That said, last night’s episode, “Belonging”, is probably the closest one of the aired episodes came to capturing the tone of “Epitaph One”, while also laying the groundwork for the character developments that we saw completed in the bleak Dollhouse future.
To understand why I liked last night’s episode so much (other than the performance of the amazingly talented Dichen Lachman and her super-hot Australian accent), you have to go back to season 1. One of the things that made “Dollhouse” so hard to like in the first season was that many of the characters in power in the Dollhouse were just reprehensibly evil. From Topher to Mr. Dominic to DeWitt to the mysterious Rossum Corporation, everyone just seemed to be completely amoral. Then “Epitaph One” came along and gave many of these characters a conscience. In “Belonging”, we started to see the seeds of how these characters (well, except for the long-departed Mr. Dominic, obviously) go from evil to remorseful.
The turning point for Topher was pretty obvious, and handled very well by this episode’s writers. DeWitt tasks him with an assignment which amounts to resigning Sierra to a life of sexual slavery to a depraved doctor (who was responsible for putting Sierra in the Dollhouse in the first place). Topher asks how he’s supposed to do this. DeWitt responds thusly:
“You’ll do it because you must. The cold reality is that everyone here was chosen because their morals have been compromised in some way. Everyone except you. You, Topher, were chosen because you had no morals. You have always thought of people as playthings. This is not a judgment. You always take very good care of your toys. But you’re simply going to have to let this one go.”
You can actually see the entire character of Topher change in Fran Kranz’s facial reaction to this speech. DeWitt herself has her own moment of disgust earlier in the episode, when she’s ordered by a Rossum superior to make the Sierra deal happen, but it’s this exchange that makes the episode. Topher looked like he wanted to breakdown and cry when he realized just how horrible a person he’d been -- and in fact, after Sierra’s un-wiped personality murders the doctor, Topher does suffer a mini-breakdown.
I really hope “Dollhouse” can build on this creative character building. Unfortunately the show is now on a five-week hiatus, then goes into rapid episode burnoff mode in December, which doesn’t bode well for its longterm health. Still, maybe an episode like “Belonging” can build some solid buzz, and a bigger audience, for a great show that not enough people are watching.