What do we know?
1. I think we can start to put together a timeline.
At some point, a few years before we follow Boyd into the Dollhouse, the Rossum Corp. develops the Dollhouse technology, i.e. the ability to wipe, extract, and implant personalities. They use convicts as test subjects. The tests go well, they feel, and so they commercialize the technology, launching the Dollhouse. One (at least) of the convict test subjects is employed as a doll-for-hire now: Carl Craft. Craft was a serial killer in the making, arrested after slashing up a woman’s face, but before killing her. As a doll, he’s known as Alpha.
Some unspecified number of months or years later, Alpha is sent on an engagement for which he’s paired with another doll, Whiskey. The client’s wishes have something to do with being taken along on a crime spree by a pair of Natural Born Killers, but Alpha and Whiskey go a little off their brief and start torturing the client. As he’s pleading for his life, the client tells Alpha that he (Alpha) isn’t real.
Not long thereafter, Alpha begins to develop a self-consciousness that survives the wipes. He has man reactions to a new doll, Echo. In a misguided display of chivalry, he slashes Whiskey’s face, so that Echo can be the new #1 doll. Dollhouse staff subdue him, and put him in the chair. Topher, in an effort to discover which if any of Alpha’s previous imprints might have left a residue that could explain this, begins cycling through these imprints while Alpha is in the chair. Meanwhile, Alpha attacks his handler, Topher loses control of the program, and all of Alpha’s previous personalities are downloaded into him at once. This is his composite event. He kills his handler, Dr. Saunders (the real one) when the doctor strays into the lab, and a few other staff members. He then smashes his own personality backup, i.e., the Carl Craft persona.
I think it’s also at this time that he kills others in Echo’s sleeping chamber, leaving her alive. I.e., the massacre that happened just before the show starts is the same one that we see beginning in this episode’s flashbacks.
I think. That makes the timeline weird, because the flashbacks are labeled “a few years ago,” and I don’t think they cover years of time, and I don’t think the series itself has covered years of time, meaning the total elapsed time from the NBK engagement to the present can’t be more than a year or so. It’s possible that Alpha went away for a while, came back and killed some people, and then went away again, but in this episode Topher and Adelle are both acting like Alpha’s violent eruption was the killing spree, i.e. their only encounter with composite Alpha before he came back in Episode 11 to take Echo. Ergo, the blood on the floor in Episode 1 is from the flashbacks we’re seeing in this episode.
In the aftermath of that massacre, the Dollhouse staff see an opportunity to fill a sudden vacancy in their ranks while simultaneously getting some use out of the broken doll Whiskey: they imprint her with a modified Dr. Saunders persona and make her the doctor.
At this point, Boyd joins the staff. Why? We don’t know for sure, but in Episode 12 he hints that it had to do with a girl – “there’s always a girl” – and watching the way Ballard joins the team, we begin to suspect that Boyd is there for similar reasons. Either he joined as the price of freeing someone, or he joined so he could protect someone; in any case, he’s morally opposed to the Dollhouse, but willing to work with it (within it) for what he sees as a greater good.
Alpha’s still out there, thinking his many and varied thoughts and sitting around watching videos of Caroline. Meanwhile, in a process we’ve been witnessing, Echo fumbles toward awakening. Alpha decides, for some reason, to involve Agent Ballard. He feeds Ballard’s Dollhouse obsession by furnishing him clues about Caroline. Eventually he’s got Ballard where he wants him, and he uses Ballard to help him gain access to the Dollhouse.
Why does Alpha need Ballard’s help to get in? This is unclear. Did Alpha not remember where the Dollhouse was? Possible, but unlikely. I hope this becomes clear in a future episode (if there are any), because at the moment it’s a puzzle. In any case, he enlists Ballard, and with him enters the Dollhouse. While Ballard is fighting Boyd, Alpha takes Echo. But first he imprints Echo with the persona Whiskey had inhabited in the NBK engagement. Why? As Alpha says, he needed Echo to be bold and violent so they could make their escape. From what we later learn about Craft, we can also wonder if Alpha isn’t most comfortable with that kind of persona, and indeed if being imprinted with such a persona wasn’t what spurred his awakening – it was too close to Craft’s real self. Lots of interesting questions to ponder with that…
All of that brings us up to this episode. Wherein we discover that Alpha considers himself an ubermensch, the next step in human evolution: a god. And he wants a goddess. Bride of Frankenstein stuff. So he tries to recreate his own composite event with Echo: by downloading all her previous personas into her head at once, he tries to make her a being like himself, and he renames her Omega. (Why? In Revelations, God calls himself the alpha and omega – i.e., the a-to-z, the whole shebang.)
He has the hard drive containing the Caroline persona, and he inputs this into the body of Wendy, a girl they’ve kidnapped. His plan is for Omega, who he presumes will be psycho like himself, to kill the girl containing Caroline, and then to smash the hard drive, thus freeing herself from her puny mortal single-self past once and for all, as Alpha has done for himself. But Omega isn’t interested. She attacks Alpha. His dreams smashed (along with his testes), he reverts to Craft’s original impulses: he threatens to go on a killing spree, slashing up women’s faces. Alpha kills Wendy. Echo chases Alpha.
He gets away. But Echo and Ballard rescue the Caroline hard drive. But Echo chooses not to be free: we see her undergoing a wipe, and assume that she has volunteered to return to the Dollhouse. Why? Because she wants to fulfill her contract? Because she wants to work to bring down the Dollhouse from within? Because she feels it will be the safest place to continue working on her enlightenment? We don’t know. But the last thing the supposedly-wiped Echo says before we fade to black is “Caroline.” She’s not a blank slate.
