When Dollhouse first aired over a decade ago, I was a relatively recent addition to the ranks of Joss Whedon fandom. I was terribly excited to be on the ground floor for his newest show, going in with no idea what moments, what lines, what characters would speak to me—and what parts of the show would we be talking about ten years later? Well, sadly a lot of the talk is about how it was cancelled too soon, but since I’ve covered that point quite recently, I’d like to draw your attention to the episode that famously never aired on television at all, the Season 1 finale, “Epitaph One”.
It all started with the original pilot. Well, yes, the whole show, but this specific story too. See, the Fox network wasn’t happy with the first pilot that was filmed—it was admittedly a bit dense to be a safe bet with audiences, and it didn’t establish the kind of weekly pattern that the replacement pilot they made did. However, this created a discrepancy between the division of Fox that was the network and the division of Fox that produced the show. As reported by various outlets, the network counted the unaired pilot as one of the thirteen episodes they ordered, but the production company needed to have thirteen “proper” episodes (the unaired pilot doesn’t fit in continuity with the rest of the show and some individual scenes were recycled for use in later episodes) for the DVD set and international releases.
Joss Whedon offered a solution. As he recounted to SyFyWire at the time, his pitch to Fox was: “I’ll shoot a post-apocalyptic thriller that’s all on our sets in six days with a cast of four other people, then we’ll pepper it with different bits from our regular cast, and we can do it all during the schedule. It’ll cost you half.” (“Half” referring to half the budget of a normal episode.) The idea that there would be a “secret” thirteenth episode exclusive to the DVD was curious enough on its own, but the part about a “post-apocalyptic thriller” was so at-odds with what the show had already been, that just added to the mystery. It certainly piqued my interest, and lordy day was my excitement rewarded the day I bought my copy of the Season 1 box set.
The episode begins, as promised, in the post-apocalyptic hell-scape Los Angeles has become long after the events of the previous episodes, in the future dystopia year of, um, 2019. A gang of plucky survivors evades gangs of murder-crazy marauders and takes refuge in a seemingly abandoned underground complex that just happens to be the L.A. Dollhouse. Although they know broad strokes about the brain-washing technology that has turned millions of people into either “dumb-shows” (completely docile and thoughtless) or “butchers” (the aforementioned marauders) and caused the collapse of civilization, they don’t know how it all started. In this episode, they learn, and we learn, exactly how it all started.
The episode alternates between scenes set in 2019, centering on these new characters, and flashbacks to various points beforehand, featuring the main characters we’re familiar with from the rest of the season. These flashbacks are framed as moments explained to the 2019 characters thanks to the imprinting technology itself. Among our gang of heroes are a young girl and her father, whose mind is gone but who the adults have agreed to take along for the short term to spare his daughter’s feelings.
Since he’s a “dumb-show” with no personality or even much of a consciousness of his own, the survivors are able to imprint him with memories from imprints stored on the Dollhouse’s computers, and so what we see of the past reflects the things they learn from these memories. Of course, while they sort through this peculiar history of who killed the world, they also have another thing to concern themselves with: they are not alone in the Dollhouse, and whoever else is in there seems intent on picking them off, one by one.
The flashbacks are the real meat of the episode. Not that the future segments aren’t great too—they’re moody and atmospheric, and the two main survivors, Mag (Felicia Day) and Zone (Zack Ward) are well-characterized. Still, the focus of this episode is on forming the bridge between the Dollhouse that we’re familiar with, and this strange apocalyptic future.
The first flashback we get isn’t plot-related at all, but expository. Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), head of the L.A. Dollhouse, explains to a prospective client just what the Dollhouse is about, and the singularity of the experience he will have if he engages with an Active. This bit is actually from that original unaired pilot. While the main plot of that episode wouldn’t fit in continuity with the rest of the series, some of the individual scenes were able to be recycled for use in future episodes. It’s kind of a nice way of taking the season, and its troubled production history, full circle. Although we the audience already know things about the Dollhouse, our scrappy future heroes do not, and this is how they begin to learn.
