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Fringe: Alone in the World

“I need more time!”

It is interesting to consider the development of television narrative devices. I maintain that TV today is a place of subtle, radical developments in traditional narrative structure, just as much as Victorian novels (particularly the sensational ones) often addressed the grim realities hiding under petticoats and behind cravats. Those wildly popular novels incorporated radical critiques of law and tradition into suspenseful narrative; in the same way, TV today takes radical storytelling risks, trusting the viewer to follow multiple timelines, alternate realities, astonishing improbabilities, and deeply entrenched metaphors amid chase scenes, unrequited love, and everyday travails as experienced by telegenic people.

We—us genre fans—are so used to doing the work of interpretation that we often forget to pat ourselves on the back for taking the time to think through what whole swaths of people dismiss as nothing more than an hour’s entertainment in the evening. The Victorian novels of yesteryear are now considered, en masse, some of the most interesting and complicated novels in the genre’s tradition, even though they were dismissed for decades as just not worth serious consideration. They’re picked apart, dissected, and theorized within an inch of their lives in classrooms throughout the world. I like to think that, 150 years from now, the literary critics of the future—I assume they will be robots—will look back on shows like Fringe and treat them with the same interpretive respect.

Those professorial robots will likely use an episode like this to teach their droidling students about a common television narrative device: The Stand-Alone With Emotional Relevance. (The SAWER: that’s what they’ll call it. Robots love acronyms.) Fringe does a wonderful job with the SAWER mini-genre, and this episode is no exception. Walter’s mind is slowly cracking under the weight of his hallucinations, and when his mind cracks, he can’t help but reflect on the loss of his son—as his slip-of-tongue near the end revealed. What Walter doesn’t realize is that he should be thinking of his lost child: that lost child is now the mystery man he sees in reflective surfaces.

Just as Walter’s mind slips nearly over the cliffs of insanity, though, two events bring him back: Aaron survives, providing Walter with the closure-by-transference he was never able to achieve with the death of both Peters. The second event is Olivia disclosing that she, too, has seen the mystery man. Suddenly, Walter’s insanity turns into a problem to solve—with something other than an icepick and a copy of Lobotomies for Dummies. Olivia would have never revealed her dreams if Walter had not been pushed to the brink; Aaron-as-Peter served his narrative purpose. The SAWER accomplished its jobs.

The thing is, I don’t really like SAWERs. I mentioned last week that Fringe can’t “fix” the problem of the missing son too quickly, or else it will feel like there were no real stakes in his disappearance. While Fringe has done a good job, until this week, of giving us episodes that we can still sink our teeth into, this SAWER (mixed metaphor alert!) didn’t have much bite. Psychic fungus is all well and good, but I’m getting antsy for Peter, mythology, even some Over-There goodness. Fringe may need more time (see opening quote for reference), but I don’t.

I’m not sure we needed this reminder that Walter without Peter is a sad Walter. Or, if we did need that, it would have been interesting to see a really bizarre episode, rather like Brown Betty, to reveal it. Maybe “A Day in the Life” of Astrid, or Lincoln Lee, or Broyles. Maybe another Over There/Over Here encounter. Those are always fun. It’s hard to go wrong with penny farthings and zeppelins.

But all of those criticisms are about this episode not being what I wanted it to be, not what it actually is. This is a very solid SAWER, with great performances from John Noble and the boy who played Aaron, and nice relationship-building between Lincoln and Olivia. I’m just ready for more.

Please, sir, I want some more.

I’m Thinking Flamethrowers:

• Walter: “For all I know, it could be viral. Or the mutation of a flesh-eating bacteria. Or some kind of aaaallliiieeennn parasite. Or: Bigfoot! Bigfoot, that’s it! Take a look around for massive fecal droppings...”

• Aaron: “And... you don’t think you belong in a mental institution?”

• I loved the awkwardness of Olivia reaching out to Lincoln, and the way he used the “Do you want to talk about it?” to create a genuine bond between them at the end of the episode. How will Peter’s eventual return be thrown off by the newbie on the team?

• Was Lincoln Lee wearing a polo shirt?!

• The tinfoil hats came back!

• This episode was written by David Fury. I hope he is enjoying a mustard-free life these days, and is enjoying many hours of quality edutainment.

Two and a half out of four Guses. Or is that Gi?

