Dollhouse ends as it lived its two-year life: Uneven. The first half of “Epitaph Two,” the series finale, which aired Friday, was broken, but then the show pulled itself together for a moving ending.
The episode opened confusingly with what appeared to be a “previously on” sequence that set the stage: We’re now 10 years in the future, the world has gone all Night of the Living Dead, and Felicia Day, the waifish actress who stars in, co-produces, and writes the Web sitcom The Guild is butch. It’s all a sequence of quick-cut scenes, looking like they were taken from some previous episode that I’d never seen, which had me scratching my head. I checked IMDB to see if we missed an episode of the second season. No, we did not. That confusing montage is how the series finale starts.
A little Googling solves the mystery: “Epitaph Two,” the series finale, is a follow-up to “Epitaph One,” the first season finale, which never aired. It was only available on DVD. So the people like me, who only watched the series on the network and never saw “Epitaph One,” are left struggling to catch up with “Epitaph Two.” You stay classy Fox, way to show how much you care about your viewers.
The first half-hour of “Epitaph Two” was disorganized and disjointed. I suspect it would have been more enjoyable if I′d seen “Epitaph One.” “Epitaph Two” featured at least two major new characters, played by Day and Zack Ward. I presume they were introduced in “Epitaph One.” But because I hadn’t seen E1 (I’m getting tired of typing out the full names), I couldn’t care about the two new characters, especially since Ward’s character always seemed to be complaining and insulting people. Maybe he showed redeeming characteristics in E1, but Fox viewers didn’t get to see that. He was annoying. I wanted to hit him over the head with a shovel.
Day was great. I’m used to seeing her in The Guild, where she plays a delicate neurotic, like Woody Allen if he were a pretty Irish-American woman, about fifty years younger, and lived in L.A. Well, actually, Felicia Day’s character on The Guild is nothing like Woody Allen, except for being smart, fast-talking, and neurotic. And the other characters I’ve seen her play on TV—including a patient on House, and a gloomy Potential Slayer on Buffy—have always been delicate. But in Dollhouse she was very different, she was tough and practical. Felicia Day has acting range.
We learn that the brainwipe technology that allowed the Dollhouse to exist has been unleashed on the world and it has run wild and out of control, much like Twitter, and most of the people of the world are now mindless zombies, some of whom are predators and others prey. They watch a lot of reality television, eat bad food and lead largely sedentary lives—oh, wait, no, that’s the real world today. The brainwiped people of the future just wander around randomly, not saying, “Braaaaaaaains!!”
Not everyone is brainwiped. We never do find out why some are brainwiped and some are not. Some of the un-brainwiped people get rich trading in brainwiped bodies. They are not nice people.
Fashion in the future is different from today. Most of the people buy their clothes from the Brown Shapeless Shop, where the characters in The Matrix shopped, except for some who have hit the leather boutiques in San Francisco’s Castro District, and who dress like Mad Max. Architecture is mostly Road Warrior, except for a few characters who live in the Waltons’ farmhouse.
There is lots of running and fighting. Viktor arrives in a really awesome big-ass truck. Mind-storage has improved; throughout most of the series, it required a removable hard drive to store a mind, now you can get a mind onto a thumb drive with a USB port. USB technology has really improved between now and 2020; they can store a whole mind on USB whereas I can’t even get my USB port to reliably connect to my digital camera.
I was pretty much coasting through the first half of the show, just waiting for it to wrap up so I could find out how it ended. But the second part really picked up, largely, I think, because of the presence of Alan Tudyk as Alpha, Olivia Williams as Adele DeWitt, and the wonderful Fran Kranz as Topher Brink.
Alpha arrives. He’s now sane and kind. I wish we got to find out why. I’m not sure whether that was in E1.
Olivia and Topher have some tender moments. There always seemed to be a strong bond between them, even as she played the domineering boss and he was the insubordinate nerd employee. Here we see a genuine and moving brother-sister connection between them; Topher is broken, he has been driven mad, and Adelle loves him and aches to take care of him and make him whole. She’s heartbroken she can’t do anything for him.
I’m being harsh here and doing mean-spirited fannish humor at the show’s expense—but, really, Dollhouse for its two-year run was a great effort, even if it didn’t quite work much of the time.
