When last we met Porcupine Man, Olivia helped crack his (its?) case by slipping into Walter’s sensory deprivation tank and accessing her rapidly fading psychic connection to her late partner John Scott. At the end of the episode, she got back into the tank one last time, to say goodbye to John. And now in “Nothing As It Seems,” the Olivia working this semi-familiar Porcupine Man case has just said goodbye to the closest thing she’s had to a mother figure, in order to fully embrace who she’s becoming. That’s our Olivia: always evolving.
Thematically there’s a clear connection in this episode between our Fringe division heroes and the case they’re working. Just as in the season one episode “The Transformation,” Olivia and Peter are frantically investigating two men who’ve used science to turn themselves into monsters. But Marshall Bowman and Daniel Hicks are just a fraction of the whole here. It turns out they’re part of a cult that is obsessed with “the guided evolution of man”—or “mutation by design.” These Porcupine Men eventually grow wings, which they use to fly around to high-end (and high-rise) plastic surgery clinics, where they steal the human fat that they need to feed on.
I was a fan of “The Transformation” three years back (ah, February 2009… such an innocent time), and I’m a fan of “Nothing As It Seems” for much the same reason: it’s a well-rounded, highly entertaining Fringe episode, nicely balancing the emotional beats, the action beats and the “Whoa! What the hell?” It may be lacking the broad gestures of last week’s poignant Olivia/Peter embrace, or the mind-blowing mythology of Peter’s recent journey into The Observer’s mind, but it’s a good model for what a “normal” Fringe episode can be: a straightforward freak-hunt with some moments of humor and light angst. (Though by the end of “Nothing As It Seems,” it’s clear that there is something significant going on. Hence the title.)
The light angst comes initially via Olivia, who’s been meeting with a therapist to determine if she can get return to active duty in Fringe Division. The problem is that as she tells the therapist about her life, Olivia keeps getting details wrong. Forty percent of what she believes to be true about her life is off—including her memories of her sister, who in this reality is still married and has a son named Eddie. (“Our grandfather’s name was Eddie,” Olivia mutters somewhat sadly to herself, in a small moment that’s a really fine piece of writing, direction and performance.)
Olivia though has already had her big change. “Nothing As It Seems” is really more about poor Lincoln Lee, who is coming to terms with the fact that the window of romantic opportunity that he once had with Olivia has now closed, thanks entirely to Peter Bishop. Olivia has no memory any more of their past flirtation. And Lincoln, he’s too good of a guy to do more than just pine away, stoically. (Though he does have a refreshingly frank conversation with Peter about Olivia in the car on the way to a crime scene, which is where and how frank conversations usually take place on Fringe.) As sweet as it was last week to see Peter and Olivia rush into each other’s arms, it’s bittersweet to hear Walter in the lab chuckling happily to himself over his “perfect” new family, while Lincoln sits off on his own, knowing that he’ll never be anything more than Walter’s favorite chess partner.
And worse, because Lincoln has been keeping silent while Olivia works this Flying Porcupine Men case—lest she get in trouble with Broyles, who has ordered her to stay on the sidelines—he ends up going into a dangerous situation without proper backup, and gets pricked by one of the creatures. Walter checks Lincoln out and determines that he’s been infected, and is likely to turn into a Flying Porcupine Man himself, unless he drinks a horrifying wheatgrass concoction that Walter has brewed. So while everyone else around him is changing, Lincoln stays the same, thanks to this foul elixir. (Walter does add some mint to the medicine to kill the aftertaste, but it doesn’t work. Such is Lincoln’s luck lately.)
In addition to the emphasis on Lincoln—always a plus on Fringe, in my opinion—“Nothing As It Seems” brings back the charmingly randy rare books broker Edward Markham, who enlivens any episode he’s in. It’s Markham who helps Olivia and Peter decipher Daniel Hicks’ Cuneiform tattoo, which points them toward the evolutionary cult. Investigating that brings Fringe Division to a Massive Dynamic file with a telltale palindromic code (invented by Walter and William while they were tripping). And finding that file leads them to back to an old adversary: David Robert Jones, who’s apparently responsible for this whole gene-splicing manimal project.
As convoluted as all the above is, I appreciate how it attempts to bind past Fringe and present Fringe: from “The Pattern” to whatever nefarious plan Mr. Jones is now hatching. As always, these different phases of Fringe all hinge on the notion of human evolution: The First People, The Observers, et cetera. To that we can add Jones’ crossbreed menagerie.
That’s what makes “Nothing As It Seems” relevant to the series as a whole. What makes it fun is the scene where a woman appears to be in danger from a beast who turns out to be her mate, and the scene where the couple swoops through the night sky on a fat-hunt, and the final shot of a Dr. Moreau-esque ship containing all manner of finned, tentacled and spiky creatures. Watching that, I can only repeat what I wrote about “The Transformation” so many years ago:
- I re-read my review of “The Transformation” as prep for this week, and found a few pertinent and/or ironic and/or off-base observations. Among those: I credited Anna Torv’s improved acting to her (now-dissolved) marriage to Mark Valley; I noted that Walter hesitates when he tells Peter that the normal human litter is one or maybe two; I asked whether Charlie or Astrid would ever become substantial characters; and I praised the writers for letting the Peter/Olivia relationship develop slowly and naturally. Hit and miss in my analysis and speculation, as always.
- Walter has been buying birthday presents for Peter every year since his “death.” Past presents include a skateboard, a Gyro Wheel, a bottle of beer, and a copy of Hump.
- Walter’s examples of a palindrome: “madam” and “boob.”
- One of my Twitter pals, Brian Collins, noted something that I failed to mention in last week’s review (though I had noticed it and meant to bring it up): Walter has been seeming a lot more lucid lately; even more than he was in the past three seasons’ Earth 1 reality. The question this raises: If Peter continues to bring his reality back, will that make Walter worse?
- On Walter’s menu this week: PB&Bs.
- Sight-gag of the night: Walter emerging from the bathroom with Hump tucked under his arm.
- If Fringe is looking for an advertising slogan to use from here on out, it couldn’t do much better than Olivia telling her therapist that, “Weird is a matter of degrees.”