The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 1

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For previous installments:

I didn’t expect it to take this long to finish this particular series of post, but absence makes the heart grow fonder. Fringe was not always the greatest series ever, but…, according to Entertainment Weekly‘s article, “‘Fringe’ series review: Darker than amber, lighter than air“:

…fulfilled nearly every promise it made to its audience over the course of five seasons. It remained true to its core values: the primacy of family, the sacredness of trust, the joy of a good joke, the exhilaration of intellectual inquiry, and the jolting power of love.

That what was so great about Fringe! According to Den of Geek‘s article, “Fringe: an episode roadmap for beginners“:

Let’s get something clear before we start here; Fringe is a heavily serialised show. In order to follow every development of the mytharc and understand every detail, to see it slowly developing over five years’ of story-telling and to catch all the subtleties of how these characters and their relationships to each other change and grow, you will need to watch every single episode, in order. Every episode includes some reference to or small development of the overall story arc – even in season one, when this aspect took more of a backseat to monsters of the week – so if you skip anything, there will be things that won’t entirely make sense, or you won’t have seen develop. If you are a person who needs to see every detail as it unfolds without spoilers, there are no short-cuts on this one.

Having said that, if you’re happy to be a little more flexible, there’s no reason not to enjoy the show in a more limited form (your humble correspondent here, for example, started with season two and caught up on season one later). If you’re willing to fill in some gaps using the wonders of the Internet and the Previously Ons, and happy to allow some references or bits of character development to go over your head as long as you can follow the main story, then there’s no reason not to focus on those aspects of the show that interest you the most rather than slogging your way through the whole 100 hours. (We’d also recommend, as a possible third option, following your preferred Route through Season One to get a taste of the show and then watching every episode from season two or three onwards, as the show gets more serialized as it goes on).

Additionally, according to IGN‘s article, “Ranking J.J. Abrams’ TV Shows,” at number two, states:

Abrams’ Role: Executive Producer, Co-Creator

Created by Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman, and then run by J. H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner, FOX’s Fringe took big, bold sci-fi risks while also giving us a trio of characters who we deeply cared about (played by Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and John Noble). Alternate universes, mind powers, monsters, the disruption of the space-time continuum, visitors from the future all created a wildly involving tapestry of high-tech madness. But at the heart of Fringe was the love between a father and son, who were destined to lose each other and find each other over and over again on a perverse cycle of sacrifice.

Fringe didn’t manage to answer all of the questions it raised during its five-season run, but many out there feel it did a better job tying off mysteries than Lost had, despite not having as big a cultural (or ratings) impact. But like Lost, Fringe proved that the journey ultimately was an emotional one and not  based in hardline answers.

Finally, according to J.J. Abrams on the creation and inspiration of the show from the Scientific American article, “Fringe science or the real deal? New TV show to debut from Lost creator“:

“Science is about wide-open thinking and the sense that anything is possible,” Abrams told the mag. “The most visionary minds are the ones that are the most fluid about what is absolute and what is variable.”

For the record, the series never filmed in beloved Massachusetts.

 

The Best:

Pilot, The Arrival, In Which We Meet Mr. Jones, The Dreamscape, Safe, Bound, The Transformation, Ability, Inner Child, Bad Dreams, The Road Not Taken, and There’s More Than One of Everything

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In pieces:

  • Pilot features the introduction to the core characters of the series;
  • The Arrival not only introduces us to the Observers, but also the hallucinations of an important character to someone of the main cast (in this case, FBI Agent Scott to Dunham), which would also occur in Seasons 3 and 4;
  • In Which We Meet Mr. Jones features the first appearance of David Robert Jones;
  • The Dreamscape is certainly thrilling, with the suspicion over Massive Dynamic, the mention of it’s CEO, William Bell, and the revisiting of Scott’s memories;
  • Safe sees Olivia kidnapped, and a real turning point for in that the series “found who [Fringe was]…in episode 10, the episode where Olivia got kidnapped…“;
  • Bound features the gigantic single cell specimen of a cold virus come out of people;
  • The Transformation is the last episode to feature John Scott;
  • Ability features the re-appearance of David Robert Jones;
  • Inner Child features the introduction of Michael, while also making the first indication that Peter Bishop is not from this this universe;
  • Bad Dreams features the reveal of Olivia Dunham’s Cortexiphan trials through her seeing events through the eyes of Nick Lane, which includes this same-sex kissing scene as Dunham melding with Lane’s mind. The ending is very good;
  • The Road Not Taken formerly introduces the other universe; and,
  • There’s More Than One of Everything sees the first time Olivia travels to other universe, the first apperarnce of Reiden Lake, the re-appearance and death of David Robert Jones, Walter visiting Peter’s grave, and an ominous warning.

According to The A.V. Club review of Pilot:

There’s a certain amount of getting-to-know-you involved with any new TV series, but especially one with as strong a geek pedigree and long-term potential asFringe, the latest endeavor in cult-currying from J.J. Abrams. Abrams is known for helping create Alias and Lost–shows that contain secrets within secrets–and even though he’s promised that Fringe is going to be more “drop-in friendly” than his more continuity-heavy efforts, the extended-length Fringe pilot hints at a vast universe of corporate criminals, mad scientists, and supernatural phenomena that could take years to fully map out, even if Abrams and company explore it via one weekly mystery at a time. And frankly, the pilot episode, while often highly entertaining–funny at times, creepy at times, and with a liberal dose of what-the-hell?–is more straightforward and plain than Alias or Lost‘s first episodes were. Fans of sci-fi adventure may find themselves finishing the first Fringe with their fingers crossed, hoping the show gets to run long enough to become all it can.

Let’s start with the good, because Fringe certainly does. Not since Lost has there been an opening scene in a pilot as immediately arresting as Fringe‘s introduction of airplane rocked by an electrical storm, a man having a panic attack, and an airborne contagion that causes everyone near the man to start shedding their skins. Soon the crew’s jaws are falling off, though not before they can switch the jet over to autopilot, so that when the flight arrives in Boston (landing by remote control), everyone on board has been reduced to blood-spattered skeletons.

There’s one man who can unravel the secret of what happened on that plane. His name is Walter Bishop, and as played by John Noble he’s a raving madman who speaks in non-sequiturs and concocts crazy schemes that implausibly prove effective. For example: When FBI agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv) is trying to find a way to save her infected partner John Scott (Mark Valley), Walter suggests that Agent Dunham drop acid, strip to her underwear, insert electrodes in the base of her skull, then submerge herself in a sensory deprivation tank to see if she can communicate with Agent Scott subconsciously.

Dunham’s pursuit of the bad guy also leads to the mysterious research organization Massive Dynamics (slogan: “What Do We Do? What Don’t We Do!”) and to company figurehead Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), who sports a cybernetic arm and a generally unhelpful attitude. Her main function seems to be to block access to William Bell, the founder of MD, who used to work alongside Walter Bishop back in their Harvard days. While Walter went crazy; his old friend became the head of a multi-trillion dollar company, behind every major technological advancement of the age.

Here’s the problem with the Fringe pilot: It isn’t really about these two old scientists and their divergent paths. (At least not completely.) It’s about Dunham’s step-by-step descent into this world of supernatural mystery, which is described by her boss Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick) as “The Pattern.” Walter Bishop may have gone nuts studying the connections between “mind control, teleportation… reanimation,” but he’s Dunham’s key to mapping out The Pattern, and her key to unlocking Walter is his son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), a reluctant genius who skates by as a con artist. Judging by the first episode, Fringe is going to be about the partnership of Olivia and Peter, as they enter a world neither of them wants to be in, while swapping flatly functional dialogue out of a dime store pulp.

Both Joshua Jackson and Anna Torv are fine as the leads, and there’s a strong chance that they’ll grow into these roles and develop more nuanced personalities than “driven professional woman with soft heart” and “hardened cynic with baby face.” For now though, Fringe will probably rise or fall based on the strength of each week’s unexplained phenomenon, and the quirks of the mythology and supporting characters. The pilot has a solid story with a few good twists (which I won’t go into here, though feel free to discuss them in the comments section after the episode airs), but its mythology is still nascent.

Those supporting characters though? Well, that’s where Fringe really kicks in. Noble in particular sells Walter Bishop’s precise mix of crazy, smart, funny and scary, whether he’s muttering about the menu at his mental institution (“They have this horrible… pudding here.”) or ordering up a cow for his new lab, or holding a scalpel in his shaky hand, preparing to cut into Agent Scott before anyone’s given him the okay. There’s a strong touch of tragedy to the character, and yet he’s also the most entertaining person on the screen. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him.

I’m also looking forward to seeing more of Miss Sharp, with her fake smile, snippy tone and inability to be snowed. (When Dunham tries to bluff her with the line, “I’m cleared to know whatever you’re cleared to know,” Sharp replies, “Apparently not.”) Miss Sharp has this episode’s best line, too, a callback to Walter’s insistence that his subconscious communication method will work even on corpses, so long as they haven’t been dead for more than six hours. At the end of the first Fringe, a character turns up in the morgue, and when Miss Sharp finds out the dead person has only been gone five hours, she snaps, “Question him!”

