About midway through “Alone in the World,” I paused the episode to go do some other stuff that I wanted to take care of – throwing some things for recycling, making a bowl of soup, checking the news. It’s not as if I’d forgotten that the show was still on, but what surprised me was that when I’d taken care of everything, I found that half an hour had passed between when I’d paused the episode and when I’d returned to it.
See, if I’d really cared about the episode, I’d have been checking my watch every two minutes while standing in front of the stove, or heck, I might not have even paused it at all. But this week, I found myself totally bored by most of this episode, and by the time I got three-quarters of the way through, I was just hoping it would end soon.
Back in season one, Fringe used to do a lot of standalone cases with a gruesome, ripped-from-the-headlines sort of feel. While these cases rarely delved into the characters’ psyches, they often illuminated thought-provoking ethical or moral issues. This week’s case – a sentient, flesh-eating fungus – seemed to be very much in the vein of a season one horror show, but without the same kind of nuance with regards to morality that used to make the cases compelling. “Alone in the World” tried to raise an ethical issue – is it right to let a single innocent person die to save the lives of many? – but went about doing so in the bluntest way possible: that single innocent person was a kid.
Maybe I’ve grown cynical after watching too much television, but I tend to get irritated when a child character’s well-being is put at stake, the reason being that the kid rarely dies or gets affected permanently. Yeah, yeah, I know: Young Peter did die on this show; Alt-Broyles’ son was permanently scarred by the Candyman; heck, even that kid from “The Equation” never really recovered. But in the first case, the death was the driving force of a major plot line, and in the latter two cases, neither outcome signalled a failure of Fringe division to resolve the case.
Being a procedural is part of Fringe’s DNA. Before anybody protests, let me be perfectly clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a procedural. What that implies for Fringe’s storytelling (“The Arrival” aside) is that while the show can – and does – do overarching plot lines, whatever procedural components there are in an episode are resolved in that episode; Fringe Division doesn’t lose. I knew that the kid in this episode, Aaron, wouldn’t die, because if the kid had died, then Fringe Division wouldn’t have won, plain and simple.
That’s why this episode had such low stakes. One could already predict its outcome more than half an hour before its end – kid lives, fungus dies, rendering the episode’s supposed ethical dilemma moot. There were really no other options, which made it difficult for me to sympathize with the boy’s plight. Unfortunately, the episode played as if I was supposed to sympathize with him simply because he was a kid, a kind of unearned emotional manipulation that felt way beneath this show. He ain’t the first lonely kid in the history of the universe. Why should I have sympathized with him in particular?
Loneliness and loss seem to be the two overarching ideas of this season. Nay, I shouldn’t say “seem to be.” They definitely are, which I can tell because the show insists on driving those ideas into the ground with some of the most anvilicious dialogue ever featured on the show. Just in case you didn’t get the message, the show spelled it out for you in Walter’s speech to Aaron. “I know what it is to be lonely.” Give me a break. (Plus, the fact that we’re likely never going to see Aaron again lessened the impact of Walter’s words of kindness considerably, but I’m willing to eat crow if he in fact does turn up again.)
Earlier in the episode, I literally groaned when Walter accidentally referred to Aaron as Peter. (Because I couldn’t have pieced together that in his loneliness and desperation, Walter was projecting his fight to save Peter onto trying to save Aaron’s life. *rolls eyes*) The fact that the writers feel the need to bash the audience over the head with constant references to loneliness or with Walter seeing some of his son in Aaron signals to me that they don’t feel as if the material is strong enough to stand on its own.
And truth be told, it really isn’t. A flesh-eating fungus? Fine by me. A flesh-eating fungus with emotional ties to a 10-year-old? Sorry, that’s way too hokey; it’s even beyond “6B” territory. Look, I’m fine with cases that don’t explore ethical issues. I’m fine with cases that don’t really explore the characters in anything but the most obvious way. I’m even fine with cases that don’t move the story forward. But I’m not fine with the kind of sappy sentimentality that doesn’t belong on this show, nor am I fine with things that don’t make sense or cases that fail to hold my interest. If I’m spending half the episode wondering why everyone stopped wearing hazmat suits, then that’s probably not a good sign.
That’s a shame, because the first ten minutes of “Alone in the World” were quite effective, as far as pulp horror goes. But as soon as Walter started going on about emotional connections to fungi, I was no longer on board. I knew we were dealing with yet another case caused by a misunderstanding or an instance of poor judgment. What happened to all the villains? Not having a real villain doesn’t necessarily make an episode more interesting from a moral standpoint, especially when the ethical dilemma at the heart of it is rendered irrelevant.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t really griped about Peter’s absence or the lack of story momentum. I guess those are legitimate complaints to be made about this episode and the season as a whole so far, but it sort of misses the point – this just wasn’t a well-written or well-produced episode. It was clumsy, emotionally manipulative, and boring. That problem exists, Peter or not, and truth be told, all the episodes this season have suffered from similar problems. Fringe is still good at some things. It continues to be especially adept at humour, getting a few chuckles out of me tonight early in the installment with Walter claiming he made modifications to his regimen of medication and Astrid telling Broyles that Walter didn’t have any theories. It’s also beautifully shot, but that goes without saying at this point. However, humour and cinematography don’t cover up weak writing, and they weren’t enough to make this boring episode interesting.