Being a regular collection of notes, intrusive fragments and episodic memories regarding each installment of the FOX teledrama Dollhouse (J. Whedon, creator).
The Engagement: In the not-too-distant future, 2019 AD, the world has turned into 1990: The Bronx Warriors, but plagued by rampant and malicious Imprinting, and Wiping. A raggedy-taggedy group of survivalists find the abandoned Dollhouse facilities, and plan to hole up like it was the Monroeville Mall. The
DALLAS 1.13: "EPITAPH ONE"
Janani: Just in time for all of its mysteries to be undermined by the arrival of Season 2... it's your hastily considered review of "Epitaph One"!
Last season I made a mental petition to Joss Whedon to blow up the physical Dollhouse, like he did Sunnydale High.
When I reflect back on that wish, I see that what I wanted wasn't so much a destroyed building as a chance to see everything within the building -- bodies, ideas, technologies, privileged knowledge -- escape, breach security, flee the tight artificial complacent confines of The Chair and The Lab and The Handlers, burst barriers, surge and sprawl out and hyperextend. Order unravelling to disorder: nature's course, in concert with the body-brain games played in "Omega" that demolish the security of terms like "you," "me," "ours," "them," "not-me," "not-you." All systems are down: security protocols, law and order, the assurance of discrete consciousness and sanctuary inside your own mind! All of which seems to beg that immortal question:
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THE FENCES AREN'T ELECTRIFIED?
I keep returning to your thought about sci-fi stories defining high concepts as "failures" based on disastrous outcomes rather than shakiness - logistical or moral - in the concepts themselves. Even before the various breakdowns in Season 1, we (and every other viewer of the show) approached the Dollhouse as Inherently Problematic (as did the writers). As such, the terrors of Epitaph One - the instant Imprinting, Active armies - don't come from left field, and aren't the central or most important Revelations of the episode. They're logical extensions, expansions, enlargements, reapplications of the Tech applied by Topher, in more contained ways, in 2009.
What fascinated me most, in the end, were not the many too-late, too-weak expressions of regret (Topher, Adelle, etc.), nor the feeble attempts at resisting Tech and retaining discrete identity (birthmarks). Nor was it the interesting use of several genres' worth of tropes (madwoman in the house, demon child, woman offed in the shower). Nope -- I keep returning to the glee of Ambrose, embodied in Victor, chomping delicious food and describing, reveling in, the future of Imprintation. So much to chew on (ahem) there: the Tech didn't really escape like a raptor, it was showed the door; we get an additional sense of Adelle's restraint, how deeply the fate of Tech varies according to who holds the reins and authorization; we get literal appetite conflated with an appetite for development, action, evolution, the Next Inevitable Thing. Tech isn't a villain, a Butcher, in its own right. That would be us and us alone.
Of course, the Ambrose nosh scene is a memory! So we have a couple seasons to see how it all really played out. For now, the thought of endless copies of imprint-immune Caroline, the show's chosen Indestructible Element, distributed throughout the world until time immemorial, is giving me the beginnings of a headache. What about you?
Chris: Ambrose is utterly unconvincing, of course, and the technology seems to fall into the wrong (wronger?) hands because it was always, inevitably a bad idea. His motivation, not that he needs to make explanations, sounds like what it is: greed. He doesn't play straight to an all-but-universal fear of mortality, or our collective suckerdom for Great Man stories. He pays them lip service with the the bent that immortals get more of everything. His sales pitch preys on elitism and extolls the cash-making virtue. Very rich people will be able to afford to jump bodies forever. That can't possibly sound good to anybody but very rich people, and nobody likes them.
The curious elements in that scene are DeWitt's and Brink's reactions, uneasy, appalled, protesting. I am reminded of Sierra's former handler, spitting back at Adelle: "Did you thing this wouldn't happen?" The contracts signed by incoming Dolls mean nothing. Never did. The care and well-being of the workers was always a vital cog only to keep the machine of industry running. Rossum doesn't "care" about souls or what people "need." These aren't shocking developments, they're plain-faced scrubbings of the L.A. office's best intentions. Adelle and Topher have their jobs because their extraordinary dedication and talents are useful to Rossum, as are their fuzzed-up morals and deluded rationale; they are manipulated and exploited as surely as Dolls are useful because they are young and pretty and healthy. (By the by, Season 5 of Angel explores these themes with remarkable depth and detail -- the damage done to one's heart and mind when attempting to redirect the stride of the beast from from within its belly.)
