I initially was not going to write about this episode, because, quite frankly, it kind of bored me. I thought, honestly, that it was bad, and I was really disappointed in Joss Whedon when I finished. Usually I am riveted to the screen when I watch Dollhouse, and I stay very focused on what is going on. Watching “Instincts” I found myself getting bored, switching my focus to other things, even getting up and wandering around because the episode was not gripping me.
At the same time, the episode also troubled me, and because it troubled me, I decided to write about it, at least briefly (for me, anyway).
The basic premise of the episode is that Echo has been hired as a standin mother to a baby who has lost his. The child’s husband is having difficulty bonding and connecting (a common problem for parents who lose their partners in childbirth/close to the birth of a child). Sierra is imprinted as a buddy of Echo’s imprint, Emily.
In this episode, we open with Topher gloating about altering Echo “on a glandular level” and I was congratulating the show mentally as Topher explored the implications and somehow managed to avoid saying “and we could imprint people to be thin!” As it turns out, Echo’s body has been altered so that she can breastfeed the child, which, you know, other people have said it so I’m just going to mirror them: I felt like there was a little bit of fetishizing going on here, with the breastfeeding.
Echo is also wholly consumed by her imprint. She believes that she is Emily. She loves this child intensely. She will do anything to protect him. And this is what is supposed to happen with Actives, except that we have learned it does not happen with Echo. So why is it happening now? Well, as Topher helpfully informs us, it’s because “the mothering instinct” is so intense and so deep that it cannot be wiped “normally.”
You heard that right, folks. This was the point where the episode went from kind of annoying me with the high level of casual ableism (characters were calling ludicrous situations “crazy” and “insane” left and right) to actively pissing me off. This is such an intensely problematic thing. It is a grave disservice not just to mothers, but to all women. And it’s total fecal material of the bull.
Then, it got even better. Remember that strong mothering instinct which allowed Echo to basically break the wipe because she is so upset that her child has been taken from her? That one which, you know, cannot be eradicated from the body because it is so intense?
Well, we have Mellie (in for a checkup) telling Ballard that she “used to hurt” because her child died, but she “doesn’t anymore” because of the Dollhouse. So, Topher can build an imprint so strong that it totally overrides the wiping process, but the Dollhouse can erase the real experience of pain in a real mother. (Note of clarification here: I mean “real mother” as in “woman who has forged a deep, personal, and natural emotional connection with a child,” which can include an adoptive mother or a birth mother. Emily isn’t a real mother not because she didn’t really give birth, but because she is an artificial construct who has been programmed to feel like a mother.)
And then, we have Ballard approaching Echo and suggesting that she consider some sort of uberwipe to totally erase Emily and her other imprints so that she doesn’t have to feel anymore. Yes, that’s right, Ballard, the big hero who supposedly wants to work with Echo to help her and bring down the Dollhouse, has apparently suddenly decided that it would be better for Echo to erase her progress.
Echo’s response is right on the money: she says that she would do anything rather than returning to the sleep-like state she was in before. She would rather be awake and feel pain and be aware of all the people inside her than become a wiped Doll again.
Laura’s review of “Instincts” is up here.