I’ve soured a bit on Fringe lately, and while the decreased quality of the past couple of episodes hasn’t helped matters, it’s not the real reason for my disappointment. I have become increasingly annoyed with the narrative direction that the series has taken, allowing Peter and Olivia’s relationship issues to drive the plot toward whatever the interdimensional equivalent of television cliché might be. Therefore, even while I thought that “Immortality” was a great episode in and of itself, I found myself frustrated by the developments in it that have implications for ongoing plot lines.

Whereas last week’s case was full of nonsense and plot holes, this one, set in the alternate universe, was much more tightly written. It featured a mad scientist, Dr. Silva, who was hellbent on making a vaccine, not for the betterment of society, but so that he could be immortalized in the annals of science. In order to do this, he had to extract a substance from a rare variety of parasitic beetle that lived in human hosts. The scene where the queen beetle ate his way out of Dr. Silva’s neck was one of the most gruesome things that I’ve seen on television in a while, and it both horrified and fascinated me. I’m normally not a fan of horror, but when used sparingly, like it was here, it can elevate an episode.

The case also showcased one of the things that I love about “Over There” episodes, the Olivia/Lincoln/Charlie1 dynamic. Their banter and back-and-forth are a lot of fun to watch, and they add a sense of levity to what could otherwise be a plodding show (especially since they don’t have Our Walter’s quirkiness to balance things out Over There). It can be strange to see an episode that features only half the main cast, but I find the alt-characters watchable enough that I don’t mind flipping back Over There every once in a while.2 I also liked the entomologist who had a crush on Charlie, and I wish that her conversation with Charlie had paid off later in the episode. Sure, she was silly, but no sillier than Our Walter was when he tried to use Gene to make chocolate milk. Fringe shouldn’t be afraid to be funny every once in a while. Dramas that don’t do so can get bogged down in seriousness.3

This would be all well and good if Fringe were far less serialized than it is, but as the season progresses, it’s becoming more and more apparent that this season’s excellent pre-“Entrada” run was a magnificent house of cards waiting to be toppled with the slightest touch. Those episodes did a wonderful job of painting a portrait of a society affected by the interdimensional war and of creating the outlines of new (but sometimes familiar) characters who had the potential to be very interesting. Unfortunately, I’m discovering that I don’t find what is being coloured inside those outlines very compelling. As much as I enjoy the Olivia/Lincoln/Charlie dynamic, I fail to see the point of Lincoln’s crush on Olivia. I don’t know if it it’s an attempt to give Lincoln’s character some depth, but I think that he works better as a fun member of the Fringe team with a vaguely defined personality.

“Immortality’s” Walternate-related developments were equally puzzling. Why does he have a mistress? Did his marriage fall apart? The fact that Walternate has had no scenes with his wife might indicate so, but the show’s slavish adherence to the “show-don’t-tell” model is self-defeating in this case. If Fringe wasn’t going to display Walternate struggling with the disintegration of his marriage, it should have at least provided an explanation in the scene where Walternate was on the bed with his mistress. Moreover, Joan Chen’s acting in that scene was cringeworthy, and the scene felt bizarrely out of place.

A far more interesting development was Walternate’s refusal to experiment on children, which seems intended to draw a contrast between his choices and Our Walter’s decision to conduct the Cortexiphan trials, and to demonstrate that Walternate is no more evil than Our Walter. However, viewers don’t forget circumstances. Walternate didn’t have the morally questionable influence of William Bell, and he made the decision not to test Cortexiphan on children twenty years after Our Walter, after having experienced the loss of his own son. Seen in that light, Walternate’s decision seems to be fuelled by a deep-seated personal revulsion rather than a sense that the research would be morally repugnant, and once one accounts for Our Walter’s remorse, Our Walter comes out looking like the better man. If I understand the writers’ intentions correctly, they’re trying to show that there’s good and evil in both universes and that good and evil can co-exist within the same person. The former goal has been realized wonderfully; I’m not rooting for one universe over the other. But I don’t think that the latter goal is being pursued properly or that it’s even a valid goal to begin with. Much like how Peter’s shapeshifter killing spree clumsily tried to show a dark side of Peter, Walternate’s refusal to experiment on kids was a clumsy (albeit less so) way to show a light side of Walternate. That being said, I think that Fringe is overdoing the moral ambiguity. There is nothing wrong with having heroes and villains. In fact, if everyone is a mixture of good and evil,4 I don’t feel like investing in anyone.

That sort of arbitrary moral ambiguity has extended to the Peter/Our-Olivia/Alt-Olivia love triangle. Last week, I lamented that the fate of the universes was predicated on whatever decision Peter’s genitals would make and that there was no reason for Peter to have residual feelings for Fauxlivia. This week, I’m annoyed by Alt-Olivia’s pregnancy. Since it is totally unbelievable that Peter could otherwise end up with the woman who betrayed him, he has now been given a child in the alternate universe. It’s a cheap way to create a conflict of parental duty vs. romantic love, and it unfortunately played like the show was correcting course after mistakenly stating that Peter had feelings for Fauxlivia. This might have played a lot better if Peter’s feelings for Fauxlivia had been left out of the equation. But even so, the emphasis has been on Peter’s feelings, and not on Our Olivia’s or Alt-Olivia’s. That was apparent in this episode; Alt-Olivia’s feelings about her engagement, breakup, and pregnancy got lost in the shuffle, and while I didn’t need to see an emotional roller coaster, I would have liked some insight into what was going on inside her brain.

Even while Fringe continues to have good cases and other fun elements, its serialized elements are starting to weigh it down. An intriguing story about the fight to save the universes is being imbued with unnecessary moral ambiguity. “Immortality” demonstrated that the writers haven’t forgotten how to write an entertaining episode, but it also demonstrated that they have yet to learn an important lesson: the most thought-provoking course of action is not necessarily the best.

 

1 Since this is an “Over There” episode, if I don’t specify otherwise, I’m referring to an alternate universe character (with the exception of Peter, of course).

2 The repeated dye jobs must be wreaking havoc on Anna Torv’s hair, though.

3 As much as I admired last season’s “Peter” as a television masterpiece, I didn’t enjoy it very much because it was totally devoid of humour.

4 Except Astrid, of course. She’s possibly the nicest person alive.

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