Fringe: “Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?”

True Natures

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Written by David Wilcox & Matthew Pitts
Directed by Ken Fink

“This is just a station along the way. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.” —Thomas Jerome Newton

I love this story now just as much as I did the first time I saw it, as the classic SF movie Blade Runner. Both stories take their tale from Philip K. Dick’s Nebula-award winning novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In both stories, the essential question is, what separates humans from their creations? The classic answer is “emotion”, but the real answer is more subtle than that. The real emotion that binds human and machine is empathy, the only emotion that permits us to look beyond ourselves and our programming and to connect, truly connect, with others. In this increasingly technology-mediated world, perhaps that Other is a machine. Or perhaps that machine is connecting with us. What does it mean when machines can love? And what does it mean when humans cannot?

Nurse: He has no pulse.

ER Doc: Then why is he still breathing?

This episode furthers the “mythological” storyline borne in the second season of Fringe. A US Senator named Van Horn (Gerard Plunkett, 2012) is killed in a traffic accident. We’ve seen the Senator before, in the second season episode “Earthling”, where he warned Broyles that a case was being taken away from him by shadowy government forces “above” him. In the third season opener, he questioned Peter Bishop about his stay on the Other Side. Now, he dies after buying lemonade from a neighborhood lemonade stand. Except that he doesn’t really die. Even as the puzzled ER team assembles to figure out why this man with no pulse and no blood pressure is still breathing, Thomas Jerome Newton (Sebastian Roché,Supernatural) arrives. He opens a shooting spree, killing several people. Philip Broyles, who has come to visit the hospital to comfort his old friend, shoots Newton in the shoulder. Newton shoots the “dead” Van Horn in the left eye before leaping out of a window.

Walter: Don’t worry. I do some of my best work self-medicated.

Van Horn, it seems, is not what he seems. In Fringe, he’s called a shapeshifter. In fact, he fits just about every definition of a Terminator: human and machine, flesh and metal. Walter, tripping on LSD, is unencumbered by rationality, so he has no trouble in accepting his own findings. He extrapolates further that this “tin can” can be revived, so he starts rewiring it, with Astrid and Peter’s help. Eventually, he divines that its cerebral cortex still responds to some stimuli, and calls on Van Horn’s widow for help. The tin can responds with activity in the base of its spine, which puzzles the team. Everyone breaks for lunch, Astrid starts arguing the merits of animal crackers versus dinosaur crackers, and Walter gets a brainstorm. Rushing back to the lab, he is trying to extract a metal object from the base of Van Horn’s spine when a Terminator cop bursts into the lab and disables him. Walter was right—like a stegosaurus, the shapeshifter had a memory/brain at the base of its spine.

“Sometimes monsters aren’t all that bad. Sometimes, if you get to spend some time with them, they can be very surprising. They can be incredibly sweet and pure and capable of great, great love.” —Ray

That scene in the lab is where two plots intersect: the A-story about Van Horn, and a B-story about Newton and his minions. The minion in question is Ray (Marcus Giamatti, NCIS), a shapeshifter who has been living as a cop, with a wife and son, for two years. By now, he’s emotionally tied to the family. As he reassures his “son”, he is capable of great, great love. Not so much love as to spare the guard outside Walter’s lab, but enough that he disables, rather than kills, Walter. He refuses to execute his “family”. And he argues with Newton that he has a right to his life. Newton, of course, shoots him dead, and we are left to wonder what Newton did to the rest of the family. The scene is important because it underscores the developing theme—that the shapeshifters are more than machines. Like the replicants of Blade Runner, they have enough humanity in them to develop emotions, and continued contact with humans is bringing that capability to the fore. Van Horn responds to his wife’s voice and touch—even though he isn’t a real husband. Ray defends a family he “adopted” two years ago as a cover—even though he isn’t their real husband/father. Both of them show evidence of developing a human “nature”, if not an outright soul. Humanity has even worked its insidious magic on Newton, who knows enough about human nature to warn Altlivia that she’s acting against hers.