I said that “we the audience” already know these things about the Dollhouse, but the way this scene establishes the concept also inspires me to imagine that “Epitaph One” could actually be enjoyed on its own by someone who hasn’t even watched the rest of the series. Obviously, they wouldn’t understand some of the details, and the emotional parts wouldn’t hit as hard for someone not already invested in the characters, but even so, it’s a fun thing to speculate on.
Part of what plays into that also is the way that the individual scenes complement each other. As a collection, they tell a rough but evocative story of the way that the technology used in the Dollhouse (already a sketchy enterprise) grew out of control, and brought about the end of civilization. It also tells the story of individual journeys. Of course, there’s too much going on in the whole of Dollhouse to communicate, even abbreviated, in twenty minutes worth of scenes.
Echo (Eliza Dushku) herself, the central figure in the show as a whole, is a relatively minor presence in this episode. The two most focal characters from the main cast are Adelle and personality programmer Topher Brink (Fran Kranz)—the two characters who have most represented the institution of the Dollhouse itself. They are also the two characters whose moral journeys, for me at least, would go on to form the heart of the story in Season 2.
After the initial expository flashback telling the survivors what the Dollhouse’s business was, the next glimpse we get into the past is of the day Topher was brought on-board. We see him at his absolute most extra, bright-eyed and cocky as all get out, swaggering around with boasts about the ways in which he can improve the imprinting process and teasing jabs at Adelle’s stern chief of security Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond).
He’s getting away with it because his big talk is matched only by his big walk, (and from the audience’s point of view, it helps that he’s Fran Kranz and therefore just so darn cute) and he wouldn’t be a 21st century tech-bro genius if he didn’t start off in this story being gleefully full of himself. Adelle recognizes her need as an authority figure to remain as cool and intimidating as possible, especially to Topher himself, but she also clearly has no problem with setting him loose on the house and seeing just how much he can do to improve their operations.
“Just how much he can do”, however, leads to some scary places. Topher is the archetypal boy-with-his-toys, happily ignorant and ambivalent about the potential consequences of his scientific breakthroughs. The next scene he and Adelle share, set some time after the events of Season 1, sees the two of them visited by Clive Ambrose, an executive from their parent company, the Rossum Corporation. He doesn’t arrive in his own body, though; he arrives on an unmarked hard drive and is uploaded into the body of one of the Actives, Victor (Enver Gjokaj). Adelle and Topher listen in astonishment and a certain degree of horror as Ambrose tells them that the Rossum Corporation will now be selling Active bodies to their favored clients for permanent usage as replacement bodies.
These Actives’ original personalities will now no longer get their bodies back at the end of the agreed contract period, but since they are currently disembodied, there’s nothing they can do about it. In this way, the super-rich can cheat death and live on in younger and healthier bodies for as long as Rossum can make a profit from it. (One of many plot points from Dollhouse I couldn’t stop remembering while watching Altered Carbon.) Ambrose warns Adelle and Topher to get in line with this new business strategy or face ambiguous and terrifying consequences. Their former senses of smug security are beginning to slip away. Even the compromised morals with which they entered employment at the Dollhouse in the first place are unable to reconcile with this outcome.
The scenes involving both Adelle and Topher form a kind of three-act structure within this episode, and the pay-off to it comes in a scene set much later, after the Dollhouse has become a sort of safe-house for our heroes in the wake of an unspecified level of societal disruption. Topher has clearly had some kind of mental break, and spends his days in a room where Actives used to sleep, surrounded by a shrine of seemingly random objects, scribbling on the walls and muttering to himself. When Adelle comes to visit, we find his powerful but broken mind working out how the imprinting technology could be amplified in conjunction with robocalling to reprogram the minds of millions of people with a single mass phone call.
The look on his face as the moment of clarity sets in and he remembers that he is the one who came up with that idea in the first place is absolutely haunting. As he breaks down into tears, Adelle cradles him. We see the emotional bond that has formed out of their initially professional comradeship, and we see how it is informed by their shared culpability in what has happened to the world.
