TV REVIEWS: Dollhouse: "True Believer" (Episode 5)

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This is a quandry of an episode. It's yet another stand-alone mission, yet while it doesn't feel like it's moving the (As yet theoretical) series arc forward, it feels somewhat less random than the spate of sub-par episodes that have come before it.

The Mission: There's a Branch Davidian-Styled religious cult in Pleasant, Arizona, run by an ex con. A Senator has reason to believe people are being held there against their will, so he asks the Dollhouse to do him a favor (Hm!). They send Echo and her handler in to infiltrate the cult compound looking for enough evidence to justify an ATF attack on the place. In a veritable orgy of doubletalk, Echo is given tiny little transmitters in her eyes so the ATF can see what she sees, but Echo *herself* is blinded. (I think we're to believe the receivers are blocking the line of sight to her optic nerve, but we're told it'll be focused by her eye normally, yet later on her eyes are clearly shown to be nonresponsive to outside stimulus, so I dunno what to make of that aside from bad writing). We're told the implants are unstable, and could kill her, or just stop working with the slightest blow to the head.

Implanted with the personality of a Christian religious fanatic who's blind, she "Hitchikes" to the compound with her handler, "Just like Saul of Tarsus." She quickly infiltrates them, and passes the cultie's fairly wussie security checks (Consisting mostly of shining lights in her eyes and pulling guns on her to prove she's really blind. This is no way proves she isn't a federal agent, but I'll let that slide, since we are dealing with people who don't think clearly here.) She joins the community, professing a 'vision' to come and find their leader, whcih of course she does. In the process, the ATF see 1.3 metric buttloads of assault rifles and whatnot.

The ATF botches their attempt at a sneak attack on the compound. The Culties are alerted, and hole up in the hardest-to-reach building. The Cult leader hits Echo, correctly assumng she set him up for the ATF raid, and her implants stop working. She can see! It's a miracle!

THe Handler (I'm sorry, his name is escaping me at the moment) wants to extract Echo, but the ATF dude in charge of the operation is a real bitenuke*, and won't let him. Handler calls Dollhouse and talks to Dominic the Security Heavy, requesting an extraction. Dominic agrees when he thinks Echo is going skitzy again, but changes his tune when Handler explains the situation. Dominic thinks Echo is a liability waiting to happen (And of course he's right) so if she dies, it's a problem averted.

Handler does some detective work in town and finds out that the ATF Bitenuke has a personal history w/ the cult leader, and wants him brought down, so he manufactured the evidence to suggest someone on the inside wanted out.

Meanwhile, we discover that the Cult Leader isn't actually running a scam, he really did have a religious conversion while in prison. He is nuts, though, and sets fire to the compound. Also, he believes in Echo's miraculous vision restoration.

The ATF doesn't attack or attempt to rescue anyone from the flaming building becuase they're the ATF, and we've all seen on national TV that pretty much they just cause pointlessly violent situations and sit around while people die. In this case, the ulterior motive is that the ATF leader wants Echo and Handler dead, since Handler confronted him with evidence of his duplicity.

Echo takes control of the cult by means of female empowerment, and rescues most of the members, excepting the leader and a guy who doesn't want to be saved. As the leader is about to kill her, Dominic shows up, shoots the guy dead, and bludgeons Echo in to unconciousness so as to rid himself of an obvious problem that she's obviously going to be responsible for precipitating in the series finale. He leaves her to die, but Handler rescues her.

The End.

Well, the End of the A-plot anyways. We've also got subplots about Victor getting aroused (To everyone's surprise) whenever he and Sierra are in the group showers chatting in vapid porn-movie sounding dialog. ("The water is warm" "Yes it is." "It feels nice." "Yes.") He's got a crush.

