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Playing with Matches: An Advance Review of the "Epitaph One" Episode of "Dollhouse"

"If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be: 'It seemed a good idea at the time.'" - Rebecca West

One of the more intriguing mysteries of this past season was the vaunted missing thirteenth episode of FOX's Dollhouse, entitled "Epitaph One," shot by studio 20th Century Fox Television outside of their license fee agreement with FOX.

Written by Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, "Epitaph One" takes place outside the continuity established by the first season of Dollhouse and is set in the distant future of 2019 Los Angeles. It has remained cloaked in mystery, though the episode will air internationally, will be offered on the Dollhouse: Season One DVD, and will also be screened later this week for fans at San Diego Comic-Con 2009.

I managed to get my hands on a copy of "Epitaph One" this weekend and watched the enigmatic episode with a sense of wonder and terror as Whedon and Tancharoen painted a terrifying portrait of technology run amok, of unfettered greed and shocking hubris, and of wild anarchy in the streets of the City of Angels.

I don't want to spoil any of the delicious plot twists that lurk within the forty-odd minutes of "Epitaph One," but I will say that there were some terrifically shocking surprises within the episode, which ramps up the tension and stakes while also creating an enduring mystery that fills in the blanks as the installment goes on.

While the majority of the action is set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in 2019, the spine of the episode is a series of flashbacks which give us a glimpse into just what happened to the main characters of Dollhouse. And there are many a familiar face that turn up in these story segments, from Eliza Dushku's Echo/Caroline and Tahmoh Penikett's Paul Ballard to Adele, Topher, Dominic, Sierra, Victor, Claire Saunders/Whiskey, Boyd, and others. (The episode also repurposes a scene from the original Dollhouse pilot, giving it additional heft and prescience.)

In 2019, a group of freedom fighters--Mag (Felicia Day), Lynn (Janina Gavankar), Griff (Chris William Martin), and Zone (Zack Ward)--inadvertently stumble onto the Dollhouse as they escape a group of "hunters." Tagging along with them for the ride (or survival) is Adair Tishler's Iris, a young girl with a sadness in her eyes that bespeaks volumes about the hell she's seen. (Heroes' Tishler is definitely one to watch: she manages to steal most of her scenes, despite being less than fourteen years old.)

So what do they discover eight stories below the street? That would be telling.

But I will say that Whedon and Tancharoen have effortlessly crafted a standalone episode that is haunting in its precise vision of a certain kind of dystopian future and which manages to beautifully fuse together taut psychological thriller, horror, and metaphysical exploration into one gritty package.

There are some hard moral questions at work here and the consequences of bad decisions, of shifting lines in the sand, of identities fragmented and lost. The portrait of the future that "Epitaph One" paints is increasingly bleak yet it ends with a rare note of hope, laced with poignancy for what's been lost.

Just what it all means and whether the series will meet up with this point in time--or if it will remain tantalizingly out of reach for the FOX drama series (or, hell, even remain in canon)--remains to be seen. But regardless of its long-term impact on the series, "Epitaph One" offers a seductive puzzle for viewers to solve: just how did things get to be so bad and what role did the Los Angeles Dollhouse play in the end of the world? Can this future be prevented? Or are we doomed to watch history repeat itself?

In any event, "Epitaph One" speaks volumes about what Dollhouse might have looked and felt like had the series hewed more closely to Whedon's original vision. It's dark, gritty, and compelling, a vivid nightmare etched in blood that will be hard to shake long after the final credits have rolled.

Dollhouse: Season One is available on DVD next Tuesday for a suggested retail price of $49.98. Or pick one up in the Televisionary store for just $31.99.


Anonymous said…
Dollhouse: Season One is available on DVD tomorrow

If it is, someone messed up, because street date if 7/28, after Comic-Con.
Saree said…
Sounds like an interesting premise. I still don't really understand why they couldn't (or wouldn't) air the episode.
Anonymous said…
I watched this episode (as well as the show's original and far superior original pilot) over the weekend. I thought this episode was good, but I'm a little confused about why the writers would do an episode that basically implies that Ballard's attempts to take down the dollhouse are ultimately unsuccessful. Doesn't that pretty much give away the farm right upfront? I think if the producers wanted to do an episode on the cheap that only required using the existing sets they would have been better off doing a series of flashbacks (How did the other dolls get recruited? How did DeWitt get her job?) than giving us this look into the future.
HipHopAnonymous said…
I thought 'Epitaph One' was pretty remarkable myself. In just one episode it managed to completely transform my entire conception of the show. Initially I thought of DOLLHOUSE as a Whedonesque knock-off of ALIAS (i.e. beautiful young woman assumes false identity every week) with the main distinction being that Echo doesn't actually KNOW she's assuming a false identity.

However I've now come to see the show as a pretty inventive sci-fi epic that is much broader in scope than it first appeared. I think what Whedon has really crafted here is a show about the potentialities of technology someday managing to separate the consciousness from the body, which naturally raises various questions about the fundamental nature of identity (body vs mind, biology vs brain patterns, etc). In this respect DOLLHOUSE may ultimately turn out to be something much closer to say, GHOST IN THE SHELL than ALIAS, which would actually be pretty exciting territory for Whedon and company to explore. Hopefully they'll get the chance to do so in the upcoming season.
Faith Cooper said…
The cast of the show played great and the story is very original. This television series is amazing.. The "Epitaph One" season 1 is now released on DVD!
greennogo said…
I don't think that 'taking down the dollhouse' was ever really a feasible B-plot drama for the show. Even if you prevent the assembly of Fat Man and Little Boy, you can't un-invent the splitting of the atom. This is why Reed Diamond's character had such a chip on his shoulder about containment. In fact, they even say in one of the interview segments in 'Man on the Street' that if you turn humanist notions of 'self' into consumer technology, the result is the end of species.

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