Dollhouse 2.13: "Epitaph Two: Return"

It’s interesting to note that many fans also felt that the writers went a step too far with the Boyd reveal in “Getting Closer”, and that it hobbled the ability to bring the resolution of the season/series to a fitting and satisfactory end. It’s true that many writers manage to provide a near-perfect setup, only to struggle with the payoff. Joss Whedon has been more successful than others over the course of his career, but his writing teams are hardly immune.

Some have wondered if the existence of “Epitaph One” was the problem. Having set that future in stone, the writers were locked onto a path with a known destination. And with only twelve episodes to get from the first season finale to the basis for that apocalyptic future, the writers were facing down quite a challenge. In that respect, it’s amazing that they managed to make it fit together as well as they did.

Yet I think that “Epitaph One” gave them a goal to achieve, which served to tighten the focus for most of the season. The only problem came when they tried to get too cute with the twists and turns. The Boyd/Whiskey reveal did explain why Rossum lost control of the tech, but it also made it impossible for some of the dots to be connected. Many of the “flashbacks” in “Epitaph One” are left with only the slightest hint of context, and the presence of Whiskey in 2019 doesn’t fit at all.

Having now seen the series’ conclusion, set after “Epitaph One” and bringing the story to a close, I’m even less enamored of the Boyd reveal. The time that was spent making that work could have been used to make better sense of Caroline’s importance, Alpha’s role in the grand plan, and the preparations made in the wake of Rossum’s corporate beheading.

Ironically, while Caroline/Echo’s unique nature was touted in “The Hollow Men” (however inconsistent with the earlier hints that Victor and Sierra had similar developing immunity), it had almost nothing to do with the final solution to the wiping problem. It just explained, more or less, why Echo was able to lead the resistance. But was a specific explanation necessary?

After all, her immunity to the wiping process was already evident, and left alone, it also would have made more sense. Consider that the implication for most of the second season was that a certain percentage of Dolls would, over time, develop composite personalities that were, in essence, reflections or “echoes” of their original selves. The more a Doll was wiped and reprogrammed, the more likely the compositing would take place.

Left alone, this would have explained why so many of the Dolls survived to make it to Safe Haven, and why they would be able to resist the tech. It also could have formed the basis for the restoration of civilization: that there were some pockets still out there surviving, having developed composite immunity over time. Topher’s final solution might have still been the same, but at least it would have connected better than the ultra-specific explanation given for Echo’s development.

As it is, this series finale was merely functional. It didn’t have the stunning gravitas of “Epitaph One”. There wasn’t the same crushing sense of hopelessness. Part of that was the recognition that the only resolution, once Topher came on the scene, would be a successful mission to save what was left of the world. Topher’s final act of genius would, in one instant, wipe out the remnants of Rossum’s middle-management, kill the tech, and give humanity a chance to rebuild. Even with tragedy along the way, it had to end on that semi-optimistic note. I just couldn’t see Joss taking it the other, far more crushing direction.

The presence of two Caroline’s never seemed to pay off, despite early hints that there would be a purpose to it. The tension between Anthony and Priya was a bit unexpected, but it was a natural enough extension of Anthony’s appreciation of his tech-based mojo in “The Hollow Men” for it to make sense. Thankfully, the writers chose to allow Anthony and Priya to find happiness with their son; that’s a rare commodity in a Joss production.

The showdown with Harding and Ambrose simply did not work, largely because the actors were annoying and there wasn’t enough time to give the audience a reason to care. It was one of those moments that had to be there to ensure that the audience understood the link between “The Hollow Men” and this episode, but it just felt rushed. And Neuropolis was the sort of thing that sounds clever in the writing room, but is just corny on-screen.

I already mentioned the issue with Whiskey. Fans that never saw “Epitaph One” will never think to ask the question, but how did Whiskey go from being a meat-suit for Clyde 2.0 to the bizarre servitor of the Dollhouse in “Epitaph One”? There wasn’t even a hint of how that happened. And since the copy of Caroline only served to bring Zone and Mag to Safe Haven via Neuropolis, it just wasn’t a great payoff to Whiskey’s apparent importance in that prior episode.

Also, there was never a payoff to Dominic’s presence in the Attic, beyond triggering some of what happened in “Getting Closer”. I was hoping that “Epitaph Two” would tie up that particular loose thread, even in passing, and it never happened. It seems as though the trip to the Attic was to provide some necessary exposition and give the characters something of an early warning sign, and nothing else. Considering some of the implications from “The Attic”, that was a letdown.

While a lot of the problems were a lack of follow-through on previous plot and character threads, there was also a problem with execution. This series finale may have been too ambitious for its own good. Many of the action set pieces were terribly staged, and poorly directed. The writers tried to mitigate the issue within the dialogue, but it’s clear that the budget and shooting schedule issues got in the way of meeting the original intentions.

While I thought a lot of things didn’t quite work, and that the writers failed to live up to the promise of “Epitaph One”, there were things I did like. First and foremost, Topher’s final moments were an amazing turn for the character. Topher’s character arc was one of the best aspects of the series. As central as Echo was to the entire progression of the plot, Topher became one of the reasons to keep watching.

I also loved how well the writers handled the Echo/Alpha/Paul subplot. It was never overtly explained, but Alpha was clearly changed by the inclusion of Paul’s mind into his composite personality. And when Paul died, Alpha understood that there was nothing to be gained by having Paul erased from his brain like the rest of his mental menagerie. His final gift to Echo, a copy of Paul to upload into her mind for the rest of her life, was a beautiful payoff to “A Love Supreme”.

It’s unlikely that the writers could have given the series a sense of full resolution with this episode. At best, the plot and character arcs would have been given some degree of closure, and for the most part, that’s what was accomplished. The rough nature of the resolution is largely a symptom of circumstance; the writers did what they thought was best with the time they had left. It’s probably no surprise that some of the choices wouldn’t quite work, and it’s unfortunate that many of those questionable choices were concentrated at the end of the run.

On the other hand, I’m still left with a desire to see where the story would go from here. I understand that Joss has said that he considers “Dollhouse” to have come to its end with this finale, and that there are no plans for a “Dollhouse: Season 3” comic book treatment. And this does work well enough as a firm ending. For my own part, I’d love to see how the world would recover from a long-term disaster on this scale.

Whatever the case, “Dollhouse” has come to its end, and Joss Whedon managed to tell a relatively complete story despite poor ratings, network intervention, and a flawed premise. I personally feel that the story as a whole mitigates much of the early criticism of the premise, though there are aspects that will always be put to understandable question. So perhaps it makes sense that “Epitaph Two” is a flawed but ambitious finale to a flawed but ambitious series.


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