The Dollhouse season/series finale (and I’m betting it’s the latter) was certainly some of the series’ finest work, confirming my Dr. Saunders-is-a-doll theory and engaging in some interesting cyberpunk conceits. As a finale, I think this episode admirably wrapped up the season and, since the central arc was essentially completed, could serve to wrap up the series, as well. But, as any good season finale-that-might-be-a-series-finale should be, there are open doors through which to proceed should FOX get Dollhouse a greenlight for 12 more episodes. (Or 13. Depending.)
When Alpha abducted Echo from the Dollhouse, he stole all of her former imprints, and destroyed the backup copy of her original “Caroline” personality. Topher struggles to find out which of her imprints he would have uploaded into her before absconding, and discovers that it was never one of Echo’s imprints at all, but one of Whiskey’s.
Three or so years ago, Whiskey and Alpha were sent out on a paired engagement, basically playing Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers in some dude’s totally weird torture/porn fantasy. Alpha, programmed with a personality prone to paranoid delusions, started to take things too far, which in turn called in the handlers to break things up, but not, of course, until after the reveal that the silhouetted woman he was working with wasn’t Echo at all, but Whiskey . . . and after Whiskey and Alpha proceeded to have some totally hot foreplay with their captive. (This is, I guess, the only reason one should ever want to be kidnapped by Mickey and Mallory, because otherwise that’s a pretty fucking terrible idea!)
And here’s where I take a moment to thank Joss Whedon for giving us Amy Acker in stripper clothes. She’s so much more beautiful and has so much more range than Eliza Dushku that I’d rather watch a spin-off prequel about her character. I mean, really, Dushku has basically only been Faith for most of this series, whereas Acker has been someone completely different than Fred. And we already know she’s a great actress. Let’s all take a moment to shudder in remembrance of the Ilyria arc on Angel.
But as to the Mickey-and-Mallory imprints, it seems Alpha chose them in part because his Mickey personality was dominant at the time, and in part because it was the most convenient way to go on a kidnapping spree. He and Echo-as-Mallory, only minutes out of the Dollhouse, kidnap a young girl named Wendy and drag her back to Alpha’s lair. He was astute enough to call in a bomb threat to the building and lock everyone else inside the Dollhouse so they’d have greater difficulty finding him, and Paul Ballard (who also doesn’t have a whole lot of range or characterization, thanks to Tahmoh Penikett) puts himself in charge of reconstructing what happened on the day Alpha went rogue.
It seems Alpha was obsessed with Echo from the day Caroline strode into the Dollhouse for her pre-Activation tour. Caroline makes a comment about how the Dolls all seem like zombies waiting for tasty brains, which I thought was a pretty cute, sly nod to her Hulu commercial, as well as an accurate assessment of living without a personality. Per the Mickey-and-Mallory flashback, it seems Alpha was routinely paired with Whiskey on engagements, as she was, at the time, the Dollhouse’s most requested Active. And because of his fascination with Echo, he one day took a pair of scissors to Whiskey’s face during art class, eerily demanding, “Whiskey, let Echo be number one.” And so Whiskey was broken, and Alpha was to be given a full diagnostic, wiped and then sent to the Attic (despite his protestations that “I was making art”). During the diagnostic, though, he resists, creating that famous composite event where all of his former imprints uploaded into his brain, causing him to not have multiple personalities, but to be multiple personalities, as other brains shifted, randomly, into his own consciousness at any given moment. And so that killing spree occurred, in which he preserved the one person he thought was different and special: Echo.
At his power plant lair, Alpha uploads Caroline’s brain into poor unsuspecting Wendy with his own version of Topher’s chair, and forces “Caroline” to confront her own body. This was absolutely my favorite part of the series so far, as I felt it finally engaged in some commentary on theories of consciousness and embodiment rather than just bringing something up through a moral lense (such as the show’s constant dialogue about slavery and freedom, which also is brought up in the most eye-rolling way possible during this otherwise great scene). Alpha shows “Caroline” her body and chastises her for abandoning it, making a strange bid to privilege the corporeal and temporal over permanent, ethereal cyber-consciousness. I found this bid to punish Caroline’s mind for abandoning her body especially strange in light of Alpha’s next assertion that, if he makes Echo like him, they can be supreme beings, gods or supermen (or, literally, the Alpha and Omega), because they are not one person with multiple personalities, but one body comprised of many people, able to shift in and out of consciousnesses at any minute.
