Recap: ‘Dollhouse’ – ‘The Left Hand’

12.05.09 8 years ago 3 Comments

Greg Gayne/FOX

 “The Left Hand” pays off nearly every moment set up by “The Public Eye” in spades. It ups both the political commentary (Daniel Perrin’s brain scan is revealed to show himself to be “very ambitious for a junior senator” – a comment that could have been taken from a right wing blog in the thick of the presidential race last year, but he’s also revealed to be a dupe running only on his family name, which, again, George W. Bush) and the action, but it’s mainly an episode about the ways we can never really know the people we love the most. If “The Public Eye” brought the insightful commentary on the World We Live in Today that I love from this show, “The Left Hand” was an hour of payoffs both action-wise and emotional.

[Full recap of the second of Friday’s (Dec. 4) “Dollhouse” episodes after the break…]

I don’t know that this show has had as trenchant a moment as Cindy Perrin (Stacey Scowley, making a serious case for herself getting cast on some other show as an ice queen) telling Daniel (Alexis Denisof, making a serious case for himself getting cast on some other show as a man in over his head) that not only didn’t she love him, but she was disgusted by him. She knows he’ll be mind-wiped in a matter of minutes, so why not tell him exactly how the thought of going to bed with him makes her feel? Naturally, this being a television show, he manages to escape with those memories intact, but it’s just one moment of hurtfulness in an episode full of them.

If Joss Whedon believes that close-knit communities are the way to both stay alive and come up with a way to live with each other, then he also believes the flip-side of that: If you let enough people in close to you, eventually one of them is going to hurt you and deeply. All of his series are full of double-crosses and people telling each other how they really feel without filter when they think they can get away with it and worlds full of people who are bruised by each other. The “Buffy” gang knew enough about each other by the end of the series to devastate each other with only a phrase or two, and it wasn’t an “Angel” episode if someone wasn’t treating the feelings of someone in the gang too casually.

“Dollhouse,” though, is, in some ways, a much crueler show because none of the relationships built here are actually real, so there’s always an element of unreality to what anyone says. Can you love someone you just met? Maybe, but once you accept that everything has a layer of dishonesty to it, then you begin to question every emotion you feel and every emotion others feel toward you. Here’s where we learn that Echo (Eliza Dushku), back when she was Caroline, left Bennett (Summer Glau), someone who was once her friend (a relationship I might have liked just a bit more nuance to), to suffer under the Rossum rubble that landed her in the Dollhouse in the first place. Here’s where we see Daniel choke his wife when he’s not really himself and is, instead, a triggered monster. And here’s where we see Bennett get in close to Topher (Fran Kranz) and then utterly betray him, as well as the ultimate betrayal of Madeline (Miracle Laurie) by Perrin, who says her stories of the Dollhouse were fiction and then consigns her to a mind wipe by Bennett.

I suspect that most fans will be most excited about the way this episode exponentially increases the known mythology of the Dollhouse. By taking us deep within the Washington, D.C., Dollhouse, the series both exposed us to the wonderfully strange Bennett and the wider world of how the Dollhouse and Rossum operate. Glau’s work as Bennett is definitely in her wheelhouse of deeply damaged girls who dance between genius and crazy, but she’s great in that wheelhouse, and she turns the whole performance (particularly how she uses her long dead left arm) into something of a virtuoso bit of physicality. Glau’s line readings can get a little same-y from time to time, but she’s terrific at using her body to create characters who move differently from her other characters. It’s maybe her strongest attribute, and she so quickly sketches in Bennett entirely via physicality that you practically don’t need the girl to speak. (Also fun was the flirtation between Topher and Bennett, even if it culminated in Bennett using his knowledge to turn Daniel into a monster remotely.) Hell, the show even worked in a reference to the kind of remote personality change technology that will fuel the dark future the series is headed toward, so those trying to plot out the “Dollhouse” overplot will likely be unpacking this episode for weeks to come.

The episode was also a tribute to just how great Enver Gjokaj is at everything the show hands him to do as Victor. I’d love to see the guy leave “Dollhouse” and find a show that made him a huge star, but that show would almost certainly use none of his sheer versatility. In this episode, he did such a pitch-perfect impersonation of Kranz’s interpretation of Topher while still showing the Victor lurking inside of the character that it almost didn’t make me mind that the episode had two times the Topher, when I find a little bit of the character goes a long way. The phone conferences between Topher and VictorTopher were at once amusing and thrilling, Gjokaj and Kranz rattling technobabble at each other and having fun with the idea of someone as egotistical as Topher effectively occupying two bodies.

But the best thing about the episode was that fairly shattering conclusion, featuring Perrin killing his wife accidentally while made a monster by Bennett’s remote machinations, then going to the Senate subcommittee hearing and implicating Rossum’s competition for the deaths of hundreds, including his wife, while also denying the Dollhouse exists, leaving Madeline to the hands of the D.C. Dollhouse. The series plays with all of the sorts of moments of iconography the moment would have on a lesser show – like a guard showing his gun as if to suggest assassination was imminent – but it knows that what would have a greater impact on the universe where “Dollhouse” takes place would be Perrin telling the truth but not the whole truth.

It’s a wonderfully ambiguous moment. Why does he do it? Has he been reprogrammed? Has he realized that because of the way he’s been altered by the Dollhouse, his fate is tied to theirs? Have Echo’s words affected him in some way we don’t understand yet? Is it all of the above? None of the above? Similarly, an earlier scene where he and Cindy meet at a party has a nice air of ambiguity as well, with Perrin unsure if the moment ever happened. But if it did happen, was it the moment that put him on the path toward becoming a Doll version of himself? Or was he already in Rossum’s clutches? “Dollhouse” is playing in some pretty deep waters with this storyline – it’s essentially asking if any man can ever be truly free if he lives in society – but it’s pulling it off, all the while keeping its action beats humming along.

In the interview with Maureen Ryan linked to in the “Public Eye” piece, Whedon says that he wouldn’t turn “Dollhouse” into a comic because the vast majority of the show is just people talking. While there have been inventive and fun action sequences in the show’s run, for the most part, it’s a dark drama about what happens when people start completely taking advantage of each other. It’s possible (indeed, almost certainly likely) that this would not play in any way, shape or form in a comic book, but after tonight’s two-parter, I know I’m going to want more of this story than I’ll get from these 13 episodes. I’m not arguing that “Dollhouse” should be resurrected (since the ratings don’t justify it at all), but if I ever corner Whedon and manage to not come off as a crazed fan, I’m going to have plenty of things to discuss with him about this show. Back around this season’s second episode, I wasn’t sure that would be the case. So that’s progress.

Some other thoughts:

*** Ray Wise didn’t get a lot to do as the D.C. Dollhouse head, but his scenes with Olivia Williams made me not care too much. I propose CBS sign these two up for a remake of “Hart to Hart.”

*** Next week on “Dollhouse,” there’s going to be a very special guest star. Don’t want to spoil it, but it’s one of everyone’s favorite season one characters.

*** I’m a LITTLE confused on the timeline here. Adelle and Topher made it out to D.C. awfully quickly. But I’ll overlook that.

This week’s discussion question: Since there are only seven episodes remaining, do you imagine we’ll get satisfactory wrap-up stories for Madeline? Or for Perrin? I, sadly, do not.

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