Spotlight on: ‘Dollhouse’

I don’t think any show was more scrutinized in the 08-09 season than Dollhouse. I’m not sure how much of that will go away in Season 2 but at least we have a lot to anticipate thanks to the unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph One.” So as we ramp up for the September 25th premiere, we decided to review “E1” and see what insight we can glean for the future.

Andy

You can’t blame Joss Whedon for wanting to write an ending for once. That goes doubly true for Dollhouse, which was perhaps met with more skepticism than any show in history. Joss’s track record for shows killed before there time is such that even he was surprised by the pickup, even joking it had ruined his plans to take the summer off.

So, there’s the groundwork for “Epitaph One,” a bonus episode included on the DVD collection for Dollhouse season one. Misfits, I’m-a straight up say I had mixed emotions about the episode. Because of FOX’s good sense to grant the show a second season, “E1” is an interesting novelty, a thought experiment by Joss to answer (albeit obliquely) some of the questions the series posed. Had the show actually been canceled, I think the episode would have been more like a swift punch to the solar plexus.

That’s hard to me to admit, because Joss did an amazing job creating a future world out of the Buffyverse with Fray. “Epitaph One” is similar: The year is 2019, and at least the United States is in collapse because the Chinese broadcast a signal that, hey, scrambles folks’ personalities. Sound familiar? A group of survivors stumbles into the Dollhouse, and via a mind-scrambled “blank” and our favorite dentist’s chair, learn how the anarchy began.

You know, for the first time in a Joss program, his signature slang grated on me. The first part of the episode tries to patter on with a Firefly feel, but Zack Ward and Felicia Day are no Nathan Fillion and Jewel Staite. (Mmmmm, Jewel Staite… sorry.) Soon enough, luckily, we’re in the Dollhouse, and flashing back to the series’ regular characters as they hint at what caused the apocalypse upstairs.

I’m holding back here so as not to spoil the entire episode, but here’s what I thought worked: Joss definitely has an endgame in mind, and hints from the broadcast episodes indicate he has for a while. That makes me happy: Lost, for example, gained a huge measure of self-confidence when the creators set an end date, so I think the second season of Dollhouse will be less an uneven ride than the first. Meanwhile, I want to see how some of the characters get to “Epitaph One,” from Whiskey’s healed face to the secret planning between Echo and Paul Ballard. And finally, we got some really nice character moments where the various Dollhouse employees had to come to terms with the consequences of blithely swapping personalities and bodies.

I’ve already said I disliked the banter at the outset, but I also think our regular players got short shrift. Why do I want to see a little girl take on Caroline’s personality instead of the gorgeous Eliza Dushku? And when has a wise-beyond-her-years little girl ever *not* been a trap?

Now, do we treat “Epitaph One” as apocrypha, or as a way-post as to where the series is actually headed?

Ryan

I’d heard so much about “Epitaph One” that by the time I sat down to watch it, I almost felt like I had already done so. Probably fitting for a show about people who live in other people’s bodies. In many ways, this episode pays off the cryptic question surrounding the Dollhouse: what is its ultimate endgame? In “Man on the Street,” a reprogrammed Echo tells Ballard, “The Dollhouse deals in fantasy, but that is not their purpose.” In “Epitaph,” we learn its purpose: complete control over the human population.

As such, the Dollhouse is the modern-day Tree of Eden, offering what humans think will be beneficial but ends up causing their misery. As such, the often-annoying Topher takes on an almost tragic arc, as his self-serving annoyance turns into self-delusional madness. Likewise, Adelle’s air of superiority is punctured the moment her once-boytoy Viktor turns the tables thanks to unplanned upgrades from the Rossum Corporation.

In some ways, “Epitaph One” is the application of Moore’s law to human behavior: as the size of transistors shrink and operational speed of machinery increases, the easier it becomes for humans to take their innate desire to destroy to even more efficient ways than ever before. It’s a bleak look at life, but it’s also not easily dismissable. We’re just months from “Yes We Can!” to an America more fragmented than ever, with a vocal minority yearning for something other than the reality with which they are presented. We’re already heading towards a violent schism: maybe all the world needs to tumble towards the apocalypse is the robocall to end all robocalls?