According to The A.V. Club review of The Arrival:

“The Arrival” was the weirdest episode of Fringe yet–a deep-down sci-fi spookfest that minimized the show’s procedural side and instead raised far more questions than it answered. In fact, I can’t think of any questions that “The Arrival” satisfactorily answered–not even “What happened in the Fringe episode entitled ‘The Arrival’?”

The cold open takes place at a diner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where an eccentric bald man scrawls runic language in a journal while observing a construction site through futuristic binoculars. He observes just long enough to witness a cruddy CGI explosion, which causes everyone on the street to flee (presumably while listening to TV On The Radio or something). The Observer’s last pre-credits words: “It has arrived.”

“It” is some kind of cylindrical machine that generates blue lens flares. (Or, as Peter calls it, a “giant metallic suppository.”) Though Walter is initially reluctant to reveal what the device is, he does cop to the fact that it’s sending a signal of some kind. That signal draws the attention of a stocking-capped thug (played by fine young character actor Michael Kelly, who in the right light looks a little like Steve Martin). The thug wields a zap gun and carries a pocket full of wires and electrodes that he shoves up people’s noses, so that he can read their minds. In order to locate the beacon, the thug kidnaps Peter, wires him up and asks, “When was the last time your father kissed you?”

Meanwhile, Olivia is hot on the trail of The Observer, whom she spots in a photograph of a crime scene and remembers from a prior photo. Her boss Broyles is impressed that it only took Olivia three weeks to make a connection that it’s taken the agency three years to uncover.

The other big Olivia event this week occurs right before the closing credits, when her supposedly dead, allegedly evil ex-partner John Scott shows up in her apartment. The how and why of John’s return will surely be explored when the show returns in two weeks. Tonight, his sudden appearance just seemed part of “The Arrival”‘s general goal of random mindfuckery. Also part of the plan? The big climactic scene in the graveyard, in which Mr. Stocking Cap fights with Olivia while Peter wrestles with The Observer and discovers that The Observer can recite what Peter is thinking, line-for-line. Prior to all the tussling, the beacon burrows into the earth and disappears, prompting The Observer to comment, “Departure on schedule.”

The ramifications of all this will take a while to play out, though the action in this episode does seem to have an immediate purpose: to provide a reason for Peter to stick around, rather that returning to his glamorous con-man lifestyle. After talking with The Observer–or having The Observer talk for him, I should say–Peter now believes in The Pattern, and wants to stick around to see how it plays out.

I’m still interested in The Pattern too, but if it means a bunch more episodes like this one, I don’t know that I’m Pattern-enthusiastic. The shock and awe factor of “The Arrival” was strong, but as a piece of storytelling, the episode felt slight and soggy, and hardly the satisfying standalone experience that the creators promised each Fringe chapter would be. Are they throwing in the towel on mystery-a-week already, or was this just a necessary mythology episode? I guess we’ll know more in two weeks.

According to The A.V. Club review of In Which We Meet Mr. Jones:

Welcome back, Fringe-ophiles! Maybe it’s because the two-week absence made my heart grow fonder, but I enjoyed this episode, which ramped up the action and the weirdness, while putting a few more pieces in play for the series’ Master Plot. And while I have yet to see an episode of Fringe that rises to the level of “great”–and while I’m still concerned that Fringe‘s reliance on repetition is going to prove to be a byproduct of frantic wheel-spinning rather than a function of some grand plan–on a pure entertainment level, I thought “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones” was quite good.

I especially liked this week’s Freak-Meet (my new handy term for Fringe‘s cold open. In a classic bit of House-like misdirection, we’re dropped into the middle of an operation by an FBI team led by Agent Mitchell Loeb, who approaches a truck we assume will contain some kind of crazy bio-tech oddity: a family of illegal immigrants bleeding from their eyes, perhaps, or a homeless man telepathically communicating with the ghost of Philo T. Farnsworth. Instead, the team finds a few stuffed pandas, and Fringe saves its opening twist for the very next scene, when Loeb reports back to Agent Broyles, and promptly collapses in his office. Loeb’s problem? A bad case of teeth-heart.

Following the credits, “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones” moves the players into place quickly. Broyles calls in Walter to figure out exactly what the hell the strange, toothy organism surrounding Loeb’s heart is, and how to remove it. Meanwhile Olivia gets briefed by Broyles about a shadowy organization known as ZFT and a man named David Jones (played by Jared Harris), and she promptly jets off to Germany, where Jones is imprisoned, and where she knows (and has a romantic connection to) a plugged-in dude named Lucas. Astrid pitches in too, poring over a sheaf of numbers found in Loeb’s effects and decoding them using “the Caesar shift.” And Peter is tasked to find the one man that Jones will spill to: a guy named Joseph Smith, whom the FBI caps before Peter can make contact.

If Fringe‘s opening Freak-Meets owe a lot to the structure of House (and Law & Order, and other procedurals), its end-games are rapidly becoming uniquelyFringe-y. In this case of “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones,” an episode with a lot of forward momentum culminated in a finely cross-cut sequence that had Peter hooked up to electrodes in order to read the mind of The Corpse Of Joseph Smith, while over in Germany Olivia tried to convince the titular Mr. Jones to give them the antidote to cure Loeb’s teeth-heart (which had sprouted roots, and was rapidly choking away the lawman’s life). Very exciting stuff.

But what’s more exciting to me are the multiple indications in this episode thatFringe‘s bigger picture may be coming into focus. Start with the title, which seems to indicate that we will someday see Mr. Jones again, along with his agents of ZFT, who “traffic in scientific progress.” Then there was the attention paid to Olivia’s romantic past, coming one episode after the hints about her troubled youth, which indicates that they’re finally going to flesh out her character; and the offhand mention by Peter that Walter has hooked him up to electrodes before, which moves that backstory forward a bit. And capping it all: tonight’s kicker ending, which had Agent Loeb and his wife Samantha whispering conspiratorially to each other about the information The Corpse Of Joseph Smith provided to Mr. Jones… the words “Little Hill.”

In the closing scenes, Broyles placates the curious Olivia (and chastises Fringe‘s audience) by giving a little speech about how she’s going to face more questions than answers on this job, and how, “Tomorrow we’ll do this all over again.” But “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones” offered some promise that each week do this, we might just be rewarded for our perseverance.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Dreamscape:

Butterfly attack!!!!

AAAAAAAAAH!

This week’s Freak-Meet wasn’t about getting to know a person–or at least not for very long. We’re only briefly introduced to Mark Young, a harried young executive pitching a product–or service?–called ExtenzaLife to a group of businessmen irritated by his tardiness. After Young turns their mood around with his presentation, he’s alone in the boardroom when he spots a butterfly. Then the butterfly slashes Young’s skin. And then another razor-edged butterfly flaps at him. And then a whole flock. Justifiably wigged, Young leaps through a plate-glass window and plunges to his death, while butterflies flutter around him and beautiful music plays on the soundtrack. Finally, the big reveal: Young just jumped from the upper floors of the Massive Dynamic building. Maybe this week’s Freak isn’t Young, or the butterflies. Maybe it’s Massive Dynamic.

“The Dreamscape” wasn’t quite what I expected it to be based on last week’s tease, but I was fairly satisfied with it regardless. Last week I got the impression that this episode was going to be all about Olivia allowing herself to plug into with whatever brain-net–or “Matrix,” if you will–that Walter had inadvertently left her connected to after the pilot episode’s sensory deprivation tank experiment. And indeed that was part of the plot of “The Dreamscape.” But I thought we were in for one of those classic sci-fi head games where we’re led to believe that Olivia’s subconscious experiences might be the real world, and that everything else we’ve been experiencing is a simulation. Or something like that.

Instead, the whole “What is real?” question being asked by the Fringe teaser’s gravelly voiced narrator had to do with those killer butterflies, which may well have been figments of Young’s imagination. As Walter explains, just like our hairs can stand on end when we get scared–or just like Walter can get spontaneous erections when he thinks he has to pee–our bodies sometimes manifest physical reactions to mental stimuli. How that equates to Young’s skin rupturing into hundreds of tiny slices is, well, more than a little odd. And it happens again later in the episode, when a suspect that Olivia tracks down with the help of her dead ex-partner John’s memories–more on that in a moment–imagines his throat being slit, just as his neck actually does open up and bleed out. Pretty neat. Unlikely, but neat.

Much like Fringe fan favorite “The Arrival” (not a favorite of mine, sorry to say), “The Dreamscape” is an episode more involved with insinuation and mythology-building than with telling a complete-in-one story. But perhaps because I’ve come to trust Fringe more over its recent run of entertaining episodes, I enjoyed it fairly well, and found myself trying to figure out what kind of thematic connections I could make using the notion of the body reacting to mere thoughts. How does this relate to Peter responding to his old friend’s warnings that his past is coming back to haunt him? Or to Olivia regretfully but determinedly wiping off her lipstick when Broyles calls her to say that a case is about to get in the way of her date? Since this is a show largely about human beings as machines made of meat, it naturally follows that the machines would respond to programming, even when they’re unaware they’re doing so.

