Okay, I think everyone is missing the boat on “The Hollow Men,” the “almost” finale of Season 2 of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” on Fox TV. It’s the almost finale because we still have the 13th episode, another Epitaph episode set 10 years in the future — but with flashbacks.
So here’s the thing. We have forgotten that Caroline is now back in her body and in Echo’s head and we have been failing to note the sign-posting and obvious cues — I guess not so obvious if we aren’t noticing them? — scattered throughout the episode, and especially the clearly parodic nature of the hero-escaping-the- bomb-blast-while-running-from-destruction scene. Most recently, Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes used the well-convention action-film convention of the slow-motion sailing through space (ahead of the fire), followed by a sudden cut away to the hero and friends, all perfectly unharmed….
This exaggerated parody of the trope of escape from an explosion signals to me that we are not simply to take the scene at face value, but to take it with a grain of salt and look at it a bit more closely. The obvious “cheesiness” of the explosion scene and of the cut-away to an unfluffed Echo standing (not running) outside the building are reminiscent of the similar parody of genre conventions in “Instinct,” written by the same team, when we see the avenging mother with a child in her arms and lightening and thunder gratuitously starting up in the background. Also “cheesey,” as many complained, unless we see it as a foil to the following action, when Echo “recovers herself” in spite of her programming (all that primitive, atavistic, maternal rage and fear) and instead listens carefully to the child’s father, evaluating what he is saying and what he is willing to do in this extremity. Echo looks down at the knife in her hand and says, “This isn’t me.” Then with sanity and poise she gives away her child to the father who genuinely loves it, which he has just proven by offering to give his life in order to save his son’s.
I believe that in “The Hollow Men” we are not supposed to be seduced by the Great American Movie Convention that whatever the good guys do in order do overcome the bad guys is by definition therefore good. Good simply because “we” are doing it against “them.” Or as Topher so succintly states it in an earlier scene: “The bros before those that aren’t bros….” The theme of the good guys embracing the bad guys’ protocols also occurs in this episode when Sierra and Anthony decide (despite conflicted feelings) to use the chair — and when Ballard has Mellie take up (and become) a weapon of destruction — triggering her through love and trust to kill, right after we have just watched her being triggered by Adele’s formula to transform into a mindless assassin.
No, our scooby gang has not rescued the world at the end of “The Hollow Men,” and furthermore, the world is not going to end with a bang but with a whimper, as T. S. Eliot’s poem has it: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”
The Big Bang has of course just been accomplished — by turning a human being into a doll and then ordering him in his defenseless trusting state to blow himself up, along with the Rossum mainframe. Is this Echo who adopts this ferociously vindictive strategy? Is it Echo who smashes Clyde/Whiskey/Saunders’ head against the wall hard enough and frequently enough to murder her? No, this folks, is Caroline! And Caroline has been able to seduce Echo into these horrific actions because of Echo’s own passionate and inflamed sense of betrayal by Boyd, because he has used her own trust pitilessly to doom her.
So I believe it is Caroline — not Echo — who has chosen to take her ferocious revenge, in the process demonstrating the truth of Adele’s assessment that Caroline is “the most dangerous kind of person in the world, an idealist.” But the whimper that follows the bang is how the world will really end; it is what we hear from Echo, regaining herself in the aftermath of the revenge, expressing her dawning doubt and the return of the moral awareness that has always distinguished her and which she has earned through suffering all the lives and destinies of so many other human beings: “Did we save the world?” “I guess so….?”
Many Dollhouse watchers have complained that “nothing happens” in that widely disliked earlier episode “Instinct” that aired second in Season Two But something very important did happen in that episode; something that I think is genuinely apropos to “saving the world.” Echo overcame her programming and exercised her own distinctive sanity and compassion. The very fact that we can watch her suddenly behaving without it — in the climax of this finale — and not seem to “notice” any difference demonstrates that we have not been watching this as moral drama on its own (Jossian) terms. I suspect that it is Caroline who will bring about the thoughtpocalypse, and Echo who will take up the struggle to find some safe haven from it in “Epitaph II.”
One commentator has called “The Hollow Men” a “balls-out Shakespearian tragedy,” and others have compared the malevolent villainy and the body count of this episode to Shakespearean tragedy as well. But it is in the characterization of Boyd that the humanist tradition in which Shakespeare’s moral universe dwells is most clearly delineated. I have read many complaints that Boyd is simply a madman and has no real motivation, and that therefore his being the Big Bad is ill-conceived. But this runs counter to an underlying ethical truth that would be equally the case for any ultimate big bad in human history. However the real apocalypse arrives, it will be motivated by only one thing, the same thing that motivates Iago or Lady McBeth: self-aggrandizement willfully pursued at the expense of other human beings.
Boyd’s every action is explained by the runaway instinct for self-preservation that dominates him, along with the fear and insecurity of other like himself arising to dethrone him (Shakespeare’s “heavy is the head that wears the crown,” anyone? Richard III?) — including the low level of security at Rossum headquarters and all the other supposedly unrealistic details in these final episodes. There is no trust among thieves in the end. The show, like Shakespearean drama, has been genre-wise and convention-aware and plays fast and loose with verisimilitude in order to chronicle the human passions and the long moral adventure of humankind.
Boyd like most of us projects his own habitual thinking patterns onto the world around him. He wants to wipe out all the other would-be “Boyds” in advance of their being able to get the drop on him. It is “me against everyone else,” which is the ultimate form, most tragically, of “us against them.”
One of the writers for Dollhouse has been quoted as saying: “This is a show about what it means to be human. If that doesn’t do it for you, what are you — robots?” I’m afraid that it is scary how much in need of a humanist moral education we all seem to be, even we hardcore Whedon fans who have stuck with Dollhouse through all its ups and downs. The apocalypse is inevitable unless the mass of mankind can take the road of moral evolution that Echo has been walking. It doesn’t matter how it comes, only why. That Why will be that the final good guys in the last times are willing to be just as bad as the bad guys, in order to defeat them. In that case, there is nothing but defeat in our future.
Who are the hollow men alluded to in the title of this episode, “headpiece stuffed with straw”? It isn’t the heads of Rossum, who no longer exist. It is Caroline and those who wait for her outside the corporate headquarters. And it is all of us who watch Caroline’s revenge take place and fail to realize that our leader Echo, our new Eve, has fallen (at least for a moment) into sin and death.