Tonight’s Fringe was directed by genre journeyman Brad Anderson, who’s been at the helm for a couple of the series’ strongest episodes to date. Anderson knows how to direct creepy, suspenseful action sequences, and how to balance them with on-the-fly wit. That gift was clearly evident in the pre-credits sequence of “Unleashed,” in which a vigilante animal rights group—Animals First!—raids a research lab and sets free all the little beasties, grooving on their own self-righteousness. Unfortunately, one of the little beasties they free is some kind of hybrid super-animal (part Gila monster and part bat, among other things), and it doesn’t take long before the fleeing activists see their vehicle get batted around by tentacles. It was a thrilling, funny opening, setting a tone that carried throughout the episode.
(On a night with multiple amusing lines of dialogue, I think my favorite part occurred on the cut from a college student saying that his roommate would “save anything with a beak or a claw” to a shot of a mutilated body as Astrid gasps, “Whoa, this thing had pretty big claws.”)
The major problem I had with “Unleashed” is that while there were some good jokes and a fair amount of thrills, this episode felt still further removed from what Fringe had been doing so well before the hiatus (even more than last week’s freak-of-the-week outing). Officially this script was credited to Zach Whedon and J.R. Orci, but I have a hard time believing writers as talented as those two came up with something so insignificant on their own. This episode played like the output of a writing staff straining to pad out the season before coming into the homestretch. It was like someone watched The Host over the weekend and then came in on Monday and spilled out all he could remember into Final Draft Pro. There wasn’t a whole lot Anderson could do to make this material special, besides keep it light and keep it moving.
But I don’t want to over-criticize. “Unleashed” was brisk and generally entertaining, and though it was hardly surprising to learn that Walter’s old experiments may have led to the creation of The Creature—when is Walter not the ultimate culprit?—I appreciated that he felt motivated to clean up his own mess, inspired by Peter’s earlier rant about how they all “live in a society.” (Although maybe I’m just ignorant, because I never quite got how Walter’s plan to drink a bottle of poisonous chemicals and then entice the monster into eating him turned into Walter just shooting the thing.)
Continuing on the theme of unexpected character development, it was also nice to see Olivia’s partner Charlie get some airtime. Granted, he had one of the evening’s most awkward lines of dialogue—saying, “I don’t know, it’s all right,” to Olivia after she found his mauled body in the woods—but he also got to spend much of the episode with monster larvae wriggling around in his guts, which gave him a chance to emote heavily and scare the crap out of the home viewer. (To me, the most unsettling part of Charlie's belly-babies was that they led to a cancellation of what was clearly going to be Sex Night between him and his wife.) Walter offers Charlie this consolation: “At least The Creature doesn’t mate in the traditional way.” Yes, take comfort. Be glad you weren’t raped by a chimera.
All of that said, I wish “Unleashed” had done more with the notion of genetic experimentation, especially after the weird and wacky early scene where Peter nearly consumes a human ear that Walter had nestled into an omelet for safe keeping. Throughout this season, Fringe has explored the idea that the human body is little more than a piece of wonky biotech, ready to be tinkered with. Adding the animal kingdom into the mix might’ve expanded on those ideas in intriguing ways.
Instead, “Unleashed” stays at the level of a well-shot, disappointingly straightforward monster movie, with an everything’s-okay-now ending. By the end of the hour, Walter is able to kill the little monsters in Charlie’s belly. “Now you crap ‘em out,” he says. Sort of like they did with this episode.
-Olivia’s niece saying, “No this is the laaaaast book,” sounded just like my daughter.
-So Peter’s still cozying up to Olivia’s sister Rachel, huh? Nice excuse to call her, too: Looking for the name of that old song about piña coladas. (“Turns out it’s called ‘Escape.’”)
-Olivia sleeping with the light on after her encounter with the monster was another nice touch.
-I also enjoyed the tension of waiting to see whether the worms in Charlie's belly were still going to be wriggling under the ultrasound. Creepsville, man.
-The second-funniest run of dialogue in this episode came when Walter asked Peter to fetch him a container to collect the monster larvae…
Walter: “Make it a bucket.”
Astrid: “I’m going to be sick.”
Walter: “Two buckets.”
-Blair Brown is still listed as a primary cast member in the opening credits, but the presence of Nina Sharp has been sorely missed lately. For that matter, Agent Broyles has been kind of a non-factor in the past two episodes too. (I hope that’s because Lance Reddick is busy over on Lost, filming flashback sequences as Matthew Abbadon.)