December 05, 2009 at 01:46 PM EST

The guttering flame that is Dollhouse — two new episodes being burned off over three weeks including last night — remains capable of throwing off a few sparks. Sparkiest of all was Summer Glau, glau-ering grimly at Echo/Caroline while portraying Bennett Halverson. Bennett is sort of the female version of Topher, except less manic, promoted a pay-grade, and with a left arm that hangs limply in a sling. She works for the Rossum Corporation’s Washington, D.C. Dollhouse, under the direction of Ray Wise’s Stewart Lipman.

Characters paired off amusingly and effectively. Buffy alums Eliza Dushku and Alexis Denisof as Senator Daniel Perrin were ostensible enemies (Perrin has been campaigning to close down the Dollhouse). Perrin was using the freshly-freed active Madeline (Miracle Laurie) to give testimony about the Dollhouse’s pernicious policies; Echo was dispatched to stop him. But they were brought to a common cause last night when both of their minds were being controlled. In a particularly Whedonesque turn of phrase (the hour’s writing was credited to Andrew Chambliss), Echo said of Bennett and the actives the latter controlled, “I think her bad guys are badder than my bad guys.”

More pairings: Wise’s Lipman tried to exert superiority over Olivia Williams’ Adelle DeWitt, but their delightfully clever, cruuush-worthy exchanges, as they tussled over control of Echo and Perrin, rendered them artful equals.

And in what I will assert was the single best edition of Dollhouse ever, during last night’s second hour, called “The Left Hand,” Bennett and Topher matched wits while pretending to flirt. (The evening’s immortal line, Topher describing Bennett: “Imagine John Cassavetes in The Fury as a hot chick.”)

Really, at this point, the cancelled but ever-more-vibrant Dollhouse has become a critique of itself and its critics. When Perrin described the Dollhouse enterprise as a den of “human trafficking” and a form of “prostitution,” well, hmmm, those are criticisms similar to the ones some of us leveled at this series when it premiered.

Dollhouse and Whedon deserved some of that skepticism. Between a contentious relationship with the Fox network over what direction the show should take and the Dollhouse writing staff’s uneven, working-it-out-as-it-went-along feminist aesthetic concerning the themes of control, desire, power, and freedom, there was much messiness and confusion. Even the show’s most ardent supporters agree that there are some incarnations of Echo (rock-chick back-up singer; blind woman) that they wish had never materialized. And it didn’t help that Dushku was rarely able or given the opportunity to define her role the way previous Whedon heroes played by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Nathan Fillion were able to.

But last night’s back-to-back mash-up adventure was the very best sort of (in the phrase of one character) “lurid pulp fantasy.” This was what Dollhouse was meant to be: a rock ’em, sock ’em brain-twister with a social agenda.

Couple more random but important things:

• All hail Enver Gjokaj as Victor-mind-wiped-into-Topher: that impersonation was utterly spot-on.

• If you’re any kind of Whedon fan, you’ll want to read Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan’s extensive, fascinating new interview with Joss.

(You can follow me on Twitter.)

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