Heading into its grand finale, I’ve been rather impressed with how little it feels like “Dollhouse” is telescoping five or six seasons worth of television into 13 episodes (actually, more like 10 episodes, since the season’s first three have had basically nothing to do with anything else). It’s always been obvious that this story is moving much, much faster than anyone involved might have wanted it to, especially once you could see the series realize it would never get any episodes beyond the 13 ordered for this second season. But at the same time, the story has mostly played out in a fairly logical (for “Dollhouse” and science fiction in general) and intriguing fashion, even as its infodumping its sci-fi bona fides and hitting us over the head with its themes. But “The Hollow Men,” the penultimate episode for the whole series, is somehow both really great and just a little rushed.
[Full recap of Friday (Jan. 15) night’s “Dollhouse” after the break…]
Put another way, there are huge developments in “The Hollow Men” that might have been absolutely fantastic had they arrived in, say, season six of the show but felt curiously muted because they arrived in this episode after very little build-up. Now, you can’t really blame this on the show itself, since it obviously felt the need to get through much of what appears to have been its major series arc (unless Rossum was always just going to be one in a long series of big bads, which is possible, I suppose) in a handful of episodes, which has resulted in the necessary truncation of things like the whole idea that Boyd was the man behind Rossum from the start. But that moment – of Topher zapping Boyd and his eyes opening, hollow, then his voice saying, “Did I fall asleep?” with Echo getting to say “For a little while” – feels like it was the crystallized moment of the whole series, the moment when the victimized young woman finally retakes power and flips the table on her oppressor, the man she never even realized was said oppressor. Letting all of this play out with the appropriate amount of foreshadowing and tragedy and all that good stuff would have given this moment supreme power. Instead, it felt, well, hollow, like a moment trying to lean heavily on suggestion rather than emotions the show had actually built.
And yet, “The Hollow Men” is still eerily well-done, as Whedon finally abandons any pretense of hope and just ends up making the balls-out Shakespearean tragedy that he’s been flirting with making for years now. Major characters die. There are moments when all hope seems lost. There’s both the chastened fool of later Shakespeare in actual Topher and the comic-relief fool of his earlier stuff in Victor-Topher. There’s a damaged, pseudo father and daughter relationship, a woman who rediscovers her spine and a man who loses literally everything. There’s suicide, murder and an all-powerful corporation (just for those of you who prefer Greek tragedy). And, of course, since this is Joss Whedon, there’s a giant girl fight which might end up being the show’s action sequence high point.
There’s still an element of feeling just a bit cheated by character convenience here. I was pretty excited to see Dr. Saunders again after the show gave her that great, gonzo storyline in the season premiere, but the fact that she’s just come back to play the other founder of Rossum ended up seeming like a twist that was made just so the last episode would be extra twisty (and so Amy Acker could play bad, something she does very, very well at, and hopefully the producers of “Happy Town” are paying attention, even though I know they’re not). I was hoping we’d get more of Saunders’ struggles, and now, it seems, all we’ll get is seeing that she a sleeper who was going to shoot Bennett in the head to keep from Caroline learning of Boyd’s identity. So the whole process that made the doll trying to figure out who she was since she’d been Saunders so long into the damaged Whiskey of “Epitaph One” is something we’ll just have to leave to our imaginations. I mean, I get why the show did it, and it was a great twist, but I do wonder if it could have been so much more than that for Saunders to re-enter the series at that point in the narrative.
On the other hand, I’m feeling more warmly toward the Boyd is evil twist than I was last week. Part of that is the good fans of the Internet rising up to explain how Boyd being the founder of Rossum could square with everything the show has done with the character previously (once you assume he’s under deep cover). Part of it is the fact that Boyd’s main goal at this point is to protect Echo, to test his theory that she’s the one who will keep the privileged few from becoming mind-wiped slaves. And part of it was the sense that the series has telescoped a whole bunch of interesting thematic stuff into one episode’s worth of television, like the sense the scene at the end gave of Echo flipping the script on the whole system, as represented by the man who seemed kindly but really wasn’t. (In some ways, this is just as feminist position-paper-y as Whedon’s previous stabs at this sort of theme, but something about the whole thing, as played by Harry Lennix and Eliza Dushku, worked extremely well.)
“The Hollow Men” has an ostensibly happy ending (at least until the transition into the “Epitaph One” world), as Rossum is brought down by wiped Boyd’s grenade, Echo racing just ahead of the blast (which was a little ludicrous). But in a way, the series has earned a temporary happy ending. We know that the end of the world is just around the corner, that there’s no way to change it. Even Boyd points out that now that the cat of this tech is out of the bag, there’s no way to put it back in there. So even though our characters bring down Rossum obscenely easily, it still feels somehow earned, perhaps because their task seems so hopeless and Sisyphean.
And, that said, there’s so much in “The Hollow Men” that works (from the way the show juggles a whole bunch of different characters and brings them all back in at exactly the right moment for the story to that terrific scene with Paul and Mellie; hell, I even bought Tahmoh Penikett’s sorrow at her death) that it feels a little disingenuous to get down on it for problems the show had that were caused by the network and the low ratings as much as anything else. If the series wanted to tell this story – and I think we’re all glad it did – it kind of had to in just a handful of episodes. Some of them – “The Attic” – were absolute genius. Some of them – like this one – had their flaws. But all of them have added up to one of the weirdest swan songs in TV history, an extended riff on the way all of us feel faceless sometimes that just happened to be wedded to one of the all-time great extended TV sci-fi narratives.
Some other thoughts:
*** One of the things I really like about this episode is the way it manages the information of who knows what about Boyd when. That scene where Paul is holding the gun on Boyd only to drop it is fantastic for just how it manages your expectations of what Paul does or doesn’t know (as the last guy to be clued in to Boyd’s malevolence).
*** It must be said: Fran Kranz and Eliza Dushku were the cast members I was the hardest on when the show debuted, and they both turned in some soulful and solid work in this episode, possibly a series best for Dushku.
***There’s only one more “Dollhouse” ever, ever, ever (and I see your Save “Dollhouse” campaign, and I say it is unpossible, good sirs), and it’s not airing next week as originally planned. Look for it, instead, on Jan. 29. Fox is airing the Haiti telethon next week. (And if you haven’t donated money or supplies or anything – even just a dollar! – to the charity efforts yet, please do so. “Dollhouse” would want you to.)
Penultimate discussion question: Are there any characters “Dollhouse” has to wrap up the stories of at this point? I guess Daniel Perrin, but he’s a way, way background character.