To make her into Omega, Alpha uploads all of Echo’s imprints into her, hoping that she will do as he did when he emerged from his composite event and destroy her original consciousness. In this case, to kill “Caroline.” But Echo as Omega seems to have a slightly better grip on reality and juggling multiple consciousnesses than Alpha does, and realizes it’s pretty insane to destroy one’s primary consciousness, so she instead swings at him. She disagrees with his theories on the übermensch, because even though they may be everybody, in the sense that they are many people, they still aren’t someone without their original personalities.
That notion of being “someone,” I think, is what Alpha’s addled brain is rallying against by destroying his own original brain and asking Echo to destroy hers. To Alpha, a body with just one brain in it, one consciousness, is to be “someone,” which is to be less than “everyone,” privileging a multiple consciousness, an ever-shifting collective over the singular, individual consciousness. I really like this conceit as it subverts the notion of what it means to be an “everyman” in narratives. This whole time, we’ve looked at the Dolls as “everymen,” capable of having attributes projected onto them, but now we’re asked to read Alpha and Omega’s composite personalities as “everymen” in a literal sense, which renders them godlike, in Alpha’s conception, and, therefore, utterly singular. Uniqueness here is achieved by subverting the traditional notion of an “everyman,” and that’s pretty clever.
Barring that reading, I would find it very odd for Alpha to spend time punishing Caroline’s brain for abandoning her body, when he went on to destroy his own. Especially when he utters the most cyperpunk line in the entire series as he uploads Caroline into Wendy: “A body’s just a body. They’re all pretty much the same.” And he’s right: bodies aren’t special, but consciousness is. This show’s entire conceit has privileged the consciousness over the corporeal, uploading new people into blanked out bodies and sending them off to do the extraordinary or the ordinary. A body is only meat and flesh and organs, something that can be marked, scarred, broken or destroyed while the consciousness, especially the kind that is downloaded or uploaded at will, that lives on. And I couldn’t be happier that Dollhouse finally made it to a point where it engaged in its own conceits. (Props to you, Tim Minear!)
Thus ends our brief, poorly-executed literary theory section of this post. I promise only summary/brief commentary from now on.
While Alpha, Wendy/Caroline and Echo/Omega are having theoretical fun in his lair of doom, Ballard manages to get the bomb threat called off so he and others can go hunt down Alpha and their missing Doll. Sierra and November are imprinted as thieves, for some reason, in the one plot thread that never actually goes anywhere, which I think was added just to make Ballard uncomfortable at seeing the woman he kind of cared for uploaded with a new personality. He also discovers that Alpha and some of the other original dolls were taken from a prison population, and that, as a convict, Carl Craft (later known as Alpha) was also prone to carving up people’s faces and kidnapping. (So perhaps one never leaves one’s original consciousness behind, even when erased?)
Meanwhile Dr. Saunders tends to Victor, whose lovely face will now be scarred worse than her own. She’s actually not very kind to him, reminding him that he will never, ever be able to be his best again, that he’ll basically suffer the fate she suffered: being uploaded with a new personality for the remainder of his contract with the Dollhouse and working on the inside, as a Doll with scars is a broken Doll. (I’ll spare you more theory/analysis on bodily marking, abjecta and the horrific powers of scars, even though I assure you I really, really, really want to say something about it.) You see, once Whiskey was broken by Alpha, and he killed the original Dr. Saunders (who was an old dude who liked lollipops), they made her useful by uploading his skillset and temperament into her body. I feel so badly for Victor, whose life will never be normal again. He won’t notice it now, but when his contract is up, he will. Maybe Topher can make one of the Dolls into a plastic surgeon and fix most of Victor’s scars. He’s almost too valuable to lose as a Doll.
