Season 1 of Dollhouse ended with a kind of emotional train-wreck: Echo (Eliza Dushku) was exposed to all the imprints she'd ever been given, Paul (Tahmoh Penikett) tracked down Echo only to end his FBI career, and Claire (Amy Acker) was confronted with her past as a star active, Whiskey. The effect of all of this was the complete the show's own process of self-deconstruction. By breaking down its own formula, Joss Whedon and the creators of Dollhouse hoped to free it from the bonds of the conventional action drama. This season is now the test: can Whedon fulfill his own gut feelings about this show's true potential?
New Levels and New Directions
The season 2 premiere, "Vows" (airing Friday, Sep. 25, 2009 on Fox), may not be the ideal episode to being answering that question. After all, a sophomore premiere has to at least gesture in the direction of introducing the show to new viewers while reorienting past viewers to dramatically altered realities and characters. Not only are Echo, Paul, and Claire/Whiskey powerfully transformed by the climactic events of season 1, which all reverberate backwards to the rampage by Alpha that took place before the show's narrative began; but the other Dollhouse characters are affected as well. Topher (Fran Kranz), the overconfident wunderkind who designs the personalities, is unnerved more than he cares to admit by Claire's agonizing conflict and Echo's abnormal behavior.
These escalations of characterization and premise require complete investment by the performers, and Dushku, Penikett, and Acker are more than up to the task. Dushku, called on to create an Echo who can be seen to underlie her personality imprints, is strikingly effective, particularly as viewed over time; Penikett has a real handle on Paul's disconcerting obsession and occasionally rudderless behavior; Acker is always even better at adding shades to fear and vulnerability than you remember. Even Kranz, easily the show's greatest liability in its earliest episodes, is finding levels to his character that only Whedon had ever suspected before.
Wedding Bells and Memory Flashes
In this season premiere these performances are matched by a flawless outing for Jamie Bamber, as an arms dealer Paul has been tracking for years. Bamber fits so naturally into the show that it's a shame that the episode has to end; in fact you get the sense that all concerned share this feeling, and the final confrontation between Bamber's character and Paul takes place only because someone remembered Bamber was only a guest star and his storyline needed to be wrapped up before the closing credits. (It's also a nice bit of fun to see Bamber and Penikett, both Battlestar Galactica shipmates mere months ago, facing off as bitter enemies.)
What's really striking about the storyline itself is that Paul, who went to such lengths to expose Echo's real identity, has now become one of the people who use Echo for his own ends: he has her imprinted as his own FBI partner who's going undercover as the arm's dealer's new bride. This amounts to doing a number not only on Echo but on himself, since he has very mixed feeling both about using Echo and the intimacy of her mission. On top of that, Adelle (Olivia Williams), for her own reasons, is pushing Paul to immerse himself even deeper in the Dollhouse by becoming Echo's handler. The clear message is that this 13-episode season is going to involve Echo and Paul going on a journey they cannot control.
Trying to Break the Rules
Some other aspects of "Vows" are more of a question mark, mainly because they're placeholders for later development. Boyd (Harry Lennix) seems lost in his new role as security chief, and his phlegmatic line readings leave his motivations even more opaque than the needs of suspense might require. And new nemesis Alexis Denisof (another Whedon alumnus from Angel), as a crusading senator with his sights on the Dollhouse, looks dropped into the episode, delivering a clumsy character-establishing speech on the steps of some CGI government building, as seen on a TV screen that Adelle is watching in her office, followed by clumsy dialog between Adelle and Boyd identifying him, yes, as a threat. Presumably both men will be better served in future episodes as their stories are developed.
"Vows," written and directed by Whedon, is clearly an enthusiastic effort to solidify Dollhouse as a series that isn't primarily about this week's adventure. The compartmentalized episodes of the early first season were duds compared to what came later, because Whedon realized that the weekly assignments, while necessary to engage new and casual viewers and to create new conflicts, needed to be leveraged most of all to push the larger stories enmeshing the characters. As a result Whedon is finally navigating in the waters he knows best: building a long-term story through a carefully produced show that's still fun to watch every week.