Monday, January 24, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “The Firefly”

I’m sure fans of Joss Whedon had to change into sweatpants or unbutton their jeans when they heard the title of the latest Fringe episode, but thankfully (you heard me), Fringe’s return from a long break on a new night had nothing to do with Whedon’s universe.  But it had plenty to do with the alternate universe and the Observers from who-knows-what universe.  It’s pleasantly ironic that this episode was all about memory, since it has been so long since Fringe was last on that I found myself struggling to recall the finer details of important plot points as they became important to “The Firefly”.  Most notably, this episode began to help us make sense of the purposes behind The Observers interfering in the two universes since Walter’s theft of Peter from the other world.  We are given more insight into their roundabout ways of interfering in the course of events (as well as their limitations) and we learn that for whatever quirky reasons bald, emotionless humanoid aliens might have, they are possibly hinging the fate of the world on the premise that Walter Bishop is a changed man after all these years.
Perhaps the best element of tonight’s episode, which was uniformly strong throughout, is the tightly knit thematic centerpiece of the elusiveness of memory and its role in our lives.  To this end, the episode begins with a charming opening scene which finds Walter experimenting in the kitchen with his pants around his ankles.  There are very few scenes in all of television with characters with pants around their ankles which are charming, so just appreciate that for its own sake for a moment.  Walter is designing an elixir to try and restore the memories from his past that he had Bell remove.  In a touching moment, Peter says he doesn’t want Walter to hurt himself (and he’s also a bit worried that Walter is high—which he is).  Walter’s struggle to recall what he purposely lost from his mind years ago is the first in a series of attempts by several characters to recover memories long gone—or missed entirely.  It’s a clever conceit and it’s used to great effect here.  It speaks to the show’s interesting exploration of the powers of the human mind in general, and I really enjoyed the mostly technology-free exploration of how powerful the mind can be.
Walter’s struggles are paralleled (in many ways) by tonight’s sad and wonderful Rosco Joyce, a man in a nursing home who seems to have had a visit from his long-dead son.  He has no memory of what his son Bobby said to him during his visit (“It’s a curse not remembering a miracle” he says dejectedly), nor does he remember much of his experiences with his son while he was alive.  I won’t insult you by going into detail about the obvious father/son, lost time/forgetfulness parallels between Joyce (who Walter idolizes as a rock keyboardist from his youth) and Walter, but they made for some beautiful scenes between the two characters before night’s end.  Christopher Lloyd is pitch-perfect as the aged rock star here, his mannerisms are just odd enough to give John Noble a run for his money, and it’s incredible fun to see them banter back and forth with one another.  The comfort they find in each other as Walter helps Joyce remember his son’s message and past (he puts a device on his head, but all it really takes is a piano and some pleasant conversation—I love that this show is confident enough in its characters to throw out the gadget-of-the-week concept once in a while) is a pleasure to behold and leads to some tearful moments as Walter eventually realizes that the gaining back of his son, Peter, was the cause of Joyce’s loss of his son, Bobby.  You see, Peter snatched a firefly from the air which would have otherwise ended up in the closed palms of a girl a few miles away, but when it didn’t, she wandered off and when her father hopped in the car to search for her in the rain, he took Bobby’s life as he ran a red light.  It’s a tragically convoluted tale of loss, completely befitting the complexities of the Fringe universe, and equally befitting The Observer’s motives (it’s not insignificant that an Observer is the one who relates this story to Walter.  It offers us a model of cause and effect that explains why The Observers seem to work in very mysterious ways themselves—because that’s just the way reality works). 
But even with the richness of Walter and Joyce’s interconnected memories of loss, Fringe goes above and beyond in parallelism to find Olivia struggling with her own (somewhat metaphoric) lost memories.  A brand new copy of If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him arrives at her apartment with a note from Peter stating “Because you asked.”  She realizes very quickly that this is for Fauxlivia and involves a memory Peter shares with her, without her knowledge of it.  It ends up working effectively to allow for a nice bit of growth to Olivia and Peter’s complex relationship as Peter explains that whatever Fauxlivia said to prompt him to give it to her, it’s the real Olivia, the one he cares about, who he wanted to open himself up to.  But it works even more effectively as another examination of the pesky nature of memories.  They are often taken for granted when present (Peter clearly forgot the book had even been sent) but are frustrating and painful when they are absent (Olivia is clearly devastated that Peter finally opened himself up a bit to the other version of herself). 
For those who only tune in to Fringe for the frenetic action and other-wordly weirdness, tonight’s episode didn’t disappoint, despite putting forth its strongest moments during quiet scenes of dialogue.   The enigmatic discussion between Observers early in the episode about whether or not “he” has changed is brought quickly into sharp focus by their own master plan:  The Observers are testing Walter to see if he will give up Peter for the greater good now.  Walter’s pain at the moment where he releases Peter to his potential death in order to save a young woman and let Peter chase down the Observer is palpable, and the results of his choice will clearly ripple and echo through the remainder of the season.  Though Peter emerges seemingly unscathed, he was shot with a very strange weapon by The Observer which seems to have given him a concussion.  This leads to him drinking brain milk Walter had kept in the fridge and going into seizures.  Though Olivia saves the day and Walter suddenly sees the master plan of The Observers, it’s hard not to have their final words to Walter ringing in our ears—when Walter asks what the future will hold, The Observer explains that he cannot see all possible futures because every event causes ripples.  We can only assume that would include the ripples of a convoluted Observer Experiment, which may come back to haunt the Fringe team—or perhaps The Observers and their plans—before the season ends.
Fringe has had more than its share of explosively fast paced episodes and eye-popping technological wonders and grotesqueries this season, so it was nice to see the writers having the confidence to return from a six week break with an episode that was longer on character development than CGI wonder.  It was a nice reminder that this show is ultimately all about the humanity of its characters, regardless of the foreignness of the world they inhabit.  Like so many of Fringe’s strongest master-story episodes, it wisely found a plot anchor in Walter and let everything else, from aging keyboardists to Observer meddling, orbit around the firm center of his essential humanity.  I’ve wondered on occasion why it is that Fringe seems so undeniably better than even its best peers in the science fiction genre, and I think tonight’s episode provides the answer to that question more clearly than I could articulate it. 
Overall Rating:  9.3/10
Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:
“Manamana” is Walter’s ideal soundtrack.
These writers have learned to use Walter to wonderful comedic  effect.  When Peter asks him what he’s doing in the kitchen at 2 AM he replies casually “I’m making myself smarter” as he shuffles around with his pants around his ankles.
 Peter:  Who is that at 2 AM?
Walter:  My pizza.
Peter:  So you are high.
Walter:  Maybe just a bit.

Christopher Lloyd’s facial expressions are a course in non-verbal acting skills.  His pained look as he begins to play the piano while thinking of his son is heartbreaking.

How great is the Twin Peaks reference here?  Walter’s red and blue glasses, and the Dr. Jacobi who gave them to him, are both nods to the nutjob psychiatrist from Twin Peaks. 

Brain Mapping does sound like an album title, Rosco, but not one that a band with a talented keyboardist would use.

The Observers are so inhuman in their mannerisms, but it was a wonderful moment of detached observation when he says to Peter “It must be very difficult being a father.”  Who knows what hidden meanings lay beneath that remark.

“If I Only Had a Brain” is a nice little send off to the episode’s memory-centric story and themes—quiet and subtle and playful, just like Fringe can be when it wants to be.

Peter’s book’s message:  Look inside of yourself to find answers instead of relying on other people.  Doesn’t it seem like Peter is slowly moving away from such a philosophy?

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