So that still intrigues me. And though I no longer think we’re going to find out that Olivia’s subconscious is actually reality–and thank goodness for that, honestly–I’m still intrigued by her lingering connection to John’s dormant subconscious. I loved it when John suddenly looked at her while she was observing her own memories. And I thought that after such a kick-ass opening, the episode ended on a high with Olivia receiving that unnerving ghost e-mail from John: “I SAW YOU. IN THE RESTAURANT.”

According to The A.V. Club review of Safe:

Hey, gang–Noel is out being a movie critic somewhere (thinks he’s all special with his screenings and his Best of lists and everything), so you’re stuck with me as a guest reviewer tonight. Sorry about the late posting; between this and House, I am currently cursing my inability to halt the flow of time.

Nobody stops time in “Safe,” but given Walter’s proclivities, and the seemingly limitless ambitions of the people operating in and around the Pattern, I wouldn’t be surprised if that came up eventually. This is a mythology episode to the bone; we get return appearances by Mr. Jones (aka, Creepy German Guy), the heartless Mr. Loeb, and more of Olivia and her gradual assimilation of John Scott’s memories. That last bit turns out to be particularly important; by the end, everybody wants a crack at what’s inside Olivia’s head, and it’s doubtful that the ones who finally nab her care much about keeping that “crack” metaphorical.

Getting ahead of myself, though. I’m not sure you’d call it a Freak-Meet (delightful phrase), but tonight’s cold open was quite good, with Loeb and company breaking into the Pennsylvania Mutual Savings Bank with the help of that phasing machine Loeb perfected earlier in the season. Well, not quite perfected; it throws off surprising amounts of radiation, and once running, it only keeps a wall passable for a limited amount of time, which one of Loeb’s crew learns to his misfortune. Loeb manages to get what they came for–a safe deposit box–but they leave a man behind; poor Raul Lugo, stuck mid-phase with a bullet in his head.

(Interesting that he survived long enough to need the bullet. Would he’ve died on his own without the headshot? Given what we know about Loeb, he doesn’t seem like the mercy-killing kind.)

Olivia, Peter, and Walter get the call to investigate, and there’s the usual banter: Walter is odd, Peter is sarcastic, and Olivia is practical. In the middle of chit-chat, Olivia IDs the corpse as someone she was in the Marines with; but when she takes the next step of tracking down the guy’s widow, she finds that it wasn’t her who knew Raul, but John Scott. Which has got to be a little disconcerting; John’s been intruding on her consciousness for a while, but this is the first time he’s gotten dug in deep enough for Olivia to mistake his memories for her own. Even Walter’s perplexed.

The Mr. Wizard sessions this week are limited to Walter’s demonstration on the science behind phasing; using an electric football game, a glass of rice, and a toy figure, he shows how by vibrating a seemingly solid substance (ie, the rice), that substance can be rearranged to allow an object to pass through. (I spent most of the hour trying to figure out how to work a Kitty Pryde joke in here, but I got nothing.) Interestingly, the investigations into how Loeb and his crew broke in to the bank are eventually thrown over for the more important question of what it was they took–the boxes were purchased 23 years ago, paid for in cash, with no way to trace their original owner. Given that Loeb was willing to spend as long as he did just to work out a way to steal those boxes, one can’t help but be a little curious as to their contents.

The answer, or at least part of it, comes when Olivia and Peter talk a quick trip to a Cambridge bar. There to investigate Lugo–he was apparently a model citizen before he served in the Gulf War, and Olivia would like to know just what pushed him over the edge–the two end up hanging around, doing shots and trying to impress each other with card tricks. We learn Olivia has a head for numbers, and when she recites the numbers of the stolen safety deposit boxes (233, 377, 610), Peter recognizes them as a series that Walter says to himself before he goes to sleep. It’s part of the Fibonacci Sequence, but what’s really cool is that when they wake Walter up and ask him what it means, it makes Walter realize that the boxes were his.

Fringe is full of what you could call esoteric plotting; it throws out lots of hints, insinuations, and boxes of weird shit, and while it doesn’t really explain everything immediately, it strings you long by promising that in time, all will be revealed. It’s a tricky game to play, because the longer the tease, the greater the risk that the audience will lose faith. We’re only half into the first season here, so trust is high, but it only goes far; one of the best ways to keep people invested is by grounding the story with a personal connection to the main characters. Having Walter be, in a way, the source of the current disturbance suddenly made everything that much more important. It changes the game.

By the end of “Safe,” all three leads are tied in. Walter, through his invention of a transporting device designed to bring a doctor from the past to save his dying son; Peter, from his illness (and who wants to bet that suspiciously convenient illness, which lasted long enough to drive Walter to act but cleared up before he could actually test his invention, wasn’t entirely natural?); and Olivia from those damn memories. Over at Massive Dynamic, Nina and her team are working to extract information from John’s corpse and coming up empty handed–Olivia has what they need. Unfortunately for them (and her), she also has what Mr. Jones is looking for. The bank heists were his doing, and in the boxes, the pieces of Walter’s transport machine; Jones makes his escape from prison (after killing his long suffering lawyer) by simply standing in the right corner at the right time, and Loeb already has the prize waiting for him. Olivia’s been kidnapped because she knows something; maybe come January, we might be able to find out what.

According to The A.V. Club review of Bound:

Hello again, Fringe fans; Noel’s still out fighting the good fight at Sundance, so you’re stuck with me for one more week. And what a week it is. “Bound” picks up where “Safe” left off, with the resolution of Olivia’s kidnapping, the final fate of Mitch Loeb’s turn as a double agent, and a Freak Meet with a giant slug that likes to grow in people’s insides. It’s a gripping, bizarre, occasionally wince-inducing hour of television; after a spotty first half of the season, Fringe is finally hitting its stride.

It’s called “Bound,” and if we put a bit of work in, it’s not hard to find the various ways in which Olivia Dunham is getting tied down. First, there’s the literal: after her abduction, Olivia gets transported into yet another dank room where men in lab-coats and a dude in a mask and black loafers do a spinal tap on her. The masked dude turned out to be Mitch Loeb, the very definition of a player in theFringe-verse, but Olivia doesn’t figure it out yet. Mitch is gone by the time Olivia, using the second oldest trick in the book (using the first would’ve involved more winking and a bit of leg), turns the tables on her captors and escapes. A moment’s praise for the utter badassery of this sequence; Olivia is fast becoming one of my favorite characters on TV, and the way she managed to take out the threats, swipe evidence from the site, steal a car, call in for back-up, and hide the swiped evidence, all without missing a beat, was terrific.

Of course, awesome though she may be, Olivia isn’t out the woods quite yet. There are, after all, other ways to have your hands tied. Although Broyles promises help, the first agents to meet Olivia after her escape treat her like a criminal, tranquilizing her, bringing her to a hospital and handcuffing her to her bed while she’s unconscious. What’s worse is the man sitting in her room when she wakes up: Sanford Harris, a man she arrested for sexual assault. Only Harris’s conviction was overturned, and he’s now working for Homeland Security. He’s been given license to investigate the Fringe Division, and it looks like he hasn’t forgiven Olivia for that whole arrest thing.

And where are Peter and Walter during all this? Dosing caterpillars with Walter’s special blend of LSD. “Bound” is a little short on the Peter/Walter dynamic, focusing more on Olivia’s pursuit of her kidnappers, but we get some choice bits, including Walter’s continued attempts to play matchmaker between his son and his guardian agent. The week’s Freak Meet has an epidemiologist who suffocates during a lecture, vomiting up a giant, spiky slug after death in front of a classroom of horrified college students. Walter and Peter get called in for the investigation, and Olivia asks for their help identifying the substance in the vials from the lab she so wisely hid after escaping earlier. The substance turns out to be eggs which, when mixed with stomach acid, grow into, surprise, giant, spiky slugs. Interestingly enough, the slug itself is a just a large, single celled organism—a much magnified version of the common cold.

After grilling the dead epidemiologist’s student assistant (and former lover, natch), Olivia discovers the guy was up for a job with the CDC, as part of a task force to handle potential epidemics. One other man’s name comes up for the task force, a Dr. Russell Simon; they get him into protective custody fast, but it’s all for naught when Agent Mitch doses him with some slug eggs. Simon dies, and Olivia is back to square one. Thankfully, Mitch doesn’t like buying new shoes, and Olivia recognizes the loafers on his feet as the same as ones worn by the guy in the mask before. She goes to pay a visit at the Loeb residence while Mitch is at work, and she also sends Charlie to ask Peter for a favor: they need an illegal wire tap on the Loeb’s phone. Just before Olivia can break into the house, Mitch’s wife Samantha shows up, and we get a couple of wonderful “I know who you are, but do you know who I am” conversations. Samantha places a frantic call to Mitch just as Peter struggles to get an impromptu phone tap working, and Olivia wanders the house, looking for clues.

