Monday, August 24, 2009

Random Reviews: Dollhouse: Epitaph One

Epitaph One is a bit different from your average Dollhouse episode.  Written by Joss Whedon’s brother Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, they had several restrictions to keep in mind when creating the script:

  • Since no one was sure if Dollhouse would be picked up for a second season, they wanted to make sure that it could serve as an enjoyable conclusion to the series without closing off any doors if they were renewed.
  • It needed to be shot on a tight budget, partially so that Fox could see that the show could be produced for less and still look good.
  • It had to be light on the main cast, especially Eliza Dushku, since it was being filmed at the same time as the episode Omega.

This is a tall order, but one that the writers and actors achieved admirably.  I will be touching on how they accomplished many of these points during my in-depth review below.

Please note that like my review of Echo, this will be a very in-depth review and will contain many spoilers as a result.  So please do not proceed if you want to be surprised by the many plot twists in the episode.

If this is the future, maybe it is best that Penny didn't survive to see it.

The show opens on the streets of Los Angeles  in the year 2019.  The last ten years have not been kind to the city, because things are looking a wee-bit on the post-apocalyptic side.  A young woman named Mags is making her way through the chaos and talking over a walkie-talkie with a man named Griff.  He wants to know if there are any “Wielders” around, but she tells them there are only “Butchers” and “Dumb Shows” about.  

She meets up with the rest of her group, which consists of two men who go by Griff and Zone, another young woman named Lyn, a child named Iris, and her father Mr. Miller, who has had his personality wiped (a.k.a. a Dumb Show).  They are looking for a way to get back underground, although Zone argues they should head for the desert where there is no tech and thus no chance to get imprinted.  Lyn quickly counters that China could send another blanket signal.

Using the path reconnoitered by Mag, the group makes their way through the sewers.  During this time Zone discusses killing Iris’ father, since they only roll with “Actuals” and normally put Dumb Shows out of their misery.  It soon becomes apparent that Iris has only been with them for a short time, and Mag and Griff argue that they should give Iris some time to get used to the concept before killing or ditching her father.

The finds a small tunnel leading down into an large abandoned complex.  Of course, the viewers recognize it as the Dollhouse.

I have to admit I liked this opening.  In a very short period of time they give a real feeling for what has happen to the world and how desperate things have gotten.  I will admit that the names bugged me a bit though.  It is only 2019, so if these are their real names I would expect them to be closer to names we would see today.  If they aren’t their real names, well that makes little sense considering the importance the Actuals place on identity.

While investigating the Dollhouse, the group comes upon the chair that was used to imprint the Actives.  They quickly realize what it is for, but that it is different from the imprinting technology they are used to.  After some argument they decide to load some memories, but not full personas, into Mr. Miller to see if they can determine what this place is.

They begin slowly by downloading a single memory into Mr. Miller.  This memory is of Adelle explaining what the Dollhouse is to a prospective client.  Zone is incredulous that the technology for imprinting was originally used to create “more believable hookers.”

I have to admit, I was glad that Zone pointed out how ludicrous using imprinting to create “more believable hookers” is.  After all, his was one of my big complaints about the first season.  While this doesn’t truly address the issue, I was glad that it was at least brought up.

Feeling that they are on the right track, the group begins to download more memories into Mr. Miller.  This time they download Topher Grace’s first day.  He is unimpressed with the current imprinting process which requires hardwires and takes several hours.  Using micro-pulse technology Topher believes he can imprint an Active in less than ten minutes.

This new way of imprinting that Topher develops will become a plot point later on.

Meanwhile, Lyn is taking Iris to find a bathroom.  Along the way she stumbles into the communal shower the Actives used to use, complete with hot running water.  Apparently Lyn has never seen any horror movies, because she tells Iris to use the bathroom around the corner while she takes a quick shower.  Not surprisingly, she is bashed over the head with a flashlight while she is showering.

This scene bugged me a bit, just because it is such a horror cliché.  I understand that Lyn hadn’t had a shower in years, but her actions here seemed seriously stupid.  Rather than being character driven, it really seemed like she showered just because the plot dictated it.

Back to the memory transfers, this time we get a memory of Echo being imprinted with a recent Russian immigrant as part of her assignment to infiltrate the Russian mob.  Paul Ballard is her handler, so this scene is the first “flashback” that is actually a flashforward from season one.

When Paul and Echo enter the elevator, it is revealed that Echo can somehow resist being fully imprinted.  While she has all the memories of the “Russian girl with the big American dream”, she also apparently has Caroline’s personality as well.  Blocking the imprints is taking its toll on her though, as she is suffering from increasingly bad headaches.

