Joss Whedon, Eliza Dushku, and several others involved with "Dollhouse" all point to this episode as the one that helped define the show's best aspects. Considering that Joss openly admitted that he and FOX weren't on the same page with the series in the early days, especially in terms of the pilot, it's interesting to see where they wound up going together.
This is much better than the series premiere, but I'm not sure that it's going to convince early critics that the premise is any less disturbing. As I mentioned in the review for the premiere, this may be intentional. Echo is not being portrayed as a hero, and the Dollhouse is not being portrayed in a positive light. It's clear that Echo is a victim of a morally deplorable organization, and that's not being whitewashed in the least.
There is much talk of how the premise is sexist, and because the main character is Eliza Dushku and she's noted for being one of their most requested, it's not hard to see why. Let's put it bluntly: yes, Echo is being raped on a regular basis. The fact that she doesn't remember it changes nothing, and in fact, makes it a hell of a lot worse. I don't see that as something that Joss is celebrating or excusing. In fact, if I read the signals correctly, I think it's clear that Caroline would eventually understand what's happening to her and wreak some serious vengeance. (Though it would help tremendously if some of the male "actives" were shown as given similar "engagements", just to underscore that this is not about exploiting women alone.)
I also heartily agree with those who say that this feels like a Japanese anime brought to American live-action drama. The premise is right out of the anime playbook, and not necessarily the family friendly kind, either. A few people mentioned "Gunslinger Girl" in particular, and I must agree that the handler/active dynamic is thematically similar. This is more overtly mature, dealing in adult memory manipulation, and everything that obviously would come with that. (Though, to be honest, there are limits imposed by network standards. This feels more like a series that would be more honestly explored on cable, both in terms of sex and violence.)
The anime-esque elements were strewn throughout this episode, and perhaps that explains why I liked the exploration of the handler/active relationship. By the very nature of the organization, the handler is both the person the active can trust without question, and the one person betraying them the most. After all, the handler is aware of every intimate way in which the active is being exploited, and they accept it. This leads to an interesting question: are the handlers recruited under the same shady circumstances as the actives?
I also like the classic hints being dropped about Alpha. In essence, the technology behind the Dollhouse contains its very own flaw. No matter how much they want to claim that the implanted memories are erased, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. How long does it take before those implanted skills and memories begin to coalesce into an amalgam personality, and how long would it take for that process to drive a person insane? The implication, however, is that Alpha is not insane. He may simply be using the unintentional retention of skills to bring down an organization that took away years of his life and free agency.
Why he would focus on Caroline, however, is still up in the air. He was behind the engagement in this particular scenario, which seems contradictory. Why leave Echo alive during his massacre and escape, only to have her killed later? The answer is perhaps obvious: this was a test. Echo survived, and therefore passed. More to the point, she retained some shade of memory of the lessons learned. Alpha could be "training" Echo to help him bring down the Dollhouse.
Sadly, we may never know. The live-action anime theory does much to explain the possible basis for the series, but it