If this all sounds a little breathless, well, that’s how it felt. “Bound” was heavy on incident, light on mood; the freak of the week was relegated largely to the background, and apart from some character moments between Olivia and her sister Rachel (and Rachel’s daughter, Ella), the focus was on forward momentum. There’s always a risk with that—the demands of episodic television require that individual episodes form their own internal arcs, and this much plot could’ve ended up formless. For the first three-quarters of the episode, it felt like “Bound” had a lot to say, but was maybe rushing to hard to get all of it in; but then everything came together at the end.

I’m not entirely sold on the “investigation” of Fringe Division. Sanford Harris seems fairly one-note, even if Olivia was able to appeal to his sense of decency, and the last thing we need is somebody questioning all the weird shit that Walter gets into. As well, the scenes between Olivia and her sister were okay, but didn’t really amount to much. I like that the show is trying to give us a sense of her home life, but I would’ve rather that home life tied in better with the series’ larger concerns. (Although Ella’s presence did lead to a most excellent visual pun.)

But those are minor complaints. This episode took the stakes raised in “Safe” and changed the game on us again, in a way I did not see coming at all. Only time will tell if this ends up making sense; but after Olivia has to shoot Samantha to save her own life; after Peter comes up with a way to trap Mitch; after Olivia shows Mitch photos of his dead wife in an effort to break him; and after Mitch breaks and shouts, “Do you not understand the rules? We saved you! Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt. Olivia managed to get free from her kidnappers, she managed to duck around Harris’s interference to get the job done, but it remains to be seen if can she get past her own assumptions about the situation in time. Like us, she’s bound by all the things she doesn’t know; and so far, the only things she’s learned come a couple of beats too late.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Transformation:

Okay, first things first: Best Freak-Meet yet. And I feel justified in reverting to my old term here, because freaks don’t get any freakier than Marshall Bowman, an airplane passenger who’s going about the usual airplane passenger business—scrawling notes with words like “technology” and “dangerous” and “avoid capture”—when suddenly his nose begins to bleed. He rushes from the lavatory to the flight attendants’ station, hissing, “There’s something happening to me that I don’t have the time or the permission to explain.” When one of the stews threatens to taser him, Bowman warns, “A taser won’t do anything; it’ll just piss me off.” The he heads back to the lavatory, doubles over in pain, and bursts back out in the form of a hairy, roaring beast. And I thought to myself—and not for the last time in this episode—“Hell. Yes.”
Of course it shouldn’t be so surprising that “The Transformation” was one of the better Fringes—and one that I’d eagerly show to Fringe-doubters as evidence that the series has found its legs—because it was written by top-tier Fringe scribes J.R. Orci and Zack Whedon, and directed by skilled genre technician Brad Anderson, who previously helmed the very good episode “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones.” I wouldn’t say that “The Transformation” broke any new ground. If anything, it recapitulated pretty much every previous Fringe element—bio-weapons sales, telepathic communication, Massive Dynamics, airplane crashes, etc.—but did so in a way that was energetic, tense, and even a little emotional.
After the opening, Fringe returns with the crash of Bowman’s flight in Scarsdale, NY, and the arrival of Fringe Division at the crash site. Once Walter gets Bowman’s hairy corpse back to the lab and pulls a familiar-looking glass disc out of its… paw?… Olivia begins to piece the case together in her head, relying once again on the memories of her mostly dead ex-partner and ex-lover, John Scott. (It was a lot of fun watching Olivia try to explain to Charlie how and why she knew what she knew about Bowman’s business.)
This was a good week for Walter weirdness, with him holding up a watermelon he was using “as a control group” (and as a snack), and him proceeding through almost an entire scene with a grain of rice stuck to his lip. And it was a good week for Peter, with him planting doubts in Olivia’s head about the motives and veracity of her ghost pal John, and with him accompanying her on her ultimate mission, saying “Shady deals with shady guys in shady hotels is my M.O.” (By the way, I still don’t really buy it when Peter says things like that, but only because the character’s backstory is still mostly on paper, not fleshed out. Still, I thought Peter handled the shady hotel deal very well, with his improvised answers about Thai food.)
But once again Olivia’s the rightful star of her show, demonstrating a drive and ruthlessness that’s both admirable and a little nuts. After using John’s memories to track down importer/exporter Mr. Hicks, she actually withholds a sedative from him while he’s in the middle of transforming into a monster, just so she can get him to tell her who he’s working for. And when Hicks gives up the name—“Conrad!”—Olivia  muscles her way into a transaction for the monster-making virus, and rebuffs the bad guy’s suspicious “Who’s he?” (directed at Peter) with a curt, “Who’re they?” (directed at two hired goons).
Eventually, after almost getting her and Peter killed, Olivia brings down Conrad and his men, and the F.B.I. takes possession of the blue glowing lightbulbs Conrad was attempting to sell. Then at the end Olivia returns to Walter’s sensory deprivation tank to say goodbye to the fast-fading memories of John Scott. But despite the uncharacteristically sentimental ending, I still felt a lingering sense of unease to this episode. These monsters that lurk within—like the memories that aren’t ours, and the covert operations within the government—always seem to be on the verge of taking over. But who put them there? And why?

According to The A.V. Club review of Ability:

Does it still qualify as a Freak-Meet if we already met the freak a while back?
Specifically I’m talking about the mysterious David Robert Jones (played with maximum oil by Jared Harris), whom we met back in Episode 7, in the appropriately titled “In Which We Meet Mr. Jones.” Tonight, we followed up on his journey from Germany to Boston, which he accomplished via teleportation (or as Olivia explains it, he managed “to Star Trek himself”). Now he’s threatening to set off a bomb containing a biological terror agent—because this is Fringe, after all—unless Olivia can prove her mettle.
And if she doesn’t? Well, in our secondary pre-commercial Freak-Meet, we learn the stakes. Tommy The Paperboy accepts a $2 bill, and in less than a minute, his skin begins to melt around his orifices, causing him to choke. Later, when the FBI storms Mr. Jones’ safe-house, another agent touches a $2 bill, and suffers the same fate. (Though Olivia tries to save him with a tracheotomy tube, only to discover that the flesh continues to crawl, covering up the tube as well.) As Walter warns, Mr. Jones is threatening to loose a plague of orificelessness.
For those of you who’ve been impatient with the case-of-the-week structure ofFringe and eager to move forward with the master-plot, “Ability” had to be a satisfying episode. (It was for me too, though generally speaking I approve of the case-of-the-week concept.) A lot of the major elements of Fringe mythology were in play, including Massive Dynamics, which we learned owns the patent on a (reportedly unsuccessful) mind-expanding drug called Cortexifan, which was tested on a young Olivia Dunham when she was living on a army base in Florida as a little girl. (This information was retrieved by Nina Sharp from her glowy handheld polygon… or as I like to call it, the Kindle 3.)
We also found out a lot more about Mr. Jones’s organization, and their code word “ZFT,” which refers to a self-published manuscript called (in translation) Destruction By Advancement Of Technology. This book predicts a series of strange events (not unlike “the pattern,” surely), and an army of unwilling recruits who will fight to affect what’s happening. One of those recruits is apparently Olivia, thanks to her Cortexifan dose, and thanks to Jones’ intense interest in her. He promises to help her stop his bomb if she can solve a simple puzzle, which involves switching off lights in a light-box just by looking at them. Olivia gets Peter to help her cheat, then she arrives at the bomb site and finds a larger version of the light-box puzzle awaiting her. To defuse the bomb, she has to switch off the lights—for real this time.
Even though I saw this twist coming—thanks to Fox’s promotional materials, mainly—it was still a neat one, because it underscored the idea that the characters in Fringe can’t duck their fate. (There is a pattern, after all… and patterns repeat.) And it didn’t hurt that the light-box bomb climax was only the first of three kickers. After Olivia works her latent magic and saves the city, she goes to see the apparently dying Jones in his hospital room, and finds a massive hole in the wall where Jones has… escaped? (Walter explains that the process of teleportation “does something horrible, but doesn’t kill you”… so I presume Jones has transformed in some way.)
And in the final “gotcha,” we see Walter back in the lab, slipping a blank piece of paper in his typewriter in order to examine the typography and confirm something he already feared: that he is the author of Destruction By Advancement Of Technology. He’s the one intending to pull apart reality itself. He may be the change he’s been waiting for for.
Okay, now that’s pretty cool.

