B+

Fringe: "Bloodline"

If you’re one of those who’s been annoyed with the recent direction of Fringe, I have bad news: the show has been renewed for a 22-episode fourth season, and given that next season probably will be its last (barring a surprise surge in popularity next year), I wouldn’t expect the writers to dial down the lunacy. The Fringe team has been going flat-out since the middle of season two, pushing both their story and their storytelling to new and unexpected places. The show that was once an erratic but basically entertaining diversion has developed a mythology and self-assuredness to rival the classics of sci-fi television. One of the biggest knocks against Fringe in its first season was that it was a little generic. Now, I think it’s fair to say that Fringe is wholly Fringe.

That’s not to say the show is perfect. This week’s “Bloodline,” for example, starts out intense and crazy, then becomes fairly predictable in its second half. (I figured out who was behind Olivia’s kidnapping about halfway through the episode, and I’m not that smart.) But I’m on record as a fan of just about any story set on Earth-2, which has his own enjoyable energy: a gung-ho spirit that belies the deep, deep tragedy that the world “over there” has experienced. On Earth-2, for example, a pregnant woman can sit in a doctor’s office and get tested for the presence of Viral Propagated Eclampsia (which killed her sister and niece during childbirth), and simultaneously enjoy the animated artwork on the wall. Sometimes Earth-2 feels more like our world than Earth-1 does. Sure, the world’s falling apart, but have you seen the new iPad?

The pregnant woman in “Bloodline” is, of course, Olivia, who in addition to dealing with her anxiety over the VPE test (and her certainty that she’s going to have to get an abortion) is afraid that she’s being followed. Sure enough, not long after she tells to Lincoln about how spooked she is on the phone (or on whatever you call those weird Earth-2 ear-communicators), she gets zapped in her apartment and abducted… thus continuing the tradition of Earth-2 stories that make me jump at least once before the opening credits.

As it happens, Olivia’s being watched thrice over. The Observers are keeping tabs on her, tracking the momentous fetus she’s carrying. She’s also being tailed by Henry Arliss Higgins, the cab driver who helped Ourlivia escape to Earth-1. A few days after Ourlivia left, Henry saw Fauxlivia walking around, and she didn’t acknowledge him at all; so he’s been keeping an eye on her, to make sure she’s okay. After Olivia gets abducted, Lincoln and Charlie track Henry down with Autistic Astrid’s help, and after some brief confusion about how to handle him—which is it, hands on the wheel or get out of the car?—they take him in for questioning/detention, because his offhand comment that he didn’t expect Olivia “would come back here” strikes them as, if not suspicious, then at least highly classified.

Naturally, neither Henry nor the Observers had anything to do with Olivia’s kidnapping. When she comes to, she finds she’s being held by a team of medical specialists, who have to restrain her—“She’s a fighter, like they said”—as they inject something into her stomach. In no time, the baby in her womb begins to grow, pressing against her stomach in a creepy fashion. Olivia tries to plead with one of the nurses that the possibility of VPE is going to put both her and the baby in danger. But the medical team continues on coldly, talking about “joint expanders” and insisting that Olivia empty her bladder so that they can proceed with “Phase 2,” the delivery. Instead, she slugs and scalpels her way out of her makeshift maternity ward.

Not long before this, I’d realized that Walternate had to be the one who sent the medical team in to accelerate Olivia’s pregnancy. Right around the time that Lincoln and Charlie figure out that the kidnapping was probably an inside job—given that no one outside of Fringe Division would’ve been able to override Olivia’s genetically-coded satellite tracker—it’s pretty obvious who the insider must be. But to its credit, “Bloodline” doesn’t make that revelation the episode’s sole dramatic ingredient. There are multiple threads of suspense in “Bloodline,” tied to the atmosphere of the episode and the perspectives of the characters.

