For the past season, and even up through the first two episodes of the current, fourth season, Fringe has amped their plot and character arcs up to eleven. The go-for-broke attitude made for some memorable – and sometimes memorably goofy – plotlines. But I for one have appreciated a show that has no fear when it comes to breaking or changing their concept. Too many TV shows reset to zero every episode, but the Fringe team has allowed Walter, Peter, and particularly Olivia to grow and change to dramatic lengths, while still managing to (mostly) retain a case-of-the-week format.
The downside of this, of course, is when we have a solid episode like “Alone In The World,” that presents a Freak-of-the-week, with little overall relevance to the ongoing plot, it feels like a huge step backwards. In Season One, this would have been a fine – maybe even standout – episode. In Season Four? Not so much. Granted, there is a connection there, and some rather striking images throughout… But wither Earth Two? That’s the part of the show that makes my pulse quicken now, and that’s what made last week’s show such a near perfect episode.
This week, though, we kick it off with Walter getting grilled by his former therapist, William Sadler. I spent most of the scene racking my brain, trying to remember whether Sadler died in his previous appearance, and this was yet another difference rendered by the erasing of Peter from the timeline… But I think – without checking – it was actually used to show how less sane Walter is in this new timeline than he was when Peter was around. It’s a good, solid scene, and in the best Fringe fashion, it helps establish what’s going on with Walter, that he’s seeing Peter in every reflective surface, without overstating the case.
Then we’re on to our freak-meet, with a young nerdy kid chased by only-in-Hollywood bullies into a tunnel… Where the bullies are promptly eaten by the vines from The Ruins. As cliché as this scene was, though, the exact same scene in this week’s Supernatural – weirdly on TV at the exact same time – was waaaay worse, but that’s neither here nor there.
Turns out the vines mummify the bullies in short order, meaning Olivia and Agent Lincoln Lee – who is totally unphased by reading through the Fringe case files – get called in to investigate. Walter freaks out that he’s only given one of the bodies to research, which ends up exacerbated by Peter screaming at him from A PLACE BEYOND TIME, and though Broyles and Astrid look on in concern, they do nothing because, you know, I don’t know why.
In short order, Walter discovers that the bodies aren’t mummified, they’re actually growing spores that explode from the victim’s body, infecting everyone around. He manages to contain one body, but the second body explodes in a room at the morgue, killing two attendants, and giving us our first totally creepy visual of the episode. The room is covered in steadily growing black vines, which slowly are reaching down the sink to try and get to water.
I will not mention how this is exactly like the black goop on Supernatural last week that was coming out of the water, because really, they’re two different shows. Okay? Okay.
Anyway, Walter discovers they can kill the vines with UV light, so its back to the tunnel the kid first ran into to kill the main nest – which, it turns out, is huge. Also, I skipped a major part of the plot: with no trouble, they find the kid, who’s taken to Walter’s lab, where they become fast friends. See, in this new reality, Walter lost his own Peter, and then alterna-Peter drowned to death in a frozen lake once he tried to take him back from the other side. This scene gives us a nice bit of explanation, so we know WHY the two sides were still at war, though we’re still not clear on how the machine that melded the universes worked without The Chosen Pacey
The other thing this scene does is help Walter identify the freak kid with his dead son in possibly the clunkiest way possible. Credit to John Noble for making all of this work, and making us truly feel for Walter… But at the same time, there’s metaphors, and then there’s text that pretends to be metaphors. This is the latter.
Also not really a metaphor? Olivia decides to destroy the main vines with flamethrowers (awesome), but the freak kid starts to burn up hundreds of miles away, because he’s psychically connected to the vines. Now Walter needs to chose: what’s more important, one child’s life, or thousands – maybe millions – of innocent lives?
See, the problem with this is, it isn’t a metaphor at all: it’s just making him make the same choice again. It’s frustrating, too, because John Noble continues to play it well, and the scenes of Olivia and Lincoln invading the main nest with night vision goggles are appropriately creepy in an Aliens sort of way. But the main conflict is overstated, and moreso, solved by Walter basically telling the kid to let go a bunch of times until he’s cured. I’m all for the power of love and whatever, but come on, this is Fringe. You can’t just inject the kid with something or other without some sort of explanation.
That said? The episode is pretty much saved by the last scene, where Walter, alone in his office/bedroom at the lab, decides to lobotomize himself. Olivia enters slightly too late, with the spike already partially in Walter’s eye. She – thankfully away from the camera – pulls it out, while he says, “It’s okay, I know what I’m doing,” resigned to the fact that he is insane. She asks him what’s going on, he explains about the face he’s been seeing… And Olivia pulls out a (kind of terrible) picture of Peter, “Is this him?” she asks. Shocked, Walter says it is, and then letting go of the bandage on his eye, revealing the awful looking incision he’s made, yells, “I’m perfectly sane!” And the episode ends with Walter, determined, telling Olivia that if Peter is real, then, “We have to go find him.”
I think the reason the last scene works isn’t just because its that mix of gross, funny, and crazy science that makes Fringe so good – though that’s a large part of it. It’s also that it gets back to the characters, and their relationships. I realize there needed to be some time, but without Peter, Olivia and Walter in particular have felt like strangers. It’s been off-putting, I think on purpose… But seeing them together, and connecting was exciting, and made me salivate for next week’s show. Here’s hoping this episode was just an aberration.
– This episode was the first written by David Fury, one of my favorite Buffy/Angel writers… Knowing that in retrospect (I missed his name in the credits) makes the whole freak-of-the-week thing make a lot more sense, though I seem to remember Fury always being best at the plotty episodes of the latter show. Here’s hoping he gets one of those next, dude can write.
– On putting the freak kid in a bath of icewater, Walter says, “This will freeze you like a popsicle.” He looks up at Astrid, excited, who immediately says, “Not now, Walter.” To which he answers, “Grape, please.”
– Earth-1 Lincoln Lee is a boring pill, huh? I much prefer the Earth-2 version… I hope they meet soon.
– For those wondering, Massive Dynamic and Nina Sharpe are still around, as they provide the neurotoxin that kills the spores. I can’t help thinking that there’s something different about them, though, since we haven’t seen them at all yet.