Fringe: “One Night In October”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, v. 2.0


Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM

“One Night in October”

Written by Alison Schapker & Monica Owuso-Breen

Directed by Brad Anderson

“He’s a professor? And over there he’s a serial killer?” — Olivia

Man is the only monster that can explain itself, so it’s no wonder that serial killers hold such fascination for us. Hard-wired as we are for social contact, the lone killer who shows no empathy at all holds all the lure of a mutant or a changeling. In what may well be the best-written episode of the entire show, Fringebrilliantly exploits its own alternate-world structure to show us the transformative power of love, a power so strong it can redeem the dark impulses that drive a fiend. And it does so with verve and heart, without sappy sentimentality. There is madness and love and tragedy and horror here, all seasoned by some fine performances and top notch writing.

“These crimes weren’t committed over here.” — Broyles

Our Olivia, who has reverted to the introverted mouse we saw in Season One, is asked to escort Professor John McClellan (John Pyper-Ferguson, Alphas), a psychologist specializing in serial killers, to the Other universe. It seems that his alter ego is a serial killer, who has drilled holes in the heads of 23 people so far. AltBroyles and the Fringe team think it would help to know the killer’s mind so they can capture him, and who better to understand him than another version of himself? Although Olivia questions the value of this approach, AltLivia reminds her that she learned a lot from just living in Olivia’s apartment for awhile. The way this series incorporates earlier stories in its current fare is such a refreshing change from the clumsy obliviousness of most TV writing, where shows never refer to their own history. In order to ensure that Professor McClellan does not cop to the fact that he’s in another universe, AltLivia puts on a blonde wig to look like our version. She cannot hide her cocky swagger or her sly grin, however, so we’re never in doubt as to who is who, even when both characters are onscreen and identically dressed.

“He’s jealous of them. He hates that they have happy lives.” – Professor McClellan

There’s no way this idea is going to work, however, and it does not take long for Professor McClellan to figure out something is wrong – this killer has the same furniture as his home, has the same books, and worst of all, has a picture of Professor John’s father. When he explodes in anger, Olivia must explain the split universes to him. His reaction is surprising: empathy and tears. He admits to Olivia that he has had the same dark impulses as John the serial killer, but learned to set them aside when he was taken in as a child by a woman named Margery, who taught him to “step out into the light”. He pleads with Olivia to let him talk to John, to help him. He knows his alter ego like no other, and knows the pain he is going through. Talk about your empathy: here is a man showing deep sympathy for a serial killer. Never mind that helooks like John; there’s no question in our minds this is not really the same man. He’s gentler, kinder, more human than the serial killer; whereas John has the blank affect of a robot, Professor McClellan is awash in tears.

“What’s in him is in me.” – Professor McClellan

Despite Olivia’s warning, McClellan goes to find John, and finds him immediately. He knows, from the inside out, what John is and what drives him. When he finds John preparing to drill another victim, he shows compassion and understanding. He knows the voices screaming in John’s head, he knows the pain that drives him. He offers him the story of Margery, and the two men explore the night where their lives diverged: one night in October, their father discovered the mutilated animals, the “dead things” these junior criminals had left behind. In John’s world, the father dragged him back home and beat him for three days; in our world, McClellan ran away, and was taken in by a wonderful, loving woman named Margery. With her, he found love, acceptance and peace. He found happiness.

“She made him feel for them. What have I done to all of them?” — John

Unfortunately, John the serial killer has been literally draining the memories (and the life) from his victims precisely because he cannot be happy. He lacks that emotion. He cannot understand it, yet he desperately desires it. So much so, that he knocks out McClellan and hooks him up to the machine, so he can experience Margery first hand, so to speak. The experiment backfires, however; not only does he drain the memory from McClellan, he finds himself swamped with the sudden burden of guilt from two dozen murders. Overwhelmed, he commits suicide. Back in our world, McClellan recovers but has lost the memory of Margery. Even as Broyles and Olivia fear that he will now become the serial killer his alter ego became, McClellan tells them he knows he can “step into the light”. Olivia rejoices: though he may have lost Margery, he retains the love she taught him, a love which has changed his life.

