'Dollhouse' recap: Momma's got a brand new bag of crazy

Hysterical is a funny word, in that it doesn’t mean “funny” at all. If you look it up in the dictionary, it means “deriving from or affected by extreme uncontrolled emotion.” Stranger still, the root of hysterical is the same as the root of hysterectomy: huster, from the Greek, for womb. In other words, that which makes you lose control is the very thing that makes you a woman.

Dollhouse has always trucked in uncomfortable ideas. It’s about prostitution, and brainwashing, and identity — Dollhouse is about the sublimation of humanity for money. And it’s walked a fine line between exploitation and empowerment — sometimes nimbly, other times like a clumsy drunk — but always with a healthy respect for the feminine. Until this episode, “Instinct,” in which Echo literally went crazy because of her girl parts.

You see, this week’s client, Nate Jordan, is a recent widower who hired the Dollhouse to craft for him a mother to his infant son, Jack, the infant son that Nate himself couldn’t bring to love. Enter Echo, imprinted to have the late Mrs. Jordan’s attachment to her son. And enter Topher, who, in a masterstroke of blinkered genius, figured out how to write code that would alter Echo’s body chemistry, along with her neurochemistry. Topher made it so that Echo could breast feed.

And Echo does everything that’s asked of her. She’s a wife to Nate and a mother to Jack, so much so that when she fears Nate is hiding a secret affair, she unearths pictures of the real, late Mrs. Jordan. When Nate tries to call off the Engagement, and brings Ballard to the house to get Echo back for her “treatment,” Echo’s maternal instinct kicks in and she takes off, willing to do anything to protect her son. Even after she’s wiped, the instinct is so strong — so rooted in the physical changes Echo underwent — that she escapes from the Dollhouse, breaks into Nate’s house, and snatches the baby at knifepoint.

All of which is interesting: It allows Eliza Dushku to give her best performance yet — she succinctly conveys the anguish of a woman unable to protect her offspring — and the idea of a man who needs an Active to provide a mother’s love so his child doesn’t grow up a sociopath is ingenious. And “Instinct” has some fascinating bits going on in the periphery: Madeline/Millie/November’s visit back to the Dollhouse, and running into Ballard for the first-second time; a look at what’s driving Senator Perrin’s crusade (anyone else think that his wife is an Active planted by a Rossum Company rival? Or that the person supplying him with the info dossier, the “foil hate man,” is Alpha?); one of Topher’s best lines of the whole series (“The human mind is like Van Halen. If you just pull out one piece and keep replacing it, it just degenerates.”).

But I just keep coming back to the idea that what turned Echo into a homicidal crazy person was the glandular change that allowed her to nurse. Her girl parts. Couch it in whatever science-y mumbo jumbo you’d like, that’s what sends her off the deep end: Chicks are crazy because they’re chicks. They just get…hysterical. For a dude like Joss Whedon, who’s made a career of writing strong female characters, for a writing staff with its fair share of ladies on it, for an episode that was WRITTEN BY TWO WOMEN…that’s kind of inexcusable.

What did you think? Am I overreacting a little, and thinking too much about a show that still puts its star in lingerie every episode? Or do you want more from your femme-friendly sci-fi caretakers? And while you’re thinking, check out this exclusive behind-the-scenes video, a tour of the Dollhouse set led by Eliza Dushku and Fran Kranz:

[ewbrightcove “29888952001”, “42663375001”, “525”, “470”]

Comments (102 total) Add your comment
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  • thetvobsessed

    There was too much time spent on the engagement which was made better by the fact that it was very intriguing and sets up conflict for Echo. I would have liked to see more of Perrin’s investigation though it is a promising storyline. Mellie’s talk with Ballard was very interesting. Full review of the episode.


  • Elle

    Well, I think the description in this blurb leaves something to be desired. Physical chemistry changes that women undergo in relation to pregnancy and child birth are often quite dramatic and manifest in a multitude of ways, ranging from women who have long bouts of crying jags and depression to those who murder their children with the belief that the child(ren) will be ‘in a better, safer place’ – so to say this episode said Echo went crazy because of her ‘girl parts’ suggests a rather ignorant perception of the feminine experience. Additionally, its a very superficial analysis of the episode if you believe this is somehow anti-feminist in its portrayal of women. A portrayal of a more uncommon extreme? Perhaps. But a television show like Dollhouse exists in a heightened reality. This wasn’t a manufactured or imagined phenomenon, but rather one rooted in nature.
    In conclusion, definately an over-reaction and a misread of the episode, Marc.

    • Vina

      Agreed on all points. And it actually works very well with some of the show’s recurring themes of the body v. the mind.

    • Dawn

      I interpreted the situation similarly. Normally, a woman has 40 weeks of pregnancy for her body to prepare to lactate enough to provide sole nourishment for a baby. Given the story (the baby didn’t look 9 months old, and the original mom died in child birth), we know that Topher didn’t have that long to trick Echo’s brain into making her body do the same thing. It had to have messed with her hormones severely. We know that hormonal shifts can be responsible for all sorts of behavioral changes, so it doesn’t seem at all far-fetched to me that Echo would end up paranoid and possibly violent.

      The part of the story which didn’t make sense to me was, if you are going to hire an Active to be your baby’s mom… how long are you planning on keeping that Active? So far, we’ve never seen a long-term assignment, and it just seemed odd to me.

