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Dollhouse Episode 13, “Epitaph One,” or Pure Post-Apocalyptic Pleasure

July 31, 2009

An episode chock-full of big, juicy, questions set off by a scattershot of elusive (maybe illusive) off-screen answers.

I want to dwell on the part that I don’t understand, because that’s the part that’s gripping me: What is it about an ethereal woman in a white dress haunting a vacated house? Because Amy Acker was just riveting. Iconic, but I can’t name the relevant icon. Lots of symbolic power in this role. Does it come from the contradictions?

“I can show you the way” sounds prophetic, even messianic. But Whiskey 2.019 can’t herself take the path she offers; she is tied to this empty place: “I need to wait . . . I have to wait here.” For Boyd, restoration, absolution or something else that ain’t coming.

Safe Haven is more than an escape route, promising more than somewhere you can’t be wiped or imprinted: “You die as you were born, heart in concert with the mind.” That’s a vision of completion, fulfillment, being made whole, innocent as a child (“baptized down to the pains,” in the words of the song). [ETA: It turns out these aren't the actual words to any actual song, they're just what I thought I heard when listening to the awesome "Remains."]

There’s immortality, eternity: “I’ve always been here.” This Whiskey is not afraid when a gun is pointed at her, not afraid when a mob invades her house, not concerned with escape, not interested in reuniting her body with its original personality. (“Omega” raised the whole question of who Whiskey really is (if she doesn’t want to be who she was before she was wiped and prefers to remain who she isn’t: “Dr. Saunders” — a question for another post))

While she has none of the concerns of the other characters (those of the Actives in the flashbacks or of the street refugees in 2019) and only the most minimal programming and personality, she’s no innocent — she’s a vision of guilt, appearing with blood on her hands. Technologically, she may have been baptized down to her pains, [ETA whatever I mean by that :D it has something to do with spiritual rebirth, of course] stripped of her original personality and of the Saunders personality that she chose, but instead of becoming free of history, she’s something out of a horror movie, beautiful and damned, neither dying or living, doomed to repeat actions she does not understand.

In other words, an awesome fantasy/sci fi/horror character.

Also love the J-Mo* take on the demon child of horror movies. Iris has one gripping arc as a child, with a tragic backstory and moments of painful personal growth — and then all that is shown to really be dramaturgy of a cunning body-snatcher. I loved having to go back and retrace her steps and seeing how the character played on the emotions of those around her. Again, all the most important stuff happens off-screen, and we’re left to piece it together — what the character’s motivations were, what she was feeling, what was going through her mind. I love being invited into the story. Seeming throwaway lines, such as Iris’s desire to be like Zone, take on new meaning when you wonder why she said what she said. (Even a grown killer trapped in a child’s body needs to express her feelings?)

But this was the Topher episode. It was his arc, all the way, from mastermind to prisoner of his own mind, builder to destroyer, self-satisfied to self-loathing, arrogant to helpless and hopeless. His soliloquy reminded me of the one Joss Whedon wrote for Spike in season seven of Buffy, it was so good. It also reminded me of a psychological truth that was brought out in “Echoes.” Echo is motivated to abandon her engagement in that episode by her desire to “save him.” And as long as she thinks she’s on a rescue mission, that she’s saving someone, she overcomes her programming and declines to have a treatment. But when she realizes that she was the one who got him killed, she wants to have a treatment–to have her memory wiped. During his soliloquy, Topher’s mind works very well when he thinks he’s warning DeWitt of a bad thing that might happen, protecting her from it, but when he realizes that he’s the source of the bad thing (and I love how the word “brilliant” jogs his memory, how he’s learned to associate the word with himself, how using that word as a trigger implies he built his whole life on his brilliance before it destroyed his life and everyone else’s) he, like Echo in “Echoes,” wishes to forget.

DeWitt’s reactions throughout the soliloquy take on new meanings when you realize that she has seen Topher take this train of thought before and all her kind interjections are attempts to stop it from reaching its destination. Add another level of poignance.

There are lots of grace notes throughout, but these are the big things. Congratulations, Mo-J!* I think Fox broadcasting will air this after Fox-the-studio has used it to sell as many DVDs as it can. And it should. This episode was up there with “Briar Rose” and “Omega.”

*Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. You knew that.

Digg: Show unaired Dollhouse ep, “Epitaph One” a/k/a “The Future Project” in USA! http://digg.com/d312X4y

14 Comments
  1. August 3, 2009 12:05 pm

    “Baptized”? You really hear “baptized”? Hm. Funny.

    But what I actually wanted to say: Awesome Review! :)

  2. Pointy permalink*
    August 3, 2009 12:21 pm

    Oh, good point about the lyrics, Wiesengrund, who kindly posted them here.

    But I’m not sure about the DVD subtitles. In “Omega,” when Topher refers to Sierra and November as “deck hands,” the subtitles call them “decades.”

    Not saying I’m right, cuz I’m not sure.

    And: Thank you kindly!

  3. Pointy permalink*
    August 3, 2009 12:51 pm

    Of course, if she’s not singing about baptizing down to the pains, I’m gonna have to:
    1. Write a little note in the review.
    2. Use that line myself sometime.

