When Dollhouse first premiered last February, we saw the picture of a woman surrounded by mannequins, and the slogan, "She can be anyone, except herself."
Season two has arrived, with the slogan, "Anyone can happen." Those words sum up what Echo has become, and what she wants to do.
"Vows" is written and directed by Joss Whedon, the first time since "Ghost". He made a wise choice to give equal weight to Echo's Mission of the Week, Dr. Saunders dealing with what she really is, and how Paul Ballard changes the mix inside the Dollhouse.
It begins about three months after "Alpha" and 9.75 years before "Epitaph One." Echo is getting ready for her latest mission, with her handler and Topher looking on...and Paul Ballard? Yes, he has joined the Dollhouse under his terms, and Topher considers him a "frenemy." He also sees a scene from "Bride of Frankenstein" suddenly show up on the monitor. For some reason, he thinks Dr. Saunders is to blame.
Then we see Adelle DeWitt (with less hair) debate Echo's latest mission with Boyd Langton, head of security. He wonders if she's ready for this, while Adelle says they have to let Paul in under his terms. It's a lot better than taking an "extreme" solution, and she still has plans for him. She also sees Victor, whose face is healing nicely after being cut by Alpha. She even touches it, although there was a time she would touch more than just his face. Anyway, Adelle also notices Paul is obsessed with Echo, and is probably looking for a darker purpose or weakness within the Dollhouse. Still, Boyd thinks the plan Paul has proposed is a little sick.
The plan: Echo marries a man who could be an arms dealer. It's a mixture of The Bourne Identity and Madame Butterfly.
At the Dollhouse, Topher wakes up from a nap. Ivy says she's been dealing with a serious backup of clients. He calls it the autumn rush. Sierra suddenly shows up, again dressed up in something from Mad Men and talking like Mary Poppins. Ivy goes to give Sierra a treatment, but she prefers Topher because she's not comfortable with Orientals.
Moving on, Topher and Ivy discuss the Jonas Brothers when he suddenly finds the cupboard filled with big white mice. Dr. Saunders, again? Yeah, it's her. She was doing a prank that Topher would find funny, although he claims she is being crazy all by herself. "I know what I know," he explains. Sound familiar?
Boyd comes into her office, and she suddenly gets serious. He asks why Saunders doesn't get her face fixed (which will happen eventually, according to "Epitaph One"). "Without my scars," she says, "I might as well be one of them." The truth is, Saunders is an Active who replaced the original Dr. Saunders. She also doesn't like the fact she was created by a "sociopath in a sweater vest." Boyd suggests she should escape the office or have dinner with him. She says she's too afraid of people, pets, sunlight and everything else. He says he knows a lot of imperfect people who are filled with excuses. She asks him, why is he here? Hopefully, we'll find that out.
Back to Echo's wedding, or rather Roma's wedding, her new husband, Martin Klar, can't wait to start his honeymoon with his bride. They do just that, with Paul watching. You have to wonder if he misses Mellie/November. The next morning, we see Echo/Roma meeting with Paul. What's more she knew he was listening to the wedding night. Still, it's all part of the mission to find out Klar's next deal and bring him down. "I think you might be a demon," Paul says. "I'm justice," Echo/Roma says, "I'm blind when I need to be blind." Then Echo's handler shows up to say she needs a treatment.
Actually, it's Dr. Saunders doing a mid-mission checkup. During this time, Echo has a flash or memory. She's at a party when Saunders shows up, dressed almost identically to Echo. They approach each other, and seem to kiss when Echo calls Saunders "Whisky". She even remembers that Saunders/Whisky used to be the top Active, but Saunders asks if she remembers Alpha cutting her face. As Echo leaves, Saunders says she should go be her best. "No one is their best in here," Echo cryptically says.
3000 miles away, Senator Daniel Perrin, who looks a little like Wesley Wyndham-Price, asks several people, "What is more precious to a human being than their mind?" He talks about how he lost his mom to Alzheimer's Disease. He accuses Rossum of holding back medical advances that he says could help everyone. Of course, Adelle and Boyd are seeing this, and wonder if Perrin could be a threat. Boyd says Perrin has money and connections, and now a cause. He might bump into the Dollhouse if he gets too close to Rossum. They even wonder if Paul may have thrown Perrin a couple of hints. Paul isn't saying much, but he tells Adelle she should watch out for Boyd because Paul knows why he's in the Dollhouse. This leads to a bout of one-upmanship about motives and such. She asks why he's not asking about Mellie/November, and suspects he's more interested in Echo. So, why not be her new handler? He won't get what he wants from her, Adelle adds. She can still send Echo in the Attic, if necessary. Paul is sure that won't happen too soon because he knows Echo is evolving, and "you want to study the rat before you slice it up." Adelle sees his point, but also notes what they learn from Echo adds to Rossum's research and bank account. She even admits she wants someone in Echo's corner that cares about her. Well, that is Paul, no matter why he's there. He still says Adelle's working an angle, but so is he. Why else would he suggest Echo marry an evil arms dealer to arrest him?
