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TV Review: Fringe – “Northwest Passage”

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Fans have been clamouring for a Peter-centric episode for quite some time now, especially after the big reveal in "The Man from the Other Side." "Northwest Passage" definitely delivered, using a monster-of-the-week type story to further develop Peter's character while topping the episode off with a reveal that makes the upcoming two-part finale all the more exciting.

The episode was named after the motel in which Peter meets with his biological father, Walternate, for the first time. It's interesting to note that there is an actual Northwest Passage, which is the sea route linking two different places, the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, through the Arctic Ocean. There is also a book of the same name and the movie that it inspired is also called Northwest Passage. These last two both tell the story of Robert Rogers in colonial Canada in the late 1700s. Finally, there is currently a bit of battle going on between Canada, the US, and Russia about who has control over the northern seaways, which makes the use of this name in this episode all the more interesting.

The matter of the crucial scene when Peter finally meets Walternate was dealt with brilliantly, avoiding typical cliché emotional moments and not feeling forced. How better to confirm the identity of The Secretary while at the same time introducing Walternate to Peter as, quite literally, the answer to the questions Peter told Sheriff Mathis just a few moments earlier, and right after Peter popped in a CD made just for him based on his aura?

Just like "Brown Betty" was a reflection of Walter's psyche, and also perhaps at how relatively easy it is to understand his anguish, "Northwest Passage" was a reflection of Peter's anguish. In its overarching storyline as well as in its details, this episode translated into action the reality of Peter's pain and feeling of being lost as well as the fact that he built a large protective wall around himself which will take a lot for Walter, Olivia, and Astrid to climb over.

General Comments

The glyphs to this episode spelled out "return."  I don't know if anyone at the Twitter Fringe party guessed the word before the end of the episode, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did. The word is an interesting choice; is it because Walternate wants Peter to return to "his" universe, is it because Peter has to return to his universe, or is it because Peter will return to his universe?

The Observer was extremely hard to spot this week. I actually emailed a couple of friends to confirm that he really was the suit & red tie wearing man amidst the crowd standing behind the crime scene tape at the Hill Top Café, when Peter first meets Sheriff Mathis. It makes me wonder just how many Easter Eggs were in this episode that we have missed. 

 One possible secret lies in the album Walter put into his turntable, Seven Suns by Violet Sedan Chair.  It's going to take quite some digging to figure this one out — one of the many things I intend to look into during the summer — but here are a few very interesting things I found: here, here, and here. The one striking thing about this record is the fact that it has a hidden 11th track rumoured to bring on hallucinations when played simultaneously on different turntables.

Martha Plimpton guest starred and did a fantastic job of portraying Sheriff Mathis. I loved the fact that her character had a love for all things odd. An indirect reference to The X-Files if I ever heard one: "You read your books about UFOs and Roswell  and wacked out theories and government conspiracies — I think that you want to believe. What makes you trust him?" I also wonder if this was a reference to Peter's own experience, in that he wanted to believe that he belonged with Fringe Division despite his typical restlessness.

Peter

It was nice to see that Peter's wry sense of humour survived the shock of finding out about Walter's deception. I especially liked it when he asked the GPS directions to Mars, as well as his chuckle when he came up with his second fake name of the episode: Gene Cowan. I also loved him presenting himself to Sheriff Mathis as an expert in all things "weird." Could Peter be William, Mulder & Scully's child?

The fact that Peter was still able to laugh and joke was a great piece of character development, and makes what happened in the last two years make even more sense. I was always a little disconcerted with the fact that Peter, initially so angry at Walter, became the doting son within a couple of months. It seemed that, after so many years of being angry, the quick turnaround didn't make much sense. However this only confirms what we had been guessing in the last little while; that Peter might be angry at his father and at his rather unusual situation, but that it doesn't mean that he wants to be angry and that he isn't willing to work on it. This bodes quite well for the future.

In the same line, it was very interesting and quite amusing to see Peter try to step into his father's role, becoming Walter to her Olivia. I especially loved how he scared the poor Sheriff: "Sorry, sorry, I just needed to scare you" — it really was something so typical of Walter that it made me laugh. Being on his own allowed for Peter to spread his wings somewhat while at the same time showing him that alone, he can't do as well as he does with the rest of the Fringe team.

Sheriff Mathis pointed out something very interesting during this episode — that sometimes, there is no meaning in something we think has it: "I wish there was something I could do for you. Whatever your experiences are, whatever you can't or won't tell me about, I think you're looking for meaning in things that have no meaning." I wonder what Sheriff Mathis saw in Peter that she told him this; it's times like these that I wish there was a book version for every Fringe episode, so that I could just read about what is going on in each of these characters' heads.

