I have long felt uncomfortable about the sexual nature of most of the engagements actives have been sent on in the “Dollhouse” and not because of the prostitution issue most have labeled it as.
For me, it has always been about the nature of rape, which isn’t about sex at all. It’s about control and domination. It’s non-consensual and sometimes that means that violence or the threat of violence is used to control another person. Other times it means that a person’s ability to consent is taken away from them, such as through the use of “date rape” drugs. As such, my biggest problem with the Dollhouse is about imprinting a different personality onto someone in order for them to want to have sex with another person and if it is really that much different from putting GHB in someone’s drink. That is the question that has often made watching the show a profoundly uncomfortable experience for me. I kept watching in the hope that it would be addressed in some way and tonight, it was.
At its core, tonight was about Sierra’s personal history. Not the doll, but the person she was before: Priya. She was an artist and there was a man, Dr. Nolan, that was very interested in her. So much so, that he commissioned her to do a huge painting and threw a big reception to introduce her to the circles of society that he thinks she would most want to have connections with — the rich and aimless. At this gathering was Matthew Harding (Keith Carradine), a man with a strong position with the Dollhouse. He comments about the amount of trouble Nolan has gone to in order to woo Priya and tells him that they could just make him the perfect woman, but Nolan isn’t interested. Also at the party are Echo and Victor, and when Priya meets Victor she attempts to leave the party with him. But his handler comes to take him for a treatment and Nolan explodes, attempting to stop her from leaving and declaring that he “won’t take no for an answer.” It is a chilling piece of foreshadowing.
Back in the present day, Sierra is still painting in the Dollhouse, but her paintings are showing a pattern of dark shadows. She only comments that she dislikes the color, but Echo takes the painting to Topher and tells him that it’s about “the bad man” and that he’s not looking hard enough. Perhaps it is the simple fact that he has missed a detail of the human psyche that sends Topher on the search for answers. Whatever the case, Boyd tells him to check the missing Dr. Saunders’ notes. Predictably, Saunders attributed the black shapes to fear and hatred of Topher, a theory that was likely more about her projecting her own emotions onto Sierra than anything. Which is made more compelling by the fact that they were emotions that Topher imprinted her with, yet he seems devastated by the idea and his search takes a more personal measure as he desperately tries to prove that he is not the bad man.
What he knows of Priya is that she came to the Dollhouse as a paranoid schizophrenic with vivid aural hallucinations and a persecution delusion. He looks at her brain scans and finds out that she wasn’t psychotic despite the neuroleptics — she was psychotic because of them. And it just so happens that Dr. Nolan, who is one of her repeat clients, is a specialist in the area of neuroleptics. Topher tells Boyd the whole sordid story and declares that they have to tell Adelle, but she’s already overheard enough. She calls Nolan in and politely calls him a “raping scumbag one tick shy of a murderer” before telling him that he will never get near Sierra again. Which is when he tells her to imprint Sierra and send her to him forever and Adelle’ll get to keep her job. Enter Harding, who makes sure that is exactly what will happen.
Adelle is horrified to have her own “indiscretions” with Victor brought up before she is told that she wouldn’t like the Dollhouse’s retirement plant — a thinly veiled reference to the mysterious Attic. Topher argues against sending Sierra to Nolan permanently, asking with a sense of anguish, “How can you expect me to do this?” Adelle tells him that he was chosen for his role in the Dollhouse because he lacks any sense of morality and tells him that he has to let her go. And he does, but not without his own sense of justice.
The personality he imprints Sierra with is Priya. And he tells her the situation, so that when she arrives at Nolan’s she’s ready for some vengeance. The fight that explodes from her confrontation with him is one of the most disturbing things we’ve seen on this show. It quickly gets worse as Nolan slams Priya’s head into a shelf and grabs a knife, commenting that he should have had her imprinted to struggle before because it’s a turn on. It’s a stomach-turning comment, which is exactly its purpose, as once Priya gets the upper hand and stabs Nolan to death, we feel zero pity for him. He was inhuman.
What happens next is surprising: she calls Topher. He comes, finds the bloody body of Nolan and then Priya hiding in an alcove. He’s telling her they have to run when Boyd shows up, having listened in on the call. And he’s come with vat of sulfuric acid and all the tools to chop up and dispose of a body, as well as enough connections to make someone disappear. He gives Topher the task of cutting up Nolan and we watch as Toph further awakens to his own conscience. It seems that with Dr. Saunders no longer there to be the embodiment of it, he has had to accept that responsibility back himself. It’s done with no small sense of discomfort.
The end scene is gut wrenching, as Priya prepares to be imprinted as an active again, their cover story firmly in place. After sharing a beer with Topher she asks about Victor, who has apparently remained vigilantly awaiting her return. She recognizes him as the man she really loves and she asks if that is real, which Topher assures her is, and that Victor loves her back. It’s a brief glimpse into the fact that Topher can recognize that his science is as imperfect as he is. But the most anguishing moment is when Priya tells him that if he ever wakes her again, she wants him to skip this day. It’s a thought that likely every rape survivor has entertained at one time or another. Of course, Topher can’t erase it from his own mind, and though he promises to keep the secret of Nolan’s murder, he admits that he isn’t sure he can live with it.
Echo is a peripheral character this week and Ballard doesn’t appear on screen once. It’s a fact that makes me wish that this show had been marketed as an ensemble from the beginning, as the characters we spent time with tonight were much closer to the visceral heart of the show. All the same, there are moments that make it clear that Echo is plotting and Boyd is onto her. He finds a book that she is hiding in her sleeping pod — but he misses the fact that she is writing notes to herself on the inside of the frosted glass. We also get a small hint of Victor’s possible past as a moment spent finger painting their faces with Sierra triggers a wartime flashback that leaves him whimpering “I don’t want to take charge.” Which may be why he joined the Dollhouse — to never take charge again.
There were also some interesting visual cues happening in tonight’s episode. For example, after Priya killed Nolan, she stood up and was shown as the dark shadow over her own painting. Leading me to believe that the shadows on her paintings weren’t a manifestation of fear, but of the rage she has now taken possession of. Also, showing his own growing concern over the dolls or his new alignment with them, Topher was dressed more like them than I’ve ever noticed before, wearing muted tones in soft cotton, rather than his more usual jeans, t-shirt fare and
What did you think of the episode? We’ve seen the first sign of Adelle comforting Topher, how many more awful things will occur to get them to the relationship we saw in Epitaph One? Given what we saw of Victor’s possible past, it also seems to clarify his arc between now and that not-very distant future. Does Boyd’s gift of the all access key card to Echo play a role in the Doll’s future leadership? Did that seem like too big a risk for him to take? Or, is he far more than any handler ever was and the real hero to Ballard’s…well, whatever Ballard is? Given what Fox announced this week, will we get to see enough of Dollhouse to get even half those answers?