On last night's Dollhouse, we went deep inside the curiously understaffed heart of Rossum Corp., met the man in charge, and dished out sweet, brain-soaking justice. Yay, the good guys won! Well, sort of. Spoilers ahead.
The penultimate Dollhouse episode had the toughest job of all: Wrap up the present-day storyline, explain last week's whodathunkit revelation, and set the stage for post-apocalyptic hell ten years from now. And it finnessed those challenges by offering up a classic "destroy the McGuffin and the bad guy is ultimately defeated" story — only to pull the rug out from under us, with the nasty brainpocalypse world that those of us who watched the unaired episode on the DVD set will remember. It was a nice fake-out, even if we could see it coming a long way off.
So perhaps the fact that almost nothing in "Hollow Men" quite made sense to me was part of this fake-out. It was like a pastiche of the standard TV series finale, in which the huge shadowy evil corporation suddenly turns out to be the work of one ranting supervillain, and there's an easy-to-destroy McGuffin, a "mainframe." If our heroes can only wipe that out, they'll vanquish the evil megacorp and the world will be saved. Echo even outruns an explosion! Whee!
Except that we already know the good guys fail, and the end of the world is inevitable. So the huge "saving the world" episode is kind of a joke, on the characters most of all.
That's the charitable explanation for why so many things in last night's Dollhouse felt random and out of nowhere. Especially the "Whiskey is Clyde" thing, which I still don't quite get. (Was she Clyde all during last week's episode? Really?) There were also a lot of lines of dialogue in the episode that seemed to refer back to stuff we never saw, like "Echo is the only one who can get us into that building." (Why?) Or: "We just have to hold on until Echo finishes the job." (What job?) Most of all, the "mainframe" thing felt almost too silly to swallow — suddenly, the mainframe is a thing? I thought it was all the brains of the humans stuck inside the Attic? And why would destroying one computer even slow Rossum down for a second?
The thing is, the rest of the season did such a great job of building up Rossum as this unstoppable force whose ethics were as limited as its power wasn't. Episode after episode showed us Rossum as the ultimate bastion of psycho entitlement, with old guys sitting around smoking cigars while treating humans like cattle. They own a U.S. Senator — soon to be a president — and their evil tentacles stretch into every corner of the world. And suddenly last night, Rossum seemed clumsy and ill-equipped. Partly, it was the "mainframe" thing, but also especially the Boyd=Rossum thing.
Remember last week, when we asked if the Boyd thing was going to wind up making sense? I guess you shouldn't ask questions you're not going to like the answers to.
So... I'm Boyd. I founded the Rossum Corp. several years ago, with my partner Clyde, who's such a brain science genius he makes Topher look like an amateur. We create the ultimate brain-reprogramming technology, and when Clyde balks at the implications, I plug the original Clyde into my newly created human computer, so his brainpower can still work for me. And I create copies of Clyde, without the original's scruples, or any ability to disobey my orders. Soon I've got an empire of "Dollhouses," where people's brains are reprogrammed for the entertainment of the wealthy. And I can already see where this technology is heading: We're going to wind up being able to put our brains into anybody's body, and if you're rich, you'll put your brain into lots and lots of bodies. Soon, there'll only be a few minds left on Earth. (Presumably, I don't foresee the "Chinese phone brainwashing" wrinkle, or the fact that eventually every piece of tech on Earth starts reprogramming people.)
This is great news for me, because it means I can live forever, jumping from body to body. There's only one problem — how do I protect my own mind from being overwritten? Luckily, my medical company does blood tests on a young woman whose blood contains certain substances that might indicate a resistance to imprinting. (Call them "midichlorians." Sorry, couldn't resist.) By an astonishing coincidence, this woman is also a sworn enemy of my company, and is doing everything in her power to destroy it. (Or maybe, after I discover the secret of this woman's blood, I somehow manipulate her into becoming Rossum's sworn enemy?)
