Friday, August 7, 2009

Caution: Spoilers Ahead?

So I'm again inspired by Joss Whedon and the frustrating pleasures of Dollhouse to return to this blog. I've just watched the famous unaired final episode, and I'm unsure what to make of it. I'll do the standard caveat against spoilers here, but I'm not sure if it's even valid, since the episode both is and isn't part of the show's “official” arc. Whedon himself was, unsurprisingly perhaps, given his history in comics and tendency to play with canonical backstory, a little cagey about the canonical value of the episode in the Dollhouse panel at Comic-Con. His full response boils down to this: “Everything that happens is real, but they're memories, so not reliable.” In other words, the writers can change things if the story demands it or if they feel like it--everything is open to a possible reboot.

If I sound churlish, I don't mean to--I'm excited at the prospect of a changing definition of continuity, or at least I am if it's happening in the hands of Joss Whedon, who's particularly good at this kind of narrative innovation. I think the introduction of Dawn, for instance, was one of the most interesting and ballsiest moves he could have made, particularly considering that Buffy was on the air well before the massive popularity of LOST's twisty logic.

Anyway, here's what happens in the episode: it takes place in 2019, ten years after the events of the first season, and LA is a postapocalyptic nightmare. The dollhouse technology has spun out of control (surprise!), and it's impossible to tell if people are “actually” who they seem or if they've been wiped. On top of that, there are armies of “butchers”: people who seem to have been wiped and turned into mindless killers (shades of the long-term themes of Firefly). A group of Scrappy Survivors (featuring awesome girl geek Felicia Day) discovers the abandoned dollhouse, and goes there to take cover from the war above. So already, the show's ultimate endgame is revealed. Any reader who is familiar with the genre at all could see the catastrophic effects of the dollhouse technology coming, but the thing that became increasingly surprising to me as the show went on was the level of detail we get as to how everything fell apart.

Because it turns out that the postapocalyptic story is just the frame for a Cliff-Notes-style summary of how the world exploded. Whenever the shit came down, Dushku and Co. left a trail of bread crumbs in the form of stored memories that will tell any remaining survivors how to get to a mythic “Safe Haven” (and, more importantly, fill the reader in on all the important bits that we missed in getting from Here to There). So we learn, in five-minute bursts, that Echo/Caroline has learned to maintain a coherent personality, that Rossum expands the Dollhouse's services to giving “anatomical upgrades” to people, that Rossum has been secretly uploading memories every time anyone gets in an MRI, and that someone (Rossum, presumably) weaponizes the Dollhouse tech so that picking up a phone puts you at risk of becoming a mindless zombie.

It's all awesome SF, and cobbled together to make something new in a way that showcases Whedon's talent for generic pastiche. But here's the thing that gets me--what happens now to the kinds of pleasure that we assume serial reading is meant to provide? Why warn about spoilers when the show itself has already laid out its next five years of plot in a single hour? And will that information about the show's future be available to everyone, or just to people who care enough about the show to buy the DVDs? After watching it, I figured that the next season might even begin without any allusion to “Epitaph One” at all--it would be like an easter egg, only available to the devoted fan. Apparently, though, three of the characters from the apocalyptic future show up in the season two premiere, so casual viewers will at least have a taste of what the future of Dollhouse holds, but not the broad overview that the “real” fan now knows.

It's interesting to me, because the standing model so far for the distinction between the casual and devoted reader (at least with a show like Dollhouse) has been how committed that reader is to sorting out the show's central mystery. The one who's looking teleologically forward, obsessed with who killed Laura Palmer or what the numbers mean or who shot JR. But with Dollhouse, there's this assumption that readers are looking for a different kind of payoff--filling in the gaps, maybe? I'd say getting a deeper understanding of character, but that doesn't quite work with Dollhouse since the characters are by definition so empty...

Based on the little bit of internet stalking I've done so far around message boards and the like, it seems that people are mostly adopting this “we're in it for the journey, not the destination” angle. I'm curious as to how this will effect the show's direction in the coming year--but more importantly, if Joss Whedon has started another sea change in television like the one that began with Buffy. This time, though, instead of trusting readers to pay attention to longer and more complicated serial arcs, he's trusting readers to look for aesthetic rewards beyond What Happens Next--to think differently about their relationship with plot. Here's hoping.