According to The A.V. Club review of Inner Child:

Hey, remember Fringe? That wacky sci-fi/horror/detective/conspiracy show that started out with a cool premise, quickly got repetitive, and then suddenly developed a consistent narrative drive and sense of whimsy just before Fox stuck it on a shelf for two months? Yeah, well, it was back tonight. Finally. And maybe it’s just that I’d missed the show more than I’d realized, but even though “Inner Child” was a plugger episode with very little new intel on The Pattern or any of the show’s overarching mysteries, I still quite enjoyed it.
I especially liked the opening, which began with a burly demolition crew finishing up the wiring on a job. As they’re leaving, one of the dudes, Dennis, begins to worry that maybe they haven’t done a good enough job sweeping all the bums out of the building. So he halts the countdown and heads back inside. And then he notices that one of the concrete floors sounds hollow. Then he falls through that floor to an underground lair, and meets himself a freak.
The C.H.U.D. in question is a little boy, bald and pale, who Walter surmises has been surviving on rats and bugs (“maybe millipedes”) in a chamber that’s been sealed shut for 70 years. Because I don’t want to keep typing “the boy” over and over in this write-up, I’m going to call the kid “Lil’ O,” for reasons that will be obvious if you were lucky enough to see this whole episode. And if you didn’tcatch the end of the episode… well, I’ll explain the name in a moment.
Anyway, Lil’ O’s amazing ability to thrive in impossible conditions fascinates the covert wing of our government, who sends out a “social worker” named Eliot. It took me a moment to recognize that Eliot was played by Erik Palladino (who was suspiciously absent from all the ER retrospectives last week), but I started to pick up on his Palladino-hood when he responded to Olivia’s dismissal his petty civil service job by revealing that he’s actually a spook. (“But you didn’t have clearance to know that,” he sneers.) Now that’s the smug asshole I remember from ‘90s TV dramas!
Eliot wants to seize Lil’ O, but Broyles convinces him to let his Fringe team hold him for 24 hours, partly so Walter can study the kid, and partly because Lil’ O has taken a shine to Olivia, and has picked up psychic vibrations related to case she’s working. A serial killer known as The Artist is apparently operating in Boston again, kidnapping women and sculpting their bodies with his knives before putting them on public display. And Lil’ O, through some strange process (that Walter thinks might involve pheromones), is able to feed Olivia names and locations of victims and potential victims.
The serial killer stuff in “Inner Child” was fairly pat—with elements swiped wholesale from Thomas Harris and Michael Connelly—and the “keep Lil’ O away from Eliot” operation struck me as a little sloppy, if not actively implausible. But the episode was fast paced and creepy, with a few good Walter lines (my favorite being a tie between “Agent Dunham knows what a penis looks like” and “obviously I was sitting on the toilet”) and the return of his wonderfully ridiculous mad scientist device, “the neural stimulator.” In classic Walter fashion, he can’t recall which wire goes where on the stimulator, so he has to run through all his mnemonic tricks until he remembers “she’s a bad mamma jamma.”
After the FBI catches The Artist—with very few kinks or complications—Olivia and Broyles conspire to set Lil’ O free, sneaking him into some kind of underground foster care program. (He should be safe there, right? I mean, the CIA’s not capable of locating a freaky mute hairless albino boy in a typical middle class American neighborhood, are they?) Then Olivia returns to her apartment to play with her niece, just as she did at the top of the episode, and for a moment I thought that the Fringe writers were going to tie Olivia’s weird niece—who I’mstill convinced was affected by her viewing of Dempsey’s Death Montage back in Episode 12, “The No-Brainer”—to Lil’ O in some unnerving way. Which would’ve cool, from a thematic perspective, making the episode all about the “little creatures” that grow in the dark, in places we don’t look.
Instead, the writers had a bigger reveal in mind. In the final scene, Lil’ O, sitting in the back seat of a car, spots The Observer on the street, and the two share a meaningful look. I’m glad the writers haven’t forgotten the master-plot on Fringe. Heck, I’m glad they haven’t forgotten to keep making the show.

According to The A.V. Club review of Bad Dreams:

The last thing you want to see in a Fringe opening sequence is a toddler in a stroller—especially if a mother is pushing that stroller onto a mostly empty subway platform, while the toddler plays with balloons bearing creepy-looking circus designs. Nothing good can come of this.
Sure enough, in the opening moments of tonight’s Fringe, the mother in question reaches up to retrieve one of those balloons as a train pulls up, and just then a stranger emerges out of the shadows and pushes the mother to her death. The bad news? The stranger is Olivia Dunham. The good news? It was all just a dream, which Olivia quickly awakes from. The bad news again? The next moring, Olivia learns that the mother from her dream actually exists, and that she did in fact die by jumping in front of a subway train the night before.
This episode was written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, best-known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, though fanboys and movie buffs will never forget that Goldsman’s also the man behind the scripts forLost In Space and both of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies. So his record ain’t spotless. But the man’s clearly a pro, and I thought he did a fine job with “Bad Dreams,” both at the typewriter and behind the camera. Sometimes the humor felt a little forced, but by and large Goldsman finessed that tricky Fringe tone—super-creepy with a soupçon of camp—and came up with several unsettling set pieces.
And Goldsman’s work was all the more impressive given that he was entrusted with an episode that wasn’t really a stand-alone, but instead had deep and abiding ramifications for Fringe’s master-plot. I knew early one that Goldsman had figured out what this show’s about when he had Olivia’s adorable niece talking about her upcoming vaccinations. “They put something dead … into your blood,” Ella says, and in that one funny line, the little girl revives Fringe’s key themes: the collision of the biological and the technological, for the purposes of converting human bodies into delivery systems for something nefarious.
The nefariousness in “Bad Dreams” was carried by one Nick Lane, an emotionally and physically scarred young man who has the power to influence people with his moods. It was his suicidal thoughts that caused the mother in Olivia’s dream to kill herself, and later in the episode we see him prompt a woman in a restaurant to stab her husband, and—in a scene that surely made every heterosexual maleFringe fan want to forgive Akiva Goldsman for any past cinematic sins—we see him convince a stripper to have sex with him.
Why is the stripper scene so exciting (despite a minor continuity error that had the lady go from being topless to wearing a bra in the space of one cut)? It’s because Nick’s transmitting his firsthand experience straight into Olivia’s unconscious mind, such that she feels she’s doing whatever he does—and even whatever he influences others to do. She pushes the woman in front of the train, and she stabs the husband, and she has sex with the stripper. Granted, during that last bit she’s strapped to a table in Walter’s lab, being monitored. But Olivia’s moans of pleasure seem pretty real regardless. (“Is he hurting her?” Astrid asks, before realizing what’s actually happening.)
Before discovering Nick/s connection to Olivia, Walter wonders if there might be an even odder explanation for all these deaths she’s witnessing. (“I thought you might’ve teleported to New York and killed her. Wouldn’t that have been wondrous?”) He even speculates on whether Olivia has achieved what he believes to be mankind’s oldest dream: to have the power to wish people dead. But then Olivia’s investigation of the actual crimes leads to the discovery that Nick was present for all of them, and a search through Nick’s apartment uncovers some disturbing research into Massive Dynamic’s underground drug tests, and a some familiar philosophizing about what it might be like to make a better world just by dreaming it.
Yes, Nick Lane is an unwitting soldier in Walter’s covert ZFT Army, injected with a latent strain of kick-ass when he was a youngster, in the same Cortexifan study that Olivia took part in as a little girl in Florida. Only while Olivia remembers nothing about what happened to her, Nick has spent his whole life waiting to be activated, and feeling increasingly purposeless for not being called upon. He even recalls being paired up with Olivia—though he calls her “Olive.”
The big meeting between Nick and Olivia at the climax of “Bad Dreams” was extraordinarily well-shot and performed. It takes place on the top of a tall building, as Nick and a random group mood-infectees stand at the edge of the roof, preparing to jump off en masse. (Or perhaps they’re all just depressed by the giant poster for 17 Again that hangs on a nearby skyscraper.) Nick begs Olivia to kill him, and seems genuinely lost and distraught. Instead, she merely shoots him in the leg—causing all his followers to crumple safely—and gets him to hospital, where he’s put into a pharmacological coma.
The rooftop scene, the subway scene, the stripper scene, and even the restaurant scene—where it looks briefly like Olivia is going to prevent the wife from stabbing her husband, before she grabs the woman’s hand and helps her thrust—were all sublimely unnerving, as was the big final scene, where Walter sits alone and watches a tape of his old Cortexifan experiments, witnessing the disturbing side effects the drug had on “Olive.” Fringe has had its ups and downs in its first season, but I think it’s pretty impressive that the show has developed such a distinctive voice that a stranger like Goldsman can come in and get up to speed so quickly, infected by its peculiar kind of madness.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Road Not Taken:

I thought Agent Broyles’ opening line tonight—“For those of you just joining us…”—was at once clever and useful. Clever because it winked at the audience a little, acknowledging that Fringe is about to wrap up Season One, and that the show is going to be bringing a bunch of storylines together, and potentially confusing all the latecomers (and lazy American Idol fans) who haven’t watched the previous 18 episodes. And yet it was useful because, hey, it’s always nice to get a recap.

