Ken Tucker
December 12, 2009 AT 01:54 PM EST

Another week, another double-shot of Dollhouse. These two hours started out tediously, and concluded smashingly. I could have done without the prolonged wind-up of the first episode, entitled “Meet Jane Doe,” in which Echo was on the lam from the Dollhouse, eating out of dumpsters, and helping a Latina woman, Lisa, who’s fallen on hard times. When Echo and her new friend fell into the clutches of a tritely malevolent sheriff, the only surprise was that he was played by Glen Morshower — Aaron Pierce from 24, but with a Southern drawl that suggested someone among this episode’s three writers (Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, and Andrew Chambliss) had just caught Rod Steiger in In The Heat Of The Night on a sleepless night.

No, the interesting stuff was taking place back at the Dollhouse, where Topher was still babbling about the long-gone Summer Glau’s Bennett: “She went all Cyclon on me,” yelped Topher, “she disarmed me with her arm… and her glasses and her face.” There was a lot of tension between Keith Carradine’s Harding, lording it over Olivia Williams’ Adelle DeWitt. Harding is planning on opening up a Dollhouse in Dubai, he wants to split up Sierra and Victor (oh, the horror!), and as Langton muttered to DeWitt, “You’ve got to take back this house.”

Echo is being trailed, romanced, trained, and deceived by Ballard to lure her back into the Dollhouse… or maybe he’s letting DeWitt and company think he’s doing this and just double-crossing everyone: we shall see. In any case, Echo is now aware of her life as Caroline and her other imprints, or as Ballard cracks when they play house in a dingy hovel, “Thirty-six personalities and not one of them can cook.” (Ballard doesn’t make many jokes, does he?)

The talking-points for this hour are:

• Echo: “They made me aggressively sexual and phenomenally creative in bed; also sociopathic… and at least seven times gay.” But who’s counting?

• Topher: “I figured out how to [create] a portable device that will imprint anyone… an innocent person, with a new personality.” In other words, no “treatments” necessary with Topher’s new zap gun.

• DeWitt: “I accept the situation,” she says of her new subservience to Harding, while warning him, “Power is always used to get more power.” Harding is too smug to hear in this the true subtext: That DeWitt is about to launch a major counter-coup against him, because — Topher’s words here — “You are the coldest bitch on the planet.” Yes: Olivia Williams in full mean-Brit mode is fun.

The second hour had the enormous asset of Alpha: Alan Tudyk making a pretty triumphant return in a dapper suit and a very loud shirt and tie. Committing his first murder even before the opening credits, Alpha has set his sights on Echo, his new “number one” target (Whiskey used to be first in his shrivelled heart).

This episode, called “A Love Supreme” (I didn’t hear any John Coltrane on the soundtrack, but maybe I missed it, jazz fans?), also brought back one of Echo’s best clients ever, Joel Mynor. Not because Mynor is a particularly interesting client (really, have any of them been? they’re all just sad or mean men, aren’t they?) but because he’s played by the always-terrific Patton Oswalt. With Ballard right behind her, Echo wants to protect Joel from Alpha, who wants to kill anyone Echo is rubbing up against. Which also, of course, includes Ballard.

Echo, now in command of her imprints and able to call upon the right one for the right situation (“I’m obsolete,” moans Topher, “this must be what old people must feel like, or Blockbuster”), is nonethless pretty evenly matched by Alpha — once again, the ever-quotable Topher: “a serial killer who imprinted himself with a bunch of personalities.”

There was a nicely shot action scene in the Dollhouse during which Alpha does a “remote wipe” of all the dolls, who start beating up Echo, Ballard, and the rest of the Dollhouse staff

I liked these episodes, especially the second one, on the basis of the acting and the dialogue, but I’m not sure I was really engaged by Alpha’s motive — in his final scenes, he tortured Ballard simply because he was jealous of Ballard’s relationship with Echo? Seems rather small-scale for a villain of Alpha’s stature. But then, in the Whedon universe, love does reign supreme, doesn’t it? (And where did Alpha go? He just seemed to exit, stage left, about four minutes before the end of the episode.)

At any rate, although the fate of Ballard hangs in the balance (brain-dead, for now), the real person of interest now was given away by the evening’s final shot: a close-up of DeWitt, newly determined to ruthlessly regain control.

Could it be that Adelle DeWitt will prove this series’ more interesting central character than Echo? When it comes to acting, I’d give the odds to Olivia Williams over Eliza Dushku any day.

What do you think?

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