Dollhouse’s sense of an ending


I haven’t blogged about Dollhouse since way back in February. There I wondered if the series would ever get to its meaty center of philosophical questions about identity, the mind, body and experience. It’s safe to say that season two has delivered on all counts. “Meet Jane Doe” does a decent job of making the engagement of the week episodes of season one relevant to the development of Echo’s composite personality. Still much of what happened in the early episodes wasn’t necessary to demonstrate the full implications of Echo’s new abilities. Dushku has come into her own through the Echo character and Enver Gjokaj continues to amaze us all with his power to become anyone and everyone.

But I started this post not so much to ruminate on the awesomeness of the series (which has, by-the-by, become one I heartily recommend – even if it is with the strong caveate that you must make it through the handfull of painfull first few episodes before getting to the good stuff), but instead I’m wondering how much the pacing this season, the tightness of the storyline, and its singular focus stem from the fact that the series was canceled. Part of me seriously doubts that season 2 would be as good without the constraint of having to end the story. In fact the story has already ended on the DVD episode “Epitaph One” which was partially created as a way to finish off the series if it had not been granted a second season and as a means to fulfill contractual obligation for the DVD’s release (at least so sayeth the wiki entry).

In The Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode wrote that “We project ourselves–a small, humble elect, perhaps–past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.” Prime time serialized television benefits from a clear sense of an ending. In Dollhouse‘s “Epitaph One” we see the aftermath of a technological apocalypse and desire to know how the hell they got there.* Having been forced to project the series past its end allowed a structure and a more clearly defined purpose to emerge. A similar thing happened with Lost; it appeared to have a strong, if convoluted, sense of where it was going, but by season three was floundering around looking for itself. Once the decision to end it after 3 more shorter seasons it reasserted its narrative drive and became a much better series again because of it. It isn’t telescoped in the way Dollhouse was; we don’t actually know yet where Lost is going (this promo might give us some idea). Battlestar Galactica OTOH appeared to suffer from its overdetermined (find earth, have plan, shape of things to come, etc.) sense of an ending that its finale was less than satisfying. Knowing the end helps give structure to where we are now – to find meaning in the middle.My desire to consistently situate myself within whatever narrative world I’m currently living in encourages my preference for spoilers.** The surprise/reveal endings are much less interesting than how they got there and what they mean for the future. Knowing the end helps give structure to where we are now – to find more meaning in the middle. The release of “Epitaph One” as a kind of official spoiler has made this season (and through it the previous season) much more rich and interesting.

The changing nature of television, particularly network television is a perennial discussion, so much that it can get a little boring. But within this discussion, what strikes me as really odd is the sheer amount of resistance the industry has towards playing with the standard “a TV series must go on forever to be profitable and successful” line of thinking. Imagine if Dollhouse was originally only meant to be 10-13 episodes long. There’s no guarantee that it would be great – it could have been terrible- but the anxiety over cancellation, over whether or not the story would be fully told, or if we’d all be left hanging, would not have clouded our experience of it. Now, it is quite possibly the case that successful short-run series might be reliant on  writer-producer show runners with name and style recognition and fan bases, but the mere thought of mixing this type of structure into the prime time line up is unheard of.


*The Whedonverse is littered with apocalypses; Buffy is constantly thwarting them, Angel and co. go out with a bang fighting against one, and the Firefly kids are finding their place after one.

** Case in point, all the twittering about the surprise, game-changing ending of last night’s Dexter finale lead me to search out what has happened. Once I found out I thought, wow, I cannot wait to see how it got there. I didn’t feel cheated at all, but I’m aware that this is my preference and not shared with everyone.


One response »

  1. I completely agree that networks seem oddly resistant to allowing a show to end, or even starting a series with a sense of closure in place – especially since it’s the norm in the UK and other countries. Cable has tinkered with this a bit, airing miniseries that might develop into something longer – FX did it with a show called Thief a few years back. The closest that networks have come to this recently is NBC’s upcoming “Day One,” but that’s been a bit of a muddle in development.

    But I have no doubt that if Fox had told Whedon “you have 13 eps guaranteed to tell a story – leave it open-ended enough for a potential sequel,” it would have been a far better & tighter series.

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