B+

Fringe: "Stowaway"

B+

Fringe

"Stowaway"

Season 3, Episode 17

Since I missed covering last week’s Fringe due to family obligations, I missed weighing in on the whole “soul magnet” controversy, so before we move on to “Stowaway,” a quick note on that particular bit of craziness. By and large, I didn’t mind it. I admit that I preferred Walter’s earlier conception of collaborating with Bell from beyond the grave—by assembling his old partner’s notes and possessions, operating under the principle that what we leave behind constitutes our “selves”—because that struck me as both a down-to-Earth and Fringe-y idea. Still, when Olivia looked into the mirror and started speaking in a creaky old man voice, my first reaction was to laugh with genuine delight, not to roll my eyes. Too crazy a twist? Possibly. Potentially series-wrecking? Maybe. But Fringe has been taking some wild chances over the past year, and a lot of them have paid off as exciting, thought-provoking, unpredictable television. Olivia possessed by William Bell? Sure, I’ll give it a shot. If nothing else, when all is said and done and we look back on Fringe’s third season, we’re sure as hell going to remember this plot twist.

That said, after the initial giddy shock wore off last week, I told my wife, “It’s one thing for Anna Torv to do a Leonard Nimoy voice for a minute. Let’s see if it works for a full hour.” And after “Stowaway,” I have to say… Yeah, it kinda does.

It’s a fragile thing, to be sure. If Torv were to croak too much or stoop too much, the impression would look like just that: an impression, not a possession. To my eye and ear, she never did. I can accept that others would disagree. I can also accept that others would find it hard to get behind the premise itself. To hear Bellivia tell it, Bell slipped the “soul magnets” into Olivia’s tea when she visited him on Earth-2 at the end of the first season. Now his brainwaves are active while hers are dormant, and Bellivia believes the situation will be sustainable for several weeks, though he’d prefer to find another host as soon as possible. Nutty stuff. Though to my mind it’s not much nuttier than Bell removing pieces of Walter’s brain and lodging them in the heads of the unsuspecting. (As was suggested here by some of you last week, if it weren’t for the use of the word “soul” and the requirement that Torv talk funny, Fringe fans might not be so divided about where this new plot development is headed.)

Anyway, Bellivia finds a potential host when s/he hears about Dana Gray (played by geek TV fave Paula Malcomson), a woman who was murdered along with her husband and kids 18 months ago, and yet still walks the Earth, possibly because she was struck by lightning twice and now her soul is bound by magnets. (Honestly, I’d rather not think too hard about how that works.) Dana spends her days searching for the suicidal, so that she can be near them when they snuff it. Is she a soul-vampire, sucking their life forces as they expire? Or is she a soul-hitchhiker, trying to get to the afterlife by tagging along with other folks? More importantly, if she really doesn’t want her body any more, can William Bell have it?

Dana sees her big chance to leave this spiritual realm at last and be with her family when she meets a crazy dude named Brian, who tells her that he’s planted a bag of explosives on Train 67, Car 2, Seat 17, just before he shoots himself in the head. One of the main reasons why I thought “Stowaway” was an effective episode despite all its metaphysical mumbo-jumbo was that Dana’s predicament was a legitimately tense one. As she stepped on the train, I didn’t know if she was planning to save the passengers or send their souls a-scattering, with her own in tow. And then once she hugged the bomb-bag and said, “I’m on my way to see family,” I didn’t know how—or if—she was going to be stopped. Whatever the wild set-up for the suspense, the suspense itself was palpable.

As it happens, Dana is found by Fringe Division with the help of a long-awaited special guest: The Lincoln Lee Of Earth-1, who works for the Bureau in the Hartford office, and had been tracking Dana’s case for over a year. Lincoln and Peter have an instant rapport, and bounce ideas off each other (in between Sesame Street quotes) as they track their zombie. When they find Brian’s phone, they get the bright idea to check out his last dialed numbers and find Dana’s phone. And then Peter gets the even brighter idea to have the FBI modify the data coming from Brian’s phone so that Dana will think she’s getting a call from her dead husband. Cruel, but effective. With the help of Walter and Bellivia’s calculations, the FBI is able to intercept the train before the bomb goes off, and then when Dana tries to sneak away into a field, the bag finally explodes and Dana dies at last.

I’m not letting “Stowaway” completely off the hook for its weird explanations. If the “villain” weren’t so sympathetic, or if the action weren’t so breathless, or if I didn’t find the Bellivia material so funny, I’d probably be annoyed by the wacky way the Fringe writers have found to bring William Bell back. As it is, I’m bothered by all the talk of “raindrops with a purpose” and how “trying to avoid fate leads you right to fate’s doorstep,” which if not handled properly can lead to the laziest kind of narrative development. (In essence, it give the writers free reign to say that every plot hole or implausibility in the series, past and present, can be be chalked up to “destiny.” It all happened because it had to happen, no matter how convoluted.)

But damn it: “Stowaway” was really entertaining. I’ll reel off some of my favorite moments in the Stray Observations, but before I get to that, I have to end the main part of this review with a nod of appreciation to the multi-layered performance of Joshua Jackson, who’s in cool supercop mode in “Stowaway” whenever Peter’s working with Lincoln, then carries a look of flat-out disgruntlement whenever Peter’s dealing with Bellivia. And why wouldn’t he? He’s lost his girlfriend again to the machinations of some meddling old man, who doesn’t seem overly concerned about the ramifications of his actions. (An old man who hears all Peter’s complaints—some of which echo the worries of some Fringe fans—and irritatingly dismisses them with a glib, “It’s best to try not to be reductive.”)

Peter’s also genuinely concerned at the end of the episode, when Bellivia hears a bell in the distance and briefly becomes Olivia again. If there’s anything that might calm the skittish among you, it may be this: For all his smugness about soul-transference and fate, Bell may in fact have no idea what the hell he’s talking about.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Maybe I mis-saw the final scene with Dana, but it looked like she let go of the bomb-bag well before it exploded, which would seem to back up Bellivia’s theory that she died because she fulfilled her destiny, not because of the blast. Am I reading that right?
  • So like I said, I found Torv-as-Nimoy hilarious throughout this episode, whether s/he was chucking about how s/he “never realized that a bra was so binding” or s/he was hitting on Astrid and making Astrid so uncomfortable that she started buttoning up her blouse. If you didn’t think the performance worked, I can imagine that you’d be left cold by much of “Stowaway.” I can only describe my reaction, which was to laugh.
  • Bellivia tells Walter that the new host for Bell’s soul wouldn’t have to be human. They even consider using the cow, and then communicating via brainwaves. A high-as-hell Walter giggles that he couldn’t that because, “I’d have to milk you.” To which Bellivia quickly replies, “We could assign Astrid.”
  • Bellivia to Broyles: “You have my word, young man.”
  • As fun as Peter and Lincoln were as a team, I liked Walter and Bellivia just as much, digging through scientific and mathematical puzzles—like the ultimate speeding train word problem—with an infectious joy.
  • Very clever to have Lincoln show up while Olivia, who would recognize him, is possessed by a old man who doesn’t.
  • Bellivia to Lee, regarding Dana’s immortality: “Stranger things have happened.” Lee’s deadpan reply: “No, they haven’t.”