And then we came to the end.
Before digging into “Epitaph Two,” let us pause to consider how far this series has come from the uncertain beginnings of Season One, when Echo was off on self-contained missions-of-the-week in various guises, to the end of Season Two, when an infinitely more balanced cast of characters vies to save the last vestiges of humanity from corporate-engineered oblivion. In essence, we’ve gone from Charlie’s Angels to the apocalypse: Could this have possibly been Joss Whedon’s grand plan all along or did he and his writers figure out what their show was well after it started?
Whatever the case, you have to admire the sheer perversity a series-ender like “Epitaph Two,” which is the sequel to an episode that was basically relegated to a mind-blowing DVD supplement. I hope Dollhouse fans had a chance to catch up on “Epitaph One” before tonight’s show—or get a refresher if they had seen it earlier—because even the episode from two weeks ago was poor preparation for this big leap forward. Even I had needed several minutes to get my bearings, and I’ve covered 26 episodes of this show at length. Major networks aren’t in the business of running shows “for fans only,” but this is the closest I can recall to that; anyone casually tuning into the show for the first time tonight would be completely flummoxed.
Had Dollhouse lasted for three seasons or more, I’m sure we’d have spent a lot more time in apocalypse-land, and gotten some more clarity on things like the “actuals,” “freakshows,” “dumbshows,” and “butchers” that wander this scorched earth or the “Neuropolis” city that’s popped up as Tucson’s decadent, nefarious corporate replacement. But there’s something to be said for the heady rush of getting a lot of business done fast; in fact, the task of wrapping up the show in a season has given Dollhouse an urgency that it sorely needed from the beginning. So while I’d have liked to hear, say, the whole story about how Victor/Tony and Sierra/Priya arrived at the fractious point where they started tonight, it’s fun to take the mental leap without that missing information.
In any case, maybe the best place to start sorting out this episode is with the goal: In Topher’s words, “I can bring back the world.” Bringing back the world is not an easy proposition. For one, Topher himself has been driven to madness, both by his unwitting role in bringing about the apocalypse and his current diabolical project for the bad guys, who are executing one prisoner a day in front of him to keep him motivated. Then there’s the metaphysical problem of little Caroline—a small girl carrying Caroline’s imprint—searching for herself in the form of a multi-imprinted warrior Echo. Adelle and Priya are officially off the reservation, having retreated in true end-of-the-world conspiracy theorist style to a simple farm in the boondocks. Victor, meanwhile, leads an unstable band of rebel warriors who are equipped with keychains full of different imprints for different skillsets, and use handheld wipe devices to cycle through them. Ballard is a (fake) “dumbshow” body for a modern-day Nero to occupy. And hey look, Felicia Day is back!
Have I missed anything? I probably have, but the old gang, battered but defiant, comes together behind Topher’s plan to set off a pulse bomb that will essentially hit the reset button on humanity, restoring everyone back to their true selves. (Granted, this seems like a magical plot device of outrageous proportions, but it leads to some fascinating developments, not least the radical notion of saving the world via suicide bombing.) Accomplishing this goal means returning to the Dollhouse once more—and in a nifty twist, witnessing Alpha running the show—and blasting their way to Los Angeles to get Topher back to his workpit. Of course, it’s not in everyone’s interests to return things back to the way they were before Rossum started human engineering: Relationships and memories will be wiped out in the process, and Victor’s militia, for one, doesn’t want to lose access to all those awesome imprints.
It’s a frantic rush to the finish, no question, but “Epitaph Two” proved a thrilling, twist-filled hour with real emotional resonance. I’ve always found the idea of this show engaging on a pure, abstract sci-fi level, with its themes of identity, corporate control, and human exploitation. But I’m newly surprised by how much I’ve come to care for these characters and where they wind up in the end. And that’s a small miracle, given how the main complaint many have had with the show is how the ever-shifting identities of the characters made it impossible to glean who they really were. In the home stretch, I think we have a pretty strong grasp to care about their destinies. (I’ll confess that the Caroline/Ballard relationship didn’t quite resonate with me in the end, though I loved the romantic notion of her “letting him in.”) And at the end of the bleakest network TV series I can recalls, I’d say a little hard-won hope and happiness is well-earned.
• For as much blame as FOX warrants for Dollhouse’s rough takeoff—the scrapped pilot, the uncertain early episodes, the Friday death slot—the network deserves credit for producing a show this ambitious and allowing it to air all but one episode for two seasons, despite deadly ratings. This wasn’t a Firefly situation, where Whedon needed a movie to tie up loose ends. This was a complete series, and we should be grateful for what we got.
• Tailor-made Dushku zinger: “Thanks for the insight, mini-me, but you missed a quarter of this game. We’re not ahead.”
• Appreciated this deflating of a cheesy inspirational line: “The world still needs heroes, kid.” “Did you really just say that?”
• “We were born ready. Okay, not technically.”
• If I have a complaint with this episode, I’d say the acting was a little shaky at times. It’s an emotional situation, to be sure, but the actors were encouraged to take it over the top sometimes.
• In a series where the “dolls” are violated horribly, it was a pleasant irony to hear “mini-me” say, “I’m the lucky one. I get to start over.” Innocence lost and regained.
• Thanks for tuning in, everyone. I’ve appreciated the passion and insight you’ve brought to the table every week, not to mention the sheer volume of response. In the glorious alternate universe of The A.V. Club, Dollhouse was a smash hit.
• I’m taking a break from weekly recapping for a month, but I’ll be back with two premium shows this spring: FX’s Justified, an Elmore Leonard-inspired series starring Timothy Olyphant, and HBO’s Tremé, the new series from David Simon, creator of The Wire. Hope you’ll join me…