I was 7 years old the first time I saw Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and I still remember the way I felt at the end of the movie, when after all of Richard Dreyfuss’ and Melinda Dillon’s struggles to get to Devils Tower, they clambered up and found a sprawling government facility, built in preparation for the arrival of the extra-terrestrials. And I remember how I felt as the mothership landed and began communicating with the assembled scientists, soldiers and civilians, via lights and booming sound. The feeling throughout was one of awe, mixed with a sense of satisfaction that the previous two hours of action, drama and mystery had been well-worth my time.
Tonight’s Fringe, “Reciprocity,” opens at one of those big Close Encounters-style facilities, where Massive Dynamic has been working with the government to assemble Walternate’s possible doomsday machine, under the supervision of Dr. James Falcon. The Machine is big—“just big enough to destroy a couple of universes”—but its purpose remains inscrutable. Dr. Falcon and company aren’t even sure what makes it go. But when Peter walks onto the site, suddenly metal objects begin moving towards The Machine, and Peter’s nose starts bleeding, as The Machine starts to move. We’ve long known that Peter is essential to the operation of The Machine. Now we know that he’s not just the pilot; he’s the key to the ignition.
The opening scene of “Reciprocity” inspired plenty of awe. The rest of the episode? Not so much, despite a few surprises and at least one potentially juicy revelation.
After Peter’s encounter with The Machine, Fringe Division and Massive Dynamic begin to double their efforts to figure out just what this thing is meant to do. Peter is subjected to a battery of tests supervised by Dr. Falcon (over the objections of a nervous Walter), while Broyles has a team of people combing through the laptop left by Fauxlivia (or “Folivia,” as Walter has dubbed her), looking for clues to Walternate’s plans.
But then the investigation takes a turn, when the body of a shape-shifter turns up dead in a Koi pond, leaking mercury and missing its data-storage disc. The team intuits that somebody—a mole!—is passing along inside key Earth 1 info to Walternate and is trying to shut down some of the shape-shifters mentioned in Fauxlivia’s encrypted notes, so that the trail won’t lead back to him or her. The team briefly suspects Brandon, but a special William Bell-designed lie-detector test that reads facial expressions clears him, thank goodness. (I don’t want to live in a universe where Our Brandon is a snitch.) They also look into Dr. Falcon but discover that he’s not a mole; he’s a shape-shifter. Also, he’s dead. (When I saw him sprawled on the floor in a pool of mercury, I briefly wondered if his killer hissed, “Yippee-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon!” before he shot him.)
We finally learn who’s behind the shape-shifter slaughter when we see one of the merculoids fleeing through an alley, where it comes upon a homeless man and decides to take his form. But before it can holler, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” it gets shot… by Peter! Apparently, Peter’s been hard at work cracking The Fauxlivia Code, tracking down shape-shifters and swiping their data so that he can find out what’s in store for him before anyone else does. (Because he’s tired of being behind the info-curve.) But Walter finds out what Peter’s up to and catches up to him right as he’s chopping the fingers off of his last victim. Peter admits to Walter that he learned nothing from his kill-spree, but that he doesn’t regret it. “They’re not even human,” he says. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” (And I don’t know about you, but I immediately flashed back to all those shape-shifters we’ve seen in the past who’ve come to enjoy their new identities, and I felt bad for the ones that Peter killed. Harsh stuff, Fringe.)
Until those final revelations, I found “Reciprocity” solid but largely unexceptional. The investigation into who’s killing shape-shifters lacked a certain frisson, and while I’ve found the Olivia/Peter interactions in the past two episodes to be moving and tense, this week all the dithering over whether Peter and/or Olivia should read Fauxlivia’s notes (and all her thoughts on Peter as a man and a lover) was more of a drag.
That said, the way the episode ends sets up whole new possibilities for ways our heroes can wound each other. Walter suggests that Peter’s secretiveness and cold-bloodedness are a direct result of his encounter with The Machine, which has “weaponized” his son. Nevertheless, he agrees to keep Peter’s secret, in large part because he’s still trying to make up for the ways he’s mistreated Peter in the past. So when Olivia cracks her counterpart’s code on her own—using their mutual nickname “Olive” as a key—and finds the last shape-shifter just after Peter has killed it, Walter stays mum, even as Olivia kicks herself for being “always just a step behind.” When she catches up, will she be awed? Or just angry?
- “Foliva ruined U2 for all of us.”
- Another big piece of news at the end of the episode: William Bell knew about “The First People” and was trying to track down their literature well before Massive Dynamic and Fringe Division took up the assignment. Just what did Belly know?
- I know some people might be bothered by the idea that brilliant scientists would just build a doomsday machine without knowing how it works or what it does, but that’s a fairly standard science-fiction convention and one that fits well with one of the themes of Fringe, as seen in this episode in particular. No one wants to be the last one to know what the hell is going on.
- Possible symbolism alert: At the start of the episode, Walter’s ears are stuffed-up.
- As a parallel to Peter being transformed by his experience with The Machine, Walter continues his efforts to try and re-grow the missing pieces of his brain, using one of Bell’s serums. But he’s not sure if he has the one containing his DNA or the one containing chimp DNA, although his sudden interest in bananas is certainly suspicious. (Also, his craving for a banana split leads to the odd visual of him discovering Peter’s nefarious scheme while he has whipped cream dripping off his face.)
- “I’ve snorted worse.”
- Good to see that the ratings were decent last week. This week might be more telling though, given that—weird as it sounds—there might’ve been some Friday TV watchers catching Fringe for the first time. Will they stick around this week? All Fringe really has to do—according to the network dudes—is keep its number steady, and it stands a chance at renewal. I just hope Fox makes that decision early, so that the Fringe team can make a stab at wrapping the series if necessary.
- And one more addendum to that point: While I was at Sundance this week, I spent some time decompressing in my hotel room with the TV turned on mainly for white noise and companionship and thus tuned to procedural repeats on TNT. I honestly have a hard time understanding why Fringe isn’t as big a hit as an NCIS or a CSI: NY. I know the characters and cases are freakier, but the level of action and investigation isn’t that different, really.
- Thanks to Zack for filling in so ably last week. If nothing else, I’m glad that the assignment pushed him to finish catching up with Fringe over the break. (Although he would’ve gotten to it anyway, I’m sure.)