Thanks to the Yankees (yeah, I know, I know), we got an unexpected visit from Fringe tonight… a visit as unexpected as Randy’s foiled anniversary surprise for his wife Natalie. And how about that anniversary surprise, huh? Dude tells his wife he’s heading out of town on business and is going to miss their big day, when he’s actually sitting at home arranging flowers for her. And then, damndest thing, he gets attacked by a Shadow Man and gets turned into a heap of ash in human form. (Just like their wedding night, am I right? Boom! Roasted.)
This opening—one of Fringe’s most effective freak-meets, in my opinion—set the tone for an efficient action/adventure/horror hour, heavy on suspenseful moments and neat effects, light on character development and progress on the master-plot. When all is said and done and Fringe eventually ends its run, I’m betting that a newcomer will be able to skip “Earthling” without putting a dent in their overall understanding of the show. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still cool to see people get reduced to dust right in front of our eyes.
Also cool? That this episode focused on Special Agent Broyles, and gave a little insight into his personal life and his history with Fringe Division. Turns out that Shadow Man has made his presence known before, in a case four years ago that so confounded Broyles that he re-dedicated himself to the job of understanding The Pattern—at the expense of his marriage. Wielding his expertise from the prior Shadow Man rampage, Broyles gets Agent Dunham to accompany him to Latchmere Hospital, which Randy visited shortly before getting dusted. The suspect Broyles is looking for is a male nurse of Eastern European descent, who specializes in coma patients. And Broyles knows that’s who he’s looking for because the last time Shadow Man attacked, the nurse called Broyles, begging for the FBI’s help in decoding a chemical formula key to stopping the shadow-menace.
With the help of his team (and some old friends in Washington), Broyles is able to determine that the man he wants is named Timor, and that he’s wanted by the CIA and the Russian government for his involvement in kidnapping his brother Alex, a former cosmonaut who came back from space in a coma—and apparently hosting a strange alien parasite. Timor has now swiped Alex from Latchmere, and stuck him in a motel room surrounded by beeping machines and car batteries. If he can keep his brother sufficiently charged with energy, he can prevent Shadow Man from rising, since the alien creature feeds on radiation and will take it from wherever it can get it. (Heck, Shadow Man sucked Randy dry because Randy sat in a window seat on an airplane flight and soaked up too much solar.) Meanwhile, Walter’s busy trying to decipher the chemical formula (which he calls “a puzzle” and “she” and “a shy temptress”), though when Water figures it out, he only learns that Shadow Man is inextricably tied to Alex, and that the cosmonaut will likely never be rid of the beast within him.
“Earthling” was written by J.H. Wyman and Jeff Vlaming (the former a Fringe regular and the creator of Keen Eddie, the latter a journeyman with a diverse slate of impressive credits) and it was directed by Jon Cassar, an Emmy-winning 24 director/producer. They do a professional job, and add a few smart visual touches that reinforce the episode’s theme. Even when Shadow Man is not on the prowl, Cassar puts people in motion in the back of the frame, creating a feeling of something always creeping behind our heroes. There’s also a lot in this episode about Broyles having to take this case off the books, such that it exists only in—you guessed it—shadow. And then there’s Walter, who can only figure out the formula when he gets it out of his head and makes it physical, with the help of tinkertoys. “Earthling” is largely about enemies and problems that exist in some ethereal form—including the government spooks who are working against Broyles behind the scenes.
I confess though that about three-quarters of the way through the episode, I had to rewind to the beginning and watch some scenes over again, because I tend to get lost in international-intrigue talk. (It’s the reason I rarely enjoy spy movies.) And so I was perhaps more disappointed than I should’ve been that all my efforts to understand the plot weren’t rewarded with much in the end. Shadow Man kills Timor, Walter tries to force the rogue alien back into Alex’s body, then Broyles shoots Alex just as Shadow Man is about to menace a little girl. All very exciting, but not much to hang one’s hat on in terms of deeper meaning. Not even the scene of Broyles telling his now happily married ex-wife that he finally closed the case the killed their marriage offers much in the way of larger resonance. It’s just… nice.
In fact, this entire episode was summed up by the little girl whom Broyles inadvertently saved. “There was a man. A shadow man. He disappeared.”
Exactly. Now on to the next case, I guess.
-A tidy “previously on” montage tonight, huh? Hoping to capitalize on new viewers roped in by the World Series, I’m sure.
-Part of my confusion about the plot may have occurred because I was distracted by Homer Simpson roaming across the bottom of the screen and digging in the ground during Broyles’ conversation with his senator pal.
-Also distracting: When Broyles whispered the story of his past to Olivia, I could hear his tongue clicking against his soft palate.
-Meanwhile, when Walter whispered to Broyles about the wonders of Russian fringe-science, I imagined how the old mad scientist’s breath must smell. Not good, I’m guessing.
-I want to give the Fringe team and Lance Reddick credit though for the scene at the top of the show where Broyles connects with a junior mimic at a restaurant. A humanizing moment, and a play on the “me and my shadow” story we’re about to watch. If the final scene between Broyles and his ex had been as sweet and natural as that restaurant scene, I might’ve bumped this episode up a notch, grade-wise.