If Fox had canceled Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse halfway through the show’s first season, I wouldn’t have shed a tear. It looked like the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog had finally created a dud. The concept was intriguing, but the episodic adventures of a gorgeous body that could be filled with whatever personality her handlers created for her were a little silly and a lot creepy. The main Doll, Echo (Eliza Dushku), would go on engagements as a hostage negotiator, a bodyguard or, most often, a lover, and it felt a lot like the all-too-real sex trafficking that happens in cities across America every day.
But halfway through the season, the bigger story arc got a lot more compelling. It turns out Fox was pushing for self-contained stories each week, when we’ve all learned that Whedon’s strength always lies in the bigger narrative. And more importantly, the show owned up to its own creepiness. The Dollhouse workers might be likeable, but we began to see the moral gymnastics with which they tried to justify their roles in acts of villainy, especially when orders from their shadowy superiors could only be interpreted as evil. And the season’s finale set in the future showed that even worse than the Dollhouse’s role in human enslavement is the apocalypse that its technology will eventually create. Of course, Fox didn’t air the finale, which wasn’t part of the dozen episodes the network had contracted.
It was a surprise that the low-rated Dollhouse even returned for a second season. Whedon recently told the Chicago Tribune, “Basically the show didn’t really get off the ground because the network pretty much wanted to back away from the concept five minutes after they bought it and then ultimately, the show itself is also kind of odd and difficult to market.”
The eeriness of the sex slave angle was another difficult mine field to negotiate. “People responded to this [by saying], ‘This is trafficking. This is sex for money.’ It wasn’t just sex. It was also the other implications of what was originally supposed to be somewhat more of a fantasy. The real world version of [this kind of activity] was I think what made the network really twitchy and I can’t really fault them for that. I just thought when I went in and pitched it …you know, it frightened me too [but I thought] we all got that that was what we were doing.”
The problem at the start was that the Dollhouse seemed like a glamorous whorehouse—it wasn’t creepy enough. And without tackling the human trafficking angle from the get-go, any time spent digging into the fantasies from the client side felt like you were glossing over the evil elephant in the room. But this season, the show has finally hit its stride: The twists and turns—as insiders work to frustrate the plans of its power-hungry parent company or take down the Dollhouse from within—make every episode seem essential. The Dollhouse has gone from feeling like a fantasy fulfillment service to the central battleground in a fight against corruption and technological genocide. Everyone is forced to choose a side as the stakes have grown much higher. Of course, now Fox has decided to cancel it.
After a long break, Fox aired two of the remaining episodes from Season 2 each of the last couple of weeks. All four were among the show’s best, introducing a bigger conspiracy at work along with a brilliant and beautiful psychopath who apparently has a legitimate grudge against the show’s hero. The questions about identity that Whedon says he wanted to explore are popping up in ever-more-interesting ways. And allegiances are becoming less obvious as we head towards Armageddon.
Unlike Firefly or Buffy, the end will be the end. There are no film or comic book sequels in the works. But at least we got Season 2—just enough to prove that Joss Whedon doesn’t create duds.