The End of the Dollhouse

It’s been a couple of weeks since the final episode of Dollhouse hit the airwaves, and it’s taken me that long to really process what this season’s highs and lows have led to. While that may not seem necessary to some, the complete adrenaline-high I received in the final few episodes was so much that I needed to step back and retrace the events, right from the start. Sure, Dollhouse was just a tv show, and not even a hugely respected one (thus the cancellation) but that doesn’t mean its content was flimsy. Whedon is great at building shows with many layers and hidden arcs, and while they may not be as completely headf**king as say, the ones on Lost, they certainly pack a punch. So it’s very sad to see that he was forced to cram everything into roughly four episodes, with very little time to develop the smaller nuances he usually does so well.

The issue of pacing has its roots in Whedon’s approach to the show. Initially the show was moving at a slower pace, with frequent standalone episodes that contributed very little to the overall arc. We saw lots of different personae, with slight Echo aftereffects. If Dollhouse was anchored with the station, he would probably still be taking this approach. Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that time was growing short and the core plotlines needed addressing, and so the standalone episodes became far more integrated into the show’s mythology. Season 1 took this approach, but included standalone episodes all along the time line. Season 2, however, felt as though there was a clearly defined break between segments: those that aired prior to the November hiatus and those that aired after.

The initial episodes were primarily standalone and, with the exception of “Belonging”, could be ignored. They were just more imprints for Echo’s character. The episodes after the hiatus took on a far more frantic pace, attempting to bring in politics and intrigue while progressing both the mythology of the Dollhouse and character development. The double bill airings meant that you were getting hit with an awful lot of information every Friday night. The twists were addictive, but the nuances were lost. This pace continued right up to “The Hollow Men”, an episode that closed the story and could have closed the series nicely, had it not been for one little problem. That extra episode from season 1, “Epitaph 1”. This episode prevented the nice little ending provided by “The Hollow Men,” and almost guaranteed that a large portion of the viewing public would be royally pissed off.

I went into this season in a situation similar to a large percentage of the Dollhouse-watching public. I hadn’t seen “Epitaph 1”. It was an extra episode released on the dvd boxset and only aired months after the first season finished. I had no knowledge of the future that was set in stone, of the horrors that the tech could produce or of the relationships that would form. I remained that way right up until the third to last episode, “Getting Closer”, aired. This is the episode where everything gets turned on its head, where previously true-blue people revealed hidden aspects and where you realise how screwed up everything really is.

I’m glad I didn’t see “Epitaph 1” before then, because apart from providing a sense of doom to the remaining episodes, a lot of its footage is scattered throughout season 2. While it was a cool experience to watch and recognize clips, I definitely preferred to experience them for the first time as they occurred, not as flashbacks. According to the DVD’s commentary for this episode, Whedon and his writers created the story for Epitaph 1 with no really solid idea of how the time line between the present and the future would unfold. When watching this season for the second time (in order to get a better grasp on everything, I’ve since re-watched season 2. I highly recommend it), it certainly felt as though connections were being made in order to tie up issues. Some issues were left hanging with no real explanation (or mention) whilst others were addressed in a patchy way.

One of the biggest issues people seem to be having is that the story was finished poorly. Over the years, I’ve observed that a large percentage of the viewing public see time leaping within a show as cheating. Moving forward X years is thought of as a means to get writers off the hook for the interim period. Unfortunately, with “Epitaph 1” floating around in the ether as a way to finish off the show in case of cancellation, season 2 was written into a corner. As soon as cancellation news came down from on high, it was practically set in stone that the end of the season would deal with the future. Otherwise the story would never be finished and the tech would rule forever.

Given that there was only a finite number of episodes to cover the end of the plot arc and deal with tying up “Epitaph” loose ends, a time leap was inevitable, and it definitely left viewers with several hundred unanswered questions. Sure, some endings were satisfying, such as knowing that Sierra/Priya and Victor/Anthony did eventually get to start their life together. Others were unfortunate, but understandable. Paul’s death in battle (so reminiscent of Anya’s abrupt end in Buffy) was believable, given how he lived his life. I don’t agree with the crazy-ass solution Alpha/Echo came up with so that she could have him back, but it was logical for her. Knowing that Alpha somehow re-programmed himself to be a good guy was somewhat odd, but he was never really sane to begin with. It didn’t make you want to throw a handy nearby object at the TV.

Unfortunately the issue of how we got from destroying the Rossum corp. to tech ruining the world was addressed too vaguely to truly satisfy. Brief nods to what happened may avoid the unpleasant “exposition scene”, but they also drive followers mad with their lack of detail. The writers themselves didn’t seem to quite know what happened, and this shows far too much to be forgiven. There is some comfort in knowing that if a Serenity situation does arise, Whedon has the absolute perfect period in which to set it, and if that can’t be achieved then the Dollhouse could live on in comic form, just as Buffy, Angel and Firefly have done.

Of course, whether or not Dollhouse lives on in another form in the future, it is gone for now. Like Firefly before it, Dollhouse has been canceled too soon to realize its true potential, although it was given a long enough reprieve to finish off most of its stories in style. The final season may have been focused more on the exhilaration and excitement than on subtle character development, but it made for an enjoyable ride. Even “Epitaph 2” was worth the watch, though it did leave me wishing “The Hollow Men” had been the finale instead. The irritation caused by a sheer lack of detail is canceled out by the months of enjoyment provided by the remainder of the season.

So, when all is said and done, was Dollhouse worth the watch? Absolutely. Did season 2 improve on season 1? Definitely. Will I be buying the DVDs when they come out? You bet. However, do I think it’s up there with Buffy, Angel and Firefly? Sadly, no. When it was on top of its game, Dollhouse was up with the best of the Whedon productions, but unfortunately that wasn’t as high a percentage of episodes as it should have been. Perhaps it could have improved dramatically if given another season, it certainly did in this one. But with the Friday night slot, a network that bought one show but wanted another and a public not quite comfortable with the entire concept of the show, it’s amazing that it even got a second shot and I for one am glad that it did. Savour what remains of the Dollhouse. Remember the good, forgive and forget the bad, and finally, start hoping that it returns in another form to fill in the blanks.

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