Dollhouse: Epitaph Two
Well, that’s it: the end, my friend. And what a fantastically satisfying and emotional end it was!
As I think I’ve mentioned to you before, I thought that Epitaph One was the absolute highlight of season 1 and I think Epitaph Two is undoubtedly the highlight of this season. I’ll leave aside all of the details which can be gleaned from the episode (but wow – how cool was it to see a freakshow Victor and a butterball Harding?) and focus instead on trying to understand where we ended up at the end of these two seasons.
There are so many different themes coming together with this episode, that it is, like all of the other great episodes in this show, hard to get your bearings. I would like to focus on everyone’s motivations. We get such a wide variety of characters (all fleshed out by now) that this seems like a good place to begin. What are the various motivations we see on display? We see, that Rossum is motivated by hedonism. We see also that the desire for pleasure persists, across bodies and across lives, utterly insatiable. In this sense, it’s interesting to see how efficiently and quicly Whedon is able to deconstruct capitalism: corporate greed is merely a way, albeit a dangerous one, to entertain oneself (the imagery of Topher’s inventions, “playroom,” and “toys” just reinforcing the point). With this move, though, we’re led back to one of the questions we’ve already discussed: what are we to make of the show and ourselves watching the show? Of Fox’s involvement with the show? Are we just a bunch of dumbshows eating our way (à la butterball Harding) through television entertainment? Or is there something more going on here? And if so, what is it?
Turning to the other available motivations on the show: we see Tony/Victor’s allegiance to principles…but it is hard to determine which: rightness or family? After all, he insists on fighting the war at the expense of sacrificing his family life; in doing so, he must also become the very thing he is fighting: an addict to technology. We see the logical conclusion of this position in the characters of Romeo and his gang. Victor explains their drive as a desire for more than humanity—they do it “just to feel the thrill of perfection.” But what do we make of the actual superhumans on the show?
As I’d hoped, we get the return of Alpha. And here I have to lodge one of my very few complaints about this episode. The Alpha character was woefully shrifted. It’s such a shame that we did not see his development. I’d previously glossed him as a nihilist and we see that nihilism has slowly, perhaps hesitantly, given way to something different: but what? The few hints we get: that he’d lost his stomach for battle and that he wanted to help out those that needed help are woefully inadequate and it is difficult to understand what to make of them and how he got to be where he is. The most interesting thing is Alpha’s comment that peace does not come easy to him and his leaving the Dollhouse in order to maintain that peace (or at least to avoid warfare on those he associates with) speaks to that uneasiness (I will return to this point shortly). In the superhuman category we also have Echo (“Oh God—she’s so cool!”) who by this point is consumed by destroying Rossum (as her “mini-me” suggests, but who she blithely ignores). But what, exactly, are her motivations? Again, it is diffcult to determine (this, of course speaks to the greatness of these characters). It is not the desire for some sort of restored humanity since she makes an exception of herself and others close to her, nor, is it a desire for superhumanity since by helping the techheads she and those like Victor could probably have taken Rossum out much quicker. It seems that the answer is: life. But it is not the simple, Luddite-esque (“Did he just call me a Luddite?” – totally classic!) life that Pria desires, but rather life: simple, all-too-complex everyday life.
Life with all of its moral ambiguities, its disappointments, and its violence, but also with its courage, with its excitement, and ultimately, with its possibility for the friendship of others. Life with the acknowledgment of one’s incredible solitude (even with hundreds of personalities) and, at the same time, one’s incredible nearness and dependence on others (whether living or dead). In short, to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein, Echo is concerned with our form of life, if that is taken to be the interpenetration of the social and the biological within one finite lifeform.
What seems to drive this home is, of course, Ballard’s death: one of the most well done and yet puzzling aspects of this episode. I still don’t know what to make of Echo’s acquisition of Ballard. Of course, on the surface, we finally get her putting down her guard: but looked at closer, is the point that Echo can only open up by consuming the other? And if so, what does that suggest? And what, then, is the opening? Is it not merely a closure? I guess to conclude, I would again lean on the sort of aporetic reading I have been suggesting before. It seems that Echo has a desire for something like what Lévinas called infinity: an utterly insatiable yearning for something utterly inexpressible and singular and beyond (yet not merely beyond) and she does so while being a multiplicity and while realizing that it can only be realized in the briefest glimpses and moments of everyday life. In this sense, the acquisition of Ballard is merely the best representation of a trace—to speak again with Lévinas—a trace of a past that never was (nor could be…even were they to have been together when he was alive). Her acquisition of him is the realization of this, and as she walks away, there is a certain contentment, but there is also, I would argue, an undeniable sadness (gray hair and all).
