Air Date: October 23, 2009
Writers: Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen
Director: Jonathan Frakes
The fourth episode of Dollhouse’s second season is the series’ best since the last episode written by Jed Whedon (Joss’ brother) and his wife, Maurissa Tancharoen—the unaired “Epitaph One.” If the series must end after episode 13 of this season (as it looks fated to do), at least it’s going out with a bang.
“Belonging” is Sierra’s origin story. The episode begins with Sierra in her pre-Dollhouse, real identity, Priya. An Australian immigrant, she sells her art on the beach and meets Dr. Nolan Kinnard, who uses Dollhouse resources to woo Priya by throwing her an art show. She rebuffs him, saying “Nothing in this world could ever make me love you.” The screen swipes and we see present-day Sierra expressing her undying devotion to Kinnard. With a little prompting from Echo, Topher investigates the source of a sadness Sierra expresses in her paintings. He discovers that Kinnard had drugged her to make her appear psychotic, had her committed to the Dollhouse for “help” and then repeatedly rented her out for his pleasure. DeWitt, upset that Kinnard has made her “a party to something vile,” tells Kinnard (in a pithy scene that showcases her fining acting chops) that they will no longer be offering their services to him. He demands that Sierra be imprinted for permanent placement with him. DeWitt’s boss (Keith Carradine) orders her to follow through, warning she won’t like Rossam’s retirement program. She orders Topher, who imprints Priya’s original personality. She contronts Kinnard and kills him in the fight that ensues. Topher and Boyd clean up the mess and return Sierra to the Dollhouse.
So, what worked so well this episode? First and foremost, the episode was all raw emotion, set in a tragedy of Grecian proportions. Joss Whedon likes to talk about getting to the emotional truth of the situation, and his team did exactly that this time, with minimal fluff and few missteps. And it was a truth that’s at the heart of Dollhouse itself. The episdoe powerfully personalized the issues of power, control, identity, free will and human trafficking that have always been present. Priya’s situation was gut-wrenching enough on its own. When she killed Kinnard, you couldn’t help but cheer a little. But, where almost all other shows would have ended shortly after that “triumphant” note, Whedon pushes us where few, if any, shows dare to take us—immediately into the emotional aftermath. Priya is immediately devastated; Topher is devasted and wracked with guilt. Then Boyd makes Topher clean up. (“What are you talking about?” he asks. “Consequences,” Boyd replies.) Topher has to drain Kinnard’s blood and cut up the body for disposal. When we see him sawing off Kinnard’s foot and choking on the fumes from sulfuric acid, we feel his revulsion and any sense of triumph is long gone.
On a more basic level, the simply villainy of the doctor (and Carradine’s character) serves the show well. Episode two of this season, where Echo was programmed to be a new mother, reached for the same gut-wrenching emotions but missed the mark largely because the shady-turned-sympathetic husband left us with nothing but the amorphous Rossum corporation as villain. As I said in the review of the last episode, moral complexity works (and is preferred) for recurring characters, but with non-recurring ones, it’s hard to engage the viewer unless you really love or really loathe them. They made it easy to loathe this one and invest yourself in Sierra/Priya’s struggle.
“Belonging,” unlike the stellar previous, stand-alone episode “Belle Chose”, really dug deeper into the pathology and pathos of the Dollhouse. We see its capacity for pure evil, its capacity to corrupt those who’ve convinced themselves they are caretakers. The morality, amorality, and immorality of this group of people and the impersonal system they are caught up in are on full display. One of the shows central themes is how corporations can mess with people. We saw that clearly here, finally personified (in Carradine). But we also see how well-meaning people are corrupted, enabling and facilitating horrors. In fact, despite the personification, its apparent that such systems take on a self-perpetuating life of their own. They don’t necessarily need “evil” humans at their core; they just need people to get caught up in the system and fail to stop its inevitable trampling of individuals.
Echo echoes “Belle Chose” in the opening when she explains their feminine power to Priya. “Let them [the men, or the rich and ‘powerful’] think they have the power; our time will come,” she says. Of course, this also points to Echo’s coming awakening. That awakening was a key part of this episode, despite Echo’s sparse use. Sierra was literally awakened. She asked to be wiped of her memories of the recent days, but its likely she will never be the same, even in her doll state. We also saw Victor flash back to his pre-doll soldier days. His time under the Dollhouse illusion is limited. Echo’s prodding was the catalyst for Priya’s awakening. Boyd learned of this and noticed Echo reading, saving her place with a leaf. The former indicates a consciousness and the latter a memory that the dolls shouldn’t have. He confronts Echo and warns her, “Some people are not ready to wake up.” She replies, “I don’t care. Something bad is coming, like a storm. And I want everyone to survive it. They need to wake up.” It’s a wonderful conversation, rich with meaning and foreboding (moving us inexorably toward the events depicted in “Epitaph One”) for the show and for life.
A few other random thoughts:
I won’t jump on the anti-Dushku bandwagon, but the show clearly works better as an ensemble than as a Dushku showcase. Here, Dichen Lachman shined, as did the always-wonderful Olivia Williams and Harry Lennix and the increasingly interesting Fran Kranz. I was grateful for a break from Tahmoh Penikett. I don’t know if it’s his character or his acting, but his permanent brooding angst is tiring. (I had the same reaction to much of Helo’s time on BSG.)
I’m dying to get more of Boyd’s back story. His mad skills at clean up and the fact that he can call for “The Goose” to disappear someone leave me highly curious. He also left a security card—“for the storm”—for Echo. I’d love to know more about his real agenda.
DeWitt and, especially, Topher continue their moral awakening. DeWitt is morally compromised and turns a blind eye, deceiving herself about what they are doing. That’s starting to end. Topher, however, is coming face-to-face with his arrogance, his inability to think his way out of every problem known to man, and his utter disregard for the people and moral implications of his actions. When he says that he doesn’t see a bad man in Sierra’s paintings, Echo responds, “You’re not looking hard enough; you never do.” Boyd continues to make quips about his lack of conscience (mostly displaying surprise when he shows any). And then DeWitt finally lays it all out for him. Most of those in the Dollhouse were chosen for being morally comprised (hence, controllable). He was chosen because he has no morals. “You have always thought of people as playthings,” she says. At the end, Priya asked Topher if he can keep their secret. “I can keep it,” he replies. “But I don’t know if I can live with it.” His unraveling has definitely begun.
My biggest quibble with this episode is why they had Sierra return to the Dollhouse (beyond the obvious external-to-the-show desire to keep a strong actress and character). It seems like the best scenario for covering the tragedy and helping Priya would be to free her, under the cover of fleeing with Kinnard. They could have even snuck her in to the Dollhouse to wipe her memory of the past day. The closest they get to an explanation is Boyds’s reponse to Topher’s assertion that Priya doesn’t belong in the Dollhouse. “She does now,” he says simply.