Sunday 7 February 2010

Dollhouse - You’re not coming back

Dollhouse: 2x13 Epitaph Two: The Return.

When Dollhouse jumps ten years into the future, it’s clear that things will be different. We have only seen the beginnings of the apocalypse, and more to the point, we’ve only seen the first steps that take the characters to who they will be in 2019. The decision to wrap up the story in “Epitaph Two” finally, not to leave the end open but not to explain everything that lies in-between (which would be impossible always) either, fits in with the general otherness of “Dollhouse” within what the viewer is used to be shown.
“Epitaph One” did not feature the well-known characters in the year 2019: instead, we saw fragments of memories, displayed by a group of rebels who accidentally break into the dollhouse (haunted by a ghost who keeps the treasures, the memories and the information of how to get to safe haven, save). The ghost Whiskey remains as elusive as she was after “The Hollow Men” – we will never know how she ended up there, left behind. The episode starts with Zone, Mag and the girl Caroline, making their way to the promised land but finding the wasteland that lies between that spot where all hope is centred considerably more dangerous than Caroline remembers. This is our first glimpse, in daylight, into the world that Rossum’s tech without Boyd has created. It’s infinitely more shocking than we might have imagined: Rossum itself has turned into a comic villainy empire of evil, lead by a decadent Harding who goes through “suits” and celebrates the end of the world by residing over an endless supply of food and slaves. The aesthetic change in Rossum – from a cold, capitalist company easily recognizable to us, into a futuristic version of capitalism (Harding is literally a parasite, switching bodies, sucking out the live of a new body every so often), in a world with no central authority – is achieved remarkably well. There are no shades of grey here – ultimately, there is maybe the hint of an idea that Boyd’s vision of the future might have been the lesser of two evils. Ultimately, Rossum has turned into what people have said the Dollhouse was from the beginning: a corporation that deals in slaves, just that now, the fancy façade has dropped.
Then we see what Echo and her tiny group of rebels have probably been doing for the past years: occasionally raiding the place for tech, disposing of whoever Harding and Ambrose currently are.
Echo: “Still living the dream, Harding?”
Harding: “It is a little bit tarnished. Do you ever think if you didn’t cut off Rossum at the head, the tech might have never gotten out of control?”
Echo: “Yeah. You’re a model of control, butterball.”
Harding: “At least I’m having some fun. Please, you know I’m backed up. Why do you bother anymore?”
Echo: “Ask me against some time (shooting him).”
We see how pointless the past few years must have been for Echo: repeating the same action over and over again, never really getting anywhere. No matter how often she kills Harding and Ambrose, they just always come back (Possibly even less human than before, like Clyde 2.0). Just that now, coinciding with the point in time that they pick up Zone, Mag and miniCaroline in the camp, they also find Topher, who has been a prisoner of Rossum for an infinite time, forced to develop a technology that will finally wipe the entire planet, seeing one person killed for every day that he did not succeed. It’s heartbreaking to see Topher like this, even more broken than he was in “Epitaph One”, but still working on a plan to make all the bad things go away.
Topher: “I’m so close, so close to solving both problems. They had no idea.”
Echo: “Close to what? Wiping everyone?”
Topher: “The opposite. Reflection, like an Echo. Put things back the way they were, minds back the way they were. I can bring back the world.”
Of course it’s like a deus ex machina that Topher should come up with a solution for all the problems on the spot, finishing the circle that started episodes ago: but on the other hand, it’s fitting that Joss should try to wrap this show up the best way he can, by giving Topher the opportunity to undo his wrongs, to use his marvellous mind to get the world back. This becomes the goal for team Echo this episode: enabling Topher to finish the tech to put back the world it used to be, to put back every single person who was wiped.
“I want the advent of a degree of functional nanotechnology in a world that will remain recognizably descended from the one I woke in this morning. I want my world transfigured, yet I want my place in that world to be equivalent to the one I now occupy. I want to have my cake and eat it too.”

