Ladies and gentlemen of Dollhouse Nation, I come before you a changed man. When last I filled in for Scott, it was for the Season One broadcast finale “Omega,” and in that write-up, I confessed that while I liked the show, I was pretty far from a True Believer. And to be honest, I wasn’t as persuaded by “Epitaph One” as a lot of my TV critic colleagues. I appreciated what it was doing structurally, but I still wasn’t buying into the dilemma at the heart of Dollhouse: the loss of individuality due to the meddling of a malicious corporation. I could stretch and make that theme relevant to the real world, but halfway through the run of the series, the situation—and the characters involved—still struck me as too fantastical. Entertaining to watch, but not anything I could get emotionally involved in.
Well, something must have changed about Dollhouse in Season Two, because about halfway through this season, I realized how I’d invested I’d become. Dollhouse went from being a show I’d “catch up with” when my TiVo started getting full to a show I had to watch on the night he aired. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a series that started out so scattered pull itself together so dramatically; the writers have found ways to make all those elements of the show that I merely endured in the early going—Topher, the blankness of the dolls, the faltering tech, and, oh, the essential premise—into elements that now seem vital, engaging, and that even make sense, retroactively. (Well, sort of. There are still a few kinks there.) And as they’ve advanced the master-plot by digging into the secret history of the Rossum corporation and its network of Dollhouses, the writers have begun embracing everything unique about Dollhouse, and letting episodes roam towards into the idiosyncratic rather than trying to fit the wilder elements into a conventional action-adventure mold.
Granted, there’s still an element of what-might’ve-been to Dollhouse as it approaches its final finale. What if the show had been as sure of itself from the start? Well, for one, Fox probably would’ve cancelled Dollhouse outright rather than ordering a second season. But still, it would’ve been nice if significant pieces of mythology like “the remote wipe” and Caroline’s college activism had been introduced more confidently and more integrally, rather than appearing in passing. And what if Dollhouse had enough of a budget to flesh out its globe-hopping, apocalyptic ambitions? Maybe the stories wouldn’t have to keep returning to the same two or three underpopulated rooms, and maybe the same actors wouldn’t have to keep getting repurposed.
Of course, on one level, the re-use of the same people makes as much thematic sense as it does budgetary sense. (This is a show about bodies as shells for different personalities, after all.) Still, some of the surprise reveals of this season—good guys turning out to be bad guys—have seemed more driven by money than plot. For example, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the return of Whiskey/Claire (even though the character did appear in “Epitaph One” too). Having her back in the story as a villain feels like cheap audience manipulation, combined with a way to get the maximum use of an actor under contract.
Then again, who wouldn’t want find a way to put Amy Acker to use, especially when she can look and sound so cool delivering lines like, “I have enhanced weapon skills. Anyone care to see a demonstration?” (Followed closely by Recurring Joss Whedon Motif #1: Two hot young actresses getting their money's worth from their stage combat classes.) And if you’re graced with a talent like Enver Gjokaj, why not come up with an excuse to imprint Victor/Anthony with the personality of Topher again, so that Gjokaj can do his uncanny Fran Kranz impression? Outside of whatever flashbacks we get in “Epitaph Two” in two weeks, “The Hollow Men” was the end of the journey for our core characters in the primary timeline of the show. So why not pull out all the stops?
“The Hollow Men” jumps back and forth from Los Angeles to Tuscon, where our heroes aim to take down Rossum’s mainframe. In L.A., Victor/Anthony and Sierra/Priya have returned to the Dollhouse to find it overrun with Rossum’s mercenaries. Victor sits in the imprint chair, receives the gift that Topher left for him—himself!—and uses hidden camera footage to learn that Boyd interfered with Echo’s attempt to load Caroline’s memories. Then Victor restores his Anthony persona, adding some mad ninja skillz (another Topher gift), and follows the gang’s trail to Tuscon, as Topher had planned. (“Go team!” Topher enthuses, hundreds of miles away.)
