Everyone who's been complaining that Dollhouse pulled a bait-and-switch, showing us a post-apocalyptic world at the end of season one, then failing to revisit it in season two: quitcher bitchin'. We saw the roots of that dystopia last night.
Oh, and this is your spoiler warning: I'm going to assume you saw last night's episode already. If you haven't, go and watch it. Twice.
Dollhouse must have been testing our faith on purpose. I went into season two convinced this was one of the all-time great TV shows, exploring thorny issues of gender, power and identity in a way that few other shows ever manage to hint at. And then the season's first two episodes left me wondering if I'd just been hallucinating. Last week's serial killer/Chaucer mash-up was a huge leap in the right direction — but last night's episode, "Belonging," was the real thing. I totally apologize for saying Glee is better than Dollhouse.
So yes, this was definitely a prequel to the unaired "mindwiped Mad Max" episode, "Epitaph One," which is on the Dollhouse DVD set, and which must be watched multiple times to appreciate its awesomeness. Watch "Belonging" and "Epitaph One" back to back, and you'll see many of the same strands uniting them both, including Topher's remorse, Adelle's despair, and Rossum Corp.'s determination to treat all the Dolls like property. This is a major step forward on the road that leads to everyone on Earth being stripped of his or her identity at the whims of a few wealthy psychos.
But last night's episode didn't just give us a bit more insight into how our merry band of mind-erasers turned into basket cases in a world of shit. "Belonging" also answered one of the big questions lingering on from season one: Just how complicit were Adelle, Topher and the rest in the unspeakable violation of Sierra? Last year, we saw that the psycho-freak Nolan Kinnard had propositioned Sierra, and she'd repeatedly turned him down. So Kinnard had the Dollhouse erase her brain and program her to be in love with him — and now he (and anyone else with money) can have her whenever he wants. It was one of the creepiest episodes of this supremely creepy show, and it made us wonder just what monsters these Dollhouse people are. And now we know.
It turns out that Adelle and her crew didn't know about Kinnard's scheme to get the ultimate revenge on the woman who rejected him. Instead, Kinnard fooled them into thinking that she was a crazy lady who'd be better off as a Doll — he'd pumped her full of drugs to make her appear psychotic. (Because, I guess, mind-wiping actually changes your brain chemistry and can erase chemical problems in the brain?) And they just thought Kinnard was an especially avid client.
But last night, everyone learned the truth — and it's because Sierra's mind-wiping couldn't erase how she really feels about Kinnard. After every one of her lovey-dovey engagements with the man who enslaved and destroyed her, she paints black horrible shapes. Echo, who's rapidly gaining awareness, notices this and brings it to Topher, who starts poking around. And then we get the scene above, where the Rossum Corp. scumbag played by Keith Carradine basically tells Adelle that they're already slave-merchants, and she should get over herself. You can see how this leads directly to the notion that Carradine's character, or someone similar, should live in Victor's body full-time, which gets raised in "Epitaph One." (When I demanded a Sue Sylvester-like villain on Dollhouse the other day, I had in the back of my mind that Carradine was joining the show as a Rossum scumbag, but couldn't remember the details. He's pretty much just what I was hoping for though.)
So, there you have it: Dollhouse is pretty much admitting it's a show about rape. Sierra never consented to any of this, and whatever bleach Topher is pouring into her synapses isn't strong enough to erase her true feelings on the matter. And the repeated, systematic violation of Sierra is one of the early-arriving horse-people of the apocalypse. This kind of shit is what's going to bring the whole world down.
