The central premise of Dollhouse is that the human brain can be “wiped” of its original consciousness and a new consciousness “imprinted” on it. The Dollhouse is effectively a high-end brothel that rents out its “actives” for any number of “engagements” from dream date to mother to assassin. After an “engagement” the “active” returns to a docile state ready for the next consciousness to be “imprinted” on them.
In the clip we get a sense that Madeline (a former doll), though she has attained a certain level of freedom, has lost something essential about her self. The pain she felt after the death of her child is lost to her. Her final “treatment” which restored her to her original self has been slightly altered so that she retains the memories of her pre-doll life, but the memories have been cleansed of the pain. Ballard, who had an intimate relationship with her while she was a doll, remembers the pain she felt and how real those experiences were for her. So he asserts, “it wasn’t real,” to ease Madeline’s sense that the pain and despair she witnessed was something that could not have happened to her, but also to reassure himself that the “dolls” are just actors in some kind of elaborate TV show (meta – holla). Cleansed of her pain, her declaration that she is “not unhappy” is disturbing and creepy, and her demeanor is doll-like and vacant.
In an inverse of the first scene, Echo explains to Ballard that while she cannot remember the details of her engagements, she remembers her affective experiences of them. “They make it so real.” She, unlike Madeline, wishes to hold on to those affective memories. Is Dollhouse suggesting that because she remembers and continues to feel love, happiness, desire, despair, rage, and most importantly the pain of their loss, that Echo retains of her humanity than Madeline does? What good are our memories if we cannot remember how they made us feel, even if that feeling is the despair and hopelessness of losing a child? Madeline’s memory of her daughter is now just as technologically mediated as Echo’s, no more or less real. Madeline’s final treatment—something given to alleviate pain and suffering—is maybe too effective, suggesting that the experience of pain is an essential, maybe even the essential, component of our humanity. Dollhouse is skeptical about our posthuman future, asserting instead there is something beyond “instinct” (the episode’s title and yet another kind of programming), or at the very least, asking, is a programmed response any less real if one feels and remembers it? And what might this be able to tell us about our own technologically mediated experiences and memories?