EPISODE REVIEW: Dollhouse: “Epitaph Two: Return” (Season 2, Episode 13) SERIES FINALE

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And so it end, not quite in glory, and not quite with a whimper, but definitely quieter and a bit more touchingly than I’d anticipated, based on the last several weeks of breakneck storytelling. For those who haven’t been keeping score, the series had a two-part finale. Part one, “Epitaph One,” never aired, and was produced back in May of 2009. Part two - which I’m reviewing here - aired a season later.

It’s an interesting foreshadowing strategy, and though Joe Straczynski flittered ‘round the edges of this kind of thing a few times in Babylon 5, this is the first time I can think of where the Series Finale was ladled out in portions as Season Finales. It’s undeniably a neat concept, as foreshadowing always is: You know - at least partially - what’s going to happen, but you don’t quite know the context, and of course your mind plays ‘connect the dots’ trying to tie what’s going on in the regular episodes in with what you know is waiting down the road. Again, a fairly common ploy in SF, but generally done in little glimmers and flashes. This is the first show to give it to us in great big juicy steaks.

It is a bit confusing, however, if you’ve never seen “Epitaph One,” which, realistically, most of us haven’t. Bottom line: In 2019 - the same year Blade Runner took place in, by the way - a team of freedom fighters called “Actuals” raid the ruins of the LA Dollhouse, and imprint a little girl with Echo’s backup drive. And now…

PLAY BY PLAY

It’s still 2019, several weeks later. Little Girl Echo is traveling with the last of the Actuals: a really attractive woman named “Mag” and a guy named “Zone” who’s got a kind of Patrick Swayze thing going on. Pseudo-Echo ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDrJKmrOo2s) is navigating them - somewhat unsteadily - to Safehaven, which is our protagonist’s hidey-hole headquarters and, well, a safe haven as well. Duh. Everyone there is inoculated against wipes via the Echo Serum.

They get grabbed by security goons, and taken to “Neuropolis,” which used to be known as “Tuscon.” It’s run as a private citystate by the remaining Rossum heads, led by one of the many iterations of the evil Clyde 2.0 (Not to be confused with the merely naïve Clyde 1.0) They’re thrown into a cell, where Zone rails on a bit about how Pseudo-Echo ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ4MbAKN8mw ) never mentioned that Safe Have “Was parked next to the frickin’ Death Star.” She points out how it had to be, they raid them for tech, and to curtail their activities.

The actual Echo (Who’s not an Actual) beats up some guards, and everyone escapes. Meanwhile, Clyde whatever.0 is looking for a new body, and recognizes Paul in the bunch. Clyde freaks out and runs, while one of his lackeys can’t understand what the fuss was. “It’s not like a dumbhead ever hurt anyone.” Paul smiles and head buts the guy.

Clyde gets ambushed by Echo, who blames the apocalypse on her, reminds her that he’s backed up, and asks why she even bothers killing him anymore. She kills him anyway. Meanwhile, Paul finds Topher in gibbering schizophrenic mode, down in the lab. Team Echo and Team Pseudo-Echo ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFYDDxLrayg ) escape to Safehaven, where we meet up with a matronly Grace gardening with a young boy named “Tee” in the garden. Tee quickly proves to be Sierra’s son, but there’s no sign of Victor. Dead? We just don’t know, it’s that kind of show. Whedon has always been rather kill-happy when his characters enter endgame.

Sitting down for dinner, they actually get around to discussing the plot for this episode: Clyde was forcing Topher to build an “Imprinting Bomb” that would affect the whole world. Evidently, there’s substantial enclaves of people - possibly overseas - who are still themselves. “Half the world has been wiped, and the other half is trying to kill them.” Topher’s real plan, however, was to build an un-wiping bomb that would generate a wave that would restore everyone’s wiped personalities, even if, in the case of Sierra and Echo, they don’t really want ‘em back. They’d need to be deep underground to avoid the reprogramming wave, and for no adequately explained reason, we’re told they’d need to be there for a year. Also, the stuff they need is in the Dollhouse.

Suddenly, Victor shows up in full-on Road Warrior mode, right down to the leather jacket with the armor on one shoulder. He’s got a crew of hard-looking post apocalyptic types with him babbling in Russian. They’ve all got a ring of Dataports around their right ears. Victor reprograms himself for English, then says “We got your message, how can we help.”

Sierra and Victor broke up three years ago, because Victor felt the tech had to be used to protect the lives of the people in Safehaven, while Sierra has aggressively embraced a technophobic hippie lifestyle that includes sundresses, garden strawberries, and messy (But still quite fetching) bleached hair. She’s furious at him, more furious than you can be unless you still love someone. Victor, meanwhile, still loves her, but he’s staying away out of respect for her wishes.

