Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Instinct"

Dollhouse - Season Two
Airdate: October 2, 2009
Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix1, Fran Kranz
Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj1, Dichen Lachman
And Olivia Williams
Created by Joss Whedon
Written by Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters
Directed by Marita Grabiak

This episode is all about teasing out the implications of the new paradigm, specifically as it concerns Echo, and it explores this issue through the use of a really fascinating engagement. The client is a widower whose wife died in childbirth. As a result, he has some seriously ambiguous feelings about the baby. He hires Echo to be not just a nanny, but to be the baby's mother. The teaser features Topher freaking out over his own genius, explaining to Paul that he successfully changed Echo's body on a glandular level. The teaser goes out on her breast-feeding the baby. This is a pretty cool concept, but my own feelings of discomfort re: pregnancy make it more than a little creepy.

The core idea of the episode is that even after being wiped, Echo still feels the same desperate maternal attachment to the baby. It's a perfect illustration of the moral gray area of what the Dollhouse does. It's definitely a humanitarian engagement (though arguably misguided), but on the other hand, you can't just make someone think she's a mother and then casually take the baby away from her when it doesn't go as planned. There's an ambiguity involving what specifically went wrong here. Topher suggests that making Echo lactate may have been "a bridge too far", but he doesn't know what we know about Echo.

What I really like about the episode is the way the first half unfolds like a paranoid thriller. Echo has been imprinted as Emily, a replacement for Nate's dead wife, Karen. She presumably doesn't have the same personality (because there's no need for that, and it's not clear how that would be possible), but she has the same basic biography. When she gets suspicious about Nate's behavior, she suspects he's having an affair, and finds photographs of Nate and Karen taken during the honeymoon that Emily remembers. Then, in perfect thriller style, she overhears just enough of a phone conversation to convince her that she and the baby are in danger. She can't really work out that she is a doll, but much of the episode proceeds as though it's moving in that direction. I'm sure we've all seen lots of stories about people gradually discovering that they're living in a phony reality constructed to deceive them. But we know what's going on even when Emily doesn't. That makes us complicit, in a way, and that changes the way we approach a story like this. It's cleverly handled.

The episode also makes a clever use of Madeline Costley, the person who used to be November/Mellie. She shows up not just to make Paul feel awkward (but she does, and for that matter, she should), but to make the point that she, Madeline, doesn't remember anything that happened to Mellie. It's supposed to be consoling, offering hope that Caroline will emerge unharmed, no matter what happens to Echo, but it's also creepy. Is it okay to induce terrible suffering in someone as long as you know, in the end, that they will forget? Does that make it all okay? Paul thinks it would be better, but Echo disagrees. The new Echo is paying off already, giving us a fresh perspective on the Dollhouse.

There are a few things that I didn't get a chance to mention yesterday (because that episode was densely packed). One of those things was Senator Daniel Perrin, played by Whedon alum Alexis Denisof. He's launching an investigation of the Dollhouse, and in this episode he gets a big anonymous tip detailing specifically what the Dollhouse does. This is one of the big ongoing stories of this season, and we'll see it play out (by necessity, quite quickly) in the episodes ahead.

1 Credited, but does not appear.

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