In the Helo plot (Which is my new jargon for a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch storyline that has nothing to do with the A-plot, B-plot, or general arc of the series. It comes from the first season of the new Galactica in which Helo spent 13 episodes wandering around in the rain on Cylon Occupied Caprica), agent Paul Ballard (Who played Helo in the new Galactica) is recovering from his gunshot, and is trying to figure out who our girl Echo is. To his surprise, he sees her on a new story about the hostage situation with the culties. He travels out there and talks to the ATF guy in charge, but for no particular reason the ATF dude is a real pain in the funcooker** to Paul, too.

OBSERVATIONS

This episode is obviously based on the Waco Branch Davidian massacre from the early 90s, when the ATF badly, badly bungled an attempt to arrest cult leader David Koresh, resulting in the deaths of 76 people, roughly a quarter of them children.

Right before he sets fire to the building, the Cultleader has Echo read from the book of Daniel. She reads the bit about the Firey Furnace, when Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego are thrown in to the flames, but don't get burned. What's interesting about this is the last line: What Echo reads says the observers saw the three men walking about, completely untouched by the flames, "...and a fourth man with them who looked like a son of the gods." What's weird about that is that what the passage from the Bible actually says is "...and a fourth man with them who looked like the Son of Man." This is an odd thing to screw up, since this is (Chronologically) the first useage of the term "Son of Man" in the Bible, and the Son of Man is usually interpreted to mean Jesus, since He frequently identifies Himself by that title in the New Testament. This is either a really odd thing to screw up, since it's in every Bible in the world, or else a really odd case of "I'll just change the meaning to suit my own interpretation." Either way you slice it, it comes up odd.

For a mission centered around religion, and a story "Ripped from the headlines" (Of 1993), there wasn't much of a religious through-line to this episode. The Cult wasn't up to anything particularly nefarious. Yeah, they were hoarding weapons, but dialog makes it really clear that only the Cult Leader and his main Lieutenant knew about that. There's no rape, murder, brainwashing, prostitution, or what have you going on inside, just a bunch of somewhat addlepated-seeming misfits living in service of God.

The point of the story *seems* to be that Christians (Or at least the really serious evangelical ones) are kind of dim, and will do what they're told. When the cult leader tells them to sit and be burned to death, they do it semi-willingly. When Echo tells them God wants them to "Move their asses," they do that willingly, but they don't initiate. I say this *Seems* to be the point, but I can't be sure, since they may simply have been trying to underscore Echo as a leader, and it legitimately may have had no more meaning than that.

The idea that the Cult Leader really did have a religious conversion in prison and really did feel a calling to change his ways and help people was a nice twist, though it's an obvious one that most people will see coming way early. I did like the idea that after he'd gotten out of prison, he'd joined a cult in Texas in which "Bad things" were happening (Never specified, but I think we're supposed to believe it was sexual abuse.), and then he rescued a whole bunch of people from the Texas cult and started his own cult as a refuge for them. The idea that he's nuts isn't exactly a twist, more a cliche. The idea that the ATF is a bunch of gun-toting fascists who like to cause the deaths of culties is, well, rather cliche as well. The bad guy in this episode is essentially the ATF team leader who precipitates the entire incident for no good reason. It's sort of interesting that the bad guy doesn't get his comeupance in the end.

It's also interesting that Dominic flat out says "Echo is manifesting the same signs Alpha did before he sliced up all those people."

This is the first episode to feel like it's supposed to have a message of some sort to it, though that message is rather unclear. Is it "Don't trust the Clinton-Era ATF?" or is it "Cult leaders stockpiling weapons should be valued as members of our multicultural society?" Or perhaps "Christians are sheep who can't think for themselves?" Or maybe it's simply a case of "let's take a news story from sixteen years ago and put it across as an original story since most people have probably forgotten about the original incident?" Given that their second episode was a perfectly awful "Most Dangerous Game" story, that's entirely possible.

So the show gets closer, but no cigar. Once again, the supporting players are all more interesting than the star, who remains a guest star in her own show week after week after week, though she does seem to retain the knowledge that Dominic doesn't like her after all is said and done.

*- My absolute favorite new probably-meaningless profanity. I got it from the "Funcooker" episode of 30 Rock last night.

** - My second-favorite profanity from 30 Rock last night.

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