There's nothing like cancer–or any disease, really–to remind us that no matter how much we romanticize our consciousness and our emotions, we're still just sacks of meat, stuffed with bones and tubes and a complicated system of microscopic organisms doing their own thing, often wholly independent of our elevated desires. Falling in love? Contemplating the divine? Craving a cheeseburger? That carcinoma spreading through your kidney doesn't care. It'll do what it'll do.
This of course has been a theme running through Fringe since Episode One, the idea that human beings are just devices. And that these devices can be transformed from something biological to something mechanical... like a communication device... or a bomb.
Tonight we saw one of the bombs. The episode opens with a woman stumbling into a Massachusetts diner–we know it's in Mass. because the counterman offers her some "wicked good vegetable soup" also because it says so in big floating letters outside–and in typical Fringe pre-credits gross-out fashion, within minutes of the woman's arrival, everyone in the place is bleeding from the eyes until they fall over dead. (All except the woman. Her head explodes first.)
When the Fringe team arrives, they discover that the internal body temperature of the victims is so high that their brains must've boiled "like a Maine lobster." (Walter determines this by jamming a meat thermometer into one of the corpse's ears. That's right: a meat thermometer.) They also learn that the woman who inadvertently killed the diner patrons–one Emily Kramer–has a disease that I didn't quite catch the name of. It was referred to at one point as Bellini's, and of the two medical conditions by that name that I found on the internet, I'm pretty sure it was the one also known as "Collecting Duct Carcinoma" (and not the one that manifests as mental retardation). I apologize for not having these facts cold, but as far as the plot is concerned, this is a fairly unimportant detail. She had Rare Disease; that's what matters.
The team also locates another woman with Rare Disease: a Claire Williams, who's been recently abducted and is apparently being experimented on by the same medical research company that turned Emily into a walking microwave. The search for Claire leads the Fringies to a classic bad guy: an oily corporate visionary who talks about the great things we could accomplish if only we had the "resolve" to bypass our moral hang-ups. Here's all you need to kow about the bad guy: He's played by Chris Eigeman, one of my favorite actors, who excels at playing callous snobs. Naturally he nailed this part.
It's perhaps because of Eigeman's presence–and scenes like the one where a naked mole rat is set loose in a room with Claire until it inevitably bursts like a Karo-syrup-and-red-food-coloring-filled ballon–that I was predisposed to like "The Cure," despite some of Fringe's usual failings and some failings I just noticed, too. I hadn't given much thought to the reasonability of the events that fit into The Pattern before now, because I'm not the kind of guy who looks for hard science in my science fiction. If a show tells me that a guy turning a big wooden wheel can make an entire island disappear, I just nod and wait to see what will become of it. And for now, I'm still willing to believe that these weekly experiments on human beings are for some higher purpose beyond "Wouldn't it be cool if ." That said, it does seem that these experiments are awfully messy and public and not very well covered-up. (Though maybe the sloppy execution is part of The Pattern too.)
Of course the bigger problem with Fringe is one that a lot of you (especially "alap") pointed out in the comments section last week, namely that the characters have been underdeveloped. And I'm not sure that problem was addressed fully enough by the Fringe writers this week either–although efforts were made. Aside from the usual wacky Walter who demands blue cotton candy, and farts freely, and blows up "Mr. Papaya" to prove a point that could've just as easily made by talking, we also get a touching reminder of the feeble, scrambled Walter when Peter reminds him not to use the blue toothbrush and Walter, somewhat shame-faced, mutters, "White for Walter. That's me."
And speaking of Peter, while he remained so inessential through most of this episode that even Walter said, "To be honest I didn't even know you were here," we got a hint of what he might bring to the table in future weeks. Peter ultimately tracks down Claire by promising to use his third-world connections to do a favor for Nina Sharp someday, and seeing Nina again, interacting with Peter, was enough to bump this episode up a notch or two in my estimation. It was a reminder of the larger universe that Fringe inhabits, and a tease for future plot complications. Also Blair Brown, like Chris Eigeman, has a distinctive charisma that makes the show more interesting to watch whenever she's on screen.
But the biggest move toward developing character–and one that I found mostly successful, if awkward–involved our heretofore unimpressive heroine, Agent Olivia Dunham. Tonight we learned that Olivia had an abusive, alcoholic stepfather, whom she shot–but did not kill–when she was younger. Now, every year on her birthday, the stepfather sends her a card, to remind her of the evil that she failed to stop. (Or maybe just to wish her a happy birthday; y'know, Olivia's kind of a drama queen.)
I'm not wild about trotting out the old "bad dad" bit to explain a character's broken psyche–although J.J. Abrams has made a good living at exploiting just that archetype–but it had a pretty good payoff late in the episode when Olivia watches powerlessly behind a thick pane of glass as Claire comes to the brink of exploding, while the antidote for her condition lies right within her reach. I don't much care about the reasons why Olivia has become a person who takes responsibility for everything bad that happens in the world. (Perhaps she has a different type of Rare Disease.) I only need to know that this is a wrinkle to a character who has been, up to know, largely featureless.
Similarly, I could've done without Agent Broyles' big dressing-down speech, which culminates in him saying to Olivia, "You broke the cardinal law of our profession: You let your feelings guide your decision-making." That's just such a hoary line. And yet it served a higher purpose, by tying the good guys to the experiments being conducted by the bad guys. Because in the FBI, you don't have the luxury of being a person with emotions. You have to be a machine–fashioned out of meat.
-Walter is the only one who prefers the onion soup to the vegetable. Always zigging, that Walter.
-Next week: World Series Game 6, I hope. In two weeks: The audacity of hope. Then Fringe returns in three weeks.