Fringe: “Alone in the World”

A Sense Of Isolation


Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM

“Alone in the World”

Written by David Fury

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

“I know what it is to be lonely.” – Walter

I am detecting a distinct theme in Fringe this year. It would be hard not to, since the writers are hitting us over the head with it in every episode: without Peter Bishop, the lives of everyone in this series is profoundly affected for the worst. In every episode, someone complains about being lonely or isolated, mentions the hole in their lives, the pervasive sense of loss they cannot explain. The trouble is, this season has produced some of the most interesting, poignant and dramatic cases of the series – without Joshua Jackson. What does this say about how badly we “need” Peter Bishop? If we can get cases this good, stories this mesmerizing without him, why is everyone so concerned about his absence? Worse, we find out in this episode that Peter did exist, in both this world and the other, contradicting the Observers who keep saying he never existed. This is confusion piled on disorder. For the sake of the character, as well as for the sake of the audience’s patience, it’s time to bring him back. This mournful attitude will be impossible to sustain as Olivia grows closer to Lincoln Lee, as Walter slips into melancholia again, as everyone forgets even the shadow of the memory of Peter Bishop. Time to resolve this story point and move on.

“You’re going to kill Peter!” — Walter

Two bullies chase a ten year old boy into a tunnel, then find themselves covered in a fast-growing fungus. Young Aaron (Evan Bird, The Killing), the would-be victim, survives. He is a lonely boy, almost abandoned by his mother, living with strangers who don’t like him. When the Fringe team brings him to the lab, he bonds with the equally lonely Walter over tinfoil hats and strawberry milkshakes. Walter even tells him how he tried to save his son, Peter, by bringing his double from the other universe over, but how Peter fell through the ice of a frozen lake, and Walter lost him all over again. Later, Walter so far identifies Aaron with his lost son that he refers to him as “Peter” – is he mad? Or is he merely hearing the echo of his lost son again? Except that, as the Observers keep reminding one another and us, “he never existed”. If Peter never existed, where does Walter’s story about “losing him all over again” come from?

“As it grows, it becomes more intelligent, more self aware, and ever more conscious of how alone in the world it is.” — Walter

Meanwhile, the Fringe team probes further into the tunnel-fungus, which has now killed two medical workers in addition to the boys. Various suggestions for eliminating it – UV light, flamethrowers – have unexpected side effects. The trouble, as Walter eventually determines, is that the fungus occupying the tunnel is not only vast, it is aware. Leave it to Walter, with his extensive and intimate knowledge of hallucinogenic substances, to recognize the psychoactive properties of this particular fungus. He realizes that the fungus (which he names “Gus”) is cognizant, at least on a rudimentary level, and has formed a bond with Aaron. Just as the fungus is affecting the boy, so he is affecting it. Unfortunately, killing the fungus means killing the boy. But as the fungus grows, it kills, leaving Broyles and the Fringe team with an unbearable choice: kill the fungus (and Aaron), or risk the lives of hundreds as the fungus expands under the city of Boston.

“We can’t sacrifice countless other lives to save one boy.” — Broyles

Evan Bird gives a mature and balanced performance, showing us a young boy opening up to the possibility of love and acceptance, who finally relinquishes the only friend he has ever known on the promise of Walter’s friendship. I can imagine no worse betrayal than if Walter then reneges on his promise to become Aaron’s friend, and retreats into himself once more. It’s clear that Walter and Aaron have a chance to save one another, reaching beyond their shells to achieve real human contact. That’s a step forward for Walter, but it’s one that will take him farther from Peter. Will we now have to see Walter abandon young Aaron when Peter returns? More likely we will never see Aaron again, but this young actor’s performance will haunt me for a long time.

“I’m a little freaked out. You want to talk about it?” – Lincoln Lee

The other very interesting performance here is Seth Gabel’s. I am so not surprised to find his Lincoln Lee for this side of the Bridge to be subtle, nuanced, a little shy. The AltLincoln we saw last week was full of brio and confidence; this version is quieter, more reserved, but equally competent. He can be wide-eyed in wonder without being naïve. It’s clear he’s attracted to Olivia, which stands to reason because in the other universe, AltLincoln loves AltLivia. But our Lincoln is still finding his feet in this bizarre new world. True to form, he continues to be the conscience of the team – when the fungus kills the medical workers his first thought is to save them at the risk of his own life. When he is nearly killed by Gus, he jokes with Olivia, in his low-key, laid-back way that reminds me of a younger, shyer Mulder. I really like this character, and I really hope he sticks around.

“There was something there that felt what you feel.” — Walter

There were a lot of subtle touches I enjoyed in this episode. While reminding me of old X-Files cases (Firewalker, Field Trip), it was different enough to surprise me. I liked the way the fungus’s tendrils curved around Aaron’s wall drawings in the tunnel, like a friend putting an arm around his shoulder. I loved the scenes between Aaron and Walter – touching, poignant, well done. Walter identified the fungus as a species of “Cortexiphas” fungi and said it produced a neurotoxin that allowed it to live in symbiosis – is this the origin of Cortexiphan? Most of all, I enjoyed the idea of the plant (metaphorically) embracing the lonely young boy, trying to protect him, reaching out in its dumb and lethal way to form a primitive emotional bond as it struggles towards sentience. Since emotion (unlike intelligence) is chemically based, it made perfect sense for its first contact with a human to be emotive rather than logical. Some story points didn’t make sense (the Fringe team is subjecting a minor to medical tests without a parent present?) but overall the tale was engaging, challenging and absorbing. This continues a trend of very well-written episodes this season.

“If he’s real, we have to find him!” — Walter

Fringe gained a tenth of a point to settle at a 1.3 share for adults 18-49, an audience of 3.2 million. This is a marginal audience for renewal. Sometimes I wonder if the writers’ obsession with loneliness is a reflection of the dwindling audience for Fringe. Unlike The X-Files, which roared from relative obscurity to worldwide phenomenon in its third year, in its fourth year Fringe has struggled to find or keep an audience. Which is too bad, because it’s every bit as well-written, thoughtful and challenging as The X-Files ever was. The world has changed since 1995, though, and apparently hammering on the theme of loneliness is not helping audiences feel at home with Fringe.