So finally, the woman with the incredibly special blood plays into my hands — she comes to my headquarters in Tucson and tries to destroy it. Now I've got her where I want her — she either plays along with my scheme, or I send her to prison forever (or have her executed.) But for some reason, I can't harvest the neuro-chemical transmitters in her spinal fluid right away — they have the potential to resist imprinting, but they aren't there yet. Something needs to happen, before she's ready to have her spinal fluid harvested — she needs to be imprinted with new personalities, over and over again, until her resistance to them builds up and she eventually becomes immune to imprinting. (Or rather, she learns to integrate her imprints into one personality.)
So how do I go about building up Echo's immunity? Do I stick her in a lab somewhere, where I can have a huge team of scientists monitor my company's most important asset, while we imprint her with personality after personality, until her immunity builds up? No, of course not. Instead, I send her to the L.A. Dollhouse, to be shot at, caught up in kidnapping rings, hunted by bow-wielding maniacs, etc., etc. The woman whose blood is the key to helping the "chosen few" avoid being erased will go into a situation where she's in constant danger of being destroyed. (Although, maybe she has to be exposed to stress in order for her to resist her imprints? So okay, maybe that makes sense. Possibly.)
But it's okay that the company's most important asset will be in huge jeopardy, because I'll be there as her Handler, sitting hundreds of yards away in a van and monitoring her vital signs.
Part of the problem, of course, is that last night's episode sort of punted on explaining any of this stuff in a more coherent fashion than I've pieced together above. Boyd sort of turned into a garden variety television psycho, ranting about how the technology is out there now, and you can either be the destroyer or the destroyed. I did like the part where Boyd said he loves his Dollhouse "family" and wants to keep them around — although he then negated it by acting completely callous towards them, threatening to shoot Adelle a moment later. I was also quite shocked that Boyd was so casual about Clyde erasing Claire Saunders, whom he seemed to have genuine feelings for before.
In the end, none of it even matters — because the villain of the series wasn't even the Rossum Corp., but the technology that Rossum helped to develop. As someone said in season one's "Man On The Street," if the technology to rewrite brains even exists, then humanity is over as a species. Eventually, someone else will discover it and use it.
So Boyd is right — the tech is out there. Topher's schematics are probably backed up to dozens of hard drives all over the world. And the evil Rossum execs' brains are stored in dozens of bodies as well. The whole "cut the head off the snake" metaphor winds up being somewhat nonsensical — it's more like a Hydra. (Probably the only thing the fiends at Rossum actually fear is exposure — having the truth known about their misdeeds before they're ready to mindwipe the world. So the smart thing to do probably would have been to perfect Topher's remote mindwiping tech, and use it on the Rossum board before they finish their own version — plus use it on a few dozen leading political figures, and program all of them to start speaking the truth about Rossum. Crude, but effective.)
I did like the theme that was snaked through "Hollow Man," of people rejecting evil tech, but then turning to it in desperation. Tony and Priya have sworn never to be imprinted again — but then they decide to try it one last time. And Priya even agrees to have her boyfriend "upgraded." Mellie doesn't like guns, but Paul convinces her that the way to deal with her fear is to carry one anyway. Topher hates the "remote control for the brain" tech he perfected, but Evil Boyd easily convinces Topher to repair one of the devices so they can use it for good. It was yet another way we see good intentions and technological convenience leading us down the slippery slope to annihilation.
And there were a few great character moments, many of them Topher-related. We got to see Victor-as-Topher one last time, ranting about how much he prefers his physique to Victor's. "Brainpocalpyse" was great, and so was Topher's continuing willingness to do the wrong thing when an authority figure asks him to. Oh and, "The mad scientist in me says yes" should really be a T-shirt. It was nice that Paul finally admitted his feelings for Mellie were real — even though I saw her death coming a mile off. Tony and Priya got to be all noble and give up their chance at happiness to help their friends.
I'm sad to admit it, but my overwhelming feeling about the penultimate Dollhouse episode is head-scratching. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great. The episode had a lot of heavy lifting to do, and it pulled a few of those back muscles that tend to lead to excruciation if you don't lift with your legs. Mostly, i'm just glad it's not the absolute final episode — here's hoping next week's "Epitaph Two" lives up to the greatness of last year's unaired "Epitaph One."