Concept4Banner1024 The Plural of Apocalypse: Epitaph One, This is the Way the World Ends

 Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Epitaph One, This is the Way the World Ends

Some shows attain infamy because of what you see on TV, others, because of what you didn’t see. I have a feeling Dollhouse is going to end up the latter. Dollhouse’s “missing” 13th episode has already attained legendary status on the interwebs, mostly because of the network’s refusal to air it and all the conspiracy theories regarding that decision. This episode was developed by the studio to meet the needs of overseas distribution and for DVD sales. Last week it was aired at San Diego Comic Con to a roomful of Whedon faithful, the reviews that came out of this screening were awesome. Because I am poor, I didn’t get to attend, and thus had to wait until yesterday to watch this episode. It was worth the wait.

The episode opens on a post-apocalyptic world, with a rag-tag group of survivors trying to find some place safe to get away from the wiped and the tech that could potentially wipe them as well. What they find is the Dollhouse, Whiskey, answers and eventually hope.

The look of this episode is different than the glossy beautiful world Dollhouse resides in. In the commentary we learn that this was party due to cost (filming on video is way cheaper), wanted effect (a post-apocalyptic world is not pretty), and the crew (since the primary crew was busy working on Omega a crew who had primarily worked on “24” was brought in, also bringing in their grittier, hand held style). The juxtaposition of the future and past is well done. What is also well done is the decline of the empire, as the show utilizes flashbacks to go between the world we are used to seeing, into a slow decline into the darkness they live within now. The camera work and lighting does not come off second rate. In fact it could be argued that this is Dollhouse’s most cinematic episode. Knowing that this episode cost half of a regular episode of the show, and that this was one of the factors involved in renewing the show, I feel confident that the quality will not decrease in the second season. They can make do with far less.

Thematically this episode is classic Whedon. In reality this to me was very reminiscent of Serenity and the Firefly ‘verse, and it makes me wonder if what we are seeing connects directly to that universe in a very Battlestar “this has all happened before this will happen again” way. Humanity destroys itself with technology that someone assumed would help people, but that ends up turning people into killing machines. At one point someone refers to the tech and events surrounding the apocalypse as “children playing with matches, who’ve burned the house down.” Indeed the world has burned around them, and the imagery and metaphor used throughout the episode bashes this into your head.
Felicia Day (The Guild, Buffy) and Zack Ward (numerous credits) really stand out in this episode. They are believable survivors. Day, as Mag, comes off as an every-girl who’s been thrown into a world she doesn’t understand, but one which she either has to learn to live in, or die. Ward as Zone, is a hard ass who seems to have abandoned all hope, and almost his humanity before Whiskey and eventually Caroline (in a way) offer him a new hope. Adair Tichler (Molly from Heroes), is a really promising young actor. She pulls off her role (Iris) in this, as she did on Heroes, with a maturity that someone her age should not possess. The additional supporting cast of survivors are also fantastic, but these three end up the most relevant and the three we are most likely to see again in the future.

The lead in is this: ten years into the future, the technology that turns people into actives, has gone rogue. By rogue I mean just walking past a piece of technology can cause your own personality to be wiped out, and it is replaced with something that seems to inspire wiped people to kill non-wiped people. It seems at first the tech was just being utilized by the Dollhouse, but eventually, somehow, a military unit figured out how to remotely wipe people and imprint them (into what are referred to as “butchers” or people who are programmed to kill anyone who isn’t imprinted) using nothing but the phone (reminiscent of November/Mellie’s “There are three flowers in a vase…” moment, only without an implanted trigger, and Alpha’s means to wipe Echo on an engagement). It is implied that this may have been the Chinese (bringing forth another echo of the Firefly ‘verse), but never is it implicitly stated the who or the how, just that this happened. In addition to the phones, it is implied that a mass wipe can be done via some sort of pulse, in other words no one is really safe.
The concept of this episode is brilliant. I’ve heard it called a “second pilot” (in reality it would be the third), and while it may not be, it easily could have served as such if the show had to be sold to a new network. Instead of the typical logical unfolding of what has happened, we see flashes of the events leading up to the world going to hell, through the same technology that caused the event in the first place. It is apparent that the survivors have no real understanding of where the technology that destroyed the world came from. It is summed up pretty nicely by Zone who upon discovering how the Dollhouse used the tech says: "You mean to tell me the tech that punk-kicked the ass of mankind was originally designed to make more believable hookers?"

