The Tenth Plague
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall
Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“The Bishop Revival”
Written by Glen Whitman & Robert Chiappetta
Directed by Adam Davidson
In the book of Exodus, Moses announces ten plagues that will fall on Egypt if Pharaoh does not release his Hebrew slaves. Of those plagues, nine can be more or less explained by modern science. The tenth–the selective death of the firstborn–cannot. That’s the spooky one. The idea of a death that passes over some potential victims, while specially targeting a narrow group, is a true nightmare. Or, if you have the wrong kind of mind, a holy Grail.
The Fringe team is called in to investigate the death of over a dozen people at a wedding. As Walter notes, they appeared to have suffocated to death in a room full of air, while others in the same room were unaffected. This was a wedding full of men wearing yarmulkes, with a rabbi and a chuppah (traditional wedding canopy), and a Holocaust-survivor grandmother. We get talk of Nazis, Zyklon-B, and concentration camp tattoos. It’s obvious that the only dead people in the room were Jews, that this death passed over all the non-Jews in the room, yet the word “Jew” is never spoken. I do not understand this. Is “Jew” somehow non-PC now?
The killer soon replicates his work, giving Walter enough samples of a toxin to figure out that it is an engineered organism. He even finds the “signature” of the maker–and recognizes it as his own father’s work. By now it is standard practice to tie everything in this series from the Kennedy assassination to the heat death of the universe to the early work of Walter Bishop, and I usually find it a little tedious. But in this case, I was fascinated by the backstory on Robert Bishop. It seems he worked as a double agent for the Allies in World War II, passing research secrets out of Germany. When Walter goes looking for some of those old secrets, he is enraged to learn that Peter, in a fit of anger, sold them years ago.
Olivia and Peter spend a little time proving that this is a dead end, even as Walter is analyzing the killer’s DNA (obtained from the coffee shop) and deducing that he is a very old man. He also identifies a regulated compound in the toxin that leads them to a residence in Newton. This is good old fashioned forensic detective work, and is one of the most satisfying and fast-moving parts of the episode. Director Davidson ramps up the tension by juxtaposing shots of Olivia, Peter and her team investigating the house even as our assassin is alerted to their presence in his house. He throws a beaker on the hot plate and skedaddles with a newly minted ID of some kind, moments before his basement lab is discovered. The team idiotically enter without their masks, and Walter is soon overcome. Olivia and Peter hustle him out of the lab and give him oxygen; the presence of a stolen sweater belonging to Walter confirms that the assassin left behind a toxin concocted just to target Walter.
Alarm bells started going off in my head at this point: shouldn’t a toxin that targets Walter specifically have affected Peter as well? It’s a nicely ambiguous piece of “evidence” that Peter is Not From Around Here. On the other hand, the little girl in the coffee shop was unaffected by the same toxin that killed her mother. I love the built-in deniability of this point.
Peter and Olivia dash off in pursuit of our neo-Nazi, leaving Walter behind in the lab. As they try to find their assassin in a crowd at a diversity celebration, Walter scouts around the lab. Astrid finds him throwing together his own chemical compound, and at this point we are forcibly reminded that Walter was, indeed, once the head of biochemistry at Harvard. Grabbing a disperser, he follows Peter and Olivia.
The search for the killer bogs down in the usual problems–Peter and Olivia don’t know what or even who they’re looking for, time is running out, there are too many targets. Just as Peter stops a server from lighting a cinnamon-scented candle (the toxin, of course), a man falls gasping to the floor. It’s the assassin, dying–and Walter is on the concourse above him, holding the disperser. Knowing that it will be difficult to pick one man out of a large crowd, Walter has devised his own Angel of Death, a chemical agent that seeks out only one man in a crowd and kills him. It is a brilliant and fully satisfying turning of the tables.
It’s enough, in fact, to make up for some pretty strange plot holes. We’ve seen plenty of instances where Walter hid his old research in random hiding places around town. Why did he not bother to hide his father’s research? Since Olivia had an image of the assassin from the wedding video, why didn’t she show it to the little girl from the coffee shop?
On the other hand, I found one element to be hilarious. Many people are unaware that, in his youth, Adolf Hitler’s sole dream was to become an artist. To mock him in the form of another failed artist is genius. Another fine touch was Walter’s reminiscing to Peter about his wedding day to Peter’s mother; it showed us a kind and loving glimpse of Walter, a glimpse thrown into high relief later in the episode when he grimly kills the Nazi scientist.
Fringe continues to be a feast for the mind every week, however. The fact that Walter tosses off “telomere degradation” so casually, without explanation, is one of the reasons I love this show. It does not talk down to its audience.
In a surprise upset, Fox actually won this Thursday night. Fringe also won its timeslot, pulling in 9.1 million viewers for a 3.1/8 rating/share in the 18-49 demographic. Granted, most of its competition for that hour was reruns, but it’s still good numbers. This ties its highest rating this season.