Fans of the Whedonverse surely noticed the name of David Fury in the opening credits of tonight’s Fringe, “Alone In The World.” Fury was a writer/producer and occasional director on Buffy and Angel, responsible for some of those shows’ most memorable—and frequently most gruesome—episodes. He also worked on the first season of Lost (for which he wrote the brilliant “Walkabout”), and the last four season of 24, and has just come on board as part of the Fringe team. He’s pedigreed, in other words—at least moreso than the episode’s director Miguel Sapochnik, who only has a few Houses and the much-maligned sci-fi actioner Repo Men under his belt.
Fury and Sapochnik do a solid job with “Alone In The World,” though the episode overall is a big step down from last week’s magnificent “One Night In October” (which I re-watched last night with my wife, and which still moved me nearly to tears at times). It’s another case-of-the-week episode, this time with no apparent connection to Earth-2 whatsoever, and only a tangential connection to The Mystery Of The Missing Bishop. It seems the M.O. for at least the first part of this fourth season is going to be to use the Fringe cases as a way to illuminate the mental and emotional condition of our heroes in a world without Peter.
This week, the case involves a boy named Aaron, who has some kind of psychic connection to a creeping, vine-like organism that attaches itself to human skin and causes the body to rapidly decay until it bloats, explodes, and releases spores. After Aaron leads two bullies to a conduit under Hyde Park (where the youngsters are promptly mummified), he’s taken to be examined by Walter. Aaron, whose mother is out of the country, and who’s staying with an older neighbor who “never talks,” is assured that Walter is a nice, not scary man—a description that sounds far-fetched once he actually meets Walter, who’s wearing a blood-stained apron and snapping at Aaron every time he tries to touch one of Peter’s old toys. Gradually though, the old man and the kid form a bond, such that soon they’re wearing tinfoil hats and drinking malteds together, and Walter’s guard lowers enough that he’s able to tell Aaron—and us—the story of how his son died, and how he the alternate-universe version of his son died too when he fell through the ice and drowned.
The scenes between Walter and Aaron serve a couple of purposes: to give us more information about how this new version of reality differs from what we knew prior to the third season finale, and to give Walter a “son” of a sorts to connect with, to remind him of what it was like to be a father. That the boy is himself someone who feels isolated and friendless only deepens the connection.
Which makes it all the tougher when when Walter comes up with a method for killing The Creeping Crud, using strong light and heat—“I’m thinkin’ flamethrowers,” Olivia suggests—only to discover that when they attack the beast, Aaron feels it. It seems this thing is one giant brain—nicknamed “Gus” by Walter—and that the lonely Aaron as adopted it as a friend. Aaron’s now literally attached to Gus by his own brain’s limbic system—the emotional center—just as Walter is now figuratively attached to Aaron by the same. Neat, huh?
I appreciated the idea behind “Alone In The World,” to show how an emotional attachment can become almost symbiotic, such that if one part dies (ahem, Peter, ahem), the other part is irreparably, perhaps even fatally damaged. Broyles needs to eradicate Gus because Gus’ tendrils are now reaching as far as six miles away from its original Hyde Park location, yet killing Gus likely means killing Aaron. You wouldn’t need to strain too hard to find a metaphor here, related to the way Peter built a bridge between universes but was wiped out in the process.
The problem is that the way the episode plays out requires Walter to save the day by talking Aaron out of the mental/emotional clutches of Gus, which isn’t exactly the most visually dynamic climax to an action-adventure show. (Plus, the “talk down” has become kind of a cliché in genre fiction since the heyday of Chris Claremont’s X-Men comics, where a scene like that happened roughly every four issues.) I liked the moment between Walter and Aaron earlier in the episode where he got the kid to admit that he intentionally led the bullies to Gus, but the big final moment between the two was less affecting.
Also, while I’m not getting impatient yet, I did find it curious that there was so little in this episode about the Earth-1/Earth-2 connection. The main master-plot function of “Alone In The World” is to deal with Walter’s worry that hearing Peter’s voice and seeing Peter’s face everywhere means he’s cracking up. He meets with Dr. Sumner (seen for the first time since “The Equation,” if I’m not mistaken), and says that while he’s been making his own modifications to the doctor’s recommended medication, otherwise he’s been doing fine. And yet while he’s saying that, he’s seeing Peter in the reflective surface of Dr. Sumner’s plastic clipboard, and later while he’s talking to Broyles, he can barely hear his own voice over Peter’s in his head. Finally, he grabs for his lobotomy tools, hoping to end his psychic pain, but he’s stopped by Olivia, who shows him a drawing she made of Peter from dreams she’s been having. “I’m perfectly sane!” Walter shouts, as he looks out through the bloody, puffy eye that he’d just driven a spike into.
I wish there’d been a little more to the plot of “Alone In The Dark,” and more to do with the series’ master-plot. But I can’t fault Fury and Sapochnik for the many memorable moments and images in this episode: the eerie glow of Gus’ tendrils seen through night-vision goggles; the morgue guy refusing to answer the phone, and ending up frozen and decaying over an exploded corpse; Walter dumping another exploding corpse into a container just in the nick of time; and of course Walter sitting alone in the dark with a hammer and a spike and a book on lobotomization.
Also, if we do take this case as reflecting a larger Fringe plot-point, consider this: eliminating Gus was painful, but necessary, and would’ve been so even if it’d taken Aaron out. If Peter’s extraction from the timeline was just as much a matter of life or death, then what will happen when he comes back?
- This week’s Fringe jukebox: Manfred Mann’s version of Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn,” playing while Walter examines Aaron.
- Lincoln Lee’s been going through the Fringe case files, and claims to be “not freaked out” by anything he’s seen thus far. Made of stern stuff, our Agent Lee.
- Anyone else get kind of a Ruins-y vibe off our Freak Of The Week?
- When Walter ices Aaron down, he says he doesn’t want to turn him into a popsicle. Which gives him a good idea! “Grape, please,” he says to Astrid.
- Nina Sharp and Massive Dynamic offered a toxin to kill Gus. So yep, they’re still around.
- “Yeah, I’ve seen the movie with the talking toys. Oddly disturbing.”