Fringe: “Jacksonville”

God Blinks

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C

Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz
Directed by Charles Beeson

“We’re standing in two buildings, one of which comes from the alternate universe.” —Walter Bishop

This is me, looking for my socks. Which got blown off before the opening credits ran for this “winter finale” episode of Fringe. Combining high-order physics, Enlightenment philosophy, love, and mysticism, it’s one of the best in the entire series. Certainly it was the best television I’ve seen this year.

Back in the 18th century, when David Hume and Bishop Berkeley were hashing out questions about how we perceive the world, and whether our senses can deceive us, Berkeley formulated a science of philosophy that still holds today for many people. His views were that the cause of all our experiences, which persist from person to person, is that our ideas are filtered through God’s mind. The tree I see in the quad is there whether I am present or not, because God sees it. This neatly solves a couple of quantum theory problems of perception, particularly the multiple-worlds theory that appears to be the basis for the Alternate Universe in Fringe. In shorthand, the world persists and does not fall into chaos because it is always observed, by the one objective and eternal Observer (no, not the bald guy played by Michael Cerveris). But of course the question is always,What if God blinks?

My first clue that something was going wrong with the world was when the floating name tag for Manhattan was misspelled. My first thought was that it was a typo, but I don’t think anything on this show is accidental. Then microquakes hit Manhattan, increasing in intensity until a big one hits. When the Fringe team arrives, they find a building which looks distinctly odd, incorporating elements of other buildings in its outer structure, with an inner structure that makes no sense. As Walter notes, it looks “rearranged”. As they walk through the damage, the team finds the bodies of men and women in bizarre juxtapositions, as though they had been fused—a man and a woman joined at the side, a woman’s hand which has become part of a man’s brain. The only survivor, Ted Pratchett (Jim True-Frost, Law & Order, SVU) has been turned into a Cubist painting: he has four arms, more than four legs, and has become part of the building. Also, he’s calling for his wife; Broyles quickly determines that Pratchett has never been married. Walter questions Pratchett and learns that, according to him, the 9/11 terrorists attacked the White House but not the World Trade Center. Even as the team realizes that this Ted is Not From Around Here, a duplicate head embedded in his torso wakes up. The eyes open, the head struggles for breath as the team looks on in horror, and then the head, along with the rest of this unfortunate man, dies. That is, certifiably, three of the most terrifying minutes of TV ever.

Walter, as usual, has an off-the-wall theory that actually makes sense:

Walter: It’s a quantum tectonic event. Imagine a sudden momentary disturbance at a subatomic level. The energy disperses the atoms, literally tearing the very fabric of reality itself.

Actually, I think it’s more along the lines of a brane event. Brane, or membrane, theory is a mathematical concept that derives from string theory. According to some scholars, our four-dimensional universe is part of a membrane which exists inside a higher-dimensional space. The fundamental forces (weak and strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism) are localized to our “brane”, but gravity operates over all universes. Which would make sense in terms of our story, where clearly the weak/strong forces temporarily failed, but gravity did not. Walter himself finally concludes that this is not a quantum event, but that they are standing in two buildings, one of which came from The Other Place.

Whatever the cause, it has turned a roomful of people into what looks like a transporter accident from the Star Trek universe. Olivia remembers Bell’s warning that the universes would collide, and surmises that Thomas Newton (Sebastian Roche) is still trying to open the portal. Back in the lab, Astrid’s discovery of several objects from the other universe triggers Walter’s memory: he and Bell once “brought over” a car into the quad at Harvard 25 years ago. He knew it was from an alternate reality because it was a 1986 Monte Carlo—with a CD player, not an option at the time. Walter says Newton does not realize that, like his namesake’s laws of physics, every action has a reaction, even across universes. The “quake” that hit Manhattan will take out another building in a matter of hours. Can they prevent this? Of course not, but Olivia hopes they can predict which building will be affected in time to evacuate its inhabitants.

