Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's weirdest show, started out being about people who can be anybody. But last night, every one of the show's characters was so clearly defined, so much themselves, that their personalities are imprinted on our brains forever. Spoilers...
The penultimate Dollhouse episode was the cheesy action thriller, with tons of twists and turns that make no sense and characters jumping out of danger into more danger. But the final episode, "Epitaph Two: Return," was pretty much the opposite — it was a solid character-based drama with almost no plot twists to speak of, after the initial set-up. There was exactly one big McGuffin in the episode — Topher's somewhat miraculous scheme to restore everyone's minds to the default factory settings — and it was introduced pretty early. I've watched this episode twice already, and I sort of liked it the first time — but it plays way better the second time around, when you're less caught up in "what happens next."
In fact, the biggest surprise last night was the lack of surprises (if you'd seen "Epitaph One," at least.) I was half expecting one of these characters to turn out to be secretly imprinted as Harding or Ambrose in the final act, but no — everything was pretty much exactly what it seemed. Which is probably for the best, since character resolution is really what we deserved. (Although it would have been pretty hilarious if Echo had turned and shot some random extra in the head because he slipped up and said something Harding-esque.)
All you Paul Ballard-haters got served last night. He was at his absolute best, and Tahmoh Penikett had a blast with it. From the "dumb-show" fake-out to the moment of corniness that backfires, to the bit where he shows that he really does understand Echo better than anyone else, it was all gold. And then he got the Wash treatment, just as we were totally in love with him. (I'm prepared to give the show a free pass on the fact that we were told, just two episodes ago, that Topher had erased Paul's connection with Echo. It's been ten years, those pathways have had a long time to re-establish themselves.)
And it was great the way the show used the "Mini-Me" version of Caroline to establish that Echo loves Paul back — the way she breathes "Paul" when she sees him for the first time in the episode, the way she confides in him that Echo likes it when he's corny. It's a neat touch, and the banter between the two Carolines was pretty cute as well. You could see why scumbags like Harding want to be in multiple bodies at once (although, interestingly, Harding only seems to occupy one body at a time. Maybe he can't stand to be around himself? The little glimpse of Neuropolis, the shabby remains of Rossum's empire, was the closest thing we got to true dystopian awful/awesomeness.)
And the scene where Echo starts counseling Priya about her relationship with Tony, and it turns into her talking about Paul and that, in turn, leads to her flipping out, was powerful stuff, and I actually got choked up. It's a shame, in a way, that we didn't get to see more of that fire from Dushku earlier on. At any rate, I finally believed in the Echo-Caroline romance, which we'll never get to see now. (And it's not entirely clear to me how Paul becoming one of the 100 people in Echo's head is much compensation. If this show has proved anything, over and over, it's that there's more to us than just our brain patterns. Still, it was a neat final touch.) And maybe Adelle was right about Echo — maybe her biggest problem was that she never had any fantasies of her own.
Tony/Victor as post-apocalyptic Mad Max warlord was one amazing final transformation for Enver Gjokaj. Shoulder pads! And weird face data spikes! It was nice to see one last brain hack from this show — and the keychain full of USB thumb drives with different skillsets was really cute. It's nice to think there's a synthetic alternative to Echo's natural ability to hold lots of imprints in her head — without going nuts like Alpha. I was less convinced by the Tony/Priya relationship this time around, maybe because Dichen Lachman seems just a little too subdued and tentative when she's playing Priya. (She was frequently great as Sierra.) Still, after rooting for Victor and Sierra's love to conquer their mind-wiping for so long, it was great to see them get a happy ending at last. And yay for "Can I help you burn stuff?" More family bonding should involve pyromania.
And speaking of Alpha — he came awfully close to stealing the episode last night in just a few scenes. "Did he just call me a luddite?" somehow became the funniest line ever when he said it. Everyone who saw last year's unaired "Epitaph One" knew already that post-apocalyptic Alpha had become a hero, but seeing it was something else. He was still Alpha, still psycho and tweaked, but he'd finally found a world where he was saner than everyone else. His eerie calm, his weird rapport with Adelle and Echo, were great. And the bit where he asked why anyone would want to ruin Tony's pretty face — when he'd done just that, back in "Omega" — was priceless. (Dear Christopher Nolan: Alan Tudyk should be the new Joker. Love, Everybody Who Knows What's Up.)
I really don't have much to say about Mag and Zone this time around — Mag was pretty sidelined, although she did get a few nice moments, and Zone was slightly more annoying and less amusing than he was in "Epitaph One."
And then there were Adelle and Topher, the show's two greatest characters in my book, playing out the dynamic we first witnessed in "Epitaph One," which we got to see building up in some of the later episodes of this season: Adelle showing her maternal side as Topher turns into a total River Tam-esque wreck. But there were so many subtleties in there, as Topher's cute playfulness came out in weird ways.
The big where he turns to Adelle and says, confidingly, "Your job is wayyyy harder," managed to be a uniquely Whedonian mix of funny and tragic. And Topher got to have one final scene with Summer Glau, sort of.
And you know, Summer Glau got to give us the final takeaway Dollhouse message:
We literally become what we do, not what we've done, or what we will do. We're best defined by our actions in the moment.
For a show that was so much about memory, and people who'd been robbed of their past and given fake pasts, this is a great final takeaway message. What matters isn't who we've been, or who we think we might be in the future — the only way we can really know who we are is by looking at our actions in the here and now. (I was sort of reminded of Angel's "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.") Last night's episode is full of lots of defining choices from people who had made different choices in the past — like Tony turning his back on his fellow tech-heads, Alpha giving Paul back to Echo, Topher sacrificing himself to undo his mistakes, and Adelle choosing to become a shepherd to confused people once again.
(Oh, and was it just me, or were the strawberries a total Kaylee shout-out?)
"Epitaph Two" was never going to be as exhilerating and bewildering as "Epitaph One," unless the writers just threw logic out the window. I mean, we could have found Adelle suddenly transformed into a cruel Tina Turner-esque leader of a new Bartertown, and Paul becoming a barbarian leader/bandit who no longer cares about anything but amassing more slave girls. But it's probably just as well the show decided to go out with a more character-based conclusion instead of a slam-bang "What the Hell just happened" finale.
It's hard not to feel like the story of Dollhouse isn't really over, though — like, the original problem still remains. The tech is out there, and it'll be used again, as long as anybody understands it. Despite all the ways you can erase people's minds, it's really hard to get rid of an idea. And what kind of repressive world would you need to have, to ensure that nobody ever uses mind-wiping technology again? Also, as various people point out, the world is still not going to be a pretty place after all the people get their own minds back. So there's actually plenty of scope for this story to continue, in some form or another, in our heads if not on screen or in books.
We've been imprinted with these people's lives and personalities. There's no going back.