First, a programming note: Fox is pulling “Dollhouse” for the month of November. If you are reading this recap, you surely already know this and have written an irate blog post or something about it, but when the show returns, it will be for three two-hour “events,” and then the remaining three hours will be burned off at some point in time. Hence, when the show returns, these recaps will bloat to 7,000 word recaps of both episodes, probably involving elaborate citations of the works of Immanuel Kant. Maybe the ratings will perk up and we’ll all get to follow this show for years to come. Maybe the ratings will slowly crawl and some other network (or DirecTV) will figure, “What the hell?” and pick it up for another 13-episode season. Most likely, though, none of this will happen. But God willing and the Hitfix.com don’t crash, I’ll be here, covering this until the bitter end.

It’s too bad that Fox all but signed the death warrant for “Dollhouse” this week, too, because this was easily the show’s best episode since “Epitaph One” (or “A Spy in the House of Love,” if you pretend “Epitaph” doesn’t exist for some reason). The momentum the series has been building since “Man on the Street,” outside of one or two clumsy episodes, finally feels like it’s coalescing into something, living up to the potential the story has always had to be about the fluid nature of identity and the ways corporations oppress us all. One of the episode’s earliest shots encapsulates neatly everything that makes this show worth paying attention to, as the spurned playboy Nolan is told by his desired one, Priya, that she would never love him, and then the set dissolves around him, resolving into a new one, one year later, as Priya – now Sierra – rushes into his arms and kisses him, programmed to desire him and only him. Just as Sept. 11 spurred a bunch of shows about what Americans were willing to put up with in the name of personal safety, “Dollhouse” feels like one of the first great shows of the economic meltdown, one of the first shows to question the line between what can be bought and what is morally defensible.

But enough political posturing. What about the episode? As mentioned, it was the best so far this season, and it ended up being a tremendous showcase for the previously unknown Dichen Lachman, a part of the genuinely impressive ensemble the series has built around its inconsistent lead. Lachman and Enver Gjokaj have both been given episodes where they show off their respective talents, and they seem to be doing much better at playing inherently personality-less individuals than Eliza Dushku is. (Dushku may have the problem of coming with pre-formed expectations from her previous work, and, it must be said, has gotten quite a bit better this season.) Gjokaj has proved to be the series’ best pure chameleon, but Lachman ends up having all of the traits one would want out of the leading lady on a series like this. She’s pretty good at playing different variations on the same character, all the while keeping an undercurrent of who Sierra is, thus giving the audience something to latch on to. Creator Joss Whedon’s always been good at finding actors to fill out his ensemble casts, and I’ll be very surprised if Lachman isn’t the fan favorite character on some CBS procedural where she solves crimes by investigating stray nose hairs or something after this is canceled.

The origin stories of the individual dolls are one of those wells the show can only go to so many times. We’ve already gotten the stories of how Echo and November came to be in the first season, and the series only has Gjokaj’s Victor left to elucidate after tonight’s episode (though his reason for entering the Dollhouse seems to have something to do with serving in the military after hints in this one and that season one episode where everybody went to college). Since the question of how these things came to be is one of those questions that is inherently interesting in such a premise-heavy show as this one, the series has to make these backstories count. Thankfully, in “Belonging,” it did just that with the story of Sierra. We knew part of this from season one’s “Needs,” but Whedon and company figured out a way to fill out that sketch into an even darker story (if that was at all possible), one where a young, vibrant artist was turned into a shell of herself by a rich, powerful man who just had to have her.

One of Whedon’s major themes has always been that it doesn’t matter if your aims are ultimately altruistic. Giving yourself ultimate power over people will inevitably corrupt your soul in some way. Nolan is a good guy in the public eye, working to help children, for the most part, but the level of largesse he’s risen to guarantees that when he can’t get something he wants, he’ll figure out a way to take it on a Whedon show. So when Priya spurns him, he’s going to talk to his friends over at Rossum (represented here by Keith Carradine, in his first appearance of what’s said to be a recurring role) and get exactly what he wants. Which he accomplishes by drugging Priya so she seems like she’s a paranoid schizophrenic and eventually getting her to be assigned to the Dollhouse as the new Sierra, a turn that has a dark inevitability to it.

There’s stuff here that doesn’t work as well as it might. The fact that Sierra’s still going to be a doll when Topher could obviously reinstate her to her happy, bubbly Priya state feels like a cheat specifically designed to keep Lachman on the show. (Perhaps having Carradine make the threat of what would happen if Sierra “escaped” more explicit would have solved this little loophole.) And the fact that Topher sent the original Priya into Nolan’s house for that last engagement couldn’t have been more blatantly telegraphed. (Topher fondling the data cartridge with her original personality on it? C’mon.) But Whedon’s series are almost always at their best when they’re reaching for the feel of a grand Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, and “Belonging” had both in spades.

To wit, Sierra is now all but trapped in what feels like a Greek tragedy. Strive though she might to break out of the box she’s been placed in, the very forces of the universe conspire to keep her in that box. It’s unlikely she’ll see the daylight any time soon (and if “Epitaph” is any indication, she won’t until the world itself is crashing down around her). Meanwhile, the episode’s other focus character, Topher Brink, is trapped in a Shakespearean situation, slowly realizing that no matter how smart he is, he’s not good enough to outrun the fact that some things are right and some things are wrong and intelligence is not a natural prerequisite for moral understanding. Topher was one of the biggest things critics of the show complained about in the series’ first season, but the show has done a much better job of making sure that we know that he and the other people at the Dollhouse are becoming aware that what they do is unambiguously evil, even if they lie and tell themselves it’s not. The final passages of this episode, with Topher having to dispose of a body and having to return Sierra to a state of slavery, were full of Whedon’s sense of the mundane tragedy of realizing your life is not what you thought it was, even if some of the story turns didn’t make a lot of sense.

But another thing that Whedon’s good at is making sure we always know there are lights in the darkness. This is no unrelentingly grim series, even though it could be. Sierra, for all that she’s lost, has gained a rather pure and focused love with Victor (“I love him so much more than I hate you,” she tells Nolan before they fight). Echo, for as lost as she seems, is gradually pulling together a conspiracy to bring down the Dollhouse. And even the compromised and cornered Adelle will stop at nothing to preserve something essentially human about her dolls. “Dollhouse” is a dark series about people who are either tortured or doing the torturing, but it’s always ready to say that the fact these people are people is more important than anything they might do.

 

Other thoughts:

*** I’ve generally thought Whedon’s had bad luck with his score personnel since Cristophe Beck left “Buffy,” but tonight’s episode had some nicely understated music to score those final passages.

*** That shot of the Polaroids of Sierra dissolving in the acid was quite cool.

*** Line of the night goes to Adelle. It’s not particularly funny, but … well … I kind of had to. You’ll see. “I would no sooner allow you near one of our other actives as I would a mad dog near a child… given that you’re a raping scumbag one tick shy of a murderer.”

 

Discussion point for the week: How many other series can you think of that have used the “evil patron wants only to sleep with aspiring artist” plotline? Or, if you want to talk mythology, do you think Carradine is the guy Adelle meets with when he’s in Victor in “Epitaph One”?