That's more like it. After two seriously "meh" episodes, Dollhouse returned to form with a twisty story of a serial killer and a college professor — and the weird secret they have in common. Naked, dripping wet spoilers below.
Despite a couple of flaws — which I'll get to in a bit — "Belle Chose" was Exhibit A for how great Dollhouse can be when the concept is handled right. So it's not surprising that it was written by Tim Minear, the man who gave us Firefly's "Out Of Gas" and many of Angel's best episodes.
So what's the secret these two men share? They're both in positions of great power — the college professor is tenured and at the zenith of his career, the serial killer is wealthy and connected. But neither of them can have what they want, and their fantasies about women remain tantalizingly out of reach. That's frequently the larger thread of Dollhouse: The wealthy may already own your bodies and souls, but they want to own your hearts and minds as well. They always have some unfinished business, something that people (usually women) are unable to give them freely for whatever reason.
The professor wants a young, impressionable, none-too-smart student (named Kiki!) whom he can teach and condescend to, in a sort of Educating Rita pastiche that turns pornographic. It's not just that he wants a student to sleep with him to get an "A" — watch those scenes where he tells her about Chaucer. (Or "Chauncey," as she insists on calling him, in a lovely reference to Being There.) And even though the professor really does have all the power in this situation — even disregarding the meta-point that Kiki only exists because he had the Dollhouse create her — he wants to teach Kiki that she really has all the power. He trots out the standard second-wave feminist analysis of Chaucer's Wife Of Bath as empowered woman, who uses sexuality to get what she wants. Traditionally, people viewed the Wife Of Bath as a harlot, a cautionary tale for women, but it became fashionable to view her as a feminist heroine instead.
Here's the Wife Of Bath giving the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, a hand job — from Pasolini's Canterbury Tales movie:
As that montage up top makes clear, the professor and the serial killer, Terry, both have the same fantasy about women: that the women are in control, that they're constantly using their sexuality to gain advantage, and that the men are helpless. (The only difference is, the professor enjoys this fantasy, and insists the women aren't whores — Terry thinks they are.)
So Terry, the serial killer, collects "Dolls" of his own — but instead of the mindwiped, programmed puppets the Dollhouse supplies, he creates his own, injecting people with paralytic drugs and then turning them into human mannequins — they each represent one of the women in Terry's family, who ignore him and leave him out of their games. If you really had any doubt that Dollhouse is a metaphor for how powerful people objectify and mistreat everyone, especially women, then the opening scenes of this episode ought to have set you straight.
The underlying metaphors in "Belle Chose" are by no means subtle — and that's a big part of what I love them for. They come right out and say it: the professor, a model Dollhouse client whose fantasy is incredibly harmless and almost sweet, is directly compared, again and again, to the serial killer who kidnaps women, injects them with crap, and turns them into his fully poseable figures. Both men are in denial, both men are blinded by fantasies about female power that excuse their abuse of women. And when the two finally meet — it doesn't really go well for either of them.
Because, of course, the episode takes a weird left turn about two-thirds of the way through — the serial killer's been downloaded into Victor's body, and thanks to the foolishness of Saul Tigh (helping out his fellow artifiicial person) the VictorOfTheLambs character gets out and about. So Topher tries to shut down Victor/Terry — only to swap Victor's and Echo's imprints. So now Echo is imprinted with the misogynistic serial kiler, while Victor thinks he's a hot teenage girl. Cue weird woman-hating stuff from Echo, while Victor flirts with a bunch of boys and nearly gets gay-bashed. it's almost too over the top, but it works — partly because it's great to see one more weird use of the Dollhouse's brain-switching tech.
But yeah, there were a couple of major flaws in the episode that did lose it a bit of its sheen of awesomeness:
Flaw #1: The incompetence of the Dollhouse is staggering. I mean, really. This is starting to damage my suspension of disbelief. The moment where Adelle actually turns to Topher and says something along the lines of, "We've imprinted our active with the mind of a serial killer and turned him loose — and he has no GPS locator!" made me giggle. When the characters themselves comment on how incompetent they're being, it's a bad sign. I also think Professor Skankypants should get a refund.
Flaw #2: The last act was a little bit of a let down. I'm not sure where you could go with this episode, after Echo was imprinted with Terry's sick mind, but having Echo turn into the episode's monster (which sort of happened last week as well) was a bit disappointing. And then Echo gives a long speech in which she tries to convince the three captive women to kill her — why not just have them tie Echo up? The longer Echo's speech dragged on, the less concerned I was that Terry's persona was going to reassert control, and the more I felt like the episode was just spinning its wheels.
But meanwhile, the episode also packed a ton of other awesomeness:
Adelle is amazing. Her double act with Boyd was one of the major highlights of the show, especially "There is no need to continue to translate me." And then she switches, seamlessly, into an equally great double act with Ballard, where she handles the uncle and he handles the evil nephew. So great.
All of the stuff with Paul learning to be Echo's handler was terrific — this is the first time we've seen what happens to the Actives after they're programmed, and the scenes of Echo getting a makeover were a much-needed bright spot. Echo/Kiki being all bouncy and giggly while the campy costuming guy tells her she's won a free makeover were great.
And of course, Paul is totally in love with Echo — this episode pretty much broadcast it. The whole Fast Times At Ridgemont sequence where Paul watches Echo in the shower and then watches her act flirty later on, in extreme slow-mo. That's not your standard concerned handler look — that's a seriously schmoopy/lustful look. I kind of want them to have Anthony Stewart Head guest star, so he can raise one eyebrow and say, "A Handler in love with an Active? Fascinating."
Oh, and it's official: Dr. Claire Saunders is missing, both in the sense that nobody knows where she is, and in the sense that we miss her. A lot. And it's sounding like despite Boyd's amazing tallness, Adelle really will go over his head and have Claire dragged, kicking and acting her heart out, back to the Dollhouse.