Dollhouse in its second season was not at all the same show it was in its first. As far as the internet is concerned--or at least that infinitesimal portion that watched the show to its end--this is very much a good thing, and there's no denying that from a technical standpoint the show was massively improved. The first season's tedious and contrived personality of the week stories quickly gave way to major upheavals in the show's premise as it raced towards the post-apocalyptic future glimpsed in the tantalizing, unaired first season finale "Epitaph One." Still, I find myself missing first season Dollhouse. I didn't like that show, but I thought it had the potential to tell an interesting SFnal story. The second season tries to tell that story, but does so in a way that is so rushed, so heavy-handed, and most of all that so thoroughly tramples the creepy ambiguity of the first season's character work, that it hardly seems worth the effort. The improved plotting--which anyway is well below what I've come to expect from Joss Whedon, and mostly copied, none too elegantly, from better works like The Matrix and The Manchurian Candidate--doesn't do nearly enough, to my mind, to compensate for how thoroughly Dollhouse bungled its central concept.
When I wrote about Dollhouse last summer I quoted Sady Doyle's reading of the show as a metaphor for 'rape culture'--the notion that women are victimized not by evil, sexist individuals but by the culture as a whole, which encourages or forces them into roles defined and limited by their femininity, and treats their bodies as a public commodity (see also Doyle's follow-up post about the second season premiere)--but noted that "Epitaph One" weakened this reading. How, after all, can one talk about rape culture, or culture of any kind, when civilization itself has been brought to its knees? Dollhouse's second season bears out this observation. Though it addresses rape culture--the college professor whose seduction technique involves persuading Echo's imprint that being defined by her sexuality is empowering; the psychiatrist imprinted on Victor who notes that being a doll frees Echo to be both virgin and whore while Adele is forced to renounce both roles; the Priya-centric episode "Belonging"--in the second season this is no longer Dollhouse's point, if it ever was. Niall Harrison's reading of Dollhouse as a "story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow)" is probably closer to the mark, but as I say in the comments to that post, I like the show he describes better than the show we actually got. It may be that Dollhouse was intended as a story about the construction and destruction of identity, but in its second season that story is drowned out by the need to sufficiently set up the "Epitaph One" future, and then advance from that future to a too-neat happy ending.
What's lost from Dollhouse once the second season gets into gear is the sense of complicity, the recognition that all of the characters, victims and victimizers, evil and righteous, are part of the system that makes the dollhouse possible--Doyle's rape culture expanded to the commodification of self, regardless of gender. Dollhouse's first season showed us the rationalizations through which ostensible villains like Topher and Adele tolerated and even justified their monstrous actions, drawing pencil-thin lines between different shades of rape and slavery in order to be able to place themselves on the right side of those lines, while alleged good guys like Ballard and Boyd, who claimed to abhor the dollhouse, ended up enabling and participating in it. The second season sweeps away this complexity, dividing the cast into
heroes and villains (though perhaps the initial failure was in the transition from a story about people who are cogs in the machine to one that has heroes and villains to begin with). Ballard's obsession with Echo, which the first season painted as
disturbing and slightly pathetic, becomes romantic. Boyd's deluded
image of himself as Echo's protector and father figure is given
credence by Adele and by Echo herself (and then he turns out to be the
Big Bad). Adele, after a brief but interesting interlude which
pointedly questions the ideals she claimed to hold in the first season
by having her sell them out to further her ambition and
self-preservation, turns out to have been playing a deeper game and
becomes the general of the side of light. Topher gets the closest
thing the second season offers to a genuine progression towards moral
awareness, but even in his case there are lapses--his
self-righteousness when he believes that Adele has sold out to Rossum
is never punctured--and most of all I distrust it. Topher is the type
of character Whedon has written many times before, usually as an
audience identification character, and as Doyle notes it was one of
Dollhouse's main accomplishments in its first season that it made him
so thoroughly unlikable. His woobification in the second season thus
feels less like character development and more like the writers working
less hard against their ingrained habits.
