In a Maine lighthouse and in New York’s Chinatown and in the home of a young New Hampshire family, people in the same internet chatroom all tune in to 6955 kHz, to listen to one of those mysterious “number stations”—shortwave radio broadcasts of strings of numbers, originating from no clear place, for no clear reason—to try to see if they can break the code. But on this night, the numbers seem to bore into their brains, causing them to clutch their heads in agony. When they come to, they don’t recognize their surroundings or any of their friends or family. One woman looks at her husband and can’t tell who he is. Then she asks a pertinent question: “Who am I?”
That’s always a good question in the world of Fringe, where people can be replaced by their doubles from another universe or where their brains and bodies can be used as dumping grounds for biological weaponry or secret data. But there’s always hope, too, at least according to Walter. “It’s all still in there,” he tells the New Hampshire amnesiac. “Whether or not you’re conscious of that.”
“6955 kHz” was an strange Fringe for me. The dialogue was often painfully expository, with liberal doses of ADR to make sure that we viewers didn’t miss any of the massive amounts of significant information we need to understand as the story moves forward. On a technical level, it didn’t work as well as it should’ve.
And yet the episode was also funky and philosophical in the way I like my Fringe to be, using the plot and even the setting to put across more than just pieces of the series’ mythology. And it certainly served that mythology too. After “6955 kHz,” we understand a lot more about what Walternate is up to, but we also know a lot more about why the Fringe creators are so obsessed with vintage tech and brain damage. It’s not just an affectation for the sake of cool stories with twinges of nostalgia and pathos; it has to do with the bones of those cool stories.
But back to the amnesiacs. Walter determines that there’s a pulse beneath the number broadcasts that caused the listeners’ memories to get wiped, and Peter deduces that whoever sent that pulse must’ve done so because the people in that code-breaking chatroom were getting close to an actual solution. Cut to Alford, Mass., where Agent Broyles discovers a strange piece of machinery that floats in midair, perhaps due to magnets. (At this point, I’m tempted to ask, “How do they work?” But that reference is probably played-out.) Broyles dusts a piece of the machinery for prints and identifies the perp as Joseph Feller, played by Kevin Weisman of Alias fame. In what should come as no surprise to Fringe fans, Feller turns out to be a shapeshifter working for Earth-2, and is in contact with Fauxlivia, who warns him that Fringe Division is on his tail—right before she shoots him and sends him flying out a high window to his death, splattering his mercury all over the pavement.
Meanwhile, Walter is struggling to crack the number-code himself, with the help of Astrid and a book that Peter retrieves from diminutive, lecherous, rare book dealer Markham. The book: Seamus Wiles’ rare 1897 tome The First People, which reveals the secret of the human society that existed long before our own. This society discovered the secret of “the vacuum,” which sustained them and then wiped them out. Armed with that insight, Walter encourages Astrid to think like a whole other culture might’ve, and by doing that, Astrid becomes more like her Earth-2 counterpart, and sees combinations everyone else missed before. She pins the numbers to locations around the world, and the Fringe team heads to the nearest one, in Jersey City, where they unearth another piece of Walternate’s mysterious machine.
While “6955 kHz” doles out one big reveal after another, it also continues the ongoing debates over the moral imperatives of Fringe’s respective universes. Before Fauxlivia kills Feller, he makes the case for what they’re up to, saying of Earth-1, “If they were in our shoes, they’d be doing exactly what we’re doing.” Fauxlivia then floats that same notion in front of Peter, who considers it, then stands up for the billions of innocent people who will die if Earth-2 demolishes Earth-1. “I gotta believe there’s another way,” Peter says.
Part of Peter’s other way involves building Walternate’s doomsday machine, so that he can figure out how it works and understand Earth-2’s plans a little better. Walter is dead-set against this plan—“If you end up breaking the universe, this time it’s on your head!”—but Nina tries to convince him, by reminding him of their wild youth, and how they took big risks. It’s a tantalizing question for Walter, a man who knows where curiosity can lead. Ultimately, when they make their find in Jersey City, knowing that there are more pieces to gather if they want to, Walter decides to let Peter go for it. “Creation or destruction?” he sighs. “I suppose we’ll have to hope for the former.”
The introduction of The First People is a masterstroke on the part of the Fringe writers, especially as it ties to what Walter was saying to the woman with wiped memory. “It’s all still in there,” Walter says. On an unconscious level, Walter’s not just talking about the memories of our own lives, but our memories of the people who’ve gone before us, including those people who disappeared. And so it goes when Walter rigs up a machine using a children’s toy and a guitar pedal, or when he serves Astrid a sandwich he concocted decades ago, or when he gets a faraway look upon glimpsing a reel-to-reel tape machine, or when he listens to Bach at Astrid’s urging. The people on Fringe are always reaching back to the old, because whether they realize it or not, that’s where the answers are.
Another masterful introduction in this episode? The notion of “the vacuum.” Here’s this “key to the universe” level of power that The First People wielded, until it destroyed them. Walternate’s machine appears to be designed to bring “the vacuum” back, presumably to wipe out Earth-1. (And in keeping with Walternate’s usual method, it’ll be a self-obliteration that Earth-1 brings upon itself. Not his fault, man.) But what if it does the opposite? What if it makes Earth-1 unbeatable? It’s a big gamble our heroes are taking, figuring that they’re smart enough to understand this power without having to actually activate it. It’s like that pulse embedded in the number-broadcasts. Walter has to study it in order to understand how it blasts people’s minds. But how do you study it without listening to it? And how do you listen to it without wrecking yourself?
- Yes, yes. Numbers. Lost. I got the same vibe. Not a case of Bad Robot self-cannibalizing though, in my opinion. More like Fringe going back to its origins as a show about common unexplained phenomena.
- I’ve waited long enough to post this, so I’ll table further discussion of Walternate’s role in all this until next week. Did he have the pieces of his machine buried on Earth-1? Or did he just know they were there? Is he one of The First People? Did they not die out on Earth-2? Did Feller wipe those people’s minds because they were getting too close or as a gambit to get Fringe Division on the right trail? So many questions to chew on this week.
- Peter gets Fauxlivia U2 tickets, and also brings her breakfast in bed, “just for being you.” A lot of delicious irony in that line.
- Walter to Nina: “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake.” (Astrid: “He means that. Literally.”)
- They say that when Marconi invented the radio, the first thing he heard was the numbers. Yikes!
- To reinforce the idea of innocent people dying in the war of the universes, this episode includes a horrific scene of a pilot in rainstorm, flipping through channels on his shortwave radio and happening upon the memory-wipe channel. Double yikes!
- Avocado, cucumber and cheese … the best sandwich for clarity of thought. (The chips are just for crunch.)
- Intriguing epilogue to this episode too, with Ourlivia getting a call from Brandon and hearing that Walternate “may not need” her anymore. Looks like its time for our gal to make her way back home. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little Olivia-a-Olivia combat.