I'm not saying that the actors' portrayal of these characters doesn't give us some inkling as to what is going on in their heads. Joshua Jackson's performance, particularly in the last scene with Sheriff Mathis, was great. As Peter teetered between his usual distant self and a close, personal, painful crack that made him almost cry:

Peter: "I don't know who I am anymore. (…)
Sheriff Mathis: I was alone for a long time, but I found my place. You will, too.

Even without knowing the story, Sheriff Mathis hit the nail on the head. Walter might not be Peter's biological father, but he definitely has been a father to Peter, even if was to Peter 1.0.

Another person whose head I wish I could read into is Krista Manning; what aura did she see around Peter, and what songs did she put on the CD for him?  One thing she definitely saw was Peter's need for a good night's sleep, as the first song turned out to be "Is There A Ghost?" by Band Of Horses (here). A simple, haunting song, it easily can put you to sleep; it works on me and was working on Peter before he was interrupted.

Independence

"Northwest Passage" showed us a side of Peter that we had not yet seen. Since being introduced in the pilot, Peter always seemed to be a strong man, not easily scared nor shaken. He has been a source of strength not only for Walter, but for Olivia (think of the many times he helped calm her and have her focus on the task at hand). Since Peter had always been a loner before joining Fringe Division, I had always assumed that he was confident and strong.

It seems that Peter does have limits after all.  After convincing Sheriff Mathis that he was not scared and could spend the night alone in his motel room, he went out to purchase a gun and spent the night filing bullets. The parallel with Olivia's tendency to hide her fear so deep that she can't feel it most of the time was particularly striking to me.

The theme of independence is being explored mostly through Walter's post St. Claire life, but it seems that it could be a lot more complex than previously thought. After all, the theme of independence is being explored hand in hand with that of interdependence through the development of four characters as well as their relationships one with the other. Walter's struggle to regain his independence, lost after 17 years in St. Claire's; Olivia's struggle to learn to depend on others to help her; Peter's struggle to learn to trust others so that he can finally feel connected to others and settled; and Astrid's independence and ease of communication with all the Fringe members. It's like Walter is at one end of the spectrum while Peter and Olivia are at the other end, with Astrid smack dab in the middle. Again, this puts Astrid in the position of being a deal broker of sorts between Walter, Peter and Olivia — something that will hopefully be explored in the upcoming season.

Perception

Of course the main theme of the entire show always remains that of perception. While he might have the intelligence to become an amazing scientist like his father or an investigator extraordinaire like Olivia, Peter's perception is definitely clouded by what his need to find answers. This is why, although Newton was in the area and Peter was getting weird phone calls at all times of the night (speaking of which, has anyone figured out if the clicks and beeps were Morse code and actually spelled something out?), Peter missed some important clues that pointed to the fact that this perhaps was not your typical Fringe case.

By the same token, it was rather odd that Walter didn't think of finding a way to identify the particular energy signature from the alternate universe as soon as it was clear that there were soldiers from there over here. It would have definitely given our world quite an edge in the upcoming war against the alternate universe, and yet no one seemed to have even thought of it before, not even our wonderfully smart scientific team (i.e. Walter & Astrid). I had a conversation right after "Jacksonville" with a couple of fellow Fringe fans and this was one of the things we were certain Walter was going to be working on as soon as Fringe returned.

Currently, Fringe is the muddiest it has ever been, as everyone's perception has been affected, right up to, I would say, Broyles and Nina.

Questions, questions, and more questions

There are still so many questions related to this episode that I'm willingly setting them aside for the simple reason that I am planning for a long, new Fringe-less summer hiatus.

I'd like to finish this review by reiterating my conviction, shared by many of you, I'm sure, that John Noble deserves an Emmy ASAP. His portrayal of Walter's meltdown in the grocery store managed to bring tears to my eyes (and I'm sure it did to many others' eyes, too). His anguish at trying to figure out if he wanted to find Peter or not brought him closer to Astrid and was another great character development moment. I'm also really happy that Astrid is taking on a bigger role, and look forward to seeing her continue doing so. Now if I could get Jasika and John on Glee, my Fringe life would be wonderful.

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  • http://notesfromnancy.blogspot.com Nancy

    Glee guest stars, for the most part, have singing ability. Jasika qualifies. John Noble, though, could be someone’s father. No sure whose.