William Gibson: All Tomorrow’s Parties, p 250
There is a bitter irony in the fact that the world Boyd imagined he might create with the help of Echo would actually be a better one than this: This doesn’t really look like the future, it’s more like the end, and the changes that happened over the past ten years are so radical that it’s not just the world that is not recognizably descended, but also the relationships between the people, as they adapt differently to the circumstances. Safe Haven looks like a pre-technological place, held together by the idea of family. There is a farm house, a large dinner table, surrounding fields and green houses to provide for basic food, and no tech. Adelle, when we meet her, stripped of the power of the dollhouse, reduced to her basic humanity, appears as a mother figure who holds together the small community and nurtures it. Echo does now allow herself to be with Paul (although the connections that were lost after Topher saved him are clearly re-established) – and it’s the other Caroline who tells Paul that Echo loves him. Priya has a son, but it is only when we see Anthony’s gang of techheads break up an idyllic dinner scene that we realize how far they have grown apart: Priya set on raising T without any tech, Anthony/Victor utilizing the tech to be the best soldier he can possibly be in this apocalyptic wasteland (although Priya seems to think that this decision was selfish: “You chose to be Victor”). This fits in with the Victor we met right after he was released from his contract, who was so willing to sign up as a soldier again because he did not know how to function without the forever war – and at the same time, it was Priya who decided to “upgrade” him in the first place, and we saw how much Anthony enjoyed his super-strength in the aftermath of “The Hollow Men”. This is the one way he knows to protect his family, even if it means that he can’t be a father to T (who doesn’t know he is his father, although he looks like the perfect combination of the two). The tech itself has lost the shiny surface and is a practical, anarchic version of Topher’s inventions: the tech heads use flashdrives to store abilities as they don’t have Echo’s powers of carrying different imprints at once.
When the tech heads rebel against Echo’s plans back in the dollhouse, they do so because they have chosen to adapt to the circumstances, instead of wanting to go back to before. It’s one of the many marvellous details that “Epitaph Two” establishes in such a short time: that there are completely different groups of humans now, whose idea of history and society differ radically. Echo wants the world to return to the way it was before, but also realizes that every one of her friends who has doll architecture in their head would lose their precarious identity, the one they fought so hard to retain – which is why they will spend a year underground after the EMP. The tech heads just want to use the tech found in the dollhouse to become even more powerful in the world as it is, “to rule the wastelands”. Echo considers what she is doing the great act to right the wrongs of the past ten years, but at the same time, she destroys who the tech heads are, and retains the right to remain the way she is for herself. In the end, the team with the better fighting skills wins.
The individual issues are even more interesting. While Paul seems to think that setting the world back would end their fight, Echo points out that this is only the starting point:
Echo: “Do you think after the pulse the world is gonna be all hunky-dory?”
Paul: “I think it’s not your fight. I think for a good long while you’re gonna be who you are, and I think that scares you.”
Echo: “I hate when you pretend to know me.”
Paul: “What happens if you’re sure we’re gonna live?”
“I think you’ve got a hundred people living inside your head, and you’re the loneliest person I know.”
The tragic thing about this dialogue is that Paul dies on his way back to the dollhouse, in the same sudden way everybody else has died this season. There is no great build-up, just a shot in the head and Echo, unable to deal with it right now. While Harding and Ambrose have given up their humanity for the sake of becoming immortal, the fragility of life for everybody becomes apparent in this scene. Echo breaks down much later, after finding that a different Alpha (an Alpha, we assume, possibly radically changed after imprinting himself with Paul) has turned the Dollhouse into a refuge for dumbshows, leaving no traces of the destruction of “Epitaph One” (the ghost Whiskey is gone).
Echo: “He’s in love with you. Are you really that thick? This isn’t something that comes on a drive, they tried to pull it out of him, they wiped is mind for years, and he never stopped loving you. You wanna kill the tech? Kill it. Shut it down. Lock him up. Give him nothing. You can string him along for years, you’ve head years together, and whatever you did, it’s wasted. Never tell him that you loved him, never tell him that you’re grateful for him. He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s just dead. I never told him. Paul is dead, and I’m alone. Alone alone alone I’m always alone.”
The episode is also a small swan song for Topher. He is far gone when Paul and Echo find him in Neuropolis, and he knows that the little bit of sanity he finds at the Dollhouse isn’t going to last. (he didn’t really need to go there for the tech, but it is his home, the place where he was last a functioning human being, and it is also where he finds tapes of Bennett, a bitter-sweet moment of longing for a potential life he has lost). He probably doesn’t really need to trigger the bomb that will put the world back on his own, but he decides to do it, because this way, he also wipes out the mind that caused all this in the first place (“I don’t wanna cause any more pain”). It’s heartbreaking to see Adelle’s reaction to this, because he is the closest thing she has to a son.
Adelle: “You don’t have to do it, you know. At least not alone.”
Topher: “I do. I’ll fix what we did to their head. You fix what we did to the rest of the world. Your job is way harder.”
The absurdity of this episode is that it is a happy end, and everybody gets what they wanted, even though it is different from the way they might have imagined it. Priya, Anthony and T become a family, reading a book together at the moment of the explosion (a moment reminiscent of when Sierra and Victor were reading together, when things were less complicated). Adelle is the one leading the dolls outside to become human again, “ever the shepherd”, to help them find their way in the brave new world. She argues that this is ultimately Caroline’s (and Echo’s) fantasy: the one that turned out to be a lie in “Needs”, when the dolls walked into the light (just that now, they drop down and awake as themselves again, and Zone reassures the girl that used to be Caroline that things are going to be okay – before this she said, looking at Echo, “I’m the lucky one. I get to start over.”). Echo gets a parting gift from Alpha, who hopes that he will get rid of his demons in the impulse, but goes where he can’t hurt anyone in case he doesn’t – the part of him that was Paul, on a wedge. In the end, Echo isn’t lonely anymore. She lies in the pod where we first saw her, and she is content to be herself. That’s such an unlikely ending to the show, yet it’s perfect.

