Saturday, January 29, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe "Reciprocity"

It’s amazing how many things Fringe can morph into from week to week without missing a step.  Last week was a phenomenal return from a long break that featured more than a touch of light-hearted humor and several warm character moments, as well as some pretty enjoyable pseudoscience and a bit of a foray into the show’s master plot, just for good measure.  This week, in sharp contrast, we were treated to a deadly-serious episode which went quickly to much darker places in almost all facets of the show (including thematically, with an examination of how closely people and machines can become intertwined), and really changed our fundamental view of Peter.  It also gave us our first ominous peeks at The Machine which is definitely linked to Peter in a fundamental, possibly biological way.  It certainly seems prepared for him, humming to life and clanking and groaning itself to readiness as soon as it detects his presence (leading to several observations in the episode that “when you touch something, it touches you,” creating a reciprocal relationship).  So the burning question this episode touches viewers with is What exactly has Peter’s connection with the machine done to him?

As much as that question represents a shift in focus (at least temporarily) for viewer interests in coming episodes, “Reciprocity” had plenty of issues of its own to deal with leading up to its unsettling final moments.  Before we understand Peter’s reciprocal connection to the machine, we begin to see the impacts of the reciprocal relationships he has with the people in his life.  He’s lying to Walter about where he’s going at night, and Walter is clearly disturbed by what he recognizes as dishonesty.  Meanwhile Olivia continues to struggle with her feelings about Peter’s relationship with Fauxlivia (kudos to Fringe’s writers who seem to have adopted the nickname from the internet—it’s a nice nod to the loyal fan base the show has built) and about how to feel about him now.  Here she finally finds an outlet for her struggle when she thinks of the other side of the situation (the reciprocal of her own emotions, if you will):  It occurs to her that for Peter there is also a complex and difficult set of feelings that comes along with having been fooled into loving a woman who was not the woman he actually cares about.  It was handled nicely; while we clearly see Olivia’s sense of relief when she recognizes that she really isn’t alone in struggling with their relationship, it is also clearly not a resolution to their relationship woes.  

The concept of reciprocity between machines and people (who the show has already gone to a lot of pains to establish are really just living machines, in a sense) is handled in a lot of nifty ways throughout.  Peter’s connection to the mysterious doomsday machine is paralleled when Dr. James Falcon feeds him into a scanner to learn more about his body’s functions (its machinery and electrical charges, for example), and several others are subjected to a lie detector of William Bell’s design which uses computers to detect tiny changes in facial movement which would indicate dishonesty (a glitch in the human machine’s systems that gives it away—how interesting).  And who can forget Walter slowly becoming a chimp thanks to accidentally changing his body’s “programming” by drinking a retroviral serum to try and regrow the missing parts of his brain?  It’s the only comic twist in the proceedings tonight, but it also cleverly speaks to the episode’s motif.  All of this culminates in the theory that somewhere along the line, The Machine “weaponized” Peter which leads to him tracking down and killing shape shifters according to some (and someone’s) master plan.  This obviously opens up more questions than I care to list here, but one of the major ones has to be at what point this occurred—did it happen when his presence turned the machine on, or was it when his hand activated the smaller part of the device many episodes back?  I can’t say for certain that it matters, but if Peter’s actions are being compromised by the device “reprogramming” him, it will be important to know how long it has been going on for (and what else has it/will it command him to do, besides killing shape shifters to get at information?).  

There are several great moments in this episode involving Walter’s relationship with Peter and how far he will go to protect his son.  The issue is cleverly set up early in the episode when Dr. Falcon wishes to test Peter for various abnormalities through a standard battery of tests and Walter resists him angrily and seems ready to fire him before Nina steps in to calm him down.  The message is clear:  Though Walter spent much of his life treating all of humanity as potential test-subjects, including very young children, he refuses to stand by while his own son is put at risk as a test subject, however benign the tests clearly seem to be.  His reaction is intensely human and heartbreaking, but the irony of his attitude towards Falcon given his own very dark past (and even recent past—Walter has often done some pretty dangerous things to his fellow man while working for Fringe Division as well) can’t go unnoticed.  

