Dollhouse — revisited

Second season and series finale aired Friday, January 29, on Fox.

Looking back at what I wrote about Dollhouse after its first few episodes, I’m stunned by how far the show came in its two brief seasons. Maybe it just took a while for creator Joss Whedon’s team of writers to figure out how to make their high concept work. Maybe the meddling Fox executives finally backed off enough to let them tell the story the way they had always wanted. Maybe it just took me a while to get past the problematic elements and appreciate how brilliantly the show was handling them. I suspect, in fact, that it might be a little of all three. But now that the show has ended with a taut, thrilling, poignant finale, it’s worth reassessing. Back then, with my first post, I considered Dollhouse worth appreciating more for its ambitions than its achievements, but now, having seen the whole thing, I think the series ended up realizing those high ambitions and even expanding upon them in ways I hadn’t expected or thought possible.

It always was an unsettling concept: a show about a business, the Dollhouse, that provides the obscenely wealthy with people, decked out with specially engineered personalities and skill sets, for whatever purpose they desire. The most popular such Doll, or Active, is Echo (Eliza Dushku)—despite the fact that she seems to be developing some glitches in her programming. Initially, it seemed like Dollhouse was going to be some kind of bizarre Charlie’s Angels type of thing, each week sending Echo out on a new adventure with a new personality to match. Those episodes could be clever, but they were often shallow as well, sidestepping the wrongness of the whole proposition. What’s more, that structure essentially gave the show a brand-new protagonist each week, making it difficult to form any kind of attachment. Eventually, though, the nature of Echo’s glitches became clear: her between-mission personality wipes didn’t work, a unique “defect” that would be exacerbated by a traumatic event late in the first season.

That development put Dollhouse on a much stronger track. First, it allowed Echo to develop a distinct, albeit unusual, identity—not as Caroline, her original self, but as someone new, someone juggling multiple personalities, learning and adapting constantly, finally a real character. And once its protagonist effectively entered a world of continuity, the show could more easily bring its mythology to the forefront, often setting aside the silly one-off missions in favor of a vastly more interesting long-term story arc. And with the mythology growing in complexity and depth, the ensemble around Dushku followed suit.

In a few cases, that meant taking one-note characters and fleshing them out, the best example of that being Topher (Fran Kranz). For the first few episodes, I hated the Dollhouse’s resident brain technician, convinced he was nothing but a handful of gimmicky, obnoxious tics. But Kranz—and the writers—eventually proved me wrong, pushing the characters in new directions, giving him unanticipated strengths and weaknesses. By the time the show bowed out, Topher was one of my favorite characters, a sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking portrait of amorality challenged.

Dollhouse also, unexpectedly, became a remarkable showcase for actors Enver Gjokaj and Dichen Lachman, who played a star-crossed pair of Dolls. Unlike Echo, Victor and Sierra can’t develop new hybrid personalities; their between-mission wipes work as advertised. Consequently, the actors’ chameleon-like abilities are always on display. (An episode in which a copy of Topher’s personality is mapped onto Victor is a particular highlight, with Gjokaj doing a hilariously dead-on imitation of Kranz, down to the smallest gesture and quirk of a line reading.) What’s more, the essential conceit of Victor and Sierra is that some essential truths transcend brain chemistry: they love each other deeply, even when they can’t understand what they feel or don’t know exactly who they are. It’s a deeply romantic idea, in the best sense, and Gjokaj and Lachman make it feel profoundly true and affecting. (I’d never seen these two actors before Dollhouse—both were virtual unknowns—and I can only hope that they go on from here to have the brilliant careers they deserve.)

Using Victor and Sierra to ponder the nature of love is typical of Dollhouse’s grand ambitions and big themes about identity, but their storyline also exemplifies how entertaining—suspenseful and funny and touching and horrifying and lovely—its exploration of those themes can be. The last half of the second season, in particular, was terrifically tense and sharp. Sean pointed out that this is the silver living of premature cancellation: if the writers have time to prepare for a fixed end, rather than having it thrust upon them suddenly or, on the other hand, pushed back indefinitely, they have the opportunity to write more purposefully with their target in mind. Dollhouse was rushed, certainly, but the tight, intricate storytelling that came from that was a joy to experience—no pointless filler, no attempts to pander to potential viewers rather than reward loyal fans, just one smart, twisty, challenging episode after another leading to a fascinating, smashing finale.

No doubt that finale would be all but incomprehensible to a casual viewer, but it capped the show beautifully, reflecting much of what I love best about Joss Whedon’s shows. You have the creative use of language, for one. Back in the day, the cute, invented slang of Buffy the Vampire Slayer got a lot of press, but what worked about it was that it gave us a window into the characters’ thinking and sometimes served as a way for the writers to provide commentary on the story itself. Lesser heirs, like Diablo Cody, for one, captured the words but not the music underneath—spinning cleverness for the sake of cleverness—but in Buffy and even more so in Firefly, the idiosyncratic speech patterns are part of the texture, another way to show us a fully imagined world. With the Dollhouse series finale taking place in what amounts to a new setting after an abrupt flash forward beyond a shadowy apocalyptic event, the nuance of language—the slang, the posturing, what is said and what isn’t—does a lot of heavy lifting, shading in a frightening but fascinating new world that we don’t have time to explore in depth.

The finale also returned to tried-and-true Whedon ideas about heroism and responsibility and self-sacrifice with great thoughtfulness and, quite deliberately, without getting too puffed up about it. It’s become something of a cliché that hyper-ironic postmodern audiences can’t deal with heroes—we knock them down or laugh at them or simply deny their existence—and as with many clichés, there’s some truth in that. But at their best, Whedon’s shows sidestep that issue, finding heroism in the more ordinary characters and vulnerabilities in the extraordinary ones, all in a way that feels honest and open and persuasively hopeful: heroism without pedestals. Part of that means refusing to romanticize death—no teary, flowery good-byes, no prettifying the ugly, no pretending that Everything Has a Purpose. Dollhouse demonstrated that, too; when it started killing off characters in the buildup to the end, it did so with cool efficiency, scorning shock value for its own sake but willing to shock nonetheless to make the stakes clear, to reflect gravity.

And so, somehow, Dollhouse reached its finale with characters whom I cared about, whose fates I desperately wanted to know. Echo remained the least relatable character—by definition, she had become something superhuman, no mere mortal—but Dushku did her damnedest to give Echo a soul, and she ultimately succeeded, I think. Watching the finale, I realized that my main objection to Dollhouse—that it resolved around “an enigma or, worse, a void”—had long since been set aside in favor of affection and enthusiasm. That’s worth remembering next time I’m ready to dismiss a promising but underachieving show, and it’s certainly worth remembering next time Whedon and company produce something. I don’t know when or where that will be, but I’m certain it will be worth checking out. And in the meantime, I just might Netflix Dollhouse and rewatch it from the beginning.