They all head back to LA in The Lord Humongous - excuse me - in The Lord Victor’s ‘warriors of the wasteland’ trucks. (They do actually talk about “Ruling the wasteland”) We’re given a lot of looooooong, talkey scenes where Victor and Sierra talk about their relationship, while Paul and Echo talk about theirs. Paul says “You’ve got a hundred people living in your head, but you’re the loneliest person I know.”

Once in LA they’re attacked by Butchers - brain wiped folks who’ve gone primal and violent - and Mag gets shot up badly in the legs. Paul tries to rescue her and is killed. The rest of them rappel into the ruins of the Dollhouse which are…

Pretty nice, really.

Same as it’s always been, wood and soft lighting, modern and homey at the same time, a few Asian touches here and there. There’s dolls walking around in their dolly PJs. “Ah, hell!” Echo says.

“No, Hell is a lot lower, you’ll need to keep going,” Alpha says.

Yikes! Alpha! Evil Alpha! Big shock! They hug! Bigger shock! Alpha and Echo are chums, it seems, and he was even a part of Team Echo for a few years, until he lost his heart for the fight, came back here, and ‘helped out those who I could.’

Topher and Alpha work on the Fix Everyone MacGuffin Bomb, but Topher’s in pretty bad shape and incoherent. They let him go to bed, which is one of the old Doll sleeping pods, with crap all around it, little Buddha statues, books, toys, notebooks, and assorted crazy-person detritus.

“It was like this when I bought the place” Alpha jokes.

“Thank God you didn’t change it,” Grace replies.

“It appealed to the Schizophrenic in me. Actually, both the Schizophrenics in me,” Alpha retorts.

It turns out Topher needed to come back here not for the tech or the lab, but for his old notes and ideas. They resume work on the Fix Everyone Bomb, and pretty much this goes off without incident, so we’re treated to some more relationship talk in which Echo appears to be criticizing Sierra for her treatment of Victor, but eventually openly starts talking about her regrets with Paul. This is the best scene in the episode.

Sierra acquiesces and makes reconciliatory overtures to Victor. Alpha leaves the dollhouse because he wants to go back to being who he was before. Grace has a sad farewell with Echo, and then leads the current batch of Dolls outside, along with Zone and Pseudo-Echo ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrK1ZmeLDPc ) who are still in this episode, even though they have no importance whatsoever in the plot after the first act. The girl is looking forward to being wiped and having a new start.

Topher, meanwhile, goes to Grace’s office to set off the bomb manually. There’s no technical reason for this, it’s just obvious that he’s got too much guilt and trauma to bear, and he wants to die. Specifically, he wants to die fixing the world he ruined, but mostly he just wants to die. Just before he dies, he sees a lot of photos stuck to Grace’s wall, which grab his attention. Distracted, he’s his old self again for just an instant, and then the bomb goes off and kills him.

Everyone wakes up, the long nightmare over, and the more mundane waking nightmare of rebuilding the world has begun.

Brokenhearted, Echo downloads Paul into her own head, finally ‘letting him in’ to her heart as well. She walks past Victor, Sierra, and Tee - now in happy family mode - as she goes to one of the pods, smiles, and goes to sleep.

And they all live (Mostly) happily ever after, even one of the ones who was dead.

The (Final) End.

OBSERVATIONS

This was a good finale. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t nearly as epic as I was expecting, and there really didn’t seem to be quite enough story to go around. The middle act - particularly the ‘driving and talking’ scenes - went on too long, and the whole “Victor’s Soldiers Can’t Be Trusted” subplot was so pointless and ephemeral that I actually completely forgot about it until just this moment. So it wasn’t *amazing* television, but it was definitely above average, and the more I think about it, the more I think the somewhat anticlimactic feel was intentional simply because this *wasn’t* the climax of the show. The previous episode was. This week was denouement, an epilog, a coda, a period of declining action following the climax, an afterword, a wrapup.

Viewed in that light, it makes perfect sense, and I really do think that’s how it was intended. It’s way the hell better than the ends of most SF shows, and - important - it has an end, unlike 9/10ths of all genre shows. What’s more, in the final ten minutes or so, it was genuinely emotionally moving.

And yet I feel there were some sloppy bits, and there’s some elements I feel a bit cheated by. For instance, all the “Paul forgot his love for Echo” stuff from the past several episodes pretty much came to naught since in this episode, the two of them had obviously fallen in love again. And in the last scene, she get pre-Doll Paul back anyway, so, well, a lot of emotional buildup to a great big non-issue, ultimately.

