Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Michelle's Review Corner: "Instinct"


As we continue getting back into the swing of a new season of Dollhouse, Michelle is back to pick apart the latest episode "Instinct" and give you her thoughts. Do you agree with her? Do you disagree? Sound off in the comments box and on the forums!

Click "Read More" to see Michelle's full review after the jump.


This week, Echo (“Emily”) is imprinted as the new mother of a baby boy named Jack. She comes complete with breast-feeding abilities, triggered by hormones that have in turn been triggered by a gleeful Topher. Echo is excelling at motherhood, but her “husband” Nate is distant and secretive, and seems to want nothing to do with baby Jack. Despite the assurances of Sierra, imprinted as her friend Kelly, Echo breaks into Nate’s locked study and discovers photos of him with another woman. He explains that he had been in a relationship with her, but that she has died, and apologizes for keeping secrets from Echo; “This has all been a terrible mistake,” he says. They appear to patch things up, until Echo wakes up later that night and overhears Nate yelling into the phone that the person on the other line should “get rid of her,” and that he will get rid of the baby. He prevents her from leaving the house the next morning, but when Ballard comes to get her, Echo escapes out the window. In the Dollhouse, Nate shouts at Adele for providing him with a crazy baby-stealing zombie, but Adele calmly points out that this was just what he asked for—not a nanny, but a woman to bond profoundly and chemically with Jack; a mother. It seems that the woman from the pictures was Nate’s wife, and after her death Nate had been unable to bond with his son himself, so he asked the Dollhouse for a replacement love-source for Jack. Adele manages to calm him down (with the help of the Mystery Tea) and informs him that the Dollhouse is retrieving Echo as they speak. This happens to go down at a police station where a terrified Echo is filling a report. Jack is snatched away from her as Echo, writhing and screaming, is dragged back to the Dollhouse. Topher wipes her and begins the script, but Echo knocks him out with a nasty fist to the nose and escapes from the Dollhouse. Adele is furious and asks Topher if another composite event has occurred, but Ballard points out that Echo is, in fact, wiped—she’s just also super-hormonal, because Topher triggered a physical instinct stronger than memory. Topher is quite impressed with himself, while Ballard takes off. At the same time, Nate finally seems to be bonding with Jack, until Adele calls and tells him to leave the house. The power cuts out as a convenient and overkill thunderstorm begins to rage outside, and Nate discovers a blank-eyed Echo clutching his son and an enormous kitchen knife. Nate tries to explain to Echo, who is clearly unstable and experiencing bits and pieces of random personalities, that she cannot be Jack’s mother. He apologizes for putting her through hell, but explains that she is not real and is not actually a part of Jack, though his wife still is. Echo, calm but devastated, hands over the baby, drops the knife and drifts out the door past Ballard. He finds her in the park where she had brought Jack earlier. Echo describes the intensity, the reality of the emotions manufactured by the Topher and the Imprint Chair, and implies that these remain with her even more strongly than the memories of the different people she has been. Ballard offers to continue on his quest to take down the Dollhouse himself, and to tell Topher to scrub her so she no longer feels this pain. But Echo objects; feeling nothing would be worse, she says, like being asleep. “I don’t want to go back to sleep.”

Meanwhile, Adele visits a very wealthy and very gorgeous Madeline Costly (formerly known as Mellie and November) who seems to be enjoying her post-Dollhouse life just fine. She is conspicuously cool with Adele, who (in a bit of a bizarre contrast) is quite warm and open with Madeline. She is there for a reason though, of course, and insists that Madeline return to the Dollhouse for her “diagnostic”. Topher tests her and affirms that she is, in Madeline’s words “not broken”. The pleasantries are interrupted by Echo’s wild entrance, watched by a disturbed and lightly contused Madeline; Ballard, unnerved by her reappearance into his life, assures her that what Echo is experiencing isn’t real, though Madeline insists that the pain and emotion Echo feels is real for her. She asks if she was ever like that, but Ballard, remembering walking out on a devastated “Mellie”, avoids the question. Madeline assures him that Echo will forget everything; “No more pain, no more grief”; she knows, because it worked for her after her daughter died of cancer. Adele promised her five years of sleep and to wake up without pain, which she has. She may not be happy, but she is not sad, either.

Elsewhere, Senator Perrin is frustrated that his sources on the Rossum Corporation have gone underground, and he’s getting nowhere in his investigation—until someone leaves a packet of information on his doorstep. The woman I’m assuming is his wife, Cindy, doubts that Rossum really has the ability to “change people” as Perrin thinks they do, but Perrin says that it’s entirely possible; they had the ability to help his mother when she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease but apparently did not. Cindy is frightened by the scope of this conspiracy and strength of the corporation, but urges Perrin to finish what he started—they will find proof. “We’ve got better than proof,” he says. “We’ve got a name.”


I won’t lie: this episode really didn’t touch the structural tightness and general elegance of last week’s “Vows”. It felt a bit lopsided, as the subplots weren’t broached until the episode was a third of the way done, and the story had a rushed quality that was a bit unsettling. That said, on a thematic level “Instinct” was, if not the equal of the season premier, quite a worthy follow-up. There were connections being corrupted all over the place—and just enough purity to keep the darkness interesting.

