(See the video version here)
The fifth Dollhouse episode “True Believer” starts with the shiny happy people of a local cult, Children of the Temple, buying stuff from a hardware store. The sheriff expresses disdain for the cult while the store owner thinks they’re just happy and people should show tolerance. Then the sheriff finds a note with “save me” written on the back of a paper dropped by one of the cult members.
We cut to the Dollhouse with its shiny happy Dolls, overlaid with a man talking about how the cult members aren’t really happy, that the cult takes away their wills and that people can only be happy if they have self-awareness. This is very overtly comparing the Dollhouse to a dangerous cult. It’s almost as if the show creators were aware that the Dollhouse is evil and intended to convey that through the show. It’s then revealed that this man is a client hiring the Dollhouse for an undercover mission into the cult, that the man has used the Dollhouse’s services before, that he’s helped the Dollhouse avoid federal investigation, and that he’s a senator. The way that Adelle delivers the line that he’s a senator is set up to be creepy in the way that Wolfram and Hart’s sinister activities were casually referenced on Angel. Folks, the Dollhouse is supposed to be evil.
Anyway, Topher and Dr. Saunders set up Echo to be their spy. She’s made to be blind in that she can’t use her eyes. What she sees is instead transmitted to the ATF, so that they can see what’s going on in front of her. Echo is imprinted with Ester, a blind woman who has complete faith in the cult leader Jonas Sparrow, thanks to a hallucination Topher gave her of God telling her to join this guy’s cult. As Boyd briefs the feds, an agent asks if Echo is so good because she escaped from a cult, and Boyd replies that she “hasn’t escaped from anything”. The implication is that Echo is a prisoner and that this is a bad thing.
So, Ester gets into the cult compound. She correctly identifies Jonas Sparrow’s face thanks to Topher’s hallucination and claims God sent her there. The underlings buy it, but Jonas knows he’s a fraud, so he suspects her. He tries to scare her into revealing herself, referencing the Fall of Man.
This Fall of Man story is misogyny at the root of Judeo-Christian mythology. Joss has previously criticized it in the Angel episode “Billy” and with the Caleb character in Buffy. This Garden of Eden theme comes up later in this episode, and it will be referenced in the later episode “Briar Rose”. Anyway, Ester has complete faith in him, so he lets her stay.
The feds get a shot of Jonas’ arsenal and they mobilize while Jonas formally inducts Ester. When they show themselves, Jonas takes it out on Ester by hitting her. A miracle happens and Ester’s sight is restored while the feds can’t see through her eyes. This is the familiar moment where the tide starts to turn in Echo’s favor, allowing her to gain control and subvert the patriarchy. Joss has said he wasn’t writing a feminist screed, but when I first saw this I really thought he was.
Jonas starts to believe Ester is a sign from God. He has his people pray in a church while he burns them alive. Ester is made to read a passage about God miraculously keeping people from burning. As she reads, she becomes alarmed. She insists to Jonas that he can’t force a miracle, but he smacks her down. And she smacks him down.
One guy refuses to leave and spits on her. She punches him in the face. Dominic shows up, kills Jonas and knocks out Ester with the intent to kill her. Fortunately, Boyd is there to save the day, despite some corrupt ATF guy trying to kill him.
Echo is wiped. Dr. Saunders asks her how her vision’s doing. Echo scans the Dollhouse. She looks specifically at Dominic.
Echo: “I see perfectly.”
We don’t know quite what she knows at this point, but it can be assumed that she is more than aware of her imprisonment. She’s becoming more powerful. That she will rebel is a certainty.
There’s also a subplot at the Dollhouse where Victor starts experiencing sexual arousal when interacting with Sierra. Only, Actives aren’t supposed to be sexual in their tabula rasa state. This is a sign that Victor is evolving just as Echo is. I’m reminded of the movie Pleasantville, where sexuality is the first step on the road to spiritual maturity and becoming a well-rounded person. Adelle has him wiped to keep her garden from becoming corrupted, which is another clear comparison between the Dollhouse and a dangerous cult. Adelle’s referencing the Fall of Man also makes her the member of a club of which Caleb and the misogynistic Wesley are members. The Dollhouse is supposed to be evil.