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TV Review: Fringe – “Earthling”

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Fringe is back, and back with quite a bang; a monster-of-the-week episode featuring an entity that will make you watch the episode with your back to a wall, just to make sure nothing creeps up on you. Hey, you never know.

The overarching plot is simple enough. It starts with a Russian cosmonaut who went to space and brought back an entity with him. While the plot is a little reminiscent of The X-Files episode "Space," Fringe manages to push the idea further (and, dare I say, makes for an overall better episode). Said cosmonaut has been in a coma since being taken over, but that doesn’t stop the entity, as it can project itself anywhere it wants. A black shadow made of smoke, the entity absorbs radiation emitted by the human body by passing through it. The result: victims burn at a temperature so hot that they retain their shape even as their insides have been turned to ash.

Lovely.

In a desperate bid to save him, the cosmonaut’s brother steals him from the Russian military hospital, brings him to the United States (how is a question still up for debate), and starts jumping from hospital to hospital, having his brother admitted into the coma ward and bailing ship when the entity’s shadow starts killing people. The brother is also looking for a way to get rid of the entity, thus allowing his brother to wake up from his coma; he has a formula which needs solving, and until that’s done, he can (sort of) control the shadow’s excursions by applying an electric current to his brother’s comatose body. Delightful.

The opening scene was great, at once touching and consequently heart-wrenching — because you know that, invariably, one or more people in the opening scene are going to die. Randy calls up his wife, Natalie, pretending to be at the airport, about to leave the city on the evening of their wedding anniversary, when in fact he’s at home, preparing a surprise for her. Seriously, talk about toying with the viewer's emotions.

I especially loved the fact that Natalie’s reaction was so realistic. Women in such a situation are often portrayed as shrill and hysterical, yelling at their husbands for being a killjoy and accusing them of having an affair or some other ridiculous thing. Natalie simply told her husband she was really disappointed (and she sounded really disappointed, too), but that she understood that he had to work. Newsflash: this is usually how real women react!

Perhaps Fringe is also at the cutting edge of social sciences…

The rest of the opening scene was also pretty awesome, what with the second of total silence after the black shadow attacked Randy while the camera panned the empty apartment. Perhaps there was a little Hitchcock inspiration at work here? And then, the cherry on the cake — Natalie comes home to find Randy sitting on the couch, and when she touches his arm, he falls apart in a cloud of ashes.

Awesome.

This scene’s emotional build-up, from a beautiful romantic moment between two people who seem to be in a healthy relationship shattered by a Smokey Black Shadow, seems to have been written on purpose to tug at the emotional heartstrings of the viewers and to ready them to open up to Broyles. Because although the show is a monster-of-the-week, it’s pretty obvious as soon as the credits are over that it’s about Broyles. For the second time in the history of Fringe, we see a more human side to him (the first being when we find out he has a relationship with Nina Sharp). For impenetrable and sometimes overly seriously Broyles is sitting in a restaurant and playing peek-a-boo behind his menu with an adorable little boy. How cute is that?

I like the idea, I really do – but I don’t think this episode did what it set out to do quite as planned. On the one hand, we do find out a little bit about Broyles’ past, and how he had already investigated the Smokey Black Shadow only to see it destroy his marriage. And we see how that left a bitter taste in Broyles’ mouth, and would explain a little bit more about his mostly deadpan façade.

Broyles: I took this job to make the world a safer place for my family. And now, I don’t even have a family.

But just like with Olivia Dunham, I found it hard to connect with Philip Broyles. While Walter Bishop’s discomfort at watching a patient tied down as he was back at St. Claire’s (season two, episode five), I didn’t really feel bad for Broyles having had a divorce as a direct consequence of the Smokey Black  Shadow case. I don’t know if it makes me an insensitive person, but if it does, there are a lot of Fringe viewers who suffer from the same problem.

Thank goodness for Walter Bishop. According to the fan forums and discussion boards, even Astrid summons more empathy and caring that Broyles and Dunham. I don’t know why.

On a more positive note, the cosmonaut’s brother’s devotion is heart-warming, especially when such a thing is fast dwindling as individualism slowly creeps into the hearts of even the most caring of us.

And there was one particularly adorable Walter Bishop moment:

Olivia: Walter, do you have any thoughts?

