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: