(Written for the video version)
The eighth Dollhouse episode “Needs” starts with the Dollhouse staff meeting to discuss their trouble maintaining control of their Actives. Since Echo, Sierra, Victor, and November were exposed to the drug in the last episode, they have been experiencing repeated glitches where they have flashbacks from memories that should have been wiped. Topher thinks he can upgrade the mind-wiping technology to reduce the glitching, but the others are doubtful. Adelle and Dominic tell the handlers to report any behavior that suggests the Actives are becoming more advanced so they can send them to the Attic before there’s another Alpha incident, which Boyd and Dr. Saunders think crosses the line. Dominic urges the staff to think of the Actives as pets. The Dollhouse is an evil institution overall, and this look into the staff meeting shows the complexity of this, where some staff members are more moral than others.
Sometime later, Echo et al. continue to glitch as they enter their pods and go to sleep. And then they wake up as their original personalities—Echo as Caroline, Sierra as Priya, Victor as Tony, and November as Madeline—but without their episodic memories. There’s also this guy whose code name is Mike. Mike is a redshirt, so it’s not important to know about him. The bunch tries to figure out what’s going on, some guessing they were kidnapped by the government or aliens. Tony recognizes Priya but can’t remember anything about her, while Madeline has the feeling that she needs to find something.
They try to play along with the inane tasks the Dollhouse expects of them while lying low. A staff member notices Caroline has a cut on her hand, which was from her forcing her pod open. He makes her see Dr. Saunders. Caroline sees the scars on her face and immediately assumes that Clare is a prisoner as well and that the Dollhouse tortured her, which isn’t an unreasonable conclusion. Clare tells Caroline to calm down because they’re always watching, treats her hand, and lets her go without reporting her, but says she’s not her friend and can’t help her.
As Caroline leaves, Mike is seen strongarmed to the chair so his mind can be erased. People who think that the show doesn’t make it clear that the Dollhouse is supposed to be evil should listen to his struggle and the way his screams of protest trail off. When the others see Mike in his tabula rasa state, they become committed to escaping. Adelle is then informed of their plan. “Right on schedule,” she notes.
It turns out that this is the Dollhouse’s plan on how to deal with the glitching. They let the Actives deal with real obstacles until they reach some kind of resolution to their issues, which will make them become compliant. This will make the Actives’ escape attempt futile, but it does not negate the truth of their attempt. These are slaves fighting for freedom.
They sneak by Boyd and Ramirez, Victor’s handler. Ramirez talks about how she agrees with Dominic that the Actives are pets, while Boyd argues that they should be treated with respect. Priya recovers a memory of being forced into the Dollhouse. The Actives then pass through a clothing warehouse filled with items that fit them perfectly and decide to change. Tony freaks out when he sees some sexy clothes he realizes they made him wear. Feminists tend not to like the way this is played for humor, and I’d have to agree. The prostitution and associated rape implications should be consistently serious and not made funny when it’s the guy.
Meanwhile, Madeline sees a baby carriage prop and remembers that she has a daughter. This is what she needs to find: her daughter. Caroline assures her that they’ll get out and Madeline can look for her. They hide as a handler walks by, and there is clear sexual tension between Priya and Tony. This is interesting because their attraction began in the tabula rasa state, suggesting that it is in some ways more real than their advanced personalities.
The Actives take an elevator up to the parking garage. They consider calling the police, but they don’t know if they can trust them. Tony suggests that they just stay together for the time being. They hide as some handler/Active pairs walk through. One is a straight-up prostitution engagement with a sexy French woman, and the other is a male soldier talking about losing good men today. I’ve read complaints that the female Active is sexualized and prostituted while the male Active is just a strong soldier in-line with classic masculine ideals and without any sexualization. While this is an interesting analytical point, I think it makes perfect sense considering that the Dollhouse is an evil organization. They sometimes rent people out as sex slaves and as mercenaries, both of which are causes for alarm. Just considering the state of things, it makes more sense for the female Actives to be used as sex objects and the male Actives to be used for their strength as mercenaries, which makes it more noteworthy when the reverse happens.
Caroline gets the Actives to try and focus on remembering their lives. She presses Priya to remember the name of the man who sent Priya to the Dollhouse, and she comes up with the name Nolan. Caroline shares that she remembers a place in the mountains where she feels safe and insists that they can go there to hide. Now, unless I’m misunderstanding this, Caroline is referring to the mountains from “Grey Hour” where Echo was imprinted as a midwife. Echo then remembered the mountains after the mind-wipe. So, this memory from one imprint, which should be long gone, is then remembered in a completely different imprint several weeks later. Topher is so not in control of what’s going on in her mind.
Anyway, Tony breaks into a box of keys and steals a van. Adelle observes the Actives getting into the van and tells Dominic to have the Dollhouse track it. Both are facing away from the screen when Caroline gets out. Caroline just witnessed two people enslaved by the Dollhouse and she can’t bear to leave them behind. While the others drive away, she goes back inside. This is our central protagonist doing what’s in her basic nature.
Caroline makes it to an armory, where she’s confronted by Ramirez. Ramirez tries to call for backup, but Caroline beats her unconscious before she can. The user henryevilx uses this scene along with others as evidence Joss likes to see women get beat up, but this completely misses the point. It’s a slave fighting for freedom, and to reduce these female characters down to their simple attributes of women being hurt is a disservice to the characters and the context of the scene. Anyway, Caroline gets a gun.
