Joss Whedon's mind-warping Dollhouse ends tonight, and then we'll enter the "endless rewatching and overanalyzing" phase of our relationship with this show. Here are 10 things we'll miss most about Dollhouse, plus some clips from tonight's finale.
First, those clips. Fair warning — there are some big spoilers in these:
I can't freakin wait for tonight. I've had an unhealthily obsessive relationship with Dollhouse for ages, even before the show namechecked io9. The other day, I saw a headline about the Dollhouse series finale having an airdate in March, and nearly had a heart attack — before I realized it was referring to the U.K. airdate. With no more new episodes coming, here are the things we'll miss getting to experience for the first time:
The Topher-isms. It's hard to believe anyone ever hated Topher — he's become such a fascinating, tortured, unforgettable character, as he's groped towards a sense of ethics and a comprehension of the terrible things he's been a party to. And even more than that, he's had all the best lines. Witness: "Something fell on me." "I bet it was something great!" " Relax, Mountain Man. I've been reading the squigglies long enough to discern the diff between excitement and 'Sweet mother, I'm gonna die.'" "Have you seen my drawer of inappropriate starches?" "Brown… mined from the earth by the hardscrabble brown miners of North Brownterton." "The human mind is like Van Halen. If you just pull out one piece and keep replacing it, it just degenerates." "I am obsolete. This must be what old people feel like. And Blockbuster." "OK, am I the only one thinking we're getting maybe a little too much of our intel from The Matrix … or possibly TRON, given the outfits?" "Imagine John Cassavetes in The Fury as a hot chick." "Which you know I often have!" And so many more.
The brain hacks. Week after week, this show has come up with new and twisted ways to screw with people's brains. Just when you think the writers have run out of weird neuro-tweaks, they've come out with something newer and weirder — including Alpha's remote wipes, Topher's Doll-taser, Echo and Victor swapping imprints, Topher remotely programming Bennett's Active, Topher reconstructing Paul's brain patterns, and tons more. It's always been a thrill to discover the latest permuatation of the show's premise, and the latest demonstration that your brain is a machine that can be endlessly rewired.
The ultra-versatile Enver Gjokaj. I can't remember exactly when Mr. Gjokaj's prodigious talent for becoming different people first started becoming one of my favorite things about Dollhouse — it sort of sneaked up on me, maybe because he was the Russian gangster guy for too long in season one. But especially this season, Enver Gjokaj has become the show's MVP, effortlessly able to become a serial killer, a sexy girl, the suave Roger, Laurence Dominic, a Rossum Corp. asshole... and most of all, a duplicate Topher. Dollhouse may have been created for Eliza Dushku, but the show's basic premise was really made for Enver Gjokaj.
The Cyberpunk visions. People don't give Dollhouse credit for being cyberpunk, probably because there's no A.I. in it. (And maybe "neuropunk" is an alternate term.) But really, this show is all about brain-computer interfaces, and it increasingly became about virtual spaces in its second season. This was made explicit in the "Attic" episode, where Echo goes inside a "mainframe" made out of tons of people's brains networked via computer. But really, Dollhouse is about what really happens when our brains interface with computers — we don't extend our capabilities or develop super-brains; instead, computers rewrite our brains, colonize our consciousness and use us as extra hardware. It's hard to imagine a better cyberpunk television show, maybe not since Max Headroom.
The many sides of Adelle the ice lady. Dollhouse is full of characters who seem very one-note at first, but slowly open up to reveal weird kinks and contradictions. And Adelle might actully be the greatest of these. At first, she's just the smooth, British iron lady, who's troubled by neither fear nor compunction. But one of the great pleasures of watching the show unfold every week has been seeing a new facet of Adelle every week. She opened herself up to Victor's fake persona, Roger, and then got shot in the stomach because she let herself get soft for a moment (in "Spy In The House Of Love"). She gained a few stirirngs of conscience and then lost control of her house as a result in season two. She's flirted with major alcoholism. She's alternately terrorized and mothered Topher. And finally, she's become the megabitch she needs to be to win out in this nasty world. It's almost been disappointing to see her becoming unambiguously a hero in the last couple episodes, except that it's the culmination of her evolution over two seasons.