For example, when we’re with Olivia—who really has no idea what the hell is going on—the mood is sinister. Even when she escapes, she wonders into the exotica of Chinatown (where it’s the Year Of The Rabbit!) and is so disoriented that when she calls Lincoln, all she can say about her location is that she’s near a red dragon and a noodle store, which doesn’t really narrow it down much. Nevertheless, Fringe Division finds her before the threatening-looking men and women in scrubs do, and Lincoln assists in delivering her now full-term baby with the help of Henry—because Henry’s a cabbie and cabbies know how to do such things. (This sets up a sweet moment where Fauxlivia looks at Ourlivia’s friend and says, “Nice to meet you, Henry.” Also a sweet moment between Lincoln and Olivia as she’s about to give birth… and possibly die.)

When the story’s from the perspective of Lincoln and Charlie on the other hand, it has a different kind of tension—more like an All The President’s Men-style conspiracy-busting thriller. After hearing Henry talk about Olivia “coming back,” Lincoln and Charlie wonder if he’s talking about “the other Olivia,” and so Lincoln confronts Walternate, who hesitates and then admits that yes, Ourlivia stayed on Earth-2 while Fauxlivia crossed over. He does not, however, admit his culpability in the kidnapping. (When Lincoln asks, “Do you think she could’ve been taken by invaders from the other side?” Walter responds with a non-committal, “It’s possible.”)  After Olivia’s been rescued and is safely ensconced in the hospital—now safe from VPE as well, because of the accelerated pregnancy—Lincoln and Charlie begin to reflect on what happened and decide that Walternate should’ve told them what was going on. So now, along with Olivia (in her own way), two other key members of Fringe Division have reason to believe that Walternate isn’t above reproach.

Ultimately, “Bloodline” is more of a plot-mover than most episodes of Fringe. There’s no additional case to solve, and no profound theme to explore. If anything, it’s like the writers decided to inject a serum into the belly of show and accelerate the story, to get Fauxlivia’s baby out and to get on to the next phase. That’s the way Fringe is these days. And it’s good to know now that we can count on the show to continue to rocket ahead for at least 26 more episodes. Because as the Observers would say, “It is happening.”

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Well, is your typhoid shot up to date?
  • As I said up top, I’m not that smart, but when the doctors are sedating Olivia, is there any reason why they give her a pill and not an injection? (Aside from the narrative reason, so that she can spit the pill out?)
  • Charlie went on a date with the bug girl. They had tea.
  • Charlie teases Lincoln that he knows what the name of Olivia’s baby is. “I’ll give you a hint. It’s not Lincoln.”
  • On Earth-2, people enjoy reading the comic strip adventures of Opus The Peahen, and they sometime quote Francis Ford Coppola’s classic movie Taxi Driver.
  • Something else I enjoy about the Earth-2 stories is that because the Fringe team has been together longer than the team on our world, they have a relaxed rapport that the Earth-1 Fringe stories generally lack. (Understandably so, given the troubled histories of the Earth-1 characters.) For example, when Olivia’s mom nags her about the irresponsible way she got pregnant, she sighs, “You and Lincoln should get together and commiserate,” and she packs a lot of weary-but-loving history into that one line.
  • It’s also credit to how well this show has defined its two universes—and how good the cast is—that I hardly ever think about the actors playing two different characters. It’s just “Walternate” and “Walter,” or “Olivia” and “Fauxlivia.” In fact, I’ve come to enjoy the interplay between Lincoln and Charlie so much that I barely remember the “other” Charlie, who died on our world. 
  • Another case in point: the Autistic Astrid of Earth-2. When Lincoln tells her that he has something to relate that requires Level 10 clearance, the mild panic in her voice when she says, “Sir, I’m nowhere near that level!” is kind of touching. Even though we’ve spent very little time with that character, she’s been defined well enough that we feel like we know her. (Or at least I do.) 
  • We’re off for the next two weeks, and then we get the final four episodes of the season on consecutive weeks. For those who prefer to remain “tabula rasa” on TV series, avert your eyes, because I’m about to list the titles for that final four: “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” (4/15); “6:02 AM EST” (4/22); “The Last Sam Weiss” (4/29); and—gulp—“The Day We Died” (5/6).

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