Back in the power plant, Echo agrees that she won’t kill her own consciousness (after the world’s most eye-rollingly on-the-nose speech about how she has 37 different brains in her head and not a one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave, especially when there’s a black president), Alpha threatens to break Wendy’s personality so that she can never have it back, revealing his plan to basically live out his days kidnapping people, and putting Echo’s consciousness into them so that she can repeatedly kill herself (and yet never kill herself . . . which is where his argument descends into crazyville). She chases him outside to save Wendy’s consciousness and literally goes out on a limb for the girl, crawling on a construction beam to get to the wedge. Conveniently, Boyd and Ballard have figured out where Alpha’s lair is by this point and Ballard manages to position himself right under Echo, catching the wedge as it falls and saving the girl. Alpha escapes (thus setting up the chase to continue should there be a next season).
Back at the Dollhouse, Ballard agrees to contract for DeWitt to help track down Alpha, but only if November’s contract is voided and she gets to return to her own life, which was pretty sweet and unexpected of Ballard to do, and proves that, in some small way, he did care about Mellie, even though she was never real. And Echo? She gets wiped clean, at least for the foreseeable future.
I’d be surprised if Fox gives Dollhouse a second season, but with such a strong sweep (save for “Haunted”) heading into the finale, they’d be remiss not to. It’s not the smartest show on TV, but it tries hard enough to be. And I’d rather watch something with which I can engage than something that doesn’t ask me to at all.
Hell, I can ignore about half of the Dollhouse episodes and still be confident enough with the other half, especially the last two and the Rashomon episode, to demand a second season. Just like Buffy and Angel, it took its time to get its intelligence and cleverness past the network and finally become a true Whedon show, one of big ideas, big laughs and big action. While I felt the first handful of episodes really talked down to its viewers (something that FOX surprisingly does not do very often with its dramas, and far less so than the #1 network, CBS), it finally started asking us to put the pieces together, and play along with the show as it progressed through its actual mytharc.
As I didn’t really give a crap about this show for a few weeks, I was surprised at how emotional I felt during this finale, especially during the Alpha flashbacks. This may have a great deal to do with how much I have grown to love Amy Acker over the last nine months while I watched Angel, but also my extreme amount of respect for Alan Tudyk as an actor ever since I saw him in A Knight’s Tale. (It took me another three years to discover that he wasn’t British.) The moment he slashed up Whiskey’s face was probably the series’ best moment, one of both great despair and, in a really fucked up way, love. I’m so glad I called the fact that Whiskey only became Dr. Saunders after she was slashed up, and that she wasn’t necessarily the second Doll, and that it in turn gave me a reason as to why Dr. Saunders would be afraid of Alpha, even if she wouldn’t have remembered him as an activated active and not as Whiskey.
While my wife geeks out on cyberpunk, I’m more interested in the broader concept of a soul, or in this case, how despite being a superpersonality, Alpha original form, Carl Craft, tends to dominate and thus fucks up the rest of the Dollhouse by basically being Jack the Ripper. It explains away some of the contradictions in Alpha’s “quest” versus his own killer instinct, the highbrow and lowbrow of what’s going down in that fried brizzain.
Ballard still sucks, though, but now that he’s in cahoots with the Dollhouse, maybe he can redeem himself as a character if the show gets renewed.
Which brings me to the renewal question. I wholeheartedly think that had FOX not dumped it on Friday nights, pairing it with the sinking second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it would have definitely earned a second season. Can you imagine how Fringe would do on such a shitty night with such a shitty pairing? Why not put Dollhouse on Mondays after either House or Bones (the ever-shifting hits of different proportions)? I think going up against Heroes, which some might consider stupid, would actually be a great concept. Heroes is hemorrhaging viewers each week, viewers who’d do better with the similar-but-better Dollhouse, so FOX could easily snag those viewers away, viewers who’d perhaps prefer something a bit more rewarding. And at 9, it could basically take all of those viewers who love Chuck at 8 but ignore Heroes (…as I raise my hand…), because Chuck was designed for Whedonites, the smart nerdy crowd who’d follow Adam Baldwin anywhere. It’s a dirty tactic, sure, but it’s not a new concept.
Come on. Even if many great shows have failed ratings-wise this season, at least they were given a second chance after the WGA strike. Money is money, so wouldn’t you love to capture the intelligent 18-34 bracket who are smart enough to have a disposable income? Because those people are called Whedonites.