In the second episode of the second season of Dollhouse, Topher’s desire to create a perfect engagement backfires when it’s… well, perfect. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Dollhouse.
Oh god, THIS IS SO GREAT. Finally, an episode that outright addresses the fact that what these Dollhouse does to their dolls hurts them, that it’s horrifically fucked up, that no one escapes unscathed. That doesn’t mean that this episode is perfect or free from any problematic associations. Any time you try to tell a story where you draw direct parallels between mental illness and motherhood means you’re walking into a minefield. While I think “Instinct” is largely careful about how Echo is portrayed, I also want to acknowledge that for some people, this episode probably doesn’t work for them. It really does toe too close to the line sometimes, and I think it’s important to point that out.
I made a comment during my watch of this episode that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show where so much of the dialogue and action has a second meaning and subtext to it. The story of a woman who fears for the life of herself and her child from a distant, unsettling husband is compelling enough, but then you add the layer of the Dollhouse to it, and this becomes one giant ball of complexity. The story of Nate reminds me of the subplot to “Man on the Street,” where Joel Mynor used Echo as a yearly replacement of his wife. Here, Nate, unable to cope with the recent death of his own wife and his inability to bond with his child as a result, Echo stands in as the child’s mother. The episode does explicitly address why this whole plan was a disaster, especially since Topher designed Echo too well, making the trauma of losing a child so real that Echo couldn’t be fully wiped under normal circumstances. But I’m fascinated by everything left unsaid. How long did Nate expect this engagement to go on? Wouldn’t the child be traumatized if it had grown up with a mother figure during its infancy that suddenly up and left? How were Nate and the Dollhouse going to deal with that? Shouldn’t they also have advised Nate to treat Echo as if she were his wife? That triggered her suspicion of him, which then created a domino effect of disastrous consequences. And what was Sierra’s role? Obviously, she was imprinted to be a friend and confidante to Echo, but shouldn’t they have used this to monitor Echo’s reaction to the entire thing? Wouldn’t they have been able to catch on to what was happening to her before it turned into a crisis?
While I think these are relatively minor holes in the plot (ones that certainly don’t ruin the story for me), I find it intriguing that so much of this was left to chance, which isn’t really the Dollhouse’s style. Mostly, though, this all comes back to Topher. That final scene between Ballard and Echo is purposely contrasted with the one Ballard has with Madeline. And look, Madeline’s return to the Dollhouse, even for a couple scenes, has provided enough emotional damage to last a lifetime. For real, Miracle Laurie, how do you act. Anyway, Madeline swears that her post-Dollhouse life is one without sadness. It’s strange for her to witness Echo’s arrival (ELIZA, YOU WERE SO GOOD IN THIS EPISODE OH MY GOD) because she’s seeing what her life in the Dollhouse might have been like. However, she can’t remember any of it, and she has no residual pain from the trauma of her experiences. So it’s that simple? Ballard wonders how that is possible. I mean, our whole lives are built on our experiences. They shape them, they make us who we are, and the influence an innumerable part of our humanity and personality. He literally can’t wrap his head around the idea of a life where years worth of experience suddenly doesn’t matter.
And then he speaks with Echo, who proves the idea wrong: she felt everything that she was put through as a Doll. It’s the most damning condemnation of what Topher and Adelle have done to these people yet. She will never forget the pain and fear and loss she’s gone through as a Doll. Which brings up an interesting point: Does this mean that Echo is an identity separate in and of itself from Caroline? If our experiences define some sort of life for us, and Echo, being a blank slate at the beginning, is aware of and recalls her experiences, is that a life? So how will Echo reconcile that with the identity that originally came from her body?
This is the shit that I love about this show. This is yet another story-of-the-week episode, one that is only tangentially associated with the greater mythology, but it gets me asking questions related to the larger thematic issues. Of course, we do get more of Senator Perrin, and I’m wondering what trap he’s about to walk into. Yeah, I don’t trust the fact that a set of files just showed up on his doorstep that are total proof that the Rossum Corporation is breaking a billion laws. Things aren’t convenient on this show. So who is setting him up? Is this Boyd’s doing now that Dominic is out of the picture? Perhaps Adelle? Someone had to send him that information, and they’re the only two capable of it yet. I don’t think Paul would risk his cover inside the Dollhouse this early, you know? AND WHOSE NAME DOES PERRIN HAVE NOW?
I have a lot of questions, and they all just make me excited to see more of this show. Bravo, Dollhouse.
(PS: For what it’s worth, I have no idea why I had to watch this before episode three. Truthfully, they’re both interchangeable, and neither one really spoils the other. Oh well! I changed the order of these posts after the fact, and I actually watched this episode after episode 3.)
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