I could tell before the opening credits that this week’s Fringe was most likely directed by Brad Anderson, because of the moody quality of the lighting and the intensity of the situation. The Fringe honchos tend to assign their best scripts to Anderson, a major-leaguer who knows how to create a cinematic look and elicit rich performances. I don’t want to keep harping on this point that I made last week, but another reason I don’t worry about Fringe’s ability to keep producing great TV even after its recent plot developments is because the same creative team that gave us episodes like “White Tulip” and “Marionette” is still in charge of the show, last I checked. Even if there’s some uncertainty about the trajectory of the master-plot, week-to-week, Fringe can still amaze.
All of which is a way of saying that even though “One Night In October” doesn’t address the larger issues that some skeptics have been having with the show since the end of last season, and even though it’s a little rehash-y (though not without reason, as I’ll explain in the Stray Observations), I hope we can all more or less agree that this was a terrific hour of television, making excellent use of the resources Fringe has available to them right now, both behind the camera and in front.
Special kudos go to John Pyper-Ferguson, this week’s guest star, who takes the clichéd character of the super-genius serial killer and invests it with real pathos, partly by playing it from two sides. On Earth-2, John McClennan is a ruthless, brilliant creep who lives in a house filled with candy, toys and frozen dinners, and kidnaps happy-looking people so that he can pump their brains full of a freezing blue liquid while they tell him about their happiest moment. (McClennan’s intro at the start of “One Night In October” is what tipped me off that this was probably an Anderson effort: the trembly victim, holding a picture of his kid, and the bright blue of the freezing agent working its way into his body, were all emphasized in ways that set the mood as well as told the story.) On Earth-1, meanwhile, John McClennan is a professor of clinical psychology, specializing in serial killers.
When McClennan-2 accidentally leaves a hair at the scene of his 23rd crime, Fringe Division-2 asks for help from FD-1 in bringing over the other McClennan. The plan is to keep M-1 from knowing that he’s crossed over, but it doesn’t take long in his counterpart’s house before he begins to realize that something’s up. He sees a set of chairs that he had when he was a kid, and then he sees a photograph of his father among M-2’s assortment of souvenirs of his victims and potential victims. M-1 gets so freaked out that he flees into the front yard, where he spots a blob of amber sealing off part of the neighborhood, and two Olivia Dunhams staring him down.
The idea behind “One Night In October” is fairly straightforward: to show how two otherwise identical people can be shaped by subtle changes in the paths of their lives. In one deeply moving scene—seriously, way to go John Pyper-Ferguson—a less-panicky McClennan-1 confesses to the Olivias that reason he chose his field of study is because “what’s in him is in me.” He has a rage that he successfully fights to suppress, thanks to the influence of a woman named Marjorie. One night in October when he was a boy, John went to the fair, and his father found his collection of dead things. Dad moved toward John to whip him, but John ran, and found Marjorie, who told him that, “Even when it’s the darkest, you can step into the light.”
McClennan-2, on the other hand, never had a Marjorie. His dad did beat him, and he never learned to control his impulses. He tells M-1 this when M-1 shows up at their old family farm, where M-2 has his latest kidnap victim, a young mother, bound and plugged-in to his frost-maker. M-1 takes the woman’s place—freeze-plug and all—and shares his happiest memory, which is of him meeting Marjorie. As shot by Anderson—with drifting camera and hazy light—the flashback to Marjorie is both poignant and unsettling, especially when Marjorie opens a mysterious box in a barn. Even more disturbing: after Fringe Division rescues McClennan-1, he loses his memory of his trip to Earth-2, and his memory of Marjorie as well. Is he destined to become a serial killer now that he no longer has the voice of Marjorie in his head? (Or to shoot himself, as M-2 did?) As we take our leave of McClennan, we learn that he remembers her advice at least, even if he doesn’t remember her. Perhaps that’ll be enough.
Like the best Fringe case-of-the-weeks, the “One Night In October” case has parallels with our hero’s situation. Olivia bonds with McClennan over coming from an abusive home, which fascinates Fauxlivia, who turned out much happier and more confident than her Earth-1 self. The two women have no real sympathy—or even empathy—for each other. Fauxlivia thinks Olivia is stuck-up and not as smart as she thinks; Olivia thinks Fauxlivia plays too loose. (You can tell a lot about the two characters in the way that Olivia tells Fauxlivia “I button my jacket” when Fauxlivia is impersonating her for McClennan-1’s benefit. Also, let’s give it up to Anna Torv once again for giving the two Olivias subtle but distinctive traits even when they look exactly alike.) Yet Lincoln Lee-2 senses that the two Olivias are more similar than they realize, in that both women want to be in charge of a situation, not sitting around and waiting.
Of course, the McClennan case also speaks directly to the situation confronting poor, half-mad Walter Bishop, who spends a lot of his time in this episode covering the reflective surfaces in his lab and cranking up Mozart, so that he won’t hear or see Ghost Peter trying to reach him. (Nice touch: When Astrid pulls the needle off of his record so that she can speak to him, we clearly hear the voice of Peter saying “Walter” for a split second.) I was reminded of season one’s “The Equation,” when Walter was re-institutionalized for the sake of a case and was visited by himself. Or of the stretch in season three when The Soul Of A Bell was trying to reach him from the beyond. Walter typically tries to turn these spirits away, through self-medication or by cowering in a corner. But if he could just let Peter in—in whatever form he’s now taking—maybe that would be the “Even when it’s the darkest, you can step into the light” that keeps Walter sane.
- As I mentioned, this episode does tend to re-establish what we’ve already seen in previous episodes, especially in the scene where Walter rants to LL-1 about the shape-shifters and the other “contemptible” incursions of Earth-2. Except that given what happened at the end of last season, these rehashes aren’t just to bring new (or inattentive) viewers up to speed. They’re also letting long-time fans know what’s still “real.” Answer: So far, most everything. Olivia’s even aware of the Earth-2 Lincoln Lee (which makes her reaction to LL-1 last week a little odd, but whatever).
- Things that are different in this reality: Colonel Broyles is still alive on Earth-2, and Fauxlivia’s still dating Frank Stanton. Also, Olivia wears her hair down and talks about boys with Astrid, who seems to be a much bigger part of the team now that Walter doesn’t leave the lab.
- Charlie is on a beach sipping Mai Tais with Mrs. Bug Lady. Mazel tov! (He’s also moonlighting on Prime Suspect. Don’t tell Colonel Broyles.)
- I liked that during the heavy conversation between McClennan and the Olivias, we can see Lincoln Lee conducting investigatory business out the window in the back of the shot. Nice bit of realistic detail.
- “Kennedy, help me.”