Broyles enlists Nina Sharpe and Massive Dynamics to help figure out which building is going to go poof. Walter takes everyone to Florida to try to re-trigger Olivia’s ability to see the “glimmer” that denotes an object brought over from The Other Side (and if you’ve been following the subtext of Walter and Peter’s relationship this season, you already know what is coming next). I loved seeing Nina Sharpe as part of the team. Olivia’s shamanic journey into her own memories was less compelling, mainly because she failed: when she woke up she was unable to see any “glimmers”. Like most shamanic journeys, her vision quest ended in a name change: 26 years ago, she was “Olive”.

Walter thinks the experiment failed because Olivia is no longer a terrified young girl. Back in Manhattan, as the deadline approaches and Peter offers Olivia a comforting kiss, her fears return and she finds the targeted building. In a spectacular sequence, the multistory hotel is sucked into itself, almost taking Olivia with it, and leaving Manhattan a new building site. Will her “otherworld sight” persist, or will it be dormant until she is afraid? Even as she wonders this, as she arrives for a non-date with Peter, she sees him surrounded by a glimmer. Walter, in agony, begs her not to tell Peter what she has just realized—that Peter Bishop is from the Other World.

But the cat is well and truly out of the bag now, and the chances of Olivia keeping that secret are small. And another secret may be emerging—although Walter says Olivia’s perceptive ability was brought out by fear, I noticed that both times it flashed, she was experiencing a romantic moment with Peter. Fear may not be the triggering emotion, after all.

All of the artifacts displayed in the opening credits—seahorses, butterflies, hands, frogs with the Phi symbol on them—all appear in the deserted Florida day care facility. That tells me that, like The X-Files, this is really about one woman’s journey. From the day care where Olivia’s life was changed, where Walter was “searching for answers to questions that should not have been asked in the first place”, to the FBI headquarters in Manhattan, to Walter’s Harvard basement/dungeon, Olivia’s life has revolved, in one way or another, around the experiments conducted on her and around her so long ago. Not only in this episode, but in the entire series, Olivia has to find her way back not only to that scared little girl, but to the strong woman she has become. This is the really over-arching “mythology” behind the series, as much as the saga of inter-universe crossover. It’s a marrying of two of the best themes of modern science fiction—the strangeness of our actual universe, and the modern dilemma of who we, as humans in this strange landscape, truly are.

This episode brought us more of the humor and warmth that elevate this series out of a mere horror show. I love Walter’s crisp commands to Peter—to bring him his pretzels. I liked the moment when Olivia, holding her younger dream self, realizes what she is seeing. I loved her moment when she accuses Walter: “What the hell is wrong with you? You did this to little children!”—and Walter’s refusal to respond. It’s fun and refreshing to see Massive Dynamics’ scientists as allies, for once. Especially when one of them references Raiders of the Lost Ark in constructing a search algorithm. I like it that Broyles is so completely supportive of his team, that he is not playing the usual role of Plot Obstacle. Best of all, this episode continues the tradition of mostly scientifically literate fiction. The very fact that we can have two different yet legitimate quantum physics explanations on a television drama is, in itself, cause for applause.

Broyles: You’d be surprised what you can make the general public believe.

Since this is the last episode that we’ll see for several weeks, it’s appropriate to look back over the last few and see how far we’ve come. The one thing that leaps to my eye is the performance of Anna Torv. Whereas she came across, to me at least, as downright wooden in the first year, she is now carrying this role with grace and strength. Olivia is a charmingly low-key, funny, dependable agent. Part of this is a nice dose of humility added to the character—from her injury to the introduction of a sister and niece and a warm family life, we have been introduced to a side of Agent Dunham we didn’t see much of in Season One. With John Scott (Mark Valley,Human Target) out of the picture, her relations with Peter have gone from outright antagonism to a delicate, reserved flirtation. John Noble and Joshua Jackson’s characters have been engaging from the beginning, but Anna Torv’s has had the most progress, and the most satisfying development, in the last few months.

Fringe pulled in a good-sized audience, 7.7 million viewers against tough competition, but still came in with only a 2.5 share. Next week in this timeslot, Fox is airing Past Life, a short-lived fantasy detective series about an investigator who solves crimes by looking into the victim’s past life. This series has already been curtailed by Fox, so it’s pretty much just going to fill time until after the Olympics. While I will be sorry to miss Fringe until April, at least it won’t have to go up against the Olympics in the ratings battle.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m still looking for my socks. Hopefully, they are still in this universe.…