In short, then, all we have is life. To quote Dr. Bennett Halverson: “we become what we do…we are best defined by our actions in the moment.” In this sense, once again, the show reinforces the inadequacy of all theoretical constructions and dualisms: Topher is truly Topher only when he combines courage with learning, Adelle is only Adelle when she combines her motherly care with her ruthless instrumental rationalitye, Victor is Victor only when he is a warrior tempered by his desire for Pria and so forth. All we have is the everyday, with all of its failings—and all that boils down to is what I earlier called a form of life: the intertwined saturation of the social and biological…inseparable, inescapable, overbearing, and ours, wholly ours. Hence, Alpha’s uneasiness.
First, let me agree: what an ending. For me, this was an episode that required two viewings. So much happened, and so quickly, that it was only a second viewing that the true weight of some developments sunk in. That’s actually something fascinating about Joss Whedon: how much his storytelling operates on economy, for all the metanarrative indulgence and winking asides and hot chicks kicking ass, at heart, he’s just a damn good story teller. And that’s why, in the end, Dollhouse worked.
First, and here I will disagree with you a bit (surprise!), there’s Alpha. On the first viewing, my reaction was something along the lines of – “Wow. That’s cool.” I was willing to accept it, just on the basis of its awesomeness, and because Alan Tudyk nailed this character (and somehow…it just felt right on some level). But on the second viewing, something caught my attention: that devastated, lingering look when he learns of Ballard’s death. He’s the only one to show any kind of emotion. This is something Echo can’t afford to feel; but it’s something Alpha must feel. There’s a reversal there, but there’s also something true to how the characters have developed. On that second watch, I caught all the little moments where the writers set up Alpha’s redemption, and it was so well done that I realized, that with just a few spare scenes, Alpha (along with Topher) had become the moral center of the episode (for example, I totally missed why he asked Topher for that little favor the first time). In giving Ballard back to Echo, he is not only showing compassion to her, he is definitively renouncing his obsession with her, and he is making atonement for his near-murder of Ballard a few episodes back.
I even think we’re given enough backstory to figure out his motivations. Alpha prided himself on being special; but in a world where everybody’s wiped, and anybody can become a techhead, things start to look very different. That hubris and nihilism somehow got turned inward, and as you say, he lost his stomach for the fight. So when he departs to be alone, knowing he will revert to his original psychopathic self (until he evolves again), it’s an act of contrition and mercy. I found it powerful stuff. Don’t worry – his perversity is still there (why else rebuild the Dollhouse with a bunch of blanks?). But, like Topher, he’s become something else.
Topher. I will say again, proudly, that I never understood the hatred of this character last season, but we knew from the beginning of season two that something extraordinary was going to come from him. When you cut through the tics and mumbling, the casual Cartesianisms (did you catch that about the pineal gland? Between this show and BSG/Caprica, genius stuff is being done on the mind-body on television right now), there was a profound affecting sadness that haunted Topher’s eyes. The same expression was worn by Echo (and Eliza Dushku, not always the best actress, was phenomenal in this episode, I thought) – a weary kind of sorrow that knows that one is no longer at home in this world. Here is, I think again, the theme I pointed out last time: there are some things that cannot be undone. Topher has one path before him. Likewise, with Ballard’s death (executed with quintessential Whedonite abruptness), the final price has been paid by Echo, who long ago accepted a grim determination that had left something of her humanity behind. There’s a familiar Whedon theme here (Buffy, River, Echo), the price of responsibility; but there’s another point far more interesting.
Echo had a doppelgänger, and she got to start over. There is no starting over for Echo. With the “reboot,” Caroline was lost forever.* I rewatched Serenity recently (after talking about it last time), and I was struck by the theme of the world without sin: what awakens from the aftermath of the reboot (not what they called it, but still) is a world reborn to innocence in Dollhouse. But a world without sin is also one that is beyond good and evil (Reavers and the dead inhabitants of Miranda: both come from the same source), where the only law is murder and the only logic consumption. This, I think, is what Alpha saw – the world as a reflection of his own subjectivity – and why he flinched. The only trick is that, having stared into the abyss, there’s really no turning back. And those, like Topher, Echo and Alpha, who have seen that darkness, there’s really only the fate of the Wandersmann remaining, to wander, always the “movement of perpetual departure.” The thing that cannot be undone is our humanity, even if that means it is preserved in its loss.
*I’m putting this is a note so as to not offend our gracious hostesses: you connect Echo to Lévinas; a few weeks ago, I realized with a start that Echo is the embodiment of Hegelian absolute Spirit: indeterminate infinity (Caroline doesn’t know who she is), determination negation (the multitude of her representations), subjectivity sublating its negations into its own self-knowledge. Of course, in a sense, Lévinasian infinity is just the inversion of this. Fascinating. We’ll talk more when he have that beer someday.