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Throwback Thursday - Dollhouse - The Attic

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Throwback Thursday, a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from over the years.

In recent years, I’ve been finding sci-fi/fantasy shows that deliver some of the most thought provoking, complex and most satisfying storylines.
For instance, Fringe’s “One night in October” showed, in a very beautiful manner, how the little choices determine who we are and that there’s always light on us no matter how dark things get. The 100’s “Rubicon” delved on the moral complexity of leadership and the repercussion of the choices that have been made. Game of Throne’s “The Rains of Castamere” showed the bleakness of life and the fallout of the wrong political choices. And yet I wouldn’t name any of them as the most groundbreaking episode in the genre. To my eyes, Dollhouse’s “The Attic” gets that recognition.

Now, “Dollhouse” as a whole is nowhere near as good as the aforementioned series; on its first season it started out as a fun high concept procedural slowly evolving into a better crafted and exciting serialized show, but as a whole it just didn’t have the time to become as incredible as the upcoming genre shows that followed it nor the ones that preceded it. But “The Attic” is the one episode from the show that proved just how awesome it could be, how perplexing, unpredictable, engaging, deep and satisfying, all in the length of merely 43 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, the whole Dollhouse series is pretty good, but “The Attic” is in a whole other level of epicness, and with it a trend started to occur in which genre shows started thinking outside the box to deliver some really unthinkable, immensely creative and all around amazing hours of television, which were a rarity until this point.

The cold opening from “The Attic” is by far the best cold opening of any drama series I’ve watch to this day. Period. A few shows have come close - Awake’s pilot certainly had the arty touch to match it, but lacked on pace, and Fringe had awesome beginnings, but lacked the depth of this episode -. No show has been able to grab me that much with its first 5 minutes as Dollhouse did with “The Attic”.

Echo, our heroine, has been sent to the always cryptic “Attic”, a place that has only been mentioned by this point of the series and never explored. Some dolls have been sent here, but we never saw what happened to them. And now we know: they are trapped on a psychological loop, a puzzle filled with dead ends.

Seeing Echo freeing herself and escaping is an exciting way to start; you’d think that there are traps ahead and that the adventure starts as Echo frees Victor and Sierra and that they are on their way to escape. And then Victor and Sierra are shot.
I still remember how my jaw dropped to the floor, I couldn’t believe the show just killed them off. And then we suddenly see that this is all in Echo’s mind and we return to the beginning of the cold opening where Echo is being received to the Attic once again. Cue to the opening credits.

“How the hell are they going to work this out?” I asked myself as the opening credit popped out: I have never been this confused, this lost, I have never been more bewildered by a cold opening, I just didn’t have any idea of what was going to happen next and that made the ride all the more thrilling, and all the more concerning: there were high chances for disappointment or for cheesy outcomes, and yet Dollhouse managed to keep my expectations sky high and deliver through the whole hour.

The wonderful thing about “The Attic” lies on its visuals and the environment it builds: the Attic is a place that plays on a loop the biggest fears of the people who are on it. They are trapped inside their own worst nightmares; to Echo, her worst nightmare is being unable to escape from the Attic, losing her dear friends on the way. She realizes that she is on a loop and she starts exploring the world she is in.

There is something arty and incredibly creative about the surroundings Echo explores; the dollhouse has a huge tree covered on snow and it is snowing, memories from her different lives are playing around - cricket games, old people laughing, among others -, and she gets to see so much more as the episode goes on; the atmosphere shifts with each character portraying their true colors, the fear that lays beneath them.

There’s also an assassin around, Arcane, trying to take those trapped on The Attic down; Echo finds Dominic in the Attic and they double team against Arcane and fend him off. Using Dominic, a character sent to the Attic on season 1, was a really smart play and he serves as a guide to this place.

One of the most gripping moments the episode delivered was when Echo entered the mind of a japanese guy, named Matsu, who holds key information about the damaged mainframe of the Attic. As Arcane comes to attack and Echo tells him it’s time to go we see that Matsu’s legs have been chopped off and that he is actually feeding on his own legs. That moment was so intensely disturbing that the first time I watched it it took me a few seconds to process what just happened. It was incredibly dark and gross, and it just sets the hellish atmosphere of the Attic in a shocking, yet brilliant way.

Meanwhile, Sierra and Victor are facing their own worst nightmares; as Priya, Sierra had to deal with being entrapped on a psychiatric room with her psychopath ex Nolan, who is there ready to kill her. Victor, as Tony, is faced with his past on war and he has to relive some of his worst moments there. Both Dichen Lachman and Enver Gjokaj land perfect performances as they showcase their worst fears in a manner that made me feel closer to their characters.

Echo and Dominic come to rescue Victor first and then they all team up to save Sierra from Arcane; then we learn that he is actually Clyde, one of the founders of Rossum corporation.

