Home > Reviews > DOLLHOUSE: “Epitaph Two: Return” — thoughts and reactions (and SPOILERS)

DOLLHOUSE: “Epitaph Two: Return” — thoughts and reactions (and SPOILERS)

Reposting this from my comments on the ExIsle BBS (beware: full SPOILERS for Dollhouse: “Epitaph Two: Return”:

This worked pretty well, though I was hoping for more exposition on how the “Epitaph One” flashback/forwards fit together.  I guess we’ll never know.

I was surprised that it started with a recap of E1. Since that episode never aired on US TV, I was expecting that Whedon would structure the story in a way that would reintroduce the E1 characters and milieu for new viewers while still working as a continuation for those who’d seen E1 — the same thing he did in Serenity, making it work as a standalone and a continuation. Maybe he just didn’t have time, since there was so much to pack in. Or maybe he figured that since so few people were watching the show anyway, he might as well just gear this finale toward the DVD audience.

Luckily, the ending surprised me too. After Paul died, I was assuming that the grieving Echo would go up above and let herself be wiped by the pulse in order to free herself from the grief. Then when I learned Topher’s gizmo was a suicide bomb, essentially, I figured Echo would be the one to set it off. Instead, they surprised me by giving Echo a happy ending. She’s still superpowered, and she gets a reward, a reunion with the man she loves. And for once, a romantic couple in a Whedon show are guaranteed not to be separated by the death of one of them; indeed, the death of one of them is what truly brought them together for the first time. It’s a poetic and touching departure from the cliched Whedon pattern of relationships.

And there’s a nice irony that after fighting so hard to get out of the Dollhouse, Echo ends up freeing everyone else but returning contendedly to her own familiar sleeping pod. What was a prison for her, Anthony, and Priya has now become their haven.

And Adelle similarly finds herself at home in a kinder, nobler embodiment of her old role. She’s always seen herself as the “shepherd” taking care of her flock of Actives, and she was finally able to fulfill that role without a trace of hypocrisy. I’d call that a happy ending.

The saddest part was Topher’s fate. I wish it hadn’t ended that way. I know there’s a certain standard dramatic logic that people responsible for horrible things have to pay for them with their lives, but it felt more like suicide as a way out, and I’ve never cared for that notion. Plus Topher deserved better. I think he both redeemed himself and paid his penance without having to die too. And just imagine how much good a reformed, wiser Topher’s genius could’ve done in rebuilding the world.

But at least Topher got a nice little moment at the end. Seeing that wall of photos, that little moment of surprise, pleasure, and appreciation. I guess there are worse notes to go out on.

My main regret is that Amy Acker couldn’t appear. I would’ve liked to know what happened to Whiskey. Okay, granted, it kinda looked like she died in E1, but the writers suggested on the commentary that maybe the gas was nonlethal and that Whiskey “cleaned up” the place every time this happened and then waited for the next group to find it. But maybe that’s not the case, and maybe Whiskey did die.

I do find it rather too convenient that all it takes is a single bomb to undo everything that’s happened (except all the dying and stuff). I mean, restoring everyone’s erased memories is a hell of a deus ex machina and maybe a bit too much of a happy ending, and the technical questions involved are complex. If the memories were as completely erased as was claimed, then it shouldn’t have done any good restoring them.

Fortunately, I’ve believed all along that memory couldn’t be truly erased from a brain, that it was a physical thing that would leave a permanent impression no matter how you repressed it. I’ve never bought the cyberpunk conceit of the brain as a hard drive. And heck, even a hard drive isn’t truly wiped clean when you delete a program; the memory is usually largely recoverable unless you go to considerable lengths to eradicate it. So even within the cyberpunk conceit, the idea that the original memories are still there somewhere is one I don’t have trouble buying.

I do have trouble buying that a wave sent out from an LA skyscraper could reach all the way around the world. I’d prefer to believe that it only covered a fair portion of the southwest US and northwest Mexico, and that enclave would’ve allowed enough of a recovery of civilization that more of Topher’s devices could be built (hopefully with survivable triggering mechanisms) to clean up the rest of the world.

It occurs to me to wonder — did Topher’s gadget really end this for good? It’s one thing to restore people’s original memories, but will it prevent them from being wiped or overwritten again? I guess there is the device Alpha invented to shield against wipes (mentioned in “Epitaph One” as well as here); I’m wondering if that’s based on Echo/Caroline’s spinal-fluid immunity in some way. So maybe this isn’t a permanent magic fix; rather, these two technologies in concert can defend against the continuing threat of remote or mass wipes. It’s not so much that nobody will have to worry about this tech ever again; it’s more like the wipes are akin to a disease and there are now ways to both cure and immunize people. So the threat isn’t completely eradicated but can be protected against and mostly nullified, enough that civilization can function again.

On the other hand, the band that Tony/Victor was travelling with seemed to think that Topher’s cure would end their ability to upload knowledge at will, so maybe it was itself an “immunization” against further neural alterations.


