October 23rd, 2009
“People kill for that – to be unaffected.”
At the heart of Dollhouse is a state of mental being where what you experience is transient, memories non-existent as they walk like zombies through their daily lives at the Dollhouse, unaware of what is going on around them. At the heart of “Belonging” is the idea that, for some of them, this is a state of being that is actually desirable: Victor, we know, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and in this episode we learn that Sierra (originally Priya) was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic before she came into the employ of Adelle and Co. The quote above, purposefully placed in Victor’s mouth as he works a unique engagement, embodies the idea that there is something about this state which would actually be desirable, so long as what was happening on the outside world was tragic enough to justify it.
It’s an argument that, as a fan of this show, I can’t help but empathize with. Dollhouse has been on life support before it even aired, and while a miraculous second season was a welcome surprise the ratings have been even worse than last year. The result is the show is going on a month and a half-long hiatus in order to make room for repeats of more highly-rated shows, a move which makes sense with Fox’s bottom line but which feels far from ideal as someone who loves this show.
And with an episode like “Belonging,” which was definitely one of the best the series has done, you kind of want to be able to enter into a place of being unaffected by the scheduling drama that has all but signalled the end of the series sometime in early 2010. It’s not that we’re surprised at this, or that it hasn’t been around since the show began, but an episode featuring such a great performance from Dichen Lachman and that so effortlessly straddles that line between mythology-driven serial and backstory-filled procedural is the kind of thing you want to view in a vacuum, pretending we’re in a universe where the show isn’t already dead in the water.
So, consider this review my own personal unaffected time, as we wax poetic on how great this episode was.
If you had told me that the second season’s highlights thus far would both involve emotional storylines for Topher, I would have quite literally guffawed in your face. There was nothing in the first season to indicate that Fran Kranz would be called on to handle some pretty heavy material, primarily because the show essentially chose to ignore his own sense of morality. If Adelle was the cold leader forced to kowtow to corporate overlords but containing her own insecurities, Topher was the technological mastermind who lacks the capacity to really understand the ramifications involved. There’s a point here where Adelle points out that the actives are toys to him, and that he loves playing with them, and as long as Topher stayed in that mode he represented a real ethical hurdle for the show to overcome.
And yet, with Dr. Saunders and Sierra, Topher has become the kind of character that we can imagine fundamentally broken down in “Epitaph One,” a conclusion we’re never going to get to see (damn, there goes my bubble!) but one that nonetheless feels just as tragic as it should. Sierra’s back story is relevant for Topher primarily because it portrays justifications for his actions which go beyond scientific interest, at least in his own mind. The episode opens with Topher breaking down emotionally, saying that he had only been trying to help her, and what’s most interesting about the episode is that could apply to any single moment. When he brought Sierra into the Dollhouse, he thought he was helping a paranoid schizophrenic escape a tortuous existence. And when he eventually sets her free to confront Nolan, he thought he was making up for that reality, giving her what she wanted (a confrontation she had gone after when she was “set free” as per Dr. Saunders’ suggestion in “Needs”). In both instances, Topher was in fact reinforcing or exposing her to tragedy, to the point where eventually he looks beyond his own justifications to see the truth in the matter.
The story of Priya, an Australian artist who has the unfortunate distinction of turning into the object of desire for a psychotic researcher who works for the Dollhouse’s Rossum Corporation, rests solely on the shoulders of Dichen Lachman, who to this point has done a couple of amazing setpieces but hasn’t really been given an episode all her own. Here, without question, she is up to the task, as I think she’s right up there with Amy Acker in terms of stealing this show away from just about everyone else. She has always been the show’s best “blank slate,” but she’s never had a real extended engagement to show off her acting chops beyond staring blankly. We got that and more here, for Priya is about ten times more interesting than Caroline was last season (if we’re comparing “original” personalities here). Her only crime was being desirable, which led to her essentially being raped and kidnapped without the Dollhouse’s knowledge (an oversight that Topher and Adelle are both forced to deal with, albeit in their own unique ways), and the result in storyline terms is something that really plays into the show’s central themes.
The journey into Priya’s past was really well handled by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen and director Jonathan Frakes (yes, that’s Riker), both because it showed us some things we had seen before (like Echo walking in on her body being erased as she looks over at her for help) and because it showed us things that the episode was talking about but not depicting. The flashback to Priya in the mental hospital was subtly introduced, Adelle’s long hair being the real distinction between the two time periods at a quick glance, but it really drove home just how bad she was, and how Topher would be able to rationalize what he was doing through something more than “in the name of science.” Lachman was strong with Priya’s more innocent state, and particularly great when Priya returned at the end of the episode, but her ability to play the mentally poisoned Priya really sold those moments. That montage, set to music, which started with the long faded shot of Priya being carried away was stunning, and the entire episode felt lush in a way that this new (but cheaper) visual style promised.