“Your emotions betray you… They form a line that you’re unwilling to cross. And that will lead to your undoing.” —Thomas Jerome Newton

Altlivia, the Olivia Dunham who came back from the Other Side, is facing a crisis. In her world, she is in a faithful, stable relationship with a good man she loves. Over here, she’s supposed to be in the first stages of an affair with a different man, a man who is mostly a stranger to her. She faces the dilemma faced by all spies, from Mata Hari to James Bond: preserve her honor or play The Spy Who Loved Me? She continues to flirt with Peter, to encourage intimacy with him, but in unguarded moments she looks as if she’s deciding whether to put the bullet in his head or in his heart. Peter isn’t pushing her, but it’s clear where he thinks things are going. “You can always tell when a relationship is about to take that next step,” he tells her. Altlivia starts looking nervous, starts looking for a way out. Did she know, when she obeyed Walternate’s orders to infiltrate Our Side, that she would be put in a position where she would have to betray her lover back home? Since her boyfriend on the Other Side is sleeping (presumably) with Our Olivia, he is not aware that there is any moral dilemma here at all. Altlivia, who has shown no hesitation in killing, lying, or stealing, who prides herself on her devotion to duty, her integrity, her fierce loyalty, hesitates on the threshold of sexual entanglement.

“I’m willing to wager that, somewhere deep inside his brain, Peter Bishop senses that something is not quite right with you, that something has changed… That you’re not his Olivia.” —Thomas Jerome Newton

As Newton constantly reminds Altlivia, in terms of the assignment she has accepted, she’s going to have to have sex with her target, Peter. Newton doesn’t quite understand why she is reluctant; after all, he is a machine who is programmed to carry out orders, and does so with no fear and no hesitation. He has spent a long time on This Side, however, studying humans, and so he takes the time to warn her, more than once, that Altlivia is jeopardizing her mission with her reluctance and hesitation. But of course, Newton doesn’t really know as much about humans as he thinks. He doesn’t even know that much about shapeshifters; he seriously misjudged Ray’s changed “true nature”. Newton may be more machine than man, but that does not mean all shapeshifters are like him. His weakness is that he thinks of himself as a cog in a machine, and he sees others the same way. He treats Altlivia as a reluctant cog, unwilling or unable to perform as programmed. Ultimately, she follows his lead and goes to bed with Peter.

“She came up with ways to explain it to herself. Kind of like I’ve been doing with you. With all the little differences, ever since you got back from the Other Sid… Since you got back, it’s like you’re a completely different person.” —Peter Bishop

My Spidey sense tells me that this is actually the moment when Peter will realize that this is not his Olivia. The kind of intimacy Newton thinks will cement Altlivia’s cover is the very thing most likely to expose the differences between her and Peter’s Olivia. Peter Bishop may be in love, but he is not blind. Maybe Altlivia, hearing Peter’s speech, thinks the way to alleviate Peter’s fears or suspicions is to distract him with sex. If so, I’m willing to bet that Peter will see right through her. Hormones may rule for a while, but in the long run, Peter is going to see that the woman he fell in love with is not the one in his bed, that she is, if you will, a woman of a different nature altogether. And it will be very interesting to see what he does then.

Shows that explore human nature, and our interactions with the world around us, are always interesting to me. Altlivia, the human spy, fails to grasp the significance of Van Horn’s and Ray’s attachment to humans. The “awakening” of the semi-mechanical Terminator/shapeshifters is a common theme in SF, but for a good reason. We are alone, so far as we know, in the universe. There is no one to talk to except other humans, no way to get “outside” our human frailty. We invent gods, monsters, golems, and aliens to act primarily as mirrors to ourselves. Every alien or scary monster we have ever invented, from Frankenstein’s creature onward, has been a distortion of the human frame, if not its spirit. We keep looking outside ourselves to see who we are, what our true natures are.

But what if that nature changes?

Fringe came in at a 1.9 rating among adults 18-49, a 5% drop off from last week. Again. Every week, this show is losing ground. At 5.1 million viewers, it is almost at the point where it would be a top-rated show on cable; but these are not good numbers for broadcast TV. Since this season’s episodes have focused more on the “mythology”, the interaction between worlds that underlies all the other stories told on this show, I have to conclude that JJ Abrams and company have decided to limit the show’s run. Like Lost, it may be that Fringe is best served with a limited term, when a story can unfold naturally and come to a natural end, where audiences don’t have to hang on the edge of their seats to see if a series is renewed and stories are resolved. If Abrams is terminating Fringe, at least he’s doing it in grand style. These ratings do not bode well for renewal, so Abrams may be structuring the show for a conclusion some time in December. If so, he’ll be going out on a sea of accolades, as Fringe continues its finest season to date.