Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Fox Network, Tuesdays 9PM
Written by Julia Cho & Zack Whedon
Directed by Frederick E.O. Toye
Warning: this review contains some spoilers. If you’d rather not know what the story is going to include, bookmark this page and read it after viewing.
Why don’t they just title this series “The Massive Dynamics Mystery Hour” and have done with it? So far, we can count the number of episodes that do not involve the mysterious Big Bad Corporation on the fingers of one thumb. We started this season with Massive Dynamics peeking around the edges of the plot, and increasingly edging into center stage. Tonight it stands full in the spotlight, starting with the hallucinatory death of a Massive Dynamics researcher, Mark Young (Ptolemy Slocum, The Wire). Alone in a conference room at the top of a skyscraper, he is attacked by butterflies, which deal him the Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts before, maddened by either the razor cuts or the idiotic plot, he plunges through the window and falls many stories, slowly. (It always amazes me how easy it is in Hollywood to fall through a plate glass window. In real life, it would take a little work.)
Olivia is no longer just seeing and talking to the late John Scott, she now gets emails from him. (A ghost in the machine?) He tells her to check out a basement, where she discovers a box of frogs. Walter analyzes the frogs (Bufo alvarius) and discovers that their skin secretes a powerful hallucinogen which was found in highly concentrated volume in the late Mr. Young’s blood. Alarmed that her late partner is still working with her (off the payroll?), Olivia begs to be put back into the sensory deprivation tank so she can cleanse her polluted brain of John Scott’s memories. Instead, she meets John in a memory, he acknowledges her (which Walter insists is impossible), and she witnesses a four-way deal between John, Mark Young, and two other men, which ends in John murdering one of the guys at the meeting.
Olivia uses a facial identification program to reconstruct the face of the sole surviving man (if you don’t count Agent Scott). She and Charlie track down George Morales (Yul Vasquez, The Marconi Brothers). Morales connects with a speeding taxi during the chase, and winds up in the hospital. He pleads with Olivia for protection from Massive Dynamics. Despite the many, many times MD has shown up/interfered with her cases, clueless Olivia leaves Morales without protection and goes to Massive Dynamics to challenge Blair Brown. Which is a little like Mighty Mouse trying to put the hurt on Superman. Naturally, while she’s away, someone gets to Morales, who hallucinates John Scott cutting his throat so vividly that when a nurse walks in, she sees it, too. Which, I’ll admit, left us deep in X-Files territory, satisfactorily. When Olivia tries to explain MD’s involvement in the case to her Obstinate Bald-Headed BossTM, naturally he dismisses his agent’s conclusions with no further discussion. Walter Skinner, call your office.
Meanwhile, a more interesting subplot with Peter Bishop is emerging. It starts when he meets a mysterious skinny blonde woman named Tess (Susan Misner, New Amsterdam) who begs him to get out of Boston before “they” find him. Unconcerned for his own safety, he follows her, sees her in another man’s company, and eventually follows the man and beats the crap out of him in broad daylight in the middle of a city sidewalk. He then threatens to kill the man “if you ever touch her again”. This is certainly a side of Peter we have not seen before. Behind the teddy bear exterior, there’s a blue-eyed killer waiting to be unleashed. Yet when he returns to the lab and finds Olivia immersed in the tank again, he is all concern and sympathy. I like this new hint of danger in Peter, and hope to see more of it in future.
But Walter really ticked me off tonight. His comment about getting an erection while working with Olivia was off the wall and offensive. There’s charming eccentricity, and then there’s stone crazy. Walter should remember that Olivia is armed and well trained, and were it not for her training and her innate politesse, Walter might now be needing remedial dental work. I can’t even excuse it as “he’s so nuts, he can’t help himself”; Walter is canny enough not to pull that crap in front of his son, who might take more than a little offense on Olivia’s behalf. At the very least, he’d hold her coat for her in a Walter smackdown.
Like The X-Files and Lost, the writers throw in all kinds of cute in-jokes; the dead man’s plane ticket was for an Oceanic Air flight and the Observer appears again in the opening scene. In other shows, this is a fun tidbit for the audience, but here it feels labored, as if the writers were dutifully shoehorning in the requisite number of cabalistic clues per episode, just to keep us guessing about trivial matters. It smacks of misdirection: the plot is thin and full of holes, but look! Over here in the corner! Something shiny! The shallow, cookie-cutter plotting is starting to seriously annoy me, on a show which otherwise shows good potential. Color me bitter, but why can bad writing like this survive and even thrive, but audiences turn away from Pushing Daisies? At least some of the science made sense this time: the hallucinogenic qualities of frog slime is well documented, and Walter’s early work with psychosomatically induced blisters reflects actual research. It’s a bit of a stretch to go from skin forming blisters, to skin ripping itself open in fake paper cuts, but that’s the “fringe” in “fringe science”.
What goes totally off the rails is the whole memory exploration subplot. This didn’t make sense in the pilot and it doesn’t make much better sense here. While I understand the use of metaphor in telling this story, it just was not convincing to me that Walter could talk Olivia through a “landscape” he could not see, or tell her definitively that when John Scott looked her in the eye in the restaurant scene, it was a memory and not Olivia’s imagination. We have all had the experience of confusing imagination with memory even when we are awake and alert; how can Olivia, or we, trust what she is experiencing under the influence of powerful psychedelic drugs? Talk about your unreliable narrators.
Fringe has a great deal of potential to be a breakout show like The X-Files or Lost. Right now, its major weakness is the continual reliance on the worn-out cliché of the Big Bad Corporation. It’s such a knee-jerk reaction in Hollywood to paint all major corporations as greedy, soulless Bad Guys (except, of course, the major corporations signing their paychecks and producing this stuff), that it has grown stale and dry. How about some real innovation—a corporation that is intent on ethical behavior, profit with the good of society in mind, or at least one that follows the law? I don’t have to see the Salvation Army every week, but I wish Abrams and his crew would either change the focus, or place Massive Dynamics in the center of a larger, global conspiracy involving networked multinationals, challenging governments for power around the world. Anything but this same, tired old story of Corporate America as Evil Overlords Mwahaha. Unfortunately, today’s economic climate may predispose viewers to see corruption and greed in every form of big business, so while it’s a cliché, it will probably be a lasting one.
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall