We start with a girl and a name. It will be interesting to see where we go from here.
When an industrialist's daughter is kidnapped right out of his home, he is warned not to go the police. He does as told, dismissing the police as "useless anyway." But he does call on other connections. The "Dollhouse" is a part of an unspecified agency, which has procured several girls. This agency uses technology to wipe away their personalities and implant them with new personas - ones specifically tailored to a client's needs. They do the job, and then their persona is erased, wiped clean, "like a slate."
"Echo" (Eliza Dushku) is imprinted to act as an expert in hostage negotiations. When she arrives at the client's home, she lives up to that imprint. She is sharp, confident, and knows exactly how to deal with the missing girl's father, his security chief, and the kidnappers. Until something happens which no one could have been prepared for...
"Echo": We start with a girl and a name. Caroline. She's frightened, but trying not to show that too much. She's obviously smart, and equally obviously in over her head. We don't know what happened, we don't even know exactly what kind of trouble she's in other than that it's serious. We know just enough to see that something went wrong in a way she wasn't prepared for, and that her "actions have consequences."
Doll of the Week: Ellie Penn is an experienced hostage negotiator. She is crisp and as confident as she is competent. Her dealings with both the client and the kidnappers are expertly done, and she would be the perfect persona to deal with this situation - but for that one, unforeseen twist. Even then, she is able to play on what she knows of the case to gain a good result and has the chance to face down the ghosts of a past that she never knows isn't actually her own.
The Ice Queen: Probably the best performance in the episode comes from Olivia Williams. As Adelle DeWitt, the apparent head of this agency, she is not unlike a more jaded variation of the Ellie persona. She is very confident, and deals coolly with people ranging from Langton to the client. We are told that she likes to convince herself that her agency is doing good, but she probably doesn't entirely believe that. Williams dominates every scene she's in, even when opposite the excellent Harry Lennix. A particularly strong touch in her performance is the way in which her character smiles - a smile that never reaches her eyes.
The Handler: Harry Lennix is terrific, as always. We get some basics about Langton. He's an ex-cop, and hasn't been with the "Dollhouse" for as long as the more jaded employees. He seems to have a basic code of honor that doesn't necessarily apply to his employers, and which seems likely to end up putting him at odds with them.
The Genius: Topher (Fran Kranz) is the man responsible for wiping the girls and putting together their new personas. The first half of the episode sees him as an almost entirely despicable character. He talks to Echo as if speaking to a very slow child, and has no qualms about the painful treatment given to a new girl or about sending girls on operations that sometimes amount to glorified prostitution. His reaction when he learns something about the background of both this particular case and of the Ellie persona, however, indicates more layers than just "sleaze."
The FBI Agent: Tahmoh Penikett, who was very good in the new Battlestar Galactica, is Paul Ballard, an FBI agent assigned to investigate the "dollhouse." His superiors don't believe it even exists, but somehow his investigation has been shielded by people with influence. He is convinced of its existence, though we don't know what has him convinced since he appears to have no evidence whatsoever.
The amount I wrote under "Characters" should indicate that Ghost is a far denser premiere episode than it at first appears. The kidnapping provides a nice, traditional suspense story around which to structure these characters and concepts. But a lot gets packed into the hour. Major characters are established and each are given enough character beats to allow later episodes to flesh them out. A couple of likely ongoing threads are established. The episode even manages to tell a pretty decent standalone story, all without feeling desperately rushed.
The traditional kidnapping story is well-designed to provide a lot of exposition about the "dollhouse" that forms the series' centerpiece. Through the kidnapping plot alone, we learn several important things. We learn that the personas are modeled after real people, that they have pasts which they can remember and which can affect them. We learn that Echo's handlers can monitor her condition at all times. We even see hints of where her conditioning can break down under certain types of stress. It's a lot of information, and none of it feels force-fed, because it all occurs organically within the plot.
Equally interesting is how much information is withheld. We see the scene in which Caroline is presented with the choice to become "Echo." But we aren't told what happened to her, what she did, or how much she knows of what she's agreeing to. We are given a vague idea of what the dollhouse does. But we aren't told exactly what kind of corporation controls it, if it's part of something larger. We don't know if it has government connections, or if it's a purely private venture.
Even within the FBI story, we aren't told exactly why this FBI agent is so certain the dollhouse exists. He must have some kind of connection to it; otherwise, why not simply sit back and enjoy having an assignment to investigate something everyone is convinced doesn't exist? We're given hints and snapshots, and quite a bit of starting information. But a lot is withheld, creating questions, leaving the sense of staring at a puzzle with several pieces missing.
I had been warned that Dollhouse got off to a slow start, and I braced myself for a mediocre first episode. In Ghost, I was surprised to find a very well-crafted premiere. It's not perfect, with the FBI scenes barely feeling like part of the same show as the rest of it. But it's a visually stylish, well-paced hour that does a solid job of presenting the characters and concepts while telling a story in itself. On the whole, I'd say it was rather good. Certainly better than I was expecting.
Next Episode: The Target
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