Walter: Reminds me of Christmas. Like a fire log that burns so hot it remains intact, holding the shape of its former self. You (Peter) used to love that when you were a child, you’d poke the log with your little finger when cold, and you’d draw genitalia on the reindeer decorations.

Peter: Happy memories, Walter. But what I think she meant was having thoughts to what happened to Dusty here.

So just like its plotline, my opinion of Fringe has plateaued once again. It’s an intriguing show with a lot of potential that needs to be worked harder. The writers should perhaps consider taking some advice from Supernatural writers — put more into one episode, advance not only the plotline and one character, but rather the entire cast together within the plot. I would really hate to see a show with so much potential go to waste simply because after a great beginning to the season, it manages to lose the audience’s interest.

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  • http://www.notesfromnancy.blogspot.com NancyGail

    Agent Scott and Charlie are gone. My fave two characters. Broyles has never been the warm and fuzzy type. Neither has Olivia. Nina has GOT to come back.

  • Flo

    I quite liked this episode. The teaser was great.
    It really made me think of “Space” too but I thought this episode of “Fringe” was better as I always considered “Space” one of the weakest epis of “The X-Files”.

    It’s nice to learn a bit more about Broyles. The man have so many walls around him that it is hard to connect with him. On the other hand, I, for one, find him very interesting because of it. He is a very mysterious guy.
    I don’t have a lot of empathy myself and have some trouble with social codes so I can relate to his behaviour that may sound totally cold.
    Sahar you’re not the only one, who didn’t really care about his divorce, I think it is because it is somewhat a common thing fort people in his job.
    That being said, I found the last scene with his ex-wife, great. Not by what they said but by how they looked at each other. There were a lot of unsaid things (that probably will remaine that way) and emotions here. Nice played by both actors.

    Dunham and Broyles, by their experience in life and their jobs, learnt to protect themselves by building walls around them. They live in a bubble. It is understandable and I think their flaws will come from there but will probably be revealed little by little.
    They offer on nice contrast to Walter, Peter and Astrid who are more spontaneous and warm.

    The case was good and I found the human being as energy source thing, very interesting. After all, the human body really is a energy vehicle. The same idea was also brought (very badly) in “The Matrix” and (very greatly) in “Existenz”.
    The idea that the body is a battery that, when used in some way, we can use to produce a lot of emotions and sensations and even live through them. Scary but fascinating thought.
    I wonder if the ash entity was feeding on humans because it needed to hoard a lot of energy to finally quit the host and go back to space or at least live by itself here.

    Anyway, interesting episode and thanks Sahar for an equally interesting review.

  • http://saharsblog.wordpress.com Sahar

    NancyGail, I know what you mean – I’m still quite annoyed that they got rid or Charlie.

    Flo, glad to hear I’m not the only one who remember The X-Files :) – and yes, Space definitely was one of the weakest episodes of Season 1 (speaking of which, which one was your favorite?).

    You’re right, that it’s hard to connect with people that are so cold like Agent Broyles… And, however harsh it sounds, to be so removed from the fact that he had a divorce. It felt more like I was filling out a Clue sheet with information about Broyles rather than feeling his pain. Oh, how harsh I sound.

    But definitely that scene, although silent, was loaded – and it makes me wonder if there is going to be a Sharp-Broyles-exwife triangle happening. I hope not. This show is not a soap opera!

    Thank you both for reading the review, and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Flo

    No I don’t think there’s gonna be a triangle at all. It wasn’t like that I just think that we see, in those looks, that they had (and may still have) a lot of love for each other and apparently this case made them both miserable. She was as relieved as he was in that scene. I think that’s what he went to tell her. He knows that only her can understand what it means to have finally close this case!

    My favorite episode of the first season of “The X-Files”? That’s tough. I’m not into the favorite/least favorite thig too much. There’re a lot of episodes that I like and a few that I don’t.

    I’d say the “Pilot” and “Deep Throat” were really good. I also Like “Darkness Falls” despite the huge plot hole (how come none of these knuckleheads had the idea of making a fire???? HELLO!!! There’s woods all around you and it isn’t raining!)
    The episodes with Tooms are great and I really liked “Beyond the Sea”.

  • http://saharsblog.wordpress.com Sahar

    Good point, Flo – that she was as relieved as he was. I guess we are going to have to wait for now to see what happens next ;)

    And great choices re Season 1 episodes of The X-files. The pilot was definitely awesome. I was hooked from the first scene.

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