Dollhouse – “The Hollow Men”

“The Hollow Men”

January 15th, 2010

“This world is for people who can evolve.”

We’re going to be waiting two weeks until Dollhouse concludes its troubled two-season run (although scheduled to finish next week, the cross-network Haiti Telethon is taking over primetime on the 22nd), and it’s going to be interesting to see the kind of anticipation that builds around the show’s series finale. “The Hollow Men” is an engaging hour of television that features a strong performance from Harry Lennix, but there is every sense that this is transition episode and little more: the scale of the “war” is at this point still so small that the episode feels more incidental than perhaps it should.

The show has spent much of its second season implying that events which seem small are going to eventually seem very large, aided by the presence of “Epitaph One” as an image of the world’s future dystopia, but the real trick is trying to actually make those small events seem large in the context of a single episode. The work done in “The Hollow Men” is not inelegant so much as it is hampered by the “rush” towards a conclusion, and at times the episode feels like a “greatest hits” collection of the show’s finest moments as opposed to a culmination of ongoing storylines. The episode spends a lot of time talking about characters as a family, which is a fine idea but which fails to capture the evolution these characters have gone through: while the show’s relatively short run precludes the kind of depth that the final episodes of Lost or Battlestar Galactica brought to the table, there is still a sense that the way Dollhouse made its way towards its finale kept it from having the dramatic impact it perhaps could have.

It does nothing to make me less intrigued about how the show wraps up its run next week, but I definitely am not connecting with the ending as perhaps some others might be.

I think this is the first time, now that we’ve actually reconnected with the narrative presented in “Epitaph One,” that the existence of that DVD extra has officially become a problem for the series. Within a quasi-procedural setup, as things unfolded at a fairly languid pace early in the show’s second season, the existence of a post-apocalyptic future gave added weight to Topher’s genius and additional tragedy to Adelle’s troubled navigation of Rossum’s meddling. However, once the series shifted to a serialized investigation of how we get from Point A to Point B, the show seems to have lost the place of its characters within that structure. Sierra and Victor have become Priya and Anthony, Adelle’s allegiances were unclear until just a few episodes ago, Paul is now a Doll with Paul’s personality, and Boyd went through a dramatic character shift over the past few episodes. Much of the dramatic weight of this episode comes from Boyd’s fitting end (which wraps up his story only an episode after it really began) and Mellie’s tragic suicide (which felt like a discontinuity considering how long Mellie has been out of the picture and how much more interesting her original personality’s journey may have been), which created a definite sense that the really meaningful material (Topher’s transition from guilt-ridden to psychologically compromised, for example) is being kept for the finale.

This doesn’t mean that Boyd and Mellie’s fates aren’t eventful, they just don’t feel as if they are a culmination of any sort of larger storyline. I thought Harry Lennix did some great work selling Boyd as a deranged man who knew the end would eventually come and who only wanted to make sure that the people around him were people who challenged him and could form a sort of ludicrous family (more on that in a bit). And the episode made good use of the tension created by having Boyd escorting Topher and Ballard around the building, which distracted me enough to keep me from thinking “We know Topher survives since, you know, he’s alive in ‘Epitaph One.'” The problem is that he goes from deranged to dead in the span of a single episode, as Topher wipes him clean with the repaired tech in order to save Echo, leaving him in a blank state that allows Echo to order him to blow up the mainframe with a grenade while she escapes. It doesn’t feel like we spent enough time with Boyd as a “bad guy” for us to view this as a particularly dramatic conclusion (imagine if he had had an entire season where only we knew his true identity and then got ironically wiped by the technology he helped bring to life), and while I thought it did about as much as it could in the time constraints it still felt like a bit too much for a single episode to contain.

In individual moments, the show feels like it has built to that sort of tension: when Boyd is coercing Topher, with the latter none the wiser, to solve the engineers’ problems with his tech, there’s this desire to jump through the screen and put a stop to it, which is some great television. And similarly, disconnected from anything else, Mellie with a gun to Paul’s head struggling to overcome her sleeper agent programming is a great moment. However, while with Boyd we know enough about Topher’s journey for it to feel meaningful, with Mellie we have spent too little time with her for it to really feel momentous. I like Miracle Laurie, but she just hasn’t been around enough for her death to feel particularly tragic (I didn’t miss her when she was gone), and the show sort of glosses over the idea of how she manages to overpower her programming. It felt like an isolated moment as opposed to one which reflected long term storytelling, and that seems out of place in a penultimate episode.

Perhaps hypocritically, I thought that some of the other elements that felt similarly incongruous with the season’s overall arc were more enjoyable and fitting, largely because they seemed to play a more important role in the broader storyline. While I still don’t entirely understand who Clyde is or how his body switching works (“The Attic” was many things, but “expressly clear” was not one of them), having Amy Acker play a badass executive with ninja powers wearing a suit was a fantastic idea – she’s a great actress, capable of selling the kind of evil mastermind that’s being asked of her, and it helpfully gives a familiar face to the man in charge to keep it from feeling too sudden for us to be rooting for someone we only just met to meet their end. While I thought Mellie’s story was a bit overwrought and Boyd’s transformation too sudden to really sell their fates, the idea of bringing back Claire/Whiskey in this capacity made for a fun turn for Acker and an extra layer of meaning to what might have otherwise felt generic.

