At long last we know the full background of one of the Dolls: how she came to be a doll, and why (I’m not convinced we know Caroline’s full story yet). And the surprising thing is, that wasn’t even the most exciting thing about this episode.
It was welcome, though. That tantalizing scene we got between Sierra and Nolan in Episode 8 (“Needs”): we get everything it promised us. Nolan was using the Dollhouse as a date-rape drug; also as revenge, and sick entertainment. We get closure on him; in Priya’s desperate plea to be cleansed of the memory of what she did to him, we also get a hint of why some of the other dolls might have agreed to their contracts. Memories (like Victor’s: is he there to “recover” from post-traumatic stress disorder?), guilts (November, and now Sierra), they’d do anything rather than have to live with (which is it for Echo?). Notice the view we get of Priya right after she kills Nolan? She stands up, and we see her in silhouette against her old painting of the bird. It turns out that it’s not Nolan who’s the big black shadow threatening her avian freedom: it’s she herself.
We also get the answer to the real question Episode 8 left us with, which is: how much did DeWitt and Topher knew about Nolan and Sierra? The answer is, not much. They thought she was crazy, and under his care: they thought they were helping her. When they realize they were wrong, they’re horrified.
It’s a well-named episode, because this is the one where everybody has to answer the old labor movement question: which side are you on? (And of course one way to read Dollhouse is as a metaphor for capitalism: we’ve got owners and workers, management and labor, exploiters and exploited. Somebody among the workers has awakened to their plight, and is going to try to organize them.)
It’s all about belonging: deciding which side you belong to, or trying to make others your possessions. Nolan uses his connections with the Dollhouse, and his knowledge of neurochemistry, to try to make Priya belong to him. When his plot is exposed, Topher tries to free Priya; but in the end, her attempt to assert her autonomy results in her signing herself over to the Dollhouse, some parts of her permanently. She belongs to the Dollhouse in a deeper way than she did before.
Topher and Adelle have to choose sides, too. Adelle thinks this house belongs to her, and that she can run it as she sees fit. The Rossum corporation makes it clear to her that she’s wrong: she belongs to them. Either she toes the line or she goes to the Attic. She, in turn, tries to make Topher play ball, saying he has no choice: she even reminds him that he’s in this job because he has no morals, and therefore belongs in/to the Dollhouse. He chooses differently, but his choice goes so wrong that, like Priya/Sierra, his dependence on the Dollhouse is only strengthened. Rossum’s grip tightens, and our characters begin to feel it: they can choose to accept it, like Adelle, or be made to accept it, like Topher, but either way, they’re owned.
Adelle thinks everybody in the Dollhouse is owned by the Dollhouse. We know she’s wrong: Echo is free, in her mind. And, as of this episode, we begin to see where Boyd stands as well. All season long we’ve been able to see that Dollhouse discipline, that Panopticon watchfulness, has been slipping: Echo’s constantly displaying signs of wakefulness, Sierra and Victor are plainly in love. Saunders’s alienation (then flight), combined with Boyd’s indifference, explained it: but now Boyd has taken a side. He knows Echo is awake, and he’s chosen to abet her in whatever she’s planning. We always suspected he was a good guy; now we know.
At the same time, we also now know he can supervise the cover-up of a murder, and the dismemberment of a body, without batting an eye. Boyd’s a little bit scary now. Ex-cop? Is that all?
All of this to think about, and so little time in the episode to think about it, because you were too busy feeling it all. It was probably the deepest episode yet, emotionally: just wrenching. Topher is more and more becoming the emotional center of the story, as we watch him wrestle with his conscience. Here we see him, really for the first time, begin to sense that what he’s doing might go horribly wrong. “Epitaphs” tells us both that it will and that Topher does have enough of a soul to be driven mad by his role in it; now we see that soul emerging in the present.
How cool is it, by the way, that it’s a book that reveals that Echo is awake? It could only be a book. The point is that she has broken out of the eternally-refreshed now state of the Doll: she’s engaged in a long-term, multisession learning project, one that implies progression, directionality, awareness of past, present, and future…it couldn’t have been a newspaper, or a blog, for example. Or, more to the point, a typical TV show, where each episode stands alone, allowing you to pretend that last week’s episode never happened. It could, however, have been something like Dollhouse…