I’d like to sit here and tell you that “Epitaph Two: The Return” is an unmitigated triumph, an episode of television that will singlehandedly push future generations to realize that “Dollhouse” is nothing less than a stellar 26-episode miniseries and one that will redeem even some of the series’ weaker outings by revealing their place in the overall scheme. And, actually, it does some of that. It’s a very, very good episode of television, notable for the fact that it looks like it was made with whatever pocket change Joss Whedon found in his couch. What’s more, the script itself here is quite well done, bristling with heady ideas and a forward momentum that never lets up. But some of the episode’s execution is off. Not so much that it ruins the experience but enough that this won’t sit proudly alongside the “Angel” finale as one of the all-time greats.
[Full recap of Friday’s (Jan. 29) series finale of “Dollhouse” after the break…]
My favorite thing about “Epitaph Two,” though, is the way that it plays around with where the regular characters have ended up in the series’ future world where tech has overrun most everyone and turned them into marauding warriors or shambling dolls or the very rich, living large on the problems of others. Priya and Tony have a son, but Tony has chosen to once again be Victor, unable to leave behind the life of a doll and having all of the knowledge he might need constantly at his fingertips (in the form of USB flash drives). Echo, meanwhile, has acquired a kicky white streak in her hair and is wandering around the streets of the newly founded city of “Neuropolis,” trying to free the slaves, more or less. Adelle’s really gotten into gardening. Topher’s still nuts but could save the human race. And Ballard’s posing as a mute dumbshow to take out some of the guys behind this whole thing. (Oh, Alpha’s running the LA Dollhouse for some reason, which is simultaneously inexplicable and awesome.)
Once again, the show feels free to follow the story of Mag, Zone and Little Caroline, the three characters introduced in “Epitaph One” (which is still the series’ best episode, and if you haven’t seen it, I can’t imagine this episode making any sense). The three are on their way to Safehaven, the camp that Echo and the others have set up out in the desert, a kind of post-apocalyptic oasis where all can live their lives free of fear that they’ll be imprinted out of nowhere, even as their missions take them deeper and deeper into enemy territory. The economical way that Whedon and his writers (with this episode credited to Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon and Andrew Chambliss) set up this hellscape is surprisingly thorough for an episode that has little time to suggest a universe as large as this one does. It shows all involved have been reading their post-apocalyptic literature and suggests that if that lunch with John Landgraf of FX goes well, Whedon and his merry band should adapt the video game series “Fallout” to a TV show.
There are affecting images and moments in “Epitaph Two” by the score, but it says something about the episode that almost all of them come in the episode’s latter half. There’s a rushed quality to the entirety of the episode (even the latter half), once again giving the sense that Whedon and all are trying to cram a whole bunch of story into just 40+ minutes of time (though there’s less of a sense of this than there was in the last episode). Mag, Zone and Little Caroline all get to Safehaven remarkably quickly, and while they’re taken to Neuropolis upon arrival there, they’re just as quickly broken out. The early going has the rather disjointed, quest-based structure of, well, of a video game.
Further hampering matters is the fact that the guest players here are really not very good. Every time we get a scene between the regulars or the recurring players, it’s as golden as the rest of the stuff they’ve given us this season. But every time the story goes over to moments between Victor’s happy band of wasteland warriors or between a very rich, very fat man and his assistant, the air slowly deflates out of the episode. The lines these people are given aren’t bad, per se, but they highlight the fact that the dialogue on a Whedon show – even the exposition – has such a precise rhythm and cadence to it that if you can’t nail it just right, it’s going to come off as either flat or hokey. In this episode, it’s mostly flat, largely because the day players just aren’t up to the dialogue and for whatever reason, no one decided to bring them up to speed. (Or maybe they did and it just didn’t happen.) Regardless, there are more than a few cringeworthy moments in this episode when the regulars aren’t on screen.
And the flat air seems to reach out and affect Eliza Dushku – poor, embattled Eliza Dushku! – for the first half of the episode as well. Again, she’s not exactly bad, but she’s back to her first season portrayal of Echo as essentially a blank slate who’s starting to remember some of the things written on her in the past. There’s none of the feistiness she’s brought to the role in the recent episodes. The other actors are all doing what they can with the material (though it’s odd to see Felicia Day in such an action heroine-y role), but the whole thing feels very back and forth.
Once the episode gets on the big truck back to Los Angeles, though, it’s off to the races with all of the stuff that “Dollhouse” does so well, all of the stuff that the series finds interesting to think about and talk about. There are heartbreaking scenes here – Echo’s talk with Adelle about what’s to come (followed by a hug that felt strangely a long time in coming). There are moving scenes here – anything with Priya and Tony and their son. There are even some great action sequences here, like that trippy firefight in the decimated streets of LA, the gunfire lighting up the soundstage and the HD cameras capturing it almost as a long series of freeze frames. (There’s seriously some great camera work in the “Epitaph” episodes, and while it’s basically guaranteed no one in the academy will notice, it’s Emmy-worthy.)
What measures “Dollhouse” as a TV show that mattered, ultimately, is the fact that the multiple endings of “Epitaph Two,” which run from muted to explode-y, all focus on characters whose fates I’m genuinely interested in at this point. I’m glad that so many of them got happy endings, even Topher, who surely viewed his death as a burst of relief. I’m glad that the series found ways to wrap up its storylines without really cheating and that the happy ending it offered was also one where lots of hard work lay ahead of our heroes. “Dollhouse” was a strange little show. I get that the plot development might not have been as consistent as many would have liked, and I get that the show’s early going was very, very rough. But overall, I’m left with a sense that the show keyed in on a very specific question – what does it mean to be human? – and explored so many facets of that question that it ended up a success. Maybe “Dollhouse” will always remain a curio, but a part of me is already looking forward to watching it over from the first episode on.
Some final, final thoughts:
*** While that scene with the bigwigs in Neuropolis featured some truly painful acting, it centered in on the series’ key political theme in a very specific and pointed way. “Dollhouse” was always about how the very rich keep the rabble under lock and key, and that scene, where a bunch of poor bastards (in all senses of the word) were brought into the room for the fat, rich man to choose a new suit to wear, was like something out of a 19th century realist tract.
*** It may have just been my affiliate, but that final cut to black was VERY abrupt, though I loved the final shot itself.
*** I loved a lot of the lines in this episode, but “tiny messiah” felt a bit too quirky.
*** Finally, if nothing else, Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman need to find a series worthy of their talents and soon. And I’d love to see Olivia Williams turn up for a season-long stint on one of TV’s top dramas. (And please not “Grey’s Anatomy.”)
Your final discussion question: What do you ultimately think of “Dollhouse” overall?