The second season does build on the first season's character work by focusing more on the dolls, and stressing the fact that, as with Echo and Caroline in the first season, these characters are often more appealing as blank slates than as the flawed people who got themselves in such dire straits to begin with. I particularly liked the fact that November's original personality,
Madeline, was written in such a way that as to recall Mellie, but with
a core of hardness--especially her willingness to erase her
grief over her daughter's death--that made her humanly unappealing
where Mellie was inhumanly sweet. But as the buildup to the brainapocalypse speeds up, these stories are rushed past the point of comprehensibility. By the end of the season Madeline is shunted aside in favor of Mellie, whose realization that she is an imprint, acceptance of that fact, and proof-by-suicide of her personhood are so lightning-quick as to be almost unnoticeable (and anyway, both Mellie and Ballard's struggles with their doll state are dwarfed by Claire's similar but more nuanced struggle in the season premiere, which is itself undone by Whiskey's transformation into a plot device in "Getting Closer" and "The Hollow Men"). The Tony-centric "Stop-Loss" takes the character through so many transformations in a single hour--no sooner is he out of the dollhouse than he signs his personhood away to another shady organization, and no sooner has he done that than he's backed out because of his love for Priya--that they become meaningless.
None of these characters, however, fare quite as badly as the show's ostensible heroine. There's been a lot of griping about Eliza Dushku's acting ability or lack thereof, and it's true that she isn't the chameleon that Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, and Amy Acker are, but ultimately I don't think she needed to be. The writing for Echo should have stressed the core of self that made her so dangerous both to Rossum and to the people who get swept up in her crusade, but instead the writers did a lot of telling and very little showing. When Echo says that she is all her previous imprints but none of them is her, what does that mean? When she swallows Caroline's original imprint with nary a ripple (after an entire episode that made so much of the danger of reintegrating them), what are we to make of her? Dushku may not have Olivia Williams's presence, but in the scenes like Echo's breakdown in "Epitaph Two: The Return" she proves that she can sink her teeth into meaty material, and yet for most of the second season the writers do little more with her than make her into the worst and least interesting kind of superhero--the kind whose awesomeness is expressed by using her McGuffin-derived powers to swat aside the McGuffin-derived hurdles the writers set before her.
A lot of the problems I've complained about here can be blamed on Dollhouse's compressed running time. Except inasmuch as he made the show he made, and that he made it for Fox, Whedon can't be blamed for having so little space in which to write a satisfying ending to his story, and unlike Firefly, which could be capped with the chapter-ending Serenity while still leaving room for a lot more story, Dollhouse was hobbled by the existence of "Epitaph One." No ending that didn't address the coming apocalypse would have worked, hence the need to vault over the steps leading to that apocalypse. Even if we take the second season as nothing but the blueprint to the show Whedon would have written had he been given his leisure, however, I'm not sure I would have cared for that show. "We split the atom--we make a bomb. We come up with anything new, the
first thing we do is destroy," Ballard tells Victor-as-Lubov early in
the first season. This is true, but the unstated corollary is that for
all the piles of science fiction stories about nuclear war bringing
about the end of the world, in reality what happened is that the world
changed. Some of those changes were terrible and deadly, but humanity and human
civilization marched on (so far, anyway). This is an overgeneralized distinction, but I think that one of the
reasons that written SF is so much better than the filmed kind is that
there are more SF authors who get that it's so much more interesting to
imagine how technology changes the world than to simply end it (which
is why I like to recommend Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon to
disappointed Dollhouse viewers). Last summer, I was so excited by the fact that "Epitaph One" laid out a clear direction for the story Dollhouse wanted to tell that I let myself ignore the clearly spelled out end point of that story, which marked Whedon out as the less interesting kind of science fiction writer. And once you get to apocalypse, you can really only tell the plucky-band-of-survivors story. These can be fun in the right hands, but in Dollhouse's case what we got was "Epitaph Two: The Return," a cluttered, perfunctory hour whose indifferent plotting only adds insult to the injury of the reset button ending it tacks on to Dollhouse's story.
In the end, what's worst about Dollhouse's second season is that its final episodes rob the show even of the dubious honor of being an interesting failure. I don't, ultimately, know what kind of story Whedon was trying to tell with this show--the critique of rape culture, the story about stories, the tale of technology dismantling our understanding of personhood--and I don't know what kind of show he would have come up with in a perfect world in which television auteurs are given free reign to create whatever they like (though his own comments about the changes Fox mandated to the series aren't promising), but if "Epitaph Two: The Return" is any indication of where he wanted to get to, I'm rather glad I was spared the ride.