Do you love it? I got it at Rossum.

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I’m going to go ahead and make a prediction: the ending of “Dollhouse” is not going to make sense.

That’s not just a case of my continuing to moan about the ending to “Battlestar Galactica,” or an attempt to be too-cool-for-school, or an attempt to steel myself against the oncoming hand-waving. They’ve already guaranteed that it won’t make sense, with the last pre-Christmas-break episode. (Spoiler for “The Attic,” in case you haven’t seen it): While building up to the final epic showdown, they had the characters meet one of the masterminds of the whole evil plot that drives the series, and he says that he did computer projections of the technology they were using, and almost all of them resulted in the end of the world.

Now, the idea that you can store all of a person’s brain patterns on a hard drive and then imprint that onto another person — that’s ludicrous technology, but it’s the central premise of the series. It’s the thing that you just accept so that the story can go forward. You can even extend that to the whole idea of a Matrix of connected brains, fine, since it’s all part of the main concept. But a computer simulation that could’ve predicted all the twists and turns of this series would be impossible, even for science fiction. Too much of the series has been based on surprise reveals and unexpected developments. To claim that a computer could’ve seen it coming is enough of a stretch; claiming that there’s an evil mastermind orchestrating the whole thing is ridiculous.

And it’s not just that it doesn’t work on an anal-retentive nerdrage “there’s no sound in space!!” level; it’s that the whole series has been inherently reactionary. You don’t have to have been keeping up with the fansites and blogs or listening to the commentary tracks, either — just watch the series and you can see all the changes in direction. Both seasons kind of meander as if they were episodic television for a few episodes and then suddenly shift into overarching storyline mode. The end-of-the-world business, for example, was introduced in the season one post-apocalyptic finale “Epitaph One,” which was made because they didn’t know whether or not the series would get picked up for another year. And now the whole premise of the series finale is trying to get the two ends of the story to meet up. It’s based on the idea that the characters in the show can predict events even the creators of the show couldn’t see coming.

I’m just saying don’t expect it to all get tied up neatly. If I’m proven wrong, then I’ll gladly retract everything. They already did an unexpectedly great job of tying up one of the storylines in the most recent episode: the whole flashback about Bennett and Caroline not only made sense, it fit perfectly into the continuity and was a really well-done story. Their motivations were clear, they turned into real characters instead of just “hero” and “creepy scientist with a dead arm,” and it actually ended up being pretty poignant. And I’ll bet you anything that they had the completely story planned out from the moment of her first introduction, and that that’s what made all the difference.

But even if (when) it turns out that this whole thing doesn’t make sense, that’s not a bad thing. This series is the quintessential example of the sum of its parts being better than the whole. There have been plenty of fantastic moments — cooler than “Buffy” and “Firefly”, even, which I never would’ve expected — that remain cool even though they don’t all fit together neatly. And last week’s episode was so absolutely over-the-top ridiculous in its surprise developments (it seemed like there was one series-changing reveal for each commercial break) that it shouldn’t have worked at all. And yet it did.

But to explain why I’m skeptical it’ll work in future episodes, that’ll take bigger spoilers.

As I see it, with the reveal of Boyd as the head of Rossum, they painted themselves into a corner. Unlike “Battlestar Galactica,” which kept the Cylon-detector machine ambiguous or non-functional throughout the series, “Dollhouse” trotted out a ray gun which accurately and decisively reveals all the dolls within a 50-foot radius. (And they did it, I’ll point out, for another “big surprise twist” two-parter that didn’t really go much of anywhere). We’ve seen it used around Boyd, so he’s not a doll with the Rossum head’s personality imprinted. And on top of that, the reveal of him as the “bad guy” was in a flashback to three years ago, so they’ve eliminated the possibility that he was turned into a doll recently. Which makes it pretty definitive — unless they resort to hand-waving on a level that they’ve never used up until now — that he’s been the head of Rossum since episode 1 of the series.

