Daedalus and Icarus
Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM
Written by Josh Singer & Graham Roland
Directed by Brad Anderson
“It’s like using balloons to steal bowling balls.” — Walter
Just when I thought we had our feet on solid ground, comes an episode of Fringe that knocked me right off my pins. We start with floating people, bong stories, and Jorge Garcia; we end with shapeshifter data discs, soul magnets and harmonic convergences. It was fun, it was sad, it was exciting, but most of all it caught me flat-footed with a twist I never saw coming, but which in retrospect makes perfect sense. I love this kind of writing, that takes me by surprise and never disappoints.
“You can’t defy gravity without consequences.” – Dr. Krick
Take an ordinary high-rise burglary, complete with dark clothing, ski masks and rappelling gear, and turn it upside down. That’s exactly what happens in the opening sequences of this episode; the burglars are climbing down the building, having broken into a metals depository. Caught by a security guard, one burglar flees and the other one catches a bullet. Dying, he watches as his blood spills upward; then he himself floats gently up and up and up, until his rope is all that tethers him to earth. When Walter gets the man’s body into the lab, he is forced to tie him down for the medical examination. Oddly enough, the burglar has almost atrophied legs, but a highly developed upper body, much like people who have spent long stretches in space. Horrified, Walter wonders if their perp is from outer space. Meanwhile, Bill the surviving burglar (Michael Teigen, Psych) meets with a Dr. Krick (Alan Ruck, Greek) in a garage, complaining that he is nauseous, with headaches. Dr. Krick insists they meet elsewhere, and the burglar climbs back into his car, fighting a tendency to levitate. When they meet, Krick tries to whip up a serum to help his “patient”, who is bleeding from the eyes. Too late; Bill dies, drifting up out of his chair, leaving his shoes behind in a lovely bit of symbolism.
“How can injecting someone with the world’s heaviest element make them float?” — Olivia
It does not take long to determine what was taken from the metals depository: osmium, the heaviest element on earth. Running on intuition as usual, Walter tests the body in his lab and finds the blood full of osmium – so why does it make the human body heavier? Peter and Olivia trace a key card found on the victim to a warehouse, the very same warehouse where Krick is taking tissue samples from the late Bill. He scurries away, leaving behind all his experimental apparatus, as Peter and Olivia walk into a classic Mulder-and-Scully scene of horror: bodies stacked in a freezer, dismembered and mutilated. Worse, the alley behind the warehouse is piled high with wheelchairs, mute testimony for the corpses within. It becomes clear that these belonged to willing volunteers who risked their lives for the chance to break free of gravity once again.
“They were confined to wheelchairs for years; how could they pass up an opportunity to fly?” – Peter
Krick does not even slow down when Bill dies; inside of an hour he is at a local gym, recruiting wheelchair bound men. He jokes about basketball with one young man, Michael (Tom Stevens, Smallville), and offers “a miracle” to another one, Vince (Greyston Holt, The 4400). Eager to regain his mobility, he accepts Krick’s injection of osmium, and then lets himself be talked into a burglary at the local science museum, looking for more of the rare osmium. Alas, all goes wrong, Krick abandons him, and Vince nearly floats away through the skylight like a runaway balloon. Only Peter’s (literally) flying tackle brings him to earth again. From his cell, Krick later explains to Walter that he stumbled across the formula during aeronautical research, and hoped to find a “cure” for his son – who turns out to be Michael, the wheelchair-bound basketball player. But Walter knows that this “explanation” is no explanation at all: osmium cannot become helium, the formula Krick discovered could not work. Something else must explain this mystery.
“Walter, it was never your intellect that made you exceptional.” – Nina
Throughout this episode, Walter has been repeating ad nauseam how much he wants his old self back, his old intellect, the stimulation of working with men of ideas like William Bell. He mourns the missing parts of his brain, and fears he will fail his son. All this could be dismissed as the complaints of old age missing the strength and vitality of youth—but it is never wise to dismiss Walter as a cliché. While passionately arguing with Nina over William Bell’s alleged experiments in recalling human souls to test subjects (by implanting those famous soul magnets in test subjects), he reaches down the bell (clue alert!) that William Bell left to Nina. He rings the bell, hoping its “harmonic convergence” can recall his friend for one last desperately needed bull session. Will William Bell answer the bell?
“I love this full disclosure. Whey didn’t we make this agreement earlier?” – Olivia
In the midst of all this levity, we see Peter and Olivia – the real Peter and the real Olivia – finally together. Walter hums as he works, happy to see his son happy; he even remembers Astrid’s name (although Nina calls her by the wrong name). Nina congratulates Peter when she sees him with Olivia: “Please, do not let go of a beautiful woman’s hand on my account.” Peter shrugs all this off with good-natured nonchalance, but gets very serious as Olivia opens up to him more and more. Her barriers are down, she trusts him completely, so he, wisely, comes clean. How refreshing that a story point that could have been drawn out for weeks was quickly and effectively dealt with. I was afraid that Peter’s shapeshifter hunt would be the de rigueur obstacle thrown into the Path of True Love, but no, he admits Olivia to his inner sanctum. He wants no more secrets between them. Olivia sees the shapeshifter disks, realizes how and where Peter got them, but before she can really react, we hear a chime – and Olivia answers Peter in William Bell’s voice.
As Jorge might say: Dude. Whoa.
“A person’s soul or consciousness continues to live on after death, and all it needs is a vessel or a host to return to.” – Walter
Of all the classic horror tropes I expected to see on this show, possession was bottom of the list. It’s such a primitive idea, a superstition invoked to explain illness and madness, I just could not see how it would work on this sophisticated show. But I underestimated Fringe; the writers have managed to figure out a way to make even possession a high-tech, high-physics concept. And it’s seamlessly integrated into a totally different story, a story that explores the devotion of a father to his son. Whether it is Walter literally moving heaven and earth to save his boy, or Krick killing (inadvertently) a dozen young men in a desperate hope to fix his son, we have a double portrait of a mad scientist, like the ancient engineer Daedalus, who wants his son to fly higher than he ever could, to do more and be more. Here the role of Icarus is played by an exile (Peter) and a handicapped man (Michael), neither of whom feel particularly in need of fixing. Rather, their fathers are following their own mad agendas, fulfilling their own selfish needs, in the guise of fatherly love. That’s the really demonic element in this story, that a man can commit the most heinous crimes out of love. I love the deep level on which this show is written, the sophistication of the thinking behind it. The writers may not be able to persuade me that osmium can make a man lighter than air, but they did convince me that they know the periodic tables of the human heart.
“It was Belly’s intellect that made the company great. All I’ve managed to do with its vast resources is to create a new flavor of cupcake frosting.” – Walter
Fringe garnered 3.64 million viewers on Friday night, for a 1.5 share among adults 18-49. This is a smaller audience but a larger share of the prize demographic, so it’s definitely a mixed message sent to the suits at Fox at a time when the show needs to be unambiguous about its future. Ironically, shows like Chuck, which is running out of story ideas, have a better shot at renewal than Fringe, which comes up with stunning stories like this one week after week, playing to empty living rooms. What started out as a dark imitation ofThe X-Files now deserves honors of its own; it has earned its stripes as great science fiction TV, and it will be a shame if low ratings cancel it. Maybe I need to move to the Other Universe, where Fringe is a monster hit and nobody ever heard of American Idol.