Back in my former life, I wrote about “Lost” a lot. A whole lot. A lot more than I care to think about at this point, not because I regret it but because it seems insanely ludicrous when judged from a relatively safe distance. In that time, I came up with a theory about all pieces of pop culture from J.J. Abrams. Maybe it’s less of a theory than an observation, if I’m being accurate. That theory? Each separate show or film with Abrams’ involvement belongs to a coherent, singular, fictional world. I chose to call that world “Earth JJ.” And tonight’s episode of “Fringe” was, in a lot of ways, a love letter to that world.
[Recap of Thursday's (Nov. 11) "Fringe" after the break...]
“6955 kHz” played with all of the tropes that have made Abrams’ previous efforts so successful in the eyes of so many. Abrams loves mysterious boxes, as evidenced by this speech he gave at TED a few years back. He loves numbers, as evidenced by Page 47 from “Alias” and The Numbers from “Lost.” What makes Earth-JJ so fascinating is not simply the interconnectedness of his various worlds under the same sky. Having Ethan Hunt pass by Paik Heavy Industries in “Mission: Impossible” and seeing the DHARMA logo in the movie “Cloverfield” are amusing as Easter eggs, but don’t get to the heart of what makes Earth-JJ so special.
Even though Abrams himself didn’t have a direct hand in this episode, his joy of asking questions and contemplating the answers to them filled this week’s episode, and by proxy illuminates the central conflict of Season 3. “Fringe” started out as “Science Gone Mad,” but has shown periodically that the spark of inspiration that leads so many people in this world down incredibly dangerous paths starts off from the same place as the creative spark in telling stories. A simple question–“What if?”–starts both parties down the rabbit hole. It makes people attempt the impossible in a lab. It makes them put pen to paper. It drives them to chat rooms to unlock a seemingly unbreakable code.
The notion of Walternate’s Doomsday Device being part of some “ancient” technology didn’t sit particularly well with me at the time that it was unleashed. So much was going on at the end of Season 2 that I chalked it up to an old wives’ tale Over There and moved on. But tonight, we learned that Walternate’s Device stems from recreation, not merely inspiration. That makes sense on a meta level as well as a narrative one, inasmuch as the manuscript that describes such a device looks a hell of a lot like Page 47 from Rimbaldi’s manuscript. Just as Walternate digs into the past of his world, so too do the writers of “Fringe” dig into the past of Earth-JJ.
This device, dubbed a “vacuum,” is itself at the heart of the duality inherent in the struggle between the two universes. It contains the capacity for both creation AND destruction, which implies that machines are neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. (Is THAT what Heiner Muller meant when he wrote the play “Hamletmachine”?) The preservation of one world seems to imply the destruction of the other, according to most people on both sides in the world of “Fringe.” The notable exception? Peter, who envisions a third way. Makes sense: he’s singularly able to see both sides, with an equal stake in the survival of each, unable to choose even under the most strenuous of scenarios.
That optimism lies at the heart of so many things in this show, scientific inquiry itself at the forefront. One of the best scenes of tonight’s episode didn’t involve anything more than Nina Sharp and Walter sitting on a bench on Harvard’s campus, mulling over the lack of serious inquiry in the students before them. Walter and Nina have both suffered for the former’s bullheaded approach to finding answers all those decades before, but “Fringe” has shown time and again how it’s not necessarily the instincts that are incorrect so much as the application/implementation of them.
It’s also shown how much emotion trumps intellect: for much of the episode, Walter is colder than Walternate, furious at Peter’s attempts to assemble the Doomsday Device. He sees only pain at the end of that road, but Peter doesn’t see things having to end that way. His optimism is based in scientific curiosity, one that doesn’t have a specific hypothesis so much as a cautious hope that a device that can respond to him can also be manipulated by him to produce something other than a cataclysmic result. So much of “Fringe” has concerned two sides each warring against what they feel is the enemy. In Peter, they have a potential peacemaker.
So much of tonight’s episode centered around a growing sense of sympathy, if not outright empathy, with those affected in this increasingly hostile war. On one level, you have Walter’s response to those with memory loss. If anyone can understand what it’s like to live a life without a clear sense of the past, it’s him. On other level, you have Fauxlivia, increasingly ill at ease with her task Over Here, especially as the body counts start to rise and more people pick at the flaws in her cover story. On a third level, you have Astrid, who for the first time tonight truly started to resemble her Other Side self in cracking the apparently impossible-to-crack Number Station code.
As for the numbers themselves: they are themselves a type of vacuum, infused with power both to create and destroy. That the device was split apart and taken to the ends of the globe by our steampunk predecessor speaks to the device’s inherent capacity to kill. But the code itself suggests that, for those able to hear its message, it’s also a device that could potentially heal as well. The device could accelerate the damage done by Walter the night he crossed over, or it could also fully heal it.
Now, I won’t go all Mel Brooks on you and suggest that we’ll hear Alterna Broyles cry out to Walternate, “It’s the Doomsday Device, sir….it’s gone from suck to blow!” before season’s end. But it’s always encouraging when the types of questions asked by those watching the show are expressed in the show in a timely fashion. Just as we at home have noticed how both worlds are worth saving, along comes good-ol’ optimistic Peter Bishop to state the same fact. After all, Earth-JJ might be a dangerous place, but it’s also a glorious one, far more interesting than our own, and filled with more than a few people that embrace it rather than shun it.
And when people like the Bishop Boys embrace it, beautiful things can happen.
A few notes about tonight’s ep:
*** Having “Alias” vet Kevin Weisman as a shapeshifter didn’t hurt the whole Earth-JJ thing. Now, if Fauxlivia chopped all her hair off, then we could have really had something going on here.
*** Just like Jack Shephard, Peter Bishop had to go back tonight. Course, Peter only went back for skim milk as opposed to…well, you know.
*** I’m glad to know that U2 is popular in both universes, though I can’t help but wonder if Over There U2 would have attempted the ironic PopMart tour.
*** I will confess I’m slightly confused how Walternate started building his own device based on a radio signal from over here. He has blueprints of the device, but not all the pieces. Some, like “The Box” from a few weeks ago, are over here. But I don’t remember the Doomsday Device looking like it was missing nearly forty pieces, the approximate number of locations buried in the Numbers Station code. Maybe from Over There he could hear the signal but needed Peter to assemble it, and thus sent over the shapeshifter along with Fauxlivia. The “Lost” guy in me is getting an itch to figure this all out, but I don’t want to turn into Ed Bancroft from “Rubicon.”
What did you make of tonight’s episode? Too much of the old, or a nice trip down memory lane? Did you like the expansion of the mythology, or did it border on silliness? Leave your thoughts below!
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