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Fringe: Johari Window

“I guess that folks with that kind of deformity don’t tend to leave home.”

This episode was supposed to have been about freaks pulling together. Walter, Peter, Olivia, and Astrid forming a tight little bond of society’s outcasts, and the people of Edina doing the same. But, instead, it was a disastrous, offensive, and clumsy example of how cruelly the world treats people who are different, and it seems completely unaware of exactly how offensive it is.

I waited a few days to post my review, hoping that I would change my mind and realize that this episode wasn’t quite as bad as I’d originally thought. It didn’t work. To sum up:

Secret government experiments on how to hide a soldier in plain sight morphed into an Agent-Orange-level disaster. The electro-magnetism that could be used to alter perception wound up having an effect on what was being perceived. The test subjects became deformed, and passed those deformities onto their children. These deformities are not life-threatening, but cosmetic: the people wind up with bumpy faces, similar to some of the effects of Proteus syndrome.

The people of Edina, once they realize what’s going on, decide to keep the electro-magnetism machine running (thereby insuring that the next generation, and the next, will also be disfigured) so that they can “appear as they truly are,” even to each other. None of the residents of Edina ever leave town, because out in the real world people can see how awful they look.

There have been rumors in the surrounding county of a group of “beasts” or “monsters,” but no one ever manages to take a picture of them until one lost boy is picked up by the State Police and unmasked as The Ugliest Boy in the Universe. Fellow Edina residents break into the police station, kill everyone who looks normal, and grab the boy.

Enter the Fringe Division. Even though they figure out right away that these “beasts” are humans with some sort of crazy capability, they continue to refer to them as beasts, monsters, and its. Their point of view is adequately summed up by Astrid, who is horrified when Walter brings her a moth with—gasp!—a deformed wing. She looks both angry and nauseous: how could Walter play this cruel joke on her? Doesn’t he know she hates moths? And a deformed one, to boot?!

Peter, meanwhile, comes under fire and shoots at the beasts, but doesn’t feel bad about it until he discovers that the beast isn’t ugly after all (they’re still in range of the electro-magnetic thingamabob).

Throughout the episode, different people referenced animals: Walter felt an affinity for the cowardly lion, for example. But Fringe Division never felt an affinity for the people of Edina, although they do come to feel pity for them by the end. They also support the Edina-residents’ decision to stay hidden from the world, because, after all, they are so hideous that they could never have happy, fulfilling lives outside of their little bubble. In which, let me remind you, they don’t even appear as they really are to each other. The Edina residents would rather kill people than show the world how they look, which makes them—in my book—moral monsters, but Fringe Division is okay with this. Perhaps they have lower standards for the truly ugly.

Astrid’s prissy, tight-lipped disgust at the moth with the little wing was really what got me, especially as it reminded me of a great story about a fish with a little fin, Finding Nemo. Nemo’s little fin is a point of some concern for him, but he quickly realizes that it doesn’t matter and he’s just as good as all of the other fish. And he’s a kindergarten-age fish. To feel such disgust at a harmless animal that isn’t beautiful by her standards…well, Astrid is really going to have to do some work to make me like her again.

But Peter and Olivia weren’t much better—see above re: beasts and its, instead of, y’know, people. The treatment of Walter was interesting: he had participated in the experiment early on, but had left before it reached any sort of conclusion. Considering the crimes he has committed that we are expected to forgive him for, it’s extremely telling that the writers weren’t willing to make this part of Walter’s backstory. Killing a lab assistant is evidently a forgivable sin; making people into ugly animals is not.

We were supposed to feel like Fringe Division and the people of Edina were all different, and that was a point of commonality among them. Peter and Olivia discussed how she felt like her job made her “less and less normal,” (remnants of a scene that was cut in the final version) in their heart-to-heart du jour. And Walter, of course, is always off the reservation. But the comparisons don’t line up. The Fringe Division doesn’t pity itself, and they don’t hide what they do because they would become too hideous for mass consumption: they hide what they do because people would be freaked out by shape-shifting supersoldiers and a war of alternate dimensions. That’s not who they are. It’s what they do for a living.

I think—although it was such a spectacular failure that I’m not sure—that we were supposed to say to ourselves “How sad that the world cannot accept these people as they are, and that they cannot even accept each other.” But the conclusion of that trite observation is that people who are different should hide their differences, that beauty is an absolute standard and not one based on popular discourse that could easily be reframed, and that we should segregate all non-normative people to keep the world from being horrified, even though non-normative people are just as much a part of the world as the normals.

