Fringe: “Brave New World”

Fringe: “Brave New World”

As I know I’ve mentioned before, I tend to get a little wary when it comes to reviewing and grading the first part of a two-parter. Assessing a serialized show mid-season is dicey enough as it is, but at least the episodes are designed as discrete units. (Or should be, anyway.) But when there’s a “to be continued” tag at the end—either literal or implied by the episode title—then so much is left hanging that it’s hard to know what to say. So you shouldn’t take the relatively low grade for the first part of “Brave New World” as indicative of where I think this two-part season finale is headed. Given what happens at the end of part one, and given the possibility of some rather charged back-and-forth between Walter and William Bell next week, I’d say there’s still a lot to look forward to.

I will say though that after watching this week’s episode, I’m extra-glad that next week isn’t the series finale. There’d be way too much riding on “Brave New World, Part 2” if so, and frankly after “Part 1,” I’d be a lot more worried about whether the Fringe team could pull it off. It’s not that “Brave New World, Part 1” was bad, by any means. It just felt a little… small. After the intensity and emotion of the episodes that preceded this one, “Brave New World” had more of the casual pace and limited scope of an early-season episode, and not so much the penultimate Fringe of season four.

Maybe that’s because the episode had such an unusual structure—almost like two half-hour Fringes yoked together. The first of those half-hours starts out as a case-of-the-week, and an especially nerve-wracking one. A group of random Boston citizens fall to the ground and catch fire, infected by heat-generating nanites that have worked their way into the victims’ bloodstreams after they rode an escalator tampered with by David Robert Jones. Now everyone else who rode that escalator has to stand stock-still, lest they overheat as well. We get to experience their static panic through one character: Jessica Holt (played by Rebecca Mader, yet another Lost favorite making a Fringe appearance), who agrees to be Walter’s guinea pig because she has a daughter, and will do anything to stay alive for her.

It’s remarkable how much Mader—and A-team Fringe writers Pinkner, Wyman and Goldsman—are able to generate viewer-investment in Jessica in just a few short minutes of screen time. Maybe it’s the way she puckishly says, “That’s what all you men say,” when Walter tells her that the discomfort from his tests “will only be momentary.” Maybe it’s the way she barely keeps it together when she calls who I assume is her ex-husband, to tell him to pick up their daughter even though it’s “not his day.” Whatever the reason, it’s genuinely tense when Jessica begins to heat up spontaneously, and when Olivia uses her telekinesis to cool her back down until Walter can inject her with his nanite-destroying antidote.

What follows is also quite exciting, though perhaps a little less than it might’ve been were it not for a certain “special appearance by” credit at the start of the episode. Walter studies the nanites under his microscope, and determines that they must’ve been created by William Bell. And sure enough, we next see Jones meeting with Bell. And it’s the actual Bell—by which I mean the actual Leonard Nimoy—and not some voice on a speaker, or cartoon, or actor doing a Bell imitation. Earlier this week, Pinkner and Wyman participated in a conference call in which they talked about their hope of bringing Nimoy back for season five, but they gave no indication that he’d be around this week. It would’ve been a grand surprise to see him all of a sudden—again, if not for the credits.

Still, the scene between Bell and Jones is a good one, as they study a chessboard—with bell-shaped pieces!—and Bell talks about how he hasn’t made a move in this game in 40 years, and how it’s important not to “confuse a winning move with a winning game.” The art of chess, according to Bell, is to sacrifice a piece right when it’s most valuable, and then to exploit the desperation that follows in the race to fill the void. Bell tells Jones that the most valuable piece in this game is “the bishop,” and that for the game to be won, “the bishop” must be sacrificed. So Jones heads out to follow orders and knock off a Bishop.

While this is going on, Walter is trying to convince everyone that Bell is alive by proving that Bell visited him seven years ago when he was still institutionalized, a few days after Bell was supposed to have died in a car accident. To do this, Walter has to return to St. Claire’s, where he studies the old carvings in his cell, gets spooked by an orderly, and sniffs the 2005 log book (which lacks a Bell signature). If “Brave New World, Part I” is really two connected Fringes, then Walter’s visit to St. Claire’s represents the start of the second—and it’s a good start, too, bringing back the old notion that Walter’s grip on his sanity is easily affected by his physical location.

