Fringe: “Johari Window”

Eye of the Beholder

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C

“Johari Window*”
Written by Jeff Vlaming
Directed by Deran Sarafian

It’s not often I can put the words “original” and “television” in the same sentence, but this episode ofFringe delivers a unique and interesting twist on a familiar story. A young boy named Teddy (Liam James,Psych) walking along the side of a rural highway is picked up by a cop, who suspects he is a runaway. A few minutes down the road, the cop glances in his rear view mirror to check on his passenger, and sees a monster. Astonished, he takes the boy to his station to file a report. Just as he has finished uploading a digital photo of the boy, three deformed men with shotguns burst in, killing everyone in the room except the boy. On their way out, they grab all the evidence of the boy’s existence.

Ah, monsters. If only you watched TV. Because if you did, you’d have realized that once information is digitized, it’s like a cockroach, impossible to eradicate. Teddy’s photo hits the law enforcement net and within hours, Broyles is pulling our Fringe team into play. And this time, Agent Francis is dead again. Sometimes I need a spreadsheet to keep track of these characters.

While Walter struggles to separate his real memories of research into deformities from his cinematic memories of movies like “Deliverance”, Olivia learns that this is not the first time there have been reports of deformed humans appearing in the vicinity of Edina, New York. Surprisingly, the local Sheriff claims not to be terribly familiar with them, but is willing enough to help. Their conversation is interrupted by Walter’s humming, and the amused Sheriff recognizes the “Edina Hum”, a peculiar sound (indeed, so peculiar I never once heard it) supposedly caused by the town’s proximity to a nearby military base’s generators.

Generators? We’re in upstate New York in the early 21st century, and the local military base doesn’t have supplied electricity?

During various conversations, the open-faced Sheriff seems oblivious to the fact that most of his townspeople regard the Fringe team with deep suspicion. Clearly, they’re all hiding something. And just as clearly to anyone who ever watched “The X-Files”, the sheriff is in on it, too. He’s just trying to be subtle. I don’t mind him trying to be subtle, I don’t mind the writers trying that tack, I only mind it when the Fringe team falls for this pretended ignorance. If I can figure out, ten minutes into this story, that the Sheriff and the whole town are hiding something, then trained FBI investigators should have clued in as well. I can only sympathize with writer Jeff Vlaming, who here seems to be combining his experience with The X-Filesand Animorphs; it must be very hard to come up with a new twist on this story. And yet, he does.

Peter and Olivia are run off the road by a deformed man, who then comes after them with a shotgun. Peter shoots him (and I love the grim, determined, utterly focused assassin Peter Bishop becomes under pressure). As they search the woods for the body, Walter discovers a rare butterfly and snags it for Astrid. When they finally find the body, the man appears completely normal. Back in the lab, however, two metamorphoses have taken place: the body has turned hideous again, and the butterfly has become a common, if deformed, moth.

Therein lies the key to the mystery: the town of Edina is not full of shapechangers, it is full of deformed humans who appear normal. Their “disguise” of normality is the effect of the very same electromagnetic pulse that created a village full of Elephant Men. This is a strikingly original take on the well-used idea of an entire village peopled by monsters. I could ring all sorts of changes on the symbolism of pretty people versus ugly people, but I’ll just point out that there were good people and bad people in that town full of facial deformities. The soul is not reflected in the face, not even in a fun house mirror.

An original twist, suitably creepy scenes of isolation in rural, woodsy forests, a quirky team that is bonding better every week: I could not ask for more. If I can’t Mulder and Scully back, Walter, Peter and Olivia are a first class replacement. I’m glad to see them back.

Fringe averaged a 4.0 rating, better than it most recent new episode on Monday night. I like to think that Bones, its 8 PM lead in, pairs well with Fringe. I wish more viewers agreed with me.

* For those viewers who, like me, were puzzled by the title of this episode, a “Johari window” is a four-panel frame used by psychologists to help people better understand their relationships. Yeah, I don’t understand its relevance to this ep, either, but there it is.