And the scene's masterstroke is that Ambrose isn't there. His body is not in the L.A. Dollhouse, and his mind is not confined to one Wipeable, shootable, smashable brain. If you criticized the not-quite-panopticon design of the Dollhouse a ways back, how's this one?: Ambrose exerts power over his captive employees while not being anywhere. Adelle and Topher (and elsewhere Saunders and Langton) look pretty helpless here. How do you reconfigure the game when you can't see or touch or get at the pieces ("We've always been above the law... only now we're also writing it"... who needs both?!)? How do you punch through thin air? You can't fight a ghost. We might actually look back to Episode One, "Ghost", for a parallel, as Eleanor-Echo faced a similar quandary and found a similar solution. You fight a ghost by being a ghost. And a Caroline ends "Epitaph One" in the place where Ambrose starts all this trouble: they're disembodied and many-embodied. Indestructible like biologically immortal hydrozoans. It isn't underlined like a Twilight Zone zapper, but the irony is that the very ab/use of the Tech that Ambrose demands is the same technique that allows the resistance fighter Caroline to survive.
There's also a poignant catch to the Hydra Imprint scheme, and it isn't much mentioned until the end of the episode (though it formed some of "Haunted" and "Gray Hour"). None of the copies of yourself are in synch with one another. "I hope we find me alive": Caroline still wants, instinctually, bone-deep, for there to be A Real Caroline. The Ambrose-Victor who ate that crab may go back to DH Central and be debriefed. Maybe he gets Wiped. Maybe Ambrose Prime "had" the experience of eating the crab, maybe not, but it can't mean as much as it does to those with of us with the brief lives Ambrose mocks and dismisses.
So yes, there is an inevitability to "Epitaph One", and at the same time, in a neat writer's trick, the whole thing dissolves into thin air. It's a series finale and and it's not. It's a season finale and it's not. It's a glimpse of the narrative timeline's future, and it's not. Whedon has hinted in interviews that since the flashback scenes are memories, they may be imperfect. But something far more clever is built into "Epitaph": the flashbacks are all blessed with ambiguous entry and exit points (did Adelle "reclaim" Victor from Ambrose? Does Caroline shoot Adelle? No and no, but you see what I mean), and furthermore, they are "memories" in a story about constructing false memories. Nothing in "Epitaph One"'s flashbacks has to be written into the official history of the Dollhouse, but everything could be.
JS: If "Epitaph One" had been released at the chronological end of Dollhouse's run, in 2012 or whenever Whedon concludes the show, and ended on Caroline's sanctimonious "Kids playing with matches, burned down the house," I would have responded by burning down my TV. But as it's placed now, we get to watch exactly how the matches were scattered, how they were lit, in what order, on whose orders, who hesitated, who abstained, and whose hands trembled in the lighting. And if the writers approach this right, we'll be reminded of the pleasures of heat and flame as well. I'm no scientist, venture capitalist, or influential steward of resources, but I do understand greed and its justifications -- though I relate more to Topher's intellectual greed than Ambrose's decadence. I'm not denying that material greed is part of Topher's makeup -- get this man a refrigerator! -- but the impulse behind statements like "That's so brilliant...why didn't I think of that?" runs deeper.
The placement and design of this character are beginning to make much more sense to me - if he had more of the characteristics of, say, Langton, he just wouldn't function as well as he does, subvert the role of Mad Scientist/Evil Genius/Scientific Sinner as well as he does. Ambrose approaches the world with a sort of suave voracity, a willingness to consume; Topher matches that with a determinedly grubby, unsuave, child's hunger to know, to improve, to revolutionize, to realize visions -- to bring Imprint time down from 2 hours to 5 minutes to instantaneous, to enable remote Wiping, to act on the world, mark it, impress it, because, dammit, that would just be so cool. These are traits and aspirations we encourage in children, even demand of them, yet suddenly fear and condemn when we see them in adults. His sobbed question, "If I can figure things out, is that curiosity or arrogance?" has no easy answer. He thinks he is the shit, but only when he succeeds; failure undoes him. In his match play, he is ultimately more concerned with whether curtains burn faster than ottomans, and with how awesome the eventual explosion will be*, than with going down in history. Iris!Caroline's huffy remark will, I hope, be revealed for what it is -- a particularly strident, honking, uncomplicated point of view that is merely one among an ensemble of motivations and arcs.
