Monday, January 31, 2011

"Fringe:" Season 3, Episode 11

Posted By on Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 10:27 AM

THIS IS MY ELBOW: Joshua Jackson on Fringe
Joshua Jackson can’t help the way he looks. Just because he grow some scraggly chin-stubble, that doesn’t mean the former "Dawson's Creek" star looks anything less than apple-pie wholesome. A challenge during “Fringe’s” first season came from the disparity between Jackson’s Opie Cunningham screen presence and the writer’s conception of Peter Bishop as a con man and globetrotting troubleshooter (before he became a consultant with Fringe Division, that is). I always felt that the writers envisioned Peter Bishop as being played by someone like Josh Holloway, a.k.a. Sawyer on “Lost.” It’s like he’s a bad boy character, only Jackson makes us think “boy” more than “bad.”

The most interesting things about the new episode, “Reciprocity,” hinge on the evolution of Peter as a character, and how Jackson plays the role. Otherwise, the story felt like the kind of plot "Fringe" (and similar TV series) have done before.

Peter arrives home in the middle of the night, but tells Walter than he never left, a plot point for later on. Shortly thereafter Fringe Division gathers in a mysterious warehouse/high-tech facility to see that Massive Dynamic has mostly assembled the Doomsday Machine. With computer stations and bright lights gathered around a central point, the set evokes similar locations in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Stargate. The eggheads don't know to make the gizmo work but — whoops! — it turns on with ominous hums and flickering lights, simultaneous with Peter getting a nosebleed. Did Peter’s presence boot it up? (With its metal legs, the Doomsday Machine reminds me of the Omnidroid from The Incredibles.)

A shifty-looking Massive Dynamic scientist, Dr. Falcon, suggests they test Peter in case there's anything unusual going on with his body. Meanwhile, a mystery emerges when a bystander sees a bunch of dead fish, and then a waterlogged body, in an office-park fish pond. Remember how the alternate universe's shapeshifting spies have mercury for blood? Whoever killed this shapeshifter dumped the body in the pond, and the mercury killed the fish. With the shapeshifter's "hard drive" missing from the base of its spine, Fringe Division assumes that someone, probably on Walternate's behest, is killing the shapeshifters before the good guys can find them. Fringe Division has just cracked the encryption on Fauxlivia's computer, so they assume a mole is using the same information they have.

To me, the shapeshifters have always been the Fringe plot points more derivative of "The X-Files," particularly those alien bounty hunters played by Brian Thompson. (I go back and forth between thinking that those three-pronged plugs the shapeshifters jam in their victim's mouths are intriguingly freaky or just ridiculous.) "Reciprocity" had more than its share of red herrings, like Walter's concerns over the MRI radiation and the revelation of Peter's slightly elevated heart rate (due to his shapeshifter assassinations, maybe?). The big raid on Dr. Falcon's house, with everyone rushing up with their FBI-labeled bullet-proof vests, felt like a stock scene. And the gags about Walter ingesting chimp DNA and developing a fondness for bananas felt unusually silly and trivial, although they're clearly building to something with Walter restoring his intelligence.

Everyone tiptoes around the idea of whether Peter and Olivia should read Fauxlivia's journal. (Walter even uses the term "Fauxlivia," making a fan nickname part of official continuity.) Peter explains that he doesn't want Olivia to read it and alludes to his past as a con man. “She must’ve thought that I was fool, and I don’t want you to see me like that.” That's a human, understandable reaction — but was Peter conning Olivia? Perhaps he suspected that she'd crack the code faster than the rest of Fringe Division, and he wanted to keep his extracurriculars secret. Given Peter's shifty behavior for the whole episode, the revelation that he was the one killing shapeshifters wasn't much of a shock.

Olivia indeed cracks Fauxlivia's code, Walter looks in Peter's room to discover his plans, so everyone converges on the final shapeshifter's apartment. Peter gets there first but shoots a mannequin, so the shapeshifter gets the drop on him and tries to interrogate Peter. He mentions that just because he has orders not to kill Peter, he can still cut off fingers or eyes. Walter enters next, Peter wrestles lose and chops off the shapeshifter's fingers with a hand blade. "AAAAHHH!" Walter and Peter's ensuing confrontation (like the neat-o intro) redeems the episode. Peter hacks out the hard drive and explains what he's been doing:

I’m tired of being reactive. They’re soldiers, Walter. They’re here to kill us. Besides, they’re not even human. And I’m not doing anything wrong.

Many shows with long, arcing plots have "big bads" who bedevil the heroes, and I always like it when the heroes take the fight to them, as it were. Jackson's icy, affectless delivery in this scene proves highly effective. Jackson seldom seems comfortable playing "dark" or "edgy," but the eerie dispassionate thing really works for him.

Walter reveals the flaw in Peter's justification when he asks, "Then why didn't you tell us?" Walter reasons that Peter's behaving out of character, and it's not because he's a shapeshifter himself. "When you touched the machine, it changed you, weaponized you." Walter and Peter flee the building before Olivia, et al arrive, and Walter doesn't finger Peter as the killer. We're left wondering the implications of a "weaponized" Peter Bishop. Will he be more ruthless and untrustworthy? It might help that the best con man would be someone who doesn't look like a con man.

The time-line’s a little confusing to me. Since Peter was evasive about his whereabouts in the opening scene, we can assume that’s when he killed the shapeshifter found in the fishpond. That was before the nosebleed scene, so we must assume that the device “weaponized” him when he touched the piece of the gizmo many episodes ago (instead of in the big warehouse, when his presence activated it). So why have we only seen a behavior change now?

Also, when did Peter get Fauxlivia’s notes? If we accept that Peter’s a great spy and con man, he could’ve gotten the decrypted files almost immediately after Fringe Division broke the code — but he was able to track the first shapeshifter in a matter of hours?

Peter said something to the effect that he wasn’t able to access any useful information off the shapeshifter’s “hard drives.” That seems like something you wouldn’t be able to buy at Radio Shack, but I’ll give benefit of the doubt that Walter’s lab has necessary equipment, and Peter managed to access it — despite everything else going on — during the events of the episode.

By the way:
How have "Fringe's" ratings been since Fox put it in the "death slot?" Pretty good, all things considered:

Fox's decision to move Fringe to Fridays is paying off. In its second week, the sci-fi drama received a 1.9 rating in the 18-49 demo, remaining steady from its winter return. Though it drew 4.6 million, down from the previous week (4.9 million), this is still a good showing for the series. "Reciprocity" was also the highest-rated program of the night, tied with the second hour of NBC's Dateline at 10 p.m.

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