It Still Stings: Dollhouse’s Scattershot Execution Mars Its Otherwise Innovative Legacy

TV Features Dollhouse
It Still Stings: Dollhouse’s Scattershot Execution Mars Its Otherwise Innovative Legacy

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

…Did I fall asleep?

Most series in Joss Whedon’s TV repertoire have been granted television immortality—Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a cultural staple, its spinoff series Angel also achieves that status by proxy, Firefly remains a canceled-too-soon cult favorite, Agents of Shield brought the MCU to television long before Disney+ was even an idea—but there is one show that always gets forgotten, and that is FOX’s 2009 two-season-wonder Dollhouse. Some may say it is the forgotten entry in Whedon’s canon for good reason, casting it aside as a failed TV experiment doomed to forever live on Hulu as a “Because you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer” catalog-filler that will never see a cultural revival. But while its scattershot execution left it a series that was just good when it could have been great, there’s still value and potential there—even if it wasn’t always met. 

The series, which premiered just ahead of 2010 and the blossoming of technological advancements like social media and smartphones, follows Echo (Eliza Dushku), an “active” in the Los Angeles-based Dollhouse—one of many underground services run by a secretly seedy medical research company that asks for five years as a personality-less “doll,” one that can be imprinted with various skills and personalities to fit a client’s needs, in exchange for wealth (and the erasure of any memory of those five years). Joined by fellow actives Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Sierra (Dichen Lachman), and wrangled by Dollhouse leaders and employees Adele DeWitt (Olivia Williams), Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), and Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), Echo must build herself from the ground up, and attempt to free the world from the Dollhouse’s influence and exploitation. Pieced together from ideas that can be found across Whedon’s repertoire, including the “what if someone turned you into a sex robot?” concept from Buffy’s Buffybot and the “what if there was an entire organization dedicated to exploiting women and turning them into killers?” backstory from Black Widow’s Red Room, Dollhouse is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of good ideas oftentimes done better in other places. 

But that being said, when Dollhouse is actually good, it’s great. Dushku, Lachman, and Gjokaj each shine in their respective roles as the empty shells that are Echo, Sierra, and Victor, as well as whoever they were programmed to be for that episode. The later half of Season 1 finds the series really hitting its stride, featuring a string of episodes that are emblematic of the concept being used to its fullest potential. One of those is, “Haunted,” which follows Echo as she is imprinted with the personality of a recently deceased friend of DeWitt’s, who suspects that her recent passing was actually a murder. The following hour is one filled with the heart-wrenching sting of grief and loss, amplified by having to see a woman watch her family mourn her—with varying levels of warm and fuzzy feelings. 

“A Spy in the House of Love” later includes the barest hint of Echo’s own, new personality poking through as she asks to be imprinted with a personality that will allow her to help find the spy within the Dollhouse. That episode also reveals that DeWitt has been utilizing her own services, commissioning Victor constantly to fulfill her own “lonely hearts” fantasy; the series’ central messaging about want and need and desire and entitlement can be seen through DeWitt’s denial and disillusionment as she shares a romantic getaway with “Richard.” 

Season 1’s eighth episode, “Needs,” is another all-timer that posits some of the dolls within the Dollhouse willingly chose to have their memories erased to escape some kind of unfathomable pain or suffering; we learn in this episode that November signed her five-year contract in order to forget the loss of her young daughter. This episode asks its audience about exploitation, yes, but also about the importance of pain and suffering to the human experience—we wouldn’t be who we are without everything horrible that has happened to us coloring all of our future experiences, and we shouldn’t run away from that pain. 

