Review: Dollhouse – “Epitaph One”

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“Epitaph One”

July 26th, 2009

We intend to honor what you’ve seen here today, but we will question the veracity of it. A lot of it was memories and whether all those memories are completely true” will be questioned. The future “will inform where we go” with the show”– Joss Whedon on “Epitaph One”

Friday night at Comic-Con in San Diego, a selection of fans, bloggers and critics were able to view the much-anticipated “Epitaph One,” the lost thirteenth episode of Dollhouse’s first season. It’s a really unique piece of television, fascinating in its position: as FOX counted the abandoned pilot as one of the thirteen episodes it would pay for, they had no interest in airing the episode; however, since 20th Century Fox (who produces the show) had DVD contracts which called for 13 episodes, Whedon delivered “Epitapth One.” At the same time, the episode was also used as proof of his ability to shoot the show on a considerably smaller budget without sacrificing quality. The result, both in terms of story and in terms of style, will form the blueprint for Dollhouse’s second season, a season that may not exist were it not for this episode.

That’s a lot of hype going into this particular hour of television, particularly considering that Dollhouse is a show that’s been all about hyperbole: everyone remembers how “Man on the Street” was supposed to cure every disease known to mankind, and people’s patience with the show’s rough start has been tested at numerous points along the way. However, “Epitaph One” ultimately succeeds at meeting these high expectations primarily because of just how ballsy a piece of television it is: unafraid of stepping out on a limb, or connecting with anything which came before it, the episode is definitive evidence that Joss Whedon has crafted an environment worth investigating with this series. It’s the best thing I think Dollhouse has produced yet, and if Whedon sticks to his guns that “Epitaph One” is canonical the sheer volumes of promise found within this episode are nearly overwhelming.

As for whether they’re too overwhelming, though, will become a question for the show’s second season – and, considering that Whedon notes that all of this is a complex road map rather than a clear image through the heart of the series, it’s going to be quite a complex undertaking. And, for a show like Dollhouse, that’s a damn good thing.

Now, it’s kind of odd writing about “Epitaph One” at this point: Alan Sepinwall and Todd VanDerWerff were in Ballroom 20, and Mo Ryan saw the episode ahead of time (Links to their reviews will come at the end), but the majority of fans either watched it illegally online or are waiting for Tuesday’s DVD release. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d suggest turning away now, as I do want to discuss some spoilery territory here. You’ve been warned.

Without question, the most important scene in Epitaph One is one that seems at first the most innocuous. We see Adelle DeWitt enter into a dimly lit kitchen, and standing there is who we know as Victor, but this isn’t Victor. However, while we could first presume that this is just a new profile, we learn that inside of Victor is a real person, a head administrator of the Dollhouse organization. In fact, he isn’t just inside of Victor: he is inside of ten other actives giving the same speech he is giving to Adelle to every other organization. The gist of his speech, as delivered brilliantly by Enver Gjokaj, is that “this” (meaning the ability for real people to take over new bodies) is now a service they are offering. Adelle raises her objection, arguing that they can’t betray the contracts of those who gave up their bodies to this process, but he waves her off – it’s already been decided, whether Adelle likes it or not, and she’d risk her own life should she do otherwise.

It’s at that moment that the post-apocalyptic setting where a group of five survivors and brainfried “Mr. Miller” stumble upon the Dollhouse in 2019, a setting which opened the episode cold, began to come into perspective. While there had been empty talk about concerns over people losing their minds, and people were getting tattooed in order for them to remember who they really were, the link to the Dollhouse was never entirely clear until you began to see the slippery slope in action. It’s at that moment that you realize we are seeing the result of Dollhouse’s ethical dilemmas, a world where people can wirelessly access the bodies of others and download into them, and where survivors run in fear of their minds and their lives. When they step into the Dollhouse, it’s like a paradise: there’s clean air, the wireless signals can’t download into it, and there’s even some food. But as they discover the chair, and as they begin getting killed off one by one in true horror fashion, it becomes clear that this is as much the Eden of original sin as it is of paradise.

What works so well about “Epitaph One” is that it is divided into the 2019 timeline and a series of flashbacks revealed through memories stores in the chair, and both of these elements serve very different purposes. One of the most potentially intriguing elements of the series from day one was its ability to engage with different genres due to the versatility of the actives, but this took that generic diversity to a whole new level: the post-apocalyptic setting was legitimately gripping, and as we come to learn that the young girl with them isn’t who she says she is (although we never do get to learn who she is) we come to empathize with them as characters without necessarily needing to connect them into the series itself. When the episode stops, though, to draw a line between the events of the past decade within the Dollhouse, they only enhance what we’re seeing, each part serving the whole better than one could have anticipated. I guess it should not be too surprising that a post-apocalyptic thriller is more engaging than the show’s comparatively mundane engagements, but it really does amplify the situation.

