Sunday, February 27, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe "Subject 13"

I haven’t watched a lot of science fiction on television over the years (I mostly hate the SyFy channel, I thought Heroes was horrible garbage, you know my feelings on V, and if you post a comment in this section about how I should watch Firefly I will block you from this blog completely), but I think I’ve seen enough of it here and there to appreciate Fringe for its impressive ability to be an outstanding genre show while building such strong emotional attachment to its characters that it can do an entire episode like “Subject 13” which is really just about human beings suffering from things caused by both their own choices and situations entirely beyond their control.  It’s a great episode dramatically, and the emotional resonance was so strong that I didn’t really realize how light on Fringyness the episode really was until I started writing about it.  It wasn’t really un-Fringe like, though, since being a show with strongly written characters is ultimately as much a part of its charm and (to fans, at least) success as any of the science fiction or supernatural elements.
The episode opens with that wonderful 1985 throwback opening with the Max Headroom (many of you won’t even know that reference, more’s the shame) style font and computer-grid graphics and tosses us back onto the frozen surface of Reiden Lake, where Walter first crossed over and brought back a replacement Peter, who, we learn for certain this episode, he never really intended to keep, however painful it was.  That young Peter, now healthy, is busy dragging a cinderblock out over the slushy lake, seemingly to drown himself.  His mother, Elizabeth, rescues him in a stretch of verisimilitude that I’m happy to forgive, but what’s really interesting is the truth we learn later:  Peter was really trying to turn back to the world where he came from, which in his disorientation he believes to be at the bottom of the lake (close, sort of; it seems he might at least remember a bit of the incident which brought him across).  It turns out Elizabeth and Walter have been struggling since Peter’s return to health with the boy’s increasing suspicion (or we might say confidence—he seems more convinced than suspicious) that they are not his parents, and the fact that they know the wrong answers to as many of his questions as they know right ones doesn’t help much.
Fringe does a great job making his tip-offs childlike and believable (his childlike worldview becomes important to the episode’s overall story as well, given his eventual rendezvous with Olivia among the white tulips):  He knows that the Dodgers play in Brooklyn not LA (which was true at one point for those not into baseball), The Red Lantern is NOT supposed to be green, and he certainly never owned a baseball mitt.  Walter and Elizabeth insist to him that he’s just confused from his sickness, but the stubborn refusal to be sold an alternate reality (quite literally) which he knows is not his own is true to the form of a stubborn, strong willed child.  Watching Walter and Elizabeth try to love a child they know is stolen, but who in at least some sense truly is their own child is something well beyond heartbreaking, as are Walter’s struggles to remain ethical in his studies of the children (I know that’s an odd word to use for a man drugging children, but clearly he doesn’t want undue harm to come to them and doesn’t think the study is dangerous) even though he knows it’s the key to correcting the wrong he’s done and the danger he’s placed our universe in.
Which is not to say Walter is harmless and lovable in this evening’s proceedings, however.  Watching the group focus experiment he’s conducting at the beginning of the show, we’re immediately reminded of the suffering that these experiments will eventually bring upon this entire group of children as they mature into adulthood permanently damaged.  Worse, when Walter is suspicious that his star test subject, a young and resilient Olivia (who he lovingly calls “Olive” here, nice touch) is being physically abused by her stepfather, he sits on the knowledge and pretends his suspicion is off-base and then wonders at least briefly whether sending her back into that environment (or simulating it somehow) might be the key to getting her to cross over. 

