“Epitaph One” is a fascinating piece of work because of the moment in which it was made. Dollhouse hadn’t yet been renewed when this episode was written and filmed; even the DVD commentary track was recorded before the network had made its decision. And as we all remember, nobody expected the show to be renewed.
So for Mutant Enemy, this episode was a chance to wrap it all up, in case a wrap-up was needed. They got to make a Serenity the fans wouldn’t have to wait three years for.
And that’s what “Epitaph One” plays like, really: a resolution, just in case. It jumps ten years into the future to show us where the Dollhouse technology is going to lead. War, and not just war: total social disintegration, people preying on each other for bodies, people turning into mindless killers. It’s zombies, body snatchers, vampires. All of which, of course, is a logical progression from the technology posited in the first twelve episodes (in retrospect, I begin to think that “Gray Hour” and “Haunted” may have been the most important episodes of the first season). We saw this coming: now we see what it looks like when it’s come.
But of course that’s not all we want to know. Merely telling us that the Dollhouse destroyed the world doesn’t give us closure (selfish us!). We want to know what happens to our characters. Caroline, Victor, Sierra, Paul, Topher, and the rest of the gang. “Epitaph One” tells us that, too. Not in great detail – we don’t know everything that happens to everyone. But we know enough to get emotional payoffs for most of them.
We see Caroline breaking free of the Dollhouse and her programming. We see Victor and Sierra doing the same, and having a relationship. We see Ballard finally getting to help Caroline; we also get hints that they’ve had some sort of relationship, that it went wrong, and that they’ve come to a sort of rapprochement. We see Boyd taking off on his own; we also see that he and Saunders have something together. Most of all we see Topher and DeWitt get their comeuppance.
This is all very satisfying. Topher huddled in a pod, surrounded by toys and equations, mind shattered by guilt over what he’s helped bring about: this is one of the great images of the series so far. The Dangerous Geek Gets His.
And so we can say of “Epitaph One” what we say about Serenity: it’s not as good as a second season would have been, it feels rushed, too many tantalizing ideas given too short shrift, but it does give us some closure, and it is better than nothing.
But, wow. Dollhouse was renewed. We get a second season. At least a second one.
Now what? Has Joss put himself in a hole, narratively? We know what happens to all these people. Again, not every detail, but enough to go on. Enough, one would think, to rob the second season of a lot of its suspense. To take a character I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, we know that Topher is going to remain arrogant and clueless about what his work really does until it’s too late. We know that eventually he’s going to discover enough of a conscience to make him miserable, but that’ll be too late, too. We know he’ll get punished; we’ve seen him get punished. What’s really left to do with this character?
You could say the same thing about Caroline. We know she breaks free of her programming. We know she finally masters herself. We know she frees all the lab animals and leads them toward safety. What more do we need to know about her?
Let me be clear about what I mean to say. I’m thrilled Dollhouse was renewed. And I’m thrilled to have “Epitaph One.” What I think is that the decision to jump into the future and tell us how it all ends, in “Epitaph One,” creates a big narrative challenge for Joss for the second season. He’ll have to find some way to continue to create suspense around these characters when we think we know how things turn out for them. I don’t think merely filling in the blanks between 2009 and 2019 will be enough. I can’t imagine what will be enough.
That’s why I don’t work for Mutant Enemy: I don’t have their imagination. I’m confident that Joss will make it work for him. I just wanted to point out that it’s a challenge. With “Epitaph One” he wrote himself into a corner. I can’t wait to see how he writes his way out of it.
Most of all I’m astounded by the audacity it took to write himself into that corner – when the first season was already nearly done in by the narrative risks it took. Dollhouse started out by dispensing with the typical TV drama requirement that a show center around a strong central character: Echo was no character at all, an empty center. Now, it seems they’re ready to start toying with another convention of storytelling, that we move forward through plot twists toward a resolution. We’ve already got the resolution, it seems. What’s left?
And ain’t it cool to be able to say that?