Fringe: “Northwest Passage”

Peter from Boston

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall


Fox, Thursdays, 9:00 PM

“Northwest Passage”

Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz & Nora Zuckerman & Lilla Zuckerman
Directed by Joe Chapelle

My area of expertise is weird. —Peter Bishop

At last, we get an episode showcasing Peter Bishop. From being completely invisible in the episode named after him, he goes to center stage. Joshua Jackson delivers a solid, convincing performance that teaches us more about Peter than we learned in the first half of this season. We start with a mild flirtation between Peter—now on the run from Walter, the FBI, and his own past—and a waitress at a truck stop café. She promises to drop by his hotel, the Drake’s Passage, with a mix tape for “Peter from Boston”. Waiting for her, he falls asleep in the hotel lobby. When he realizes the waitress failed to show, he goes looking for her, and walks into a crime scene—the woman has been abducted. Quickly, Peter is sucked into another terrible case generated by Thomas Jerome Newton and his conspirators. Peter glimpses him in the crowd and is naturally suspicious. Sheriff Mathis (Martha Plimpton, Medium) puts Peter in the back of her squad car, but on the way to the station she gets a radio call: the waitress’ body has been found. Peter overhears the news that part of her brain is missing; of course he makes the connection to Newton immediately, and concludes that Newton is looking for him. But now, of course, Peter knows why Newton is looking for him—he’s not of this world. Peter knows he is a key element in whatever disaster Newton is planning.

There are a number of ways Peter could react to this, most of them stupid. Consistently throughout this episode, he avoids those reactions. Peter makes smart choices, reaches smart conclusions, and reacts with wit and courage to every obstacle thrown at him. He has clearly been paying attention to his father’s autopsy lectures, as he demonstrates to Sheriff Mathis exactly how Krista’s brain was dissected. He is persuasive enough to gain Mathis’ trust. Her partner, Ferguson (Patrick Gilmore, Stargate Universe) isn’t buying it, and goes off on his own to investigate the scene of the crime. When he doesn’t come back, Mathis turns to Peter. Another body turns up missing part of a brain. Peter uses adrenaline levels remaining in the bodies to triangulate a search area, and accompanies Mathis as she tracks down an abandoned dairy farm and its owner. Who turns out to be a psycho with a thing for dismembering people’s brains.

Excuse me?

That’s a whopping coincidence. I was admittedly suspicious of the idea that Thomas Newton’s amateur brain surgery, which heretofore had killed no one, was now turning out to be lethal. Twice. But to have hismodus operandi so exactly and randomly duplicate another killer’s, at the same time that Newton showed up to stalk Peter? Too much coincidence. Way too much coincidence. From a plotting standpoint, it was clumsy. From a character standpoint, it was potentially damaging to our understanding of Peter Bishop. At the end of an episode showing off how smart and perceptive, brave and stalwart the younger Mr. Bishop is, we discover that all of his conclusions were completely wrong? Maybe this is what happens when you get too many cooks in the kitchen—four writers who can’t agree on lunch, much less a storyline.

Otherwise, I had no complaints at all about this episode. The supporting cast was top notch—you do not get any better than Martha Plimpton, whose soft vulnerability is balanced by her courage and determination, and who also serves as a warning and role model to Peter in her relationship with her partner. Walter’s breakdown, his tearful appeals for help to Astrid and Olivia, even Broyles’ face-off with Olivia were all well done. The spooky woods of Vancouver served us well, once again, as a backdrop of silent menace; Peter’s chase through the woods was everything I could have asked for from Mulder himself. I was so invested in that scene I was yelling at Peter not to be lured into the deep woods by Newton. And while the “twist” at the end was exactly as I expected—”Mr. Secretary” is indeed Walternate—Jackson made it completely new with his astonished stare.

Because Josh Jackson completely owned this episode. He so completely dominated it, so completely inhabited his character, that he nearly renders Walter Bishop superfluous. Yet this is all accomplished without negating any of the character development we have seen to date. His humor is somewhat dimmed, but it is still there—he checks into a motel under the name “Gene Cowan”. His charm is in no way lessened when he flirts with the truck stop waitress. The quirkiness he got from his father—either father—comes out when he fires a gun to scare Sheriff Mathis as part of an experiment. He’s resourceful enough to arm himself when he realizes he is a target. And his physical chops are fully in evidence as he single-handedly takes down an armed killer. I could watch this guy all day.

Walter, not so much. I realize he’s the mad genius at the heart of this show. I understand he’s the key to just about every mystery. And there is no question of John Noble’s outstanding talent. It’s just that, having watched Peter perform so heroically and nobly, it’s hard to watch Walter falling apart like wet Kleenex. He cries in a grocery store, whimpers in front of Olivia and Astrid, deliberately sabotages his own search for Peter to avoid losing him again. This is a pathetic man. I look forward to the struggle with his alter ego that surely, surely must restore him to himself again. I look forward to the Walter who will rise above this personal tragedy to look outside himself and save, very possibly, the universe.

And of course, I can’t wait for Walternate. In our one glimpse of him, we see all the cruelty, ruthlessness, and selfishness that have leached from Walter. Peter is about to discover that he really is our Walter’s son, at least psychologically. His expression told me immediately that he knew this Walter was not the one he had left behind in Boston; without words, Jackson showed us surprise and horror and wonder all at once. If the plot had holes you could drive a starship through, the episode was still redeemed by top notch acting, the X-Files ambiance, and the new dimensions added to our knowledge of Peter. I can forgive lame plotting for the sake of excellent acting.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Fringe‘s ratings jumped ten percent this week, luring in 5.8 million viewers in an excellent standalone mystery, for a 2.2 share among adults 18-49. This is excellent news; maybe knowing that this show has been renewed gave on-the-fence viewers a reason to invest in it now. Whatever the reason, I hope they’ll stick around for what promises to be a dynamite season end in a couple of weeks.