At that moment, one of Klar's henchmen has found a very damaging photo of Echo with Ballard. The honeymoon's over.
Now comes the best scene in the episode, featuring Fran Kranz and Amy Acker in a drama that riffs on Taming of the Shrew and Pygmalion. Topher is snoozing when Saunders snuggles up to him wearing a very short slip. He's surprised she's "being her best" all over him. She insists this is the endgame: "You design someone to hate you so you can convince them to love you." Topher says he could whip up his own love slave, but that's not how he rolls. "But winning over your enemy," Saunders continues, "the one person guaranteed to reject everything you are, that's real love." Well, actually, it's Taming of the Shrew, and the default ending of nearly every romcom movie in the past 100 years. You're not Katherine, Claire, or Sandra Bullock or Katherine Heigl.
"Because you're better than that," Topher says. He wanted to design a doctor to replace the old Dr. Saunders who was killed by Alpha. This act is important because it also shows Topher has guilt over how Alpha went mad. That's why he wanted Whiskey/Dr. Saunders to be more than "just a Roomba."
This confuses Saunders even more: "How do I go through my day knowing everything I think comes from something I can't abide?" She also admits she doesn't want to change, either: "I'm not even real. I'm in someone else's body, and I'm afraid to give it up...I'm just a series of excuses."
Topher just says, "You're human." "Don't flatter yourself," she responds.
So how is Echo doing? She's trying to find any clues to what Martin has planned. He catches her trying to break into his desk, and warns her it's an heirloom. Then he slams her head against the desk. This causes her to start losing control over her imprint. Klar accuses her of playing him for a fool. She insists she loves him, and that all she wants is to be Mrs. Eleanor Penn.
She's soon taken to his plane, and Klar tells her of his deal to make some dirty bombs. Paul has to step in, and we see he's met Klar before. While Klar tells Echo/Roma how Paul's never caught anyone while in the FBI, including him, Paul notices Echo's jumping through several imprints. He hits her, trying to wake up the girl he "met" at the Chinese restaurant in "Man on the Street" (and told him the Dollhouse was real). That girl comes back to clobber Paul, and everyone else. She winds up capturing Klar which officially ends the honeymoon.
Back at the Dollhouse, Boyd goes to Dr. Saunders' office. All he finds is a note that says "I am running out of excuses." We see her drive away, and we can hope she can find her own "Happy Town". If not, or the show gets cancelled faster than The Beautiful Life, she'll be back. At least we saw her in "Epitaph One."
We also see Sierra with Victor. She touches his face, and he holds her hand. We have to root for these guys, right?
As for Echo, Paul tries his best to thank her, even if she doesn't remember.
"I remember everything," she says. "Sometimes I'm someone else. And then I come back, but I still feel them, all of them. I've been many people. I can hear them. Sometimes suddenly. I'm all of them, but none of them is me? Do you know what's real?"
"Caroline," he answers. We see now he'll take that handler job now.
"I want to find her," she says. "I want to find all of them...We are lost, but we are not gone."
Has Echo become the heroine we have always wanted to root for? It seems so. She knows what she is, but she also wants her identity back, and know who else she has been. Again, we know from "Epitaph One" she made some progress in that department, even at the cost of her health.
So what happens now? How will the Dollhouse deal with an Active suddenly on the loose, or another Active who is no longer an empty shell until you fill her with someone? Is Topher more redeemable than we think? What is Boyd's backstory? And if Senator Perrin finds the Dollhouse, would he consider it an abomination or a godsend?
This season, the Dollhouse is more than Echo and her search of self. It's how the Dollhouse affects those inside it, and eventually the world. We'll see how what happens today may lead to the nightmare of "Epitaph One"..or maybe how to avoid it.
The original plan was to include another glimpse of Los Angeles 2019 in the season premiere, but that was changed. We may revisit that world in the future.
All I am saying is if we see Ray Wise as a guy named Ambrose, panic!
As far as the ratings are concerned, it's not a good start. Friday night hasn't been the new "appointment TV" as some had hoped. The show pulled in 2.57 million viewers, a little less than the lead-in, the sitcom Brothers. DVR numbers have kept the show alive. Let's hope that still matters now.