Fringe: “Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?”
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Fringe: “Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?”

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Fringe

“Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?”

Season 3, Episode 4

“It is neither and both. Part machine, part organic.” That’s the way Walter describes the Earth-2 Shapeshifters. To which I would add: But ain’t we all?

“Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?” brings back one of my favorite Fringe concepts: those crazy super-powered shapeshifters, who have a device that they plug into the soft palate of the people they become, so that they can download the memories along with the appearance. But this week we learned that the shapeshifters also download the emotional connections of their victims, so that they can better play the part they’ve been assigned to play.

We see the inevitable end to this process when Thomas Jerome Omega Head Newton knocks on a door in Yonkers one windy night and calls on Ray, who’s having a warm family dinner with his wife and son. Ray hasn’t seen Newton in about five years, and in that time he’s gotten pretty comfortably settled into his home, and his job as a police officer. Nevertheless, when Newton tells Ray that he’ll have to shift into a new body, infiltrate Massive Dynamic, and remove the data chip from another shapeshifter there, making sure there’s “no traces left behind,” Ray assents immediately, giving no indication that this task’ll be difficult for him. Only later, after Newton’s gone, does Ray wake up his son to tell him that “sometimes monsters aren’t all that bad.” And then Ray does the job, but without shapeshifting, and without killing his family, as he was supposed to. When he gets home, he finds Newton waiting. Then Newton shoots him in the head.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The whole reason Newton needs Ray in the first place is because one of their fellow shapeshifters is down behind enemy lines. A shifter posing as Senator James Van Horn has been hit by a truck at a lemonade stand, and when Newton tries to clean up the mess at the hospital, he fails, and has to shoot the Senator in the head, causing the shifters’ telltale mercury to start leaking out. Fauxlivia calls Newton to bitch him out both for not telling her that he had a man in the Senate and for causing a ruckus at the hospital, but when she does, she learns that Senator Van Horn knew about her. Or I should say knows, because even though Van Horn is dead, “dead” has a different meaning for a half-organic/half-mechanical entity. Van Horn may be dead now, but Walter’s got his tools out and is trying his best to fix him—or at least to map his memories and figure out what he knows about Earth-2’s whole operation.

It helps that Walter now has access to Massive Dynamic’s technologically advanced labs—and their awesome employee cafeteria—though to properly map Van Horn’s mind, he needs something else as well. He needs Patricia Van Horn, the wife, to come in and whisper sweet nothings into her faux-husband’s ear and caress his skin and generally stimulate the part of his circuitry that makes all the emotional and mnemonic connections. 

Like the scene of Van Horn buying lemonade and purposefully overpaying—and the scene of Ray talking to his son about monsters—I thought the scene of Patricia Van Horn talking to the-thing-that-looks-like-her-husband was a high point of a very strong episode. Hearing her say “I’m sorry I didn’t know you were gone” to the absent man she loved was heartbreaking. I found myself thinking about what it would be like to see the body of deceased loved one—even an impostor—and to get to say everything you feel you need to say, for closure. It’s a powerful idea.

It’s also an idea that Fringe has often tackled, in different ways. What makes us human? What makes us us? What distinguishes us from other biological creatures, or from other complicated systems of framework and wires? How does technology allow us to alter ourselves in such a way that those distinctions become increasingly meaningless? Nearly everything about “Do Shapeshifters Dream Of Electric Sheep?” was actively engaged with those questions, right down to Walter having a staff meeting at MD while “tripping his brains out” and chastising his fellow scientists for not having the vision to see that the brain is little more than a hunk of meat with an amazing consistency, or that a pretty head of blonde hair is “like lemon diamonds.” Because when you get deep into the metaphor, the metaphor becomes real, because man made the words and can remake the words if he wants to and… well, anyway. Maybe that’s all a bit much. Perhaps we should stick closer to planet Earth here.

I liked also how this episode bookended Walter’s LSD excursion with an imprisoned Newton dropping what looked like a tab of micro-circuitry provided by Fauxlivia and literally “tripping his brains out”… as in, the episode ends with his mercury-brains leaking all over the floor of his cell. Fearful symmetry there. 

I can’t say that “Electric Sheep” is quite up to the level of last week’s equally philosophical “The Plateau” (though it was damned close). I found some of the suspense-plot machinations a little corny. I’m a big fan of the Big Clock/No Way Out-style story, where one of the people investigating a crime is trying to keep his or her colleagues from uncovering certain embarrassing facts, but this episode went to the well once too often with Fauxlivia thinking that Peter had found her out: first when he holds up her picture in Van Horn’s office, and then later in the cafeteria when he tells her that she’s been “different” since she got back from Earth-2.

That said, Peter’s reactions to Fauxlivia fit perfectly with what this episode is about. Fauxlivia’s trying to get close to him, and has been thwarted over and over in her efforts to get him to have sex with her, until finally at the end of this episode she just calls him over to her place and jumps his bones. Given what Peter says earlier about how he can imagine Patricia Van Horn getting used to a husband who wasn’t her husband, it’s clear that Peter could just as easily get used to an Olivia that’s not Olivia, so long as he has time to adjust. After all, we’re all changing all the time, right? And besides, what we want from other people and what they want from us in return boils down to a matter of emotional commerce. “Relationships are all transactional,” he says.

Yeah, man. Exactly.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-Where can I buy some candy buttons?

-“I’ve got an Astro Farnsworth.”

-I love the little girls’ reaction when the Senator says he’s in the mood for some lemonade: “We’re selling lemonade!” That’s exactly how my daughter would say it.

-Peter and Fauxlivia try to guess what people are really up to at the restaurant where they’re eating. Like, what’s the deal with “Persian Kid Rock?” Peter thinks he might be a banker. Cute stuff, but also plugged into the theme. We judge on surfaces, even though the truth of a person’s identity might be quite different.

-When you’re chasing shapeshifters, you’ll want to be driving a Ford Taurus. 

-Walter has Astrid bring him a framed photo of George W. Bush and a copy of Hump magazine.

-“He’s a little short for her.” “Not when you stand him on his money.”

-Occasionally, Walter eats animal cookies to honor Bell. 

-“He left his pudding. Something must be wrong.”

-One thing I do know for sure: I am no longer high.

-Last Fringe for this month. See you November 4th!