Black Oil Redux
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall
Thursdays on Fox at 9/8 E/C
“What Lies Below”
Written by Jeff Vlaming
Directed by Deran Sarafian
“I can’t let Peter die again.” —Walter Bishop
Well, if there was any doubt what the mystery was about Peter and Walter, there isn’t any longer. Walter admits, at least in an aside, that Peter died in this world, so the Peter who now inhabits this world is from Somewhere Else. Can it be that, of all the savvy investigators on Fringe, it will be Agent Farnsworth who finally puzzles this out? That would be cute. I’ve been hoping Astrid (Jasika Nicole) would emerge as a more fully defined character this season. She’s the one member of the team we know the least about, so it would be totally in keeping with the nature of Fringe if she turns out to be the one who unravels this knot.
When a strange visitor to an oil company convulses and dies, a young courier named Mike tries to revive him. Not only does the visitor die, but in his death throes, he spews blood all over everyone around him. Having therefore possibly infected everyone in the room, the natural thing to do is to call in… the FBI? Yes, the Fringe team gets called in on a situation that I would think would be purely in the purview of the CDC. Agent Broyles spends most of the episode butting heads with the local CDC honcho, while Olivia and Peter manage to get themselves quarantined with a bunch of sick people exposed to a deadly virus. Let’s see—isolate our heroes, expose them to a deadly virus of unknown origin, add increasingly hysterical people, a hostile force outside the building, and a ticking clock of a virus. Even better, the virus makes people violent and paranoid. Yes, that should mix up into a dynamite episode, full of ratcheting tension and drama.
It didn’t. Credit for this failure has to lie squarely with the writing, I’m afraid. The beginning was nicely set up, but then the entire logical premise of the situation started to come apart like a paper towel in a monsoon. When the CDC guy decides he can’t contain the virus, or the people inside the building who are fighting to get out, his first response is to kill them all? That’s so dumb that I assumed the CDC guy was a fake or a spy of some kind, and waited for his exposure. Broyles, rather than taking this nut-job into custody as he should, instead pleads for more time. Together, they decide that the only solution to their problem is to gas the inmates while Walter works the problem. Broyles realizes that the internal ventilation system has been shut down, making it hard to disperse the gas. He could suit up and go in himself, or he could call Walter and Astrid, who were already inside, already with suits, to get them to turn on the ventilation system. But no, Broyles lets Olivia volunteer to go into the building without a protective suit, so she can flip the appropriate circuit breaker. Oh, come on.
This dumb scenario actually left Walter as the most logical person in the team. This is never a good thing. By the time Walter has finished explaining that the virus carried into the building by the strange visitor is forcing its victims to behave in certain ways, it almost makes sense. Peter discovers that Patient Zero (the dead man) was an oil researcher who had arrived to deliver some secret information to the head of the geotechnical engineering department. I was so not surprised when the core sample Walter pulled from the dead man’s car turned out to be from ten miles down, over 75,000 years old, and comprised of black oil. Yes, I remember The X-Files oil virus very well. From then on, I kept expecting the victims to start showing all-black eyes. More and more, I’m beginning to believe these deliberate echoes of the former season are leading up to some kind of tie-in between Fringe and The X-Files. Forget the Observer; I’m keeping an eye out for the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Walter speculates that the oil-based virus wiped out the major mammals at the end of the last Ice Age; I would have liked to see some expansion on this theme, but then again, the oil virus is still around, so we may see it again. At least the virus’ victims this time weren’t oozing green blood.
It’s interesting that there was so much focus in this episode on how tightly this group is bonded, so tightly that even Broyles is calling them family. While I miss the edge that used to sharpen the dialogue between Olivia and Peter, I do enjoy the teamwork, the repartee, the sense of camaraderie. Which is going to make it all so much worse, when Walter’s secret is finally revealed. It’s hard to imagine how any of them are going to get past a profound sense of betrayal when they discover the depth of Walter’s deception. Peter in particular will find his whole new-found sense of trust deeply challenged; it may be that the only person he has left to trust is Olivia. So it’s nice to see that, at least in this episode, their trust and friendship can withstand her pulling a gun on him, and kneeing him in the groin. It takes a lot for two men to get past incidents like that; for Olivia and Peter, who were once frenemies, to accept them and go on is remarkable. It’s a subtler vibe than most TV partnerships, but it’s a good one.
The most interesting character in this episode was Peter. Ever since our first shot of him, there have been hints of the bad boy underneath the teddy bear exterior. In this story, we got to see the dark side like we’ve never seen before—raging, furious, violent. And I must say, hot. Joshua Jackson managed to make his usual glare actually sexy, at the same time it was charged with threat and anger. I loved the hand-to-hand between him and Olivia, and loved it that Olivia is not averse to taking him down with a classic groin kick. They may be partners, but Olivia does not mess around when it comes to a fight. I am always skeptical when a drama pits working partners against one another; in real life, it’s hard to get beyond that moment when someone you trust sticks a gun in your face. This time, Joshua Jackson got us all past the reconciliation moment with his understated but earnest look at Olivia when he is recovering. His look says more than dialogue, and I thought it was a fine moment.
“Take me to your centrifuge!” —Walter
Rather than revoking Walter’s museum pass, the museum should grant him lifetime access. I thought his tale of terror and monsters to the visiting children in the museum in the opening was one of the funniest moments in the series. Adults are always trying to shield children from the world, trying to sanitize life and play down danger and tragedy. But kids are not stupid, and they know the world is full of arbitrary and unknowable evil. Storytellers like Walter are treasured because they don’t lie or fudge, they tell it like it is. The museum thought Walter was terrifying his audience; in truth, it’s the adults who were freaked out. The kids looked like they were enjoying his stories of real monsters. Better yet, Walter went from his usual role of comic relief to a very focused, intent, and competent field researcher. Spurred to his highest focus by the danger to his son, he pulled it together better than in many previous episodes. Which was fortunate, because if we had not already seen him acting competent, passionate, and relatively sane in his research, his description of the virus as controlling its victims’ behavior would have been totally unbelievable. Giving him the credibility cloak this time was a necessary part of the plot, one I’d like to see once again. It’s nice to be reminded he’s a genius.
So even though the story itself was not stellar by any means, the ongoing character dynamics, not to mention the acting, continue to make this a compelling show. Walter continues as one of the most interesting characters on television; the relationships are evolving slowly but believably. Agent Dunham, especially, has become a solid and well-founded anchor against the bizarre cases she is called upon to investigate; her level headedness and (this season) her increasing warmth have really grown on me. Now that this ensemble is really cooking, I hope they don’t get put on a back burner by Fox.
Fringe continued to show steady but stagnant ratings. Thursday night’s show garnered 6.9 million viewers for a 2.6/7 share; not much different from last week. TVByTheNumbers.com considers the show to be in danger of cancellation before May, and even Variety admits it is up against some of the toughest competition of the week. I’m still keeping in mind that the first two years of The X-Files didn’t do so hot in the ratings, either. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Fringe takes off pretty soon.