So this episode ends with Echo telling Ballard that she not only remembers all her imprints, but feels them, feels all the things they did, all the things the Dollhouse made them do and want to do.
She says this as she’s coming down from an episode of near-homicidal violence driven by a maternal protectiveness she feels toward a child not her own, triggered by Dollhouse manipulation. Not just brain manipulation but, as Topher brags, body manipulation (as if the two are not one): they’ve made Echo’s body act as if it had just born a baby. She’s lactating, for God’s sake. And she’s willing to kill to get this baby back. Until she’s talked down, made to realize that what she’s feeling, what her body is telling her, is not real. She has to accept that not only her brain but her own body, her own deepest nature as a woman, has been mobilized against her, to deceive and betray her. She’s alienated from her own body.
And she accepts it, as just one more violation the Dollhouse has perpetrated on her person, one more indignity she must endure if she’s going to bring them down. But she’s not happy about it. Notice how closely the final scene of this episode parallels the final scene of the previous episode: she and Ballard gazing out on an artificial environment (the Dollhouse there, here a playground), talking about real things, her memories and what she wants to do about it. In “Vows” she’s confident, even defiant, and she’s talking about what she knows, what she’s aware of. Here she’s talking about what she feels, and she sounds weary, and almost broken.
For the first time I, as a viewer, really begin to feel the tragedy of her situation. Echo has never really moved me. November moved me. Whiskey moved me. But Echo: maybe this says more about me than the show, but Echo was always interesting to me, rather than affecting. But this: this moved me.
This is what the second season has done best so far: bring the emotion. They’re still working the subtext hard, but even with all the talk about undeniable human instincts in this episode I don’t think they’re taking the subtext of the tech anywhere we absolutely hadn’t considered based on last season. They’re marching in place in that regard: but with Whiskey last episode and Echo here, they’re taking time to make us feel the human cost of this technology.
November’s back. And suddenly we’re forced to ask, along with her, does the Dollhouse ever let anybody go? Why would they? How could they? Do we really believe DeWitt hasn’t had her imprinted with a sleeper program? For that matter, do we really believe she has her original memories back complete? She thinks her baby died of cancer, and that all the Dollhouse did was take away the grief. Is that really what happened? How would she know?
Topher’s teachable moment. Once again he outsmarts himself, but when Paul figures out the problem, Topher is surprisingly quick to acknowledge it. “I learned!” he says. Give him his due: he really does love knowledge.
Curious how in “Vows” they have Echo getting married and in “Instinct” they have her mothering a newborn. It might be accidental, but it seems to me that they’re starting out this season by taking her through young-adult rites of passage. If this is a composite bildungsroman, they’re giving her all the important experiences. As opposed to last season: there she was a midwife, helping but not participating.
Senator Perrin. So far I’m a little disappointed in this character. I liked Alexis Denisof in Buffy and Angel. I liked him a lot. But he comes across as rather lightweight here. I appreciate the character, though: the Senator with a Bee up his Bonnet is such a staple of comic books (think the X-Men films) that it’s kind of fun to see Whedon deploy it here.
Isn’t it nice how subtly they’re being in developing Victor and Sierra’s relationship? Just glimpses here and there, nothing much said, but it means the world if you know what you're seeing; a nice nod to people who were paying attention last season, and in the off-season. In all Mutant Enemy is being pretty unforgiving of any new viewers who might be wandering in now, wondering what the fuss was about: there’s been a little bring-‘em-up-to-speed dialogue, but not a whole lot.
We know what we know.