I think I might officially like Dollhouse, not just because it’s a Joss Whedon show, or because it stars Eliza Dushku and Tahmoh Penniket, or even because I see potential in it. I think I have officially fallen for the shows charms, from the supporting characters to the strange ambiguity to the sexy neighbors who bring lasagna.
Not that this week’s episode, “True Believer,” was perfection. The A-plot followed Echo as she was made temporarily blind (and implanted with a camera) in order to infiltrate a cult. Once again, it made sense why an active was helpful (she really could become a member of the cult, true belief and all, while still maintianing that master programming that would help the ATF to user her). When things go ooky (thanks to a morally-grey-area’d ATF agent and a fire-bug cult leader), the patented Echo bad-ass starts coming through, and it requires her to punch out the cult leader and explain to his stricken sheep, “God brought me here. He has a message for you. And that message is ‘Move your ass!'” In old school, Buffy-esque fashion. It’s a goofy story, to be sure, but it’s handled well and Dushku does a pretty good job playing a trusting blind girl.
The B-story followed Topher and Fred (okay maybe we should start calling her Dr. Claire Saunders) attempting to quell Victor’s burgenoning independence in the form of what Topher immaturely calls “man reactions.” It seems that part of the childlike innocence of the wiped actives is that they can all shower together in sexy television glory, without any of them actually understanding how sexy and glory-ish said showering is. In other words, Victor getting an erection every time he watches Siera shower is all sorts of bad. This feeds into the show thematically (which we’ll get into in a minute) and provides some adorabley awkward comic relief. I also think I’m loving how very, very different Dr. Saunders is from Fred, because Amy Acker is a fantastic actress and I like how much she gets to show off her range.
In the C-story, Ballard just got one step closer to finding the Dollhouse. This week, after being thwarted again and again in tracking down Caroline (Echo), he finally sees our girl on television coverage of the Cult Showdown. This leads him down to the compound, only to be thwarted by the aforementioned morally grey ATF agent. Still, we get to see Ballard in his element, unsmoothly trying to flirt his way into help with his obsession, and making awkward/cute banter with his neighbor (who cute and lasagna-making though she may be, is, in this reviewer’s opinion, most definitely up to something).
The best thing about this episode, and the thing that made me realize that I’m officially digging Dollhouse, is the way the themes are coming together. The Dollhouse’s dehumanizing of its actives (all metaphorical up until now), takes on an almost painfully literal character in this episode. We’ve seen the imprinted Dolls being incredibly sexual(mainly Echo, but it’s certainly implied that Victor’s been playing the gigolo role offscreen and that the Dollhouse often serves as a very expensive brothel), and we understand intrinsicly that this is a form of prostitution. What this episode shows us is how completely their sexuality is taken from them. It’s played for laughs, but like most Whedon-verse giggles, it has a deeper, metaphorical edge. It’s why the shows, even when they veere into goofy, “man reaction” territory, maintian their critical cred. Made literal in Dr. Horrible (where we sit through two goofy, well-written, fun episodes just to get hit with a huge whammy of a death in the third), within the Whedonverse, even laughs tend to have their price to be paid in the end.
For the first time, I didn’t feel like I was being bludgeoned to death with the metaphorical link between the A-story and the overall Metaphor of the Show (the Doll’s loss of identity and maleability of character). Yes, the cult members were brainwashed and lose their individuality much like every week Echo is brainwashed and loses her individuality, but that was sort of stated and then dropped. We, as the audience, are smart enough to know its there, and they, as the writers, want to move on to the cool, Monster-of-the-week plot.
This felt like classic television. It didn’t neccesarily feel like an All Time Best Episode, but it felt like a good episode of a great show, which is a substantially different vibe than I’ve been getting off Dollhouse thus far. Even when I liked the episodes, it was always with worries still about the show. For the first time, I feel the creators and writers have a plan (much like the Cylons), and I’m excited to see where they’re going to take us.
*maybe this all has a lot to do with the fact that this week’s episode was written by Buffy uber-veteran Tim Minear, who was responsible for a lot of the greatness on both BTVS and Angel. To further pimp next week’s episode, it’s the second Joss Whedon credited one of the season, and it looks A-to-the-MAZING.