If Dollhouse's dehumanizing premise made you uncomfortable before, then last Friday's squicktastic episode probably took that discomfort, and ratcheted it up to psychic agony. Erase your brain with spoilers...
Wow, Joss Whedon wasn't kidding when he said that Sierra (Dichen Lachman) was going to be the focus of most of the sexual creepiness surrounding the Dollhouse. Her storyline in this episode was so disturbing, it pretty much crowded out the rest of the episode. If you were wondering whether we're supposed to admire the Dollhouse at all, the Sierra scenes in this episode would have pushed you way over the edge into horror and revulsion.
Let's recap: Sierra was a young woman who fell afoul of Nolan, a mega-rich asshole. He propositioned her, and she said no. And nobody ever says no to him, so he greased a bunch of palms and had her erased. She no longer exists, legally or otherwise, as a person. And along with her identity, her mind was also wiped out. Now, whenever he wants, Nolan can hire her as a "Doll," programmed with a total eagerness to please him. Sometimes, she even begs. He uses her often enough that he deserves a "frequent buyer" reward.
Now, after a few months of being a "Doll," Sierra is starting to show signs of glitches. In her case, it's mostly because her Handler, a guy she was programmed to trust without hesitation, abused that trust and raped her. Over and over again. Unlike her hookups with Rich Asshole, Sierra wasn't programmed to enjoy her molestation at the hands of Hearn, her Handler. Instead, she was still her her childlike, mindwiped state, which make his actions more akin to raping a child.
Because of Sierra's glitches, the Dollhouse is concerned that she may be showing signs of awareness and personhood. This would be a very bad thing for the Dollhouse, whose very business model is built on turning people into non-people so they can be used. If Sierra really is glitchy, she may be sent to The Attic, which is where the used-up remains of people are sent to disappear, forever. (So much for getting a big cash reward at the end of five years.) No worries, says Mr. Dominic, the Dollhouse's head of security: the Dolls aren't really like children. They're more like pets.
But Claire Saunders, the Dollhouse's doctor, comes up with a last-ditch plan. Maybe Sierra, and the other three Dolls, really just need some closure on unfinished business from their past. Even though their brains are supposedly erased, maybe this is bobbing up to the surface and disrupting their smooth functioning. So the Dollhouse's leader, Adelle DeWitt, agrees to restore their original personalities to a handful of the Dolls.
The scenes of Echo, Victor, Sierra, November and Mike waking up confused in the Dollhouse, and trying to figure out where they are and what's going on, were pretty great. Even once we found out it was actually one of Adelle's little games, I kept rooting for Echo and the others to bust out and escape for real. (But how exactly does Sierra get closure with Rich Asshole? Victor punches him a couple of times, and that's it. Closure, in my book, would be something much more final.)
Echo, of course, exceeds her mission parameters yet again. She was only supposed to break out of the Dollhouse, go somewhere and get her closure, and then black out. Instead, she confronts Adelle and Topher at gunpoint, and we get to hear more of their rationalizations for turning people into vegetables. The stuff where Topher tries to parrot Adelle's lines about helping people was pretty chilling and yet hilarious.
Faced with one of his brainwashed pets, waving a gun and demanding to know exactly what he does to them, Topher really doesn't have much to say for himself. I can't be the only person who was rooting for him to be subjected to his own chair, and have his brains scrambled.
And yet this episode achieved a weird sense of balance, with November serving as the poster child for all of Adelle's rationalizations. November really is someone who couldn't face the trauma in her life - in her case, the death of a child - and who decided to go lose her mind for a while, as an alternative to going insane. (And of course, we've already seen that Echo and the other Actives really do help people sometimes, with the hostage negotiation and the midwifery and stuff. In between being the playthings of wealthy sleazeballs like Nolan.)
Even after showing us the Dollhouse at its most loathsome, through Sierra, this episode still insists on holding out the hope that the Dollhouse may not be all bad. Or rather, it won't let us off the hook. Part of us sympathizes with the Dollhouse, because it's a nice Ikea-ish place full of attractive people who make other people's lives better. And because we've all given up parts of our identity when our paymasters demanded it, one time or another. It's how the world works, and the Dollhouse is just a more extreme example. Those nice rationalizations, the ones Adelle is so good at trotting out, are what we need to keep living through it - until we're confronted, smacked in the face, with the true ugliness of the system we're working in.
The character I'm most intrigued by, after this episode, is Claire. (Obviously, the fact that Amy Acker is bringing her A game really helps here.) She's the one who comes up with the humane solution to the "glitch" problem, and more than anyone else (except maybe Boyd) she sees the Actives as people, rather than as tools. But at the same time, she recognizes that you can't just let the Actives go. Especially in their mindwiped state, wandering out of the Dollhouse at the point of Echo's gun, they're like factory-farmed animals wandering out onto a freeway. Claire knows that what they're doing at the Dollhouse is wrong, but she feels helpless to demolish a system that's so good at perpetuating itself.
The fact that Sierra's "closure" is so pointless proves that Claire's touchy-feely therapeutic methods are just putting a band-aid on a festering sore of pure evil.
All in all, this was a pretty great episode, even if it lost a little bit of its suspense after we realized this was all just Adelle's game. If it hadn't aired on the same night as the best Sarah Connor Chronicles ever, it would have been the only thing I talked about all weekend. What did you think?