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Dollhouse: Many Unhappy Returns

Poor Topher. He may be the sick genius who has made this whole body-enslaving Dollhouse thingamajig possible, and though he is clearly a wisecracking stand-in for Joss Whedon himself, he’s looking like the fall guy here. In various episodes, women have suggested to his face that he is a bad man: the show's very own Dr. Horrible. The Dollhouse manager, Adele, even tells him that he has less of a moral compass than anyone else on the staff, including her.

But that's all about to change. Because somehow, between now and whenever Fox decides to pull the plug on this doomed series, we need to get from here to the chilling, apocalyptic scenario of the "Epitaph One" episode: A world where nearly everyone is a Doll, and the former employees and inhabitants of the Dollhouse are in open revolt against their wealthy masters. And this week's episode — written by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, who also wrote “Epitaph One” and co-created Dr. Horrible with Joss — moves the plot forward by addressing head-on the awkward and awful core of the show: rape, human trafficking, and the question of complicity.

To get the ball rolling in the right direction, we are treated to two awakenings: Topher's and Sierra's. Topher's blurred, seemingly bloody face is the first thing we see. "I was just trying to help her," he utters, clearly distressed. Via flashbacks (some of which we glimpsed in an episode last season), we get Sierra's backstory. A year ago, she was Priya, an Australian artist selling jewelry on Venice Beach. A rich, creepy-looking doctor named Nolan Kinnard, besotted with Priya, commissions her to do a painting for him; next thing we know, she's having a glamorous gallery opening, surrounded by familiar faces like Victor and Echo. That's right: It's an elaborate pick-up trick designed — with the help of the Dollhouse — to send Priya into Nolan's arms.

"Why don't you just let us build the perfect woman?" asks Nolan's rich, creepy-looking friend (played by Keith Carradine), a Rossum Corporation insider. Nolan insists that he wants the real Priya, not a robot — until the real Priya flatly rejects him in one of those cheesy, clichéd scenes Dollhouse sometimes reverts to, as if they meant to get back to that script page and fill in the flavor, but never had time. What is a psychotic, Nobel prize winning neuroscientist to do when spurned? He messes with Priya's brain chemistry and then has her institutionalized.

So when Priya is brought to the Dollhouse, Topher and Adele think they are helping a paranoid schizophrenic to escape from the prison of her addled mind — by trapping her in the prison of other people's sexual fantasies. Nolan is, of course, her most regular client. As Emily Nussbaum points out in her terrific piece over on Surf, nerds using mind control over girls was a recurring theme on Buffy. But here, the resonance gets darker with every week.

Dichen Lachman as Sierra is great in this episode, just as Enver Gjokaj as Victor was in the previous, and it's a huge relief to see less of the show's weakest links: Paul Ballard is completely absent (where is he, anyway?) and Echo is mostly sidelined. But her fleeting appearances in this episode suggest that a very sharp consciousness is increasingly at work in her slamming body. She notices that Sierra paints disturbing pictures and tries to tip off Topher that something's not right. ("You're not looking hard enough. You never do," she scolds). And she encourages the zomboid Victor to "take matters into [his] own hands," whatever that means. Boyd even discovers that Echo is keeping a diary in order to hold onto memories after her brain has been wiped, and seems determined to help her.

One of the series' big questions has always been, how complicit are the Dollhouse employees? And the answer seems to be: sorta. Adele and Topher are both distressed to find out that their good deed — brain-zapping the mentally-ill Sierra — was actually Nolan's revenge. Like the Actives, they are at the beck and call of the power brokers who run Rossum, and we watch Topher and Adele drawing and redrawing their moral boundaries, trying to spot a way out.

While Adele unravels, Topher (in one of Fran Kranz's most nuanced, uncomfortable performances yet) chooses sides and restores Priya's own brain. Back in her own skin, Priya proceeds to slay Nolan in the bloodiest manner possible — oops! — forcing Topher and Boyd to disappear the body. (We love how Boyd came striding in like one of Tony Soprano's crew, bearing a chainsaw and acid.) It also leads to the episode's best bit of banter: "You had a moral dilemma — your first," Boyd somberly tells Topher, like a father to his slightly irresponsible son. "It didn't go well."

Sierra, aroused from her enforced slumber, now voluntarily returns to her childlike Doll state, even asking Topher to delete this ugly chapter from her memory banks. She would rather rent out her body than live with her emotions. Which means that Topher and Boyd alone are trapped with the knowledge of what they've done — presumably the start of Topher's undoing.

Dollhouse has been bumped from Fox's November sweeps schedule, but coming attractions for December 4 suggest that a wacko Summer Glau character is stepping into the fold, and that the nosy senator's wife we called out last time is, in fact, some kind of Doll-bot. But will we find out more about the "all-access pass" Boyd slipped Echo? (Hopefully the key to saving the future doesn't involve a U2 concert.) Will anyone else notice that Echo is a little bit more alert than she should be? And what will Victor do when he finds out that Adele used him as her personal sex toy?

Related: The Fascinating No-Consent Fantasia of Dollhouse and Mad Men [Surf]

Photo: Adam Taylor/Fox