In three scenes, the episode is able to re-establish aspects of the characters we know from Season 1 and tell us how who they are and what they’ve done has set them on the trajectory we will see them trace in Season 2. All of the flashback scenes establish something that the show promised to explore more fully in the future, in various ways. Those scenes are about character arcs, but some of the information teases at plot and lore.
In one scene, it is revealed to the audience that after Season 1, former FBI Agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) has become Echo’s handler at the Dollhouse, and it is also confirmed that Echo has begun to become self-aware after her encounter with Alpha—we see her absorbing an imprint into her collective consciousness. We also get a brief scene between Victor and Sierra (Dichen Lachman), or rather, their original personalities, in which we establish that these two cuties will indeed hook up for a time post-Season 1, and giving Sierra’s full original name as Priya Tsetsang.
These kinds of details translated most easily into the second season that we actually ended up getting. “Epitaph One” was definitely written in a seat-of-their-pants kind of manner, and in context of the whole show, some of the references seem intentionally vague enough to avoid having to commit to a specific angle they later discovered they didn’t want. Some of the writers even mentioned between seasons that the idea was for some aspects of these memories to be false due to corruption, an idea the second season of the show never really pays off. In fairness, it may have been a concept that was only talked about in the first place as a cover for any retcons the writers needed to make.
The things shown in these flashbacks are more about communicating the ideas and the broader story of where the show intended to go. Some specific aspects, such as Ambrose taking Victor’s body, don’t actually end up fitting comfortably anywhere in the timeline of the rest of the show. The only flashback that would go on to actually re-appear in Season 2 is a brief and vague scene in which new security chief and in-house conscience Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) has to go on the run from some nebulous enemies, and shares an emotional good-bye with the Dollhouse’s physician Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker).
I buried the lede on this part, but that is actually not the only appearance of Saunders in this episode. In 2019, she has become the Dollhouse’s only remaining resident. Of course, by this point, it isn’t really her anymore. As revealed in the Season 1 climax “Omega”, Saunders is herself an imprinted personality on a retired Active named Whiskey. By 2019, her body is once again home to the unimprinted “blank slate” Whiskey persona.
Although Mag and Zone initially suspect her of being the one who’s been killing their friends, she’s only around to help guide anyone who makes it there to “safe haven”, which is pretty much what exactly what it sounds like. In actuality, it is Iris, the little girl who’s been tagging along with them, who is the real killer. She’s also not actually a little girl, but an adult whose consciousness got dumped into a child’s body.
Whiskey’s guidance leads them to the perfect imprint to put in Iris’s body instead of this hostile rando: Caroline’s. This is the final connection between the present and the past—in flashback, Echo/Caroline returns to the Dollhouse to lead the people hiding within to “safe haven”; in 2019, Caroline wakes up in a new body to lead these new survivors there as well. Butchers break into the complex itself, and the three survivors climb up the elevator shaft to escape.
Whiskey covers their escape by activating some kind of gas to incapacitate the butchers, and peacefully falling into a sleep of her own, her fate left ambiguous. At the top of the elevator shaft is Adelle’s old office, where one wall is covered with pictures of our series regulars in happier times. A beautiful, wistful song called “Remains” by episode writers Maurissa Tancheroen and Jed Whedon plays us out as Mag, Zone, and little Caroline climb out the windows and leave the Dollhouse behind.
“Epitaph One” really is a singular and fantastic piece of television. It’s a very good episode on its own, but its place in the context of the show is what made it so especially exciting. For all that Dollhouse’s cultural footprint is pretty limited, I would even call this groundbreaking. Between difficult subject matter, a tentative network, complex sci-fi concepts and lore, and the fact that every single episode of the season was shot at least partially out of season order, Dollhouse had a troubled road ahead of it from the beginning.
However, when faced with all of that, the creative team decided to double down on their ideas with “Epitaph One”. They exploded what the show had been up until that point and launched headlong into a bunch of other ideas for what the show could be. It was like a mission statement for both the themes and ideas and character arcs they wanted the show to explore, and for the very explorative nature of the show itself. Like one of the Actives at the center of its story, Dollhouse could be just about anything.