Saturday, July 18, 2009

Episode in Review: Dollhouse - Epitaph One

I wrapped up my season review of Dollhouse with the following comment:

"I suppose the question of whether I'll be watching season 2 is moot, given the vultures circling over this show, but I'm going to have to chalk this up as another disappointment from Camp Whedon. And those are really starting to pile up. I do hope he comes out with something in the near future to remind me why I used to love his work..."

As it turns out, I was wrong on several counts. For starters, "Dollhouse" has been renewed for a second season. This was quite a shock to me, given that the networks have been utterly merciless with genre TV over the past year or two given the cancellations of "Pushing Daisies" (no, still not over that), "Middleman", "The Unusuals", "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles", "Reaper", et cetera ad nauseum.

And then there's "Epitaph One".

For those who aren't familiar with the background, FOX initially commissioned thirteen episodes for the series' first season, but this included the unaired pilot - which Whedon famously discarded after completion - so that, even though the cast and crew had already produced "Epitaph One" as a coda to the first season, the network refused to air it, with only vague promises that it would eventually do so at some unspecified date in the future.

It should be said that this isn't yet another case of network interference derailing a narrative: for all intents and purposes, "Omega" is the finale. "Epitaph One" is an afterword.

It's also the best thing Whedon's done since "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog".

There's a certain habit I seem to be developing with regards to Joss Whedon, where I'm continually disappointed by his work only for him to create something that utterly astounds me, seemingly out of nowhere, perpetually redeeming my opinion of him as it were. After the Noxon years of "Buffy" he regained a lot of my faith "Dr. Horrible", lost it again during the unfortunate X-Men/Runaways/Buffy Season 8 Let-Down Hat Trick, and "Dollhouse" was inconsistent to the point of utter frustration: a return to form in some respects, a bitter failure in others. But if the second season stays in the ballpark of this episode, all slights will be forgiven and forgotten.

Why is this episode so great? At its core, "Epitaph One" is an expression of Whedon's greatest strength as a creator (and, I think, the reason he's so popular): the man takes chances. He puts real risk into the creative process and isn't afraid to change gears for the sake of the story. Case in point, our coda begins a decade in the future, with an entirely new cast, in a world gone utterly mad due to public use of Dollhouse technology. We'd seen hints of the potential dangers before, but only in generalized, undefined ways: for Mag, Zone and their companions, it's reality. Use a radio and you might catch a stray signal that will wipe your mind, or imprint you with a psychotic personality.

In the midst of this chaos, the survivors accidentally discover the original Dollhouse and start piecing together the mysteries of the past. We learn a bit about what happened to various characters (Topher's fate, in particular, is heartbreaking, and that's some more Whedon magic right there: I never thought I'd feel anything but disgust for Topher, and all it took to change that was one scene). After a few twists, one of which left my jaw hanging (you'll know it when you see it), the episode ends on an open note that allows for quite a few possibilities. Will the second season continue from this point and explore the post-apocalyptic landscape, making this episode the mother of all deck-clearing exercises? Or is this the series finale and upcoming episodes will retroactively build towards it?

Either way, I'm on pins and needles for more, which certainly wasn't the case after "Omega". Good show, Mr. Whedon.