Speaking of "Caroline" -- you make a terrific point about the hordes of Carolines and Ambroses out there, unsync-ed, having un-identical experiences. Taking this just a step further: the "Caroline" stored at the Dollhouse is already obsolete. Check me if I'm missing something, but unless any of the daughter-Carolines return to store their minds at the Dollhouse for future generations to upload -- or unless Safe Haven has backup technology -- their experiences and accumulated wisdom will never be replicated, correct? It's a bizarre reversal of the arc we traced all through Season 1 -- the Compositing of Echo/Esther/Taffy/Margaret/et al. into PolyEcho, reflecting either the writers' desires or (perhaps?) our own viewerly desires to extract a narrative of an Inviolable Self - a Self that matures and acquires additional facets over time, sure, but with some hardy core element that withstands any and all erosion.
Chris, what the hell is that element? Does Whisky's phrase about "dying as you were born" even make any sense? No human in the history of the world has "died as she was born"! Obviously I'm stretching Whisky's meaning -- she means "to die unmeddled with, unimprinted, unmanipulated" -- but even that is so poignant and hopeless a wish. Aging, social life, consciousness itself make this impossible. The solution -- as is usually the solution associated with phantoms in white gowns -- seem to lie toward purity, pristineness, quasi-religious seclusion from the dirty, fucked-up world. Must an intact Mind be an isolated Mind, shuttered away in a Safe Haven? And (as per the multiple Carolines) must an intact Mind be ONE, SINGLE, DISCRETE mind with one brainstem, one brainpan, one train of thought -- or might a collective consciousness evolve with a collective immunity to Imprintation?
We say these things, of course, as viewers with precisely that sort of mind -- individually encased brains staring at individual screens, as mortal and temporary as the faces in the photos on the Dollhouse Memory Wall. "Remember us," it says. I say (a little coldly, but not to the writers, just to the faces and what they symbolize): why? Among all the other stories it enfolds, "Epitaph One" is an archaeological narrative. It's about the sweep of history and a few of its vignettes that we are pausing to explore. If S1 (and the coming seasons) concentrate on the urgency of these individual lives, 2019 places them in perspective. Besides - Caroline "reproduced." It's what we're on earth to do. It's all we can hope for - to make something that endures after our bodies are gone.
*Said as someone who has set things ablaze in the spirit of purest inquiry. Caroline could have said the same thing about people who dangle paper towels over lit gas stoves "to see what will happen."
CS: Pff. That li'l Caroline! "They tampered in God's Domain!," she might as well be tut-tutting. It sums up the folly, but doesn't tell us anything, save that Caroline doesn't understand other peoples' motivations. Kids playing with matches do not have a goal in mind, have no ambition and cannot profit from their dangerous recreation.
For a girl who has multiple personalities pumped into her brain on a weekly basis, Caroline has a tough time getting into other people's heads. We might note that Buffy Summers and Angel both find their quests hindered in early seasons by narrow worldviews and moral dualism.
But she may have pegged Topher. I don't think he subverts our genre fave mad science types at all, but he is a modern variant and thoughtfully constructed character. (On a side note, and I fall into this trap constantly, the hip modern critic tends to place extraordinary value in the Subversion of any and everything. Sometimes this indicates a genuinely radical turn in the text; often it is just coded flag-planting that we find Tradition and Conservatism dirty words. In this case, maybe we just need more convincing, fresh and science-sympathetic takes on mad scientists.) Of all Rossum or Dollhouse employees, Topher is the one who most loves the task because the science is blazing and sexy and dangerous. Strike that; he's the only one. The specific task of poking around peoples' neurons suits him because of particular social inadequacies and personal anxieties; Victor Frankenstein is psychologically right for his scientific matchbook because of anger at his society's model of God that is really a fear of death. Victor and Topher are rather different men, but both stunted adolescents who are excited/enchanted that they can hold the glowing stick in hand.
