Welcome, “Dollhouse” fans, to official Freak Out About “Dollhouse” week, the week when we realize that we’re fans of one of the two or three lowest-rated shows on all of network television and harden ourselves against cancellation accordingly. “Well, it’s all right,” we’ll sniff. “‘Instinct’ was OK, but it wasn’t that great, really. I mean, we got ‘Epitaph One,’ right? We can write fan fiction about that for years to come.” Sure, you can Twitter about watching the show on Hulu or you can send your Eliza Dushkus out onto Letterman, but what can you do to get America to watch a dark science fiction serialized procedural that’s ultimately about female empowerment and the indestructibility of the identity? Not a whole lot, especially opposite “Medium.”

But then, dammit, “Belle Chose” comes along and ruins the whole “I don’t care!” THING you have going on, and that makes it that much harder to realize that unless the ratings tick upward, there’s no way this show will be on in two weeks, regardless of what Fox’s promo voice says. In some ways, “Belle Chose” feels like what the show should have been from the start. There’s basically no advancement in the series’ overall arc in the episode, but the standalone story is one of the strongest the series has come up with, both deepening the series’ major themes and offering up a number of compelling character moments and plot twists. In short, this is probably the best pure standalone “Dollhouse” has done yet, and while that shouldn’t sound as impressive as it does, it’s taken this show quite a while to figure out how to tell the kinds of stories it likes to tell in a format where the story is over by the end of the episode. If “Dollhouse” had premiered with episodes this strong, we might not be in this predicament.

I don’t want to oversell “Belle Chose,” which isn’t a new classic of the televisual medium or anything, but thanks to a strong script by Tim Minear and solid work for every member of the cast, it gives a glimpse of how “Dollhouse” could have been a show that was just as entertaining when it wasn’t advancing its story arc as when it was. This is still going to be a series that’s usually more interesting when it’s carrying us closer and closer to the end of the world glimpsed in “Epitaph One,” but it’s also going to be a series that needs to have some degree of standalone storytelling to stay comprehensible to any of the casual fans it might still have rattling around. “Belle Chose” manages to feel like the sort of thing you could imagine someone who’s never seen the show before stumbling on and mostly following and enjoying. That’s harder to do than it sounds on a hardcore sci-fi series like this one.

“Belle Chose” gets an added goose from keying in on creator Joss Whedon’s favorite subject matter in the entire universe – the way that men use their traditional power to keep women in positions of subservience yet simultaneously women have more power than they give themselves credit for. One of the things standing in the way of “Dollhouse” ever achieving massive mainstream success is probably the fact that what the Dollhouse at the series’ center offers to its clients is … pretty creepy. It’s basically prostitution, and that’s something that those who’ve been less charitable toward the series have wished the series would play up more as it went along. “Dollhouse,” for its part, has been mostly content to let this play on in the background, assuming that the viewers will get how unsettling all of this is, but tonight, it makes the ick factor all but text, cross-cutting freely between a serial killer in the making who drugs women and dresses them up like mannequins to play “roles” in his weird little family-based fantasies and Echo’s engagement for the week, wherein she fulfills a creepy professor’s dream of using his knowledge in Chaucer to bed a stupid young student named Kiki. It’s all subjugation, the show argues, even if you don’t end up killing the girl with a croquet mallet. (“Now watch this drive,” says serial killer Terry, a line that really made me laugh.)

Of course, this being “Dollhouse,”  Terry’s going to end up in one of our regulars, and this all ends up as a chance for Enver Gjokaj, maybe the series’ most versatile actor, to show off his stuff, as the Dollhouse uses the active technology to imprint the brain-dead Terry’s personality into Victor. (Terry, y’see, was hit by a car, and his uncle – the great Michael Hogan – warned the Dollhouse that time to find the women in his den of mannequinosity was running out.) In the previews for the episode, the thought that the Dollhouse would ever imprint one of their dolls with a serial killer’s personality seemed pretty stupid, but the show came up with a really good ticking clock reason for it to happen and then had fun with the implications of Terry winding up in Victor, even though his actual body was passed out in the other room. Naturally, this being television, Terry-in-Victor escaped with the help of his uncle and then went out to find a new potential mannequin to join his house of horrors.

Meanwhile, Echo continued walking through the squicky date with the medieval literature professor (played by Ayre Gross) that played out exactly like every other “professor sleeps with the student” plot in history except for that one, crucial twist: The professor had paid for this to happen. He secretly wanted the girls in his class to throw themselves at him to get an A, but it just wasn’t working. So he had to create a girl to play out a fantasy he’d probably garnered from movie and TV fantasies of what being a professor is like. The real girls in his class? They obviously had no time for him from the brief glimpses we got of them throughout the episode.

Then, of course, the episode unveiled a hell of a twist. Topher, having lost track of where Terry-in-Victor had gone, decided to perform a remote wipe to reduce him back to a harmless active before any other women were hurt. (The irony of the Dollhouse working overtime to protect innocent women is not lost on the show.) The remote wipe, of course, is the main component of the technology that brings down society in “Epitaph One,” so to see it appear here was the series’ primary nod toward its overarching story (though it wouldn’t matter if you’d seen “Epitaph One” – the moment was still fraught with tension). After Topher pulls off the maneuver, though, the episode cuts to Victor wandering, dazed, through the dance club Terry had been plotting his next abduction in, then to Echo, now dancing with the smutty professor and then stabbing him in the neck with a knife. Topher’s remote wipe somehow put Terry in Echo and Kiki in Victor. It’s a terrific twist, made even better by the fact that Dushku manages to sell the sudden shift in personality. (“I am a remarkable woman. Goodness gracious.”)

From there, it’s pretty much one long coast to the end, but the twist is awesome enough that it doesn’t really matter. Echo leads the team to Terry’s hideout inadvertently and gets beaten up by the women he’s holding there (who are just as confused by the fact that their tormentor has turned up as an attractive woman dressed like a kinda slutty college student as you’d expect them to be). In the process, she flits between personalities because that’s what she does now, apparently. At the same time, Victor hits on some guys and gets hit in the face, and it all wraps up with both Actives going back to the Dollhouse and the women being rescued. Yet, at the same time, the series continues to insist that things at the Dollhouse just aren’t right.

Again, “Belle Chose” doesn’t have the added kick that big, arc-heavy episodes like “A Spy in the House of Love” or “Epitaph One” or even “Vows”  had, but it gives a better idea of how the show could have been doing stories that were fun, twisty standalone stories while still deepening the show’s major concerns from the start. Nearly every regular got something interesting to do (save Sierra, who was off doing other things apparently), the story zigged and zagged in interesting ways, and the direction made good use of Los Angeles locations to heighten the drama. This is an episode that’s firing on mostly all cylinders, and it’s a shame that it may be the last episode ever broadcast.

Some other thoughts:

Check out this neat-o piece by the Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan on why the show deserves to survive and its future.

I’m generally skeptical of the idea that shows can be saved with more/better promotion. While it sounds like a good idea, networks have a finite amount of time to use to promote shows and plenty of shows that need the promotion. On the other hand, this feels like the kind of episode that, had Fox sunk a bunch of promotional dollars into it, might have done pretty well.

Telling thematic line from one of the women in Terry’s den: “We’re not his toys.” Yet, the show argues, eventually everyone will just be a toy.

Line of the night goes to Kiki-in-Echo, of all people: "I'm like the scarlet lady with the F on her chest."

This week’s discussion point: How sad will you be if this show never shows up on network television again? I still won’t be crushed, but I will be pretty sad.