It feels sort of mean to review Dollhouse at this point. With ratings at an all-time low and rumors of midseason cancellation in the air, noting that the show’s just not very good right now feels sort of like kicking someone when they’re in ICU. But you have to be cruel to be kind, or something, so…
Season 2 continues to stumble out of the gate with “Instinct,” an assignment-of-the-week episode that boasts one of the show’s most nonsensical premises yet. Once again, the B plots are much more interesting than anything else, but this go round they’re very, very B, consigned to maybe ten of the episode’s forty minutes. We spend the other thirty minutes learning that motherly love turns women into Jason Vorhees. Who knew?
After his wife dies in childbirth, some dude finds that he can’t love or care for his newborn son, so he goes to the Dollhouse for a custom-built mommy. Why not hire a wet nurse, babysitter, daycare? Yeah, hard to say. The show wants us to believe that the dude is fundamentally sympathetic, which makes things hang together even less. Topher cooks up a cutting-edge imprint that causes physical changes in Echo, activating her mom hormones, making her lactate, etc. Echo goes to live with Mr. Nice, and everything’s hunky-dory, I guess, except that she quickly starts to wonder why her “husband” is never around. Is he having an affair?
Meanwhile, Senator Alexis Denisof continues to be awesome in his two minutes of airtime. He has a reliable informant out there in the big, wide world, feeding him the inside and uncensored dope on Rossum, the Dollhouses, everything. He seems sincere in his outrage, and that’s refreshing. I’m optimistic about this subplot and want much more of it.
Back at Mr. Nice’s house, Echo’s sleep-deprivation is driving her to new heights of paranoia. Rather, we’re told that Echo is sleep-deprived to the edge of delirium, but we never really see it, and Dushku frankly never really persuades as a new, exhausted parent. Echo roots through Mr. Nice’s top secret desk and finds pictures of his dead wife (and presumably the loose basis for her own imprint, though this is never made explicit or satisfactorily explored.) After she confronts him about his “affair,” Mr. Nice calls the Dollhouse to end the engagement, and an eavesdropping Echo misunderstands this as a threat to kill “their” baby son. Dun dun dun.
Ballard and company come in, restrain their hysterical Echo, and haul her off to the Dollhouse to be wiped. But because her hormones and such are still mommified, and because Echo remembers her engagements now, she’s still fightin’ mad. She knocks out Topher, escapes the Dollhouse*, and runs off to protect the baby. Will there be steak knives? Yes, there will be steak knives.
So the other Very-B B plot? Adelle convinces Melanie—the woman whose body was used for the Active November—to come back to the Dollhouse for a debrief and diagnostic. In the course of her diagnostic she runs into Paul, who’s more than a bit freaked out and asks her why she went into business with the Dollhouse in the first place. Turns out Melanie feels very warmly toward Rossum and subsidiaries; she lost her young daughter several years back, and enrolled as an Active to sleep away the grief. And hey! It worked! She feels fine now! Or so she claims.
It’s an unexpected pleasure to see Miracle Laurie again, and it’s interesting to watch someone adapt to life post-dolliness, but I dunno—this feels like every other clumsy attempt to complicate the moral landscape. Our anti-Dollhouse crusader can be ruthless and dark, and sometimes the Dollhouse helps people. Ooooh. I also call bull on anyone actually getting over their grief this way, but maybe we’ll learn that Melanie’s deceiving herself.
Anyway, with lightning crashing and everything, Echo breaks into Mr. Nice’s house, peers creepily through windows, brandishes a big knife, and steals the baby. I really can’t overstate how bad-slasher-flick this sequence is. Emphasis on bad. Mr. Nice catches Echo on the way out and gives a big speech about how, well, he’s learned something today. It’s important to try to love your kid no matter what—you can’t just hire an evil corporation to create lactating slaves for you. Can he have his kid back now? Echo thinks his speech is pretty good and gives him his kid back.
Yeah, I don’t know, either.
Episode Grade: 5 out of 10
* Geez, they really need to invest in some security. That’s two episodes in a row now where an Active escapes with no resistance whatsoever.