If last week’s episode gave us a perverted connection in the form of a marriage this week went one step further. Echo is posed as a mother, her mind and body altered so that she can connect with her son in perhaps the paradigm of mother-child bonding: breast feeding. The tragedy of Echo’s imprint this week is particularly profound in this respect. Not only do Echo’s mind and memory tell her she is someone she is not, but her body physically proves it to her. Even without the imprinted memories of carrying and delivering Jack, Echo’s body recognizes the false connection that has been foisted on it. Ballard hits this on the head when he theorizes, “Maybe her body was stronger than her brain”. This is, of course, exactly what is happening to Echo; with the manufactured maternal hormones surging through her body, her body is no longer in her control. Even when imprinted, Echo ought to be able to physically control herself, but now even this modicum of independence has been ripped away from her.

(Incidentally, I like to think that this brain/body dichotomy is the reason for Echo’s exceptionally strong reaction to motherhood. Virtually any mother having her child taken away would have reacted as Echo did, but her hysteria was particularly profound. I saw a comment on EW that explains this nicely: though Echo’s brain may have believed she’d had nine-odd months to develop and adjust to her maternal hormones, her body wasn’t fooled. Echo’s body knew perfectly well that she had never been pregnant or given birth before, and certainly not recently—it knew that her newly stimulated hormones were unnatural, and could not process and control them as it would in an actual mother.)

All this, obviously, doesn’t even touch on the enormous emotional pain Echo suffers when her connection with Jack is severed. In reality, of course, no real relationship has been corrupted, but Echo experiences the most horrendous possible perverted connection—the senseless and cruel removal of her child. Ironically, this is all in the service of a man who feels he cannot connect with his own son, and is frightened that his son will in turn grow up unable to connect. This conundrum of parent/child connecting is contrasted strongly (and beautifully, must say) with the reappearance of Madeline in the Dollhouse, and her own reaction to the loss of her daughter Katie. While I would never judge an actual parent in such an unimaginably painful situation, in the context of fiction it seems fair to say that Madeline Costly has mindfully corrupted her own relationship with the daughter she lost. She chose to avoid her grief through oblivion in the Dollhouse, and the promise that her sadness would disappear once her sentence was up. Certainly, there is no doubt that Madeline should have sought healthy relief for her grief, but instead she chooses to avoid it entirely. Perhaps this is harsh, but it seemed to me as though Madeline was betraying her daughter’s memory by so thoroughly opting out of her emotions. To me, this seems the ultimate corruption of the most precious of all relationships.

Compared to Madeline’s almost flippant regard for her grief (“Go to sleep for five years; wake up without pain”), Echo’s feelings are even more touching. Though she knows, at the end of the episode, that she really is not Jack’s mother, her emotions are no less real. “I had a baby. Now I don’t have him anymore,” she says. “I feel sad.” She also rebuffs Ballard’s offer to wipe her pain away, and chooses the reality of the experience (however false and painful) as better than “sleeping”—exactly the opposite choice from that made by Madeline.

Madeline’s general detachment also made for an interesting contrast during her meeting with Adele. Adele was uncharacteristically warm with Madeline; though it’s entirely possible she was all about her agenda, I wonder if Adele was not genuinely looking for friendship with another woman who finds it easier to cut off her emotions. Madeline, on the other hand, clearly wanted none of it, and was chilly to the point of rudeness with Adele. At least within the Dollhouse, Madeline doesn’t seem to be interested in any connection at all.

It’s odd and a little unsettling to see the character we knew as the warm and loving Mellie, or at least the sweet Active November, acting so cool, confident, and even unfeeling. Last season, Mellie represented a connection that, while corrupted by the Dollhouse, had an appealing veneer of purity. Ironically, the person with whom she had this connection, Ballard, is moving with encouraging clarity toward healthy connections. While in the past, Ballard might well have ignored Echo’s pain and vulnerability at the end of the episode in his drive toward bringing down the Dollhouse (as he did with Mellie), in “Instinct”, Ballard demonstrates unexpected tact. He is wil ling to do what is best for Echo, not what is best for Paul Ballard and his endless goals. Now, it’s also possible to take a less charitable view of his actions—in giving up Echo, he would also make himself all the more her knight in shining armor—but for now I think it’s fair to say that Ballard, like Echo, is evolving steadily. The more each character progresses, the better suited to each other they seem to be.

Finally, a word on Senator Perrin. Though he mentioned in his press conference shown in “Vows” that he had lost his mother to Alzheimer’s disease, it now seems that he holds the Rossum Corporation responsible for not intervening with their medicinal advances. This adds a very interesting facet to his motivations—in going after Rossum, Perrin is at least partly attempting to avenge a lost connection with his mother, and is eerily similar to Echo’s reaction to loosing Jack. It is also interesting to note the conspicuous introduction of Perrin’s loving and supportive wife, Cindy. Their connection appears to be a strong one, and they are united in their goals against Rossum—for now. Rossum and the Dollhouse have a successful history of driving wedges into the strongest relationships, and it will be very interesting to see if Senator and Mrs. Perrin manage to avoid the perversion which has effected so many others.

On that cheery note, that’s all for this week! See you next time for the intriguingly titled “Belle Chose”!


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