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Victims and Villains: Belonging on "Dollhouse"

I've expressed frustration with FOX's Dollhouse in the past; the series seemed always out of touch with its own potential, focusing on engagements of the week or fitting up Eliza Dushku in outrageous ensembles rather than delving into the heart of darkness within the Dollhouse itself.

With the notable exception of the unaired post-apocalyptic bookend "Epitaph One," the series hasn't come close to fulfilling its promise over the past seventeen episodes or so. Until this past episode, "Belonging," that is.

The evocative and bleak installment, beautifully scripted by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and flawlessly directed by Jonathan Frakes, showed us the Dollhouse that might have been: a series filled with ethical dilemmas, morally compromised characters, and tough decisions. In an episode, it posits that the evil performed by the Dollhouse's staffers isn't being done willingly; in fact, they could be victims as much as the poor Actives they whore out to the highest bidder.

It's a novel conceit that forces the audience to question everything we've seen so far from the morally grey characters like Adelle (Olivia Williams) and Topher (Fran Kranz) and it opens up a host of new and intriguing questions about their motivations. Is it evil if you're forced into it? How complicit are they in the cycle of abuse and exploitation going on? How do they live with what they've done?

They're thought-provoking questions that have lingered on the fringes of the series but here they're brought front and center, as they should be as several staffers, including the aforementioned Adelle and Topher, as well as Boyd (Harry Lennix) are forced to examine their own lines in the sand, over which they must step at their peril. They are part of the machinery that keeps the Dollhouse moving, keeps the clients satisfied, keeps the money rolling in, keeps the institution's numerous victims continue to be used and discarded.

But how do they live with it? Adelle says that each of the Dollhouse's employees are "morally compromised," such as herself, but that Topher has no morals whatsoever. And yet that's not quite the case. He firmly believes that he's helping Priya not once but twice: by wiping her memories away when she arrives at the Dollhouse, he's giving clarity and purpose to a woman he believes is beset by paranoid schizophrenia. Later, when forced by the higher-ups to turn Sierra over to her rapist and kidnapper Nolan, he reinstates Priya's true personality, knowing full well that she's likely to murder Nolan.

Did he help her by enabling her to enact her deadly vengeance? Or did Topher make things far worse for Priya than he could have imagined? Having finally conquered the man who made her a slave and destroyed her life, Priya chooses not to run but to have her memories wiped clean again, to return to the Dollhouse, and to forget what happened. Some might see that as weakness but for Priya, she's crossed a moral line that can't be uncrossed; the blood on her hands can't be washed off so easily. Revenge might have been on her mind a few hours earlier but her actions, unlike those of Topher or Adelle, are not something she can live with. In asking Topher to erase her knowledge of killing Nolan, she's seeking to step back over that line in the sand, even if it means going back to sleep for a while.

Well-deserved praise goes to Dichen Lachman for effortlessly carrying this episode on her shoulders; her performance was so nuanced, so profoundly moving and powerful, that it's yet another reminder of my feelings since the first episode that she be the focal point of this series rather than Eliza Dushku. The raw emotion she pulled off, both in Priya's mental hospital scenes and in her murder of Nolan, were starkly contrasted with the look of serenity as Sierra emerged, tabula rasa-style, from the chair once again. (Should Dollhouse go to the way of the dodo, I heartily predict that Lachman will be one of the series' breakout stars and land a series regular gig elsewhere within a matter of seconds.)

Likewise, Kranz, Williams, and Lennix each turn in magnificently polished performances within this episode that not only serve to broaden the plot but also deepen their characters. Seeing Adelle as perhaps the ultimate victim in this scenario made for a nice change of pace as we're used to seeing her as the ice queen of her own domain; by setting her up as a pawn in the larger machinations of the Rossum Corporation, her actions--forced as they are by blackmail and threats of murder--take on new and tragic consequences. Her speech to Nolan, in which she hisses that she would not let him near Sierra or any of their other dolls ("I would no sooner allow you near one of our other actives as I would a mad dog near a child"), displays a stunning contradictory nature within Adelle and points to some moral fiber as well. Too bad that she's as trapped as the others; a bird in a gilded cage who can no more fly away than Sierra or Echo.

I loved seeing Boyd as a cleaner following Priya's murder of Nolan. The ease with which he disposed of Nolan's body, concocted a cover story, and arranged it to look as though Nolan had fled the country were staggering. While he hands Adelle a convenient cover story, there's a spark of recognition and complicity in her eyes; she knows exactly what Boyd has done. If Boyd is truly morally compromised, he still seems largely on the side of the angels here. He discovers that Echo is not only gaining self-awareness but is able to read (knowledge in this place is, after all, deadly and she's keeping notes in her bed chamber) and is pushing the other dolls to "wake up." It's a testament to Boyd's inherent goodness that he doesn't alert Adelle or the higher-ups to Echo's manipulation of the other dolls or of the staffers as well. (After all, it's Echo who starts the chain of events that leads Nolan to demand Sierra forever.) And then there's the matter of that keycard. Given the fact that Echo and Boyd discuss the "storm," we're led to believe that it's Boyd that hides that keycard inside Echo's book, but I think it's a red herring of the most scarlet variety...