Random thoughts:
I think I never before mentioned how fond I’ve grown of Franz Kranz’ performance as Topher. I really did not like his character for the most part of season one, but ever since the beginning of this season (yes, it started with Whiskey in “Vows”, not with “Belonging”), he’s grown up and become a real boy, and not unlike Wesley, who met a similar end in “Angel” (not taking into account the comic books), he had the greatest story arc, in spite of the fact of being the least likely character to come so far.

The creation of a specific vernacular for this world, in the good tradition of “Fray” (a comic book about a future slayer). Butchers, Actuals, Dumbshows, “Log off”

In the Whedonverse, sometimes people just simply are evil. Usually, they wear suits (even after the apocalypse) and head big corporations.

Talking about suits: how genius is the idea that Harding and Ambrose would refer to new bodies as their “suits”?

It’s a family episode: Eliza Dushku’s brother plays the younger Ambrose, Maurissa Tancharoen returns as Kilo, the younger Whedon can be seen in the background.

Zone: “Who doesn’t want to spend some quality time with this awesomely normal people.”
Mag: “I don’t know. Could be alright. The little Asian’s kinda cute.”
Zone: “But she’s a tech head Mag. She’s a girl, Mag!”

Oh Joss, you tease. It was a nice acknowledgment of the fact that these two have been travelling together for a while now, yet have no idea who they were before.

Back in the Dollhouse: “I try to be my best.” / “Oh hell.” –Echo

Alpha: “Victor. Why would someone do something so horrible to your face” (yes, thank you, we do remember how Alpha slashed Victor up in season one).

“Did he just call me a Luddite ?” –Alpha

Strawberries! Made me miss Kaylee. I didn’t catch the “keep a civil tongue” reference though.

In “Hollow Men”, Topher referenced “The Wizard of Oz” in response to Boyd’s claim that he is responsible for their humanity: “Wow Boyd. You’re right, I’m the tin man, she’s the lion, and you’re the head of the lollipop guild who’s a traitor!” Topher found his heart, Adelle her bravery (and I guess Ballard would be the scarecrow, finding his brain).
Here, Zone calls miniCaroline the “the great and terrible Caroline, the one who knows how to save us.” (in Baum’s the Wizard of Oz the line goes: "I am Oz, the Great and Terrible," spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. "Who are you, and why do you seek me?"), and Adelle says “There’s no place like home” when they decide to return to the Dollhouse (and what is Topher’s EMP, if not the figurative tapping of the shoes?)
I still like the “Down the hole”-Alice in Wonderland-thing better though (that is, naturally, clearly a Matrix-reference).

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