It’s down the stretch that this episode seemed to me to fizzle. Bell and Jones adjust a pair of satellites, to direct a narrow sunbeam through a building in downtown Boston toward a subterranean oil reservoir. Peter and Olivia follow Walter’s directions to switch off the satellites, while Walter—inspired by the presence of Chilean almond dust on a page from the 2005 log books—gets Astrid to drive him to A1 Imports, where Bell once regularly procured said nuts. But Walter and Astrid don’t find A1 there; instead they find men with guns and radios, along with huge crates that seem to be emitting manimal-like noises. And while Peter and Olivia are successful at shutting down the satellites, Peter gets beaten around by Jones, and Olivia has to remotely control Peter’s body to knock Jones into oblivion. As Jones crumbles into dust, he says, “I got it wrong. I was the sacrifice.”

I found the way Jones was dispatched so quickly to be pretty weak, given how important the character has been all season. I feel the same way about Jones being caught on a security cam earlier in the episode, installing his nanite machine. All kind of shabby for a supervillain. I’m also not sure that Olivia’s telekinetic powers were as dramatically effective in this scene as they were earlier in the episode. The effect of her fighting through Peter looked odd—though also lovely in a way. (I might be more moved by it on a second viewing.)

Then there’s the big cliffhanger of this episode—Astrid getting shot in the back at the old A1 warehouse while she and Walter are trying to escape. In part because of the leisurely pace of “Brave New World, Part I,” the moment didn’t seem to be as much of a shocker as it should’ve been. It wasn’t the culmination of a long stretch of mounting tension, in other words. Also, I could be very wrong about this, but I’m not that worried about Astrid’s fate. I find it hard to believe that Fringe would kill of a fan-favorite character so callously at the end of the season; plus, Walter’s little experiment earlier in the episode with lemon cake, pig brain and Cortexifan showed how this particular miracle drug can regenerate organic matter. I’m guessing—just guessing, mind you—that this little tidbit might come into play. (But I suck at science. I could be way off there.)

So part one ends disappointingly, but as I said up top, but I’m not without hope. Everything that was true of the Jessica Holt scenes is doubly true of the scenes between Peter and Olivia, who talk about having kids, and worry about whether they’ll ever have a normal life. Yes, these are dramatic clichés in the superhero/action/adventure genre, but we’ve spent enough time with these characters to know what these questions mean to them—which means they’re not just clichés, at least not for these two. Peter and Olivia’s potential happiness will, I’m sure, be a major factor in next week’s finale, and it’s been set up well this week.

As for William Bell… well, I have a theory about William Bell, and the role he plays in defining what this season has been about. But in the spirit of the two-parter, I’m going to make you wait.

Stray observations:

  • As I’m sure you noticed, the credits are still amber. Make of that what you will.
  • Peter is allergic to dogs, but he still had a labrador as a kid because Walter bred it as non-allergenic.
  • Attention consumers: Do not worry that the Sprint phone will cause you to burst into flames. It shouldn’t be surprising that nearly everyone who caught fire was using a Sprint phone, because, “This is just how people pay for things now.”
  • I hope everyone is this reality is enjoying their delicious coffee drinks. They won’t be around forever.
  • Walter’s Uncle Heinrich loved rhubarb. I don’t blame him. I made a delicious berry-rhubarb-yogurt parfait earlier this week. Tasty in any universe.
  • I liked Walter, somewhat affronted, telling Jessica “I’m human” when she asks who he is.
  • Walter veers way off his usual “Astrid” bastardizations and calls her “Alex.” When she calls him on it, he sheepishly says, “I was on a roll.”
  • Olivia has no idea what Peter is talking about when refers to “crossing the streams.” I know that the implication is just that Olivia’s never seen Ghostbusters, but given what we’ve seen before with the differences between Earth-1 and Earth-2, I prefer to believe that in a Peter-less universe, through some kind of weird butterfly effect, Ghostbuster never existed.
  • On your Fringe jukebox this week: A Muzak version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face.” A very Fringe-appropriate song, yes?

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