For those who saw “Epitaph Part 1” before watching “The Attic” we can relate the post apocalyptic world of Epitaph with the scenario Clyde runs in his head about where humanity is headed. That makes the quest of our heroes debatably pointless since that scenario is going to play out anyway, but they don’t know it, we as an audience know that and that makes the episode all the more thought provoking. If they are not going to prevent this, was there a point for them to get out of the Attic on the first place?

This episode is filled with reveals; Clyde let us know that the mainframe of the Attic are actually the people inside of it, and that living on their worst first makes a rush of adrenaline that gets their brains working at their maximum potential, being used a super computers for Rossum corporation.

Now that’s great sci-fi plotting! Seriously, when I got to the reveal of how human minds were being used as computers to power up the corporation I simply was completely shocked, but it made so much sense and it was so smartly tied up to the show mythology that I just had to applaud as I watched. Only a few times have I seen a plot tie up with everything on the show so tightly.

The way out is smartly delivered too; Echo realizes that as one dies the computer disengages and that what’s necessary to make an escape is to wake up after the system shuts down. It’s a very risky bet, and one could say that Echo’s survival is very Deus Ex Machina, but so far we’ve seen Echo being able to do all sort of incredible things, so it isn’t something that comes out of the blue. Also, it’s not like she had to die all together and then wake up, she just had to get to the point where the computer disengages. That allowed for our heroine to make an impressive way out of the nightmare she is trapped in.

The most memorable thing about the episode is its capability to deliver so many great character moments, great lines and plot development all together. The balance is perfect, the pacing is mildly fast, each change on the atmosphere represents perfectly the state of mind of each character, and the whole cast steps up to the occasion. It’s almost as if they knew they had to make this the best Dollhouse episode ever.

The subplots are not nearly as impressive as what’s going on in the Attic, but every time I re-watch it I just smile as I remember how Adelle had everyone - included me - fooled by her act. She is acting like she is on Rossum’s side while everything is going on, tormenting Topher who is working on bringing Paul Ballard back, on Boyd and even Ballard once he comes back.

In the end, Echo, Sierra and Victor make it out of the Attic Dominic stays with Clyde to keep shutting down the mainframe and helping those they can help on there. And it is finally revealed that Adelle asked Echo to go into the Attic to get information in the first place, and that the last step on saving the world is getting Caroline’s memories.

Dollhouse wasn’t a perfect series; it started off shaky and got progressively better, but at 27 episodes it didn’t have enough time to become a classic; should it have continued, I’m sure that we could have found more episodes of the caliber of “The Attic”, but at the same time that’s what makes this particular episode so memorable.

“The Attic”’s script was clearly a very inspired one, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon essentially entered the zone as they tied everything together while showcasing some really dark, and yet hopeful, hour of television. There are many questions that rises through the episode, plenty of the audience knew that Epitaph was coming as they watched this episode and so the future of the world became even bleaker, and yet seeing Echo escape gave hope that something could work out, and as we know, she and the gang did save the world in the end.

From then onwards, genre shows have delivered episodes that are as powerful - or even more powerful - than Dollhouse’s “The Attic”. Lost, Fringe, Game of Thrones, The 100, all of them have plenty of episodes that stand on the same caliber, but it certainly seems like Dollhouse was the one that shook things up with “The Attic”; it opened the gate for creativity and inspiration, for thinking outside the box, it opened a pandoras box that allowed genre shows to take a step forward into more bold territory. Now we have Orphan Black, Continuum, and plenty other shows that are not afraid to be bold, and in a way I think that “The Attic” is to thank for that.

It is an incredible episode, maybe not the best seen on genre television, but I do think the landscape changed and I like to think that the episode set a before and after; not much longer after the episode aired, we would enter on the golden age of television. With some more time, Dollhouse may have been considered as part of it, but with its short run, I also like to think that it was able to kick things off. But maybe that’s my wishful thinking.

In the end, the most important thing is that the show itself got better as it went on and that it was able to deliver an episode that I can watch countless times and enjoy as if it was the first time. That’s what great shows do.

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

-I honestly have to watch this series once again; while I was re-watching “The Attic” there were plenty of stuff I didn’t remember, little stuff, but it still bugged me not to remember everything that was referenced here.

-”Welcome to The Attic. We are so glad to have you.”

-”My real name is Echo.”

-”Come on Echo, be your freaking best.”

-Dominic: “This is the Attic, and I’m trapped inside my mind.”
Echo: “This is my mind!”
Dominic: “Are we really arguing about this?!”

-”Now the meat won’t be fresh.”

-”Why you call yourself Arcane?”
“It sounded badass.”

-Sierra: “We’re a team now, we go together.”

-Dominic: “I guess I’m glad I didn’t get to kill you.”

-”Nobody else is you.”

-”It’s time for me to meet Caroline.”

About the Author - Pablo
I'm currently studying Psychology while also writing fantasy books (one already published in my home country, Chile, you can check it out on the facebook icon). I watch many different types of shows, including my favorites Revenge, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time and about 23 more. Currently writing reviews for Once Upon a Time, The 100 and Community
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