Fringe: “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”

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Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide

Teleplay by J.H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner
Story by Jeff Pinkner & J.H. Wyman & Akiva Goldsman
Directed by Joe Chappelle

“Belly, why are you a cartoon?” —Walter

In a season already marked by surprise twists and innovative storylines, the 19th episode stands head and shoulders above all others. Bold and daring, funny and shocking, it challenges audiences to follow a complicated plot through visual changes like turning the show into a cartoon for half the episode, showing us a tripped-out Broyles blowing bubbles, and offering us references to genre movies like Inception. I have no doubt that audience reaction to such an atypical and peculiar episode will be both loud and divided; this will be one that fans either love or hate. Myself, I come down on the love side. Big time.

“What if, instead of trying to pull Olivia out, we try to find a way to go in?” —Bellivia

The soul/consciousness of the late William Bell (voice of Leonard Nimoy) is still trapped in Olivia’s brain. Anna Torv continues to give a bravura performance of Olivia Dunham channeling Bell, right down to Nimoy’s characteristic speech patterns and hoarse voice (some online fans have nicknamed this entity “Bellivia”. I never cease to marvel at the whimsy of fandom). The Fringe team has tried everything they can think of to transfer him out of Olivia and into another person, to no avail. Worse, if they don’t succeed soon, the real Olivia’s soul will fade away, leaving Bell in permanent possession in Olivia’s body and Peter with a really awkward dating situation. Bell suggests entering Olivia’s mind to coax her out, using the same means as in the first few episodes of Season One, when Walter was trying to get into the head of John Scott. Peter suggests the use of LSD to counteract “the superego problem”, and Walter orders Astrid to whip up a few thousand units of an illegal drug. Our tax dollars at work.

“We’re going to put Belly in a computer.” —Walternate

The idea is to wake up Olivia while transferring Bell’s consciousness to a computer. Those of us old enough and unfortunate enough to have watched Leonard Nimoy’s zombie-like performance as a decerebrated Mr. Spock in the Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” will recognize this plot point immediately—and will wince. Naturally, none of the computers now on the market are sufficient; Astrid is tasked with cobbling together out of spare parts a machine more complicated and powerful than anything owned by NASA, the DOD, or Apple. Lucky thing she has all these DIMMs and vacuum tubes lying around. Meanwhile, dosed to the eyebrows with one of the most powerful hallucinogens ever invented, Walter, Peter, and Bellivia strap on the electrodes and head into Olivialand.

“Why is everyone trying to kill us?” —Walter

At this point, anyone who saw last year’s Oscar-nominated movie Inception will recognize the ground rules: while inside the “dream” or consciousness of another, one must look out for its defense mechanism, one must blend in as much as possible. If you “die” in this mind-state, you simply wake up. Peter and Walter find themselves in an urban landscape populated by people who appear to have “raided Olivia’s closet”, with no clue how to find her. How lucky, then, that amidst the flash and glitter of a day in downtown Manhattan (or is that Manhatan?), Walter catches a flicker of light from the World Trade Center; he interprets this Morse code as a signal from Olivia, and they head into the now-vanished Towers, only steps ahead of the street crowd that has suddenly turned hostile. Nina Sharpe appears to help them find Olivia, but instead tries to send them down an elevator shaft. Foiling her, father and son find Bell’s office, open it—and are confronted with a cartoon version of William Bell. Even better, when they enter the room, Peter and Walter are themselves converted to cartoons.

“Everything in her mind is dangerous and hostile to her now.” —Bell

Bell reveals that, ever since entering Olivia’s mind, the creations of her subconscious have laid siege to him, forcing him to hole up in a safe place. Neither Walter nor Peter appears surprised that he omitted this little detail, which he could have revealed at any time. It appears that Olivia’s mind has reacted much as the body’s immune system would at the invasion of an alien organism; the “people” Walter and Peter saw in the crowd are more like antigens, which attack as soon as they detect an intruder. But like the HIV retrovirus, these antigens have turned against Olivia’s own consciousness, driving her to hide. How will they find her? Walter, with no apparent sense of irony at all, reminds Peter that “you know her better than anyone else”, apparently forgetting that for several months, Peter Bishop didn’t recognize the woman in his own bed as an impostor. After fighting off an attack by animated zombies (seriously, TV just does not get better than animated zombies), they use a red (heh) zeppelin to travel to Olivia’s memory of Jacksonville, tracking her to her “safe place”, as envisioned by Peter. The zeppelin is sabotaged by a mystery man wearing an X on his chest, and in the ensuing fight Walter falls from the zeppelin and “dies”; actually, he wakes up in the lab.

“This is not you.” —Peter

When they finally find Olivia’s family home, Peter enters—and turns back into a real person. He confronts a grateful, relieved Olivia, but something is off, and Peter finally realizes that the woman he’s embracing is not Olivia. She’s a test pattern, produced by the real Olivia to throw off her own antigens. The real Olivia appears to Peter in the guise of a young girl, and tells him “I just needed to know it was you.” This was a very powerful scene, one which finally let Olivia heal from the sense of betrayal she felt when she learned of Peter’s relationship with FauxLivia. Already burdened with fears of abandonment, Olivia was even more devastated when she discovered that Peter could not distinguish her from an impostor. Now Peter looks past the surface, sees the “real” Olivia behind the façade, and chooses correctly. At the beginning of this season, Peter literally could not recognize Olivia; now he can, and after this he always will. I think this is a brilliant resolution to the most realistic obstacle to true love raised this season.

