“Epitaph Two: The Return”
January 29th, 2010
In the eyes of ardent supporters of Joss Whedon, Dollhouse is a continuation of his legacy: an interest in female protagonists who kick ass, an engagement with complex philosophical issues, a unique sense of humour, and an early cancellation at the hands of the villainous FOX.
However, not to be dismissive of those fans, I have to wonder Dollhouse actually has any sort of legacy of its own. We tend to view the show in terms of Whedon’s past successes, whether favourably or unfavourably, but has the show had time to do anything substantial on its own? As someone who has seen relatively little of Whedon’s work (Buffy and Angel are sitting on my DVD shelf waiting for me to get to them), I have struggled over the past few weeks with the question of what Dollhouse will leave behind for those without extensive knowledge of its creator.
It is a show that struggled to find a way to get to its big ideas in the early going, and that simply didn’t have enough time to live up to their full potential. They wanted to tell a story about the end of the world, but that world was never fully formed; they wanted to depict the tragic fall of some characters, but had to rush others to achieve its full effect. The second season has had moments of brilliance (“Belonging,” in particular), but it has had this pervasive sense that this would all be better if the show had more time, that they were trying to tell too much story to “wrap things up” and in the process missing out on some intriguing parts of this universe.
Heading into “Epitaph Two,” I lacked anything close to excitement: I was curious, there’s no question about that, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat excited for what happens next. Instead, I was anxious to see just how a show that came in like a lamb and rushed its transition to lion plans on saying “bon voyage” to its miniscule but devoted fanbase.
The answer is with an hour of television that introduces too many new concepts too quickly, and which proves incapable of grounding all of them on realistic character motivations. However, in true Dollhouse spirit, there are enough moments of legitimately compelling drama to lift the episode to the point of being satisfying…or, more accurately, as unevenly satisfying as the show has been all along.
And that’s all we can really ask for.
At the heart of “Epitaph Two” is Topher Brink, a young scientist who was the unwitting mastermind behind the technology which led to the “thoughtpocalypse.” And if we chart Topher’s story in the hour, rescued from captivity where he was being asked to further weaponize his technology before returning to the Dollhouse to build what is effectively a giant “undo” button, the episode is a pretty big success: I bought that Topher, forced to see people die in front of him while he’s forced to build technology that could kill millions more, would in his psychotic break be working towards a different solution, and Fran Kranz absolutely tore the house down throughout the hour. It’s an intriguing idea which solves some problems but creates others (primarily a Genesis-style “Land of Confusion”), and which feels uniquely tied to Topher’s character.
The problem was that the show had to do so much catchup to reach this point, establishing where all of the characters have been for the past number of years, that it seems like the broad thematic ramifications of Topher’s technology are rushed. I don’t know if a two-hour finale would have helped this or not, but stories like Tony and Priya (and their son) and Paul and Echo (and their sexual tension) felt as if they fell into (or almost fell into) the “Tell, Don’t Show” philosophy for the sake of getting things moving. And while I understand that this is necessary, that the show could have never built to this point as effectively as they might have with a 22 (or even 19) episode season, it nonetheless felt off: it’s dangerous to join our original group of characters in media res as we do when, as the episode demonstrated, the show intends to take them to an extremely emotional place that requires knowledge of what happened in the interim.
In the case of Tony and Priya (formerly Victor and Sierra), this works because of how great Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman are. Lesser actors couldn’t have sold the whole “Tech Head” movement as some sort of huge sticking point, and their argument about whether Tony was justified modifying himself in order to protect his family (shattered as it is) happens too quickly to have much meaning without the subtlety that both actors bring to their roles. Their journey has always been particularly meaningful because their sentience within their doll-like states was driven by emotions rather than technology. And so it makes sense that, when Topher’s technology threatens to return everyone to their normal selves, they would want to stay behind: they have created emotional connections that they don’t want to lose, and a life that is intricately linked to this crazy world they live in. While the Tech Heads rebellion was forced, and poorly acted, it helped remind us that for Tony, technology was a way to fight for a normal life as opposed to a way he intended to live forever. It made for an important distinction, and one that made their story resonate as they sit reading to their son, a happy family underground waiting for a new world to begin.
My issue is that the episode tried to do something similar with Paul and Echo, and it felt both redundant (considering Tony and Priya’s story was somewhat similar) and reductive. In reality, their relationship is enormously complex: Paul is actually part-Active architecture (with a damaged brain that, should he revert to his original personality, might not work at all), and last we saw he actually had no emotional feelings for her whatsoever because that died in the brain transfer. And while we’re told that they have hooked up a few times when things seemed particularly grim, and that Echo has always resisted any real connection, we don’t get to see any of it, and Eliza Dushku is better at selling sullen anger or violence than she is subtle character beats. So when Paul gets shot down in cold blood (Whedon might not have penned the script, but he can’t have a “true” finale without someone dying, can he?), it seems like we’ve been told where their relationship was instead of seeing it (I thought both Penikett and Dushku botched the one lengthy scene they really shared together, to be honest), and more problematically it’s something we’ve already seen: after all, just a few weeks ago Paul was braindead, so forgive me if I don’t shed a tear over his “real” passing.
