By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
Written by J.J. Abrams and Jeff Pinkner
Directed by Paul A. Edwards
Fringe strays a bit into X-Files and Lost territory this week, with a story that really has no resolution other than “the McGuffin got away.” However, it enlarges some of the relationship stories that make it just as compelling, so I can’t complain much.
A bald man with no eyebrows sits at a cafe, observing the construction across the street and ordering outrageous food (eleven slices of jalapeño on a plate, to accompany raw meat). When an explosion rocks the job site, he calmly phones it in as “arrival on schedule” and then walks over to the crater. Agent Dunham and her crew are called in by another bald headed man, her boss Philip Broyles, to identify the artifact at the heart of the explosion, which looks like a huge bullet engraved with spirals.
What the object is and what it does is given far less weight in this episode than issues of trust among the team. Boundaries are crossed in all directions. Walter and Peter come to a breaking point, with Peter resolved to move on from what he sees as a babysitting job. Walter violates the trust of his lab assistant when he renders her unconscious–he’s so far out of touch that his later “apology” isn’t even an apology. It’s on the level of a child offering to let his victim hit him back to make it even Stephen. Broyles displays his lack of trust in Dunham by revealing that the bald man, nicknamed The Observer by the Bureau, has been on their radar for a year but he never told Sarah about him. Again Broyles is presented as a sort of combination Walter Skinner and X from The X-Files–he’s her boss, but he won’t or can’t give her vital information she needs to do her job.
This was Joshua Jackson’s episode to shine. From his frustration with his father’s childishness, to his distrust of Walter’s motives, to his anger at Walter’s invocation of his mother’s pain, even to the sharing of troubled memories from their past, Jackson’s eyes tell more than his lines. He balances humor and pathos with equal aplomb, and lets body language tell us of his silent anguish at being forced to dig up his brother’s grave to recover the artifact Walter had hidden. Most importantly, he shows us a plausible journey from Peter’s initial urge to leave the project and return to his “normal” life, to the end where he is refusing to leave. The shocking events that convince him there is more to Walter’s dire warnings than madness take up the bulk of the episode, in which Peter is kidnapped, tortured, and finally amazed when The Observer echoes his unspoken thoughts word for word. Shot in foggy darkness, with blue light shining from thickets and a creepy score, this episode resembled The X-Files or Alias more than previous ones. This is also the first episode to present what appears to be genuine paranormal activity, without a “fringe science” explanation. I’m just hoping that The Observer’s apparent ability to read minds may be an offshoot of some extreme version of communications, as Walter hints.
Alex Kurtzman has described this show as a “procedural that’s rooted in genre”. As such, the procedural took a back seat to the genre in “The Arrival”. We even ended with a ghost–the late, lamented John Scott appears to Olivia in the final moments of the show. Illusion? Or ghost? More boundaries are erased as we are challenged (by Walter) to rethink our ideas of communication and (by John Scott) our conception of death.
This was the first episode in which I was genuinely annoyed with Walter Bishop. His behavior is childish — knocking out a lab assistant who could just as easily have been sent on an errand, challenging his son, refusing to tell anyone anything about the artifact, and worst of all, relying on 20 year old memories of an accident he barely survived as an ethical guide. Yet Walter seems to think that having once been locked up in a mental facility, the world owes him a free pass on civility, honesty and trust. I don’t blame Peter for wanting to keep him at arm’s length. Kudos for a wonderful performance, again, by John Noble, who with this show and his turn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King proves that he does father/son issues like no other.
As for the artifact at the heart of the episode, it reminded me of nothing so much as the Orb from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. It’s round, mysterious, even magical. Nobody knows anything about it. It comes and goes in a flash of light and sound. And it seems to have been around for a long, long time. Pretty much, it’s a McGuffin, a plot device intended to make us all go “wow” without much explanation why. I’d have preferred a bare minimum explanation of it, beyond Walter’s minimum mumble about it being an old war experiment to fire a torpedo through the Earth’s crust. No, come to think of it, maybe it’s better that the writers didn’t elaborate on that ludicrous idea. Still, it was enough to hook the other, relationship-bound story on. And that’s all that was needed, really.
My biggest hope for this show is that the emphasis will be on showcasing the actual, innate mystery of the world around us, fringe or otherwise. Too often, shows like Lost and The X-Files bet on obfuscation and silence, on a refusal to communicate to viewers, to engage their curiosity. But curiosity is not fed by deliberate withholding of answers, it is fed by the clever revelation of answers. The way to keep viewers coming back to a show is not to confuse them by piling on questions, but to give them answers that make them sit up and go “Wow!” This episode didn’t do that, but at least it didn’t cheat us on the relationships. I hope next week will give us more “Wow!” and less “What?”
Fringe’s ratings improved from last week’s 6.3/9 to a 6.7/10 share. This kept Fox on top of the 18-40 demographic for that hour, which is a good sign for the series. Inching its way up, as Variety says, it might yet settle in for a long tenure.