      • Dawn

        Also, I don’t get why Topher was so jazzed that he was able to affect the body by changing imprinting her mind. In the first episode, didn’t she become both nearsighted and asthmatic after the imprint? I could kind of buy that the nearsightedness could have been all in her brain (messed up signals), but the asthma?

  • XSE Drake

    Another strong episode. Thanks, ew, for having a recap for a struggling show like Dollhouse.

  • Mark in FL

    I didn’t think much of the episode and I’m starting to lose my ‘Faith’ (pun totally intended). I though it was a weak, stand-alone episode. And what is with the OTT focus on Echo in the opening credits? It seems way more extreme (Eliza Dushk is the STAR) this year than last. The storyline with Sierra providing ‘emotional’ support to Echo didn’t make much sense either. Was this guy paying for two actives?

    • TVHead

      I think long term ‘engagements’ require that (a) because she couldn’t have any real friends and (b) a real friend might have agreed it sounded like he was having an affair and talked her off the ledge…

  • pennylane229

    for the first time I hated the episode. from beginning to end it annoyed me. I agree Eliza gave one of her best performances to date but I was annoyed. First if everytime Echo goes out she has some kind of issue why send her at all???? and who cares about the rest of my thought out issues. The show was annoying tonight!!!!

  • Justyn

    I like the direction of where Dollhouse is going this season. It’s more focused and Echo is not passive anymore, thank God. Instinct was definitely another fantastic episode. You can relate to the story of Echo trying to protect her baby and panics when she misheard Nate about “get ridding the baby.”

  • SilentRage

    I think you’re overreacting a lot, but of course that’s your opinion. I found the ‘maternal instinct’ angle very believable, and it was great to see Madeline again, I was hoping this was a door re-opening for her again. And finally I agree with Mark in FL Sierra providing emotional support felt like extreme filler. Unfortunatly I have a bad feeling that next week after the episode is over there won’t be ‘scenes from next week’ which would be very similar to me finding out Tru Calling was canceled a few years back.. the show’s ratings suck :(

  • Mike B.

    “Chicks are crazy because they’re chicks.” Umm, those are your words, not Joss’s. Me thinks you’re the one with e the problem, Marc. Not him…

    • Diego Sierra

      I Agree.

  • Coyote

    So women are the only ones who would do whatever they have to do to protect their children? What was that Liam Neeson movie, with him killing people to rescue his daughter? Oh, yeah, it was called “Taken.” Marc, the Greeks were sexist because they didn’t know any better … what’s your excuse?

    • Em

      I don’t understand why you seem so upset over marc’s comment. I think you read way too much into his confusion.

      • Coyote

        Just sayin’ that you don’t need “girl parts” to want to protect your kid. I think the writer could have had a funny/”hysterical” take on this, but it didn’t come across that way.

  • Emon

    I thought it was pretty good episode. Great character development and it was good to see November again. Gotta wonder what Senetor Denisof’s turn is in all this. So far, so good!!

  • sydneyb

    I thought Eliza did a fantastic job—quite possibly the best acting she’s done ever. And I’m a HUGE fan of hers. The scene in the police station as she’s being pulled away from baby Jack totally made my heart ache.

    That being said…I thought that overall this was a rather weak episode that didn’t seem to even do a great job as a placeholder. I agree that senator perrin’s wife is probably an active (she reminds me of Tango from season one–the french woman), but even with that subplot I wasn’t that into this week’s episode. I agree that if Joss was trying to say that lady parts rather than parent-child bond was the reason for Echo’s attachment, I would be extremely disgusted. and I’m a HUGE wheadonite. I’m hoping that what Joss was trying to do was talk about the connection ADULTS can have with their children and that Topher (dollhouse’s resident and lovable amoral sociopath) reduced this phenomenon to breast duct glands because he’s Topher and thus unwilling to believe that people have souls or can make connections that he can’t erase.

    I can’t wait for next week–Victor as a bad guy?!?!? its gonna be crazy!!

  • Snarf

    Great idea, but the execution was off. I don’t think Echo went beserk because of her girl parts per se, I think it’s more in line with wiping process not working properly on her anymore.

  • Bruce from Missouri

    Yeah, it seemed clear to me that it wasn’t her girl parts that made her crazy, it was him talking about “getting rid” of the baby that set her off. That, and the fact that the wipes aren’t working properly on her any more.

    So, I think you are both misreading and overreacting.

  • caliban821

    I agree with the above that you misread the situation. Ballard manuevred Topher into thinking it was the “glandular effect” to keep secret that Echo’s brain was retaining her identities on her own.

  • Chappel s

    ”The human mind is like Van Halen. If you just pull out one piece and keep replacing it, it just degenerates.” definitely a great line. I wonder what they really did to Madeline/November while she was sitting in that chair. I give credit to Dushku… she’s really trying and pushing her skills to the limit. I think that we will be seeing her in a lot of tight, skimpy clothes this season because they know that her body may be the only thing that can get this show renewed and they will be pimping her out as much as they can to get the boys tuning in. Overall, I enjoyed the episode and the things they put in to advance the story. I thought the episode was really boring until Echo popped Topher in the nose after her treatment. That was a nice surprise.

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