I do not mean to say that Dushku struggled with Echo’s emotional reaction as she starts talking about Priya but lashes out at herself for never telling Paul how she felt: she was great in that scene, and it helped sell the story overall. But it just reminded me that if it had been Tony who had died, I would have been devastated, whereas Paul’s death went by without any sort of reaction at all. The show has strengths, and this season it has been Topher and Adelle dealing with their part in this whole ordeal (as collaborators, really) and Victor and Sierra discovering their true selves. When Echo is placed as a supporting player in those stories, as she was in the earlygoing here as she assists with the fun break-in at Rossum headquarters in Neuropolis, she’s a compelling action heroine with a unique set of skills for solving problems. By forcing her into an emotional story, and rushing it to sell its conclusion in a short period of time, it places it on the same level as Topher’s struggles or Tony and Priya’s discoveries, and frankly I just don’t buy it: that the show ended on an image of Echo, downloading memories of Paul into her head and settling into her old bed, feels wrong to me when the real story blew up in Adelle’s office, or was sitting on that couch in the middle of the Dollhouse.
The episode suffered a bit in terms of choosing where to place its focus. On the one hand, I thought that stuff like the dinner sequence at the farm had a nice air about it in terms of establishing the character dynamics at Safe Haven: it felt like the cast having their final meal together, and it was a nice bit of levity before things went to hell. However, then you have the time spent with Mini-Caroline, Meg, and Zone, which was one colossal waste of time. I understand that Whedon and Co. love Day, and so do I, but the characters were of no importance: when Zone and Meg got a final scene together to discuss what they did before the bombing, it just felt like a total miscalculation. There was so much they had to accomplish that bringing in the “Epitaph One” characters was a distraction; for those who’ve seen “Epitaph One,” their journeys were too generic to be worth our time, and for those who hadn’t they were too generic to represent the struggles of humanity that they seemed to exist as. This isn’t a pilot, so we don’t need Avatars to understand the ramifications, and if anything we’d rather understand how it affects our characters than how it affects two people that some people had never met before (or, if they had, had likely not grown very attached to).
I understand that the show didn’t want to do a plot driven finale: outside of a cheeky look at Harding (originally played by Keith Carradine) abusing his current body with gluttony and shopping for a new one amongst some recruits, we see only nameless butchers as threats against our heroes, and any sort of justification for why Echo’s plan from the penultimate episode failed is elided. Instead, a story was crafted that was focused on the characters, which is a great idea so long as you execute it properly. And while some moments (basically everything involving Topher/Adelle and Tony/Priya) were able to live up to those standards, most of the rest felt like it was rushing too fast to have much meaning, and forcing stories to the forefront at the expense of fleshing out the more interesting stories further (which also happened with Boyd’s transition from good to evil). I would have liked to see a bit more of Alpha (especially considering he turned into a good guy at some point over the past decade), and more with Tony/Priya would have been similarly welcome.
I understand that they want things to be left to the imagination, and I certainly don’t want the show to fill in every single gap: they had their time constraints, and they needed to do what they could to bring this story to a close. However, I do think that we needed to see more of what they felt was at stake with some stories: they pretended as if we would care as much about Echo and Paul as we would about Tony and Priya, and that just isn’t true. And by trying to do it all, by trying to create a story that brings all of that together in a single hour, some characters (like Adelle, who could have been given more to do even though Olivia Williams was amazing) fell by the wayside, and some history was written off as opposed to being written.
Of course, this is how the show has always been, so why should we expect the finale to be more even than the show itself? I think they could have streamlined the finale, playing with the Paul/Echo stuff (perhaps avoiding the sense of estrangement to avoid veering too close to Tony/Priya) and ditching Meg/Zone earlier in order to focus more on the characters that matter. And in the end, I say you go out on Topher looking over at the wall, seeing the people that will soon be remembering again, and simply saying “Huh” as the bomb explodes. That, to me, is your ending: hope for the future, but sheer uncertainty over what would happen next.
Perhaps this is just one final attempt to imagine Dollhouse a show where Dushku was never its lead, and where the characters with the most promise were always the focus of its attention. But if there’s a single legacy that Dollhouse will leave behind independent of its creator, it is the sense that a show was made and remade countless times in front of our eyes. We didn’t only see a show sort through growing pains, we saw those growing pains form, reform, and then slowly fade without ever entirely going away. It was a public display of the tumultuous creative process created wherein a creator, a network, and an audience convergence with an idea that wasn’t quite fully formed when it first arrived and which oscillated between disappointing and fascinating depending on the week.
It’s a legacy that will be more lesson than example, but one that nonetheless offered a journey worth taking even if its conclusion was reflective of the bumpy ride.
- Thank you to whoever decided to give Felicia Day a smaller gun this time around, and for making her seem far less competent by having her legs shot up. The “badass” reputation of Meg in “Epitaph One” just wasn’t working.
- However, boo to whoever decided to through Maurissa Tancharoen into the same position: I get that she once played a Doll, so it makes sense she would play this particular role, but even with the Whedon-in-Law factor and the ability for technology to adjust her skill sets, I’m not buying it.
- My favourite part of the finale? No theme song! Okay, I liked other parts better, but it was nice that the incongruous theme song wasn’t part of the episode, where it would have felt even more tonally off than usual.
- Neuropolis is the television equivalent of Unobtanium.
- In terms of where the now-jobless cast should go next, I’m with Todd in that Olivia Williams would be great on Mad Men, with many who think Enver Gjokaj would make a great guest on Burn Notice, and feel Dichen Lichman might be a good choice for the La Femme Nikita reboot (although I’m open to Charlie’s Angels too – did they ever cast that?).