’m not broken,” she tells him.
When she’s back in the IMPRINTING FACTORY after the Engagement, we see the visuals of her wipe cycling back only as far as when she was triggered by the remote wipe, which is pretty neat. She goes for a swim, and a shower, and then in the steam on the mirror, traces her own little Picasso-inspired broken face, before wiping the whole thing clean. METAPHOR ALERT. It’s subtle touches like this that really complete the package; it’s the final image of the episode, and it doesn’t further the story in any way, but it does really strengthen the thematic foundations of the show.
FBI PAUL may be no closer to finding the truth, but Topher is. He runs every test he can think of, and seems to believe Echo is unaffected by the remote wipe, but he wants answers from DeWitt, and when she tries to stick to business as usual, he pushes her to confirm his suspicions:
“It was Alpha, wasn’t it? Nobody else could come even close to pulling off a remote wipe. He’s alive. He’s out there.”
DeWitt confirms. So we know she was lying to Doctor Saunders and Topher; it’s probably safe to say that none of the staff at the Dollhouse know that Alpha is still alive, except for DeWitt, SECURITY LAWRENCE, and now Topher. Langton suspects, but does not officially know.
“Our influence is substantial, but Alpha with his gifts – gifts we gave him,”DeWitt rolls her eyes, “- finding him, confining him … we’re not all-powerful.” For the first time we are seeing clearly the limitations of the Dollhouse’s reach and what their shortcomings are. Alpha was imprinted with the personas of computer geniuses, and it proved to be the Dollhouse’s downfall. Obviously he can access the memories and skills of somebody who matches Topher in capability – and maybe even surpasses him. DeWitt ups Topher’s security clearance and bargains with him to work together in sharing intelligence on Alpha and bringing him down.
SO, we’re now starting to see how ALPHA continues to threaten the Dollhouse; his past actions taken against them were violent and bloody, but he is now proving to be much more of a long-term danger to their operations, and one that is proving difficult to combat. His technological capabilities have them scared shitless, and as I have speculated before, we will likely see TOPHER begin his own side project in an attempt to solve this problem. As for ALPHA himself: what are his aims? Does he want revenge on the Dollhouse for what they put him through during his time as an Active? (Was he coerced into being an Active?) Does he want to expose the Dollhouse? Is he working with anybody else or is this a solo mission? Imagine if THE ALPHA THING was actually staged by the Dollhouse, and Alpha is actually still on an Engagement. Of course that would be pretty difficulty to arrange without Topher being aware of it, but it’s fun to speculate. The remote wipe is a pretty big GAME CHANGER and it means that we can see Alpha getting involved in Dollhouse business without even actually being physically present. These developments that have been sparingly set up in the past few episodes are dominoes being put into position; sooner or later we will see them all tumbling down.