This episode drew a clear line in the sand between normals and freaks, pretty and nausea-inducing, heroic and piteous. Those lines aren’t clear, and they are completely arbitrary. Normal is only what you make it. Freakish just means “not like me,” which is an immature and stupid way of looking at the world. This show tries to push the boundaries of science and plausibility every week, and they could have done something interesting here in terms of actually discussing these issues. Instead, they established clear us-and-them boundaries and patted themselves on the back for doing so.

The Good:

• Walter: “I’m learning to appreciate cowardice.”

• Walter: “Just because no one has documented flying monkeys or talking lions yet doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

• Peter: “Just follow the mooing.”

• Walter: “Well done, Asterix.”

• The secret government project was called “Project Elephant.” It’s an obvious allusion to the Elephant Man, although they couldn’t have known that when they named it; it also refers to the ‘elephant in the room’: the thing that’s looming in the corner even though no one sees it.

The Bad:

• The entire episode.

This is Something Else Entirely:

• The Edina hum? That’s just awesome. As is this odd fact: the famous melody (from Carmen) that Walter sang the wrong words to—when I was in grade school, our teacher had us make up our own words to the song. I still remember them. Trust Walter to find a melody in a sea of white noise.

• Why do airbags never deploy in on-screen car accidents?

• Electro-magnetic perception-altering.

• A Johari Window is a psychological personality tool/test that deals with self-perception and the perceptions of others.

Zero out of four flying monkeys.

I would love to hear what y’all think of this episode. The other reviews that I’ve read don’t seem angry at all, although consensus seems to be that this is a rather dull standalone.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

10 comments:

  1. Hi, Josie

    I hadn't thought it was a particularly good episode, but after reading your review, I have to agree with you almost entirely. I t was a bad episode, a another standalone. I feel like I haven't watched Fringe for a long time, because these standalones, however good they may be, are soon forgotten. We don't really keep anything in our minds because we know we won't need this information in the future. I hope they get a deal like LOST and set an end date to the show so that things could move forward faster. This show has a lot of potential, but I don't see it fulfilled.

    Regarding your comment about people from Edina being moral monsters, I seem to remember that the decision of killing people who knew or might come to know their secret was the sheriff's, and Rose's husband just went along with it. If you think about it, all the really responsible were dead by the end of the episode, so I don't think there was reason to hold all the population accountable. A people in its entirety shouldn't be responsible for all the crimes of its authorities.

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  2. I can't say that this one bothered me particularly. I did notice at one point that Peter called one of the residents of Edina "it" and found that odd, but then forgot about. I was probably far too busy finding it strange that neither the boy or his mother seemed particularly fussed that their father/husband had been shot and killed.

    I found your reaction to the Astrid/Moth scene quite interesting as I remembered it differently to you. She does have a fairly unpleasant reaction to the moth, but I'd probably have had the same. I hate moths, hate the way that they seem to disintegrate if they so much as touch you. Most people have some kind of creature that they dislike, spiders etc, with Astrid and me its moths. So I found that understandable.

    I've just rewatched that scene to see what you found so unpleasant about Astrids reaction. Astrid doesn't actually notice the moths deformity, she basically just goes "Ick, moth, you know I hate moths" and hands the jar to Walter. Its Walter who notices the deformity, and while he's mentioning it, Astrid opens the body bag and has an adverse reaction to the deformed head she sees staring back at her. Which, I think is understandable if you're expecting to see someone normal looking in there.

    Its possible that without remembering that scene the way you did, you might not have found the rest of the episode quite as offensive. Its equally possible that I just missed some of the worst dialogue exchanges, the episode as a whole bored me senseless and I caught myself daydreaming a few times. As with you, I'm interested to see what others think.

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  3. Interesting thoughts, Josie. Just so you know, I fully expect some kind of award for longest. Comment. Ever:

    Astrid’s reaction was indeed preposterous, although not unheard of: I know a number of so-called animal lovers who would sooner squash an ugly rat with a blunt object than let it near their puppy-shaped slippers. At any rate, I can certainly understand your outrage.

    However, I actually understood the message of the episode quite differently. For me, it was all about how the way people perceive us shapes who we are:
    --The malformed boy was being treated like a monster by the cops. Then some malformed adults, who presumably got treated the same way at some point in their lives, behaved like monsters and killed everyone.
    --Olivia’s conversation with Peter was about how she’s feeling less and less like a normal person even though nothing has changed in her attitude, only in the way others perceive her.
    --And the final line, which I always consider the most important, involves Walter, who was once a moral monster, thanking Peter for perceiving him as a better man, thus encouraging him to become one. Also, I think that, since Peter called Walter brave, we’re meant to understand Walter will be able to get over his trauma with more ease now.

