Fringe: “Marionette”


Thursdays, Fox, 9/10
Written by Monica Owusa-Breen and Alison Schapker
Directed by Joe Chappelle

“By the glimmer of a half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive moment agitated its limbs.” —Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Since its first publication in 1818, Frankenstein has been the template and cautionary tale for most resurrection fantasies in English literature. The story of the doctor driven by ego and self-delusion to disturb the dead, to seek to resurrect that which is gone forever, tugs at all our deepest fears of death and oblivion. With every step forward in modern science, the whisper grows louder: surely we are at the point where we can cheat death itself, and bring the dead back to life. But, as Victor Frankenstein and his latter-day imitators always discover, a person is more than mere flesh, and what is “brought back” may not be what initially departed.

“I’m sorry. There is no other way.” —Roland

A man getting off a commuter train is jostled in the crowd by an immaculately dressed gentleman carrying an umbrella. Anyone who ever read about the Georgi Markov case will be instantly suspicious: this was the very method of assassination used to kill him. Sure enough, our commuter enters his house, staggers, and falls. When he regains consciousness, he is strapped to an impromptu operating table and the umbrella man is dialing 911. The man apologizes and disappears. When the EMTs arrive moments later, they discover that the victim’s heart has been cut out—and then the victim wakes up, begging them not to let him die. By the time the Fringe team arrives, however, he is dead, having survived the removal of his heart by more than three minutes. Walter asks the body to be removed to his lab, and is amazed that there are no signs of decomposition, rigor mortis, or other harbingers of death.

“This is beautiful work. Definitely not a Viking.” —Walter

As the case progresses, Peter and Olivia learn that not only was the dead man the recipient of a transplanted heart, but other cases have surfaced. In those other cases, different body parts were stolen—and all the organs came from the same donor. Peter and Olivia conclude that someone is trying to put the donor back together, like gathering the lost pieces of a puzzle. They track down the donor, a recent young suicide, Amanda Walsh (Anja Savcic, Bionic Woman), and finger one of her fellow depression-therapy group members, Roland Barrett (Mark Ivanir, Dollhouse) as the new Victor Frankenstein.

“You know what Barrett said? He said that he looked into her eyes, and knew that it wasn’t her.” —Olivia

Roland and Victor have in common the massive egotism of the mad, but their motivations are different. Whereas Victor Frankenstein wanted to create a new race, and assembled his creature higgledy-piggledy out of different people, Roland only wants one person back: Amanda. By using her own body parts he counteracts any rejection issues, and his stitchery is considerably finer than Frankenstein’s. The result is a girl with scars, to be sure, but a more or less presentable puppet. For that is, literally, what he makes her. Roland rigs Amanda’s reassembled corpse up in a series of levers and pulleys, so that he can manipulate her in a genuine danse macabre. This is not enough to fuel his fantasy, however, so he applies the traditional electric shocks. Like the Creature in the book, she gasps, opens her eyes, convulses. But when Roland looks into her eyes, he sees that no one is home. The body may live, but the soul is long gone. In despair, he weeps.

“I am going to tell Olivia everything.” —Peter

Fascinating as this story is, it took second place to my interest in the story of Olivia and Peter. These two have been yearning towards one another for a good while, and both of them have had profound shocks. Peter has discovered that the woman he was making love to was not Olivia, and Olivia has learned that Peter was making love to another woman. Peter’s only moral move here is to be honest with Olivia, and he is. Unfortunately, honesty cannot heal the very wound it inflicts. Both Peter and Olivia try to act civilized and rational about it; Olivia fully understands that AltLivia fooled everyone. She brightly tells Peter she understands, that she might have done the same if AltLivia’s boyfriend had come home. She cheerfully says they should get on with things. Nobody buys this act, not even Olivia.

“She wasn’t me. How could you not see that?” —Olivia

This is not an area where the rational approach is going to work. Peter is trying to be honest about what he did and why he did it, but “honey, I thought it was you” just does not stack up against “you should have known anyway”. It’s not rational, it’s not even reasonable, but it’s honest. Olivia is hurting, trying to talk herself out of being hurt, and failing. In the end, she walks away from everything AltLivia touched—her work, her clothes, her apartment, and Peter. The man whose image kept her sane and focused on the other side wasn’t even thinking about her—the real her—the entire time she was fighting to get back to him. For a woman who has already been abandoned by her parents and her lover, this has to be salt in an open wound.

“You understand better than most the pain a lie can inflict.” —Walter

Objectively, no one is to blame for the situation; it’s heartbreaking and tragic, but Peter is certainly not guilty of deception. He saw the Olivia he wanted to see, because that’s what AltLivia gave him. The worst we can say of him is that perhaps he was too shallow to look beyond the surface. Was Olivia smiling too much? More relaxed than usual? It’s all too easy to assume that’s the effect love has on Olivia Dunham. Peter, who has been lied to all his life by his father, now finds himself a dupe again; it cannot be anything but painful to realize that the woman he trusted so deeply was as false as a politician’s promise. How many times are the writers going to torture this poor guy?

This is one of those episodes that melds the A story so seamlessly to the B story that there is hardly any way—or any reason—to pry them apart. The man in the opening scene has his heart literally ripped from his body; Olivia has hers metaphorically ripped from hers. A man’s eyes are taken from his head, blinding him; Peter is unable to see the differences between Olivia and AltLivia. Olivia has come home only to find that home has been taken away from her; her foundation of trust with Peter is gone. The twisted love story of Roland and Amanda is a distorted reflection of the broken love story of Peter and Olivia. This was a masterful marriage of standalone bizzaro Fringe case and overarching mythology story. Instead of the canned, happily-ever-after scenario many shows would go for, we have a painfully real, honest, and completely mucked up love story about two people in unique circumstances, two people literally from different worlds. How I love this show.

“Do you think possibly they replaced her with a robot?” —Walter

We’ve had a lot of Walternate this year, and not enough Walter. It was good to see him back in his usual twisted form: tasting ashes to see if they were human (and naming three kinds of wood), deriving a serum from the dead man that he hoped would keep cheese fresh, and nudging Peter to get him a strawberry milkshake. The mad genius of Fringe was back in fine form this week. But he’s not just a mad genius any more—he’s head of Massive Dynamic. We got a glimpse of his new powers when Astrid brought him files from an old project, the Yatsko Project (named after the show’s director of photography, Thomas Yatsko). Three years ago Nina Sharpe would have rung down portcullises and raised the drawbridge to keep Walter Bishop out of the bowels of Massive Dynamic; now he’s her boss. Of all the topsy-turvy developments of Season Three, this may turn out to be the most profound.

It may take the full resources of Massive Dynamic to haul Fringe out of the ratings pit. As I mentioned in an earlier review, Fox has moved the show to Friday nights, starting in January. Some may think this is a punishment for low ratings, but I am rather inclined to view it as a life preserver. Given the consistently rotten ratings for this show, Fox had every right to cancel it. The move to Friday looks like a reprieve, not a death sentence. Fox chief Kevin Reilly has said that if the show pulls a 1.9 or better on Fridays, the same as it has been pulling on Thursdays, it will be considered a reprieve. But the last few weeks have averaged below 1.9. This episode pulled in a 1.7 rating, with only 4.74 million viewers. When How I Met Your Mothercan pull in a 2.5 rating with a repeat, one has to wonder what, if anything, can attract a bigger audience to such a convoluted and cerebral show as Fringe. Let’s hope January brings us a resurrection.