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Fringe: "Os"

Fringe, obviously, is a fairly silly show. I mean this in a good way. The show plays around with ideas and concepts that are downright nutty, and it somehow makes them the stuff of high drama. The central device of the last two seasons could have been ripped right out of that cheesy old Fox show Sliders, but the show has turned it into something trenchant and deeply emotional and real. But every so often, the show will come up with an idea that’s just so goofy that it’s almost too much for me to handle. And while I liked a great deal of “Os,” I’m not sure how seriously I’m going to be able to take the idea of “Soul Magnets” (which I keep wanting to pronounce “SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUL MAGNETS!”), no matter how good Anna Torv’s Leonard Nimoy impression is. (As it turns out, it’s pretty damn good.) I’ll be the first to admit that the science in Fringe’s science fiction is more science-ish than actual science, and I’ll be the first to defend a genre show getting all metaphysical. But an actual case of spiritual possession from beyond the grave? That just strikes me as one weird step too far.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s the case in “Os”? Well, a security guard at the Massachusetts Metal Depository discovers two thieves landing on the ground, having apparently scaled the walls of the building to break into the un-alarmed top floor windows. The men have put on some sort of weird boots, and the sequence is shot in such a way as to suggest that they’re walking on the ceiling before the truth is revealed. (Perhaps this is meant to show that in a weightless situation, “up” and “down” lose all context. Mostly, it’s just a touch confusing, though the show orients us quickly enough.) The security guard shoots one of the two thieves, and the other escapes into the night. But the one the guard shot slowly begins to float from the ground, into the sky, as does his blood. Somehow, his corpse can defy gravity when not wearing the boots. Interesting.

After many weeks when the show went out of its way to come up with stories that tied into the greater idea of the characters preparing for war with the other universe, “Os” has a fairly light number of connections to the ongoing arc. Sure, we get Walter’s discovery of Bell’s old office (complete with help from a cameo-ing Jorge Garcia), and we see what Peter’s been up to in his secret room full of mystery-solving equipment. But there’s not really a larger connection to the storyline, until the show tries to force one in a way that doesn’t feel as elegant as the show usually makes this stuff feel. Instead, we’ve just got a good, old-fashioned mystery, filled with a mad scientist and men with atrophied legs but properly muscled arms and chests. If they were weightless all of the time, then their entire bodies would have atrophied muscles. The weird atrophy patterns leave Walter at a loss.

The answer is so ingenious it skipped right by me: The men recruited for this series of heists—which are carried out to steal the rare, ultra-dense element osmium—are all in wheelchairs, suffering from degenerative disorders like muscular dystrophy, the sorts of disorders that would make the mere idea of being able to fly something that could keep them compliant and ready to do just about anything for their new boss, the devious (and well-cast) Alan Ruck. The Ruck storyline, honestly, could have used a little fleshing out here and there, but I enjoyed it almost entirely because Ruck is a great bad guy. He’s the kind of guy who completely seems like someone who could start out with good intentions—figure out a way to capitalize on his grand discovery to help his wheelchair-bound son move without the chair again—and end up killing multiple people in his attempts to experiment. The show is always strongest when it parallels Walter’s desperate measures to the desperate measures of other men, also trying to save themselves or their children through science, and “Os” very nearly managed that feat.

What keeps it from doing so, I think, is the fact that Ruck’s son is barely a character. He’s in three scenes, and one of them pretty much just features him getting some praise from his dad, then heading back into the game he’s playing. As motivations go, “Oh, I have to help my child” is a good one, but this is a show that’s come up with the ultimate mad scientist with a guilty father complex character, so the bar to clear is much higher than it would be on some other paranormal mystery show. Ruck is a good enough actor to imbue his character with some degree of weight, but the script (or possibly the editing) doesn’t do him any favors. His son is there merely to be a kind of device, the whole reason for Ruck’s initial disappearance into evil-doing. I liked the mystery, and I liked the way elements combined unexpectedly, but the core of it needed a little work.

The same goes for the ultimate discovery: The rip in the fabric of the universe Walter made all those years ago is finally starting to cause our universe to go wonky. We got a vision of this a few weeks ago in “6B,” and I loved that episode. But I find the idea that Walter’s works would somehow cause a combination of osmium and rhenium to become lighter than air kind of bizarre. The show gets away with it (and I’m willing to forgive it here) because it’s always good to see when Walter realizes that his work has had unintended, far-reaching, and devastating consequences, but the conclusion is arrived at so abruptly that it’s a little disappointing. It almost feels like the show blaming Walter for this because it couldn’t think of anything better and enjoys blaming things on him. (I also find Walter and Nina’s excitement about the Peter/Olivia pairing a little strange, but it’s fun to see John Noble smile, so I’ll allow it.)

Which, of course, has to bring us back to the soul magnets. Honestly, I expect the idea of the deceased spirit of William Bell possessing Olivia to be an amusing enough premise for an episode (or maybe even two), and I’m looking forward to seeing how this all plays out next week. And I’ll even admit that Anna Torv’s Nimoy impression is good enough to make me look past the wince-y stuff. But the whole idea that Bell’s consciousness is floating around in the ether and can be called forth to possess the body of a living woman simply by having Walter ring a—sigh—bell is so strange that it’s hard to move past it. Plus, they’re called “soul magnets”? Suspension of disbelief is always required when watching Fringe, but the introduction of this whole concept and the introduction of Bell-in-Olivia requires so much of it that it all but derails the episode. 

That’s kind of how I felt about “Os” as a whole. There are a lot of great ideas, and there are a lot of terrible ones, but the show’s consistent, rock solid execution keeps it from embarrassing itself too much. It’s only as I sit down to write about it now that I realize how dangerously close this episode came to being utterly ridiculous. And to a degree, that’s what’s so great about Fringe this season: It walks the line between perfect and ridiculous so well and walks it with such a straight face that it almost deserves points just for trying. And in its best episodes, you forget about the ridiculousness and just marvel at how great the tightrope walk act is. In the lesser episodes, though, like this one, there’s always the fear that everything will fall wildly apart, even if it’s still entertaining.

Stray observations:

  • Great, great moment: The latest weightless recruit finds himself about to slip into the night sky and certain death, so Peter leaps from the balcony of the museum to drag him back to the ground. It’s a nice little action beat, carried out very skillfully.
  • This episode was one of many directed by Brad Anderson, who always brings a few nifty touches to his lensing of the show.
  • The Peter and Olivia have feelings scenes are hit and miss, and they tend to work better when they have a strong connection to the case of the week. That wasn’t present this week, what with the two just talking about honesty for no particular reason, but these scenes were also limited in number enough to not distract. (My wife, who LOVES the Peter and Olivia thing, was much more amenable to them, so I’d guess your mileage may vary.)
  • Lest it sound like I’m down on the show, I’m enjoying this season in a big, big way. I just hate that I had to get one of the less interesting episodes to drop in on. The late February flashback episode was just a terrific hour, I thought.
  • And in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not Noel. Your regular host will be back next week, with plenty of thoughts on spiritual possession and other matters.

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