The episode also touched on emotional truth. Despite the fact that Priya had only met Victor (Enver Gjokaj) once (and he was in the guise of a programmed Italian art dealer), she knows instinctively that he's the object of her love. She tells Nolan that she loves Victor more than she hates him, despite not knowing who Victor is. Yet, sitting in the Dollhouse with Topher, she knows instantly that she loves Victor. Some truths can't be erased by technology; love endures despite a personality wipe or a doll-like state. The honest emotion between them is real and true. Priya knows it, Sierra knows it, and even a changed Topher knows it too. Like Lachman, Gjokaj is a true find; his charisma and chameleon-like abilities make this actor destined for stardom.

But, despite the sweetness of Sierra and Victor's holding hands and curling up together in bed, there's still a shadow casting a pall over the Dollhouse. Call it a storm, call it a war, call it consequences, whatever you will, it's very likely to rip the lovers apart at the seams. This installment represented perhaps the pinnacle of happiness for Sierra and Victor and, this being a Joss Whedon series, I shudder to think just how hard they'll fall when they come crashing back down to reality.

Ultimately, "Belonging" was the strongest episode of Dollhouse to date and showcased the remarkable potential of the series, should it be allowed to go down a path of exploring self-awareness, morality, and complicity. It also helped that the emphasis was taken off of Dushku's Echo and Tahmoh Penikett's Paul Ballard and placed instead on the far more interesting and compelling supporting cast members here. Should Dollhouse never quite reach the dizzying heights of "Belonging" again, I will at least feel some cold comfort in the fact that for one remarkable episode, Whedon and Tancharoen showed us just what their Dollhouse could be like.

Dollhouse returns December 4th with back-to-back episodes.

Comments

HipHopAnonymous said…
Definitely the best episode of the season. I'm really surprised by how much I've grown to enjoy this series, despite its various flaws. The whole engagement-of-the-week-gone-wrong format definitely gets monotonous, but I'm frequently impressed with how the writers find creative ways to vary the formula and twist my own expectations. Plus the supporting cast really does a great job of bringing life and energy to the material when they each get their individual moments to shine.

More and more it seems like the Dollhouses are being revealed to be a front operation for a much larger, darker, nefarious plot to transform people into programmable human dolls. Hopefully the show will explore this idea a bit more as it heads towards its now seemingly inevitable cancellation.
cory said…
While I agree this is one of the strongest episodes to date I don't think you could possibly be more wrong in implying Echo and Ballard aren't interesting. Even in its uneven episodes this show is one of the most compelling series on television, network or cable.
Page48 said…
This was the series' best episode to date (tho I haven't seen 1.13). I love the 'new' Topher and was, frankly, relieved at the lack of Ballard in this episode.

Now that we finally see some long overdue improvement in this show, it's time for a 6 week break. Brilliant!
Kelley said…
I am with you , with you, with you. What a gorgeously crafted episode. If I were trying to hook someone on the series this would be the first episode I would show them. So much respect to Maurissa Tanchareon & Jed Whedon and Fran Kranz, Dichen Lachman, Harry Lennix, and Olivia Williams. Like I said in my own post, "only thing better than this week's episode of "Dollhouse" is the promise of what's to come."
Charbarred said…
The less we see of Echo in an episode, the more emotionally gripping it is. Does this say something about a certain actress holding back the show's true potential?
Totally agree. This was the first Dollhouse episode that had me engaged from start to finish. Sadly, it will probably also be the last as Sierra is not the star of the show and Echo and Paul will return to being front and center of almost every episode. Too bad as they bore me to tears!
KriZia said…
After watching "Belonging," I've begun to question my initial disbelief of individuals volunteering to be actives in the #Dollhouse. I mean, Priya could have run away on her own after murdering Nolan, but she chose to return to the #Dollhouse instead to have her mind wiped of the event. She's more conscious than we anticipated - far past anyone's questioning of her drawing dark shapes after her engagements with Nolan (which were, in my opinion, her being continuously and unknowingly [maybe?] re-raped).

Such a thought-provoking, dark and amazing #Dollhouse episode.
Unknown said…
Yes, a well-done ep. I liked the reveal that Echo had carved her notes into her "coffin's" glass cover. I doubt, however, that no one would notice Sierra and Victor lying in the same bed together. On a more metaphysical note, I really have to suspend disbelief when Sierra professes to remember a love for Victor after her mind's been wiped. But, for the sake of the story, I'll go with it.

BTW, I disagree that the apparent source of the all-access pass is a red herring. I think it did come from Boyd.

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