Monday, August 22, 2011

"Vows"

Dollhouse - Season Two
Airdate: September 25, 2009
Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz
Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman
And Olivia Williams
Created by Joss Whedon
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Nothing is ever easy for Joss Whedon, is it? After barely scraping together the embattled first season of this show, he needed to come up with a last minute thirteenth episode with basically no money for the DVDs. That should have been the end of it, but against all odds, "Dollhouse" was given a second season. As a fan, I'm delighted that this show got an additional thirteen episodes, but in retrospect, it was a mistake. Be that as it may, Joss Whedon was given another shot, and suddenly he needed to come up with a way to continue his story. And that's a bit tricky when you've saddled yourself with an apocalyptic flash-forward episode.

And there were other issues. The network made a few things very clear, according to Whedon's commentary on the DVD, when they made the extraordinary decision to renew a show with the dreadfully poor ratings this show had. The budget was cut, and by quite a bit. And Echo needed to be overhauled significantly. One of the goals of this episode is to introduce the new Echo, who no longer returns to the "tabula rasa" state when her imprint is wiped at the end of each episode. She remembers who she is, she remembers something of her engagements, and she's continuing to work in secret to bring down the Dollhouse from the inside. It makes for a far more dynamic Echo, and that's a good thing, but it is a pretty radical change.

And there are more changes to introduce, making this another one of Whedon's many, many pilots. As he did on "Angel" and on "Firefly" before this, he's being forced to re-invent and relaunch a series already in progress. This is actually the second "Dollhouse" relaunch, after all. Part of what this episode needs to do is establish Paul Ballard in his new role as Echo's new handler. It gets us there through a fairly roundabout route, but that's okay. In addition to introducing the redesigned series, this episode also needs to tell a story. Over the course of telling that story, the script sells us on this new status quo.

And if that wasn't enough, that story also contains a fascinating new twist for an engagement. The client is Paul, who has been dropped from the FBI, and he gets Echo imprinted as an elite undercover law enforcement officer to help him take down an arms dealer (played by Jamie Bamber). There's also a pretty interesting twist involving the "glitch". The idea of Echo glitching on every engagement is getting a bit tired, but this episode has a good approach which fits in nicely with establishing the new Echo, the new Paul, and the new relationship between them.

If you have this on DVD, I urge you to listen to Whedon's commentary. As usual, he's interesting, informative, and funny. But it's also the best way to appreciate how remarkable this episode is. It is a pretty major redefinition of the series, but it feels like a fairly smooth continuation. The script is deftly written, and extremely economical with it's running time, now that the series is no longer putting out 50-minute episodes.

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