“The Road Not Taken” begins with a quick slideshow reminder of all the freakiness associated with what Broyles has dubbed “The Pattern,” along with a synopsis of the new reality: that Massive Dynamic head man William Bell—formerly a friend to Fringe Division, in the person of his spokeswoman Nina Sharp—appears to be behind the anarchic techno-terrorist organization ZFT, and is thus behind all the bad craziness that has kept our heroes employed since last September. And that would have to include tonight’s multiple Freak-Meets, involving ordinary women who happen to burst into flames.

Then the episode starts solving lingering Fringe mysteries left and right. Why does Walter’s typewriter match the only existing draft of the ZFT manifesto? Because it’s not Walter’s typewriter; it belonged to “Belly” back when they shared a lab. Why did William and Walter inject young Floridians with Cortexifan back in the ‘70s? Because they were trying to create an army of super-soldiers to face a coming catastrophe. And what the heck has Peter been building in the lab with poached equipment over the past couple of weeks? Some kind of super-high-tech version of an LP-to-MP3 burner, which uses an electron microscope to photograph and digitize the grooves on a record.

Peter gets to use his invention in a Walter-y way when Fringe Division is sent to an apartment where another woman has spontaneously combusted. Peter cuts a portion of the apartment’s window, figuring that the heat generated by the woman may have softened the glass to the point where the auditory vibrations inside the room have been deeply impressed into the pane. In short: the window contains a recording of what happened in that apartment. Plausible? No way. But definitely cool in that Fringe-y “Hey why not?” kind of way that has made the show such a pleasure so often this season. Plus I liked Walter’s inappropriate reaction after Peter’s first attempt to use the machine shatters the glass. (“That could’ve been one of my records.”)

What I did not like so much about this episode was its big climactic scene, which was clumsily paced and staged. Using what Peter was able to lift off the glass, Olivia manages to track down one of the ZFT lackeys responsible for turning Boston women into tiki torches. And guess what? It’s that jerk-o Harris, back on the show after several weeks of not being an official pain-in-the-ass to Fringe Division. But no sooner has Harris’ treachery been revealed than he’s set on fire by his pyrokinetic hostage (with help from Agent Dunham), following a poorly shot-and-edited gunfight and a too-brief suspense sequence in a locked room.

But that’s pretty much all I didn’t like about “The Road Not Taken.” And if theFringe folks had to shorten that sequence in order to give more time for the damn-near-tragic scene that follows between Olivia and Walter, than so be it. When Olivia grilled Walter on what he and Bell hoped to combat with their experiments on kids, and Walter sobbed, “I can’t remember,” it was easily John Noble’s finest moment in the series to date. Even when Fringe was iffy in the early going, Noble’s always been a reliable standout. He’s set a tone that the rest of the cast has come to follow, to beneficial effect.

As for my favorite parts of “The Road Not Taken,” those would have to be the scenes of suddenly “activated” Cortexifan guinea pig Olivia Dunham, now experiencing two realities simultaneously. At one moment, there’s one burn victim; at another, two. Desks are in different places; phones change color. There have been hints since the Mr. Jones episodes that Fringe is actually about parallel realities or other dimensions. Tonight, we saw a little bit of how that works, and to me, it was satisfyingly creepy.

And for all the questions this episode answered, it also raised some new ones, mostly involving The Observer, who Nina worries is appearing too much. (“Remember what happened last time?” she asks Broyles, who apparently does.) In fact, the episode ends with The Observer appearing in the lab, telling Walter that it’s time for him “to go.” But where? (And who are those masked men attacking Nina when she gets back from Broyles’ place?)

For a show that started out being a fairly dour procedural with wacky mad-scientist elements, Fringe has really worked its way into that fantasy/sci-fi sweet-spot, where its own forward momentum makes the ridiculous look likely and arcane mythology seem well-worth the time to sort through and analyze. After all, as Walter notes, what is a myth but “just an unverified fact?”

According to The A.V. Club review of There’s More Than One of Everything:

It’s hard to take things in all at once–especially when you’re talking about 20 episodes of oddities, curiosities, and, let’s be honest, occasional cliches. Watching “There’s More Than One Of Everything,” the last episode of the first season of Fringe, I found myself more than once wishing I’d taken better notes. And not just about this episode; while the basic plot elements were easy to follow (the show did a nice job making the stakes and conflicts clear), there were so many references and back story nods that I wanted to have everything in my head together. That’s a good sign. “More Than One” answered some questions, left others dangling, and ended on one hell of a cliff-hanger, and now, having seen and processed and worked through the story as best I can, I just want to go back and re-watch the whole series. Even the weaker stuff.

So what is Fringe about? Every show–every great show–can be boiled down to a simple concept. Mobster gets psychiatry to cope with feelings of guilt. Government institutions are hopelessly inadequate in keeping up with social problems. Robots and nerd mock bad movies. Manimal. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but you need a central thread running through every episode in order to hold the storylines and characters together. That thread can evolve over time, but if you lose it completely, you lose the show’s soul; it turns into a bunch of empty tricks designed to distract you long enough to sell you air fresheners and cars.

The question this whole season has been, what’s the core here? Fringe isn’t a great show yet, but at it’s best, it’s pretty darn good; and with all the various plot threads dangling going into the season finale, the one thing that “More Than One” had to accomplish once and for all is to tell us just why in the hell we’re watching this. Olivia’s awesome, Walter’s hilarious, Peter is charming, but what holds them together, what keeps us caring about what happens to them, that’s what we needed here. To feel like this wasn’t just a series of implausible but nifty monsters and a melange of sci-fi concepts heated to a low simmer.

Before we answer that, let’s recap: our good friend David Robert Jones, the man who vanished out of a jail cell and came back–changed, was responsible for the assault on Nina Sharp that ended last week’s episode. After much hemming and hawing from Nina (who makes it out of surgery just fine, though her mecha-arm is messed up), Olivia finds out that Jones stole an energy cell that William Bell had stored in Nina’s arm. It’s a powerful, powerful thing, and Jones stole it with one goal in mind: he wants to create a portal to an alternate dimension so he can get his revenge on Bell for firing him from Massive Dynamic fifteen years ago.

Confused? It’s straightforward, at least for this show. When they were younger, Walter Bishop and Bell (or “Belly” as Walter calls him), to the surprise of no one, ingested large amounts of LSD. They became convinced that the things they saw while under the influence of the drug were real, evidence of an alternate reality adjacent to ours; a reality where things were slightly different, where you could find your duplicate and see if he actually took those karate classes you’d been putting off. The trick became getting there without the acid. Bell started his work with kids, convinced that they could access the other place more easily than adults. It seems he eventually succeeded in developing a way to pass between the worlds, and now he’s hiding out in the other dimension, while Jones goes tearing up ours to get to him.

Walter tells Peter all this at their old beach house; that’s where the Observer brought him (after taking a quick detour to a cemetery to visit what I initially assumed was the grave of Walter’s wife), and that’s where Peter finds him. The Observer, who takes his non-interference policies about as seriously as Uatu the Watcher, told Walter he has to find something to stop something bad from happening. It’s only with Peter’s help that Walter realizes what he’s looking for–a plug that can stop up a portal between dimensions.

Meanwhile (the editing of this entire episode is top-notch, with a great sense of flow and forward momentum), Olivia’s trying to figure out the best way to track Jones’ next move. He tried to make a portal in the middle of a city street, resulting only in a damaged truck and dead driver coming through from the other dimension; and his next attempt on a Providence soccer field had equally bad results, cutting off the diagonal top third of some poor teenager. After going through earlier case files of strange phenomena–I think I caught some photos here from stuff we’d seen in other eps–Olivia figures out a Pattern, in that the weird events were all radiating out from source points. Two of these points are exactly where Jones had his first two strikes. Nina identifies these as “soft spots” in reality where the natural laws are decaying. The last one left, surrounded by the earliest of events in Olivia’s files, is on Reiden Lake; and that’s just where Walter and Peter are headed.

The confrontation that follows was a little deflating; there’s some gunplay, Jones gets his portal running, and then Peter shuts it down with Walter’s plug just in time to cut Jones in half. Apart from the discovery that Jones is Kitty Pryde-ing–Olivia’s bullets go right through him–I was expecting something flashier. But watching the the episode’s final moments made me change my mind. This wasn’t the end of everything, just this season’s main storyline, and the fact that it closed out as solidly as it did is not something I would’ve imagined possible back in the fall.

With Jones gone, Walter makes another trip to the cemetery we saw earlier; he goes alone, though he’s thoughtful enough to leave a note (and Necco wafers) for Peter. The grave isn’t for Walter’s wife, though; it’s for Peter Bishop, 1978-1985. Walter told Peter he crossed over to the alternate reality after he lost something “very precious”; that something was his actual son. Our Peter is not a clone, and he’s not a copy–he’s some kind of bizarre adoptee. Or maybe he was kidnapped. Is there another Walter out there, searching for his Peter?

