A couple of weeks ago I found myself with an urge to step back in time 10 years and re-watch Joss Whedon’s short lived, Dollhouse. Here is Part 3 of my thoughts on the show.
You can read Part 1 here.
Season 2 of Dollhouse brought the show out of the story-of-the-week format and instead took a much more heavily serialised approach to its storytelling. Early in the season we’re introduced to elements like Senator Perrin (Alexis Denisof) and his quest to out the dollhouse, Miracle Laurie’s return as Madeline and her unease at her actions in doll form and, of course, the groups mission to take down the Rossum Corporation.
This much more nuanced season shows that Dollhouse had the potential to be a storytelling power house had it been allowed to function as it was intended.
We may never know what caused FOX to let go of the reigns but with Whedon and Co. fully in control the show really does begin to fly.
The status quo of all the lead characters evolves well from where we left them in “Omega”. Season 2 opener “Vows” cleverly follows some of the formula of season 1 allowing the more casual viewer to carefully transition between the two different versions of the show.
At first “Vows” feels like a typical episode of Dollhouse with Echo signed up to play the wife of a mafioso whose wife (and mother of his child) has passed away. It’s all going to plan to begin with as Echo is seen to even be able to breast feed the infant.
At first it seems like an odd plot point until you realise the machinations going on behind it. Topher (Fran Kranz) has now been able to push his technology so far that he can change the dolls on a near cellular level to enhance the experience of the client.
All is going to plan until Klar (Jamie Bamber) catches photos of Echo with Ballard. He knows Ballard as FBI and thinks that Echo is a plant secretly working to out his gun smuggling business. Of course we know that Echo is really just catching up with her handler.
Klar strikes Echo who immediately has a compound event. She loses her current imprint and beings to remember all her imprints past. This is the origin of what will go on to become a more superhero style Echo.
How different the show could have been if Echo had been designed in this way from the beginning?
If we look at Echo as she is in season 2 – able to access old imprints and make use of their skills to aid her in a mission to rescue the other dolls and bring down Rossum – then it almost makes season 1 a prequel to the real story.
I say that not to discount the validity of the freshman season. I say it to mean that this is the real Dollhouse, this is the show as it always should have been. It has intrigue, mystery, complex characterisations and a story which really befits the legacy of the man who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
As season 2 progresses the slow burn story really begins to make the viewer think. Interestingly my rewatch took much of the form of how the season aired when it was originally on TV. Episodes 5 through 10 of the season aired in double blocks before moving back to single episodes for the remaining three airings.
“The Public Eye” / “The Left Hand” is another huge turning point for the show. The reveal that Senator Perrin is a semi-doll and his wife a cold hearted handler really spun the show off on to its final trajectory.
In season 1 the reveal that Mellie was a sleeper agent was one of the biggest twists. For Paul Ballard this discovery and that of Victor/Lubov was an epiphanic moment. As an audience we had a similar reaction realising how the dollhouse can manipulate our everyday lives.
Though not a huge creative leap season 1 didn’t indicate that Possum had infiltrated governments in order to manipulate circumstances to their benefit. Widening the scope of the story to include dolls in office and other high ranking positions really leant in towards the ultimate endgame of the series.
These episodes also, finally, introduced us to the Washington D.C. dollhouse and some of its team including the first appearance of Summer Glau as Bennett Halverson
Overall one could argue that season 2 of Dollhouse is fairly heavy handed. This is a much darker Whedon than we saw on Buffy and more akin to early episodes of Angel.
Halverson and her relationship with Topher is one of the lighter points of the season but their relationship does have serious consequences for the season overall. They also have a particularly quirky love theme in the score which oddly makes me think of A Town Called Eureka.
The darker machinations of The Rossum Corporation come to the fore at this stage and stay through the remainder of the season. As these double episodes begin airing the series really shifts in to super high gear until its close.
“Meet Jane Doe” / “A Love Supreme” brings the technology of Dollhouse back to the fore with the realisation that Rossum has some dark plans. The idea that this multi-armed corporation is using each of its dollhouse’s to build integral parts of a larger piece of tech was actually genius.
At this stage the fact that we as an audience know the future suddenly becomes a lot more important that we first realised. For almost an entire season we’ve understood there’s no good outlook for the characters. But now we being to realise that all of their actions over the course of the season, trying to stop this cataclysmic event, actually help contribute to it taking place.
Talk about a downbeat moment Whedon. Stopping Rossum seems, in the present day, to be life threateningly important. It’s Echo’s sole reason for existing much as Caroline was also trying to bring them down before her. But ultimately her actions will only trigger an event which wipes almost the entire of society of their personality.
As with season 1 the present day storyline wraps up in the penultimate episode “The Hollow Men”. Then the finale “Epitaph 2: The Return” we travel back to the future to wrap up things in 2020.
Both episodes are hugely exciting and a very fitting end to the series. “The Hollow Men” is atypical for a series finale. It has that let’s-blow-up-the-sets-and-kill-everyone-off ethos to it.
As the group take the mission to Rossum characters are revealed to not be who we expected and faces from the past come back in whole new ways. The betrayal of Boyd was a huge kick in the gut but really twists his relationship with Echo right back to the unaired pilot. Similarly his relationship with November/Dr Saunders takes on a twisted new form when we discover exactly what he did with her doll body.
Ultimately the demise of Rossum feels like a huge win for the team. We watch them celebrate and ruminate on their lives now that Rossum has been destroyed all the while knowing that the worst is yet to come.
“Epitaph 2: The Return” ultimate suffers from some of the same problems as its predecessor. Some of the language choices feel a little forced but at least feel more familiar on this second go around.
Here Whedon is able to open up the concept even more taking the concept country wide and out of LA city. The episode has to put a full stop on the entire series and it does so with much success. Seeing the cast have to return to the dollhouse and complete their journey feels very fulfilling as a fan of the concept.
There’s moments for all of the leads to end their stories littered through the episode. Topher is able to right the wrongs he contributed towards whilst Adelle embraces her role as shepherd which really has existed since day one.
Of course there isn’t a truly happy ending for all the characters as the Actives are forced to remain underground for a full year following the pulse which could return society to normal.
There was (and still is) plenty of milage in continuing the future storyline. It would have been interesting to see how society would begin to peace itself back together in a world where tech could, potentially, have been outlawed.
But there was also still story to be told in the present day. The characters arguably had time to settle in to a “normal” life before the pulse wiped everything out. It would not have been hard to conceptualise a third season with Rossum reemerging and Echo having to battle them down.
Ultimately though there was never going to be a long life in Dollhouse. “Epitaph One” put an expiration date on the series for two reasons: firstly because time would eventually catch up with the dystopian future and secondly because there is only so long a general audience can buy in to this hopeless fight for survival.
But having completed this re-watch I could happily go back to the pilot and start again immediately. Dollhouse will forever exist as a concept which was cut short by network meddling but that cannot stop it from being an entertaining and enjoyable ride from star to finish.
Dollhouse starred Eliza Dushku as Echo/Caroline, Harry Lenix as Boyd Langton, Fran Kranz as Topher Grace, Tamoh Penikett as Paul Ballard, Enver Gjokaj as Victor, Dichen Lachman as Sierra, Miracle Laurie as November. Also starring were Olivia Williams as Adelle DeWitt and Amy Acker as Dr Saunders.
The series aired for two seasons in 2008-2010 and is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and on digital platforms.