Joss Whedon's Dollhouse is not a playful space — it's a shattered dungeon where everybody's ruled by id. Dolls and dollmakers alike, everybody's a lightning flash away from revealing their ugly reptilian brains. Spoilers ahead.
Last Friday's episode of Dollhouse might actually be my favorite so far. (Yes, even better than "Man On The Street.") If it had aired any other week, it might have beaten out Sarah Connor Chronicles for best hour of television of the night. I think it hit me harder than any hour of Dollhouse so far, because it was so character-driven. Almost all of our characters revealed something surprising about themselves, including Echo as well as all the Dollhouse's various cogs.
It didn't start off terribly promisingly, of course — we launch into a twisty episode with a scene of Echo programmed as a dominatrix, lecturing Boyd about her profession. Sure, I cringed. But replay their conversation after you watch the rest of the episode, and it takes on a new significance. It's not about pain, it's about trust — letting go and trusting someone else. And it's up to Boyd to deliver the episode's moral in advance, in a moment worthy of Kerr Avon: "In my experience, trust usually leads to pain."
So in the episode's main plot, someone has infiltrated the Dollhouse and has installed a tiny piece of hardware designed to meddle with Topher's brain imprints. So if Topher programs someone to be a cheerleader, this other person can make that Doll a cheerleader-assassin. Or an assassin who cheers. (This person would not only need to have access to the equipment, but also the knowledge to add parameters to Topher's programs, which is why I'm wondering if this episode's final explanation really is final.)
So first the Dollhouse's head of security, Lawrence Dominic (played by the brother from Journeyman! This may be the last time I can point out this fact) has the oft-abused Doll Sierra programmed with super-spy skills. And for about ten shining minutes, this show finally lives up to the stereotype that it's Alias with brain imprints. It turns out the NSA has really, really bad security (and computers whose screensavers read "NSA") and Sierra gets in and out with no trouble, along with a file containing the name of the spy in the Dollhouse.
But meanwhile, Echo actually comes to the brainmaster, Topher, and asks him to imprint her with a personality that can help. I think I went to the Attic for a moment when I saw that: Echo is self-aware enough to know what Topher is doing in his zappy room, but also enough to ask him to do it to her. WTF?
Through Echo's detectiving, we get to peel back more layers of the lies and soul-rot within the Dollhouse. Topher is not just an arrogant jackass, but also (not surprisingly) deeply insecure and craving approval. His assistant Ivy is at least as smart as he is, and will probably destroy him one day. Dr. Claire Saunders never leaves the Dollhouse — she's there 24/7, tending to the Actives. (Does she use their co-ed showers? The mind boggles.) And Boyd Langdon breaks it down, in another great Avon-ish moment: "We're pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way." (Seriously, just imagine Paul Darrow reciting all of Boyd's dialogue. It works!)
And meanwhile, the Doll November (Miracle Laurie) returns to her life as Mellie, the good-natured and cuddly neighbor of FBI agent Paul Ballard... but she's been programmed with another extra parameter. This time, Mellie suddenly busts out with a warning that she's a Doll, that she's spying on Ballard, and that he needs to find the deeper purpose behind the Dollhouse. And yes, once again, Ballard needs to wear a bib so he doesn't make a stain when he's constantly being spoonfed information. (At least he has the cool wall file, showing that he is actually doing his own research.) At the same time, I really felt for Paul, finding out the one meaningful relationship in his life was with a Doll.
So Lawrence Dominic, who turns out to be the NSA mole inside the Dollhouse, tells Adelle that he's actually been protecting the Dollhouse for real, and that Ballard would have found the Dollhouse by now if not for him. Is Dominic lying? Are these "secret messages" that Dolls keep giving Ballard just keeping him off the trail? Or is Dominic not the person who's been sending these messages to Ballard? (Plus, how does this connect with Alpha, the other person who was spoonfeeding Ballard.)
But the most startling character moments in the episode involved Victor and Adelle DeWitt. When Adelle first left at the start of the episode, for a Rossum corporate retreat, I assumed actor Olivia Williams was busy and they'd written her out of the episode. And when Victor gave the flowers to his elderly "Miss Lonelyhearts" client, and then suddenly drove away, I assumed he was going off mission — maybe due to another hacked imprint. But no.
I'm sorry, I have to say it: Adelle DeWitt is not only the president of the Dollhouse, she's also a client. And the scenes between her and Victor were genuinely heart breaking. He's Roger, her ideal man, who accepts her messed-up life and the fact that she's gone from growing replacement organs to working for an organization of "philanthropic pimps and killers." He challenges her and holds her and kicks her ass at fencing, and throws her phone away, and tries to get her to run away with him and open a bar.
And Adelle knows, better than anyone, that Roger's only a ghost of a real person. There's a real person in there somewhere, or fragments of several real people, that Victor has assembled into a comprehensive profile. But Roger can never be real to her, and no real person can understand her or accept her the way he can. (Of course, on the upside, nobody but Adelle will remember the weekends she and Roger spend together.) In these scenes, we see a vulnerable, open side to Adelle that we've never seen before — so of course, she gets kicked in the teeth, repeatedly by betrayal. (And the phone-tossing turns out to have been a really bad idea. What if the mole had programmed Roger to kill her?)
The final scenes, of Adelle standing there with a gunshot wound to the stomach and not even caring, were totally brutal. She's realized who she has to be to survive this ugly, ugly house she's gone to work for. She has to be the biggest monster of them all, able to watch her former friend and associate mentally wiped from existence, consigned to a hellish dementia, without even blinking. The pain in her stomach is nothing. Even before she tells Topher to retire the "Roger" persona, we already know she's not going back there again.
(And the whole Adelle subplot, I think, finally answered once and for all, the question of why people need to spend so much money to hire Dolls. It's not just closeted gay people, or kinky people who are ashamed of their needs, as Claire Saunders tells Boyd — it's anyone who needs to experience a vulnerability (or power) that they can't afford to experience in their "real" lives. Because those experiences would destroy them if they were "real." The urges that drive you to pay huge sums to the Dollhouse are almost always self-destructive impulses. )
And yes, the whole "sending Lawrence to the Attic" thing was monstrous and terrifying, and kind of awesomely intense.
But the most interesting thing, for me, was the whole debate over who Echo is. Is she going to "erase" the Dollhouse, like Dominic thinks? Will her growing awareness and cleverness finally bring the house down around her? Or will she save the Dollhouse, as Adelle believes? Could they both be right? Or neither of them?