Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Classic" Recap: Dollhouse "Epitaph One"

"We all love the sound of our own voices. That’s why we’re here. To keep our own voices”

As I mentioned the other day in my first blog post, Epitaph One is the episode that really got me excited about the new season of Dollhouse. It truly is a shame that it was never broadcast on Fox (the story about why is kind of long and convoluted), because it is an exemplar of the show’s overall themes and provides an excellent bridge between where the series has been and where it seems to be going. It’s one part slasher flick, one part cautionary dystopian future tale in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, and all worth your viewing time.

Taking place mostly in 2019, with our usual cast of characters only appearing via flashback, Epitaph One explores the consequences of the Dollhouse’s personality-imprinting technology. In the ten years that have passed since the previous episode, the “tech” has been exploited, first by the Rossum Corporation, the company that owns the Dollhouse. We learn in one of the episode’s many flashbacks that at one point, the CEO of Rossum’s personality and memory was imprinted into one Active per Dollhouse to deliver a message. That message was that Dollhouses would be providing a new service to ultra-rich clients- “anatomical upgrades. Later, the tech was exploited by the world’s governments. The world of 2019 is post-apocalyptic. The Los Angeles landscape we see at the end of the episode’s teaser is literally in flames. Military leaders realized that the Dollhouse tech could be used to create armies. A person could be imprinted to be the perfect soldier simply by answering an unlucky phone call. The few who have not been imprinted call themselves “Actuals” and constantly struggle for survival. A group of Actuals led by Mag (played by the wonderful “Queen of the Internet” Felicia Day) happens upon the Los Angeles Dollhouse while searching for a new place to set up camp away from any technology that could imprint them with new personalities.

A major theme of the episode is human interaction. The first flashback shows Adelle DeWitt, head of the Los Angeles Dollhouse, giving her sales pitch to a prospective client. She promises the client that unlike hiring a prostitute who would just pretend to be in love with him, by hiring an Active, he will have the “most genuine human encounter” he has ever experienced. Notably, Adelle’s most genuine human encounter of the episode occurs in one of the later flashbacks, and it does not occur with someone who has been imprinted. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the episode, Adelle must comfort a broken Topher. Topher can’t come to terms with the fact that it was his ideas to make the Dollhouse imprinting process more efficient that lead to the apocalypse. He has reverted to a child-like state, taking up residence in one of the Dollhouse’s sleeping pods and surrounding himself with even more children’s toys and creature comforts than he had in his old office. Topher has good days and bad days, and on the bad days, the only person who can calm him down is Adelle. It’s fascinating to see Adelle in this new, pseudo-maternal role. Some have speculated that there must have been something romantic going on between Topher and Adelle before Topher fell into this state, but I think such speculation ruins the simple beauty of the mother/child relationship portrayed on screen.

With its flashbacks that are actually “flash forwards” from our 2009 perspective (no, I’m not recapping an episode of Lost…yet!), Epitaph One provides a sort of blueprint for where Joss Whedon and his staff will be taking the story of Dollhouse in the coming seasons. How we got to the isolated flashbacks is, for the most part, still untold. The first flashback that actually takes place post-early 2009, however, is a little more clear and is more easily connected to what we’ve already seen. In that flashback, Echo is imprinted as what appears to be a recent Russian immigrant, perhaps a mail order bride or victim of other human trafficking (Topher does mention, in his insensitive way, that she’s “fresh out of the shipping container. Paul Ballard is standing back, observing, clearly Echo’s new handler. Other than Paul’s presence, everything seems to be as per a normal imprinting and prep for engagement until Echo and Paul are alone in an elevator. This isn’t Grey’s, so no, they don’t make out in the elevator (and I used to be a pretty diehard Grey’s fan, so I’m not necessarily anti-TV characters making out in an elevator!)- it becomes apparent that whatever happened to Echo while she was kidnapped by Alpha in the previous episode stuck. She has retained the awareness that she is actually Caroline, and she has probably retained the awareness of all the other personalities with which she has been imprinted as well. Echo and Paul don’t seem to want the rest of the Dollhouse staff to know this fact, so it remains to be seen for what purpose they’re using Echo/Caroline’s transformation.

Epitaph One is a truly special episode of television. Not in the “Very Special Episode” sense, but in the beautiful imagery, game-changing plot twists, adding vast amounts of depth to characters we thought we knew sense. If you’re already familiar with the world of Dollhouse (and if you aren’t, you should be!), you’re missing out if you don’t see Epitaph One.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant analysis of this most awesome episode. I feel quite strongly that is one of the best episodes of TV I've seen in a very long time. I watch it over and over, gaining new insights into the universe that is Dollhouse. Joss Whedon really can make you think and appreciate his brilliance!