This is troubling to us because: science is awesome. Curiosity and deeper understanding of nature lead to the kind of improvement and invention that represent the species' finest achievements. We aren't people who want to see scientists punished for pushing at boundaries. No one wants to see NASA chided because Reagan wants to build an X-ray laser. And still, it is disconcerting to consider Oppenheimer denouncing his naughty leftist politics so he has the thrilling opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project: the very! biggest! match! ever! was just too cool and fun to pass up. But this is what cautionary tales and Science Amok! stories do. They bitch-slap the guilty after the fact. So the scientist succumbs to madness and curls up in a Doll Pod, or dies of pneumonia in the Arctic or stares into the flame of the Trinity test and thinks "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." When the Modern Prometheii get riled up and chant "Fire! Fire!," they could use a Butt-Head to tell them "Settle down, Beavis." That Butt-Head is going to have to come from inside themselves.
Financiers, corruptors and enablers are often punished as well, chained to a rock and eaten by their own procompsognathus for all eternity. Regarding the ark Ambrose spoke of in the kitchen, we can be sure everyone -- DH staff and audience alike -- is thinking the same thing, that it's bound to turn out to be a death ship. That's Topher's fault for building it, Adelle's fault for captaining it, Ambrose's fault for commissioning it. It's Caroline's fault for volunteering for the crew. It's everyone's fault tolerating the ship's existence, even Ahabian Paul Ballard. And that's reborn Caroline's mistake in her evaluation. This wasn't a couple of idiots ruining it for everybody, but a lot of kids and a lot of matches. In this story everyone fucked up, so in the apocalypse everyone suffers.
Know what else I'd like to see go bananas with Ambrose's fleshy Ark of Immortality? I'd like to see a perma-body client who has gone insane from the process but keeps being provided with pretty new skin. I'd like to see a neurotic 200-year old psyche trapped in a studly young body, but forever unable to leap his inner hurdles: eternal and eternally miserable. I'd like to see a violent monster locked in beautiful bones carving a chaotic swath through history, brilliant and dangerous but unable to forge meaningful connections with other people.
Wait a minute, I was thinking of Drusilla, Angel and Spike. Moving on!
So the story is over with two more-or-less simultaneous images:
-Child-Symbol-of-Humanity's-Salvation Caroline leading survivors out of the Dollhouse. The scene resonates off "Needs" and "True Believer" (here she's leading them back into a compound!) and the earlier "Epitaph" flashback of Dushku-Bodied Caroline evacuating the 'House. It is an image of hope and salvation but also loss and struggle; the story is not ended.
-The barely human Whiskey as a white angel of destruction gassing everyone left on the stage. An act of erasure and mercy. She wipes the slate and the story is ended.
One beat is about remembering and continuing, one about forgetting and fading. Do they contradict each other? Work in harmony? What I'm seeing is the pattern of "Epitaph One", something like closure but without locking the door behind you.
JS: I guess someone didn't lock that door securely enough, because "Vows" is about to come strolling through it. I'd debate Topher's novelty with you a little more, but I'm inching ever closer to the TV! See you in a bits.
CS: Well, I think the man with the Tech would fit in nicely with the cast of The Big Bang Theory, but we can worry about that for the next four months. Before I sign off, one fast note, a hope for Season Two:
The Eros/Todestrieb tensions of the finale's intercutting is strongly reminiscent of the end of Dawn of the Dead (1978)... as is the entire set-up of the post-apocalyptic survivors holing up in a Xanadu for the brain-dead. This is an interesting parallel more than a rip-off (I hate saying that and leaving it unsupported, but hey), but makes me wonder why Dollhouse has not been mining its premise's potential for satire, indeed why Whedon rarely heads to those sniper towers. Perhaps the results of his relatively broad script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) dampened his interest, perhaps the desire to wrench hearts is too overwhelming. But Whedon is so funny and astute at the art of subversion -- and he's written one great satire in "Once More With Feeling" -- that it seems like a natural fit.