Dollhouse 2.2: "Instinct"

“Dollhouse” is in trouble. There’s no way around it; the show is on the cusp of an early second season cancellation. A lot of people are still placing this on the shoulders of Whedon and Dushku, but looking back, I think it started with the network interference early in the first season. The show just never found its voice until well after the critics tore it to shreds. Even coming into the second season, the advance press mostly discussed how disappointing the show has been. Maybe it never had a real chance to survive.

Thankfully, we still have “Epitaph One”. It may have been originally intended as a capstone to the series in anticipation of a single-season run, but it now serves as something of a floating epilogue to the series as a whole. If “Dollhouse” is cancelled prematurely this season, then “Epitaph One” is still the logical outcome of all that has been seen to date. In other words, while I still think it would be worth it to see a full season of the show completely under Whedon’s control, we still have something of an ending in place. (And even if the show were cancelled, there’s a certain number of episodes already in the can, that would inevitably be on a DVD set.)

This episode, however self-contained it appears, is actually a fairly important step on the road to “Epitaph One”. It underscores the fact that Topher has yet to recognize the severe gaps in his genius, despite all the flaws that emerged with Whiskey in the premiere. Given his behavior in this episode, those experiences haven’t changed him much at all. He still keeps pushing the envelope, even when there’s plenty of reason to step back and focus on the fundamentals.

Meanwhile, Adele seems to shove this latest issue with Echo under the rug. Denial is a powerful force, but it shouldn’t take anyone more than five minutes to realize that the sheer amount of questionable activity surrounding Echo is a sign that she’s a threat. It’s obvious from “Epitaph One” that the complacency of those running the Dollhouse leads to terrifying consequences, so they’re not going to wake up in time to prevent disaster. But it still seems hard to reconcile that these people would be so blind!

Eliza really knocked this one out of the park. I recently read an article pointing out how well Eliza has handled the rapid yet distinct changes in personality plaguing Echo this season, and it’s very true. There are subtle differences that need to be there for the story to work, and Eliza has pulled them off well. This episode in particular had to be very tricky.

All that said, I’m not sure this will be a popular episode. Stories with babies in jeopardy tend to disturb people rather easily, especially parents. Just on a personal level, I felt like the manipulation of that element of the story was a bit much. I understood that it was designed to give an episode about the negativity of running away from pain a bit of action, but it was still hard to watch at times.

That said, I loved the subtext. The client’s pain, and his attempt to avoid dealing with it, meshed well with the return of November. Paul’s terror at the thought of having the pain and suffering of losing a child wiped away, even consensually, was written all over his face. And Echo, in the end, made it clear that her memories of pain, among others, were important for her to keep. The combination of that theme and the tenuous connections to “Epitaph One” made this episode much better in the long run.


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