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Paul and Mellie/November are skulking about the Rossum facility when a message over the loudspeaker re-triggers November’s latent “mindless killing machine” mode, leading to Paul trying to plead with whatever scrap of Mellie still dwells within November, and November responding by killing herself to save his life. (And there’s Recurring Joss Whedon Motif #2: Recreating the climactic sequences of The X-Men’s “Dark Phoenix Saga.”) Paul then finds Boyd in the hall, but since he doesn’t yet know that Boyd’s a bad guy, he joins forces with Boyd… right up to the point that Boyd points a gun at his head. (“What did I miss?” Paul sighs.)
The rest of the team have long-since learned that Boyd’s one of the Rossum masterminds (along with Clyde, who’s nested in Whiskey). But Boyd does surprise them by insisting that he has no intention of killing them because, “I love you guys!” Instead he wants to keep them all safe during the coming revolution, and use their talents to assure that Rossum remains in control of the mayhem that’s about to ensue. He needs Topher to repair the Remote Wipe Weapon (which he does, before he realizes Boyd’s on the other team), and he needs Echo/Caroline’s spinal fluid to make a vaccine against imprinting. He wants them all to stay in the “family.” (Well, all except Paul, who’s “the relative you don’t want around at the party.”)
When I wrote about the writers “letting the episodes roam towards the idiosyncratic” above, I was thinking of moments like Boyd’s wacko little speech. Even though the endgame for this series has been too rushed, I appreciate that the Dollhouse writers are striving to inject flavor even into the info-dump scenes. The hallmarks of a Joss Whedon show have always included snappy dialogue and offbeat characters who maintain their quirks even when the world’s coming to an end. I think I could’ve watched a whole hour of Topher (that guy I used to hate and now so, so don’t) gamboling about with Boyd. Topher, so awestruck and playful even with his love object recently dead and his life in danger. Topher, gullibly telling Boyd about his secret Victor/Sierra plan. (“Thank you for confiding in me, Topher,” Boyd says warmly.) And Topher, feeling so distraught when he realizes the extent of what he’s done that he asks Victor, “Are you still me? Because I could use someone to shoulder some of the guilt.”
Another hallmark of a Whedon show is The Delicious Twist that resolves an impossible conflict, and we get that in “The Hollow Men” when Boyd’s attempt to kill Echo is thwarted by Topher blasting him with the RWW. “Did I fall asleep?” Boyd says emptily, before Echo hands him a grenade and sends him tottering off towards the mainframe. We’ll see in two weeks how this will all play out “ten years later.” Will the bleak 2019 of “Epitaph One” become a happier 2020 once the band gets back together? Do we even want a happy ending for this show, or do we like the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude that’s yet another Whedon hallmark?
I’m reserving judgment until I see what the Dollhouse team has in store. I’ll also be watching to see if the “Who are we, really?” theme resolves in a more satisfying way than it did at the end of Season One. Already, I’m pleased by the direction that Echo has gone in, using her new independent consciousness to complete a mission begun by Caroline two years ago. (The apple doesn’t fall far, whatnot.) But I can also see the theme expanding to incorporate the Rossum corporation too. In the past, Boyd tells Caroline about the company’s work with Alzheimer’s and cancer patients, and it’s clear that at some point their corporate identity changed. Is that original imprint still there somewhere? Could Boyd’s attempt to save his friends be a vestige of a businessman looking to find cures, even if they’re on his own profitable terms? And if so, maybe the reason the world goes kerplooie over the next decade isn’t because the Rossum folks are unstoppably evil bastards, but because when Echo had Boyd as a blank slate, rather than re-imprinting him with a more benevolent personality, she used him to destroy. And maybe she did that because of the killer instinct Rossum imprinted in her. And so on. And so on….
-At some point in the years to come, I plan to re-watch both seasons of Dollhouse and see if those early episodes work better now that all’s revealed. I still don’t know if Whedon and company knew where they were headed all along, or if they’re just very clever at locating the most useful pieces of what they’ve previously put into the show. Either way, it’s been quite a progression from where Dollhouse started and where it is now. It’s as though MacGyver gradually morphed into Battlestar Galactica.
-Thoughtpocalypse or Brainpocalypse? Which do you prefer? If you cause it, you get to name it.
-“That is so Ripley of you.”
-Dollhouse will be off next week for a Haiti benefit, but Scott will return to see us all home on the 29th with “Epitaph Two: The Return.”