Likewise, the deflation of the Alpha plot was shocking but ultimately unsatisfying. Ok, so Alpha got better, he’s no longer crazy, and he and Echo are chums. Swell. Aside from being a caretaker for the Dollhouse, he plays no significant role in this episode, and he’s really only in three or four scenes. In essence, he’s only there so they can tie up a loose thread in the fastest, most perfunctory way possible, and then move on. It’s not all that satisfying, nor particularly well-written, but Alan Tudyk does great work with what little he’s given. (As always)

Team Pseudo-Echo is the very image of superfluous. They serve to get the ball rolling, and I guess they needed to be there since they were in Epitaph One (Which I haven’t seen. Sorry. I’m a poser, and an incompetent one at that), but whatever significance they played in that, they’re basically baggage here, and the story dispenses with them more-or-less entirely once the second act begins. (I should mention I’m talking ‘theater acts’ and not ‘tv acts,’ it’s just easier than saying ‘the middle third of the episode.) They turn up at the end just to remind us they exist, but there’s nothing substantive in it.

And of course there’s the normal real-world problems:

Soooooooooooo why were all the brainless folks who’d been wiped clean shaven? Seems odd that they’re still able to maintain personal grooming when they can’t figure out how to work a sink or flush a toilet. Granted, I’m sure there aren’t any working toilets in this brave new world anyway.

Where’s Mister Dominic? There was no mention of him whatsoever. I’m assuming he’s dead, but it’s interesting that in his final appearance - in which he looked plenty messed-up - they didn’t just throw in a line about how “He’s a goner” or something.

How was Alpha feeding all his dolls? Power I get, water I get, but food has to come from somewhere, and given the situation, it’s unlikely he could just send out to the store for it. I suppose he could be programming his dolls in Zombie Killin’ Commando Mode, but other dialog elsewhere makes it pretty clear that even if they did that, there really isn’t any food left to be had in LA.

Acting-wise, I’ve grown used to Dushku. Aside from her freakout scene, there’s nothing especially monumental in this episode, but she suits the part now and the part suits her. That’s intended as a compliment. When the series started, she was far and away the weakest link. I’m not sure if she’s grown as an actress, or if the writers just figured out how to play to her strengths - probably both, really - but when this series premiered, I never figured I’d like her, and ultimately she won me over. Good job, Eliza!

I also hated Topher - not because Fran Kranz can’t act, but because the character was, I thought, self-consciously written. It took me longer to warm up to him, though this season I really grew to like him. The tech in this show has always been a bit too magical and Star Trekian to really play by the rules of logic, it tends to obey the dictates of the plot rather than any kind of established limitations on what it can and can’t do, even more so in this final batch of episodes where the standards were changing on a weekly basis, but Kranz pulled that all off well. Even if it never quite seemed plausible, his delivery managed to keep it from feeling completely ridiculous. I don’t think he was quite up to the gibbering schizophrenic Topher we see here, however. That just didn’t quite work. Again, we were back to self-conscious writing, albeit a different kind of self-conscious. He still manages a couple good scenes: when he finds his old bed was fun, and his death scene - that last momentary glimpse of a ‘healed’ Topher - was genuinely powerful. It put a lump in my throat, which is impressive for a character I couldn’t stand a year ago. Good job, Fran! Now please do another Megabot episode, please!

Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj, and Dichen Lachman, in addition to all having entertainingly nonstandard names, are all very solid talents, much better than you generally see on TV, much better than TV generally requires, deserves, or is comfortable with, but they don’t have much to do in this episode, mostly because of the heart-on-the-sleeve writing in their scenes. I have no doubt that they’ll all go on to much better things. Penikett has proven that he’s an unexpectedly strong leading man. Gjokaj is the new freakin’ Brando. He’s just amazing, and if he doesn’t have a superstar career from here on out, then I for one am going to go on a killing spree until Hollywood comes to its senses. Lachman is beautiful, adorable, fragile, and - though it wasn’t really used much - I got the sense that she’s got some good comic timing as well. I will gladly walk three miles uphill through yellow snow to watch any movie or TV show she’s in, even if it’s something really horribly girly like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “27 Dresses.”

I expect big things of all of these folks, and if they don’t succeed, it’s not their fault: the world is simply wrong.

So, in conclusion, thank you, Mister Whedon, for giving us a solid finale to a wild ride of a series. As usual, I know you never quite got what you were shooting for with this one, but the target you hit may ultimately have been better than the one you were aiming for. There has never been a lot of smart SF on TV, and what little there is generally lacks kung fu so I feel a bit indebted. Thanks. And Congratulations.

Though I generally malign Fox for good reason, and though they mishandled this show from day one, I’d like to thank them for giving it a second chance, and giving Whedon enough of a warning to bring it to a satisfying - if premature - conclusion. I’m not going to rag on you for this one, guys: what we ended up with here is better than what we had at the end of last season, and you did it at a substantial financial loss to your company. That was a class act, and thank you. Now please bring back Firefly! (Or at least a Firefly spinoff!)

I’d also like to thank everyone who’s been regularly reading these reviews, and providing feedback and insights. Thanks for your kind, and completely undeserved, attention.

And that, my friends, is that. This story has ended. Now we’ll look for another one to begin…

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