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46 Minutes of Perfect Television.

on February 12, 2012

To continue my Dollhouse posting rampage…

The episode “Beginning” in season 2 is possibly one of the most perfect 46 minutes of television I’ve ever witnessed. I am SO GLAD I have been re-awakened to its perfection. I wish I could do justice to it like Mark of Mark Reads and Watches surely would, and in fact, if memory serves, Dollhouse is on his list of tv shows to watch and review. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to explain the perfection of this episode.

First of all, it features Sierra, my favorite supporting character. I actually think I like her more on this show than Eliza Dushku. Dichen Lachman needs a lead role like fo’ realz. She kills in this episode, literally and metaphorically. Throughout the series she has played the spectrum of personalities. She has played innocent and sweet, she has played bad ass assassin, racist southern belle, BFF to Topher… I mean, that’s not even scratching the surface. Oh yeah, she also played a forensic expert from the Centers for Disease Control. Joss Whedon said in an episode commentary that Dichen Lachman was always game to do whatever weird and crazy shit she was asked to do. And that commitment shines brightly.

Secondly, the emotional arc of the story if mutha fuckin’ intense. From the first scene you know things are going to be grim because we actually start at the meeting that led Priya, a.k.a. Sierra, into the Dollhouse. Thus far in the series all we know is a man named Nolan raped Sierra and she couldn’t deal with the trauma so she escaped her burdens by joining the Dollhouse. Sierra and Victor confronted Nolan briefly, and without resolution, really, in the season 1 episode “Needs.” At their parting Sierra says threateningly, “You’ll see me again.” I believed her then, and the girl was not lying.

Lastly, the execution of this episode is absolute perfection – the writing, the directing, the acting – every moment absolutely pulls at your heart strings, and on so many levels all at the same time. Gosh, I don’t even know where to start. First, there’s the obvious disturbing fact that Sierra is unknowingly engaging in romantic sessions with the man who traumatized her. Then there is Sierra and Victor’s ongoing basic-human-instinct love connection to root for. Then there’s Topher, who up until now has been pretty moral-less, and now he’s suddenly faced with a situation in which he is forced to face reality – that the people he imprints are actually people. Oh, and did I forget to mention DeWitt? She’s getting the smack down from her boss over this whole situation and she’s forced to compromise her own already skewed moral compass. Angsty episode, no?

The moment you realize, or rather, remember who Nolan is, you feel sick. This guy is sick; this situation is completely disturbing. And Sierra, even as a doll, has this instinct that something is wrong; that she doesn’t like “it” whatever “it” is. And sweet, sweet Victor is do enamored by her that he tries to destroy the thing that he thinks is making Sierra unhappy. I mean, how cute is that? They are like little innocent children and they still have this intense connection with one another that can’t be broken, even with having their minds wiped and re-wiped 5 days a week. Joss is totally right, there is something very romantic about that. So when Nolan decides to get super disgusting he demands Sierra be imprinted to stay with him forever. And Adelle succumbs. Frankly, I think it’s a smidge cowardly of her, but considering the fact that she needs skewed morals in the first place to run a dollhouse, it’s not totally surprising. She feels a great weight and responsibility toward her charges, and if she’s forced to sacrifice one doll to keep the rest in her care, she’ll do it, albeit grudgingly. She doesn’t trust anyone else to take care of these dolls like she does.

At this point I looked at the dvd player and it was only half way through the episode and I realized I had forgotten most of what happened next. I knew Sierra would return to the Dollhouse but I couldn’t remember exactly how. Knowing Victor was going to sit by that pillar until Sierra returned… GUH! Heartbreaking x infinity. They both think she’s coming back, but we, the viewer, and the handlers, and Topher and DeWitt, know she’s not. The beauty of innocence and ignorance. I suspected Topher of imprinting Sierra with some sort of ass kicking trickster, but I had forgotten that he actually imprinted her with her original identity, Priya. And in the scene where Priya confronts Nolan I thought surely he’s imprinted her with some extra kung fu skills, so she could kill Nolan cleanly, but that was not the case apparently. Priya still wins, but she’s left with an even greater trauma, that of having murdered another human being. Add a bullet point to the list of traumas in her life that she can’t live with.