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

12 comments:

  1. Absolutely agree. It was a very good episode (I especially loved the little boy saying, "And you don't think you belong in a mental institution?") and the extreme ridiculousness of Walter trying to lobotomize himself actually working because John Noble is so good) but I'm ready for Peter to come back. I'm just worried about the repercussions to the timeline.

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  2. Good but disposable. I like the way they're exploring the Peter-less world(s) but it seems like an extended version of the many many What-if stories that abound in fiction today. I think I'm about ready for Peter and the original characters to come back now....

    On a side note though, As a breaking bad fan, I was highly amused by the fact that Walter named the nueral network Gus, as in Gus "Fringe"...

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  3. This is a macabre nitpick... no pun intended. But that wasn't an ice pick, it was a lobotomy set. Specifically for frontal lobe lobotomy, usually done through the eye (which is totally gross).

    I loved this episode, because in a way no episode is a simple SAWER anymore. At some point in season two, it became less about the weird science of the week, and more about the characters. This one was totally about Walter, and I loved it for that!

    Thank you once again for your review, and I truly hope you're right that people will be dissecting this show in the future. (ok this entire comment is kinda gross =-)

    TVNerd

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  4. CoolSid, you think you were excited when Walter named it Gus? Imagine me.

    There have been many cool Guses popping up in tv shows lately. There was one in The Wire, too.

    I spend a long time trying to cram a "Y" into your acronym so it would be a SAWYER, but I couldn't.

    I'll have more to say when I reflect a little more.

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  5. Maybe, the Stand-Alone With Yoodles of Emotional Relevance?

    Yoodles isn't a word, but it sounds like "oodles," i.e., "lots."

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  6. It's good enough for me.

    I was writing something very similar in my reviw of Ep 3 of Person of Interest, on how and when a stand-alone has importance to the series as a whole.

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  7. Gus, if it's any consolation, I was trying to float the phrase "Peter enters narrative in secret" and hoping a robo-acronym would spring to mind. Nothing yet, though.

    I know I'm in a minority, but I'm not actually missing Peter that much. I do want him back at some point. I'm just enjoying the effect his absence is having on the Fringiverse. I'm not ready to give it up just yet.

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  8. Paul "P.E,N.I.S." Kelly,

    Don't try to out-think the robots. We're just not good enough.

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  9. Man, there are so many dirty puns floating around my mind right now! The 5th grader in me is howling. But this is a decent website, so I'll refrain myself.

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  10. I wanted to catch up with this show over the summer, but it just didn't happen. But, I've been following reviews and discussion of the show for awhile now, so I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on what's going on. So, when I saw the current season was available On Demand, I decided to just dive in.

    Understanding all the background of the previous seasons, but not having watched it unfold, I don't have the emotional attachment to Peter that the long time viewers do, so I've been enjoying the time spent in the altered timeline (both Over Here and Over There) and am not super eager to have Peter just come back already. It is an interesting position to be in. I'm guessing that when he does come back, if the timeline shifts back or returns somehow to the previous iteration, then I'm going to be distressed that these versions of the characters have been lost.

    For me, both this episode and the previous one had tremendous emotional resonance (that term works better for me than "relevance"), and I actually found myself tearing up as Walter promised not to leave Aaron. I was also quite moved by Olivia saving Walter and sharing her dreams. I give credit to both Anna Torv and John Noble for making what could have seemed quite ludicrous work so well, especially on an emotional level.

    But my favorite little moment was Lincoln admitting he was freaked out and asking Olivia if she wanted to talk about it. I'm enjoying these two slowly developing a bond (and love the contrast between the current Over Here version of the relationship and the Over There one). I'll be quite sad if our investment in this new bond is squandered when Peter returns, which makes me wonder how they plan to handle Peter's return.

    Why get us to invest in these new relationships and such, if it will all be overwritten soon? On the other hand, what happens to the previous three years of investment if they don't revert to that version of history? Does it still count because Peter wasn't completely erased from Olivia and Walter, and they still feel his absence? Interesting stuff to ponder.

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  11. I agree with Jess, they wouldn't make us invested if they were going to just negate it.

    What I think it's going to happen is something similar to what happens to Roland in the 3rd book of the Dark Tower series: he had both timelines in conflict in his mind.

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  12. Jess, you're watching Fringe!

    I think the difference between "relevance" and "resonance" is a very nice distinction. This episode did resonate with me, but I didn't feel like it was entirely relevant.

    But it's really cool, too, to know that this new season is accessible to new viewers. I'm so glad you're enjoying it!

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