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Instinct is the second episode of the second season of Dollhouse and the fifteenth episode overall. It was written by Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters and directed by Marita Grabiak. It aired on October 2nd, 2009.


When Echo is imprinted as a mother with a newborn baby, she takes too strongly to motherhood as a result of Topher Brink’s modifications and her continuing mental evolution. Meanwhile, Adelle DeWitt pays Madeline Costley a visit, and Senator Daniel Perrin ramps up his investigation into the Rossum Corporation.


The episode starts out with Ballard inspecting the chair. He’s curious about the imprinting process and sits down like he’s an Active. Topher pops up and teases him about that. Topher brags about his latest accomplishment: using the chair to make glandular changes. We see Echo on engagement sleeping in bed with a male client. She gets up in the middle of the night and walks purposefully to a baby’s room and nurses the baby, showing that Topher has made her lactate.

Echo’s imprint Emily believes she is the baby’s mother and the wife to the client, Nate. He clearly doesn’t want her going into his office, locking her out. He doesn’t show much interest in her, and he doesn’t seem to want anything to do with his son Jack. He quickly leaves for work and leaves her to take care of things. She sees her handler's van outside and regards it with suspicion, which is rather unusual for an Active to do (the last one being Alpha).

Emily complains about Nate to her friend Kelly, who’s an imprinted Sierra. She worries that he’s having an affair because he’s being shifty and seems disinterested in being a father. Kelly tells her not to worry about it. Echo agrees, and then she hypocritically breaks into Nate’s office to snoop through his things. When he gets home, she confronts him with evidence of his original wife, who Echo was made to replace. He describes how he loved this other woman but she died, making it sound like she was some first wife he never told her about. He thinks it was a mistake to rent an Active to replace her to take care of the baby, so he calls the Dollhouse to call it off, mentioning giving up the baby. Emily overhears him and it sounds like him ordering her assassination, so she becomes extremely frightened.

Meanwhile, Senator Perrin tries to investigate the Rossom Corporation. He complains to his wife that there’s nothing solid to go on. Someone then anonymously delivers evidence on the existence of the Dollhouse.

At the same time, Adelle pays Madeline a visit. She asks questions in a way that might be socialization and might be digging for information. Madeline expresses concern about being dragged back to the Dollhouse if she says the wrong thing. Adelle says that's not a danger but insists that Madeline return for some follow up examination to make sure she won't glitch.

Back to Echo. She tries to take the baby and run. Nate tries to delay her. She says she needs to feed him, and then hides upstairs. She calls Kelly and asks her to come get her. When she comes, Sierra's handler takes her away for a treatment. Emily realizes there’s a conspiracy going on with the black vans. Ballard tries to collect her, but Emily goes out the window and drives away in Kelly’s car. Emily gets to the police, and the Dollhouse backs off for the moment.

At the Dollhouse, Nate rages at Adelle for letting this happen. She assures him that they'll resolve the situation shortly. She says that because Echo truly believes she is the boy's mother and totally loves him, she is doubtlessly taking perfect care of him and there's no danger to his health. Nate says he can't bear to think about his son in the hands of someone like that, and she reminds him that he was going to give the baby up for adoption anyway.

Down at the station, Emily describes the situation to one of the officers. The officer consoles her, using the standard lines given to victims of domestic violence. Emily insists that her husband isn't an abuser, but the officer legitimizes her feelings by saying Emily sensed danger and got out before anything happened. Well, Nate and Ballard show up and tell the cops that Emily’s a delusional woman. Official records can prove that Echo isn't really his wife. Nate takes the baby, and Emily is strongarmed back to the Dollhouse. The usual "treatment" command doesn't work to control her, and she still struggles furiously. Echo’s love for Jack has become part of her identity past Dollhouse imprints, and she unconsciously rejects the imprinted command phrase, having evolved to a point where she can do that.

At the Dollhouse, Topher confirms that Madeline is completely healthy. He offers to use the chair to give her some extra abilities (such as ventriloquism), but she declines. Madeline then watches with horror as Echo is brought to the chair and tranquilized. Topher reacts with annoyance because he can't wipe her until the drug wears off.

Madeline asks Ballard if she ever reached a comparable state of emotional distress when she was an Active. He recalls her Mellie imprint crying when he broke up with her, but he evades the question and implies he didn't have that much contact with her. She quickly leaves.