This scene feels like a preview of the upcoming second season.  Joss Whedon has said that the show has a five year arc that will progress from season to season.  Having Caroline learn how to avoid having her personality overwritten seems like a natural step after the events of Omega.  I was also glad to see that Paul Ballard is still working cross-purposes with the Dollhouse.  I felt he caved way to easily in Omega and I am glad to see that he still has designs on taking them down.

At this point the group in 2019 hears Iris scream.  They discover Lyn’s body and decide to hole up in the room with the imprint chair.  Zone thinks this is crazy, but Mag insists that room holds answers.  They also decide it is time to “Birthmark” Iris.

Back to the memories, Boyd is going on the run.  Doctor Saunders is helping him pack and obviously seems broken up that he is leaving.  However, he won’t tell her where he is going because he doesn’t want to put her in danger, like he did with Echo.  Before he leaves, Boyd tells her that he will come back for her one day.

Just for the record, it seems obvious from this scene that Boyd Langton and Doctor Saunders are in some form of romantic relationship.  In the DVD commentary, Jed Whedon says they tried to leave it vague, but if they did no one told the actors!  I can’t complain though, since I felt there was some real chemistry between the two.

Back in 2019, Zone is tattooing Iris Miller’s name on her lower back.  This practice is known as Birthmarking.  It is a practice among Actuals to verify their original identity in case one of them is imprinted.

I thought that the practice of Birthmarking is a nice touch, especially later when you discover how it started.  It is obviously a far from perfect method to identify the Actuals from those who have been imprinted, but it seems to be less about that and more a way for them to claim back their identity in a world where the very concept of self has become fluid.

Griff and Mags discuss the possibility of holing up in the Dollhouse permanently, if they can find whatever killed Lyn.  At this point Whiskey, the former Doctor Saunders, walks into the main area covered in Lyn’s blood.

The group surrounds Whiskey with their weapons.  Zone is pretty determined to blow her away for killing Lyn.  Whiskey claims only to have found their friend “sleeping.”  Still, it looks like they are going to plug her when she asks if they are seeking “Safe Haven.”  This stops them in their tracks, as the word obviously has special meaning for them.  She promises them that she can show them the way, so they reluctantly let her live.

I thought this was a very dramatic scene, especially when coupled with Boyd promising to come back for her in the earlier flashback.  Her knowledge of Safe Haven is is especially chilling when combined with her blank Whiskey persona.  In many ways she comes of as some form of oracle or mad prophet.  Very effective.

Whiskey leads them right back to the imprinting chair, which almost causes Zone to shoot her on the spot.  However, Mag believes that Whiskey is telling them that they are on the right track, that the memories they are imprinting on Mr. Miller will lead them to Safe Haven.

Back to the memories, Adelle comes down to see Victor eating lobster while an unusually subdued Topher stands off to the side.  She quickly realizes that Mr. Ambrose, the head of the Rossum corporation, is imprinted in Victor’s body.

He informs her that they will now be providing permanent anatomy upgrades to select clients for a lump nine-figure sum.  Adelle is horrified at this concept and, ironically, concerned about its legality.  Mr. Ambrose reminds her that they have never been concerned with the law, but tells her that this will all be legal within the year anyway.  After all, anyone with any real power is either a client or will be replaced.

Back in 2019, Iris is watching Griff use the chair on her father.  She asks him a few questions about how it works, and whether at can put “people in other people”.  When he answers yes, she shoots him dead and places the gun in her father’s hand.  She then calmly walks to the corner and begins to scream.

Zone and Mag run in to find Griff apparently dead at Mr Miller’s hand.  Zone takes Mr. Miller off to shoot him someplace away from Iris.  Whiskey calmly tells Mag that she will help them find Safe Haven and sits down in the imprinting chair.

The memory Whiskey receives has Dominic confronting Adelle.  He has her at gunpoint, but she reminds him that she “sent” for him, a.k.a. had him released from the Attic.  The two talk about what has happen for a bit.  While things obviously haven’t degenerated as far as they have in 2019, the imprint technology has gone public and is being abused.  Dominic asks Adelle what it is like to have destroyed the world, but Adelle still has hope to save it, since Caroline has developed a block against the technology.

Mag loads another memory into Whiskey.  This time it is Victor and Sierra, although they are both apparently back to their original personalities.  They also both apparently have learned Caroline’s blocking techniques, as Sierra is complaining about the headaches.  They talk about how dangerous it is above ground, and Victor notes that he doesn’t want her to end up like November.  It is implied that Sierra started the Birthmark trend among Actuals.  In an attempt to cheer her up, Victor shows her that they have backed up all of their personalities in the Dollhouse.

