Dollhouse always had at least as much of an identity crisis as its main characters, so I suppose it’s only fitting that it should close on two completely different notes. The first finale, “The Hollow Men,” rounds up the present-day storyline and demonstrates just how very sloppy the show can be. The second, “Epitaph Two,” sequelizes last season’s DVD-only ten-years-gone dystopia, and rewards patient viewers with a piece of emotionally intense, giddily inventive closure.
How bad is “The Hollow Men”? Well, bad enough to make that painfully on-the-nose allusion in the title. Bad enough not to even bother explaining the whole Boyd-is-the-big-villain reveal. Bad enough that, when a character I’ve liked for the entire run of the show is killed off, I don’t even care because it’s so, so bathetic and by-the-book. On a purely technical level, “The Hollow Men” may well be the sloppiest episode of the series, hardly even bothering with shot-to-shot continuity. Toward the end of things, after totally uncharacteristically murdering the mindless Active that Topher has made out of Boyd, Echo runs from an enormous (and badly rendered) explosion in Rossum headquarters, dives out the door, and–
Looks up at Rossum HQ, where not a pane of glass is out of place.
Which, come to think of it, is kind of emblematic of the show at its weakest. Utterly hapless about consequence and continuity. And I refer here to emotional continuity rather than the fannish, plotty sense of the word (though the plot did get a bit incoherent there at the end). For 75% of the series, our protagonists were more or less unmoved by the things that happened to them—including earthshaking violations like rape. We saw explosions, but no collapses, and we know that’s not how it works. We know that’s bad editing. The most prominent opinion in geeky internet circles seems to be that Season 2 was a marked improvement on Season 1, but in at least one sense, I was more frustrated by this year’s crop. Whedon and company didn’t bust loose and make the essential changes anything like soon enough; it was over halfway through the season before Echo gained a persistent personality. This year’s highs were higher than last year’s, perhaps, but its lows were just as low—and just as frequent.
Fortunately, “Epitaph Two” is one of the highs, and represents the apotheosis of Dollhouse done right. Our protagonists are all coherent personalities who must deal with a world made incoherent.
Where “Epitaph One” was lean and bleak and elegiac, “Epitaph Two” is more in the tradition of the gonzo post-apocalyptic roadtrip, with wild weirdness at every turn and emotions cranked up to eleven. The dread city of Neuropolis! “Techheads” with metal sunbursts around their ears! It may feel sort of silly to some, but I like the shift in tone: there’s a giddiness to the invention, and it signals a willingness to try new things even at the end of the road. Indeed, that very attitude is the thematic pivot of the finale: Why make “Epitaph One” all over again? Why just end the world when you can remake it one more time?
Make no mistake: things are remade. Relationships are transmogrified into new, jarring iterations, with Anthony and Priya long separated and Adelle an anxious caregiver to Topher. These changes work because they feel natural, possible, even inevitable for the characters we’ve (finally, in jumps and starts) come to know. They’re not cheap tricks, cheap twists. I’m reminded of the jump forward at the end of Battlestar Galactica‘s second season… (Spoilers for BSG ahead!) Of course Tigh is an Ahab-esque terrorist. Of course Baltar’s a puppet president. Our heroes’ futures (and ultimate fates) feel similarly organic—what else could Topher be but a broken shell?
The show killed off quite a few major characters in its last three or four episodes, but the losses didn’t hurt until “Epitaph Two.” Before, there was a sense that the writers were going through the dramatic motions, but Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon deserve mountain-sized props for their work here. I teared up…well, several times, and never moreso than during Echo’s slow-motion breakdown after Paul’s death. Indeed, everyone’s in their element; Eliza Dushku tears up the screen with a beautiful performance, Fran Kranz gives Topher a delicate, understated end, and Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj are just as awesome as we’ve come to expect. Everyone else—guest stars, bit parts, and regulars alike—bring solid performances.
In spite of its body count, and unusually for a Whedon finale, “Epitaph Two” may be a bit too upbeat, especially given the darkness of the series’ preoccupations. But the cautiously hopeful ending makes for a pleasant surprise, and perhaps a bit of a corrective for the lazy pseudo-tragedy of the last few episodes. Without going too inspirational on us, it suggests that maybe we can transcend our socialization, or at least inject our own memes into the mix. Maybe we can make ourselves heard, improve the world. I don’t know if that’s true, or how seriously we should take that message when it comes from the infinitesimal fraction of people who put stories on TV.
But it’s a nice thought.