Fringe: “The Box”

Mandrake Root

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“The Box”

Written by Josh Singer & Graham Roland
Directed by Jeffrey Hunt

“We gather knowledge before we gather wisdom.” —William Bell (after Isaac Asimov)

In the Middle Ages people believed that the root of the mandrake plant was deadly. Supposedly, when it was dug up, it would scream so loudly it would kill anyone who heard it. People devised clever ways to avoid this, such as tying a dog to the plant and running away. The dog would pull out the root and die, and then the practitioner could safely return and retrieve it. Such a scenario forms the central premise of this episode, involving a combination Pandora’s box and mandrake. We start with a terrified family, bound and gagged in their living room, watching a man take a pickaxe out of a tool bag. Downstairs in the cellar, two men are digging a hole below the foundation. They retrieve a box, open it despite having been warned, and begin convulsing. By the time the Fringe team is called in (now including AltLivia, still posing as Olivia), everyone in the house is dead—but the man with the pickaxe and the box in the basement are both missing.

“It’s ultrasonic, so you wouldn’t be able to hear it. The frequency’s too high.” —Peter

Two stories emerge from this scenario. In the first, Team Fringe is looking for the box. In the second, AltLivia is consolidating not only her place on the team, but her place as head of whatever mission she’s fulfilling. Part of this involves getting cozy with Peter, so she goes out drinking and dancing with him. Thomas Jerome Newton (Sebastian Roche, Supernatural) returns, but this time he’s answering to AltLivia, who makes it plain to him that she’s now in charge and he will be taking orders from her, never mind that he’s been in our universe longer than she has (does that include the years he was only a frozen head?). Even as Walter is discovering that the diggers died from the effects of ultrasound, the survivor of the dig shows up at AltLivia’s door. We learn that he is deaf, which is why he was not killed when he opened the box. Unfortunately for him, AltLivia isn’t really with our government, and she kills him. Newton takes the box and goes off to test it in a subway full of people. As AltLivia’s disposing of the body, Peter arrives and she distracts him with a few heavy moves. Apparently AltLivia is willing to anything to achieve her mission.

They are interrupted by a call to the scene of the subway disaster. The box is missing, but presumed to have been carried into the tunnels. Peter volunteers to go in, but to make sure the box’s siren song doesn’t kill him, he has AltLivia fire off her gun on each side of his head, temporarily deafening him (I’m surprised the damage isn’t permanent). He finds the dwarf, whose head explodes (wouldn’t be Fringe without exploding dwarf heads, would it?) and disarms the box. When a train comes barreling along, AltLivia jumps into the tunnel to warn him, and the two huddle at the side of the track as a train thunders by.

Peter: We’re talking about two universes here. Two of each one of us. At this point, would anything really surprise you?

Walter: Bacon-flavored pudding. That’d surprise me.

It’s nice to see our old Walter back, although I could have done without seeing him lick what might be brain matter off his tie. He gets all teary-eyed when he goes to Massive Dynamics to hear William Bell’s will read. He apologizes to Peter for his sins. He makes lame fart jokes. He attempts to create chocolate milk by feeding cacao beans to Gene the Cow. He’s everything Walternate is not—emotional, full of childlike delight, humble, repentant. But he’s still a genius, who uses Mozart and Jan Hammer to prove that classical music soothes the brain and rock excites it. Again, John Noble gives us a Walter completely different from Walternate, someone we know is willing to do anything to make things right between the worlds now.

Anna Torv is amazing me this season. That’s not Olivia on my screen. That’s AltLivia. A lesser actress would be lazy, would slip back into the role she played last year, and we’d have to keep reminding ourselves that this is not our old Olivia. It’s not just the scenes she’s given, it’s her whole bearing and demeanor. She’s clearly a woman playing a role, playing it by ear, alert to nuances that let her blend in, camouflage herself. She’s still walking like AltLivia, she still smiles too much, is too sunny. What’s going to trip AltLivia up is not her ignorance of popular culture (Bono notwithstanding), or the fact that she doesn’t like to drink, or her lack of Olivia’s photographic memory. What’s going to mess her up, I believe, is that she was not there for those intimate moments between Peter and Olivia. Eventually, I believe it is Peter who will expose her—once he gets over the dancing and the kissing. Right now, Peter is working out his relationship with his father. But if AltLivia keeps dragging him onto dance floors, humming along to Patsy Cline, and slithering all over him on her couch, he’s going to start paying attention to her. And he’s an observant guy.

But we are yet to find our Rosebud. —Walter

There’s another box in this story. William Bell leaves Walter the key to a safe deposit box and a message, “Don’t be afraid to cross the line.” I note, for the record, that it was written using the same typeface and the Typewriter Between the Worlds the Alt agents use for communication. After he goes through some hand-wringing and soul-searching, Walter finally follows up on this legacy. He shows up that night at Astrid’s door, and announces that Bell left him Massive Dynamics. He is now the sole shareholder. Something tells me Walter’s lab is about to get an upgrade. Personally, I’m afraid that now Massive Dynamics will be turning its best efforts to making bacon-flavored pudding. On the other hand, now that his father is wealthy, maybe Peter Bishop can afford to shave.

It looks like this season will be all about the Doomsday Machine and Peter’s role in it. The sonic box is a power source, i.e., a battery. Did William Bell bring it over from Walternate’s universe? We’re told, once again, that Walternate’s doomsday machine is a piece of ancient technology—did it originate over here? Is that why the box was buried under a house? A thousand fascinating questions, and unlike other shows that have pounded every story into a tangled “mythology”, I do believe that this one will generate some answers. I have faith.

However, there’s no getting around the fact that the ground has shifted. We started this series looking at “Fringe science”, and looking for a conspiracy behind it. Now we know there is no conspiracy, at least not the kind The X-Files fought. This is more like War of the Worlds. We are no longer looking at mad scientists from our world (Walter notwithstanding) or freaky experiments funded by dark military ops. Now the focus is all on this epic, even cosmic (you should pardon the pun) war for survival. That’s great, and interesting, and fun, but I have to wonder how the show expects to rope in new viewers. There’s so much background to learn now, it would be like stepping into the third season of Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5. Will there be a test after this commercial? For that reason, I hope we get to see some standalone, monster-of-the-week episodes like The X-Files used to have. I would really like to get AltLivia’s take on those—who knows, she might even have something to offer. It would deliciously ambiguous if, on those cases not related to the War, AltLivia could actually function as a Fringe agent.

And what were those guys at Massive Dynamics working on as Walter walked by? It was a room full of red light. Sort of the like the red tinge the other universe has. I hope they’re working on something to boost Fringe‘s ratings. Last night’s episode showed a 10% drop from last week, to a 1.95 average rating based on an average of 5.4 million viewers. This put the Fox Network solidly in fourth place, behind NBC’s The Office and Outsourced. Tightly written, well acted, and directed with a sure hand, this second episode of the season bears out my original prediction: this year is going to rock.