Last Friday's Dollhouse pushed the show's messed-up preoccupations one step further: now not only can your life be erased at the push of a button, but select, wealthy people can have eternal life. Spoilers ahead!
Friday's new episode was most interesting at the margins. The main plot was riveting for as long as Dollhouse madam Adelle DeWitt was a part of it. The "B" plot showed hints of giving Topher an actual soul, and pandered to our geeky obsessions shamelessly. And then the handful of scenes we got with Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) spun his storyline in several fascinating new directions.
As for the main plot, it was okay. I never get tired of the "solving my own murder" storyline — that's just one gimmick that always works, as far as I'm concerned. It worked for Inspector Clouseau, it worked for Lindsey Lohan, and it works for Echo. The storyline gives Eliza Dushku a chance to do some fun PBS-esque drawing room detecting, and I did really enjoy the scene where the family is gathered together and the alcoholic brother pronounces himself and his dead sister dreadful, but adds that sis' kids are "hideous." It's not going to revamp the murder mystery genre, but it's serviceable stuff. It sort of reminded me of that Sarah Connor Chronicles episode where the family is trapped in a cabin with a Terminator outside, hunting them. It sort of lost my suspension of disbelief towards the end, when Margaret says "Elmo" instead of "emo" and then adds "yay" to her final letter to her family.
But like I said, it really comes to life whenever Adelle DeWitt is on screen — I've loved her since the first episode, but she's really become the most fascinating, screwed-up character in recent episodes. This time around, helping her friend Margaret to cheat death, swanning around Margaret's funeral with the reincarnated Margaret, and answering Boyd's objections to this new line of business, Adelle is great at seeming utterly corrupt and yet vulnerable and scrupulously honest, in her own way. We can't ever approve of anything Adelle does, but we can't help sympathize with her and want to understand her better.
In a way, this episode and the previous one are the answer to your question: with a show about empty vessels who only do what they're programmed for, who do you root for? And the answer, increasingly, seems to be, the grown-ups.
I also really felt for Paul Ballard, the former FBI agent. Now that he knows his neighbor/lover Mellie is actually an undercover Doll, sent to spy on him, he's in a weird no-win situation. She's his best lead to the Dollhouse, but to keep her around he's got to pretend everything is normal and carry on a relationship with her. And then, of course, he finds out that she's in the FBI database under a variety of names — until they're all suddenly erased. (And I'd be disappointed if that sudden erasure from the FBI database doesn't trigger a warning to the Dollhouse that Ballard is on to their agent. It seems like a pretty basic thing.)
Ballard doesn't really do such a great job of pretending everything's normal and he's still into Mellie, like always. He's mopey and broody at the best of times, but now that he knows he's dating a Doll, he's positively stone-faced. And then Mellie makes this huge speech about how it doesn't matter, he can just put nothing into the relationship and she'll pretend everything's fine, because she just really wants to be with him. It's the most doormatty, pathetic speech I've ever heard, and for some reason, it makes Paul really horny. Maybe because having sex is easier than having this conversation? Either way, Paul seems to realize Mellie really is providing something he desperately needs, because he identifies himself afterwards as the Dollhouse's latest client. Ouch.
Speaking of which, is there anyone working at the Dollhouse who isn't also a client? I'm expecting next week's episode to be about Boyd hiring a Doll to go ballroom dancing with him or something. (At least we're done with the "weekly glitch" thing, which was getting a mite old.) Topher's storyline, hiring Sierra to be his nerdy playmate in a totally nonsexual way, was cute and charming at first — and I really did love the moment I included above, where they list scientifically implausible things from classic science fiction. But the Topher/Sierra storyline really overstayed its welcome, and the nerd humor started to fall flat after a while. (Generally, if you wanted an example of how "remote-free viewing" has hurt Dollhouse by forcing the show to stretch out episodes past their natural length, this latest episode would be a great example.) It was all worth it, though, for the bit at the end where Sierra brings Topher a birthday cake and you realize that, yes, he really has no friends.