It's been a week since Joss Whedon's Dollhouse closed up its rent-a-slave operation, and we're still grieving, for the stories that will never be told now. Dollhouse kept exceeding its limitations — but never reached its potential. Spoilers rising...
There are really two kinds of television shows: the ones canceled too soon, and the ones that drag on past their best-by date. Very, very few TV shows end at the right time. Even though Dollhouse got enough advance warning that it was able to cobble together a definite conclusion, we still feel as though it belongs in the same category as Firefly, Terminator: SCC and many other shows.
Dollhouse started out as the most conceptually ambitious thing Joss Whedon's ever done — but forcing that concept into the box of a weekly TV show was a process akin to chainsaw bonsai. Whedon was clear, from before the show launched, that this was fundamentally a show about a woman who had been robbed of her identity and dehumanized. The overall arc of Dollhouse was going to be about the mind-wiped Echo fighting to regain her stolen sense of selfhood. And yet, the needs of having a weekly "happy ending" meant we had to root for the clients who hired Echo's prostituted shell every week.
Or as the sardonic Boyd put it, "We're pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way." At its best, the show had fun with this dichotomy, but it was often a bit of a stretch.
Almost every television show nowadays has the conflict between stand-alone and "arc" episodes, and every show has to find its own answer to that dilemma, with wildly varying degrees of success. With Dollhouse, you ended up with a situation where the stand-alone episodes were all about desire and longing — mostly the clients' — and the "arc" was all about paranoia and existential dread. So the now-traditional arc-vs-stand-alone tension became a tension between desire and fear. And as the show becomes more serialized during its run, you see a slow shift from desire to fear.
(I was somewhat optimistic about the replacement of the original, more thriller-y pilot with the "hostage negotiator" episode, and the "five pilots" that followed, but in retrospect it would have been way better if Fox had just let Whedon launch the show with something that explored the negative implications of the premise more fully.)
To be sure, there was something haphazard about Dollhouse's arc — Whedon was planting the seeds for "Epitaph One"'s apocalypse as early as episode six, "Man In The Street," but I'm sure we would have gotten there much more slowly, and maybe in a different form if the show hadn't been facing imminent cancellation.
But at the same time, my sense is that this slow burn, from exploring the complexities of human need to delving into the paranoia of corporate mindfuckery, was always going to be part of the show. If the show had lasted six seasons, we would have taken the journey in a different way, and some of the plot points might have felt a bit more elegant, but this was probably always the shape. We start out delving into the ramifications of people who want what they can't really have — because why else do you hire a pre-programmed human automaton? — and over time, the show shifts into showing that the real ramifications of our desires is that we all become the slaves of a corporation that wants to own our minds.
In a sense, Dollhouse was the story of how wanting what you can't have inevitably turns you into the property of companies that will take away everything you do have.
I'm pretty sure everybody reading this has had the experience of lust, or longing, turning into dread and remorse. It's one of the most quintessentially human experiences, and Dollhouse, taken as a whole, captures it in an amazing way.
Dollhouse was already a complex and challenging show before we ever saw "Epitaph One" — we'd already seen how Sierra was turned into a Doll because she said no to the wrong rich guy, for example — but now it's inevitably going to be viewed as a show about the apocalypse. Almost every interesting genre TV show nowadays winds up being about the apocalypse, one way or the other — look at BSG, Terminator: SCC and Jericho, and I'm willing to bet Fringe's pandimensional war will look more apocalyptic at some point — but Dollhouse was the first show where Fantasy Island basically destroyed the entire human race.
More importantly, evil robots didn't destroy the world, we did. Even though Dollhouse gives us a convenient scapegoat in the thoroughly evil Rossum Corp., it's still clear that it took a village to raise Hell on Earth. Every orgasm, every catharsis, that Echo dished out brought us closer to turning everybody into "dumb shows" and "butchers," because the Dollhouse was perfecting the tech in the field, and Topher was gaining more understanding of how to turn everyone's brains into mush.
(By the way, I'm not rhapsodizing about how much I loved the characters on Dollhouse here, because I already did that with last week's list of ten things we'll miss about the show.)
Interestingly, Dollhouse writer Jane Espenson left the show to go work on another show about brain-copying leading to the apocalypse: Caprica, where Zoe Graystone's brain gets duplicated and winds up becoming the template for the deadly Cylons that end Caprican civilization.
But in Caprica, the reasons for the impending apocalypse are much more television-friendly: there's Daniel Graystone's grief over the death of his daughter, causing him to create the robot Zoe that becomes the first Cylon. And there's the religious fanatacism of the hysterical monotheists, who blow up the train and kill the original Zoe in the first place. (For us, the viewers, Caprica's religious disputes seem a bit odd, since we stopped worshipping Athena and Zeus long ago, and nothing bad happened. But then we already know that BSG ends by hinting that there really is a God, and he's a cruel bastard who personally orchestrated the Cylon genocide, just for jollies.)
In any case, Caprica's apocalypse comes about because of family and religion: motivations we can get behind. Dollhouse's apocalypse, meanwhile? Is the product of lust, greed, fear and ego-mania. It's born of sleaze, and nurtured in hubris. (Oh, and rich people treating the rest of us like toys.) It's hard to believe this show actually made it onto broadcast TV.
The weird thing is that "Epitaph Two," the second post-apocalyptic episode, seems to refute the idea that this is a show about the apocalypse. Admit — you didn't expect this show to have such an upbeat ending, did you? Even with the deaths of Paul and Topher, it was weirdly much sunnier than I'd have expected from the famously dark 'n' twisted Joss.
Because, all along, this show wasn't just a downer fable about how evil corporations will wipe your mind, or about how your fantasies are the keys to oblivion, or whatever — all along, it was really about how we'll triumph over all that. Whedon talked up this hopeful theme over and over again: the central message of Dollhouse was always the indomitability of Echo. And by the end, we get a few other hopeful themes, like the fact that Victor and Sierra's love really does kinda conquer all, and the redemptions of Adelle and Topher, our two original "villains." (If you think Paul needed redeeming, I'd argue he gets that, too.)
Who knew that Joss Whedon's darkest, sickest show would turn out to be his most optimistic and life-affirming?
And that's why I'm most convinced that Dollhouse should have had a few more years to run its course. Not just because the shift from "eww icky fantasy fulfillment" to "the whole human race is at stake" could have been a smoother arc. Or because the awareness that Rossum was the real monster, and that the L.A. Dollhouse was going to have to posse up and fight, could have dawned more slowly. But because it would have been something to see the "you can't stop Echo's brainwaves" message developing and amplifying over time.
There could have been some serious "fuck yeah" moments built around Echo reclaiming her personhood and becoming a multi-faceted ninja, a process which was mostly skated over in the six-month gap during the "Jane Doe" episode.
But yeah, I'm still grateful for what we've got, and for getting enough clues and enough subtle jabs to be able to figure out the missing bits and sketch out what the story would have looked like if it had gotten the six years it deserved. It's not what we should have gotten, but maybe it's enough.