(Note: This review covers the second half of the two-episode event that aired on 11 December, 2009. A previous review covered the first half of the event.)
When you already know the game is lost, sometimes you give up. You just phone it in and wait for the next season. But sometimes, it's just an opportunity to throw caution to the wind and swing for the fences. Dollhouse may be going, but it is not going quietly.
The first season's climactic encounter with Alpha always felt a bit like a prelude, because while it set the stage for Echo's evolution into a distinct personality, it didn't resolve as strongly as it could have. This episode finally pays off Alpha's intentions towards Echo, and it is not pretty. It also throws quite a few assumptions out the window, at least in terms of the pacing and the content of the rest of the season/series.
After the previous episode, I was sure that Echo's true nature would be hidden for a little while longer. When Topher was brought into the conspiracy, I thought it might have been the payoff for his displeasure with Adele, a grasp at atonement for his role in creating the most dangerous technology imaginable. There is something poetic about the notion of Topher using the last of his sanity to ensure that Echo is fully prepared to face the consequences of his actions.
So I was shocked when Alpha's latest assault on the Dollhouse resulted in Adele's discovery of Echo's true nature. It felt like it happened too quickly, especially right after the three month leap that took place in the previous episode. If anything, this is a clear sign that Joss and the rest of the gang recognized their likely fate, and chose to cram as much of the story into the episodes they had left.
It is, in the end, a minor point. If it hurts the flow of the season, that won't be fully apparent until the next couple episodes. It doesn't undermine the strength of this episode and its connections to the grand scheme of the series. It's still all about the nature of mind and body, and how the status quo arrives at the world seen in "Epitaph One".
Alpha is right in this respect: he helped to make Echo everything that she is. The difference, it seems, was the end result of the imprint compositing process. Alpha's gestalt personality is an amoral psychopath (albeit with a rapier wit and an interesting sense of style). Echo, on the other hand, appears to be Alpha's polar opposite. Echo's inherent morality, mated with a desire to do what she thinks is best for a given situation, is a potent combination.
This incident might change that dynamic. Had the series continued into future seasons, I suspect Alpha would not have uploaded Ballard into his mosaic of imprints. Alternatively, if it did happen, I doubt the consequences would have been evident so quickly. My suspicion is that Ballard's less obsessive love for Echo, as well as his sense of morality and understanding of Echo's method of control over her own imprints, will allow him to exert an unexpected level of control over Alpha himself.
I suspect this because in "Epitaph One", there is a stray comment that suggests that Alpha was eventually an ally for those seeking to survive the fall of civilization. While it could be that Echo simply defeats Alpha and then makes use of his resources, I think it's more in keeping with the concepts inherent to the series if Echo and Alpha end up on the same page because Ballard takes command of Alpha.
After all, if Echo can take possession, so to speak, of Caroline's body as a composite personality born of persistent imprints, then it stands to reason that any truly strong imprinted personality could do so. The headaches could be the result of Echo's need to fight for control; when a particular imprinted personality is accessed, it could give that personality an inroad to challenge Echo.
In "Alpha", it appeared that Alpha was having trouble maintaining dominance. As assured as he was in this episode, that earlier instability suggests that Ballard may have the right circumstances to survive as the dominant personality in Alpha's body. He was able to push through for a little while, when he begged Echo to kill him. Even if Ballard doesn't take control of Alpha, he could force a shift in Alpha's base personality, thus mitigating the madness and the amorality.
For that reason, saving Ballard may be a futile effort. If Alpha ripped away Ballard's mind, leaving Ballard's body little more than a shell, what could really be done? The process seems to have gone far beyond turning someone into a Doll, so it doesn't seem likely that a new personality could be imprinted. The question is whether or not Ballard's original mind is still resident. If Alpha only made a copy, then it might be possible to restore Ballard if the damage can be undone. Of course, it might take someone like Bennett to make that happen, which would be interesting, to say the least.
Beyond the personal fallout for Echo, there's now the question of what Adele might do. It's not at all clear. She just managed to take back control of her house from her superiors, and that was based on perceived weaknesses in house security and personnel management. It's hard to imagine that the house wouldn't be under some form of surveillance, so Alpha's incursion and Echo's autonomy shouldn't be a secret for very long. This will be a real test of Adele's true motives.
This episode continues a six-episode winning streak, starting with "Belle Chose". That alone makes this season a vast improvement over the first. I still think that the series has been fundamentally flawed, in terms of the disparity between sexualized promotion/presentation and the fundamental issues raised by the content, but the bulk of this season has been quite a ride.