Meanwhile Ballard has, like Boyd before him, decided to join the Dollhouse as a contractor. His price is Mellie/November’s freedom, with full payment.
Do I have this straight?
2. This show may not be back. Cancellation is hanging over Dollhouse like the sword of Damocles, and I fear the fox’s teeth are too sharp for the horse-hair. If it doesn’t come back, we still have Episode 13 to look forward to on DVD, and a satisfying climax to Season 1. But if it does come back, we have a lot of tantalizing loose threads to pull us onward.
Let’s start with Mellie/November. Surely she’s going to realize, once she gets out, that five years haven’t passed. That she got released early, and that maybe that nice man who wouldn’t tell her his name had something to do with it. We haven’t necessarily seen the last of her.
Ballard and Boyd, meanwhile, have the makings of a good partnership. I never saw it coming, especially when they were slugging it out in Episode 11 (although in retrospect maybe that should have been the tip-off), but when they started cooperating in the last half hour of this episode, it really worked. The characters have enough contrast in attitude, personality, and method to make an attractive screen pairing, without (so far) descending into buddy-cop silliness.
Topher and Whiskey. Episode 12 dropped clear hints that they have some kind of past together. No idea what it is. Would love to find out.
Then of course we have Caroline’s background (still a mystery), Echo’s awakening (still, perhaps, unconsummated), and Alpha’s revenge (he’s still out there). Not to mention Sierra’s past (as a doll sold into slavery) and Victor’s future (as a damaged doll).
Lots of possibilities for a second season.
3. How great was it that the engagement that seems to have started it all for Alpha was inspired by Natural Born Killers? I say “inspired by” although of course that film isn’t mentioned by name. But it seems all too obvious that the client, Lars, was inspired by that film, and there’s the brilliance, because remember all the controversy about that movie and the murders it supposedly inspired? Remember how that movie itself was posing as a critique of the way the media sensationalizes violence, even as it sensationalized violence? Lars thinks it’s all a game, and of course he’s right: “Bobby” and “Crystal” aren’t real. But they’re real enough to (almost) kill him. And to (possibly) inspire another killer (Craft) to slash his way out of virtuality into reality. The cycle of media-inspired-violence/ violence-inspired-media/ fantasy-unable-to-distinguish-between-them here is too tight to completely unroll, and it’s perfect for Dollhouse’s critique of contemporary America.
Of course Natural Born Killers isn’t the only film referenced in the Bobby and Crystal scene. The use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” links it to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. But since I haven’t seen that movie yet (I feel guilty about that, all of a sudden), I can’t say what that means.
4. We finally know where Dollhouse stands on the question of a soul. Soul is the word for it, too. Ballard, trying to profile Alpha, tells Topher he doesn’t think all their technology can erase a person’s soul. Topher gives a snarky little laugh, and with all we’ve seen in twelve episodes, we might catch ourselves laughing along with him, but we’d be wrong. I mean, what else do you call the thing that remains in Alpha after the Craft persona has been destroyed, hard drive and all, the thing that reasserts itself through the interference of dozens of other imprints and makes him want to slash women’s faces? The same thing that makes Echo, under the weight of thirty-eight imprints, and with her own personality as Caroline physically inhabiting another body, not want to slash anybody up? It’s well established that consciousness is interchangeable, but we’re forced to realize here what Boyd has been suspecting all along and what Paul instinctively assumes: there’s something in a human being, some core of identity, that’s too deep to be extracted. Bodies and souls are not completely interchangeable. Identity is not a set of Legos. You are you, and that includes proclivities to good and evil.
This is why I found this episode, this ending, so satisfying despite the fact that much of the show’s narrative remains open-ended. We don’t know what happens to any of these characters, and we still don’t know why most of them are doing what they’re doing, and most of all we still don’t understand completely what the hell’s going on.
But Dollhouse isn’t about the story. It’s about what it’s about: what in Buffy we called the subtext. Dollhouse is, as I’ve said before, science fiction of the highest order, in which ideas and their implications are the real engine driving the story. Plot events are just the means by which those ideas are expressed. And here at the end of Episode 12, we can see the fundamental questions of Dollhouse (human identity, the nature of consciousness and personality, freedom and control) all coming into sharp focus. We’re not given answers, but we’re given questions, clearly expressed. It’s exciting, to me.
5. Which is not to say that Dollhouse is lacking in narrative interest, intriguing characters, witty dialogue, or any of the other species of goodness we’ve come to expect of Joss Whedon.
It’s true that I’m connecting with Dollhouse on a completely different level than that on which I connected with Buffy. So far there’s nobody in this show whose personal trials could move me to tears the way Willow’s did in Season 6 of Buffy, or whose death would bum me out as much as Doyle’s did in Season 1 of Angel. But there’s potential there, should they get a chance to realize it: Boyd, Ballard, Whiskey, even (with his poignant last scene with Whiskey) Topher.
And this show displays the same utter mastery of tone that Whedon’s early triumphs did. The way Alpha’s monologues in this episode manage to be both psychotic and cute (“I’m not bluffing – well, he is, but the rest of us aren’t!”), the way humor punctuates even the tensest of moments (pointing the gun at the hard drive and saying “I’ll blow your brains out” – funny), his way of overcooking dialogue to just the right degree. “I want my brain back! I want back in my brain!” Things like this just should not be said. I love that he has characters say them. The writing, in other words, is excellent.
In short, I’ve found it entertaining in ways that I expected, as well as a whole lot of ways I hadn’t. Above all it’s intelligent, which I had expected. It’s easily the best thing on TV right now. I hope to Omega it doesn’t get canceled.