When Boyd raises the issue of “family” in terms of how he viewed Echo, Topher and Adelle, it was what Todd VanDerWerff identifies as the character turning into a sitcom dad, albeit a deranged one. It’s a fascinating scene not just because of the hilarity of his distaste for Paul (which made me laugh perhaps more than I should have in that moment), but also for how is captures what allowed this show to succeed. At the end of the day, the show was built around this set of characters, and the sense of the Dollhouse as an oddball sort of dysfunctional family nicely captures part of the show’s appeal. Yes, its big ideas are more interesting and its best episodes have been weighty, but I really enjoy the interactions between characters on the show, and Victor (or Anthony, but that’s a switch that’s tough to make at this point as a critic) is not wrong to use the term to describe the bond between those fighting against Rossum.

And while I understand that Whedon and company are playing with the typical dramatic strategy of taking us towards a positive resolution while pulling the rug out from under us in the final moments, the episode lacks that sense of family considering that half of the show’s characters are different people than when the show started (and not in a character evolution way – they’re actually different people). The episode paid lip service to some of the show’s previous “best” moments (letting Enver Gjokaj play Topher again, bringing back Mellie), but I don’t know if those devices actually felt like part of the rising action. I wanted to feel as if I was being swept up in a broader conflict, and yet the show had to spend so much time with Boyd expositing his true purposes that the broader conflict had to wait. It didn’t quite make the episode seem hollow (so I can resist the easy pun), but the introduction of so much science and technology and sudden character shifts (albeit ones we saw coming) sort of kept it from feeling like the next stage in the individual characters’ journeys.

There are still plenty of questions that remain, albeit they are many of the same questions we had from “Epitaph One.” And since those questions are still really fascinating, I remain interested in seeing how the show wraps itself up, and particularly just how tragic things are going to get. It’s clear that this episode is about putting the pieces in the right place to reconnect with that post-apocalyptic future, which was a necessary step in the show’s journey that was perhaps rushed as a result of the small (but still generous) 13-episode order. And while the episode made that transition with a couple of character deaths, a girl fight (that I’m sure had particular meaning to hardcore Whedonverse fans), and some hints at the real tragedy to come, the episode couldn’t help but feel like it was trying to do too many small things that never quite added up as perhaps I wanted them to.

Which sounds a lot like Dollhouse as a whole, so I guess the show is going out much similar to how it arrived.

Cultural Observations

  • Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I heard that there was a potential cure for being imprinted found only in Echo’s Spinal Fluid, my first reaction was not “This absolutely cannot be done.” Instead, I was left wondering why they didn’t use the spinal fluid to try to create a cure: instead of eliminating the tech, why not find a way to mass-produce the cure that would make the tech obsolete? Maybe the show cares more about Echo than I do, but I’d gladly have her donate her body to science if it meant saving the entire world.
  • I definitely think that Thoughtpocalypse is superior to Brainpocalypse.
  • I know I noted it as a potential problem above, in that it was unnecessary, but Enver Gjokaj doing Topher? Still amazing.
  • I know that Paul and Echo are the two characters that we didn’t get to spend much time with in “Epitaph One,” as we didn’t know where they were in the context of the two stories, but I would have liked to see a quick glimpse of where everyone else was “Ten Years Later” in the final scenes of the episode.
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Dollhouse – “The Hollow Men”

  1. Tausif Khan

    I felt it was an under written episode. Usually better explanations are given for character twists (e.g. Cordelia into Jasmine). In Dollhouse it was oh Boyd is really really crazy. Some of the character interaction was off. Usually there is an intense feeling of love when something happens to a character (Wash) or hate when Angel kills Ms. Calender. Here with Boyd it was ambiguous because Boyd really didn’t have larger plan.

    I didn’t feel like I was watching a Joss Whedon show.

    The reference to family was interesting because usually in his shows the characters have created a sense of found family. This was somewhat the case here but not really since half the people were different people when they met each other. It was interesting that Echo/Caroline rejected the label of family.

  2. Loretta

    I did not think that Echo rejected the label of family out of hand, but rather because when Victor/Anthony said it, she already had been hearing it from Crazy Boyd, thus ruining the label for her.

    This seems especially likely because of the grouping that always sort of happened with Echo, Victor, and Sierra when they were in their doll states. I thought if any part of the larger Dollhouse cast was a found family, it was the three of them.

    • Tausif Khan

      I agree with your first point completely. To your second point it seemed that they were all getting closer together and then this episode that seemed to fall apart.

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