And while the flashbacks ranged in terms of my interest in them (I understand the desire to see Reed Diamond again, but it raised too many questions about how he’d get back into his own body for me to be paying much attention to the actual content of the scene), the overall impact was of an intense sense of mystery. Some of the mysteries aren’t really a concern to me (wondering how Caroline and Paul came to be romantically linked, for example), but some of the others are the kinds of things that the show is best suited to address. For example, the actives appear to be coming to terms with their old personalities, and getting headaches in the process (there’s even drugs for assisting them with dealing with the pain). The sheer complexity of the actives has to this point been a supposedly simple process (Topher streamlining it so heavily upon his arrival to the Dollhouse) but that we’ve seen slowly is far more complex than anyone realized. Those echoes or remnants from past lives are playing an important role here, when at the same time the technology becomes accessible to the point of the regular population getting its hands on it. There’s a great division there between knowledge and reality that really draws me in and makes me want to see more pieces of this puzzle, especially since not even the memories we saw here are considered definitively factual.

The point where we last see our regular cast is enormously compelling, as Caroline and Ballard return from the outside world (where people could be downloaded into at any moment) in order to take everyone to the so called Safe Haven, the safe place away from all of the madness. There was a sense that the Dollhouse could be a place like this, but they knew it wouldn’t last: they knew that people would find it, and that its position as a source of the corruption would make it even more problematic. Those scenes were absolutely compelling: seeing Adelle and Caroline facing off, the latter holding the former responsible to some degree and the former more or less telling her to kill her if she’s going to kill her, was one of those battles that we knew was coming, and for them to leave so many chapters of it left untold leaves plenty of story for the future. And then we have the terrifying image of Topher, surrounded by some of the various toys and gadgets that made his office look like a Daycare to the visitors years later, driven into a state of mental disrepair at the idea that his technology had been responsible for all of this madness. The very end of the human race was the result of something he helped the pioneer, something that he simplified to the point that it could be brought into the masses. The flashbacks showed us the entire slippery slope that led to the point of a near apocalypse, and in Topher’s tragic end they even made me care about a character who I had little love for in the context of the first season.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some complications to these ramifications for the show itself. First off, not everyone will see this episode, so referring to it directly is kind of out the window (although we learned at Comic-Con that the three survivors will be returning in the S2 premiere, so this period will continue to be visited). More problematic is that a figure integral to parts of the story, Amy Acker’s Doc Saunders, is off doing another show for another network. I love Acker, and she was mighty creepy as the remaining ghost of the Dollhouse, trapped in her Whiskey persona and able to only vaguely guide the survivors on their path to the outside world, but she won’t be around full time, so her presence in the final days of the Dollhouse (with a fixed face, no less) is something that will take some explaining. The idea that Alpha was responsible for Caroline finding the way to the Safe Haven, of course, is easier to handle (Tudyk could stop by for an episode or two down the line, I hear he has some connection to Joss Whedon…), but even then it means that there’s a lot of dots they need to connect.

But what’s most important at this stage is that I’m sort of desperate to see how they’re going to connect them, which is really the point of “Epitaph One” in the end. Forget for a second that not everyone will see this episode, and you realize that those who do will suddenly anticipate the second season that much more. While most shows use twists in their season finales in order to build hype for the second season, Dollhouse is doing it months later and thus far better positioned to draw in both critics like myself (and Alan Sepinwall, and Todd VanDerWerff, and Mo Ryan) as well as people who were still on the bubble with the series. I was happy to see Dollhouse renewed, but had there been a scenario where it wasn’t renewed and I knew that FOX executives had seen this episode, I would have done everything in my power to get the show renewed, including getting a tattoo of “My name is Myles McNutt” on my back (okay, that’s a lie, but I’d do it in marker). The episode isn’t perfect, but in its stylistic flair (it’s really well shot, amongst other things) and its tantilizing images of the past (but, for us, the future) it makes me more hyped for Dollhouse’s return than for the return of any other show this fall.

