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Dollhouse: Echo Chamber

Still trying to convince yourself that Dollhouse is the smartest, headiest televisual meditation on human identity, power, technology, and gender since Battlestar Galactica went off the air? So is Joss Whedon, judging from this show-offy installment in which dueling storylines echo and collide and Chaucer gets his first co-starring role on Fox prime time.

The episode (written by long-time Whedon associate Tim Minear) opens with a pervy-looking guy adjusting clothes on mannequins. As it turns out, those mannequins are actually real women who, like the inhabitants of the Dollhouse, have no control over their bodies. But unlike Echo and friends, these dolls are not being cared for in a spa-like environment by kindly handlers; they have been kidnapped and paralyzed by a serial killer named Terry. (He's using them to stand in for the female members of his family.) After a silly plot twist involving a car accident, Terry arrives at the Dollhouse in a coma. His uncle Brad (played by Michael Hogan, a.k.a. BSG's Colonel Saul Tighe) is a wealthy Rossum Corporation board member who asks Adele to revive Terry so he can tell them the whereabouts of any surviving victims. Sadly, Hogan's appearance is nothing more than a throw-away cameo. Couldn't the writers at least come up with a joke involving an eye patch?

Maybe they thought the main storyline was funny enough. It revolves around a "brain dump": Rather than wake up the serial killer, Topher transfers his twisted mind into Victor's body in order to access Terry's thoughts while maintaining control over him. But as usual, Topher's plans go awry (that wacky genius!) and Terry/Victor ends up on the loose in Hollywood. This is great for the fabulous Enver Gjokaj, who finally gets a chance to break out of Victor's hunky zombie rut and shine as a Silence of the Lambs–style psycho, prissily complaining that the women he abducts always try to spoil his fun.

And what is Echo doing during all of these Terry/Victor scenes? She is slipping into her Body of the Week: an oversexed, air-headed coed named Kiki who has been hired to seduce a college professor whose idea of foreplay is lecturing on the nature of medieval identity. It does provide an opening for a tasty bit of dialogue (in an episode otherwise pretty bereft of witty banter), in which Kiki complains about the F the teacher has given her: "I figured it was mid-evil lit, not advanced evil. How hard could it be?"

The professor gives Kiki a one-on-one tutorial about the Wife of Bath from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the ancient story of a sexually dominant, self-possessed character who, as the professor describes her, "doesn't allow men to define her." Yes, the irony is deafening: This creepy middle-aged dude is using a meat puppet to fulfill his sexual fantasy, while supposedly teaching her about sexual power via the tale of a heroine who wore out numerous husbands with her voracious desires (all in a series written by middle-aged men who hire nubile young actresses to ... ). The professor is excited by the idea of a sexually overpowering woman using him, but yes, in reality, he holds all the power.

And then there's psycho-killer Terry, so frustrated by his lack of sway over the women in his life that he creates living Barbie dolls to rewrite the power dynamic. The Victor/Terry arc dovetails dramatically with the Echo/Kiki storyline, when Topher realizes that the only way to shut down the serial killer on the prowl is to do a "remote brain wipe." But the attempt to blow Victor's mind somehow turns into Freaky Friday, with Echo now inhabited by Terry, and Victor transformed into the hilariously frisky Kiki. Gjokaj makes a much more convincing Kiki than Dushku. It's delightful to watch him gyrating in a Hollywood club, using Chaucer as a pick-up line: "I laugh when I think how piteously a-night I made them swynke ... how about buying a girl a drink before you swynke?"

No time for swynking now, though! Terry is still on the loose — now in Echo's body — and on his way to finish off his victims, who are still trapped in a warehouse. "We have names. We're human. Not his toys," they explain with embarrassing obviousness, just in case some Kiki-esque idiot has not yet understood the parallels between their situation and the Actives.

Eventually everyone is brought in safely, though it's ever-clearer that Echo has the suckiest job in the world, hosting all of these crazy characters in the living room of her head. We now know definitively that these imprints are leaving trace fragments behind, so it makes us wonder how much control Echo has over her thoughts, and whether Terry is in there somewhere doing yoga with Kiki while Caroline plots an overthrow.

This is a clever (if sometimes clunky) standalone episode. But with the threat of cancellation hanging over the series, it left us itching for more big-picture stuff to push the plot forward. And it dropped in its wake some new questions, like:

If the Dollhouse is such an elite, shadowy organization, how can a college professor afford to rent an Active?

Also, are we supposed to identify with the increasingly icky Paul Ballard, or has he lost his moral compass and permanently wandered into the gray area?

And finally, where the hell are "Dr. Saunders" and Senator Perrin? Eliza Dushku can't do it without you. Really, she can't. Come back Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, while there's still time!

Photo: Courtesy of Fox