And Olivia? Nina brings her into Manhattan, where Olivia takes an elevator ride that puts her in very different building from where she started. A woman greets her by name and leads her into an office, with a bell on the desk and a newspaper reading, “Obamas Set To Move Into New White House.” A moment later, and in walks a man in shadows. She asks where she is, he says it’s complicated. She asks who he is, and he steps into the light–and it’s Leonard Nimoy. “I’m William Bell.” And we pull back to see Olivia standing in one of the still standing Twin Towers.

I’m not sure we quite have our concept set yet–hot FBI agent, mad scientist, andsnarky son fight monsters sounds cute but doesn’t quite get us where we want to go. But I’d say after “More Than One,” we’re a lot closer than we were. Past all the technological stuff, this show is about a father who might have done something monstrous to hold on to a son who wasn’t quite his; and a woman who is intent on saving the world, even if that world doesn’t mean what she thought it did. That’s a good start, I’d say. I’m looking forward to more.

The Worst:

The Same Old Story, The Cure, The No-Brainer, and Unleashed

TheNo-Brainer-1

In little bits:

  • The Same Old Story features what is essentially a form of mystical pregnancy (see Feminist Frequency‘s #5) given the nature of the pregnancies depicted. There is also a scene with Olivia Dunham worth mentioning as well;
  • The Cure was not that great;
  • The No-Brainer was a let down as well; and,
  • Unleashed was a “monster-of-the-week” sort of thing.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Same Old Story:

Now that we’ve gotten the “Man, that sucked!”/”Aw c’mon, it’s not so bad!” stuff out of the way, it’s time to settle into what is often the pivotal moment for any TV series with potential long-term geek appeal: The second episode.

Ever since reading Bill Carter’s book Desperate Networks, I’ve been fascinated by second episodes. Carter writes extensively about ABC’s development of Lost andDesperate Housewives in 2004, emphasizing how much time and effort and money went into producing kick-ass pilots for each show, and how panic set in among the show-runners after the network pick-up, once they realized they were now going to produce a new one of these roughly every week–and on a tighter budget.

The second episode of Fringe falls into the trap so many new series do: it essentially repeats the pilot, with a few new characters and a little more backstory. Once again, we get another shocking opening: A woman relaxing after a sexual liaison with a creepy dude suddenly feels something stirring in her belly, which turns out to be a rapidly developing fetus. By the time she gets to the emergency room, the baby’s ready to be born. The woman dies giving birth, and four hours later the baby dies too, though it’s no longer a baby–it’s a full-grown, elderly man, with an umbilical cord still trailing off his belly and placental gore still coating his skin.

As for the creepy dude, our heroine Olivia Dunham quickly realizes that he may well be a serial killer that she and her corrupt, newly dead ex-partner John Scott pursued before and never caught. This particular serial killer in known for torturing his victims, then removing their pituitary glands. This rings a bell with Dunham’s new mad scientist pal Walter Bishop, who postulates that the killer is a refugee from a super-soldier project. The original idea was to grow soldiers in a Petri dish, but they all grew too fast; Bishop thinks the bad guy is gobbling down pituitary glands in order to stunt his growth.

And how will they find him? Well, they have one of his victims in their lab, and Bishop figures that there’s a record of the last images she saw still burned in her retina, and that he can extract it. (Shades of last week’s LSD-aided journey into the unconscious.) Meanwhile, Bishop’s still acting nuts, his son is still constantly irritated, and Dunham’s still dealing with the cryptic instructions of her boss Philip Broyles, as well as the confounding motives of Massive Dynamics’ corporate figurehead Miss Sharp. In other words… If you watched the first episode of Fringe, you’ve more or less seen the second one.

Which means you’ve already seen the best and worst of what Fringe has to offer so far. Dunham’s dialogue continues to be singularly stilted–or maybe Anna Torv just has no knack for delivering it–while Bishop’s crackpot non-sequiturs continue to be pretty amusing and a little sad. (When Broyles reminds him that he has a lab, and Bishop mutters, “That’s fantastic news,” John Noble gives the line-reading an unexpectedly somber spin… and yet it still made me chuckle.) And while the corny recap of the series’ premise and the re-heated action had me sighing impatiently, I once again dug the junky DIY science, involving scooping out eyeballs and jerry-rigging defibrillators and triangulating the position of the antagonist using photos and computer models. And I was intrigued by the hint Bishop drops at the end that his son has some kind of shady “medical history.”

So I’m still on-board, even though I liked this episode less than the premiere. The promise of Fringe is that it’ll be a sort of freaky CSI, combining procedural beats with mind-blowing absurdity. That promise is still there. But as of yet… nothing great.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Cure:

There’s nothing like cancer–or any disease, really–to remind us that no matter how much we romanticize our consciousness and our emotions, we’re still just sacks of meat, stuffed with bones and tubes and a complicated system of microscopic organisms doing their own thing, often wholly independent of our elevated desires. Falling in love? Contemplating the divine? Craving a cheeseburger? That carcinoma spreading through your kidney doesn’t care. It’ll do what it’ll do.

This of course has been a theme running through Fringe since Episode One, the idea that human beings are just devices. And that these devices can be transformed from something biological to something mechanical… like a communication device… or a bomb.

Tonight we saw one of the bombs. The episode opens with a woman stumbling into a Massachusetts diner–we know it’s in Mass. because the counterman offers her some “wicked good vegetable soup”… also because it says so in big floating letters outside–and in typical Fringe pre-credits gross-out fashion, within minutes of the woman’s arrival, everyone in the place is bleeding from the eyes until they fall over dead. (All except the woman. Her head explodes first.)

When the Fringe team arrives, they discover that the internal body temperature of the victims is so high that their brains must’ve boiled “like a Maine lobster.” (Walter determines this by jamming a meat thermometer into one of the corpse’s ears. That’s right: a meat thermometer.) They also learn that the woman who inadvertently killed the diner patrons–one Emily Kramer–has a disease that I didn’t quite catch the name of. It was referred to at one point as Bellini’s, and of the two medical conditions by that name that I found on the internet, I’m pretty sure it was the one also known as “Collecting Duct Carcinoma” (and not the one that manifests as mental retardation). I apologize for not having these facts cold, but as far as the plot is concerned, this is a fairly unimportant detail. She had Rare Disease; that’s what matters.

The team also locates another woman with Rare Disease: a Claire Williams, who’s been recently abducted and is apparently being experimented on by the same medical research company that turned Emily into a walking microwave. The search for Claire leads the Fringies to a classic bad guy: an oily corporate visionary who talks about the great things we could accomplish if only we had the “resolve” to bypass our moral hang-ups. Here’s all you need to kow about the bad guy: He’s played by Chris Eigeman, one of my favorite actors, who excels at playing callous snobs. Naturally he nailed this part.

It’s perhaps because of Eigeman’s presence–and scenes like the one where a naked mole rat is set loose in a room with Claire until it inevitably bursts like a Karo-syrup-and-red-food-coloring-filled ballon–that I was predisposed to like “The Cure,” despite some of Fringe‘s usual failings… and some failings I just noticed, too. I hadn’t given much thought to the reasonability of the events that fit into The Pattern before now, because I’m not the kind of guy who looks for hard science in my science fiction. If a show tells me that a guy turning a big wooden wheel can make an entire island disappear, I just nod and wait to see what will become of it. And for now, I’m still willing to believe that these weekly experiments on human beings are for some higher purpose beyond “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” That said, it does seem that these experiments are awfully messy and public and not very well covered-up. (Though maybe the sloppy execution is part of The Pattern too.)

Of course the bigger problem with Fringe is one that a lot of you (especially “alap”) pointed out in the comments section last week, namely that the characters have been underdeveloped. And I’m not sure that problem was addressed fully enough by the Fringe writers this week either–although efforts were made. Aside from the usual wacky Walter who demands blue cotton candy, and farts freely, and blows up “Mr. Papaya” to prove a point that could’ve just as easily made by talking, we also get a touching reminder of the feeble, scrambled Walter when Peter reminds him not to use the blue toothbrush and Walter, somewhat shame-faced, mutters, “White for Walter. That’s me.”

And speaking of Peter, while he remained so inessential through most of this episode that even Walter said, “To be honest I didn’t even know you were here,” we got a hint of what he might bring to the table in future weeks. Peter ultimately tracks down Claire by promising to use his third-world connections to do a favor for Nina Sharp someday, and seeing Nina again, interacting with Peter, was enough to bump this episode up a notch or two in my estimation. It was a reminder of the larger universe that Fringe inhabits, and a tease for future plot complications. Also Blair Brown, like Chris Eigeman, has a distinctive charisma that makes the show more interesting to watch whenever she’s on screen.

But the biggest move toward developing character–and one that I found mostly successful, if awkward–involved our heretofore unimpressive heroine, Agent Olivia Dunham. Tonight we learned that Olivia had an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, whom she shot–but did not kill–when she was younger. Now, every year on her birthday, the stepfather sends her a card, to remind her of the evil that she failed to stop. (Or maybe just to wish her a happy birthday; y’know, Olivia’s kind of a drama queen.)