Etymologically, I loved the shift from the show’s “actives” to “actuals,” a subtle lingual trick that emphasized a cold heart fact: at some point between the end of Season 1 and “Epitaph One,” the former actives were among the only true humans left on the planet. What’s really better: being unaware of one’s state as a doll or the conscious knowledge you’re trapped in a hole, alive but essentially entombed?

More queries: Why were Penny and Co. immune to the effects? Beats me. Who exactly was in that little girl’s body? Hard to say. And where did that rope ladder outside Adelle’s office lead to? No idea. But I love asking these questions.

With all this said, it didn’t all work for me. The plot feels like Stephen King’s “Cell”, and the use of China reeked of Firefly. And the “cure” for this disease lies in what’s still the weakest link of the show: Echo. I don’t fault Eliza entirely for this, but Victor, Sierra, November, and Whiskey are far more compelling dolls, given richer dialogue and more compelling storylines. But the show wants us to recognize Echo as singular and special. I’m not buying it. Maybe Season 2 will sell me, but for now, I’m unconvinced.

But that’s just my take: Jessi and Tamara, what’s your take?

Jessi

Over the course of three days, I have watched the entire first season of Dollhouse, with the original pilot and “Epitaph One.” Was it temporary insanity? The ridiculous focus of an uber-fan? Do I have absolutely nothing resembling a life? Actually, I had decided to experience the net-hyped 13th episode this way because I was not the most loyal fan.

Let me explain. Being a Friday night show, I didn’t always stay home to watch. And no, I don’t have any sort of DVR (I know, I’m in the dark ages). Additionally, I had found the flow of the season a bit choppy and some of the stand alone episodes left me…well…discouraged. But I learned something interesting in a peculiar college course I took. It was titled “The Anthropology of Science Fiction” (Yes. Really.) and one of our assignments was to watch all 6 Star Wars films.

Being the keen procrastinator I am, I put off the assignment until I was left with one option: Watch all 6 films, back to back on Saturday. Write my paper on Sunday. When I did that, I found out that I tolerated Episodes 1-3 much better. I had hoped that this would give me a similar experience. I was not disappointed. I found the arcs of both the stories and the characters more compelling and clear. And I think that was exactly what I needed for “Epitaph One.”

It is not the Holy Grail of Dollhouse. It is not a perfect episode. Frankly, I don’t even think it is a very good ending, given the looming threat of cancellation when it was filmed. What it is, however, is an intriguing glimpse of what might be. It’s a collection of brain teasers as we all try to figure out – how did it get there? It’s more than the cliche, post apocalyptic, dystopian future filled with a proto-culture marked by violence or void. It’s fraught with far more possibility than that.

Let me take a moment to disagree with my fellow Misfits on a few points. Andy, I found the banter clever in most aspects. Since it is only set 10 years in the future, it felt organic to use “bars” for signal, “tech” for anything electronic, and “birth mark” for a tattoo that would denote an “actual” from a “dummy”. How many years of listening to cellular commercials herald how they provide more bars than their competitors before it becomes part of our lexicon?

Ryan, I do not think that complete human control has always been the end game. I think it is the result of something that got out of control once the people in power realized exactly what they were capable of. In a word: Immortality. And then having that used against them. I think the arcs we see were already in place. We already saw the cracks in Topher and Adelle’s exteriors. Adelle when she took Viktor on holiday and Topher when Whiskey/Dr. Saunders confronted him about why he imprinted her to hate him (perhaps to be the manifestation of his own self loathing).

I am fascinated by how those who had never been dolls (that we know of) are stripped down to their most raw. Not just Topher’s heartbreaking turn, but how Adelle was confronted with the moral line she would not or could not cross. I am equally fascinated by how those who had been dolls became the leaders, perhaps even the saviors, against all odds. And I cannot forget the time that might have passed and what they might have experienced as we see a new and painful distance between Sierra and Viktor.

No doubt, the questions we are left with are numerous. Why did the composite event not effect Echo as it did Alpha? Does she still have all those personalities crowding into her psyche when we see her in the future – as the Russian mob infiltrator or as the scout sent to find SafeHaven? And speaking of SafeHaven, how exactly do they have Alpha to thank for that? How many Novembers were there, and why don’t they want to be like her?