And just like Joss Whedon promised, we're starting to see the people in charge make defining choices. This time around, Adelle makes the wrong choice, and Topher kinda, sorta makes the right one — although, what exactly did he think would happen if he sent Sierra with her original personality, Priya Tsetsang, to confront Nolan Kinnard? How exactly was that going to turn out well? The slow emergence of Topher's conscience is one of the great marvels of the show, especially since we know how it's going to turn out. Last week, it was "Topher has ethical problems! Topher!" and this week, Topher finds out his great mitzvah, helping the crazy woman, was all wrong. Whiskey started the ball rolling, of course, and I'm actually perversely glad we get to see Topher stew over this without Whiskey/Claire there to torment him actively. It would be so much more clear-cut if Whiskey could stand over him and tell him how bad he is.
And of course, Dichen Lachman absolutely rocked out as Sierra/Priya — after Enver Gjokaj's standout episode last week, this was Lachman's turn to prove her mettle and she totally rocked. Both Fran Kranz and Lachman were amazing. Check out this scene from the end of the episode, the little pauses and gestures. You can see that Sierra really wants Topher to mind-wipe her, and Topher really doesn't want to do it. The way she sits back, like she's ready for her treatment. The way he closes his eyes. Great stuff.
And yes, Jonathan "Riker" Frakes did a great job directing this — it half makes me forgive him for the abomination that was Clockstoppers. The weird bit where we're seeing Topher's eye through a funny lens was flashy and neat, but a lot of the rest of the episode was understated and awesome.
And Eliza Dushku was great as Echo this time around, with the story of Echo's awakening taking some huge leaps forward. And her speech to Boyd about the coming storm was some nifty foreshadowing of the apocalyptic chaos we've already glimpsed. And Dushku had one of the most important speeches in the episode, about the nature of power, towards the beginning. It's easy to miss, but her beautifully delivered speech sets up a lot of the episode's themes:
No, sweetie. It's about the power. There's a ton of money in this room, but that's not power. Nolan's a medical genius, shortlisted for the Nobel — That's power. Art is power, because they (meaning the wealthy idiots) can't make it. So what if you make Nolan all cute and nervous? Why not ride that a little? Make them think they have the power. Our time will come.
There are so many ideas in there, it's hard to know where to start — Echo has been programmed by the Dollhouse to convince Priya that sleeping with Nolan is a good idea, and she does this by trying to convince Priya that she's the powerful one in this situation. She's powerful because she's the only one who can create her art, which is a limited commodity. And she's powerful because she's beautiful and can use her wiles to get Nolan to help her career. (It's a very "Wife Of Bath" notion.) Money isn't power, says the mindless plaything who's been programmed — at great expense — to say that.
Because, of course, money is power, or at least one of the manifestations of power. And the moment Priya tries to assert her actual power — simply by leaving the room — she gets cockblocked, and shortly afterwards, she no longer even exists as a person. And the whole rest of the episode proves, more or less, that people like Nolan really do have all the power. Unless you stab them repeatedly in the chest, and are lucky enough to know someone with amazing "cleaner" skills, like Boyd.
I think all along, I've championed Dollhouse not just because of its many moments of greatness, but also because of its potential — which is much greater than almost any other television show possesses. Dollhouse's concept, and its dark, complex characters, open up so many possibilities for storytelling about the stuff that we're all dealing with in our lives — the people who want to turn us into what they want us to be, the compromises we all make to get along — that if this show lives up to even a fraction of its potential, it will be legendary. So when an episode actually delivers on the show's wealth of possibility, I get frightfully excited.
My one quibble about this episode is, once again, the Dollhouse being awfully slack. Boyd spends a lot of time piecing together the signs that Echo is becoming way too sentient... and then does nothing about it. Meanwhile, Victor and Sierra are practically humping each other in the main spa concourse, and people just think it's cute. Weren't the dolls supposed to be... I dunno... kind of empty-headed when they're in their mindwiped state? A mere erection on Victor's part was cause for a red alert a year ago, and now it's "everything goes."
Random thought: I am willing to bet this episode was written for season one and held over — because Paul Ballard wasn't in it, and I have a feeling writers Maurisa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon wrote it for a Ballard-less Dollhouse, then couldn't revise it to make Ballard fit in.