Later, Emily wakes up and begs Topher for help. He says he’ll help, and then wipes her. Echo seems back to normal, but then she punches him out and makes an escape. She doesn’t have all her procedural memories, but she clings to her Emily imprint and goes to get her baby back and take revenge on Nate.

Adelle demands answers. Ballard blames Topher’s "genius" glandular changes. Topher agrees and speculates about maternal instinct overpowering Echo’s normal brain function, keeping him from being able to wipe her. He marvels at his ability to even outplay himself, but Adelle is less than amused.

Echo goes after Nate. She cuts the power and stalks him with a knife. Nate doesn’t understand exactly what’s going on, but he talks to her and claims his son as his own responsibility. He won’t let Echo take him from him. He talks her into realizing Emily is not who she really is and that she has no claim to Jack.

She wanders off, and Ballard catches up with her. She discusses how she can go in and out of various imprints and says that it’s becoming difficult for her. Ballard offers to tell Topher what’s going on so he can wipe her, but she likes being self-aware even if it hurts. Ballard promises to take down the Dollhouse and rescue the Actives.


Main cast[]

Recurring roles[]

Guest starring[]

  • Kristoffer Polaha as Nate Jordan
  • Unknown actress as Noreen


Glandular-level modification; Karen Jordan

Background Information[]


Although aired before 2x03 "Belle Chose", "Instinct" was shot after it. Principal photography finished on August 23rd, 2009. The original intended order can be discerned from the fact that this episode opens with Paul overseeing an extended engagement, but in "Belle Chose" he is clearly new to his job as handler and has never been to the part of the Dollhouse where Actives are dressed for engagements. Also, "Belle Chose" shows the immediate fallout of Dr. Saunders's departure.


This episode marks a reunion for Eliza Dushku and Kristoffer Polaha who worked together on Eliza's previous series, Tru Calling.



"Here’s my second thought on “Instinct,” once it actually unfolded: “Yes, it’s like those hit-or-miss early episodes, but mostly much better.” The themes are richer and intricately connected with the overall operation of the Dollhouse, and the writing is sharper, too, with at least three or four laugh-out-loud lines that also function as more than just throwaway quips."
A.V. Club Rcap

"What was impressive this time was that the episode was compelling and dramatic, and it had virtually nothing to do with the overall story-arc for the series. Just like some of the best episodes of The X-Files were "monster-of-the-week" installments, this "imprint-of-the-week" chapter was simply brilliant."
TV Squad Recap

"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."
EW Recap

"Overall, a solid episode -- if we were still in the trenches of early season one, that is. "Instinct" was a complete waste of time given the progress the show has made since last year's final episodes."
MTV Recap

"Last night's Dollhouse is never going to be most people's favorite episode of the series, but it was pretty interesting and had some neat ideas — it's the sort of episode that will look great when you view the whole season on DVD, in one go."
io9 Recap

"Dollhouse continues to move in jerks and sputters, but in the right direction nonetheless. The second episode of the season failed to maintain the quality of the last few episodes of the series but offered intriguing glimpses and interesting insight into the central characters."
Paste Magazine Recap

"This episode actually does a pretty decent job of developing themes which will take us from the world we know now toward a more dangerous future."
The TV Critic review


"Instinct" reached 2.049 million viewers, a 1.3/2 Rating/Share, a 0.9/3 Rating/Share in the 18-49 demographic and a 0.9/3 Rating/Share in the 25-54 demographic. It ranked No. 3 in the hour among Adults 18-49, Adults 18-34 and Teens.

The half-hour breakdown showed 2.193 million viewers, a 1.4/3 Rating/Share and a 0.9/3 Rating/Share in the 18-49 demo between 9:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and 1.991 million viewers, a 1.3/2 Rating/Share and a 0.8/3 Rating/Share in the 18-49 demo between 9:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.

The episode was watched by 2.832 million viewers with seven days of DVR viewing were factored in, and it received a 1.2 Live+7 Rating/Share in the 18-49 demo, which is a 33% past airdate demo increase via DVR (that's the third biggest percentage increase for broadcast TV shows of that week). 25% of all demo viewing happened past airdate via DVR, that's the third biggest percentage for broadcast TV shows of that week.

The episode was watched by 398,000 viewers in Canada.

Promotional Photos[]

Notes & References[]