Meanwhile, Madeline sees a woman with a daughter and remembers where her own daughter is as well as who she was. She has Tony stop the car so she can find her daughter. Tony and Priya think it’s unwise, but Priya says that they escaped to be free and it’s Madeline’s right to do what she wants, so they let her out. As it turns out, Madeline’s daughter is dead, and she simply cries over her grave.
Priya and Tony continue onwards to confront Nolan. Nolan is a big businessman with an expensive office. He lets them in, thinking he’s getting some kind of freebie for being a frequent customer of the Dollhouse. It is clear that he thinks Tony is Sierra’s handler. When Priya demands to know why he sent her to the Dollhouse, he easily answers that she wouldn’t have sex with him so he had her enslaved by the Dollhouse so that she would ‘consent’ to sexual activity.
Now, in the season two episode “Belonging”, it’s shown that Nolan tricked the Dollhouse and they never would have accepted someone who didn’t sign up of their own free will, but I think this is a retcon and wasn’t part of the story in “Needs”. Nolan is completely cool with essentially saying ‘yeah, I’m a big rapist’ right in front of a handler. As such, I believe this is an extremely blatant depiction of the Dollhouse as evil. The fact that they don’t have someone coming right out and saying it’s evil is not evidence to the contrary, though Caroline did say that in the previous episode. Tony slugs Nolan really hard, which is just about the same statement in body language. Priya and Tony are protagonists and their chat with Nolan is analogous to Buffy’s chats with Caleb in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They’re protagonists faced with an extremely powerful bad guy that they can’t hope to touch… yet. By the way, in “Belonging”, Priya stabs Nolan to death. Anyway, Nolan has an armed security force, so Priya and Tony take off. They manage to hide elsewhere in the building and have a bonding moment. Eventually, this progresses to them making out.
Back at the Dollhouse, Adelle finally notices Caroline on the security camera. Caroline then cuts the power, allowing her to surprise Topher with a gun pointed at him. She demands answers. Topher does his best to explain. He tries to pass himself off as a humanitarian as usual, but she doesn’t buy it. She also asks him if the imprinting process hurts, which we’ve seen that it does, and he gives some noncommittal answer about pain just being signals from nerves. Yeah, that doesn’t make it not hurt. Even though Topher’s the nerdy, funny scientist, I think we’re not supposed to agree with him.
Caroline doesn’t have the full picture, but I think we’re supposed to appreciate her side more than his. She yells at him about how he takes control of people with the chair. He offers to use the chair to give her back her memories, and she starts to go along with it, looking like she’ll submit to his authority. Instead, she tries to force an imprint on him. He explains that he needs to be wiped first or it will kill him. She doesn’t seem terribly bothered by that and intends to imprint him anyway.
Adelle interrupts, rescuing her scientist. She works out a deal with Caroline where she promises to release the Actives but not return their memories because the original persons entrusted Adelle with keeping secret the “unbearable truths” that brought them there until their contracts run out. Caroline agrees, and shoots up the chair to keep them from wiping anyone else. This, of course, won’t last because Topher is a genius, but it’s out of operation for the short term. So, Adelle lets the Actives go. Caroline holds a gun to Adelle’s back as they walk among the Actives. As they leave the parking garage, Caroline feels closure and collapses. The Dollhouse agents then herd the Actives back inside before they can even leave the driveway.
We see via flashback that Dr. Saunders—the only one besides Boyd who seems to care about the Actives—proposed the exercise to help the Dollhouse maintain control. She talks about it with Boyd afterwards, where they explain that the Actives went through their lasting issues and found closure, at which point they fell unconscious so the Dollhouse could collect them. Caroline wanted to free the Actives, Madeline wanted to mourn her daughter, Priya wanted to confront the man who sent her to the Dollhouse, and Tony wanted to get the girl. Caroline’s issue is simply about liberation, which is feminist in itself, and Priya’s is along the same lines. She was victimized by this man who uses his money to rape her, and her issue is about fighting him. Tony’s is interesting because it’s purely about romance. A common feminist complaint is that too many female characters’ storylines are based around getting a guy and supporting a guy. This is an inversion of that gender stereotype. The weakest storyline is Madeline’s, but really that has more to do with Madeline/November being a pretty weak character. I’ll acknowledge that it’s a bit problematic that she’s defined by being a mother, as well as Ballard’s girlfriend when she’s in spy mode.
Ballard has a really small role in this episode. We do see a bit more of his story. He has this sexy dream about Echo. She comes to give him a message from the spy in the Dollhouse to finish what he started. He interprets this as finishing his fantasy of saving Echo and having sex with her. Mellie shows up to yell at him. It’s surreal, and it really shows just how twisted his fantasy’s becoming. This is intentional.
He finds the camera that the Dollhouse used to spy on him, and he shows the device to an electronics expert. The guy reports that the technology shouldn’t even exist yet and can’t hope to track its signal. Ballard seems to be at a dead end, but he checks his voicemail and hears a message from Caroline. She says she got the number from a file in the Dollhouse, that it’s somewhere underground, and he needs to help the people there. So, even though it looks like Dr. Saunders stopped the Actives from progressing, Caroline did something to help the Actives escape that will last into the next episode. In the next episode, Topher describes how Dr. Saunders’ plan didn’t keep Echo from evolving, and let’s not forget that in the previous episode, Caroline noted that Rossom (i.e. the Dollhouse) is evil.