“The Attic” is like “Dollhouse” played on 78 rpm or something. It takes the contours of a normal episode, layers on one of Joss Whedon’s favorite conceits (the dream episode), spices the whole thing with a liberal dose of mythology and then speeds it all up until head-spinning revelations are whirling by so fast that it seems hardly possible this is the same show that once spent an entire episode on Echo infiltrating a girl pop group. There’s big, Earth-shattering stuff at work in “The Attic,” and that brings it up to the level of the show’s best episodes. And it’s entirely possible that all “Dollhouse” had to do to get to this point was get canceled.
[Full recap of “The Attic,” Friday (Dec. 18) night’s second “Dollhouse” episode, after the break…]
“GQ” has been running a series of fascinating discussions between Hollywood nerd king J.J. Abrams, “Lost” showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof and “Transformers” writers/please-forgive-us-for-that-because-we’re-also-the-writers-of-“Star-Trek”-and-showrunners-of-“Fringe” guys Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Though the discussion is ostensibly about the position of science fiction and other geeky stuff in Hollywood today, the article mostly ends up being a discussion of “Lost,” and it’s the most believable discussion of that show’s origins yet. Cuse and Lindelof cop to making up quite a bit of stuff on the fly, but they maintain that much of the show’s overarching mythology – the Others, the DHARMA Initiative, the fact that some of the castaways get off the Island – was come up with over the first weekend of the project’s existence, with other pieces added during the first season. In the context of the surprising first season finale of “Fringe” (which closed with a rather big revelation I won’t spoil here), the producers talk about a mythology as something of a playbook, where you can lay down big, mythological story beats when you need to change the status quo. What trapped “Lost” early in its third season was that it had played all of the plays it had in the book that wouldn’t send the show off in a direction headed for the endgame. Setting an end date allowed the show to start pulling things out of its playbook on a more consistent basis.
Serialized shows – particularly those that are science fiction or fantasy heavy ones – rely heavily on a sense of momentum to work. I loved much of season three and the final ten episodes of “Battlestar Galactica,” but many, many fans did not. The series abandoned the reckless forward momentum of the first two seasons for episodes that would often have big action moments in them but were more quiet and ruminative about human nature and the like. A lot of that was because, like “Lost,” the series needed an endpoint and was vamping for time. But it also reflected that the series’ producers were more interested in the characters at that point than in finding new ways to throw them in conflict with the Cylons. Like “Lost,” the series roared back to life with the announcement that the end of the series would occur in season four, then curiously paid off most plot points in the first ten episodes of the season.
What does any of this have to do with “Dollhouse”? Well, while I’d almost certainly watch a third season were the show somehow renewed because God Himself stepped in and requested it, these last few episodes, all produced after the dismal ratings for the first couple episodes of season two came in, have been just filled with momentum-y goodness, to the point where the show is legitimately one of the best on television at this moment, but all of that momentum would likely lead to a third season where the writers had to vamp and kill time. I’d kill time with a Whedon show just about any day of the week, but I think he’s exhausting his playbook in these episodes, and it’s exhilarating, like 15 episodes where you find out Locke was in a wheelchair or the identity of the final Cylon combined. I have no idea where he’d go from here.
“The Attic” contains a fairly large infodump in its midsection, but it seems almost perfunctory. Whedon and his staff have clearly learned the major lesson of James Cameron’s work – always deliver exposition when someone is on the run. It automatically adds the tension that these scenes usually lack. When “Dollhouse” started, it didn’t really seem like the series could build that big of a mythology, but “Epitaph One” added enough questions about the show’s world to fill several seasons worth of TV. These last few episodes have just been trying to answer as many of them as possible. For example: The Attic? It’s not a place where Actives go to die. It’s a place where they (and other people inconvenient to Rossum) go to have their brainpower harnessed to run Rossum’s central mainframe, a place where they’re condemned to live their nightmares over and over.
But wait! There’s more! Everyone in The Attic – worldwide – is hooked into the central computer in such a way that if you can figure out how, you can leap between minds and try and piece together the puzzle of what’s going on. This being a Joss Whedon dream episode, those minds are all stalked by a terrible monster named Arcane. Arcane is pretty much just a muscular guy slathered in dark makeup, but he makes for an imposing and cool monster, all things considered. Echo, joined by season one antagonist Dominic (Reed Diamond) and, eventually, Sierra and Victor, wandered the subconsciouses of several people, turning the episode into sort of an even higher-concept version of that scene where there’s a chase through Malkovich’s subconscious in “Being John Malkovich.” There are some nice gags (Enver Gjokaj fighting with himself), some creepy moments (Sierra’s rapist rising from the dead) and a whole lotta info to process.
Because wait! There’s more! Arcane has been killing people because he knows if he can kill them, they’ll disconnect from the mainframe and stop powering the computers. Why does he know this? Because he’s Clyde, one of the two guys who founded Rossum, who was betrayed by his co-founder and a Doll imprinted with his personality but programmed to only follow orders. He was also the first occupant of the Attic and has spent all of his time working out the statistical probabilities for the Dollhouse tech. Having realized that the future of “Epitaph One” is essentially inevitable, he’s been killing people in their dreams (which, as in all stories that take place in dreams, causes them to die in real life) so they disconnect from the computer, giving it less power.
Got all that? Good. Because wait! There’s more! Whedon pulls out one of my favorite Whedon-y devices, one I never see coming. As it turns out, everybody was on the same side all along, and sending Echo to the Attic was just Adelle’s way to get at the heart of Rossum and figure out a way to take the corporation down. This being a Whedon show, and “Epitaph One” being on the way ahead of us, this can only end poorly, but this, coupled with the really terrific montage of people killing each other in one reality so they can wake up in another (another device Whedon turns to every so often that seems to always pay off) sent the episode over the top to greatness. That whole spiel about momentum above? “The Attic” barely pauses for breath, just racing from awesome moment to awesome moment. This is the kind of episode that can only be produced by a show with nothing to lose. That’s what “Dollhouse” is now, and that’s what makes it thrilling to watch.
Some other thoughts:
*** I’m certain they’re going to tell us, for example, what Ballard’s missing now, since they went into writing this episode knowing how few they had left, but I hope they don’t forget to tell us what Boyd’s terrible secret was.
*** Am I the only person who just does not want to see Caroline return and do her do-gooder boring thing again? Echo’s MUCH more compelling, even if she’s basically the greatest human being who ever lived.
*** Oh, right. Ballard’s got active architecture now, a reveal that should feel way more awesome than it does.
*** And, again, words of praise for Olivia Williams, who makes all of the layers of subtext in Adelle’s plan absolutely play in these last few episodes. That said, her office isn’t bugged? I find that surprising.
This week’s discussion question: Which dangling loose end do you want “Dollhouse” to clear up most?