In the wake of the finale of Breaking Bad’s rather excellent fourth season, there’s been some talk about the usefulness of dissecting TV on an episode-by-episode basis. The article some TV critics I respect have pointed to appeared here, and it’s worth a read regardless of your feelings on the topic. It’s very much true that talking about a show weekly ends up becoming about both what we’ve seen so far and trying to forecast what it means for the rest of the series. That can of course lead to overthinking certain elements or coming to snap judgments about plots and characters that are still evolving, which is certainly a dangerous thing. While I can see the downsides, I still think it’s useful to dive in weekly, simply because that’s how we experience TV in most cases and I prefer to think of reviews of individual episodes as more of a living document of experiencing TV rather than a final statement on quality. It’s why discussions of season finales end up being weightier because that’s when the viewer has a clear view of what everything meant. At the same time a TV series can’t solely play the long game, there has to be some level of enjoyment in a single hour if it wants to keep people coming back. Even the gold standard for novelistic TV, The Wire, made sure to open and close on big moments that gave a sense of finality to an episode despite the fact that most episodes were primarily designed as pieces of a whole.
“Alone In The World” is another clever little episode of Fringe that presents an enjoyable if not spectacular story that nicely ties into the ongoing thread of the larger mythology of the series. It’s not quite as exciting or dramatic as last week’s as it’s not anchored by a guest performance as strong as John Pyper-Ferguson’s but it does provide an excellent showcase for John Noble’s always excellent Walter while pushing the story of Peter’s disappearance one important step further.
We kick off with a quick vignette of a young boy named Aaron running from two bullies, he retreats into an abandoned tunnel of some sort and is quickly cornered. Suddenly the two bullies are frozen in place and tendrils of black start to run up their bodies while leaving Aaron unharmed. When the team gets to the site the bodies seem to have been completely used up, the skin having dissolved away leaving exposed bone and generally unpleasant features to look at. It’s standard Fringe grossness executed nicely, a mysterious malady with potentially malicious intentions that leads to a gruesome demise. Things get even more complicated though when the corpses erupt, shooting spores everywhere, clearly this is a problem that means to spread.
“One Night in October” delves a bit deeper into the new status quo on Fringe and quickly takes advantage of it by featuring a case that has both universes working together to stop a serial killer. In doing so it sidelines a few characters a bit more than I might have liked, Walter doesn’t get much to do with the main plot of the episode and A-Universe Lincoln Lee only shows up briefly, but there’s a good thematic punch to the main story and it’s intriguing enough and snappily directed by regular helmer Brad Anderson to make up for any minor qualms I had.
The story is about a man whose life took two very different paths across the separate universes. In the B-Universe John McClennan is a serial killer, hounded by urges he can’t control and a childhood that was ruled by a cruel and uncaring father. In the A-Universe John is a professor of forensic psychology who specializes in serial killers because he himself has similar urges, urges that he learned to control thanks to a woman named Marjorie. When the B-Universe exhausts all their leads on McClennan, who is conducting some seriously creepy and painful looking procedures on his victims while they recount their happiest memories, they ask the A-side for help in the form of McClennan. They hope his expertise and, well, closeness, to the case will lead them to a man they’ve been unable to stop.
Every year like clockwork Fringe seems to reinvent itself. It doesn’t do it in a way that undercuts what the show is about, in fact, part of the brilliance of these periodic reshufflings is that they almost always manage to put a fresh spin on the premise without really altering all that much of the show’s makeup. Season 2 featured the reveal of the pattern and the sudden knowledge that there was more than one universe in play, which gave the cases of the week the extra oomph they needed to feel more relevant, and Season 3 featured the utterly brilliant swap of the two Olivias, allowing the show to bounce back and forth between universes while maintaining its monster of the week premise. Season 4 rolls out an even more ambitious restructuring by changing nothing less than the entire fabric of both universes. Peter’s gone, and the timelines have been completely altered in his absence, so much so that when the A universe Lincoln Lee runs into Olivia it seems that their previous meeting in Season 3 has been entirely erased.
It’s a major blank slate for the show, and the premiere episode of this season seems oddly interested in trying to catch new viewers up to speed. There’s plenty of necessary exposition that allows the long time viewer to cue in to just what kind of changes have been made due to Peter’s absence, but they also serve the purpose of trying to catch new viewers up to speed on the history and workings of the show. I’m all in favor of more people watching Fringe, and I’d say that this episode is an ideal jumping on point if you’ve been at all interested in testing out the show, but it seems like a slightly useless tactic. At this point I find it hard to believe that you’re going to attract a lot of new viewers to the show just because you’ve made a slightly friendlier episode for them. Once a series has hit Season 4 and has a reputation for being a densely plotted sci-fi piece it’s unlikely folks are going to just stop in to see what its all about, especially when its airing at 9 on Fridays.