The fresh reminder of how fiercely Walter loves Peter lends a lot of weight to the final moments of the episode when Walter walks in in time to witness Peter attacking another shape shifter.  Walter is beside himself with grief and fear—he is appalled by witnessing the ease with which Peter takes the man’s life and then cuts the chip out of his back.  As a viewer, I wasn’t far behind Walter in how deeply the scene changed everything I feel about Peter—when he finishes the shape shifter off with an execution-style shot to the forehead, I flinched a bit in my seat.  It is an act both vicious and heartless, but also forces us as viewers to rethink something besides who Peter is:  It forces us to face our feelings about characters from the alternate universe.  While we’ve considered the issue before to some extent, these moments, I would argue, demand something more from us as viewers.  While it was easy to deal emotionally with the duality of the alternate universe when there was no direct violence between the main characters, we’ve now seen the beginnings of direct confrontation, and it promises to be a paradigm shift.  I really liked a lot of the alternate world’s versions of the people we know on our side:  Broyles certainly proved to be a great man no matter what universe he’s inhabiting, and while Walternate certainly didn’t turn out so well, Olivia and Astrid both seem like they’re just good people doing what they believe is best based on the info they have.  For that matter, the other members of the Fringe team who only exist in the alternate universe were also quite likeable and lent a lot of dramatic suspense to the struggle between the two sides (the idea of their destruction to save “our side” seemed unacceptable from the moment we got to know them).  

But consider our conundrum now:  To accept Peter as a heroic figure and someone we feel good pulling for on the show, we must now accept that he has killed several shape shifters.  Perhaps it’s not the same as taking human lives, but it certainly seems morally reprehensible based on the harsh way his violence is portrayed.  And consider what we’ve seen of shape shifters:  Plenty of evil deeds, but also at least one shifter who is so hesitant to leave the human family and life he has created on our side that he’s killed for his insubordination—it’s hard to argue that killing something capable of that type of devotion is a thing to be taken lightly.  But what is the alternative?  It would have to be looking at Peter now as, at best, a morally ambigious anti-hero and, at worst, a villainous character who has killed lives which, though not human, could be argued to have value and a right to exist.  It’s easy to watch heroic characters on a show like this killing “bad guys” as they exchange gunfire or otherwise threaten the well being of the innocent, but it’s entirely another thing to witness Peter executing beings and desecrating their bodies to retrieve information. 
To be clear, all of this is to be praised.  It’s a phenomenally brave move on the part of Fringe to have Peter suddenly become a dark and uncertain figure.  I recognize that they’ve given themselves an out with the simple fact that The Machine may be causing him to act this way, but until that’s proven or otherwise plays out, the show has shifted the reality of its characters and central struggle in a fascinating and captivating way.  Next week looks promising; we’ll see if they surprise us again with a tonal shift or if the darkness we were left with tonight will hang around for a few more episodes.

Overall Rating:  9.1/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you: 

The idea of the "First People" who are somehow connected to the machine is a great concept--listening to our favorite Massive Dynamic lab technician explain the possibility of advanced civilizations existing and crumbling before the dinosaurs was a highlight of the night.

Walter prefers grape chewing gum.

I liked the opening shot of the top secret area where The Machine is housed, and I really loved what little we got to see of The Machine itself tonight--it looks very ominous.

Walter becoming a chimp was well played--he dismisses it as temporary and minor so we don't roll our eyes at the silliness of the concept, but the silly places they take it were a welcome break from the heaviness that surrounded it in this episode.

Speaking of which, Walter shooting himself in the face with whipped cream while making a banana split was great.

Peter's look at himself in the mirror is not at all reassuring--he appears dark, angry and driven, not remorseful or even torn, as we would at the very least hope to see him after all that transpired. 


  1. I didn't think about this episode having a theme, but the themes of machines, touching (is "touching" a theme?), and reciprocity should have stood out to me (*facepalm* one of them is the title).

    The shift in Peter's personality resulting from his interaction to the machine reminds me of the change in personality that Claire and Sayid exhibited when they "let him talk." Though, they are handling Peter's change a lot better. I much preferred Sayid and Claire before they changed. In fact, I wish they died sooner. While Claire was crazy and that worked (somewhat), Sayid became an emotionless rock. In Fringe's case, Peter has gone from "reactive" to active. He feels wronged by the other universe after what Fauxlivia did to him and it has given him motivation to act. Whether that motivation would have pushed him to kill shapeshifters with or without the machine is up for debate.

    Side note: Does Peter know that the shapeshifters have been known to exhibit human emotion (what is this "V"?)? His reasoning to Walter for killing Alpert tells me no, but after seeing that woman cry over the death of the man she thought was her husband, he should have seen the potential there.

    One last question: How do you decide on your ratings? For example, what's the difference between a 9.0 and and 9.1?

  2. That's an accurate comparison to Claire/Sayid. Good call. As for Peter knowing about the emotion thing with shifters, that's a great question I'm not so sure of the answer to--I guess in writing the review I was making the mistake of assuming that since we knew about their potential for emotion he would too. Good thing I completely forgot how dramatic irony works--it's not like I'm an english expert or anything.