Cultural Observations

  • Is it wrong that I’m far more interested in Adelle and Topher than I am in the actives? I think Sierra and Victor are far more interesting in terms of their position as actives, as their original personalities are more shrouded in mystery as opposed to Caroline’s rather bland and uninteresting personality as we saw it in “Echoes.” But in the end, the actives are a scientific curiosity, whereas I’m fascinated by how people like Adelle and Topher are going to handle these changes – we know that Adelle tries to stand up to the changes in terms of active’s bodies being used for nefarious purposes, and we know that Topher gets driven into insanity, but seeing how those points connect is a real question for me.
  • Interesting to see so little of Boyd, considering that he is the head of security: his role is left the most vague in the end, so I’m interested to see how all of that comes into play. There also seemed to be something going on between Boyd and Doc Saunders, but the vagueness of it all was pretty overwhelming.
  • We’re still not entirely sure what Season Two will look like, but these promises of it resembling the later episodes of Season One were certainly something to be quite pleased with. At the same time, Whedon took six episodes to give the show a proper pilot, and about four or five after that to really hit one out of the park – even with the strength of “Epitaph One,” I’m not putting too much faith in the man.
  • As far as we can tell, the most recent glimpse into the future we saw in the episode was Ballard and Echo after a treatment where Caroline is able to act independent of, but not in replacement of, the imprint – she’s able to speak fluent Russian, and yet can still remain Echo at the same time. That’s an intriguing process, and getting to that point has me intrigued.
  • And, while I thought Dushku was fine here in what she was asked to do, it’s certainly more ammunition for the Dushku Doubter in me that I found a child actor’s depiction of Caroline far more enjoyable than hers. There’s just something more engaging about the body-switching side of things.
  • My one second season request: a new theme song. If Mr. and Mrs. Jed Whedon (I’m sorry, Maurissa, but I can’t spell your last name consistently) are on board, and could write an original song for this episode, then they can put something together for Dollhouse other than that annoying title sequence/theme. Make it happen, people.
  • There was a small mention of November in here, wasn’t there? Miracle Laurie isn’t back full time, I don’t think, but we do have to discover what happens to the active who we know is “out in the world” so to speak at the time when things go bad.
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9 Comments

Filed under Dollhouse

9 responses to “Review: Dollhouse – “Epitaph One”

  1. greennogo

    The show is actually produced by Fox Television, instead of Warner Brothers, which is one of the reasons why it was renewed–no licensing fees.

    • You are quite right – that was a typo that I forgot about when I went back to finish the article. Fixed.

    • E.B.

      I love the Dollhouse theme! I’ve been humming for the last 3 days. It’s soon to be my new ringtone. I pray we never end up in an elevator together lol (^_~)

  2. “Is it wrong that I’m far more interested in Adelle and Topher than I am in the actives?”

    I don’t think so, but I’m biased because I’m much more interested in them too. Adelle has been my favorite from the start actually, for two reasons: 1) I love Olivia Williams as an actress and I think she manages to do so much with sooo little material, that is fascinating to see her working; 2) Like you said, the actives are cool as a curiosity. As a character, I got the impression that Adelle has much more to give since the Pilot (though the writing didn’t came trough for her until Spy in the house of love). She is this person who conciously has made some difficult moral decisions, and she is always very cool and in control, but when we can see her in another light like here in Epitaph One and in Spy… we know she is turmoil about her role in this shady organization. It is a complex character that can be so much if Whedon just keep giving her what to do. She is interesting to a degree Caroline, or Paul or any of the actives will never be, because for the most part, they are not making any decisions for themselves.

    Topher on the other hand, it’s a character I never liked much. He made me laugh a lot, but I didn’t like him. This episode changed everything, and I want to see how he get from his present arrogant self to the man that goes insane because of the things his arrogant self allowed to happen.

    It’s a pitty that we got so little Boyd though, because I think that outside of Adelle, he is the most interesting character. And he is very different from her, which only makes it better. I want to see what his role is going to be, and what on earth will make him flee tha Dollhouse like that.

  3. James Anderson Merritt

    Regarding Miracle Laurie, I am interested to see how a former Active gets around in the world without being recognized by those she had come into contact with during her Dollhouse days. Perhaps a stalker-lover finds her at last and abducts her. Or maybe someone on the other end of her programmed aggression sees her and must have revenge? We already saw how Echo was recognized by an old college professor. What if the person who recognizes November won’t take “no” for an answer? I hope the actress can come back to reprise November in a story that examines these issues.

  4. MP Hoskins

    Just seen this episode on the Sci-Fi Channel here in the UK. The character that intrigued me the most was Mr Dominic, the one-note, wound-tight Mr Security guy, the straight one to Topher’s maverick. His resurrected self is well nigh buzzing: “I’ve been out there, I told you this would happen. Suits have three buttons again, who could see that coming? Three buttons…” Obviously an act of last ditch desperation from Adelle who in the scene looks as though she is beginning to regret setting him free.

  5. E C L I P S E

    I like how this whole “terminator” like season finale worked it gave you a sense of what might (and most likely will) happen. I hope that in the Season 2 season finale (if it ever renews) will pick up where “Epitaph One” left off. All in all I know that this series has alot of potential, I’m looking forward for more. :]

    (P.S. Fox would be fools not to allow continuation of this series and if they dont, hopefully another channel will.)

  6. Nate

    Remember – when he says “what happened to November”, the response is “Which one?” I think this implies that there is actually a new active to take the place of November.

  7. Pingback: Season Premiere: Dollhouse – “Vows” « Cultural Learnings

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