Review: Dollhouse Episode 13 — “Epitaph One”

The short version (since I am well aware that I tend to wax poetic): Epitaph One is not merely an incredible episode that would have beautifully wrapped up the series, it gives Dollhouse new purpose, and a reason to exist.

Let’s face it — Dollhouse has been inconsistent. From what I hear, creator Joss Whedon is notorious for slow starts, but I’m not sure that I buy that, given how collected and engaging Firefly was from the very start. I think that what both the writers and audience of the new show have found over the course of the first year is that it is at its best when the metaplot and the mythology of the show kick in. In the Blu-Ray commentary, Joss seems to push back on this as much as he can, asserting that it was important for the first five episodes to be incremental and largely standalone.

He also states with strong conviction that he is strongly against shows that end up entangled within their own mythology — the prime example being LOST. He’s not wrong — no matter how interested they may be, no one is going to dive into LOST at this point, just before the final season, and try to follow along. However, I feel that there are a number of intrinsic benefits to investing in that aspect of a show — it generates a feeling of progress in each episode, and it pays dividends when you have a rich history of tidbits to draw from and connect.

Firefly is the vindication of his point of view. The reason that the standalone episode format worked so well for it was that it was really more or less the point of the show: the chronicles of the daily lives of people in a world rather unlike ours, but not unapproachably so. It was fun to watch Firefly and compare their daily bellyaches to your own, or to imagine yourself in that world. The mundane (and I use that word in the best light possible) was very nearly a mission statement of the show.

Dollhouse can’t take that claim. Being set very much in our day-to-day world — no demons, no spaceships — it’s much more difficult to find excitement out of self-contained story arcs. Originally, though, the show wasn’t meant to be quite as action-oriented as it is. It was meant to be more contemplative, focusing on the moral aspects of the Dollhouse’s much-vaunted technology. It’s a somewhat hidden element of the show, since the A-plots tend to draw so much immediate attention to themselves, but hearing Joss’s commentary on the episode Man On the Street really brings it out and into focus, and it’s actually a rather deep concept of the show.

But that’s exactly the problem. With all of the aspects that it is trying to balance, Dollhouse tended to get lost in itself. Sure, it was great storytelling, but it was missing that draw, that cerebral aspect that the morality of the show sets up, and perhaps ultimately its most interesting component.

Epitaph One turns that all on its head. Yes, it’s still Dollhouse — but it’s not, really. It’s well known that it takes place a few years into the future. I won’t tell you how many. It’s shot mostly handheld and on video rather than on film — one of the biggest cost-saving elements of the episode, if I understand correctly (the episode cost half as much as the others, and its model became a big reason Dollhouse was renewed in the first place).

But the most interesting part of the episode is that while watching it, you’re no longer faced with hypotheses. There was always the consideration of what could be done with the technology should it ever slip out of Rossum’s grasp, but never being brought face-to-face with it was precisely the reason that the morality aspect of the show suffered. In Epitaph One, you’re faced with one very specific example of precisely what happens — and it’s frightening. Thus, my argument that the episode gives the show much-needed focus.

In addition, it drive the show along narratively in spades — more, almost, than in the entire rest of the first season. It feels like LOST in more than a few ways: in terms of narrative structure, writing, and mood. This is a good thing for the show, and should the next few seasons make good on the promises of this episode, we’re in for a wild ride yet. But now I’ve spent more than enough time discussing narrative — time to talk about the other things that make a show successful.

In term of acting, while Felicia Day does a great job, it is really Adair Tishler that steals the show. Completely. She was the most adorable thing ever on Heroes (back when I [anyone?] still watched it), but here she proves that her acting chops are to be feared. Watch out for this one.

And writing-wise, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen knock this one out of the park. They wrote Dr. Horrible along with Joss, if you didn’t know. I get the distinct feeling that apart from the seed of the plot and the usual edits, Joss really left the two of them to their own devices on this one, and they prove themselves more than worthy of the trust.

Oh, and the song at the end? Performed by Maurissa? Let’s just say that I bought it on Amazon and I’ve listened to it 42 times already in 2 days. It’s been a long time since I put anything on one-song repeat.

Epitaph One is fantastic. It ends on a note that would have been an absolutely beautiful way to end the series, and I challenge the writers to come up with an even better one when the time comes. But it’s really the promise it makes of the things to come that have me — for the first time ever — actively and completely excited about Dollhouse.

(Excited enough to write a blog post at 2 in the morning. Ugh.)

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