With its fast-paced, Tim Minear-scripted third episode of the fall, Dollhouse finally gets its groove back. “Belle Chose” is by no means a perfect hour of television, but it looks something like the show that Whedon and company obviously want to produce: an arresting, unsettling, and mind-bending thriller. Minear plays a surprising number of network TV power chords—a serial killer is on the loose, y’all—but he deploys them masterfully, first throwing us a plank of comfortable, stock plot to latch onto, and then yanking it out from underneath us.
Well, “comfortable” probably isn’t the right word, but we start out squarely in CSI territory. The serial-killer-on-the-loose is an emotionally-stunted, trust-funded fellow named Terry who abducts women, drugs them, and “casts” them as his female relatives in living-wax-model reenactments of his childhood. These reenactments tend not to end well for the “actresses.” After a tense escape attempt by one of his victims, Terry walks into the wrong side of a car and falls into a coma. His uncle, a Rossum shareholder named Colonel Tigh, carries Terry to the Dollhouse, where he hopes to take advantage of Rossum’s blue LEDs and other futuristic medicine. After a quick mindscan, however, Topher notices that the empathy centers of Terry’s brain are dead, and suspects that his patient is a serial killer.
The parallel between Terry and the Dollhouse is maybe a bit on the nose, but honestly, it’s nice to see the show acknowledge that its titular institution occupies the same moral strata as a serial killer. I’m all for the shades of gray, and I don’t want the writers to constantly tut-tut their own invention, but the past couple of episodes have felt contrived and even a little crass in their efforts to complicate the moral universe. “Belle Chose” never devolves into a black hat/white hat affair, but it’s refreshingly willing to call serial murder and forced prostitution by their actual names. When Topher refuses to revive Terry on moral grounds—he just can’t abide a serial killer—it’s hard not to note that Topher kills someone every single time he “wipes” an Active.
Colonel Tigh reluctantly admits that his nephew has had some youthful indiscretions; he’s not wildly fond of the boy, but he wants to find out if Terry’s victims are still living so that he can pay them off and spare the family name. (Ah, yes, of course.) Adelle decides to upload Terry into Victor for interrogation by Ballard, which doesn’t necessarily make sense, but we roll with it because Enver Gjokaj is incredible and Tahmoh Penikett gives one of his best performances to date. Colonel Tigh is actually a little weak here, perhaps because he’s so superfluous, but the regular cast all crank their games up to near-Amy Acker heights, and make a silly premise work with some damned fine acting.
You know what else improves the episode? Echo is the B-plot. An English professor wants to sleep with a student without actually breaking the rules, so Topher imprints Echo as a totally unpersuasive undergrad party girl named Kiki. The prof takes Kiki to his office and lectures her about the Wife of Bath, who he says represents a proto-feminist model of feminine sexual assertiveness. He wonders if maybe Kiki would like to represent that model too. There’s a lot of thematic meat to pick at here, and you could almost interpret the prof’s desire for a kickass, assertive sex slave as a dig at Dollhouse itself (or at least an attempt to engage with criticisms of the show). Kiki is regrettably two-dimensional, but that seems to play into the prof’s fantasy, and since Echo’s not the focus of the episode (!!!), cardboard Kiki’s not a deal-breaker.
Because the L.A. Dollhouse has the worst security on the planet, Victor-as-Terry escapes and goes looking for trouble. The situation is sufficiently dire that Adelle orders Topher to develop a remote-wipe mechanism, which is a cool call-forward to “Epitaph One.” Also cool: Topher fails. Instead of remote-wiping Victor, the technofix scrambles all the Active’s imprints, putting Kiki in Victor’s head and Terry in Echo’s. Victor-Kiki proceeds to poledance in a nightclub*, while Echo-Terry stabs the prof and makes for his secret lair, where his most recent victims wait drugged and caged. Echo is able to resist the Terry imprint long enough for the Dollhouse crew to find her and the victims, but it’s clear that the serial killer will be a part of her forever—a pretty interesting twist, for my money.
If you missed it, you can watch “Belle Chose” on Hulu for the next few weeks. There’s no Dollhouse on October 16th, but the show returns on the 23rd. Let us know what you think in the comments.
Episode Grade: 7 out of 10
* For reasons totally beyond my comprehension, Minear plays Victor-Kiki for a cheap laugh, and it’s the episode’s only real instance of weapons-grade dumb. Kiki doesn’t even notice that she’s in a male body—she just starts dancing! Everyone in the club is taken aback, and a bunch of fratboys are about to gay-bash Victor when Ballard steps in, resulting in another cheap joke about Victor and Ballard being together. This is a jarringly stupid scene in pretty much every way possible.