Manuel Betancourt

Dollhouse’s Echo/Epitaph One or How this is fearless TV at work

July 20, 2009 · in TV

Dollhouses ‘Lost Episodes’ (read: the original pilot ‘Echo’ – which got scrapped, and the thirteenth episode ‘Epitath One’ – which FOX refused to air in the Spring but which will be available when the Dollhouse DVDs make their way into shelves everywhere) make for great bookends to what was arguably a shaky start to Joss Whedon’s provocative new show. Careful: SPOILERS AHEAD.

More so than its aired brethren, ‘Echo’ and ‘Epitath One’ carefully distill the moral ambiguity and bleak-toned originality of Joss’s premise:

Echo is part of”a member of a group of people known as “Actives” or “Dolls”. The Dolls are people whose personalities and existence in the outside world have been wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas—including memory, muscle memory, skills, and language—for different assignments (referred to as engagements)” (So Wikipedia summarizes it).

 

Echo
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

If the aired pilot functioned as a way to introduce gentle viewers into this complicated world (with a ransom story more akin to Law & Order than to a Whedon show), ‘Echo’ doesn’t shy away from plunging us deep into the core of the show’s premise: what is the real purpose of the Dollhouse? (a question keen viewers might remember from Echo’s encounter with Paul Ballard late in the season and which ‘Epitaph’ will pick up in full force). The episode guides us through the Dollhouse’s process: we see Echo in several assignments as Adele explains that the Dollhouse gives its clients not what they want, but what they need. And so we follow as Echo gets given a mission to throw Ballard’s mission off target (having gotten Caroline’s picture just as in the aired-pilot and following fake tips from ‘Victor’, Ballard is getting quite close at finding the Dollhouse it seems) – culminating in a moment as shocking and well-executed as the Echo/Paul fight from ‘Man on the Street’, showing how well Eliza and Tammoh actually work against the other.

In a way, this ‘lost pilot’ gets quicker at what the season one as a whole works to develop: it intertwines the Paul/Echo story much faster, gives away the Victor/Doll mystery right away and – this is most glaring in the last scene – Echo whispers ‘Caroline’ before falling asleep, suggesting Echo’s ability to remember past her wipes (This if we all remember is the last scene of ‘Omega’ though it fits much more beautifully here)

In particular (and given the amount of scenes spliced straight into the aired pilot) I wish the Boyd/Topher conversation had been kept intact as it illuminated (much less didactically than what actually aired) the tensions within the Dollhouse in regards to the Dolls:

 

Topher: Does that tie keep you warm?

Boyd: Uh… no.

Topher: It’s just what grownup men do in our culture. They… ah, put a piece of cloth around their necks so they can assert their status and recognize each other as non-threatening kindred.

Boyd: So what is this? The 60s? We’re going to burn our draft cards?

Topher: You wear the tie because it never occurred to you not to. You eat eggs every morning but never at night. You feel excitement, companionship when rich men you’ve never met put a ball through a net. You feel guilty, maybe a little suspicious every time you see that Salvation Army Santa. You look down for at least half a second if a woman leans forward. And your stomach rumbles every time you drive by a big golden arch even if you weren’t hungry before. Everybody’s programmed Boyd.

 

 

In a sense, despite being the first episode, ‘Echo’ feels much more like an episode from the second half of the season (post-‘Man on the Street’, if you will) which suggests Whedon & co. only hit their stride once they realized this was less a show about ‘who’s Eliza gonna play in this episode?’ (read: a Network friendly action of the week type deal) and more of an intricately woven adult premise dealing with human trafficking, body/soul metaphysics and tech morality.

 
Epitath One
Written by: Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon

 

Directed by: Joss Whedon

We start in an LA we might only recognize because we’ve seen the Terminator films: it is dark, flames envelop the background and we are told it is 2019 and these ‘actuals’ (humans who we presume can’t/haven’t been ‘printed’) we meet are afraid of any tech as they seek refuge. Where do they end up? Inside the Dollhouse of course.

This is not your regular Dollhouse; for this Whedon & co. came up with a framing device that might have seemed hokey if it did not work perfectly to retell the ‘Dollhouse’ mythology (following it through past what the season finale showed us) tracing it through what is arguably one of the most fascinating characters on the show: Adele DeWitt. While the rag-tag pack of survivors find a way to survive inside the Dollhouse (battling an unseen murdering force and finding a creepy haunting-like Whiskey/Dr Saunders) we get fragments of Adele’s memories that explain how the technology that gave people ‘not what they want but what they need’ ended up causing the mayhem we witnessed at the start of the episode where remote wipes and reprinting is now not restricted to Dolls but to anyone walking the streets.

This is fearless storytelling not least because Whedon & co. have pretty much mapped the direction of the show (or, not just mapped it but showed the audience said map: we see snippets of romantic pairings, we see the Dollhouse as a safe haven from above, we see Boyd fleeing, Whiskey/Dr Saunders scarless, we hear about ‘what happened to November’). In short, this is an episode that functions just as powerfully as an ‘ending’ (which it almost was) and as whetting titillating flash-forward: I am even more excited now for season 2 than after seeing ‘Omega’. This is Dollhouse we were all waiting for, with a sprawling mythology, a deeper purpose, and an array of well-grounded characters. That said, it might say something about the show as a whole that, being this its strongest entry, it showcases the least amount of screentime from Ms Dushku: albeit, she is more than capable and believable as Caroline than she ever was as Echo, but the episode instead finds itself weighing heavily on two of Whedon’s regulars: Amy Acker and Felicia Day, and on Dollhouse’s boss-lady, Olivia Williams, all capable thesps with Joss at the helm.

Overall, these make for great bookends to Whedon’s new show and I’m glad they are being released to the public for not only do they enrich the stories and characters we got to know in this first season, but they also set up wonderfully the world and the tensions which will populate season 2. Brava Joss, brava indeed!