Review: Dollhouse – Gray Hour

Dollhouse CastEcho: Did I fall asleep?

Topher: For a little while.

Echo: Shall I go now?

Topher: If you wish.

What happens if an active’s programming is wiped in the middle of an assignment? What happens when one asks the question that prompts the transition between mind-wipe and tabula rasa and doesn’t get the programmed answers? As we saw in ‘Gray Hour,’ this week’s installment of Dollhouse, Echo (Eliza Dushku) became a talking cucumber.

The episode opens up with Echo playing midwife to a couple in a posh lodge on a snowy mountain. Why this couple spent the money they did to have an active rather than a real midwife deliver their baby is a mystery that perhaps only fanfic will answer. With the baby delivered, Echo’s mind is wiped and she is all tabula rasaed for the next assignment.

At the Dollhouse, Echo, Sierra (Dichen Lachman), and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) converse about trying to be their best. Echo asks Sierra “Are you your best?” to which Sierra responds “I think if you always try, that’s best, right?”

Topher (Fran Kranz) and Boyd (Harry Lennix) seem concerned about the three actives grouping “a little like bison.” The three seem to meet each other regularly for meals, which is beginning to worry the people running the Dollhouse.

Before long, Echo gets a new assignment. She is hired out as Taffy, an expert in safe cracking, to help steal a piece of the Parthenon kept in a posh hotel vault with other stolen artifacts, masterpieces, and convincing forgeries. She is to lead a team that includes Cyril (Mark Ivanir), a professor-archeologist-type; Scott (Andrew Bowen), an expert in hacking into computer security systems; and Vitas (Anson Mount), who was key in setting up the ruse to get into the hotel vault.

Vitas is skeptical about Taffy, asking her if she’s the best, why has he never heard of her.

“Bestness means a quiet, head-down kind of life,” explains Taffy, almost as an echo of the conversations she and the other actives have had in their head-down kind of life.

On the other side of town – or wherever he lives – a wounded Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) settles down in his apartment, but catches Lubov/Victor hiding there. Lubov asks him for protection against the Russian mob, which Ballard eventually agrees to, allowing him to stay in his apartment. As with everything else in Dollhouse, nothing is as it appears, and Ballard later reveals he has alerted the FBI about him and will send them after him if he doesn’t help him find Caroline and the Dollhouse.

Back in the vault, as the heist is almost over, Cyril stabs Scott, and runs off with the piece of the Parthenon, leaving the others locked in the vault. Taffy calls Boyd, to warn him about the run-away prof, and while talking, a signal is sent over the phone that wipes Echo’s memory. This is where the real fun begins.

Each utters the prompt, “Did I fall asleep?” but doesn’t hear the expected response, which sets her on a loop of asking “Did I fall asleep? Shall I go now?”

Ivy (Liza Lapira), Topher’s sharp-tongued assistant, notices the screen monitoring Echo is going haywire, sending Topher into a manic panic. He knows he’s in trouble, and when confronted by Adele DeWitt (Olivia Williams), and upon learning she’s been wiped remotely, insists that a remote wipe isn’t possible – with one exception. Alpha, the rogue active, may know how to do it, but, in Topher’s mind, that couldn’t be possible, because Alpha is dead.

When it is clear to DeWitt that Topher needs to know that Alpha is alive, she ups his security clearance to enlist his help, but in the meantime, they need to resolve the problem of Echo. According to Topher, being wiped is like being born. Echo is experience extreme sensory overload and needs help.

They prepare to have to kill Echo, but they also program Sierra to be Taffy, to try to fix the problem before they have to go to that extreme.

In the vault, Echo is clearly confused. She doesn’t know where she is, or how she got there, and Vitas’s brutal reaction. Vitas tries coaxing Taffy back, coaching her, beating her, and giving up on her when wounded Scott declares that Taffy is gone.

As Vitas ponders what to do next, Echo notices the artwork in the room, as if she’s never seen art. She focuses on a painting reminiscent of Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror,” where the image of the woman appears to be broken. Echo appears to be fixated on the painting, and confused by everything being out of place in it. Scott explains to her that the artist, rather than merely painting what he saw, painted what is, or what he felt.

Echo also notes another painting of snowy mountains, imagining she’s there – and perhaps recalling her earlier gig as a midwife. “When I’m there,” she says, “ my name is something else.”

Sierra/Taffy takes over from DeWitt’s office at the Dollhouse. She calls Echo and instructs her how to break out of the vault. In spite of Echo trying to do her best, the attempt fails and sets off the alarms, alerting armed security guards to head their way.

Faced with imminent doom, Scott tries to kill himself with a lethal injection, but Vitas stops him. Vitas prepares to shoot his way out, handing Echo a gun, just after Scott tells Echo to surrender with her hands up so she doesn’t get hurt.

Confused by the mixed messages, Echo makes her own decision, and administers a lethal injection to Vitas in the neck. As he’s dying, he starts shooting at the armed guards. Echo seizes upon the opportunity to carry Scott out and escape unnoticed. She is retrieved by Boyd, who returns her to the Dollhouse to once again have her mind wiped.

The question is what does an active retain if their mind is wiped from the mind-wiped state? Something is happening to Echo, as instead of swimming thirty laps as she did in the beginning, she jumps into the pool and simply allows herself to sink. In the end, we see her emerge from the group shower, and notice her reflection in a steamed-up mirror. She draws a line around only part of her face, perhaps recalling the image of the broken woman she saw in the painting.

There was a lot more to this episode than just the plot. Back in full force is the Whedon snark, the sharp dialogue, and the colorful characters.

Topher, upon learning Alpha is still alive: I’m scared. I am scared like a little girl.

Lubov: Your locks are for crap.

Echo: Where are the better rooms?

We were introduced to a new character, Ivy, the lab assistant, who I hope will be around for good, because she and Topher, who I’m dying to find out more about now, play well off each other.

Lachman was pitch perfect as Taffy, exactly replicating the mannerisms and inflections as exhibited by Dushku as Taffy. In fact, the entire cast, including the actors playing Scott Walton and Vitas, was mesmerizing.

The layers of meaning to nearly every scene in this episode go deep. The multi-layered focus on the meaning of self, of free will, and what could happen if the actives (or we?) start thinking for themselves and collaborating with others is compelling. Even with the continual mind wipes, Echo is retaining memories, or at least ideas, from her experiences, and one fear about what can happen if she puts together the pieces of the broken woman before the mirror, is that she could become another Alpha. Still, for an organization that’s making huge profits off of the use of mind-wiped people, the fears may go far deeper, when faced with losing profits and losing ultimate control in the game – whether in business or in life.

My biggest fear is that this show, even in its Foxed-up compromise state that Whedon has had to settle for, is too intelligent for mass consumption. This is not a show for the NASCAR and wrestling set, which appears to be who Fox wants it to appeal to, based on the advertising around it. This is a complex, intricate, insightful, inciteful show that is not going to wrap up each episode in a nice bow. It’s not a show to play in the background while viewers converse or play videogames, text each other, or chat online. We can’t take for granted that the outcome will be nice and neat. Thankfully, it is usually not predictable.

‘Gray Hour’ was written by Sarah Fain and Elizabeth Craft and directed by Rod Hardy.

Dollhouse airs on Fox, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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