"Angel" had an elevator, too. Remember that? More and more with every recent episode of "Dollhouse,"I am reminded of Whedon's obsession with the corporate conspiracy, namely how much Rossum has begun to resemble super firm Wolfram and Hart, with its elusive 'partners' and 'company heads,' people or supernatural beings that we don't know, apparently don't trust (or trusted to easily), the people we 'least' expect who dwell on the top floors of very tall and shiny buildings, doing whatever it is they do up there, folding their hands together on top of their clandestine desks, thinking up schemes and drinking expensive caffeinated drinks, or existing purely as the essence of evil, hanging out in a bare white room in the shape of a panther or a little girl with a bow in her hair or something creepy like that. I cannot help but think: What's more mysterious than taking an elevator ride to a floor in a building you've never been to? Especially when the person sending you on your elevator ride says something like, "Someone upstairs wants to meet you," and then they don't come with, because they're not invited. Unlike you, because there's something about you that's special, only you're not quite sure what it is yet.
Anyway, the elevator trick is just like that trick in which a character walks into an office (probably on the top floor of a very tall, shiny building), and there's somebody in there talking to that character, but their chair is turned around, and so the character (and we) can't see who it is. We can only hear their voice, which is maybe vaguely familiar, but not enough to raise any flags yet. Then, the mysterious chair-person turn around, and the character (and YOU) are like, "Whoa! It's Jonathan! That geek who tried to kill himself with a sniper rifle in the bell tower at UC-Sunnydale! Wait, what's he doing in that chair?" Yes, what is he doing in that chair? And was he the person you least expected? Probably, but you didn't know till you saw him. And didn't you sort of trust him? Yeah, well, because he's harmless or one of the good guys or whatever. This is an example I took from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," episode 3.17 Superstar, you know, "Buffy," Joss's baby and claim to fame.
Joss does this a lot, and so do tons of writers and directors out there. Think "Fringe," season one finale: Olivia is sent on a strange elevator ride up a tall and shiny building. When she gets to the top, and she meets William Bell, it's not like we've seen this man before and are having one of those smash identity switch brain implosions (like what "Dollhouse" just pulled on us in 2.11 Getting Closer), but the man in question, William Bell, has been the man in question for quite a while, (Who is William Bell? Where is he? That was the foundation of "Fringe" Season one.) and so, naturally, we're expecting to be shocked a little bit upon our discovery of who and where William Bell is. It would not be half as impactful (or surprising) had William Bell just been some random no-name old guy. Or even a robot. No. Abrams does the "pluck and surprise" (a shitty term I just coined, just now), in which he plucks an actor from a current or previous work (ie: Abrams was working on Star Trek at the time), one that fans know, who they'll easily attribute to this current or previous work, and then relies on, not so much surprise (a little surprise), but excitement. Look! It's Nimoy! It's Spock! And didn't Abrams just do a Star Trek revamp? That old dog!
Okay, fine. But "Fringe" is a lesser show than "Dollhouse." "Fringe" is a crowd pleaser, in that it sort of tip-toes "X-Files" territory without taking too many risks, without breaching formula or updating the genre, and also without delving too deeply into its characters or in politics or major issues of today. "Fringe" is like "Lost," only lame and sort of unoriginal, but it satisfies our (my?) weekly craving for procedural brain candy without having to succumb to the bygone charms of "Bones," or the directional failures of "House." Similarly, "Angel" is also a lesser show than "Dollhouse." "Angel" does some neat stuff with redemption and sex and tragic heroes and all that, but once vampire lovechild Connor enters via hell portal, the wheels come off, and I have trouble looking at the screen for too long without finally having the urge to look away in shame. The last season is fine, one-note, but fine, and it has some great moments (a la, Fred's soul is incinerated, enter Ilyria, exit Wesley's will to live), but it's no "Dollhouse."
"Dollhouse" is creepy, and it's better, because it's politically relevant. It examines the backfiring of certain technological advancements, things like human trafficking, slavery, violence against women, pure neuro-claustrophobia (ie: I'm trapped in my own brain), rape culture, our social construction of rape, and a million subtler, less expected manifestations of rape (that's a whole other Media Studies dissertation). These things are reasons "Dollhouse" is being cancelled, because we here in America can't handle our TV getting all mixed up with our politics, and so these types of shows typically only do well on pay cable options like HBO and Showtime. Again, beside the point--"Dollhouse" is better than the elevator trick, or the smash identity switch, or the "pluck and surprise," all of which it has recently or not so recently employed. Now, I completely approve of Joss's choice last season to surprise us with Alan Tudyk as the elusive Alpha. This was exciting. We were all sort of waiting to see who it would be, and I think Tudyk was an unexpected choice (because, I mean, Wash is so sweet and so dead), but a perfect choice (because Tudyk's range is off the heezy), and who doesn't love Alan Tudyk? And it's one of the many throw-backs a disgruntled Mutant Enemy writing staff has given to the failed masterpiece "Firefly." I even bought Summer Glau as Bennett Halverson. I mean, we knew she was going to be on the show, because we read the spoilery news on Whedonesque, and then she was, and she wasn't a doll (even though she would have made a great doll), but something better--a foil for Topher. FINALLY, a way to excavate Topher, because Fran Kranz can actually handle his shit, and also because whenever "Dollhouse" does major character excavation it's always a treat, and it's always well-done, and I'm always ALWAYS impressed.