All along, this show has been about grey areas and moral ambiguities. It’s fitting that at the end, it doesn’t merely demonize the technology but demonstrates that it can be used for good, to preserve life and promote love. This has never been a show about technology being evil. It’s been a show about technology being at the mercy of the intentions and agendas of humans, many of which are evil and self-serving, but some of which are better than that.

So the show doesn’t end with the chair being smashed or the Dollhouse being blown up. What was an instrument of oppression has become an instrument of salvation; what was a prison has become a haven. It’s all about the intentions of the users. And this was a show about people who started out as users and used, but who changed each other and grew into something better than that. (Even Alpha became better, somehow.) So at the end, with the Dollhouse and its technology in the hands of these better people, it becomes an instrument for good and is no longer something to be feared.

It’s an interesting contrast to how Angel ended. That show’s final season was about the heroes taking over the evil organization, trying to change it from within into a force for good, but ending up being compromised by it and having to go out in a Pyrrhic burst of defiance to save their souls. This is much more optimistic. There’s no entrenched force of evil, just neutral technology and multifaceted human agendas. So the same things that doom us can also save us if they come into the hands of the right people — even people who started out ethically compromised or amoral but who learned to stand up for what’s right through hard experience. In a way, this cast’s journey was the opposite of the Angel cast’s journey — they started out as morally tarnished cogs in a malevolent machine and transcended that to become genuine heroes.

Maybe that’s why I’m so okay with the series ending. Sure, I regret that we won’t get to see the holes filled in, and I regret that we won’t see this cast working together and playing these roles anymore, but I’m satisfied with the series we got. I feel it’s effective as a complete story, beginning, middle, and end. And maybe that’s partly because the ending was so positive, at least by Whedon standards.

Although I suspect the reason he gave us such a happy ending (mostly) was that he knew he had no intentions of returning to this series. If he’d thought there was any chance of continuing to work with these characters, I’m sure he would’ve left more room to continue tormenting them.


Here’s a thought that’s been bouncing around in my head: who was really the ultimate hero of “Epitaph Two?” It wasn’t really Echo. She led the raid to rescue Topher, but beyond that, she kind of gave way to the rest of the ensemble. It was Topher who saved the world, and it’s Adelle who will lead the recovery. Echo’s journey ended more quietly; her climax wasn’t that of someone who saved the world, but that of someone who endured much suffering but finally found a measure of peace. She may well be a force to be reckoned with in the years ahead, once it’s safe for her to go out again, but within the narrative of this particular story, she wasn’t all that crucial. It’s the culmination of a pattern I’ve recognized all along — that even though this show was created as a star vehicle for Dushku, it turned out to be much more of an ensemble piece, and Dushku was admirably willing to step back and let the ensemble carry the story.

But I don’t really see it as a flaw that the nominal hero doesn’t accomplish much in the climax. Because the arc of this season has not been about Echo doing it alone. It’s been about Echo leading by example, inspiring those around her to become better than they were and discover their potential for heroism. Echo’s victory is that she catalyzed the creation of the team that did save the world. The fact that she could step back and let them handle it is the embodiment of her achievement — and that’s a nice parallel for how Dushku herself was willing to step back in favor of the strong ensemble around her.

  1. Thierry Millie
    February 2, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Your anlasys of echo made me think of “V for vendetta”, V change the world but can not recreate it. He is a destroyer not a builder, but he inspired the cop and the girl to embrace a new kind of anarchy, the one that can build worlds and not only destroy the old ones.

    As stories goes, i thought the mini-echo was under exploited. It was a great idea. It could have been great to see more Paul/little echo talks.

    Fear of technology is something humanity had to deal with probably as much as it has loved it so far. (From Golems, via Frankenstein to Dollhouse?)
    The show is working on this fear, and if i agree with you that Echo is not the savior that we could have thought and that, as you said, Topher is the redeemer. The interesting thing is that, for once the job left to be done, is to be done by the rest of humanity, not by the usual savior. (In real life he often turns to be as bad as what he was fighting against)

    Never the less, Dollhouse was a relatively great show. With evident dephts.
    I wonder if a second viewing of the show would be interesting? Because of the way this kind of show is developp it isn’t usually that interesting to watch it all over again. But in the case of Dollhouse i think it might be.

  2. February 7, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Your description of Echo’s exit puts me in mind of the original Number Six as depicted in the Motter/Askwith Prisoner graphic novel: being finally free to leave the Village, he was also truly free to stay if he so chose.

    Maybe Echo read that book and took that hint.

    • February 7, 2010 at 11:13 am

      Well, she, Tony, and Priya had to stay there for at least a year because the signal resonating through the atmosphere would wipe all their memories since becoming Actives. So it wasn’t exactly her choice to stay there. But her reason for having to stay, and the meaning of the Dollhouse itself, had become something more benevolent.

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