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?