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Best episode of Dollhouse ever. Major, serious kudos to Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon for tapping into the true potential of this series as they delivered a compelling back-story for Sierra, an active who’s far more interesting both wiped and un-wiped than Echo is.
I can’t decide who got the better story tonight, Topher or Sierra. While we got to see what put Sierra in the Dollhouse, through a series of flashbacks, we also got to see Topher struggle for the first time with what it is he does for a living. For once, he managed to see the people he’s wiping and imprinting as actual people, as opposed to toys for him to play with. We’ll get to Topher in a little bit.
Sierra’s had it rough. Not only was she raped in her wiped-state by her handler last season, but her enrollment at the Dollhouse wasn’t voluntary, which puts her in the minority at the place, as every other active that we know of had their own reasons for joining up with the establishment.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Priya (Sierra’s real name) was a struggling artist from Australia who became the obsession of a wealthy man named Nolan Kennard. While Nolan wasn’t interested in having a doll to fulfill all of his naughty desires, he wasn’t above using the Dollhouse to help him woo Priya, giving her the opportunity to show off her art. Victor and Echo were among the actives sent to help give Priya the nudges she needed to see Nolan as more than just an art enthusiast. But even after a successful art show, Priya had no interest in dating Nolan, who turned out to be an aggressive d-bag when she rejected his more forward advances.
Nolan had Priya drugged and institutionalized as a paranoid schizophrenic, which apparently made her a prime candidate for the Dollhouse. Once activated, Nolan was able to rent her whenever he wanted. He had a drawer full of Polaroids of her in her various get-ups, which emphasized just how much he was getting out of his investment.
In the present, when wiped-Sierra isn’t flirting with Victor, she’s painting a bird and a big back blotchy thing, which represents the man she can’t see in her head but knows is bad. Echo brought the painting to Topher, believing he could help figure out what the painting is. When Topher dug through Saunders’ notes, he learned that the now absent doctor believed he was the bad guy. No surprise there as we all know Saunders doesn’t think much of Topher. Topher did a bit of digging and figured out that Nolan was the one who had Priya institutionalized. He told this to Boyd and speculated over whether or not Adelle knew about it when they brought Priya in.
Adelle’s proven to be a bit hard to follow when it comes to her moral code as it pertains to the Dollhouse. While she seems to appreciate the business they’re running, we learned tonight that she draws the line on enslavement. Learning that Priya wasn’t there on her own terms, she brought Nolan in to tell him that they wouldn’t be doing business with him anymore. Nolan had other ideas though, in particular, having the dollhouse imprint Sierra to be his permanent love-slave and then hand her over to him for good. Adelle had no intention of doing this until one of Rossum’s people, Matthew Harding (Keith Carradine) showed up to talk to her about the situation. As Nolan’s an asset to the corporation, they can’t just kick the man to the curb. When Adelle tried to argue, Harding threw the “Miss Lonelyheart” thing in her face, letting her know that they know she’s been “taking her work home from the office” with her visits from Victor. After that, an embarrassed Adelle went ahead and told Topher to imprint Sierra.
That brings us to Topher’s story. Adelle laid it all out for us when she spoke to Topher about how everyone that works at the Dollhouse has compromised morals. All except for Topher, who has no morals. He looks at people as play things. They’re science-experiments and he seems to have no shortage of ideas for what to do with them. We’ve seen plenty of evidence of that as Topher has tinkered inside the heads of the actives in every episode, getting more and more ambitious with each new challenge. But tonight, we saw that behind that enthusiasm to push the boundaries of what can be done to the human brain, he does see the human in people. Maybe Topher sees more of that than most people, given how much he knows of how the brain works and the things he’s seen on the job.
Rather than imprinting Sierra to love Nolan, he gave her back Priya’s origin-file. Priya’s last memory was being locked up and crazy. She also remembered the anger she felt for Nolan. This was bad news for Nolan when she returned to him, as he was expecting an endless supply of sex from his very own doll. Instead, he got a justifiably angry and confused woman who had some things she needed to sort out with him.
During the confrontation between Priya and Nolan, she made mention of how much she despised him and also the fact that she’s in love with another man. She has no actual memory of Victor. His face isn’t in her mind but she knows there’s a man she loves out there and talking of this doesn’t go over well with Nolan. The two end up getting into a physical fight that, given Nolan’s already short temper and Priya’s anger at what’s been done to her, quickly turns ugly. It ends with Priya stabbing Nolan repeatedly in the chest, killing him.
Topher went after Priya, maybe to help her not kill Nolan or to escape with her, knowing that once Rossum knows what he did, he’s in big trouble. Early retirement didn’t sound all that appealing when Harding mentioned it to Adelle. When Topher found Priya at Nolan’s, she was hiding and crying. Boyd showed up not long after and went about getting Nolan’s body disposed of and making Nolan disappear.
After returning to the Dollhouse, Priya and Topher discussed what happened to her and again, we got to see what looked almost like regret, or at the very least, discomfort from Topher over his job responsibilities. He also knows that he’s a part of what Priya did and while he agreed to wipe that memory from her permanently, he’ll have to hang on to that secret.
So now Sierra’s a doll by her own choice. Or at the very least, killing Nolan has given her a reason to want to be an active. That and the man she loves, who sat down near a plant for hours and waited for her to finish her treatment, is still waiting for her. After Topher wiped her, Sierra woke up looking refreshed and peaceful. She returned to find Victor, who smiled as he stood up and took her hand. The episode ended with the two of them spooning in one of the sleep-boxes.
And on the Echo-front, Ballard wasn’t in the episode and Echo was barely around. We did learn that in addition to looking out for Sierra, she’s also been keeping a log of what she remembers of her missions. She carves them on the inside of the cover to her sleep-box. Boyd is on to her and will likely continue to keep an eye on Echo to see if she continues to exhibit strange behavior.
Again, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon did a fantastic job with this episode. In one hour (including commercials), they managed to give us Sierra’s history, a demonstration of Topher’s moral limits and a firmed-up view on where Adelle stands with regards to the establishment. And there were some other things thrown in, like the Echo stuff and a glimpse into Victor’s past, which came in the form of a war-flashback induced by an innocent game of face-painting in the shower with Sierra.
What’s next for the Dollhouse? An appearance by a psycho-looking Summer Glau, based on the previews, but we’ll have to wait until December for that.