Here’s the persistent problem I’m having with the post-Peter Fringe reality to this point: a good chunk of each episode so far has been given over to explaining what’s changed since the season three finale. Except that very little has changed, aside from a few minor tweaks. (Tonight, for example, we found out that Olivia and Nina Sharp apparently have a warm, darn-near-familial relationship that dates back at least to Olivia’s teen years.) So when Olivia reminds Walter about the time she set fire to the room in Jacksonville during the Cortexiphan trials, or when she explains to Astrid what the whole Cortexiphan thing was all about, she’s really talking to us, letting us know that the things we’ve seen in past Fringe seasons still happened, more or less. And while I appreciate the reassurance—and acknowledge that this is information we need—every time a season four episode has paused for one of those catch-up scenes, it’s seemed (to me anyway) like it’s been wasting time that could be better spent on monsters, or trans-dimensional warfare.
I felt that sense of wheels-a-spinning especially strongly in tonight’s “Subject 9,” because it’s an episode where not much happens until the last few minutes. At the start, Olivia is plagued by a mysterious ball of magnetic energy, which Walter suggests might be an astral projection by one of Olivia’s fellow Cortexiphan subjects: the one Walter knows as #9, who demonstrated nascent magnetic powers as a boy. A little research turns up that #9’s real name is Cameron James, and that he now lives in New York. So Walter leaves the lab for the first time in three years to travel with Olivia to meet Cameron, and though Cameron’s not happy to see Walter—whom he remembers as the grumpy man who stuck him with needles when he was a boy—he is taken aback when he realizes the woman with Walter is “Olive,” who was always the strongest and most popular of their weird little group. Cameron explains to them that he had nothing to do with the energy-blob, but when Walter says that the thing might destroy everything in its path the next time it shows up, Cameron agrees to use his magnetic powers to help disperse it. But then Olivia watches the energy blob form itself into the shape of the man she’s been seeing in her dreams, and she stops Cameron before he can destroy it.
Because of Fox’s teases that Peter would be coming back, and because the Fringe cast has hinted repeatedly in interviews that Peter would be returning soon, and because the first three episodes of this season have shown Peter flickering on the periphery, I never had any doubt that the ball of energy was actually Peter. So while watching this episode I felt a little like Walter, when he experienced that glitch in his surveillance equipment that allowed him to see the troubles that Olivia and Astrid were about to be having.
And yet for all the predictability and lack of action, I still really enjoyed “Subject 9,” because it was so well-written (by Pinkner and Wyman with Akiva Goldsman) and well-directed (by Joe Chappelle) and well-performed. This week’s out-of-nowhere acting MVP is Chadwick Boseman, who played Cameron James. Before we even meet the character, we get a sense of how sad Cameron’s life has been since Jacksonville. He lives in an apartment stripped of metal, and drives a furniture supply truck back and forth to Maine (though his landlady wonders if that’s really his job, because “you never can tell with people”). And then after he initially runs from Olivia, he explains to her and Walter about how his powers flare up whenever he gets anxious, which means that on his last date he ripped his date’s fillings out after one embarrassing moment. Boseman really sells Cameron’s pathos in that speech, and again later when Cameron waits with Olivia out in the cold by a power station for the blob to re-appear. There, he tells Olivia about how Walter turned chilly and mean after she ran away from Jacksonville, and he wonders aloud whether Olivia’s unconsciously conjuring this blob herself, and whether Walter’s lying to them both.
This is a significant question, because even more than the gradual emergence of Peter and the introduction to Cameron, “Subject 9” is about Walter Bishop, and what’s become of him since his boy died and his alternate-boy drowned in Reiden Lake. Walter agrees to come on this trip to New York with Olivia in part because he knows she has a letter from Dr. Sumner recommending a return for Walter to his institution, pending Olivia’s approval. Walter tries to prove his sanity as he walks through the city, bellowing, “Fresh air! I’ve forgotten how much I love it,” even though he’s clearly overwhelmed. But then he trashes his hotel room because he’s paranoid that it’s covered in microscopic stains, and after Olivia calms him down, he admits that he knows about the letter, and that he has no illusions that she cares for him. “I merely work for you,” he says. “We’re not family.”
That’s such a sad line—matched by Walter’s little “For whom?” after Olivia says she’s only trying to do what’s best—and John Noble plays those beats so well. He gets across how Walter loathes himself for not taking more of an interest in the lives of his Jacksonville kids, and he gets across how Walter resents the world at large for marking him as crazy when everybody else acts just as irrationally as he does. (And Noble and Chappelle work magic together in the scene where Walter closes his eyes and tries to figure out where the blob might be coming from, while the camera moves slowly from his face to his hands.)
In the end, Olivia marks “Do Not Recommend” on the commitment forms, and Peter pops up in Reiden Lake, with an Observer looking on. He’s rushed to a hospital, where he demands to see the Fringe team. But of course Olivia has no idea who he is when she walks into his room, other than that he’s the guy from her annoying recurring dream.
I confess to wondering how different this season might’ve been so far if the writers had started right here, with the closing scene of “Subject 9,” and had shown us this world from the point of view of Peter, as the audience surrogate. (Because Peter, like us, won’t know what’s changed about everything.) But I can’t complain all that much, given the overall quality of these first four episodes, a few bumps aside. I wouldn’t want to discard “One Night In October,” that’s for sure. And I can’t think of any other show on TV right now that would do an episode that was largely about a deranged, insecure old scientist and a super-powered FBI agent taking a trip to the city and drinking root beer floats. Sometimes, you just have to enjoy what’s there in front of you.
- Nina Sharp on the worries over what’s being done with Massive Dynamic’s nanotechnology: “We create technology. How it is used is not our concern.”
- Unlike Olivia, Walter has no affection for Nina. When she claims the Cortexiphan files were destroyed, he remotely orders Astrid to bark at her.
- Walter sets up an array of cameras to photograph Peter, whom he believes might only be visible from one angle. “It’s an idea I got from the fight sequences in The Matrix”
- When confronted with all the remote controls in his hotel room, Walter notes that he used to argue with Bell about when technology outpaces its usefulness.
- So, is it a coincidence or not that a bit character in this episode was named “Lieutenant Daniels?” (Also, “Cameron James?”)
- As a boy, Cameron blew up a toaster oven due to his irrational hatred of raisin toast.
- “Claire, will you please man the cameras in my absence?”
- Off next week. See you on October 28th for “Novation.”