Fringe continued a second season that's been a little, uh, mixed with "What Lies Below," an episode of the show that started out utterly predictably, continued along an utterly predictable path and yet somehow got fairly enjoyable by the end just through sheer force of will on the part of the cast, which sinks its teeth into a lot of hooey (as per usual). The road to the end, though, is plagued with problematic moments, and they speak as much to the fact that Fringe seems increasingly less and less capable of doing standalone episodes, which strikes me as increasingly strange because the show that obviously inspired the series - The X-Files - was great at standalone episodes. Then again, The X-Files, for all its rigid formula, was never as formulaic as Fringe can be in the non-mythology episodes.
Most of the great X-Files episodes I remember have nothing to do with the alien conspiracy storyline (which I continue to insist mostly made sense but required you to think about it so much and wave away so many weird decisions on the part of the writers that it still mostly seems inexplicable). The alien stuff was fun, but the standalones were where the show showed off its best side. The series could be a serial killer thriller, a creepy monster movie, a paranoid thriller or a goofy comedy on any given week. And, more importantly, the show had shown all of those sides of its personality by the time its second season was over. Fringe, for all its strengths, seems curiously limited in scope, as though the universe it takes place in is a rather shallow one, where things will happen in a readily repeatable pattern (see what I did there?).
Anyway, tonight's episode is the latest episode of a sci-fi series to take on the idea of a smart virus, a little bug that gets in your blood and suddenly makes you start propagating it however it can accomplish this. Also, typically, it makes you rather violent toward your fellow man, including your best friends and family members, and it usually involves your skin turning disgusting looking. (When The X-Files did this, it involved a worm, which was great. I may miss that show more than any other show ever.) Anyway, inevitably there will be some form of quarantine, the better to confine what happens to a handful of sets and save money if you're over-budget. And if you know what you're doing, one of the regular cast members will be infected and look as if they are going to die until they don't.
So the second this week's freak (some dude who's pretty much just there to get the virus plot in motion) wandered into the office building and started bleeding all over everything before expiring promptly in the middle of the floor and then exhaling a giant cloud of blood, you pretty much could see where this thing was going. 1.) Our team would respond to the virus. 2.) Our team would be separated. Walter and Peter would be on opposite sides of the glass. 3.) There would be a quarantine. 4.) The virus would exhibit disturbing new powers. Oh no! 5.) Whichever of Walter or Peter was on the side of the virus would get infected and become the virus' latest toy. 6.) The other of Walter of Peter would solve the problem with a cure at the last minute. It's a setup so basic half the spec script writers in Los Angeles probably hung their heads in sorrow.
But once you got past the fact that the storyline didn't really have any twists to it, this episode had some fun moments in it. Take, for example, Peter and Olivia's battle in the middle of the parking garage, a neatly choreographed fight, filmed stylishly in an assortment of wide shots and close-ups. It was nicely paced, surprisingly dramatic given that you knew roughly how it would turn out and well played by both actors, who seemed to really get into the sturm und drang of the whole thing (if there's one thing Fringe does well, it's sturm und drang). Even though Olivia's reason for being in the parking garage was a little convoluted - she had to turn on some ventilators that would distribute a chemical that would knock out the infected throughout the building so the cure Walter mostly just talked himself into would be able to be administered to them - it was worth it to get her down there for the REAL reason she was in the parking garage - to have a knock-down, drag-out fight with Peter. Which she did. And it was great.
There were some other nice moments sprinkled throughout as well. Indeed, when I said the episode was mostly predictable above, I didn't point out that some of it was enjoyably predictable. Peter beating Walter's test so that he could be released was a hoot you saw coming from a mile away, while the fact that he nosebled before getting outside was something I didn't quite see coming, I'll admit. And Walter's lengthy monologue about how sad he would be to see Peter die again (delivered to Astrid) was, as always, well-played by John Noble, even if it sorta seemed like his arrival at a cure for the virus mostly just happened via his extended philosophizing instead of any clever mystery solving. (That happens a lot on this show, actually, and I mostly forgive it because Walter's a great character and Noble a great actor.) Also, a woman threw herself out of a window, which also seems to happen a lot on this show. Still, as a way for the virus to try to escape and replicate itself, it was nicely dramatic.
In a way, though, the disappointment over the episode being predictable stems from the fact that Fringe itself is predictable. I know Noel's written here a bit about how he thinks the show's predictability and pattern is setting us up for the cool reveals the show makes in its mythological episodes, but in this second season, it's gotten so rote that it's wasting a lot of the good stuff the show has going for it (the talented cast, the nicely moody direction). Fringe is a show that constantly seems to be about three-quarters of the way there and then it just stops, figuring that's good enough. I really wish I could get on board the Fringe bandwagon, and I really like some of the episodes the show does, but it often ends up feeling curiously inessential. And the why probably lies in how frightened it seems to be of a little variety.
- If I messed any of that up, sorry. I'm watching on a Slingbox, and the rain here in SoCal is wreaking havoc on my connection for some reason. Also, Noel will be back when Fringe next returns. He's in Sundance right now. Lucky bastard.
- So, yeah, Astrid is wondering what Walter meant when he said he didn't want to see Peter die again, but she seemed so nonchalant about it that I honestly thought I'd missed an episode where Walter told everyone, "Guess what! I stole my son from a parallel dimension!"
- Did that final scene of Peter waking up and thanking everyone for all they'd done for him remind anyone of the end of Return of the King? Just me?
- See, if this were REALLY an X-Files episode, we'd learn that the virus was lurking inside of Jonathan Ames and would return to wreak its vengeance at some unspecified point in the future. (If this were the terrible second movie, Ames would then lean up, smile and wave at the camera while vacationing in the Bahamas.)