By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Tuesdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“The Ghost Network”
Written by David H. Goodman & J.R. Orci
Directed by Frederick E.O. Toye
Astrid: It’s gotta be a relief, right? Knowing that there’s a rational explanation?
Roy: I wouldn’t call any of this rational.
Like the diabolical compound at the heart of this episode, Fringe is beginning to gel. In the latest episode everything I liked about this series was reinforced, some elements I didn’t like were downplayed, and a good balance between dark and light, comedy and drama, was established. This show is now looking like the winner it could become.
A distraught man stumbles into a church and chokes out a tortured confession to a priest—something is putting images of terrible things in his head, terrible things that come true. Car wrecks, bridge collapses, horrific accidents, and attacks. Is God or the Devil speaking to him? Even as he wrestles with his own disbelief, a bizarre attack takes place on a bus. A man boards the bus, puts on a gas mask, and sprays something into the air. Snatching a woman’s backpack, he jumps off the bus just as it screeches to a halt. A few minutes later, we’re with Agent Olivia Dunham, Dr. Walter Bishop, and his son, Peter, looking at the bus. It is entirely filled with some solid, transparent substance that has trapped and suffocated the passengers, “like mosquitoes in amber”. The ensuing investigation uncovers a passenger’s tourist video, which shows them the masked man and his theft of the backpack. Olivia, along with Special Agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Avecedo, The Black Donnellys), track down the woman’s identity (she’s a DEA agent), her handler, the unwilling prophet from the church, and several elusive hints that this mysteriously solidifying substance has been used before. The masked man is revealed as one of a pair of Latin-speaking assassins, who may or may not be linked to the Faceless Corporation, Massive Dynamics, that has so far appeared in every episode (Hanso Foundation, anyone?).
And in all of this, personal dramas continue to unfold. Olivia is still working through her anger, guilt and grief over her partner/lover John Scott’s betrayal and death. Walter Bishop and his son are still circling one another warily. Olivia wants to trust her boss, Philip Broyles (Lance Reddick, Lost), but he gives her every reason not to. Moments that work through these issues are seamlessly interwoven with exposition; there wasn’t a clumsy scene in this episode. The direction was crisp, elegant, and kept complex sequences such as Olivia’s attempt to intercept a stolen piece of technology from the DEA handler from bogging down in cross-cuts between a lab, various angles of a train station, crowds, and a foot chase.
Two elements in particular stood out for me: Walter Bishop, and the resolution of the mystery. Walter is a fabulous character, a sinister child-man who makes me laugh at the same time he scares the heck out of me. Having found and sequestered the prophet in the opening scene, Roy (Zak Orth, Canterbury’s Law), Walter wonders if Roy is psychic, a clairvoyant.
Broyles: I have a hard time accepting that that man is hearing another person’s thoughts.
Walter: So do I. Which is why I would like to prove it.
Broyles: And how would you do that?
Walter: Am I required to keep him alive?
Yikes. Only children and sociopaths can be that cold; which one is Walter? Knowing he can be this cold-blooded lends a certain uneasy undertone to the following scenes of Walter performing impromptu brain surgery on Roy. We never know what Walter is going to do next. John Noble perfectly captures Walter’s ruthlessness along with his naïveté, his dedication to his science along with his bizarre humor. Walter cooks up his own psychotropic drugs in the lab, he watches Spongebob Squarepants with glee, he can’t remember his own assistant’s name. Oblivious to social convention, he warns his patient off-handedly that “you may experience an involuntary bowel movement”, and only moments later exclaims gleefully that, if properly “demodulated”, Roy can probably get satellite TV broadcasts for free—in his head.
Because, as it turns out, Roy is not a psychic. He is, rather, one of Walter’s experiments from twenty years ago, who had iridium and other metals injected into his body to test Walter’s theory of a frequency “outside the known spectrum”. Walter and his lab partner, the founder of Massive Dynamics (aha!) named this a “ghost network”. Over the years, this metal has somehow increased until now Roy is picking up the Latin Assassins’ transmissions over the ghost network. Walter uses magnetism to pull the accumulated metal away from Roy’s visual cortex into another part of his brain, which translates the signals into audio. The phenomenon is somewhat akin to synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon in which sensory input is re-interpreted by the brain into another cognitive pathway. Patients “see” music or experience color as a tickling sensation. In Roy’s example, his brain had been reinterpreting the ghost network broadcast into “visions” illustrating what the Latin Assassins were talking about.
This twist is right up my alley. Instead of forcing myself to believe, for an hour anyway, in precognition or prophecy, I’m offered a truly “fringe” scientific explanation. It may be utter baloney, but for the purposes of this show, it’s plausible, and allows us to keep the story in this world. Unlike The X-Files, to which it is frequently compared, Fringe has so far avoided the paranormal and the fantastic. The conspiracy that may be behind the Pattern has more in common with the shadowy puppet masters behind Lost. I was even expecting the airline in the pilot episode to be Oceanic. The puppet masters in Fringe, so far, are Broyles and his alternate number in Massive Dynamics, Nina Sharp, played by Blair Brown as the lady with the titanium fist in the velvet glove.
Background stories bleed through the upper layer of these stories. Why are Broyles and Nina playing tug-of-war over Olivia Dunham? Who is the mystery photographer Philip confronts in a diner? Who are the Latin Assassins and who do they work for? And how on Earth is Nina Sharp able to debrief John Scott, who has been dead for weeks?
These questions, and the dark storylines of the first three episodes, could cast a grim and gloomy pallor over the whole series. What prevents this is a strong dose of humor in every episode and some character development that relies more on small, telling moments than big scenes. Philip plays jazz piano for Olivia—and his father looks surprised. At a crucial moment in a scene that renders surgery as torture, two lost, wide-eyed freshmen blunder into the lab. Agent Francis teases Olivia out of her angry grief by pretending that John Scott came on to him. Philip confesses that he wanted to grow up to be a brontosaurus (who hasn’t?). Little moments like this lighten otherwise dark, brooding scenes, and ground the show firmly in humanity and compassion.
Whether word of mouth is spreading good news, or the season premiere of House brought in more viewers, this, the strongest episode of Fringe yet, garnered 13.3 million viewers, a 46% increase from last week’s numbers. This is great news. I hope those new viewers will agree that this show has a lot of promise, and that they make it back next week for more adventures in extreme science.