Huh. So that’s how Dollhouse ended: with a jumbled, unfocused episode that epitomized many of the show’s shortcomings.
It didn’t help that Misty and I watched Epitaph One right before the finale. Epitaph One was the first season episode that only showed up on the DVD release, at least in the US. It was set ten years after Dollhouse’s main timeline, at a point where the mindwipe and imprinting technology had become widespread and readily abused. People could be erased remotely and have new personalities imprinted on them. Everyone was paranoid, and with good reason. How did you know that you were still you? What was to keep someone from wiping you and hijacking your body? How do you live in a world where one nation can phone the citizens of another, wipe them, and turn them into an instant fifth column? Epitaph One reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s stories where people’s identities were fluid and no one was sure who they were any more. It was smart, it was engaging, and it hinted at a show that I very much would have enjoyed watching.
Epitaph Two, the series finale, failed to live up to Epitaph One’s promise. A lot of that is probably due to how rushed the show was. Credit Whedon and his writing team for wrapping everything up, but the lack of time meant that there was no time to build the sense of dread that the show really needed. Here’s this world-changing technology that in the end brings down civilization, and instead of seeing it happen, we get a “meanwhile, ten years later”. It was a classic case of story events being far too exciting to be shown.
Character beats were rushed, making the finale feel like someone’s fanfic, as if someone said, “Hey, what if it were ten years later?” and immediately fired up their copy of Wordpad. Alpha reappears, only now he’s a good guy and is about as dangerous as Bertie Wooster! Anthony loves that the technology lets him pick up new skills instantly, while Priya hates the technology! They’ve split; I wonder if they’ll get back together! Will Paul and Caroline get back together? Only time and cliché tropes will tell!
There was no time to establish how the characters moved from point A to point Ten Years Later, so their choices in Epitaph Two had very little emotional impact. Topher’s crazy, see, because he’s destroyed the world, but it’s okay, because he’ll get redemption. He’s going to push a giant reset button that would make the Simpsons proud, and it’ll kill him in the process. Meanwhile Adelle gets to wring her hands in the background because she now loves Topher. Underlying it all is a weird cavalier attitude to killing off people’s copies, even by the copies themselves. Caroline’s personality ends up in a young girl, and that splinter of Caroline is quite happy to be erased at the end? Really? Even though that’s effectively the death of an individual? Would you be willing to die if you knew a copy made of you several years ago was going to go on living? We’re who we are in part because of our continuous memories. Cut that thread, and the person made up of those memories is gone. They’ve bobbled something that even a forty-year-old Star Trek novel got right.
The finale also relied heavily on Whedon’s established narrative kinks. You’d think Whedon would develop new ones, or at least outgrow his old tricks, but no. It’s like seeing a forty-year-old man dressed in his childhood sailor suit. Paul is killed surprisingly and unexpectedly because that’s how Whedon likes to generate pathos. Much of the population is insane after being mind-wiped and imprinted and are called Butchers because Reavers had already been taken.
In the end, the series really was Rapehouse. Caroline, the strong woman who was the series’ center, realizes she loves Paul the stalker only after he’s dead, so she puts his personality in her brain. I cannot summon enough words to explain how creepy that is.
Once upon a time, Joss Whedon did some truly amazing, ground-breaking work. Maybe he’ll go back to doing that again now that Dollhouse has been put out of its misery.