Look at that grinning bastard up there. So confident. So independent. Did you know he’s cooking his own meals now, and choosing his own clothes? And if you happen to be a person with Lovecraftian tentacles wriggling out of your gaping maw, who would you rather call?
Crazy old Dr. Bishop spent the first half of tonight’s Fringe in his element, investigating the appearance of giant parasitic worms in the digestive tracts of illegal Chinese immigrants, who may have received them via a capsule they were told was a seasickness pill. (Picture a rapidly growing sea monkey, which activates upon swallowing.) And why would Snakeheads be smuggling super-worms in the bellies of the desperate? Because the creatures produce a powerful drug, more valuable than heroin. They lift your spirits and boost your immune system. When Walter gets bitten by one of the worms, he feels better than he has in years. He’s physically fit, admired and needed for his expertise in grossology, and “even the gas I had is gone.”
“Snakehead” is a very Walter-heavy episode, which is a smart choice by the Fringe team, thematically. Fringe is often about how people modify their bodies via electronics or bio-engineering for some nefarious purpose, but “Snakehead” is about people looking to heal, or otherwise self-improve. Immigrants swallow a mysterious capsule because they’re told it will ease their transition to a better life. A mother arranges for her sickly teenage son to get wormed-up in order to save him. And Walter tries to take steps so that he’ll no longer be a burden to his son or his co-workers.
But Walter overestimates his competence—as well as the wonders that worm-juice bestows. And “Snakehead” plays Walter’s predicament as more poignant than funny, whether he’s proclaiming his self-sufficiency to Peter and then shyly asking for bus fare, or he’s pumping that bus fare into a pay phone because he’s gotten lost in Chinatown and can’t remember Peter’s number. In the end, after Fringe Division has found Walter and tracked down the gangs responsible for human- (and worm-) trafficking, Walter awakens a passed-out Peter and says that while he’s still going to try to improve himself, he knows now that he’s not always going to be able to handle it. So he’s implanted a tracking device into his neck. Because on Fringe, that’s what people do.
“Snakehead” was written by David Wilcox (much-improved after the dire “Fracture” earlier this season) and directed by Paul Holahan, a newcomer to the Fringe roster after long associations with Without A Trace, Shark and Burn Notice (among others). Ordinarily I’d be griping that this episode was yet another mythology-free time-waster, with a plot that—two-foot-long parasites aside—could be passed along to any other procedural show currently on the air. But I really enjoyed “Snakehead,” both because of the way the story reflected who Walter is and because of all the little touches of character development and scene-setting.
On the latter count, I’m thinking primarily of the house of the over-protective mother, where the windows are hermetically sealed and every table and counter has a container of hand sanitizer at the ready; and I’m thinking of Walter sitting on a Chinatown bus bench prominently displaying an ad for plastic surgery. The message is subtle but plain: we all try to control and delay our own inevitable decay.
And on the former count, I’m thinking of several really fine moments for the actors. Some are small, as when Peter and Olivia share a little smile when the sickly teen asks to see Olivia’s badge. And some are much bigger, as when Astrid trails Walter in Chinatown and for her troubles gets followed by the Triad and beaten up. Walter’s look of genuine concern and guilt when he learns that he may have been responsible for Astrid’s assault is matched by the look on Astrid’s face: a combination of anger, embarassment and worry. “Snakehead” wasn’t especially action-packed, nor did it advance the show’s master-plot—although that tracking device in Walter's neck might come back someday, I bet—but it was genuinely moving, and that's not something you usually expect from a show that opens with a worm-thing crawling up and out some dude’s esophagus.
-Something you never want to hear on Fringe: “My stomach hurts.”
-Some shocking gore tonight, from the worm-victims’ ruined faces to the gang member who slashes his throat in the stew-room.
-Peter knows how to interpret Triad tats. And he speaks Mandarin fluently. (Or is it Cantonese?)
-Another nice Astrid/Walter moment: He visits a Chinatown vendor to introduce her to some vile-looking brew, but he needs her to pay for it. With a few gestures between the two of them, an arrangement is made. Nicely done, actors and director.
-I hate to nitpick the plot of an episode I liked, but was storing the worms in the bellies of illegal immigrants really the most efficient way to smuggle them?
-Also, wouldn’t it be easier just to get Walter a cell phone?