    There were clowns in my coffee — clowns in my coffee!

  4. Pointy permalink*
    August 5, 2009 4:23 pm

    Maurissa Tancharoen very kindly responded to my query regarding whether the lyrics to “Remains” from the subtitles on the DVD of “Epitaph One” are right.

    I’ll put the lines she righted in bold:

    Burn down my home
    My memories hardened and are bright as chrome
    Good times escape
    While every mistake seems to be caught on tape

    I will go rolling fast
    Arms out in the rain
    Feel momentum building ’til
    I lift off ground like an airplane

    Love ties you down to the pain
    A billion eyes are watching, fossilized
    They see what remains

    Remains

    Gave up this town
    What waste are we left with when it’s boiled down
    Shine light on me
    Your image reflected is all you’ll ever see

    I will go rolling fast
    Arms out in the rain
    Feel momentum building ’til
    I lift off ground like an airplane

    Love ties you down to the pain
    A billion eyes are watching, fossilized
    They see what remains

    Remains

    Copyright 2009 Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon

  5. korkster permalink
    August 5, 2009 7:24 pm

    Pointy! That was brilliant! :) I really enjoy reading your posts on the Dollhouse. They always make me stop and peel back the beautiful layers of the story. Look forward to being an active reAder come this fall. :)

  6. Pointy permalink*
    August 6, 2009 12:50 am

    Thank you, kind Korkster, and may you enjoy the pleasures of peeling!

  7. Pointy permalink*
    August 30, 2009 12:14 pm

    Digg: Show unaired Dollhouse ep, “Epitaph One” a/k/a “The Future Project” in USA! http://digg.com/d312X4y

  8. samatwitch permalink
    September 8, 2009 11:09 pm

    Brilliant review, indeed, Pointy. This is a series I keep rewatching – I think it may rival Buffy for that. Some of us are going to watch (or rewatch) Epitaph One this Friday in preparation for the season 2 premiere, so I will be thinking of your points this time.

  9. Pointy permalink*
    September 10, 2009 11:44 pm

    Aw, shucks, Samatwitch, ’tweren’t nothing. J-Mo did all the hard work. :D

  10. Anon Massive permalink
    February 5, 2010 6:41 pm

    “What is it about an ethereal woman in a white dress haunting a vacated house? Because Amy Acker was just riveting. Iconic, but I can’t name the relevant icon.”

    I believe the source icon (at least in American pop culture) is Gloria Graham’s character in _The Big Heat_, directed by Fritz Lang. She’s leaded a normal but self-destructive life until someone scars her face. After which, she haunts the film — beautiful but disfigured — as a kind of post-life apparition and yet is still alive.

    The bad part of this is the implication that the beautiful female character is really only alive as long as she’s flawless. I suspect that’s why the Whedons & Tancharoen LLP restored Acker’s face at the end.

    Acker really does have a rare gift for portraying the beauty of too much vulnerability and the numbness that overtakes it with time.

  11. Anon Massive permalink
    February 5, 2010 6:45 pm

    Erratum:

    Lines 2-4 should be amended to read:

    “She ***leads*** a normal but self-destructive life until
    someone scars her face. After which, she haunts the film
    — beautiful but disfigured —
    as a kind of post-life apparition and yet is still alive.

  12. Pointy permalink*
    February 6, 2010 12:23 am

    Thanks, Anon Massive, I just added “Big Heat” to my DVD Q!

  13. Anon Massive permalink
    February 6, 2010 2:20 pm

    Any time.

    One last thing: Gloria Grahame is spelled with the added e. I was responding between editing jobs (hence the far-fetched splice of *led* and *leads*) and went with the safer first-name spelling even though I suspected otherwise.

    Another reason the Acker image seems haunting and classic: Ghosts are famous metaphors for neurotics, and the resolution of neuroses as a pathway to eternal life is built into American culture, pop and otherwise.

    The alternative, which sometimes haunts those who don’t fantasize about merging with the gaseous vertebrate (longtime Whedon fans, for example, since Whedon spells out the social consequences in nearly all of his work), is that of the person who lingers at the threshold of conformity in death: the scar is a metaphor for psychological damage and ostracism, physical beauty, for the innocence and sensitivity of the person who was hurt.

    One also thinks of young invalids in hospital — of that heartbreaking moment when one is charmed by a beautiful child in the terminal ward. We want that person to continue, not to be struck down, and yet they are. And so, in the world of the imagination, they become a metaphor — still alive in a sense, so that we may see them as they were, but damaged, as if by our knowledge that the dream isn’t true.

    It seems to me that Acker’s character also resonates with our cultural impressions of Hiroshima, hospitals and sites of radiation poisoning (hence her imaginary status as a doctor, who belongs those scenarios). She is a scientist, damaged by ill-used knowledge and close to the site of pain. Her beauty is, again, resonant because it draws us into the obsessive quality of the person who seeks such knowledge: we obsess over her as she obsesses over it: she becomes the trope of our own obsessions — particularly with death. Notice that Acker appears at the very mouth of the beyond in this elegiac episode.

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