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Goodbye to Whedon's Weird Idea: The Last Episode of Dollhouse

Dollhouse_beds Gather round, readers, as I tell you the tale of a show called Dollhouse.  It started out as a napkin doodle over a lunch date between Eliza Dushku and Joss Whedon.  Imagine, says Eliza, an opportunity for me to wear yoga pants and play a totally different character each week.  Imagine, says Joss, a chance to talk about minds and bodies, to look at the effect that technology has on society, to shake the pan of genre entertainment until something shining turns its face to the light.

Dollhouse’s final episode aired last Friday.  How did Whedon wrap up this short-lived, uneven, underappreciated and awesome show?  Spoilers ahoy.

Once upon a time, there was a show called Dollhouse about an underground spa with mind-wiped hotties for rent. It had a mildly interesting premise and a great cast.  It was promising but not particularly good, and it aired on Fox.

Every week brought on a new adventure centering around Eliza Dushku as Echo, one of the empty vessels. As a hostage negotiator one week and a backup singer the next, Echo’s trials were fascinating but not particularly engaging – the show lacked a solid character around which it could gel.  Also, some people didn’t approve of the sexbots-for-hire premise, because some people are delicate.  And stupid.

Whedon’s strategy to overcome the core problem of character was to build Echo bit by bit, accreting traits and memories from her engagements.  The show became, among other things, the story of how a person acquires personhood.

Then the 1st season DVDs came out with the unaired episode “Epitaph One,” and everything changed.

Epitaph One, the key to the second season of Dollhouse and a giant shadow over the first, is set ten years in the future (it even starts with the same title as Blade Runner: “Los Angeles 2019"), when mind-wiping technology has run amok.  The world has been reduced to mindless zombies (“Dumbshows”), mindless killbot zombies (“Butchers”), and a vanishingly small group of people who have retained their original personalities (“Actuals”).  A small band of Actuals breaks into the Dollhouse, now long abandoned, discovering there the horrifying story of humanity’s end and the possibility of its redemption.

Epitaph Two, the final episode of Dollhouse, picks up from the events of Epitaph One.  The burning junkheap of Los Angeles appears to be a general condition.  The city of Tuscon has become the bizarrely named Neuropolis, the headquarters of the corporate puppeteers who drowned the world, and who now play out their carnal appetites across an endless parade of host bodies.  Meanwhile, the people we’ve come to know have settled into an agrarian lifestyle at an armed hippie compound, where they grow strawberries and occasionally launch raids on Neuropolis.  There's a particularly amusing scene in which Echo holds one of the bad guys at the gunpoint, which elicits only a weary sneer: "Come on - you know I'm backed up".

With ten years between the previous episode and this one, the viewer is left to play a lot of catch-up, and your reaction to the missing pieces of information and character development will make or break the episode.  Tony and Priya, the great love story of the series, have made decisions that keep them irrevocably apart.  One of the slyest jokes in Dollhouse revolves around the fact that the two are inexorably drawn to each other despite the personalities inhabiting them, but they are unable to be together as themselves.  Topher is mentally and emotionally destroyed by his culpability in bringing about the destruction of the world.  Adelle has added a maternal warmth to her ice-queen persona.  Echo has become battle-hardened and emotionally closed off.  And Alpha - well, I'm not going to spoil that one for you.

The plot is driven by Topher's discovery that he can restore all the sorry mind-wiped jokers in the world to their original personalities.  As MacGuffins go, it's a bit dubious, but it drives the characters back to the Dollhouse.  There they will be able to choose whether to remain underground and keep their fractured personalities, or venture outside and have their minds rebooted into innocence.

I found the reboot device perplexing at first, but after some thought I realize that it's a perfect fit with the show's themes.  Humanity will inherit a broken world with no understanding of how it got that way, but I suppose this is the human condition - the place we are born into is generally a shambles, and it's our responsibility to tidy it up as best we can for the next batch of arrivals.  Dollhouse is a story about what happens when we treat the world and its people as toys to play with, and to discard when they break.  It is an indictment of our reptile brains, but ultimately a love letter to whatever assembly of neurons calls itself character, or soul.

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I cried my face off.


i want more. less of the alias-like-dress-up-the-hottie episodes and more of the world as we know it ending. Wheadon took his sweet time getting to the punch line and lost a few of us along the way. I only caught up recently because my DVR had recorded the new season. Now I am sad it is gone.


I love this article. I will miss this show.


Is there any way we can convince the American public to give a show a CHANCE? I think the show had at least one more season in it. It had gotten pretty damn good.

Excellent recap. Oh, Alpha...


I was NOT happy with what they did with Paul. Not at all. I will miss this show so very much.


LOL. I have a cold, so... sniffles. Shane keeps thinking LOST is making me cry. SNORT! OK it *has* made me cry but not today.


Poor Joss. I miss dollhouse already. Adding it to the list. I also miss Firefly, Buffy and Angel, though, so I guess I will survive. But barely.


I miss Dollhouse already, although awesome reviews like this make the pain just a little less.

I can has moar Alpha now pleez?

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