Saying Goodbye to the Dollhouse

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On Friday night, television’s body-swap-show torch was officially passed from Dollhouse to Caprica. (Supernatural also featured a body-swap episode last week, but as a one-off it doesn’t count.)

Joss Whedon had already broken my heart one time too many for me to watch Dollhouse with any sense of trust. But unlike many of my friends—some of whom found the very premise of the show so offensive they vowed never to watch it—I was willing to give it a shot.

So I watched. But I held myself aloof until last weekend, when I found myself watching “Epitaph Two,” the series finale, a second and then a third time. Damn you, Joss! How is it that even your weakest work can get under my skin?

Joss Whedon, Doomed Auteur
And he did it with almost everything stacked against him—from the beginning, when the pilot was scrapped and Dollhouse was assigned to the Friday-night “death slot,” to its cancellation shortly after the beginning of Season 2, up to the very end, when Fox made the ballsy (if bizarre) decision to air the second half of a two-part finale without ever showing part 1. (For a variety of reasons, “Epitaph One” was released on the Season 1 DVD set, iTunes, and Amazon Unbox, but was never broadcast.)

Then again, cancellation may have been what made the end of the series so good. The final episodes had a real sense of urgency. A show about a high-tech whorehouse in which beautiful people’s personalities were reset each week to fulfill rich folks’ fantasies was always going to be a hard sell. But throw in a mega-corporation with an evil plan to use personality-erasing technology to take over the world, and you start to get people’s attention.

In Defense of Eliza Dushku
One criticism of Dollhouse that I never agreed with was that Eliza Dushku wasn’t a good enough actress to pull off Echo’s many roles. It’s true that Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman (as actives Victor/Tony and Sierra/Priya) made much more complete and startling transformations than Dushku ever did. Echo’s persona (which was awfully similar to Dushku’s) shone through each of her personalities. But that was sort of the point. Echo was always Echo, even when she was being someone else.

The Dollhouse: Oz or Wonderland?
Despite its creepifying subject matter, Season 2 gradually became funnier and more playful. “Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” references appeared throughout. One that sticks in my mind came in the penultimate episode, when Tony and Priya found a note that said "Press Me" on the Chair’s activation button—and, with no more reflection than Alice downing a bottle labeled “Drink Me”—imprinted Tony with what turned out to be Topher’s helpful personality. There were throwaway lines like “I guess there really is no place like home” and references to the Dollhouse as a “rabbit hole.” And the explosion that blew Topher out of a high-rise window looked to me a lot like a cyclone that might just send him somewhere over the rainbow.

Topher, who appeared so heartless at the beginning of the series, was clearly ’s Tin Man. Adelle, who found her own ethical center and the courage to heed it, was its Cowardly Lion. Boyd was the Wizard—the Hollow Man behind the curtain. Echo, of course, was Dorothy. The Scarecrow? Ballard, the one Echo would “miss most of all,” who wound up existing only in Echo’s brain.

Dropping the Body Count
“Epitaph Two” had a surprisingly low body count for a Whedon finale, with only Ballard and Topher getting more or less definitively killed off. Still, the ending wasn’t exactly cheery. It was almost the opposite of the end of Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in which Buffy saved the world one more time *and* freed herself from the burden of solo Slayerdom. Dollhouse, by contrast, ended with the world in a post-apocalyptic shambles. Worse, Echo’s last act was to jump into her sleeping pod with a serene smile on her face, apparently planning to dream away the rest of her life with Ballard in her head. After all Echo’s insistence that she was a real girl, I found that scene ickier than any role the Dollhouse had forced her to play.

Not that a little ickiness is necessarily a bad thing. Dollhouse was always a disturbing show about the ambiguous nature of identity. A straightforward happy ending would have been a betrayal of its premise. Also, Joss Whedon doesn’t do straightforward happy endings.

So, Joss, where are we going next?

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