Dollhouse 1.13: "Epitaph One"

This particular episode has had quite an interesting history, much of which has been covered in other venues. In essence, this was an episode commissioned by the studio but ultimately never desired by the network. This is highly unfortunate, because this particular episode is probably the best episode of the series yet, and addresses a metric ton of the concerns surrounding the show’s premise.


The first season of “Dollhouse” often felt like prelude to a much more complicated and disturbing series, and it never felt like Joss and the writing staff were willing (or able) to take the premise to its natural, evil extent. Even with FOX executives effectively taking responsibility for watering down the implications and playing up the more salacious aspects, forcing compromise, I wasn’t convinced that Joss was thinking it all through.


“Epitaph One” has changed my mind. Not only do I think that Joss knows exactly what the implications have always been, but he’s been waiting for the chance to smack the audience over the head with them. In a very real way, it exposes the demands of the FOX executives to be clueless, because much of what they demanded was part and parcel of the cautionary tale at the heart of the story.


“Epitaph One” takes the story ten years into the future, and it is not pretty. The Dollhouse technology has led to the destruction of civilization as we know it, and the familiar faces of the Los Angeles branch are exposed as the authors of that catastrophe. The arrogance of those running the Dollhouse, particularly DeWiit and Topher, comes home to roost. There’s a delicious irony in the notion that Topher, responsible for the technological advances that will steal agency and identity from millions, will ultimately fall prey to an identity-smashing madness.


In many ways, this episode reminded me of the “Dollhouse” twist on the “Lost” formula. Now that the future has been revealed, and that course has been set, “Epitaph One” is something of a road map. The first season is only the first step on the path towards that apocalyptic future. This episode was chock full of details regarding the direction for nearly every major and minor character, right down to Alpha and November, and it would likely require multiple viewings to pick up on them all.


Perhaps the best aspect of the episode was how it exposed the first season as a microcosm of the overall “Dollhouse” saga. Caroline seemed to be working towards independence and the genesis of an anti-Dollhouse resistance throughout the first season, but by the end, she never went far enough to make enough progress to make a difference. In the end, despite Caroline’s eventual escape, the resistance doesn’t prevent the end of the world; they simply appear to survive it.


Also, though there was some attempt to make them sympathetic, those running the Dollhouse seemed to be living in a state of denial. They exist in a delusional state in which their immoral choices are justified. It was so complete that a number of viewers (including myself) felt like the writers actually wanted those characters to appear “good”. But in the larger context supplied by “Epitaph One”, that delusional mindset is part and parcel of the tragedy to come. Because they are convinced they are doing the right thing, they never see the implications and consequences pile up until it’s too late.


I mentioned a similarity to “Lost”. I would be very happy if the writers actually took that a bit further and used the future world of “Epitaph One” as the basis of a plot arc throughout the second season. The “present day” might still be the main focus, but given the ratings of the show thus far, being more fluid with time may be justified. Otherwise, too many of the seeds planted in this episode will be left unsown.


This is the kind of episode that drives a fan to go back through the entire first season to see where the foreshadowing of this dark future might have been. I feel like I could go through every scene in “Epitaph One” several times and still find interesting shades in what has been revealed. I completely agree with those who say that this was a game-changer for the series, and I can’t believe that FOX has chosen not to air the episode before the second season. This would silence a lot of critics, and give the second season a lot more gravitas as the next step towards the end of the world.

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Aug 11, 2009 9:02PM EDT

The shows first season was a mixture of Action and Morals, they constantly question if this is slavery and is it right etc, the whole reason they put in the BOYD guy really...and I think that the second season is going to be a look at the result of thinking that you can control basic human rights...erm...hubris.

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Aug 20, 2009 1:34PM EDT

Epitaph One should never have been a pilot - it could stand alone here as an eventual last episode for when the series is cancelled, a way of rounding off all the storylines.Yes, the salacious nature of the first few episodes nearly stopped me watching - I found the idea disgusting - but the latter episodes where we started to get an edgier feel managed to pull me back in again.

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Sep 7, 2009 5:54PM EDT

This truly was a return to form for Joss, and a familiar mistake by the network execs. I not only want to watch how things will play out towards this apocalyptic vision, but I want to know what happens next. Is Caroline alive? How about Victor and Sierra (forgot their real names)? There's just SO much, and all I want to do in the meantime is re-watch "Epitaph", then marathon the 1st season and conclude with "Epitaph" in time for the 2nd season. I wish I had the schedule to pull that off....oh well.

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