“We needed each other then to check and balance… now you possess the wisdom of humility.” —Bell

Peter is not the only hero whose journey reaches a turning point. Walter, beset with self-doubt in the absence of his intellectual partner, receives the absolution from Bell that he has needed so long. Bell tells him that the decisions he makes from now on will be the right ones. I’m not sure why Walter continues to trust a partner who lies to him so often, but this pardon releases him from some of the burden of guilt he has carried for so long. Unfortunately, it does not really make him smarter; when he revives in the lab he attempts to help Astrid assemble Bell’s computer. In an accident right out of every Frankenstein movie from 1938 onward, he drops a glass container and has to cobble together another part of Bell’s new “brain”. Ultimately, the machine fails, as Bell knew it would, and Bell is lost forever. Devastated, Walter retreats to his lab to mourn, refusing even the comfort of a product placement ad for Sprint.

“In the end, you are as strong as Walter and I always believed you to be. And now, you know it, too.” —Bell

Peter sacrifices his cartoon life to save young Olivia, and wakes in the lab. That leaves only the cartoon Bell to help her. In her mind, Olivia’s fears are embodied as familiar characters from her past: Nina Sharpe, her stepfather, even herself. But when cornered, for reasons not made very clear, she turns and stands her ground, declaring that she is not afraid any more. Bell praises her, bids her goodbye, and tells her that he knew the experiment with the computer would never work anyway. Olivia wakes in the lab, to the joy of Peter and her friends, though Bell is gone forever. When Peter visits her later, he finds her doodling a sketch of the X-wearing man from the zeppelin and asks who he is. Nonchalantly nibbling on toast, she says, “I haven’t seen him before but I think he’s the man who’s gonna kill me.” Now there’s an exit line.

“I’m not afraid of you.” —Olivia

It is a relief to be done with the whole Olivia/Peter estrangement storyline. I hope we don’t find more obstacles to twue wuv thrown in their path. It is far, far more interesting to see them work as a team to investigate the thrilling mysteries of the twin universes. There are more things at stake here than the love lives of two mortals, so I hope we can see Peter and Olivia settle into a happy, sexy, and effective partnership untroubled by storms. (Yeah, I know. I’m not putting money on it.) More interesting is Olivia’s apparent loss of all her fears; Bell told her she was trapped in her own mind by fears, she declared she was past them now and no longer afraid. But wasn’t the Cortexiphan in her brain triggered by fear? Does her new fearlessness mean she can no longer use Cortexiphan? Or will we learn that some other strong emotion, such as love, can do it instead? Interesting questions.

“I saw death, all of it, and it was me.” —Broyles

Our hilarious B-story involves Agent Broyles’ inadvertent trip. Coming into contact with LSD, he trips out hilariously, alternating between vacant, open-mouthed stares and some truly creepy smiles. Like many users, he experiences a kind of spiritual transformation, losing his usual inhibitions and seeing a wider universe than he had permitted himself. It will be interesting to see if this produces a permanent change in Broyles; the hallucinations will wear off, but the self-revelations may not. In any case, it was hilarious watching him analyzing the Bernoulli spiral of a red Twizzler, blowing bubbles in the lab, and whistling a response to a cartoon bird hopping onto Walter’s shoulder. This depiction of a banned pharmaceutical as a positive experience, enjoyed by sworn law enforcement officers, may be the most daring moment of a very daring episode. Walter has always been a hippie, doping up on any occasion as freely as other men settle back with a beer. An entire off-the-wall episode, “Brown Betty”, was inspired by his smoking up a batch of weed. From Cortexiphan to psilocybin, drugs are part of the DNA of this series. I’m glad to see this unabashed approach, but a little fearful of the backlash.

“One consciousness! One glorious consciousness!” —Walter

The three fairy godmothers who watched over this episode were The Matrix, a little bit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and a lot of Inception. Bell has escaped the awful fate of becoming a ghost in the machine (or is he just lying low again?). Peter and Olivia are on good terms again. But something has gone wrong, I suspect, with the balance of Olivia’s mind or emotions. She’s just a little too laid back. How ironic that the only one of the party in her head not taking a mind-altering drug is the one who may, just may, have been permanently altered. We have only three more episodes to go, and I have the feeling it’s going to be a short, strange trip.

“For you to survive, I need to leave.” —Bell

Coming off a three-week hiatus, it’s not surprising that Fringe scored pretty low. Losing a tenth of a point versus the last new episode, it tied its own series low with a 1.3 rating for adults 18-49. A paltry 3.6 million viewers tuned in; in fact, the show lost 100,000 viewers between the first half hour and the second. Doubtless many will blame that drain on the quirky, oddball nature of this episode, which was brilliant, risky, fascinating, and dangerous. It’s not a tack this show can afford to take very often, but I like it when it does.