    So while I agree with you that the writers are setting a very definite and insensitive line between normal and freakish, I don’t think it’s meant as a moral imperative. I think the prejudicial line is presented as an admittedly cynical take on human nature. The moral is this: For better or for worse, how we see people affects who they are, so if we keep treating “freaks” like “freaks”, we can’t expect them to behave any differently.

    It’s not a very PC lesson, to be sure, but I think the writers’ cynicism holds a certain degree of truth: at school, ostracized “nerds” often become increasingly awkward socially, and, as a visible minority who grew up in a small town, I can tell you with confidence the way people treated me has shaped a little bit of who I am. By the same token, research shows that pretty people are indeed more likely to succeed because of the way people treat them.

    It’s also worth noting that the writers don’t condone the townspeople’s actions. All the murderers were taken out, as Broyles points out, and the episode makes it clear that the people of Edena had another, valid option. At the end, the boy who ran from home is still hanging at the edge of town. It’s clear part of him wants to do the brave thing and take his chances out there instead of hiding in the perception-altering zone or, to emphasize the metaphor, locking himself in the car like Walter.

    Most movies and TV shows address the question of looks and prejudice by saying, “Everybody can be beautiful in the inside, and that’s what matters.” Fringe, I think, is taking a more complex approach, acknowledging that human beings, in fact, don’t treat people as if what’s inside mattered, and that can have disastrous consequences.

    The heart of the message, though, I think is the same:
    A) We need to treat people that are different better because it really does have an impact on their lives.
    B) If you’re one of the “freaks”, hiding from the prejudice will guarantee that you will continue to be a “freak” or, rather, be perceived as a “freak” outside your safe zone.
    C) Ultimately, it’s your choice. If you want to stay in the closet, no one else has the right to out you. (That’s why, I think, Fringe Division kept their secret.)

    In the end, for me, it’s all about Peter treating his strange father as a good man, and Walter slowly becoming that good man for it: “I am glad that you choose to see me the way you do, Peter.”

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  4. Wow, I don't think I've ever seen such different yet well-thought and sensible opinions on an episode. You may have hated, Josie, but you have to admit it has at least generated a good discussion

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  5. I agree, as usual, Gustavo. Reading these comments has definitely made the episode worth it!

    A few of my favorite bits:

    Gustavo, you were spot-on when you said that these standalones are forgettable; I was just looking at the list of Season Two episodes the other day, and I had a weird out-of-body experience: "Did I review those? Me?"

    Trousers, you've raised a good point about the moth: if it were a scorpion, I would have thrown it back into Walter's face. (Childhood trauma.)

    Dmitri, I like your alternate thesis. I'm not 100% sure I agree, but I really want to, and you've made a solid argument.

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  6. Having just watched this episode on my DVD, I have a few comments:

    the electro-magnetism pulse that caused the deformity is entirely different from the pulse that altered people's optical perception and made the deformed people appear normal. Rose's son inherited the deformity from his mother - it became genetic with subsequent generations inheriting it from their parents who were exposed to the deformative pulse. Meanwhile, Rose's father was never deformed but he remained in Edina because of his daughter whom he loved.

    Astrid'd reaction to the moth is just the same as someone else's reaction to spiders or bugs. Some people just don't like certain animals. It had nothing to do with the deformed wing and she never commented on that. She thought Walter had played a cruel joke on her the same way someone else might probably feel if they were given a present of a spider. At no time does Astrid call the moth ugly.

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  7. So they named a library after Captain Jack. :)

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  8. Yeah, I can see your point, Josie, but I wasn't so bothered with it. As moonspinner said, I don't think the pulse was causing the deformities anymore (Walter said Rose's father found a way to correct it).

    Anyway, weak episode (no more standalones, please), and the reveal of the whole town being deformed was predictable, but for a minute there I was hoping this would all result in another revelation from Captain Harkness dark past.

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  9. Patryk beat me to the best comment -- that they named a library after Captain Jack. :) It wasn't a great episode; it was another forgettable standalone, and I've long since realized that the standalone Fringe episodes are, for me, like standalone X-Files episodes: they are not why I've continued watching. I do get why you really hated this one, Josie, although I didn't have the same reaction.

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  10. Interesting discussion. I lean more towards Dimitri's take that it was all about perception. Particularly given the last line, which was the highlight of the episode for me. Even while accepting Peter's compliment, John Noble very effectively conveyed Walter's underlying shame regarding his past spent turning people into freaks. Not the strongest episode, but nothing that inspired a viscerally negative reaction in me.

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