Fringe: “Unearthed”


By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C

Written by Josh Singer
Directed by Joe Chappelle

Peter: “What happened to patients 1-5?”

Walter: “I believe they all settled out of court.”

Fox Mulder called them “walk-ins”, spirits or aliens who would take over the bodies of unconscious or brain-dead humans. A thousand years ago they were called demons. Either way, they are a tantalizing and enduring concept in science fiction, whether you believe in souls or not. As Fringe returns from a hiatus of several weeks, we are introduced to the late Lisa Donovan, whose weeping mother consents to the termination of life support so that her brain-dead daughter’s organs may be harvested. Ten minutes into the harvest procedure, however, Lisa not only comes to life, she sits up and shouts out a restricted Navy code.

One would think that her return to life would be enough to attract the attention of the Fringe team, but what actually lands this case in their laps is the secret nature of the code Lisa shouts out. I suppose dead corpses come back to life too often to bother the Fringe team with, but coming back to life in possession of Navy secrets gives the case that certain something. As matters develop, it appears that the “energy” of a missing Navy petty officer has “walked in” to the consciousness of Ms. Donovan, causing the girl to suffer seizures and hallucinations. Walter, fascinated but in no way surprised by this phenomenon, persists in using terminology that denies the existence of a soul, characterizing the presence of CPO Andrew Rusk as a psychic invasion.

Fascinating as this is, the most stunning element of this episode was the sudden re-appearance of the late Agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo). Didn’t he die a few weeks ago? Twice? I racked my brain to remember whether I missed an episode in which he came back to life, or came back from The Other Side, or something. As it turns out, this episode of Fringe was written for Season One, when Charlie was a working member of the team, alive and well. Which also explains why Peter is suddenly back to treating his father as an idiot, why the lab suddenly looks old and cramped again, and why Olivia has suddenly gone back to acting like a wooden version of Scully. Sure would have been nice if there had been a disclaimer of some sort on this episode, but then maybe the producers assume that all their audiences are brand new to the franchise. Or perhaps, unhappily, it is a sign that Fox has given up on this show, and no longer cares whether its lingering audience is confused.

The last broadcast episode, “Grey Matters”, dealt with issues of mind invasion as well, except that it dealt more directly with physical brain surgery. This continues one of the primary themes of Fringe, which is the issue of consciousness and identity. From Day One, JJ Abrams and team have been involved with questions central to brain chemistry, neurology, and psychology: what makes us the persons we are? Every time I think the show has plumbed the depths of this theme, they come up with a new take on it. In this one, writer Josh Singer combines radioactivity, electrical stimulation of the brain, and free-floating but vague ideas about reincarnation to dress up an otherwise quite ordinary tale of spousal abuse and murder for hire. All that is de rigueur window dressing, however, what really lingers after this episode is over is the hint, in the final scene, that Andrew Rusk may be out of Lisa Donovan’s mind, but he’s still around, still looking for a host.

As a standalone episode, this one was of middling interest, and I can see why Fox would have dropped it from the Season One lineup. Fans looking eagerly for more “mythology” episodes, where the links between the Fringe team, Massive Dynamics, Nina Sharpe, William Bell and, for all I know, the Illuminati are explored, may be disappointed. This has been an ongoing problem for series of this nature ever since The X-Files, and the tension between mythology-only buffs and those who prefer their dramas unsaturated in forced continuity will never be resolved. As you can see, I’m in the latter camp. I may therefore be considered biased when I say that I prefer episodes like this one, which give us a gee-whiz story without requiring a backstory more complex than the Treaty of Paris.

Fringe came out of seclusion on a Monday night with a whopping 24 percent improvement over its best ratings this season, earning 4.7/7 on its first Monday night this season. It did a 2.8 rating on a viewer load of 7.8 million, better than we’ve seen in a while. Too bad Fox hasn’t taken the hint, because the next regular season episode is back on Thursdays, where the show has struggled since the beginning of this season.