Before he gets that far, though, he puts her through a series of cruel experiments wherein Olivia is subjected to various emotional extremes inflicted by Walter from happiness to anger and frustration, and finally abject horror as Walter cuts out the lights and then brings them back on to reveal a fellow test subject’s dead and bloody body on the floor (it’s a fake, and the boy was told it was a practical joke, which elevates the ick factor) which also doesn’t get her to cross over but does cause a small fire when she flame-bursts the entire room (okay, so there was a BIT of Fringeyness tonight).  Taken collectively, the episode does show us that Walter was never entirely without limits or a code of ethics, however.  The experiments clearly go too far and put children at risk, but he seems to believe what he’s doing is relatively safe and not damaging in the long term, plus he’s operating under the (correct) assumption that these children may be the key to undoing the damage he has wrought to two universes through his meddling.  Even with that much on the line he is clearly hesitant about sacrificing Olivia outright (though he does say it must be considered).  Most heartening in terms of knowing Walter as a human being is the fact that when his wife asks him if he would trade Olivia’s life for Peter’s he says, convincingly, “Of course not.”  It’s an important moment to knowing Walter’s essential humanity that whatever love he has for his own child (which we’ve seen endless evidence of since episode one of this show) it will not allow him to take another child’s life to protect it.
Tonight’s magic touch, though, might be its ability to sell us on the emotional devastation brought to both Walters and Elizabeths by our version of Walter.  When we see Walternate (Safety Czar back then) listening to another TV report about his missing son as he downs drink after drink and argues with Elizabeth it’s impossible not to be on his side regarding where Peter belongs, and yet our emotions swing easily back to our own Walter once we’re with him again.  But when we consider what recent episodes have brought us, the boundary of where our sympathies lie becomes even more blurred:  Walter has now faced many of the same moral decisions Walternate was forced to make far earlier in his universe’s timeline, and Walter has mostly made the same tough decisions that he once thought Walternate monstrous for making.
Meanwhile Peter and Olivia have their original “meet cute” as Peter shows up at Walter’s work one day and, well, as Walter charmingly puts it, “The beguiling Olivia Dunham beguiles.”  Indeed she does, to the extent that Peter is curious enough about her to peek through her sketch book when Elizabeth brings him back to the lab after the fire.  What he discovers there is both horrifying, and to a brilliant child, more than revealing:  the horror of her home life is captured in a demonic image of her father (for a moment we wonder whether the drawing represents Walter, but it’s soon clear that Olivia trusts him quite extensively), the blimp from the other world which Peter quickly recognizes, and the field of white tulips which is the only happy drawing in the bunch, and which Peter knows from the story his mother pointed out to him as they drove past it earlier in the episode.  Peter sets out to find poor Olivia, who fled in horror after her uncontrolled reaction to Walter’s cruel experiment.  Arguably the night's saddest moment is when she reveals that she fled because she was afraid she had disappointed Walter who she clearly looks up to and cares about.  When she asks how he knew where to find her, he points out that the picture was the only happy thing in her book, but more importantly, he tells her that Walter is trustworthy and that she should tell him about her stepfather.  It’s a melancholy moment where we see Peter starting to let go of his correct belief that he’s from somewhere else and accept, for better or worse, that he’s stuck here with these parents.  Later, he tries Elizabeth one more time, and when she sticks to the lie again—it looks for a moment like she won’t—he seems to relent in his protests and accept defeat (he doesn’t accept that he’s where he belongs though—that must come sometime between then and now).
The entire episode really burns (no pun intended) its way towards the final few minutes where we’re treated to a great deal of wonderful and horrible revelation as well as some nice understated touches.  “I think I’ve cooled off by now,” Olivia says to Peter as she offers him her hand amidst a swath of charred tulips.  It’s a gorgeous little moment not for the clever little line, but for the clever bit of imagery:  two delicate children, like flowers, where they don’t belong (for reasons each their own), sitting amidst a field of beautiful and delicate flowers, which Elizabeth has already explained to Peter also don’t belong here.  Yet here they are, growing and thriving, except for those few unlucky enough to be burned by Olivia’s presence.  When they get back to the lab, Olivia runs to Walter’s office to confess about her father.  Walter is unreadable, which makes sense because we’re actually looking at Walternate—Olivia’s emotional high at finally getting her secret off her chest popped her over to the other side again, where she has given away everything, most especially that Peter is in another universe with another Walter.  It’s a huge piece to the show’s puzzle—we know how much Walternate knows, and how deep his loathing of our world must be once he realizes that all of his grief is caused by a kidnapping by his own otherworldly doppelganger.  It’s also interesting that the show lets us see so much of his and Altlizabeth’s (the nicknames have to stop) misery leading up to this moment—it makes it hard not to feel he’s justified in whatever actions he takes to get Peter back.
It’s what makes it so important that we get a chance to see our own Walter in a redemptive moment before the episode leaves us hanging for two weeks (what’s with the break, Fox?).  The moment comes when Olivia is so jarred by seeing another version of Walter that she fails to report her stepfather to the Walter she should trust, and then it’s too late because stepdad is there ready to take her home, and clearly angered at what he sees as her embarrassing behavior.  But Walter’s wishy-washy attitude towards Olivia’s abuse is gone and he confronts her stepdad with threats of “government friends” who can make his life miserable if Olivia is ever touched again.  Whether it represents a turning point for Walter in terms of what he’s willing to let children go through in the name of science (or personal gain, or whatever other motivations he now faces) is not quite clear, but it certainly seems like an affirmation of his essential goodness, which is a nice thing to have reaffirmed after such a traumatic and emotionally powerful hour of television.

Overall Rating:  9.5/10

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

The attention to detail for the time period is a nice touch, most especially in the toy store.  I think I owned half of those Ghostbusters toys on the shelf above the Battlestar Galactica ship Peter looks at.  Only flaw:  the Joust sound effects aren’t authentic.
Interesting word choice when Walter tells Elizabeth that the Cortexiphan kids are the key to Peter getting home.  He says Peter can go home “standing on their feet.”

Here’s a sign the showrunners are confident in their fanbase:  the only evidence we get that Olivia has popped over to the alternate universe is the sound of a blimp overhead.  Of course we’d assume that’s where she went anyway, but the subtle confirmation confirms how well they’ve defined Earth 2 for us.

How did Walter make the paper bird explode in a little flame?

Walternate’s angry assertion that “Nothing is inexplicable” is a nice character touch—he’s a man who relies so thoroughly on science for his paradigm of how the universe functions that he literally cannot live with the unexplained.

Walternate’s company has designed the space defense program for Earth 2, and is called “Bishop Dynamic”.  


  1. It's nice that we finally have an actor for Olivia's stepdad. I wonder if we'll ever get a flashback of the moment that Olivia pulls a gun on him but can't finish him off.

    I just rewatched the season 2 finale with a friend and noticed the Red Lantern framed comic book on a wall in the penthouse Peter is taken to on the other side.

    I'm sure you remember that circle from somewhere else. ;)

    Does Olivia's use of pyrokinesis point to the fact that the cortexiphan subjects have multiple abilities or maybe they have a range of abilities until they become "specialized" in one of them?

  2. Yeah, until you mentioned that I hadn't even thought about how long olive's stepdad has been a faceless villain in the show's storyline. Good point.

    I'm wondering if her sudden exhibition of flamethrowing ability doesn't just suggest that the abilities manifest themselves based on need. They certainly seem to occur without the child's active control of them, so maybe her brain felt that this was the best protection for her at this particular moment--take out whatever threat is in the room. when her dad was chasing her she world-popped because her brain felt that was the best place to hide from him. who knows.