I think this will have to mean a more focused Season 2. We need to see why Echo, Sierra and Viktor are evolving past their programming. Who really is pulling the strings on the dolls? Is the attic more than a vague threat? More than a warehouse of consciousness lost? We need to do more than wonder if there is a bogeyman in the dark…we need a glimpse of his claws. I hope like hell we get to see that, and some of the answers.

Tamara

It’s been very clear from the beginning that Dollhouse is all about clandestine secrecy, moral ambiguity, and questions. Lots of questions. “Epitaph One” doesn’t answer nearly as many that are asked but it serves a greater purpose – it provides hope.

It took about half the season for the show to really start humming (thanks to the network notes) and some folks lost interest or grew frustrated with the meandering pace. What’s fantastic about “E1” is that in one episode, you see the fascinating possibilities of a future yet to come. Half the fun of S2 will be in seeing how and if and why these flashes of potential character arcs will come to pass. I mean, it’s a pretty big swing to go from “Alpha the Homicidal House of Multiple Personalities” to “Alpha the Creator of SafeHaven.”

The ep also shows that Joss is still able to sneak crucial information in under the radar. In true Whedon fashion, one plot point in a single episode that seemed to serve a singular purpose ends up being one of the most important bits of the series. When Alpha reprogrammed Echo via a signal on a cell-phone, at the time I simply saw it as a testament to his devious genius. Now I know it to be a harbinger of doom.

One of the biggest questions of the ep is who’s memories are we actually seeing? At first you think it’s Adelle, but then it could be Topher, though at times it seems like Paul or Echo…it could even be Mr. Dominic or Dr. Sanders. The most likely answer is that it’s all of the above (plus more) but the ambiguity works great.

Another ambiguous plot point is it’s never said who exactly Iris Miller was. Was “she” an actual she? Did he/she have a connection to the Dollhouse? The dialogue smacked of Mr. Dominic but, really, I don’t think it matters in the long run. Would it be cool to have that extra layer of meaning? Yes, but unnecessary as who she may or may not have been is not as important as her purpose which was to cull our group of intrepid survivors and become Caroline’s new vessel. Though Joss could totally prove me wrong.

So let’s talk about what I really dug about the ep. I liked the “survivor horror” feel to it (complete with moments that have you sighing out of the potential stupidity). Like Jessi and Ryan, I found the character turns of Adelle and Topher most appealing. Olivia Williams and Fran Kranz, respectively, had a lot of heavy lifting (plot-wise and emotionally) and acted the hell out of their scenes. I also thought Zack Ward as Zone and Amy Acker as Whiskey/Dr. Sanders were superb. I’ve always had a soft spot for Ward and Amy’s been a favorite since the last season of Angel when she got to flex her chops as Illyria.

While I too don’t necessarily agree with Andy that the slang in “Epitaph One” is grating, it is a bit jarring at first. There’s a lot of it in the first 4 minutes and something about it seems…off initially. What saves it is the brief moment that Mag (Felicia Day) breaks down and cries while surrounded by madness. In a way, it humanizes this crazy post-apocalyptic world.

Speaking of post-apocalyptic worlds, Ryan and Andy both bring up the fact they’re reminded of Firefly. Who’s to say this isn’t how the Blue Sun Corporation rises to power? An improbability but certainly an interesting possibility.

Ultimately, “Epitaph One” serves as the destination while the flashbacks are our GPS for the rest of the series. We’ve seen where we’re going but we don’t really know how we’re getting there or who’s going to be waiting for us when we arrive. And, just like GPS, Joss will probably change our route along the way.

So that’s what we thought – what did you think? Did you pick up on something we missed? Have any hopes or predictions for Season 2? Please, feel free to nerd out with us!

About Tamara Brooks

A few things I wondered about as a kid: Why didn't Wonder Woman punch more bad guys in the face on the tv show?; How does Superman flying around the Earth turn back time?; Could someone really catch bullets with their teeth?; Why didn't the liquid bits of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man cause 3rd degree burns on whoever it landed on? Because melted marshmallow is up there with molten hot lava.