I loved the show as a metaphor for life in the developed world here in the 21st Century. We live in a world dominated by big corporations, many of which often do bad things, and we have to figure out how to thrive in that world without betraying our principles. Like the Actives in the Dollhouse, the world demands that we play different roles, and we—to use the ritual phrase of the series—”try to be our best” while doing them. Like the Dolls, sometimes our work requires us to do things we’re not entirely comfortable with. Unlike the Dolls, we have to live with the memories of what we did.
The themes of Dollhouse remind me of The Wire. David Chase, who created that show, says he wrote The Wire as a Greek tragedy in which “fated and doomed protagonists are confronted by a system that is indifferent to their heroism, to their individuality, to their morality. But instead of Olympian gods, Capitalism is the ultimate god. Capitalism is Zeus.”
In Dollhouse, technology and big business, especially the Rossum Corporation, are the indifferent gods against which the characters struggle.
Adele and her team were at first villains exploiting the Dolls, but like the characters in The Sopranos and Deadwood, they tried to live up to a moral code in an immoral system. Adele and her team really cared about the Dolls and their well-being. The Dolls were treated like animals, but they were well-cared-for animals, given the best food and comfort and medical care.
One very memorable scene, for me, was the end of Boyd Langton. It was morally disturbing. He had already been mind-wiped at that point, with no memory of his past horrible behavior. He had the sweet, stupid smile of the blank Doll. Could he still be considered guilty of the crimes he committed? His death was an extremely uncomfortable moment. I think the writers intended it to be uncomfortable; I can’t imagine any writer in the 21st Century strapping a dynamite vest on a character and sending him off to be a suicide bomber unless that writer wanted the audience to squirm.
Also, Boyd’s death reminded me of a rule about TV and movies that an African-American friend passed on to me. He learned it from his brother when they were children. The rule is: The black guy dies. You see a sympathetic black man on a mixed-race TV show, most of the time that guy is going to either turn out to be a villain, or he’s going to die, or both. My friend isn’t angry about this, he just points it out as a fact. I point it out to you now. Don’t argue with me about it, just watch and see for yourself.
Another memorable scene: Enver Gjokaj, the actor who played Victor, as Topher 2.0. Wonderfully funny. Also, Topher’s romance with Dr. Bennett Halverson, played by Summer Glau.
I’m now a fan of at least a half-dozen of the actors who I hadn’t heard of before Dollhouse: In addition to Gjokaj, I like Harry Lennix, who played Boyd; Franz Kranz, who played Topher; Tahmo Penikett, who played Paul Ballard; Dichen Lachman, who played Sierra; Olivia Williams, who played Adele; and Miracle Laurie, who played Melly. I liked Eliza Dushku, who struggled unsuccessfully to play all the different characters who Echo became. I’d already been a fan of Amy Acker, Glau, and Reed Diamond, and Dollhouse made me like them even more.
And of course I’m a fan of Joss Whedon. During the really bad parts of the Dollhouse first season, his name and that “GRR! AARGH!” during the credits were the only things that kept me watching. Many of Dollhouse′s best moments were Joss’s wonderfully witty dialogue:
Topher: You know what I like? Brown sauce. What’s it made of? Science doesn’t know.
Adelle: It’s made of brown
Topher: Brown … mined from the earth by the hardscrabble brown miners of North Brownterton.
Adelle: Do you have any crisps?
Topher: You haven’t seen my drawer of inappropriate starches?
Echo: He’s ten times the man you are, and you’re, like, forty guys!
Adelle: “There are three flowers in a vase. The third flower is green.”
And of course:
“Would you like a treatment?”
“Did I fall asleep?”
“For a little while.”
“Do you trust me?”
“With my life.”
Dollhouse was a valiant effort, Joss and the rest of the people involved in it should be proud of the work they did even if it was a failure, both dramatically and in the ratings. If you don’t fail sometimes, it means you’re not trying hard enough. A good failure is a badge of honor, and Dollhouse was a great failure. I’m looking forward to seeing what Whedon, and everyone else in Dollhouse, do next. Whedon is reportedly meeting with FX, and he’s due to direct an episode of Glee.