That final scene, though, is where everything really came together. Sure, some of the dialogue was a bit on the nose, but Lachman and Kranz both sold the hell out of the moment where Priya is questioning what in her life is real, and lamenting the fact that the one thing she remembers from the past year (murdering Nolan in self defence) is the one thing she wants to be able to forget should she ever wake up again. That her love for Victor was the one thing which transferred from one mind to the other, there being something physiological which bonds those two together (perhaps stemming from her interactions with him at the part during Act One?), is the kind of note that gives us something approaching hope. Sierra’s life, as opposed to Priya’s, has been rough in the Dollhouse: she was, after all, raped by someone other than Nolan during her employ, and her dark images depict both the reduced capacity of her artistic ability and the darkness that resulted from Nolan’s involvement in her life. However, in the episode’s final moment she is cuddling up to Victor, and is unburdened by her past and whatever the future might bring. It’s temporary, a fact that now even Priya knows as she slumbers in a hard drive, but it is nonetheless perhaps better than the alternative.
But what makes Dollhouse work is that some characters do have to live with what is happening around them, and they all have their own ways of coping. As Topher notes, he can keep a secret about everything that has happened but he isn’t going to be able to forgive himself for it. As noted, we’ve seen where Topher ends up in all of this (unless those memories were corrupted, which seems strange in regards to Topher), so we can imagine how hard it becomes for him when a single death turns into thousands. But we also see, here, the paths that Adelle and Boyd will take as they try to figure out where their loyalties lie. We know that Boyd has always been sympathetic to Echo (who I’ll get to in a second), so for him to throw away the corporate end of the Dollhouse in order to allow Echo an advantage for “the storm” makes perfect sense. However, we know that Adelle is on the opposite path, caught under the thumb of the corporate overlords with no sulfuric acid to burn away her own indiscretions (like her use of Victor for companionship/sex). Adelle is both more conditioned than Topher to deal with her indiscretions but she is also forced to handle not only her own but also those under her – Topher’s mistake is in some ways her own, and she’s left to pick up the pieces for just about everyone here.
What I think made “Belonging” work as something more than just a really compelling character study and a bit of “Epitaph One” connection is the running story of Echo’s self-awareness, something that has been playing out in the background for a few episodes now. I know we critic types like to rag on Dushku when she’s thrust into a lead role (and Lachman joins both Gjokaj and Acker as actors doing more interesting work on the show), but in a supporting role she really nails Echo. This is a character that is actually more interesting working in the shadows than out in the open, as Boyd realizes that her blank slate is turning into a facade. The reveal of Echo’s diary, followed by the reveal of the writing on the underside of Echo’s sleeping chamber, are the kinds of things that make this episode actually feel like something progressive in a serialized sense. It doesn’t tell us a whole lot, but it both stresses Echo’s progress (“I am trained to kill”) and connects thematically to the episode. While so many others wish to forge,t Echo is learning everything she can no matter how much it disturbs her, a reality which drove Priya into a deadly altercation and which is sending Echo directly into the coming storm.
“Belonging” is a streamlined episode, ditching Ballard entirely and only using Echo’s B-Plot (which started the whole Sierra scenario with her handing the art over to Topher) as a distraction. That sort of clarity is what the show did so well at the end of last season, so to see them hit another one out of the park makes me very happy for all involved. This is a version of Dollhouse that feels starkly focused, honed in on the identity the show has strived to project to viewers with less success than we might like. I can’t help but end the review with the frustration that any momentum will be lost by the time we see the next episode (which critics have already seen) in December, but for now I think we can all say that this episode is proof positive of why, creatively, the jury shouldn’t be out so quickly.
- I didn’t really have a place above to mention how great it is to see Keith Carradine, of all people, playing a Rossum executive who oversees this particular Dollhouse, but it was really great to see Wild Bill in such a capacity. The show has never been suffering for good guest stars considering Whedon’s pull, but this one was especially great to see.
- Nice to see that the show isn’t forgetting about Victor, as Enver Gjokaj continues to be enormously compelling in the role. The shower scene with the black paint was the kind of charming moment that drove home the simplicity of the tabula rosa state of the actives, but when it turned into a flashback to his time at war we were reminded yet again what that state is hiding beneath the surface.
- Still some humour in this one: as Echo tells Victor he’s taking things into his own hands, and he responds with “But they’re in my shirt!”
- Olivia Williams didn’t get too many spotlight scenes, but her tearing down of Nolan over tea was absolutely fantastic – I still wish she hadn’t cut her hair, but Adelle remains a highlight of the show for me.
- It may have been a cliche, but both Frakes and the art department get credit for the shot of Priya’s silhouette over the painting (for which the art department gets credit for making just right, especially in connection with Sierra’s bird drawings inside the Dollhouse.
- Stealth edit: figured that it was a Jed/Maurissa original during the great montage of Priya’s Dollhouse-integration, and sure enough it was.