While they are discovering the who, what and how of what happened, there is a second plot line which is someone is killing off members of the team. First one is killed in the showers, and later we witness the murder of another member. I won’t give it away, but it is brilliantly done, and you just don’t see it coming, but it brings home just how dangerous the world has become. By the end of the episode we are left with 3 remaining people, and one of them has been uploaded with Caroline.

Because this episode was filmed concurrently with “Omega”, Echo/Caroline, Ballard, and Langton are used sparingly. This is actually to the advantage of this episode though. The supporting cast of the Dollhouse we know and love get a chance to shine, as well as our new band of merry survivors. We are running with the survivors and watching the world fall apart through the eyes and ears of people whom we assume were uploaded to the Dollhouse database while events were unfolding. I find this to be a really intriguing point; while the shit is falling apart someone within the Dollhouse (possibly Adelle or Topher, but more than likely Victor, as we see he has backed up all the Actives) had the wherewithal to back up these memories. We have no idea how far into the future (from where the show is now, assumed to be 2009), things start to go haywire. We do know that the technology involved is in its infancy in season one and that the themes, and ideas about what the Dollhouse could really be used for, which eventually cause the downfall of humanity, were already introduced as well.
We only see bits and pieces of what has happened, but I have to say Victor (Enver), Topher (Fran Kranz) and Adelle (Olivia) put in remarkable performances. Topher and Adelle go through rapid character development, and watching their self created reality be torn apart is as painful as it is satisfying. Topher is especially heart breaking, more so if you go and watch the show from the beginning because you realize his arrogance and brilliance, is both his and the world’s downfall. What is especially terrific about these flashbacks is that we don’t really get to see anything going on outside the Dollhouse, we hear about what’s going on, but we never get to see it. We just see and hear bits and pieces about what’s going on: before Topher imprinting took over two hours, the database was gathered from people getting brain scans at hospitals using Rossum’s equipment, Echo can be the imprint and herself at the same time, Boyd is injured, but we don’t know where or how, an imprint can be put into multiple bodies at the same time, Mr. Dominick is brought back out of the Attic and put back into his own body, Victor and Saunder’s scars are fixed, at some point Saunders turns back into Whiskey, basically more questions are asked than answered.

The final bomb dropped in the episode is that there may be a block or cure from being wiped, and that there is a Safe Haven, a place where people are safe from the tech that has destroyed the world, and safe from the people affected by it. My favorite little dropped hint regarding this is that Alpha seems to be responsible for this place. Apparently Caroline/Echo is responsible for the cure. Essentially the two Dolls who are the most problematic are the 2 which are also humanity’s salvation.

This episode was penned by Jed Whedon and his wife/partner Maurissa Tancharoen (both from Dr Horrible), and their commentary is surprisingly informative, considering their collective “greenness.” My favorite thought that they offer up is the possibility, that the day we see here, is a day that happens all the time to Whiskey. That somehow Whiskey is sticking around the Dollhouse for this purpose (as she says to them “I’ve always been here”), and as survivors come through, she continues to do her “job” and then sends people on their way. The idea that tomorrow she cleans up the bodies and starts all over is in a sense what the show is all about.

Overall Epitaph One is one of the strongest hours of Mutant Enemy programming ever produced. Joss has claimed that this is the future that they cannot change, although because some of the flashbacks are memories, they may be incorrect, because they are dependant on the observer who originally recorded them. Also this is a time we will revisit in season 2, as early on as the first episode. So in a way Dollhouse has now shown us its beginning and its end, which is a smart move, because now all that’s left are the details of how we get from point Alpha to Omega, and all the spaces in between.

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