Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pondering Fringe and Sharks

I'll warn you up front: there's going to be spoilers here for the latest episodes of Fringe, "Subject 13" and "Os." If you don't want to know, stop reading.

I've been fairly delighted with Fringe carrying the banner of speculative fiction on network TV. It's been edgy and thoughtful, and the cast has gelled tremendously such that there is a marked chemistry between them all. John Noble continues to amaze in his dual roles, and kudos to the writers for giving him a chance to shine by allowing the alternate Walter to show some signs of humanity in "Subject 13." It really is wonderful to have a speculative fiction show on the air that goes beyond the common perception of what the genre is all about: there's no spacecraft and no aliens. Instead, Fringe deals with the SF idea of an alternate universe and what happens when elements of that universe intersect with our own. This is familiar ground to readers of SF, but like Heroes for comic book tropes, Fringe offers up the ideas via media that makes it more acceptable to people who aren't familiar with the ideas.

But the last two episodes have been troubling, such that the Speculator household has been mentioning sharks and people that jump them ( In "Subject 13," we are given some backstory on Olivia and Peter. On one level the story makes a lot of sense, portraying Olivia's time as a young test subject for Walter and Peter's initial refusal and then eventual acceptance of his new life in a universe not his own. And yet the episode ends with the two of them meeting as children and having a long meaningful conversation as the result of an explosion and fire at the research center (that Olivia's untamed powers appear to have caused). It all makes sense and seems appropriate given the general theme and direction of Fringe, but it appears to ignore details that have been established earlier in the series. For example, Olivia didn't know Walter when the Fringe cases started, but this episode makes it clear that Walter is a hugely important person in her young life, especially because he was the one who convinced her stepfather to stop abusing her. Similarly, Peter at first refuses to believe Walter's story that there are alternate universes, except that he originally believed that himself, knowing somehow that his current parents are different from the ones he had been living with. Most importantly, Olivia and Peter don't remember meeting each other and their important conversation. All of this feels odd, given how intelligent their characters are—how does one forget these important and traumatic experiences? But having been pleased with the writing thus far, I just assumed it was a detail that would be explained later.

The latest episode, "Os," is not so easily explained. As Walter becomes more and more aware of the consequences of his meddling between the two universes, he also has begun to despair that he is smart enough to fix them. As a result, he wishes he could talk to his deceased friend William Bell, with whom he invented so much of the fringe science that the show revolves around. In "Os," he finds Bell's old files and discovers that he had been working he termed a "soul magnet," a device that would cause the soul of a dead person to move into a container of a living soul, allowing the dead person to effectively possess the living person and then manifest its personality. The soul magnet has to be triggered, probably by a sound of some sort, and Walter remembers that Bell has bequeathed an actual bell with his name on it to an employee of the company that he founded. Walter strikes the bell, expecting Bell to manifest in the employee, Nina, but nothing happens. The scene jumps to a conversation between Peter and Olivia, and suddenly Olivia is talking with the cadence and rhythm of Leonard Nimoy, who played William Bell.

My first reaction was to slap my forehead and groan, thinking of sharks and water skis. But in days since, I've been able to step back some and examine why this was my response. Simply put, the show has been all about "fringe science": portals to different universes, shapeshifters, time travel, and so on. Why should this particular science bother me so much when the others didn't? To be honest, the scene was setup over a year ago when Olivia met William Bell, who for some inexplicable reason tolled a bell in her presence. Clearly, in hindsight, he was establishing her as the physical link for his soul when he died. And yet, it still annoys me.

One issue is that we've gone beyond science to metaphysics and belief. Alternate universes and time travel are technological feats and feel well within the purview of what Fringe has been about. But when it comes to the idea of a soul, even though it is explained away as a remnant of the electromagnetic forces involved with life and consciousness, we're talking about something that is qualitatively different. And beneath the mumbo jumbo used to explain it, it still feels hokey. One could make a strong argument that the show has been evolving into a conversation about the role that belief and emotion play in technology, especially given the reasons why Walter brought them together in the first place and his recent despair at what he has wrought. And there has also been an element of emotionality in the pseudoscience as well, since we have learned that the doomsday machine planted in our universe by our alternate foes is powered by a decision that Peter must make between Olivia of our universe and the Olivia of the universe he left behind (referred to in the show as Fauxlivia). But even that emotionality made my skin crawl a little as well—how could an emotional decision power a device that would destroy a universe? Even so, I am somewhat willing to accept the Fringe concept of a soul, and if so, that it can be gathered by technology. It feels a little dicey, but like the questions raised by "Subject 13" I'm willing to give the writers space to make it work.

What's more troubling to me is that it felt cheap, an explicit jerk on the emotional strings of the viewers. Until now, the show has been delicate about dealing with emotionality, causing the viewers to empathize with the characters and thus understand what drives them. The very best example of this was an episode from last year, "White Tulip" (which for some reason was unjustly overlooked by SF awards), wherein the pursuit and capture of a time traveller intertwines beautifully with the beginnings of Walter's guilt about kidnapping Peter to replace his own lost son. The viewer empathizes and the power of the story is realized. But in "Os", we finally have Peter and Olivia involved romantically after a season of intrauniversal problems keep them apart. They are being loving and open and honest about their feelings and what kept them apart, a solid portrayal of a real loving relationship would growing under the bizarre circumstances of Fringe. And just as Olivia was about to tell Peter something vitally important, she is suddenly no longer Olivia, but a vessel for the disembodied spirit of William Bell.

From a writing standpoint, as I say, it was set up beautifully. Not only does it have to be Olivia because she is the only person from our universe that Bell had any time to interact with, but the right foreshadowing cues were put in place. But it is jarring and unsatisfactory, as we have been made to empathize with Peter and Olivia through their trials and coming together—we're desperately rooting for them to succeed in the face of a danger probably greater than any ever shown on TV before. And all the subtlety and purposeful evolution is shattered with the equivalent of a carny trick, a stunt pulled in bad soap operas. It is that clash that made me slap my forehead and literally howl.

I suppose the writers should be gratified that we have invested so much energy into these characters that the sudden break of the soul transfer is painful to watch. And they should be further happy that we'll continue to watch, because we have been shown for the majority of three seasons that these are gifted powerful writers. But where before there was certainty, there is now some doubt creeping in. And the fault for that also lies in the writing for the show. Rumor has it Fringe may not survive this season, so the writers only have a few episodes left to smooth over the awkwardness of these last two episodes. And even if the show is renewed, the writers need to move fast to explain the jarring events in a way that will not put off viewers next season. I think they can do it; I hope they will--they really need to carry on the pattern of strong effective storytelling this series has offered to its viewers.

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