The most shocking reveal of the episode however comes when we learn that not only did Nolan raper her, but he effectively tortured her as well. Nolan is some kind of doctor and when Priya wouldn’t submit to him, he had her institutionalized and pumped her full of drugs to make her crazy. Oh, but the plot has yet to thicken. Nolan has ties to Rossum and the Dollhouse, and that’s the whole reason DeWitt was forced to let Sierra go. They don’t say it outright in the show, but it seems pretty clear that Nolan was drugging Sierra in purpose so that he could get her into the Dollhouse and play her however he liked for the rest of his sick and twisted life. This guy might as well be a serial killer the lengths he went to to get what he wanted. What a fucking sicko. So we learn Priya didn’t volunteer for the dollhouse like the other featured actives did, she was forced to join by her rapist. Everybody, including Topher, thought she was simply a paranoid schizophrenic and left it at that.

By the end of the episode Nolan is dead and chopped into pieces, Priya is horribly scarred by her experience, and Topher recognizes his own moral indiscretions and faults, and DeWitt as well, to a certain extent. Priya and Topher have this incredible conversation, right before he wipes her back in Sierra, about what they’ve all just been through. One of the more poignant tendrils of that conversation is regarding the morality of her own situation as a doll. When Topher met crazy Priya in the institution he was promising her a better life… but is being a doll really a better life?? She went from being one man’s slave, to an organization’s slave. Why she isn’t more antagonistic toward the dollhouse I don’t know, maybe because plot-wise it wouldn’t do for Sierra not to be there, but the idea that what she’s been through at the dollhouse is actually almost worse than her real life traumas is gut wrenching. The audience is left in Topher’s shoes by the end. What he did for her, in the past and in the present, was arguably for her own safety and sanity… but it was also very very wrong. And that ambiguity and hypocrisy is what Dollhouse is all about. Every character on that show has some flaw that has brought them to where they are right now. There is something in them that is not completely honorable. Getting the audience to empathize and identify with them nonetheless? That’s just good story telling.

Dichen Lachman does some incredible acting in that last scene (which interestingly was the first scene they shot for episode… WOW), but the most impressive bit for me was after she’s begged Topher to erase these most recent memories when it’s time for her to “wake up,” and she’s crying, and she lays down in the chair and gets wiped. You can see her facial expression soften and relax, and she sits up with that blank look on her face and says, “Did I fall asleep?” and SHE’S STILL GOT TEARS RUNNING DOWN HER FACE!! She’s not crying anymore, but those tears that 10 seconds ago were coming from Priya, are now just phantoms of something else. Those are Priya’s tears on Sierra’s face. They really are two different people. They have the same body, but they are not the same person. Some might argue the actives in their doll-state are not people, but I think they might as well be, and when Sierra returns to Victor, who is still loyally waiting at  his post, with his big innocent puppy dog eyes, my heart just broke again. Having them sleep in the same pod might go a smidge too far in terms of their innocence, I mean, it’s not like they were doing anything inappropriate, it was actually very sweet, but it felt like in the past the handlers and minders and what not were trying to keep them apart, to prevent glitches or something, and now all of a sudden they’re letting them sleep together? I’m all for the relationship development, but it just seemed off course from what they’d already established.

I’m sure once I publish this I’ll realize some other things I wanted to hit upon, but it’s late and I should probably go to bed. I will try and dream about romantic things á la Victor and Sierra. Damn I love them together. I would love nothing more than to see them as love interests in a movie or on a tv show. They have crazy good chemistry. To be fair though, I think they are two actors that tend to have chemistry with everybody. Which I think is another strength of this show. The lead actors have great chemistry with one another that you root for, but they also can have chemistry with others guest actors who you also can root for simultaneously, for example Eliza Dushku and Patton Oswalt. Or Enver Gjokaj and Olivia Williams. Not to mention the surprisingly convincing chemistry betwixt Doc Saunders and Boyd. That relationship was definitely more convincing the second time around. Interesting how your opinion can change over a long period of time without seeing something.

Well, I’ve written almost 2000 words on the subject of “Beginnings” because it’s seriously one of the most perfect 46 minutes of television I’ve ever seen. Hopefully I’ve properly described why this episode deserves so high an honor. Though the simplest explanations are Dichen Lachman and the writers of the episode – Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.

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