Episode 13 - Epitaph One
28 September 2009
Synopsis: In Los Angeles in 2019 a small band of people with their own minds still in tact stumble upon the Dollhouse. Being so far underground they think they will be safe from the technology which can now remotely wipe their minds. They find the chair and use it to gather memories from its former inhabitants to discover how the world changed ten years before.
In flashback we see Topher’s first day in the Dollhouse where he begins to apply his genius to the technology. We see Ballard as Echo’s handler and see that she will learn to retain her own personality despite continuing imprints. We see Rossum’s decision to begin to sell Active’s bodies to their rich clients, so that they can live forever. At some point the technology is developed to programme people to kill those who aren’t programmed. The Dollhouse becomes a refuge for those still in possession of their own minds. Caroline finds a compound where no one can be imprinted and returns to the Dollhouse to rescue her friends. Dr Saunders stays behind to help anyone else who might come looking for answers.
The Good: Gripping and as dense with revelations about the future as a Lost flashforward this episode is quite a shock to the system. Opening on a dystopian future created by the imprinting technology is a really clever concept for an episode. But as it unfolds we begin to see the entire plot of the show unfold before our eyes. The scope of the revelations is truly surprising and very much maintains the questionable direction choices which Joss Whedon has made with this uniquely adventurous and frustrating television show. But for now, to the good.
Like many a good piece of television, the viewer is in a position of power from the start. When the group of “actuals” find the Dollhouse we immediately know where they are and most likely what has happened to the world above ground. Immediately the viewer is engaged because in this rare position of power over the characters our imaginations are running wild with what might happen next. When the “actual” discover there is someone lurking in the shadows, once more we are in a position to speculate and that power definitely hooks you in as a viewer.
Of course the situation is hugely intriguing on its own. Suddenly you realise that Whedon’s vision for Dollhouse was so much grander and wide reaching than who-will-Echo-sleep-with-then-beat-up-this-week. Suddenly Dollhouse appears to have a story which fits its dark ideas. When rich people are hiring fancy prostitutes, it’s perhaps easier to ignore the implications of what the technology has done to humanity. But when the world is a war zone and your best friend could be dead any second, suddenly it’s very clear to see.
That is perhaps the strongest element in the story when you look beyond the character revelations. Technology which could wipe your mind or swap bodies would destroy humanity. In 1984 the only place men could be free was inside their own minds. But in the Dollhouse future no one is safe. Freedom has gone because even the innocent girl at your side may not be who she says she is. Topher weeps in his own insanity as he realises what his genius has unleashed on the world.
The story of Mag, Zone and the other “actuals” is filled with horror and sci fi clichés but in the claustrophobic yet familiar surroundings it never becomes tiresome. The “tattoos” and the excitement over hot showers and food are nice touches to show the reality of their situation. The “actuals” story provides a solid context for the revelations which pour forth from the chair. It’s an understated part of the story that the very technology which destroyed their world is responsible for giving them a way to find their safe haven.
The revelations of course tell us so many things which the first twelve episodes had hinted at or led us to believe. Paul will indeed become Caroline’s handler and she will finally break her programming and be able to remember who she is. They will work with Alpha to create a place where people can avoid being wiped. Perhaps with Boyd’s help as he too seems to be on the side of good. Adelle and Topher are racked with guilt for their parts in the coming apocalypse (see Best Moment). The Dollhouse becomes a refuge for the actives who survived and regained their original personalities. A form of religion was created amidst the chaos. Dr Saunders’ face is mended but she decides to stay in the Dollhouse alone. Each in their own ways are major revelations but they also conform generally to what the series had led us to believe about the characters.
The true purpose of the Dollhouse project isn’t quite revealed but it’s clear that immortality was too tempting for Rossum and their friends to pass up. Victor once more gets first prize in the acting stakes as he plays an arrogant Mr Ambrose with aplomb. The remark that the real Ambrose was allergic to shellfish (and so was enjoying some in Victor’s body) was a lovely touch. A reminder of the simple temptations amongst the gigantic greed and insanity which was about to occur.
Ultimately the best thing about Epitaph One is that it makes clear the grand and dark vision which Joss Whedon possesses for the show. The frustrations of the Dollhouse setting are thoroughly torn up here as we see the full implications of what the technology could do if employed on a global scale. “Unless China puts down another blanket signal!” Lynn says to the “actuals” early on. Clearly the possibilities are vast.
The Bad: As mentioned before, there are clichés or familiar looking ideas a plenty. I am never one to castigate a show for using famous concepts but when several occur to you in one episode then we may have a problem. The story of the “safe haven” sounds a lot like The Matrix where those not plugged in head for Zion, the last human city. Caroline, the first person to break her programming, returns to lead her people to safety. Very much like Neo.
Meanwhile down in the Dollhouse we get a bunch of people dying off one by one amidst shower scenes and dark surroundings. We even have Whisky appearing mysteriously, all pale, like the girl haunting people in The Grudge.
A very unnecessary touch was when Zone discovers that little Iris is not who she says she is. He deliberately arms her with a gun before he grabs her and throws her in the chair. Yet he had no information that he wished to obtain from her, no con he wanted to pull on her. So why did he wait to expose her? For no other reason than to add an extra moment of drama. In this episode that moment wasn’t needed.
As for the endless revelations; your take on them will depend entirely on your perspective on the show Dollhouse (see Epilogue). But the biggest weakness of the show from episode one has been the lack of character development. We have never seen Boyd or Paul do anything but work. We never saw Caroline do anything but fight against the system. We barely saw who Victor and Sierra were before they became dolls. We never saw Topher justify his work to someone not in the Dollhouse. And so on. The problem is without these moments we have no real reason to care about these characters. How much more heartbreaking would the scene between Adelle and Topher have been (see Best Moment) if we knew them as fully rounded people? When we see Victor and Sierra sharing a moment or Boyd and Clare, there is no real emotional resonance because our connection to those characters is so tenuous. We know they are the “good guys” but I don’t really care about them.
The Unknown: Again Adelle’s mysterious tea is shown, what’s in it? Who fixed Dr Saunders’ face and why? What happened to November? Why is Alpha helping Caroline? Adelle says that immortality and selling off actives is not what they (Rossum) set out to do. What did they set out to do? Who started the war and why? Where is safe haven?
Best Moment: Having slowly lost his grip on reality, Topher is like a child, only trusting Adelle and spending his days inside one of the sleep pods. He recounts the way entire city’s were turned into war zones using one signal. As if for the first time and the thousandth he asks whether it was him who created that very technology. He crawls into a ball and sobs and moans as Adelle looks down, trying to comfort him amongst obvious feelings of pity and guilt. After a season of not really seeing their human sides, this is quite the compensation. Especially when placed in contrast to the earlier flashback where Topher swaggered around demanding a trampoline for his office. Strong acting of a complicated scene with understandable emotions being communicated.
Epilogue: Fast paced, intriguing, hugely important to the show’s arc story, it’s difficult not to look at this as an excellent episode. But my reviews are based on what’s good for the show as a whole and I’m not convinced that this is.
When quizzed about this episode Joss Whedon seemed to confirm that the thrust of it is canon, even if the details may not be. The implications for season two are difficult to imagine. Will those of us who watched this episode now be bored seeing these revelations unfold at a much slower pace? Or will the show steer away from this storyline directly?
In many ways this feels like a fitting end to the whole show. If season two merely fleshes out the ideas seen here then what is there to look forward to? As good as this episode is it leaves me feeling much like I did after every episode of Dollhouse’s first season. Wishing it had been made in a very different way.
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