Fringe: “Midnight”



NBC, Tuesdays, 9/10 E/C

Written by David Wilcox
Directed by Bryan Spicer

Warning: this review contains some spoilers. If you’d rather not know what the episode is going to include, bookmark this page and read it after viewing.

Ancient Greek myths included the gorgons, a trio of women turned into monsters by Athena, whose gaze could turn a man to stone. Most famous of this trio was Medusa; when the hero Perseus held her severed head up, even her dead gaze turned an entire throne room full of people to stone. In tonight’s episode, only the perpetrator himself turns to stone, but he still manages to kill a room full of people. The episode begins with a cop striding into a Philadelphia train station, confronting a young man with a black briefcase, and taking it from him. As he turns away, his hand turns to stone, then his arm, then his shoulder, and finally, as he opens his mouth to scream in terror, his entire body. Followed by an explosion and the opening titles. All inside of five minutes. I love this show.

Agent Astrid actually jump-starts this investigation, as she is “scanning the FBI database for anomalous cases.” Yeah, I can see it now: FBI incident report form 1013-A has a box to check—Anomalous/Normal case. Anyway, once again Olivia, Walter, and Peter all manage to get from Boston to Philadelphia in a matter of minutes. I hope we get to see the episode with the transporter sometime soon. The agent on scene says none of the security measures in place to prevent bombs in public places were tripped, and the security tapes were conveniently wiped by some weird static. Walter starts picking crystallized body parts out of the dead—apparently the cop was himself the bomb, and his body was turned into shrapnel. The cop is quickly identified, his history traced back to a recent tour in Iraq in a special unit with sealed records, and we’re off and running.

There was an awful lot of story packed into this episode, so much so that we had to have some obvious exposition dumps, some voiceovers, even the old cliche of the meeting where The Boss spells it all out with a chalkboard. Broyles has a more active role than he has had in a while, and even Olivia’s nausea plays a role in uncovering a clue. Since Peter is now the lead investigator of this team, he’s the one who eventually decides that this case ties into an Iraqi military operation that was shut down more than a year ago. Using the same transporter that got them to Philly in record time, he and Olivia arrive in Baghdad with no evidence of jet lag, bureaucratic hassles, or even desert dust.

Having spoken to a witness in Iraq they might have spoken to over the phone, they fly back to Washington just in time to foil another exploding human bomb. About half an hour of exposition is packed into an unconvincing voiceover by Broyles, landing us in a tactical assault on another train station (how unimaginative of the bad guys). Deducing from his experiments that the new walking bomb will be detonated remotely with an electronic signal, Walter and Broyles try to jam the signal at the same time they are trying to trace it. All goes awry, of course, and Olivia and Peter must engage in some physical action to take out the enemy and save the day. Olivia recovers the deadly transmitter but cannot shut it off—her high-tech solution is to smash it with her cane. Did she forget that she can turn electronics on and off with her mind, as she did back in Season One? Or maybe she doesn’t trust her brain to work the same way it did before she went to The Other Place.

The best part of this story was the introduction of a wonderful new villain: Colonel Gordon, played by veteran villain-actor Stephen McHattie (Beauty and the BeastThe Listener). McHattie has the mad eyes, the sunken cheeks, and the menacing growl of all the best baddies; I hope he becomes a regular threat. He’s a great foil for the deceptive Nina Sharp (Blair Brown), and only matched by the sinister William Bell (Leonard Nimoy). If a hero is measured by his enemies, then Walter, Peter, and Olivia are world-class heroes. He may have been captured by Peter, but I suspect he will soon escape, and lead our heroes on a merry chase. His voiceover exposition at the end led to a real surprise: the black briefcases that were supposed to be picked up by the Colonel’s exploding soldiers contain information about Them, the “others” who are, according to Olivia, either invading us or making a statement.

I’m not really sure exactly why the Colonel was killing off his own men even as they picked up the briefcases. Seems like there would be easier and better ways to destroy the contents of those briefcases, if that is in fact his goal. But just in case we didn’t suspect it already, the Colonel claims to be mad, or thought to be mad, or pretending to be mad… we may never know. The surprise for me, however, was that the briefcase was delivered not to the false Charlie Francis, as I expected, but to the Observer!

Among the many “easter eggs” embedded in every episode of Fringe is the Observer (Michael Cerveris,Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), the bald man in the black suit who appears, no matter how briefly, in every episode. He had a speaking role in last season’s “The Arrival” and the finale, “There’s More than One of Everything”. In this episode, he steps into the spotlight as one of Their agents, complicit in the surveillance and perhaps interference with this world and its world line. Heady stuff.

This episode was a deft blend of myth-arc and standalone storyline, leavened with some sly humor. Gene the Cow got a line! Walter achieves a miracle: he gets Broyles to smile. Astrid loses more fruit to Walter’s experiments, and we learn that Walter’s idea of sex education is to assemble a Playboy centerfold jigsaw puzzle with his son. Olivia, frustrated by Zen bowler Sam Weiss’ refusal to answer a direct question, loses her crutch long enough to pull a gun. Nicely done.

Fringe picked up a few more viewers from last week, to come in at 6.2 million viewers, a 3.7/6 share. I’m glad it’s picking up viewers, but it’s in a terrible timeslot and these numbers are well below its first season. I’m afraid the smaller audience is only partly due to heavy competition, however: the slow and complicated pace of “mythology” stories like Lost and The X-Files may no longer suit a TV audience fractured into a hundred different channels. The writing is going to have to pick up the pace to sustain audience interest, even in sweeps month.