I’m not wild about trotting out the old “bad dad” bit to explain a character’s broken psyche–although J.J. Abrams has made a good living at exploiting just that archetype–but it had a pretty good payoff late in the episode when Olivia watches powerlessly behind a thick pane of glass as Claire comes to the brink of exploding, while the antidote for her condition lies right within her reach. I don’t much care about the reasons why Olivia has become a person who takes responsibility for everything bad that happens in the world. (Perhaps she has a different type of Rare Disease.) I only need to know that this is a wrinkle to a character who has been, up to know, largely featureless.

Similarly, I could’ve done without Agent Broyles’ big dressing-down speech, which culminates in him saying to Olivia, “You broke the cardinal law of our profession: You let your feelings guide your decision-making.” That’s just such a hoary line. And yet it served a higher purpose, by tying the good guys to the experiments being conducted by the bad guys. Because in the FBI, you don’t have the luxury of being a person with emotions. You have to be a machine–fashioned out of meat.

According to The A.V. Club review of The No-Brainer:

A funny thing happened during the two weeks that I wasn’t around to write up Fringe: The show got good. The gooey weirdness, pulse-pounding police action and puckish wit all started to coalesce into well-written, well-paced episodes that didn’t just feel like rehashes of ideas and plots we’ve already seen. And seemingly out of nowhere, Anna Torv became a likeable heroine, no longer so painfully earnest and stilted. And even though tonight’s episode, “The No-Brainer,” was a step backward in quality from the last two, it was only a small step. The return to “just another case” after the complex, mythology-driven business of “Safe” and “Bound” was a let-down, but not an unexpected one. And for the most part, whatFringe has been getting right lately remained every bit as right.
Tonight’s Freak-Meet (and by the way, I’m thinking that term may be inadequate now to describe Fringe’s cold opens, which have gotten more varied) takes place in Springfield, where typical teen Gregory Wiles is chatting on his iPhone and listening to catchy rock music on his computer when suddenly a pop-up window appears reading “What’s That Noise?,” Greg—who’s apparently only owned a computer for a short time, and doesn’t know any better—clicks the box, and is mesmerized by a Ring-esque montage of ominous images and screaming. Then a hand comes out of the screen, Videodrome-style, and liquefies Greg’s brain.
There’s something cool and subtle going on in “The No-Brainer” about the reliability of old technology and the danger of the new (a theme cross-bred withFringe’s usual business about human bodies being used as imperfect vessels to carry biological agents and raw information). From Olivia playing a low-tech game of Operation with her niece to the old rotary telephone ringing in Walter’s lab (“I haven’t heard that sound for ages,” he pines), there were a lot of reminders in this episode of how far we’ve come, technology-wise. There was even an interesting visual cue throughout: recurring lens flares, some of which had clearly been digitally inserted. It gave the episode an “old” look, like an early ‘70s paranoid thriller.
Meanwhile, from out of a dingy, hand-wired back room, our sweaty, be-stubbled villain Brian Dempsey—a decidedly low-tech guy in appearance—has written a program so advanced that Peter’s special off-the-books expert gasps, “Some of this isn’t even computer code!” Dempsey is sending his brain-melting video package around to all of his enemies, essentially infecting them with a living computer virus, and because his victim-list is so narrowly constructed, it doesn’t take long for Olivia and company to track him down. (Even with the still-being-a-pain-in-the-ass Agent Harris demanding that she wrap up her investigation in 12 hours or less.)
My problems with “The No-Brainer” largely have to do with the familiarity of the scenario (for Fringe at least), the sketchy way it ties into the master-plot, and the blah way the story resolves. The climax is a little Scooby Doo-ish, to be frank. Olivia corners Dempsey in his lair, and Dempsey snarls, “Now my son hates me because of you!” (And that dog, presumably.) I could be wrong—and please correct me if I am—but I don’t believe the episode ever answers the main question I was asking: How did this loser create a mind bomb?
Instead, Fringe uses Dempsey and his son Luke as an example to Peter, convincing our hero that he needs to stop being so protective of Walter, and to let his dad have his own subplot. At the end of “The No-Brainer,” Walter meets with the woman who called his lab on that rotary phone (and sent a letter as well, which is very low-tech) and finds out that she’s mother of Carla Warren, the lab assistant whose fiery death sent Walter to the institution. Mrs. Warren doesn’t blame Walter; she just wants to learn more about her daughter. It’s a sweet reiteration of the idea that Walter and Peter (and Brian and Luke) need to understand each other better. But me, I wanted to hear more about that super-virus.
That said, I didn’t have a major problem with the super-virus plot being a rehash, because this is Fringe after all, and repetition is part of the concept. And I enjoyed the continued gelling of the team, with Peter feeling lighthearted enough to jauntily toss precious hard drives around, and Olivia showing more of the multivalent passion that’s become a key part of her character.
Plus, tonight’s episode had two killer sequences: the opening, and a heart-stopping race-against-time as Olivia speeds to her apartment to stop her niece from viewing Dempsey’s montage of death. I was literally yelling at my screen all through the latter scene, especially when Olivia burst into her home and didn’t stop shut her laptop right away. It’s that kind of offbeat action that has me enjoying this show more and more. I wouldn’t have said this about Fringe back in October, but I’m starting to feel like Walter does when he hears there’s a new corpse to examine: “This is the part of the day I look forward to most.”

According to The A.V. Club review of Unleashed:

Tonight’s Fringe was directed by genre journeyman Brad Anderson, who’s been at the helm for a couple of the series’ strongest episodes to date. Anderson knows how to direct creepy, suspenseful action sequences, and how to balance them with on-the-fly wit. That gift was clearly evident in the pre-credits sequence of “Unleashed,” in which a vigilante animal rights group—Animals First!—raids a research lab and sets free all the little beasties, grooving on their own self-righteousness. Unfortunately, one of the little beasties they free is some kind of hybrid super-animal (part Gila monster and part bat, among other things), and it doesn’t take long before the fleeing activists see their vehicle get batted around by tentacles. It was a thrilling, funny opening, setting a tone that carried throughout the episode.
(On a night with multiple amusing lines of dialogue, I think my favorite part occurred on the cut from a college student saying that his roommate would “save anything with a beak or a claw” to a shot of a mutilated body as Astrid gasps, “Whoa, this thing had pretty big claws.”)
The major problem I had with “Unleashed” is that while there were some good jokes and a fair amount of thrills, this episode felt still further removed from what Fringe had been doing so well before the hiatus (even more than last week’s freak-of-the-week outing). Officially this script was credited to Zach Whedon and J.R. Orci, but I have a hard time believing writers as talented as those two came up with something so insignificant on their own. This episode played like the output of a writing staff straining to pad out the season before coming into the homestretch. It was like someone watched The Host over the weekend and then came in on Monday and spilled out all he could remember into Final Draft Pro. There wasn’t a whole lot Anderson could do to make this material special, besides keep it light and keep it moving.
But I don’t want to over-criticize. “Unleashed” was brisk and generally entertaining, and though it was hardly surprising to learn that Walter’s old experiments may have led to the creation of The Creature—when is Walter notthe ultimate culprit?—I appreciated that he felt motivated to clean up his own mess, inspired by Peter’s earlier rant about how they all “live in a society.” (Although maybe I’m just ignorant, because I never quite got how Walter’s plan to drink a bottle of poisonous chemicals and then entice the monster into eating him turned into Walter just shooting the thing.)
Continuing on the theme of unexpected character development, it was also nice to see Olivia’s partner Charlie get some airtime. Granted, he had one of the evening’s most awkward lines of dialogue—saying, “I don’t know, it’s all right,” to Olivia after she found his mauled body in the woods—but he also got to spend much of the episode with monster larvae wriggling around in his guts, which gave him a chance to emote heavily and scare the crap out of the home viewer. (To me, the most unsettling part of Charlie’s belly-babies was that they led to a cancellation of what was clearly going to be Sex Night between him and his wife.) Walter offers Charlie this consolation: “At least The Creature doesn’t mate in the traditional way.” Yes, take comfort. Be glad you weren’t raped by a chimera.
All of that said, I wish “Unleashed” had done more with the notion of genetic experimentation, especially after the weird and wacky early scene where Peter nearly consumes a human ear that Walter had nestled into an omelet for safe keeping. Throughout this season, Fringe has explored the idea that the human body is little more than a piece of wonky biotech, ready to be tinkered with. Adding the animal kingdom into the mix might’ve expanded on those ideas in intriguing ways.
Instead, “Unleashed” stays at the level of a well-shot, disappointingly straightforward monster movie, with an everything’s-okay-now ending. By the end of the hour, Walter is able to kill the little monsters in Charlie’s belly. “Now you crap ‘em out,” he says. Sort of like they did with this episode.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 1

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