Back in 2019, Mag and Zone search for the location of the personality backups from Whiskey’s last memory.  Zone also gives Iris a gun, since there are only three of them now and they have to watch each other’s backs. 

Mag finds the personality backups.  They bring them back up to the imprint chair where they intend to load them into Whiskey one by one until they find Caroline.  Before they can though, Iris points her gun at the two of them.  She reveals that she is not an Actual, but rather a woman who was imprinted in the body of a little girl. 

She sees the imprint chair as her way out of her current predicament.  She intends to take Mag’s body as her own, and plans to imprint Whiskey with Caroline to get her out.  She decides she doesn’t need Zone though, so she shoots him.

At least she tries to.  Unfortunately for her, Zone gave her an empty gun.  Before she can react Zone grabs Iris and dumps her in the imprint chair.  Mags activates the chair, wiping away Iris’ personality. 

Mag wonders how Zone knew that Iris was the killer.  Zone reveals that after he killed Mr. Miller he saw his Birthmark… and his name wasn’t Miller.

I have to admit I found it both cool and chilling to see the chair used as a weapon.  I also enjoyed that the Birthmark tipped Zone off that there was something fishy going on.

A final flashback shows Adelle watching the former Actives praying.  Doctor Saunders then asks her to look in on Topher.  Recent events have evidently driven him mad.  He begins rambling how ultrasonic emitters can program someone over the phone.  That one robo-caller can create an army in an instant, creating a war with two sides: those who answered the phone and those who didn’t.  He breaks down completely when he realizes his advances in micro-pulse technology paved the way for everything that happen.

I liked this scene a lot because it shows the ultimate progression of Topher’s character.  In the first season, Topher is a deliciously amoral character.  He doesn’t care how the imprint technology is used as long as he gets to play around with it.  The flashbacks (flashforwards?) in this episode show a different side of him when Mr. Ambrose begins using the technology to sell immortality to the highest bidder.  Topher is very subdued in that scene, as he is beginning to realize the Pandora’s box he has opened.  It all comes to a head here, where he realizes he is responsible for destroying the world and simply cannot take it.

Back in the memory, someone breaking through the bricked up entrance to the Dollhouse.  As the sledge hammer breaks through the wall, the intruders are revealed to be Caroline and Paul Ballard.  Caroline has returned to rescue her fellow former Actives.  She reveals that they have a place that is safe from the imprinting, but the technology that protects them there is not portable.  She implies that Alpha is responsible for the tech, although whether Alpha is now an ally or still an enemy is not certain.

Caroline tells Doctor Saunders that she needs her personality to be backed up on a hard drive.  Only she knows where they are going, but someday others will need that knowledge.  At this point Caroline wakes up in Iris’ body.  Caroline is ecstatic to see Dr. Saunders until she realizes that she is in her Whiskey persona.  Caroline seems saddened, but not surprised by this revelation.

This is a powerful scene because it is implied that Whiskey deliberately did this to herself, that she chose to live this life in order to send others to Safe Haven.  In the flashback, Caroline was trying to figure out how she would lead others to her personality, the key to their escape.  She also tells Mag that Whiskey knew that if she stayed that she would “lose her mind.”  This really sets up Whiskey as a noble, but tragic character.  It also doesn’t bode well for Boyd Lagton’s survival.

About this time Butchers break into the Dollhouse.  Mag, Zone, and Caroline flee, but Whiskey insists on remaining behind.  As the Butchers swarm the complex Whiskey activates some form of gas defense, then calmly watches as the Butchers succumb to it. 

This scene is especially poignant because of its ambiguity.  It is uncertain if the gas is fatal and Whiskey is simply resigned to her fate, or if she will simply wake up, clean up the mess, and start the whole cycle of waiting over again.

Meanwhile, Caroline, Mag, and Zone make it up the elevator shaft to an abandoned office building.  When Mag reflects on everything that has been lost because of the imprint technology, she bitterly asks “if it was worth it.”  Caroline replies that they were simply “Children playing with matches… and they burned the house down.”

The remaining three come upon a remembrance wall which contains pictures of most of the main cast.  Caroline picks out her picture and says “I hope you find me alive.”  They then climb a rope ladder out of the office building to an unknown fate.

This episode really impresses me.  I am now almost sad now that Dollhouse has been renewed for a second season. The cynic in me doubts that the show will get a full five year run to finish Joss Whedon’s planned story arc, and it seems unlikely that they can craft a better farewell to the series than this. 

Nevertheless, the optimist in me remain hopeful.  After all, if the writing staff and the actors can bring this level of quality to the second season, you never know what can happen.