In the thirteenth and final episode of the first season of Dollhouse, WELL, ALL OF THAT WAS UNEXPECTED. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.
I’m sitting here in awe at my desk at my apartment in Oakland, and it’s been nearly an hour since “Epitaph One” finished. I doodled about on my guitar, procrastinated some more, and I’ve finally decided that I need to come up with something to say about this hour of television. It’s kind of fitting that I just watched/experienced Commentary! The Musical because it fully introduced me to Maurissa Tancharoen, both her singing and her fabulous, fantastical blog. And now I can see that she and Jed Whedon were responsible for this teleplay, and I’m just so honored to have experienced this.
I now know that this was never “supposed” to be a season finale, but I didn’t learn that until after “Epitaph One” ended. It changes nothing about how I feel about this spectacular, moving, and downright bewildering story. It fits perfectly at the end of season one, acting as a brilliant way to show us the future and advance so many bits of foreshadowing littered throughout this season. Look, don’t get me wrong: I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I will forever appreciate what that show means to me. But Dollhouse is written better, and every episode from this season (especially post-“Man on the Street”) has shown to me what Joss Whedon and the fantastic cast of writers, actors, actresses, and crew members can do with the realm of fictional television. This is Whedon’s most consistent work that I’ve experienced, and the ferocity with which the Dollhouse story is told is just so unreal to me.
I’ll remember “Epitaph One” for a very, very long time.
There are a number of things at work in this “finale” that seemed specifically aimed at my enjoyment, so I want to address those before I talk about the horrifying and intriguing implications of all the plot twists present. So, first:
If you look at many of the movies that I adore and consider my favorites – Mulholland Drive, Sunset Boulevard, There Will Be Blood, The Conversation, The Fountain, amongst many others – I tend to gravitate towards films whose stories are told oddly. Whether they’re nonlinear or experiment with bizarre pacing, I’ve found that I really enjoy exploring the different ways a story can unfold. It’s why LOST so perfectly hit every emotional and story button I ever had, and there are even examples of the flash forward technique we see in “Epitaph One” that are done brilliantly on that show, too. I love a story that accelerates rapidly and relentlessly just as much as I love one that builds slowly and delicately. And I love a story that’s also a puzzle.
Here, I get so much to work with, to chew on, to dissect and analyze. At the same time, I’m entertained, I’m frightened, and then when “Remains” plays and Whiskey sits obediently on the second story as she watches her existence fade away, I’m destroyed. This. Is. Good. Storytelling.
I brought this up a lot while reading The Sandman over on Mark Reads, but I love when fiction can re-visit a period in history and re-contextualize it for the audience. (The same goes for Doctor Who!) I also love when entire futures are imagined based on a new understanding of the past, and “Epitaph One” veers into dystopian science fiction in just one episode. All those warnings about the need to discover the true purpose of the Dollhouse come to fruition when it’s shown that the technology used for wipes and programming has leaked, and it has caused a global war between the Actuals and the imprinted humans. “Haunted” foreshadowed this eventual war over immortality, and now we see the horrifying effects of that. The scope and size of the Dollhouse universe just expanded dramatically, and I love it.
More than any of Whedon’s shows, there’s so much here that relies on the canon established in previous episodes. Granted, Dollhouse is both far more dense and serialized than Buffy, Angel, or Firefly, so the comparison is only tangential. But this isn’t related to the plot alone. So many of the emotional cues in “Epitaph One” are character based. Would we feel as strongly about Caroline returning to the Dollhouse to lead others to Safe Haven if we hadn’t gotten flashbacks to Caroline’s life prior to becoming a doll? Would the reveal that Alpha, of all people, has found a way to prevent people from being wiped be as strange to hear unless we’d seen him in action during “Omega”? Would Whiskey’s sacrifice be as heartbreaking without the knowledge that she’s been a doll this entire time, and that in the previous episode, she just discovered this? AND BY GOD, WOULD WE HAVE BEEN AS EMOTIONALLY DESTROYED BY TOPHER’S BREAKDOWN IF HE HADN’T SPENT AN ENTIRE SEASON REFUSING TO THINK ABOUT THE MORAL IMPLICATIONS OF HIS WORK? Oh god, this entire time, I have said that I wanted to see Topher face the reality of what he’s done, and I completely take this back TAKE IT BACK PLEASE OH MY GOD.
“Epitaph One” is also fascinating because it gives us moments from the future that make little sense. What did Boyd do to need to run away? Why is he so close to Whiskey? How did the Dollhouse technology escape? Why is Paul Ballard Echo’s handler? What are the two doing that requires Echo to maintain two personalities at one time? What did DeWitt and Topher choose to do about Clive Ambrose’s horrific offer to sell Actives for nine figure sums? Hell, how much of this can I believe? I mean, it’s not like the Actuals are viewing videotape evidence of the past. These are memories, remember? So whose are they? Are they fiction or fact? Who made them and stored them? Are they a trap? Oh god.
This story is just so complex and great, and I love that the writers inherently trust their audience to sift through it. I LOVE IT.
So what did I just watch?
I was able to put some of the pieces together while watching “Epitaph One.” The imprint technology leaked, it went wireless, and wars broke out over the world. Entire armies can be raised through a simple robocall, and humanity is split between Actuals and the imprinted. The Actuals, borrowing from a technique that Priya Tsetsang first used, tattoo themselves with “birthmarks,” which are their real names on their back, so that they can maintain the integrity of the Actuals. They’re looking for a place called “Safe Haven” where Alpha apparently determined a “cure” for having one’s memory wiped, and Caroline is leading folks from the Dollhouse there. Did she make it? I don’t know; I don’t know what year it is when Caroline returns to the Dollhouse with Ballard.
Actually, I am left with a lot of questions, but I know that’s the point of this episode. The implications of the Dollhouse technology are laid out before me, and the world has become a wasteland. The very nature of identity is at stake. And Dominic was right. Oh god, DOMINIC CAME BACK AND HE LOOKED SO AWFUL AND EVERYTHING HURT. Will he appear in season two? How many blanks are going to be filled in for me? How much of what I’ve seen is a clue to the eventual end of this show? What happened to November???
For now, I’ll just bask in the awesomeness that is “Epitaph One.” Bravo. This is simply incredible.
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