"Instinct" is one of those episodes of "Dollhouse" that crams the weaker things about the show right up against the stronger things and then hopes against hope that the stronger things win out in the end.

They did, for the most part, in "Instinct," but there was some pretty dumb stuff on the way there. That said, the central storyline ended up being so nifty that all of the improbabilities needed to get there were probably worth it. Still, the episode inches the ball forward on a number of important plotlines, so the 2.5 million of us still sticking with this thing in live broadcast can feel like we got our money's worth.

[Full recap of Friday (Oct. 2) night's "Dollhouse" after the break...]

The main storyline here is really pretty cool if you don't think about it too hard. Echo's been programmed to be a mother, and her bond with the baby (spurred by Topher somehow managing to make her brain trigger lactation) and lack of sleep combine to make her mood so intense that she essentially stumbles into a ‘70s conspiracy thriller. "Dollhouse" has played around with the idea of dolls who don't know they're dolls and start to suspect they are a little bit, but this was something different. As Echo kept stumbling across clues that she was in the midst of a giant conspiracy designed to remove her from the center of the happy family she thought she belonged to, the episode kept shifting genres, from troubled domestic drama to paranoia thriller to horror movie inversion at the end, and "Instinct" kept flipping the audience's sympathies, to the point where Echo was actually the villain for a little while. It was an intricately constructed story but also one that suffered a bit from some plot contrivances.

For one thing, the attempt to explain why the hell this random dude would turn to the Dollhouse instead of hiring a nanny or something was a little strained (though good on Olivia Williams for trying). If the baby doesn't have a loving connection, it might grow up to be a sociopath? Really? For another, when Echo retains just enough of her personality to knock out Topher at the end, the attempt to explain it away dances a little too close to technobabble, while the fact that she can somehow escape the Dollhouse AND find her former "home" (despite her memories being wiped) strain credulity. I'm willing to go with all of this (as I am with most things on this show), but if you got hung up on any of it, I don't blame you. A lot of it felt like everyone involved came up with the script, realized there were some implausible moments, then just shrugged their shoulders and let it slide with a few lines of dialogue.

This is the first credited script to "Reaper" creators Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters, who've joined the show as consulting producers this season, and while it was quite a bit darker than anything they tried on "Reaper" (a show with "Buffy" as an obvious inspiration), they still managed to slip in quite a bit of funny stuff, from Topher's ability to liken a brain to Van Halen to Senator Perrin checking out his wife's ass to the amusing sight of Sierra turning up as Echo's other mom friend. (How deep does the rabbit hole go on some of these engagements? And how much does it cost?) The two also managed to create an interesting thought experiment for the audience. We know that Echo's not real, but she doesn't know that, and that leads her into a situation where she's cradling a baby and holding a knife while lightning crashes in the background. It's a fun inversion of the usual "baby in danger!" thriller tropes, especially as it makes our hero the villain, and it all ended up being a stealth story about moving on after loss.

For all his love of tossing feminine archetypes into the blender and seeing what he can come up with, Joss Whedon has never done a lot with motherhood, so that made much of the stuff in "Instinct" – which played, at times, like a greatest hits collections of things Whedon likes to do in his series – play better than it might have had Echo been just another ass-kicking babe during this engagement. Granted, the opening act tried to make breast feeding a bit too sexy, but the episode, in general, treated motherhood like something weirdly, profoundly mystical, like something that a man like Topher would completely misunderstand, simply because he didn't get how primal the connection was. Whedon's self-professed feminism often feels less like a political statement and more like the guy's just incredibly intimidated by so many of the things women are that men can never be, and that gave the mother-baby scenes in "Instinct" a nice, added kick. (And if Whedon seems to come down on the wrong side of the celebration/exploitation divide for your tastes, well … Fox would like you to download, uh, a Virtual Echo who lives in your desktop. No, really.)

The big implications for the mythology, here, mostly came from the very opening scene, where Topher revealed that now that he can use the brain to manipulate the human body, there's not really a limit to some of the things he can do, including a laundry list of what sound like superpowers. I do hope that the show doesn't head off into the fantasy land of giving Echo the power to shoot lightning bolts from her fingertips or anything like that, but I fear we're headed that way any day now.

Similarly, the scenes with Senator Perrin and his wife, now gifted with inside information about the Dollhouse, seemed a bit too on-the-nose. I get where everyone involved wouldn't want to do a story about how someone on the outside knew about the Dollhouse and was working to bring it down, especially now that Ballard and Echo are working on the inside to accomplish the same goals (and bringing in Ballard to be the audience surrogate in regards to the morally disturbing things the Dollhouse traffics in has turned out to be a good move). I also like that the big bad of this season's storyline is, essentially, the good guy, and I really can't wait to see the morally grey way in which he is dispatched. But having a bunch of scenes where he just started to find out things we've known for 15 episodes now played pretty boringly.

Still, I suspect the "name" he garnered from the secret file left at his house will prove to be that of Madeline (formerly November/Mellie, everyone's favorite friendly doll/lasagna baker), who returned in this episode as a very rich woman who has to come back to the Dollhouse for a checkup. The series tried to milk a little juice out of whether Adelle would trick her back into the chair and re-erase her, but Olivia Williams has always played Adelle so straight-up that this never quite worked. What does seem like it will have a larger bearing on future events was Madeline seeming genuinely shaken by seeing Echo in a frenzy over her lost baby, something she realized was something Echo was genuinely experiencing, no matter how good she felt about her experience in the Dollhouse. It's possible Madeline isn't the name in Perrin's file, but she seems like the character who both stands to lose the most and has the most potential to finally break and give up the goods.

 

Other thoughts:

*** Looks like everyone involved in the show is going to save further money by not having everyone appear in every episode, which is a time-honored solution to trying to cut the budget down. Regulars Harry Lennix and Enver Gjokaj were nowhere to be seen tonight.

*** It's worth saying, again, that Eliza Dushku continues to be better than she was last season, but she didn't quite sell the final monologue in the park (which was handsomely shot). It's entirely possible, at the same time, that a woman who has no personality yet hundreds of personalities is just impossible to play in a believable fashion.

*** Best line has to go to Topher for his Van Halen metaphor.

*** I was going to point out that much of what Echo went through was intensely similar to what Dawn went through in season five of "Buffy" until EVERYONE ON MY TWITTER FEED said the same thing. So I'll just say it here and not seem like I'm ripping everyone off.

 

This week's discussion point (and I promise I'll respond if you comment): Senator Perrin's wife. She seems a little artificial, no? Is she just normally that way, or is she built that way, if you know what I mean?