“She taught me that I didn’t have to live in the darkness.” – Professor McClellan

It would be easy to make this story an exercise in schmaltz. It would be so typical of TV to hammer home the superficial, the shallow, the easy scene of cheap redemption. What we got was a superb rendering from guest star Pyper-Ferguson of a man in agony, in both incarnations. One man has learned to embrace his inner darkness and set it aside, the other has succumbed to it. We see that Jekyll and Hyde are different men, yet the same, like twins raised apart from one another. It challenges our notion of personality to see good rule one man and evil the other, and to learn that even though they have made different choices, they had the same beginnings, the same foundation. Little, subtle touches mark the differences: in the confrontation scene, we can see that John the serial killer wears an earpiece, perhaps a hearing aid. No attention is drawn to it, no mention is made of it, the camera does not linger on it. If you missed it, you missed nothing important in the scene. But I saw it, and it broke my heart to think of a young boy so badly beaten by his own father that it broke his hearing, left him damaged in so many ways. This is the mark of a fine and subtle touch, from the writers, the director and the actor.

“There are some people who leave an indelible mark on your soul, an imprint that never be erased.” – Broyles

I only wish that fine restraint were shown elsewhere in this series, but perhaps that is too much to expect. Broyles’ remark is what Internet fans call an anvil, a clue so heavy with irony and presence that it lands with a thud and a clang. Astrid tries to interest Olivia in Agent Lee, only to have Olivia wistfully tell her that he’s not her type, that she’s not sure anyone is her type. Earlier, we see Walter dosing himself with Mozart (the “Requiem”, of course) as he tries to deal with the pain of a loss he doesn’t even consciously know he has suffered. We get it – everyone misses Peter Bishop, even if they don’t really remember him. The idea that Peter was the linchpin of so many lives that he cannot be forgotten even when he didn’t exist is romantic, exciting, and quixotic – we don’t need to be reminded of it in every single scene. We’re not likely to forget it, so it would be all right for Olivia to occasionally smile.

“A man may soothe his soul…” – Walter Bishop

I am beginning to think that the invention of the Red universe is the masterstroke for this show. It’s not only interesting in and of itself, it is wonderfully economical. Not only does it afford every actor a dual role, it cuts down on the number of guest stars required: now even they are playing double roles. Pyper-Ferguson turns in the best guest star performance I’ve seen on Fringe, a real heartbreaker that had me riveted. Both the serial killer and his gentle alter ego are fully realized; John is creepily menacing, McClellan warm and personable. It’s not just a matter of lines or camera tricks; all the dual roles in this series are wonderfully realized. Anna Torv is a standout, but the other regulars turn in convincing versions of their alternate selves: AltBroyles swaggers and barks, AltAstrid is a robot who never looks anyone in the eye. We haven’t seen much of Walternate this season, but that’s all right – what John Noble is showing us now is a third version of Walter Bishop, a lonely man who “never had anything to anchor him”.

“I never understood how someone so beautiful could love someone so dark.” – Professor McClellan

The show that Fringe is most often compared to, The X-Files, showed us a world of inherent chaos, where nothing could be trusted, nothing was whole, and the search for answers was almost pointless because there no answers and never would be. Fringe inverts that pessimistic point of view – the worlds are inherently orderly, and are suffering only a temporary dislocation. Both sides have faith that chaos will be beaten back, and the Fringe teams are fighting a winnable battle against anarchy. That’s the second message in this episode: that the darkness can be kept at bay, beaten back, defeated. The deepest message is the most subtle: that we are a result not of circumstance but choice. On a night in October, one boy chose to return with his father, to the world that hurt him but was familiar; the other chose to run, to take a chance on a new life, and found his salvation there. If this had been an episode of The X-Files (a show, by the way, in which Pyper-Ferguson appeared three times), it would have ended with both John McClellans dead, or with the survivor doomed to become a monster. Despite the dark atmosphere and melancholy ambiance, however, Fringe is an innately upbeat show. And that’s almost entirely due to one thing: the love Olivia and Walter have for Peter and one another. He may not be present, but Peter seeps through. I look forward to seeing him soon.

“He’s probably a little lonely.” — Astrid

I hope to see any of Fringe: Friday’s show dropped 20% in the ratings from last week. This ties the series’ lowest rating, a 1.2 share for adults 18-49. This is an audience of about 3.1 million viewers; this is almost as low as a cable show. It’s heartbreaking to see work this good go unnoticed; at this late date it’s unlikely the show will suddenly earn a larger audience, not with this complicated a backstory, so I’m hoping Fox is in a tolerant mood this year.