So the only reason I'm a little bit pissed about the old elevator trick in Getting Closer, and about the major revelation that, SHOCK, it's been Boyd Langton all along, is because we're just being yanked again, back and forth, back and forth, and it is, I'm sorry, at the expense of what "Dollhouse" does when it's at its best: excavate its characters, excavate its politics, excavate the reason it's so good so often. I still hold that the best episode of "Dollhouse" is 1.9 Spy in the House of Love, and not because of any plot twists, or the revelation that Dominic is the infiltrator, leaking info to the NSA, or because of any super-cerebral bullshit concerning the existential nature of the soul, but because of its delicate examination of Adele, our commander, our matriarch, and the smaller, less exciting revelation that she is, in fact, the client Ms. Lonely Hearts, who employs Victor as a companion, not only for sex, but for genuine human connection. Loneliness, the desire for true human connection, true identity among a baffled crowd of masked nobodies--that's what "Dollhouse" is about. It's why Echo is becoming self-aware in these episodes, because she's searching for that connection, that thing that makes us all 'real' and not 'dolls.' It's the reason Ballard struggles now, because he is still 'himself,' but he's not. He's not 'real.'
What is it to be 'real?' Is it the architecture in our brains that makes us real? Well, maybe, on a technical level that only Topher Brink can decipher, but is it not, to the rest of us, the understanding that we created ourselves, that we put ourselves together as a sum of our experiences, our memories, the convictions instilled in us, if not by genetics, then by our own choices, the losses that are particular to us, the gains, the sacrifice, the things that, even in a sea full of people, allow us to be different, to be our own? What makes us 'real' cannot be defined by the plot conventions of the science fiction genre. It cannot be defined at all in fiction, but for individual examinations of characters that are, in fact, real (Adele, Topher), as opposed to examinations of characters that are not (Echo, Dr. Saunders).
With this, we come to understand the foundation of the show, and the science fiction plottery becomes ancillary, as it should, because Whedon's shows are never about their outer story (Vampire Slayer fights vampire, related big bads; Thieves ride in Space Ship, thieve; Vampire with soul masquerades as Private Investigator, fights evil; Morally ambiguous corporation builds super computer comprised of human brains to take over world). They're about the arcs of basic human connection and what happens when we can't get it, how desperate we become without it. Buffy sleeps with Spike, alienates her friends. Angel isolates himself for fear he'll, again, lose his soul. Captain Reynolds tries not to be in love, because there's baggage, acts all macho instead. Adele sleeps with an active. These are all people (or vampires) attempting to connect with one another and failing and the desperation that ensues. This is what hurts so bad about Joss Whedon's work. Nobody's ever really happy, but isn't that, like, the way it is anyway? Even without Mutant Enemy manifesting it for us on the screen?
It's just, okay--"Dollhouse" is cancelled. Everybody knows. So what gives with the tendency toward all-out closure, driven by plot? The show is good enough, JOSS is good enough, so why not just character sketch for six episodes? Allow for an open ending? Why not just show us the terrifying truth about the Dollhouse and Rossum, give us some exposition on, you know, Anthony and Priya and Caroline and Madeline, and leave Epitaph One as nothing but resonance? Leave it a quiet, sad truth, not a "shape of things to come," a shape that, as now-dead Clyde reassures us in the Attic, can be prevented if only Echo can get out and stop things with her fancy new personality, if we just tack on a ticking clock for some instant, watered down tension in an already doomed situation, if the show becomes a slave to plot progression and, as a consequence, watches its character integrity perish by the wayside.
Because we're doomed. It's certain. Echo can save us, maybe, but even with Epitaph One as a fabulously rendered reference, we still don't know. That episode is so good precisely BECAUSE we don't know. We don't know what Safe Haven is, or if it exists at all. If the contents of the episode are any indication of the future for our wayfarers, then everybody is probably going to die anyway. All we have is this broken building, this beautiful shot of dilapidation and desuetude. I like it. Leave it like that. Let it rest already. "Dollhouse" is a sad, dark show. That's why it's dead now. So show us what will be lost, not the plot points we must follow if we wish to prevent that loss, because what's lost is always much more resonant and interesting when we know what it is, not simply that it's lost. And what I mean by what's lost is, again, what's 'real.'
The show is ending. I don't know why we need a wild goose chase, complete with elevator rides and identity twists to get there. I'm thirsty for character. I want to know more who. I've had it with the what. "Dollhouse" is going down, and so there's no need to wrangle more viewers or to satisfy our desire for closure on Rossum. There is, however, a need for complete vision, something "Firefly" never got, because it was decapitated with zero notice. And complete vision can't be reached through plot alone. So maybe Rossum comes down, or maybe it doesn't. Does it matter if we don't know who we're losing? Or, for that matter, what is gained? So this is why I wish season one would have just been it. Let it rest. If I'm left with nothing but Epitaph One and then all that wonderful characterization of Adele and Topher and resonance of tomorrow--then that's all I really want anyway. I'm okay with sad endings. I'm okay with the apocalypse, as long as it's done well.
What I'm saying is this: Joss, you don't need to distract us anymore. There's no need for sleight of hand, for trickery. No need for fireworks or a big bang in the end. If anything, you've earned a little stagnation. "Dollhouse" is more effective when it ends sad and quiet, just unplug the ventilator. There's enough built, enough exposed already. The surface is raw. Anything is going to hurt now. So let resonance and residual vibrations take it from here. And again, that's just me. I'm a masochist with story endings. I like my characters to hurt, and I don't like plot-driven anything (which is part of why I'm boycotting Avatar), because I don't think that it's what happens that stays with us in the end. It's the impact. It's the who. Who is being impacted, and how have their lives (or un-lives) been changed forever?