But be realistic: they didn’t plan for him to be the bad guy since episode 1 of the series. You can’t go back to the beginning and suddenly everything he says takes on a deeper significance. The best you can hope for is that they went back and made sure that nothing he says explicitly keeps him from being the bad guy. But you can look at the recent episodes and see what you notice and what it all means, if anything:

Boyd touches Echo. They made a pretty big point of showing Boyd put his hand on Echo’s right before the imprint took over and her memory started. That could imply that her memory’s not accurate; she’s just imprinting Boyd’s face on top of the person who was really there. I really hope that doesn’t turn out to be the case, because that would not only be a lame non-cliffhanger for this late in the series, it would be counter to everything else we’ve seen this episode.

The flashback suggests Caroline is already a doll. In the scene where they meet and he explains the “Rossum” reference, Clyde 5.0 tells Caroline “technically you’re not robots, but it seemed to fit.” That’d be insignificant on its own (he doesn’t say “we’re not robots,” either). But they spend the rest of that scene talking about how significant she is and what a big deal it is to meet her. Nothing in the back story we’ve seen so far — college student who goes terrorist after her fiance is killed — seems significant enough to warrant that kind of attention.

In the “Epitaph One” episode, they refer to her as “Caroline” instead of “Echo.” So far in season 2 they’ve been making a big deal about how Echo developed as a distinct personality from Caroline, and how Echo is the one who’s going to save everybody. But if they’re working backwards towards “Epitaph One” as their template, then it’s Caroline who’s the hero. Now that Caroline is back in “Echo’s” body, we’ll see what happens.

The backdrops look fake. In both the scene in Boyd’s apartment, and the flashback scene in the Rossum main office, there’s a huge window with a fake-looking static backdrop of what seems to be LA. They’ve used much better-looking backdrops before; in the same episode, the one in DeWitt’s office is more convincing. It could just be a case of the budget getting away from them, but if so, then why would they draw so much attention to it? Why have the backdrop dominate the entire background of the final scene? It might not just be sloppy, but implying a fake environment or a faulty memory.

The direction it all seems to be going: the whole “composite behavior” thing with Echo isn’t an accident but an experiment. She was turned into a doll and started to show signs of being able to hold onto multiple personalities instead of being a blank slate. Evil puppetmaster Boyd recognized the potential benefit of being able to resist being imprinted, and also to hold more than one set of abilities, so he made her his pet project. (Presumably, Alpha was an earlier experiment that failed). He installed himself as her handler so that he could keep an eye on her development. A variant on that: he’s not just evil corporate head, but someone who recognized the potential for the technology to get misused, and saw Caroline’s development as a potential safeguard to keep it from happening.

Whatever the case, it’d go down as the second most ill-conceived master plan in television, because there are thousands of points where it could all be ruined. Plus it results in the head of an evil multi-national corporation hanging out and taking naps in a van while the key to his entire plan is out partying with young LA playboys. Even if you come up with an excuse for that, for example that she had to be imprinted with as many different personalities as possible for the experiment to work, then that seems like something they could’ve done a lot more easily in a lab over the course of a day or two, instead of spreading it out over several action-packed months.

The alternative that I’d like to see but doubt is going to happen: Caroline was actually the third partner in the whole Rossum corporation. She either got imprinted or imprinted herself early on, and is either willingly or unwillingly trying to take down the operation from the inside to see how it could be done. Her whole past as plucky college student could’ve been a false memory to make her believe she hated the Rossum corporation. If it were done willingly, and she agreed that Boyd would be her handler to make sure that nothing went wrong, it would give a little more weight to the lines about her trusting Boyd with her life.

And even my wish-list version doesn’t really hold together. So again: I don’t see this ending well. Especially in a show that’s already shown us the master plan of “I’ll escape the Attic by getting killed but I’ll get better because I’m special.” And that’s also the reason I don’t see the ending being that big a deal: that same episode had some of the coolest moments of the entire series.

The series was first sold as if the appeal were going to be Eliza Dushku looking hot and pretending to be a super-spy hooker party girl assassin. The actual appeal turned out to be: the brilliant “there are three flowers in a vase” scene; a “it was all a dream” episode that actually works; the reveal of Whiskey/Dr. Saunders; and a guy in Hell having to eat a sushi made from his own legs. I think if “Dollhouse” proves anything, it’s that you get better stories when you can plan everything out in advance. But if the team behind the show is good enough at responding to changing events that they can come up with moments like that, does it really matter if it doesn’t all come together in the end?