After Season 1’s explosive finale, Season 2 ramps things up, especially considering that the writing was on the wall for the fate of the series. It was a miracle it got renewed in the first place, and it feels clear within the show itself that Season 2 was their attempt to squeeze multiple seasons worth of story into their final, 13-episode order. It’s trying to do a lot, and it’s mostly successful; each central character is challenged more than ever, and newer players like Bennett (Summer Glau) and a revitalized Whiskey/Doctor Saunders (Amy Acker) are key additions to the second season’s storytelling. Echo’s evolution from an empty shell to an amalgamation of 40+ different personalities is incredible to watch, especially as she pulls from different aspects of those personalities to achieve her goals, like in Season 2’s seventh episode. Echo becoming her own person is the series’ ultimate act of subversion, allowing her to move past her trauma and towards a type of humanity that was stripped away from Caroline (the woman she originally was) in the name of power, greed, entitlement, and exploitation. The series tackles all of those topics, to varying degrees of success, and these themes come through most poignantly when boiling down to its episodic stories. Every character in Dollhouse is morally complex; they each do horrible things, and are all complicit in very real pain and suffering, and the series never truly lets any of them off the hook for their actions, always putting its leads through the ringer. Even Paul’s (Tahmoh Penikett) status as tough FBI agent-turned-knight in shining armor is undercut—the series side-steps any assumptions about who its heroes and villains are, cementing its central themes until its final moments. 

Despite its ups, the series certainly has plenty of downs. Where some episodes feel like sci-fi revelations (like Season 2’s “The Attic”), others… not so much (I don’t want to talk about Echo being imprinted with the personality of a violent, misogynistic serial killer in “Belle Chose”). For a majority of the series, it feels like the show is always so close to utilizing its concept to its fullest potential, but is never quite firing on all cylinders. In some ways, this feels partially due to its stinted life at FOX; with its unexpected second season renewal (a choice that FOX executives admitted was driven solely by Whedon and his fanbase rather than any kind of acceptable viewership numbers) and its alleged five-season plan, the second half of what would be its final season hits the gas and never goes back. A mid-season time-skip is jarring enough, but what’s even worse is, after the bad guys are seemingly defeated and the Dollhouse has been taken down at Echo’s hand, another time-skip places its characters ten years in the future to 2020, where an apocalypse has broken out. 

Because it’s a Joss Whedon joint, there was probably always going to be an apocalypse, but just two episodes (one of which never actually made it to air—the 13th episode of Season 1, which debuted at San Diego Comic Con and was only available on the Season 1 DVD for a time, but now exists with the series on Hulu—where this apocalypse was first introduced) was just not enough time to fully flesh out what could have been an interesting concept. Instead, Echo and crew save the entire world from the now-mobile influence of the personality-swapping technology in 42 minutes. Central characters drop like flies with little to no consequences, new characters take up unprecedented importance, and the characters that we have spent the entire season watching grow and develop are entirely different people than we knew them just an episode before. Inquiring parties looking for answers about the ten years between when Echo blew up Dollhouse HQ and “Epitaph Two: Return” can look to the Dark Horse five-issue comic miniseries which aims to shed some light on what happened, but even an entire graphic novel worth of explanation cannot make up for the lack of structure present within the series for that kind of shake-up. 

Besides its sudden apocalypse and confusing canonical timeline, there’s also the Joss Whedon of it all. In the years since Whedon’s comeuppance at the hands of the MeToo movement, all of his previous work has been put under a microscope, including Dollhouse, which many now view as a series showcasing “exactly what he thought of women.” However, many of the various takes that this show is a window into Whedon’s hatred of women feel like bad faith interpretations, ones that pointedly ignore the purposeful examination of exploitation and instead assert that the series actually believes in the abuse it features rather than seeks to examine it. Of course there are moments that undeniably toe a line (like Season 2’s “Instinct,” where Echo is imprinted to be the mother of a newborn baby and goes off-mission in an effort to protect the baby based on her “maternal instincts” and biological tinkering at the hands of Topher), but those various moments reveal more about the characters within the series than about who wrote it—especially considering Whedon was only credited as a writer on three aired episodes. Instead, when Topher pointedly ignores the morality of biologically altering his actives on a whim and lacking respect for those he works with, the audience is informed about who he is (a reality that he is sufficiently punished for in the end, mind you) rather than making a statement on the morality of the show or those involved. 

More than anything, Dollhouse is a challenging series that took risks that didn’t always pay off, but were bold anyway. It’s rare to see unabashed effort and creativity on television today, unconnected to any previous property or cultural in-joke, and Dollhouse managed to do just that, even with its complicated production and uneven execution. While I do love the show for what it is, I also wish that it had been better—maybe it could have been granted the same television immortality as Buffy and the like, or maybe it could have just been offered more of a chance to sort itself out. Either way, Dollhouse will likely always remain the black sheep of Whedon’s filmography, and that will always sting.   

Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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