Echo's journey towards selfhood. I feel like I have to stick up for Eliza Dushku's performance as Echo, and the journey she takes from empty vessel to super-sassy composite personality. It's true that Dushku wasn't always great at playing "hostage negotiator" or "backup singer" in season one, and even Dushku herself seemed to grow impatient with the long stretches of acting like a confused child who's trying to remember something — but it always seemed to be leading towards something great, and now it's fully paid off. Dushku is a great performer when she's able to bring her full gusto to a performance, and she's had tons of great moments ("You just woke up 40 people, and they all think you're a bitch!") this season. Echo's "specialness" isn't just due to midichlorians in her blood or whatever — it's in her indomitable spirit and irreprepressible person-hood, and Dushku has done a great job of bringing that across. It would have been great to see more of that journey, instead of taking the necessary short-cuts this season took.
The world-building. In many ways, the world Dollhouse takes place in is closest to our own of any that Joss Whedon has ever created — Buffy and Angel had demon nightclubs, Firefly is a far future setting, Dr. Horrible has a world where superheroes are commonplace — but it's still not our world. The main, obvious difference is that this brain-mapping and writing technology exists, of course — but Dollhouse is smart enough to extrapolate from that one change into a more dystopian, more fucked-up present. It's a world where the evil Rossum Corporation owns your medical information, the government is even more corrupt and dysfunctional than our own, and the overseas wars are possibly even more brutal. Dollhouse does what all good science-fiction does — follow the myriad implications for society of a single new scientific breakthrough, and it's been great to watch this spin out every week.
The endless jabby metaphors for your actual life. Let's face it — no other show gave you the tools to cope with your day-to-day existence the way Dollhouse has. I'm only being slightly tongue-in-cheek here. If Buffy The Vampire Slayer was chock full of metaphors for life in high school, then Dollhouse is equally bursting with dark, bittersweet metaphors for adulthood. The show's basic premise reflects the ways in which we all warp our personalities to please the people with power, but there are also tons of metaphors for corporate wage-slavery, political disempowerment and so much more. The Dollhouse clients, with their fundamentally unattainable desires, are the ultimate metaphor for the way we all wish we didn't need the things we need. The story of Sierra and Nolan Kinnard is the most potent representation of the way in which a rapist tries to own his victim that I've ever seen. Topher's penchant for doing ethically indefensible science just to see if it can be done is like a metaphor for our entire world, in the era of climate destruction. We all have our own weird and dangerous secret programming, which can turn us into monsters if the right word or image crops up.
The slow creep towards the apocalypse. One of the main things Dollhouse season two has had that season one lacked is the shadow of the unaired season one finale, "Epitaph One," looming over everything. Sure, "Epitaph One" tied the writers' hands in various ways — there were a few plot twists and contrivances that felt slightly forced, because they had to be there to set up the "Epitaph One" flashforwards. But that's a minor quibble, compared to how much "Epitaph One" helped and transformed this show — we've known, all season, that we're watching a show about people who are destined to help cause the end of civilization itself. And week by week, the thrill/horror of watching our heroes take one more baby step towards the unthinkable has been one of the major draws of this show.
The humanism. Sometimes it seems like most science fiction, one way or another, is about what it means to be human in a technological world, or else the kinds of identity crises that we face. Moon gave us a guy realizing he's not who he thinks he is, Avatar and District 9 gave us a human becoming an alien, the Terminator TV show and movies gave us robots that look like us and maybe even think like us a little bit. And so on. It's hard to think of a show that's looked at these questions of humanity and identity through a darker, more warped lens than Dollhouse, with most of the human race being erased by technology harnessed to ego and greed. But it's also hard to think of a story that's more relentlessly humanist. No matter what tech they invent, no matter what they take away from us, Dollhouse says, humanity will persist. Something in us will not be wiped out, despite our own worst efforts. Humanity is stronger than that. And that's not a bad thing to be reminded of, week after week. Despite all of its un-Star Trek-like cynicism, somehow I feel as though Gene Roddenberry would have approved of Dollhouse's message.
Dollhouse's finale airs tonight at 8 PM, one hour earlier than normal.