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Chuck Jordan

Writer, Programmer, and Designer of Videogames and Videogame Like Entertainment Products

4 thoughts on “Do you love it? I got it at Rossum.”

  1. But be realistic: they didn’t plan for him to be the bad guy since episode 1 of the series. You can’t go back to the beginning and suddenly everything he says takes on a deeper significance.

    I disagree. As big of a twist as it felt tacked on at the end of the episode, this seems like just the sort of twist that Whedon loves. Nothing like making the eventual “biggest-bad-guy-of-them-all”, or so we’ve been led to believe, on the series turn out to be one of the already morally ambiguous, but the audience already loves to empathize with him characters.

    I think Season 1 does start to take on deeper significance with the revelation, even if I haven’t rewatched it yet and am only relying on memory. It starts to explain more of why Alpha was tolerated to extent that he was in the first season (and why Rossum seemingly did little to stop him). It may even explain some of Rossum’s toleration for Ballard. Most importantly, it brings into question which instigating “composite” events in the first season were actually caused by Alpha and which ones had input from Boyd. For instance, how much did Boyd know when Echo dealt with “the Middleman”? Was the remote wipe during the art heist really Alpha or might it have been Boyd? (If it was Boyd, how much do you think Rossum high levels already know about The Tech that hasn’t filtered into the dollhouses?)

    To claim that a computer could’ve seen it coming is enough of a stretch; claiming that there’s an evil mastermind orchestrating the whole thing is ridiculous.

    Clyde points out it was a statistical analysis. Clyde seems obviously a bit of a natural pessimist, and the statistical analysis, at least for the first while, primarily progressed inside Clyde’s head, so it might make sense that 90% of the scenarios a pessimist runs through happen to all be apocalyptic. (It is only we, the viewers that watched Epitaph One, that know that the apocalypse is the result in actuality.) Furthermore, while Clyde lays most of the blame upon his partner, or seems to, he doesn’t ever claim that his partner is necessarily 100% “an evil mastermind”.

    What he does point out is that his partner already knows the results of most of his apocalyptic scenarios. Given that Boyd knows about the large potential for things to go haywire, it brings some potential pathos to his interest in Echo… As morally gray as the actions we’ve seen Boyd take and we’ve heard about from Clyde 1.0, it certainly seems possible that Boyd is just as interested as anyone else in easing the suffering of the apocalypse as best as he can.

    As I see it, with the reveal of Boyd as the head of Rossum, they painted themselves into a corner. Unlike “Battlestar Galactica,” which kept the Cylon-detector machine ambiguous or non-functional throughout the series, “Dollhouse” trotted out a ray gun which accurately and decisively reveals all the dolls within a 50-foot radius.

    Why does Boyd need to a doll for the show to make sense for you? Yes, it certainly would make sense for “evil mastermind” to “upgrade” to a nice big, ex-cop body, but it is entirely necessary. For all of Boyd’s use of The Tech, why would he feel it necessary to subject himself to it? I guess more importantly, mightn’t the “Echo project”, whatever it ultimately is for, be important enough to Boyd that he might handle it himself rather than delegate it to a backup copy of himself? Furthermore, if he truly were an evil mastermind bent on control and domination how could he trust copies of himself at all, really?

    Anyway, Topher’s Active Wipe already has a backdoor in it that was well pointed out by Topher and may mean that there are several “dolls” of one sort or another that we still don’t know about… That is the wipe works only on people with “Active Architecture” and I think the show has established enough about The Tech to know that “Active Architecture” isn’t required for doll technology:

    1) Topher was able to invent (or most likely reinvent) a tool to do remote wipes of anyone, with or without architecture, which was the thing that Adelle sold for her house.

    2) Epitaph One makes it fairly clear that anyone and everyone in the world was wiped (architecture or not) by a phone call.

    Both of which lead to my current working theory of The Tech: (Possible spoilers, I guess, if I turn out to be right.)

    Clyde 1.0 invented universal read/write brain scanning from the beginning. He already had some idea of the repercussions of the technology and so hid the real genius of his product, probably after his partner became involved, behind obfuscations and impediments. He intentionally slowed down the process and brought in safety features such as the Active Architecture. Knowing full well the true extent of his original discoveries, which he mostly hid, he certainly has a good indication of what the future might bring when it comes time for statistical analysis.

