[Note: The following is a review of the unaired 13th episode of Dollhouse: Season One. Normally, this would warrant a place among my TV Club write-ups of the show, but since this is a special case, it’s appearing here in the blogs. Fair warning: As with a standard TV Club entry, massive spoilers follow. Please view the episode before reading further.]
In my favorite scene in True Romance—hell, everyone’s favorite scene in True Romance—a powerful Italian mobster, played by Christopher Walken, confronts a veteran cop, played by Dennis Hopper, over the whereabouts of Hopper’s son. Hopper contends that he doesn’t know where the boy and his new wife went, other than somewhere on their honeymoon; Walken doesn’t believe him, and threatens to do “some damage” if he doesn’t tell the truth. At this point, Hopper understands that he’s going to die and that realization changes the tone of the scene: Resigned to his fate, he asks for what will be his last cigarette, takes a drag, and proceeds to launch on a floridly offensive monologue about Walken’s Sicilian heritage. The moral of the story? If you’re going to go out, keep your chin up and go out on your terms.
I couldn’t help but think of that scene during “Epitaph One,” the mind-blowing 13th episode of Dollhouse’s first season, which didn’t air on FOX, but was included in the DVD. (FOX cannily shuffled the episode off onto the DVD, shrewdly surmising that the show’s passionate fans would be enticed to snap up the set.) Plagued by a rough start and ratings that dipped from middling to poor, the show’s producers must have had that Dennis Hopper moment when they knew that renewal was a dim possibility and the last episode of Season One would almost certainly be their last ever. Written by Joss Whedon’s brother Jed and Maurissa Tancharoen, “Epitaph One” has a go-for-broke finality to it, essentially revealing the apocalyptic endpoint to Dollhouse’s dubious operations—and leaving viewers with a satisfying sliver of hope for humanity. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to cancellation: Dollhouse was renewed for a second season. Oops.
Having “Epitaph One,” maybe the best episode of the season and one flush with major revelations, tucked away on a DVD set raises some obvious questions: Where does Dollhouse go from here? How will “Epitaph One” color future episodes for those of us who have seen it? And what will it mean to the casual viewer who hasn’t? We won’t know the answers until Season Two rolls out on September 25th, so for now, let’s dig into this strange and wondrous hour of television:
Right away, it’s clear this ain’t the Dollhouse we’re used to seeing: Gone is the glossy sheen that suggests a service catering to the ultra-elite, replaced murky lighting, handheld camerawork, and other markers of apocalyptic chaos. Gone, too, is the traditional opening credits sequence; instead, the title appears over a bombed-out building in 2019 Los Angeles, where warring factions scrap over territory that doesn’t even seem worth winning. In an effort to simply survive the night, a band of rebels (including Whedon favorite Felicia Day and Zach Ward) stumbles upon a passageway that leads them down to what we know as Dollhouse. Their discovery of the imprint chair become a clever device by which they (and we) learn how the organization was responsible for society’s collapse, as well the various fates of the core characters on the show.
The chief technological culprit in bringing about this catastrophe is remote imprinting, something that was used a few times during the season to activate or deactivate the dolls in another location, over phones or answering machines. It’s a simple yet eerily plausible road to ruin: If a person’s identity can be altered or erased in a single phone call, what would happen if millions started receiving such calls and everyone’s identity changed? (True to the show’s subversive politics, minds are wiped via “robocalls,” those insidious rumor-spreaders that popped up so many times during the ’08 Presidential election.) Such a power, in the wrong hands, would be more catastrophic than any weapons of mass destruction.
One thing “Epitaph One” accomplishes is making the Dollhouse an unambiguous force of evil in the world while still treating the people that run it—many of them with confused identities themselves—as flawed, sympathetic beings. I can see why some viewers complain that the fluidity of identity on Dollhouse makes emotional investment difficult: How can we root for a character who may not be who we think he or she is? Yet surely we can sympathize with the plight of humanity in general, or specific moments when individual suffering is completely undeniable, right? I’m thinking particularly of the flashback scene in “Epitaph One” where Topher, having inadvertently played a central role in bringing about this global catastrophe, is curled up in an inconsolable heap while Adelle tries to comfort him. (“If I can figure things out, is that curiosity or arrogance?”)
Ironically, the Dollhouse is both the source of the problem and the ultimate bunker against it, being underground with air conditioning, hot showers, and most importantly, an imperviousness to the signals that could turn “actuals” into other people. In a series of flashbacks, relayed in chronology, we get a little glimpses of how the facility first began, what happened after everything fell apart, and other events in between. There’s some crucial information about backup discs hidden in the wall (for the dolls to go back to their real selves), some great intrigue among the “actuals” that have discovered the Dollhouse (the twist with the little girl was especially first-rate), and a glancing sense of how the major characters have evolved over time and multiple imprints.
What’s striking about “Epitaph One,” apart from the general awesomeness of the conceit, is seeing how far Dollhouse has moved past The Eliza Dushku Show of the first five episodes and into much more of an ensemble piece. Though some might speculate this was done in recognition of Dushku’s limitations, I think the show has finally been given the freedom to explore the complex, terrifying implications of its premise (as opposed to the shallow, Charlie’s Angels-like objectification of the early eps). With the addition of several new cast members—including a couple more from Battlestar Galactica, Summer Glau from Firefly, as well as Day and Reaper’s Ray Wise—I suspect it will go further down the sci-fi rabbit hole.
• “I hope we find me alive.” What a final line!
• Very funny first encounter between new hire Topher and Mr. Dominic, who immediately hate each other. “Who’s this clown?,” asks Topher. “Did Idi Amin turn down the job?”
• “You guys kill everyone who’s printed. Bigots.”
• Let me hear your thoughts in the space below: What will this mean for Season Two? Does knowing this information heighten or diminish your interest in the show?