Sleepless in Seattle
Fox, Thursdays, 9/10 E/C
Written by Josh Singer
Directed by Paul Edwards
A worker arrives late for work at an office complex in Seattle, looking disheveled. As he walks through the cubicle farm and into a conference room, his coworkers morph into monsters and demons. In the conference room, he responds to his boss’s reprimand by beating his brains in on the conference table. Maybe they should have had doughnuts.
My first thought, which should have been Walter’s first thought, was that this poor man was suffering from a classic bad acid trip. When investigators try to question him, he shrieks, flails, his hair turns white instantaneously, and he dies. Walter’s autopsy reveals a mysterious scar at the base of the man’s neck.
Soon Walter, Peter, and Olivia are on the track of a series of similar freak-out murders, in which the perpetrators are all linked by having previously suffered severe insomnia. They no longer suffer from it, having been cured by having an experimental chip embedded in their brains by Dr. Nayak (Ravi Kapoor,Heroes). As the investigation proceeds, Peter reveals that he used to suffer from nightmares, until his father cured him when he was a child, and from the age of 8 to 19 he didn’t remember a single dream. Now I’m wondering if Peter has a scar on his neck.
Walter’s pursuit of this very interesting brain teaser leads him to some highly questionable actions, such as drugging a hapless FBI agent in order to make him part of an experiment. He discovers that the chip is mining dreams, broadcasting them to some receiver so that they can be harvested. As a result, the dreamers never experience their dreams, never get the true benefit of REM sleep, and hence are dying of exhaustion.
The Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne asserted that the ancient Romans once executed a King of Macedonia by keeping him awake. The tormentum vigilae was a well documented technique of interrogation by torture—after a long enough period of sleeplessness, the exhausted brain breaks down and presents the victim with hallucinations. Some research seems to show that dream deprivation can be just as damaging as sleep deprivation. Draining a victim of dreams would be as much a vampiric act as draining them of blood.
Our bloodsucker turns out to be, no surprise, the very surgeon who devised the research. According to Walter, who has experienced it, experiencing someone else’s dreams is a heck of a rush. It even seems that only Walter’s lifelong experiments with psychoactive drugs saves him from becoming addicted to the experience. I love it that this former flower child is the saving intelligence in this show.
This plot turned out better than I had feared. Back when The X-Files first did this chip-implant-in-brains idea, I wondered at the time as I wondered viewing this: what happens to these victims if they go through a PET scan or an MRI? Or even an airport metal detector? There was at least one X-File devoted to sleep deprivation and its effects. But as far as I can tell, the idea of dream deprivation is a new one, and was a pleasant twist.
There are still some gaping holes in the story that I felt could have been handled better. No one appears to have investigated Charlie Francis’ death—what did they tell his wife? That Charlie had a psychotic break and Olivia had to shoot him? Olivia at one point says she will send a copy of a suspect document to the CSI unit—how is a copy going to tell them anything about the ink, paper, or other physical characteristics? The sly Fringe self-references continue: Nayak’s lab assistant is named Zack Miller—is that an inside reference to Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller, who wrote the previous episode?
Overall, this was a pretty workmanlike episode, neither too deep in the conspiracy/world war aspect to be unintelligible to new viewers, nor too divorced from the rest of the show to be irrelevant. Fringe came in at just over 6 million viewers, with a 2.1 share in the favored demographic. It’s holding on, but just barely.