    Which is to say that Topher’s and Bennet’s various improvements to the chair designs over the years are merely pulling out layers of intentional obfuscation. Topher’s invention of a universal remote-wipe is merely an after-the-fact reinvention of some part of the actual, original invention of The Tech.

    Here’s where my conspiracy theory becomes craziest: Topher (and probably Bennett) are Clydes. I think that the Epitaph One Topher “flashback” all but admits that he knows it in his hysteria. Why didn’t the “remote wipe” Topher explicitly tested on Bennett (and several time implicitly tested on himself) work? Because the Clyde clones don’t use active architecture. Clyde 2.0 may have even predated the active architecture, for all we know. I think that it is somewhat likely that all of the Clydes are composites of one form or another. It could help further demonstrate some of the instability in both Topher and Bennett that they are composites.

    (That would also go some ways towards explaining at least some of the seeming craziness of the Echo composite process– it is an attempt at a more subtly “organic” composite over some of the more forced composites that early Rossum may have created.)

    Of course I could be entirely wrong in my theories above, but I do think that the show will come together in the end… (But then, I’m also a guy that thinks that Dollhouse and Chuck deserve a good cross-over, in fan fiction at the very least. I definitely think that the Chuck “Intersect” Tech is directly related to Rossum’s Dollhouse Tech, and I’ve got theories on that as well. I think it would be awesome to see Chuck wind up in, or avert, Dollhouse’s apocalypse.)

  2. One more quick thing I forgot to point out in the large ramble above… I wrote:

    Furthermore, while Clyde lays most of the blame upon his partner, or seems to, he doesn’t ever claim that his partner is necessarily 100% “an evil mastermind”.

    I think that what Clyde was particularly trying to point out is that the Dollhouse universe has a “Skynet problem” or a “MAD situation”… That is, no matter who controls The Tech the end result is apocalypse. Kill Datadyne and its Cyberdyne that builds Skynet. Kill Cyberdyne and its the Air Force that builds Skynet… The Dollhouse Tech doesn’t need an evil mastermind to destroy the world; its very nature is a “Singularity or Bust” disruptive technology and it seems that Bust is a lot more likely.

    If anything, perhaps it takes an “evil” mastermind to keep it the deep dark “rich people playtoy” secret that Rossum seemingly has managed to do for several years.

  3. Of course, Tim Minear has to go ahead and admit that much of this stuff, including Boyd’s reveal, wasn’t planned until the start of the second season:

    http://io9.com/5444956/the-truth-about-dollhouses-evil-mastermind

    But I still stand by my expectation that the final two episodes will bring a good sense of closure to the series, and will mostly make sense. I think Tim Minear and Joss Whedon love the 11th Hour tight-rope walk too much not to try hard to make it all succeed in the end.

  4. Why does Boyd need to a doll for the show to make sense for you? […] I guess more importantly, mightn’t the “Echo project”, whatever it ultimately is for, be important enough to Boyd that he might handle it himself rather than delegate it to a backup copy of himself?

    Because whatever this “master plan” turns out to be, it required him to spend years sitting in a van taking naps while Echo was off being a dominatrix or LA party girl or whatever. Not to mention all the assignments where she could get killed in any one of hundreds of ways. It makes for a big surprise twist, but it’s horrible for a plan that plays out over multiple years and has a million points where it could be completely ruined.

    Furthermore, while Clyde lays most of the blame upon his partner, or seems to, he doesn’t ever claim that his partner is necessarily 100% “an evil mastermind”. What he does point out is that his partner already knows the results of most of his apocalyptic scenarios.

    He doesn’t have to claim he’s “an evil mastermind.” We were shown a scene where Boyd started a plan three years ago to install himself undercover as Echo’s handler (mastermind), when he knows the result of his company’s work will result in the end of human civilization (evil).

    It could very well be the case that he’s trying to prevent the apocalypse, not just keep himself from falling prey to it. Whatever the case, they’ve got their work cut out for them coming up with a plan that would do this that couldn’t have been accomplished more easily than going undercover for years.

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