Fringe, Ep. 4.16, “Nothing As It Seems”: Half intriguing sci-fi, half hokum
This week, on Fringe: Olivia is the worst aunt ever, Peter gets some birthday presents, and David Robert Jones builds a zoo
After last week’s flawed but interesting episode, it looked like Fringe was about to step into some deeper sci-fi waters than they have in the past, eschewing the bump in the night creature features in favor of closer examination of identity, the self, and any number of other tricky topics. Instead, the writers try to do both, and wind up executing neither to their full potential.
Olivia’s journey, or perhaps regression, into her old memories continues, giving Peter and the audience back the Olivia we’ve known for most of the series’ run. It’s not without strings, however, as we learn that in choosing to embrace her old life, at the very least, Olivia has lost all memory of her young nephew, not to mention her bond with Nina. This reveal is well handled, playing like any of the numerous psych-eval scenes fans of procedurals have seen by this point. The audience nods along with Olivia while she tells the psychologist she’s fine only to have the rug pulled out from under us when Broyles reveals just how different the two worlds, and Olivias, are.
The procedural element begins promisingly as well. By going back to a season one case, Pinkner and Goldsman again ease the audience into a false sense of security under the assumption that, as has happened earlier this season, the two cases will be parallel, allowing Peter and Olivia the upper hand in their fight against David Robert Jones. Instead we’re surprised when the case takes a turn and rather than helping, Peter and Olivia’s instincts put Lincoln in danger. This is a smart move- Jones is a far more deadly and interesting foe if he can gain and maintain the upper hand (as he does here, by proxy at least). Plus if Olivia’s new memories aren’t necessarily helpful, it takes away one benefit of her choice, making the impetus purely emotional, rather than strategic as well.
The case also functions well as an allegory to Olivia’s situation- people transforming, making significant sacrifices to become new, “better” versions of themselves, leaving destruction in their wake. People perhaps doing so for love (as one late scene implies). The trouble comes in when we see the creatures these volunteers are attempting to become. Ridiculous porcupine suits are one thing, particularly when lit carefully, but the addition of wings and what must be an intentional Batman or Superman reference pushes this storyline to the absurd. Characters bend and twist the bounds of science on a weekly basis on Fringe, but without some sort of levitation device, there’s no way these creatures could successfully fly, and that pushes Fringe from science fiction to fantasy, from crazy genetic experiments to magic. Both of which are entertaining, but not in a fictional universe so firmly rooted in (pseudo) science.
The second half of the episode brings disappointing developments for both storylines. While Olivia’s journey remains interesting, the utter lack of consequences to her after such a blatant disregard of a direct order is frustrating. Yes, Olivia fears censure and perhaps even for her job, but Broyles’ lack of even a reprimand, opting for a compliment, feels out of character and rings false. Then there’s the release of Kate Hicks, the woman who attacked Lincoln, from custody, which only makes sense to facilitate her late scene restarting the process with a new partner (Don’t do it, Gaeta!). Finally, there’s the closing shot of the episode, a floating zoo of terrifying hybrids, implying that this is far from the one-and-done storyline one might hope it to be. Edit: As commenter Dave rightly pointed out, the woman in the final scene is not in fact Kate Hicks, but a different character. I apologize for the mistake.
Despite these disappointing developments, there are many strong character moments peppered throughout the episode. It’s a lot of fun to see Clark Middleton back as Edward Markham- here’s hoping he turns up again. Walter’s embracing of Peter is sweet, as are his gifts, and while much of Lincoln’s arc through the season has felt mishandled, his scene with Peter in the car is well written and played by both Seth Gabel and Joshua Jackson. Gabel does a great job conveying the frustration, helplessness, and acceptance of someone watching a friend make a choice you disagree with but can’t dissuade them from. This note will get old however, should the writers continue to hit it as heavily as they have in both this episode and the last. This week, it is wisely paired with a few expected, but still entertaining, “But I don’t want to be a porcupine!” scenes.
This season has seen the PtB at Fringe make a lot of bold moves. Waiting so long to reintroduce Peter. Bringing back David Robert Jones. Reimaging so many of the characters (particularly Walternate). This has resulted in a rather divisive season, with some fans enjoying the new direction and others pining for the series of yore. Should the serialized story continue in the vein suggested by the final scene of the episode, we could be in store for another dramatic shift, from man versus (shape-shifting) man to a far wider spectrum. There are still plenty of episodes left this season and, in all probability, plenty of surprises. We’ll see what they have in store.
What did you think of this episode? Did anyone else have flashbacks to a twisted Beauty and the Beast? Think they’ll have the stones to bring back Olivia’s sister and make her meet her forgotten nephew? Post your thoughts in the comments below!