“The Man from the Other Side”
April 22nd, 2010
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have been caught up in thesis edits last week, as I thought “White Tulip” was such a pitch-perfect installment of Fringe that it deserved some sort of mention. The episode had a twisty narrative which was meant to be disorienting rather than confusing, a standalone emotional struggle which echoed the serialized emotional struggle that Walter is dealing with, and Peter Weller in a really enjoyable guest turn which built to that absolutely fantastic penultimate scene which was so poetic that I didn’t really know how to react. It is without a question the show’s most arresting standalone story, and the kind of episode that both rewards long-term viewers (in providing another chapter to Walter’s struggles with his darkest secret) and crafts a compelling science fiction narrative in its own right.
I’ve written in the past about how I don’t necessarily think that this show is that much better when it becomes “serialized,” and that those kinds of standalone installments are just as capable of tapping into the emotional core of this series. “The Man from the Other Side” further demonstrates this point, to my mind: while effectively creepy and emotional in its own right, the clear return to serialization makes the episode actually feel more procedural than “White Tulip” was. It’s a solid episode, certainly another in a string of successful hours since the show returned from its hiatus, but I think I prefer a subtle nod towards the show’s serialized story than a traditional mystery surrounding the two universes.
This really is a fairly traditional “standalone” Fringe episode, except placed within the context of the alternate universe – creatures show up and attack unsuspecting victims, their deaths raise the Fringe division alarm, and Walter steps in to try to figure out where they came from while Olivia focuses on figuring out what they’re after. The scale of the episode is actually quite small, much smaller than the rather epic tale of the Astrophysics professor going back in time to die with his wife; the episode relies on mystery over concept, as we don’t know who it is that Newton brought across (barely, due to Peter’s work on the bridge).
Of course, the super soldiers remain a compelling invention, so seeing them emerge in their undeveloped state and then emerging was as creepy as they wanted it to be, and the effects work on the crippled and dying soldier that Walter brings back to life really managed to capture the emotion of that scene better than I expected. But while their goal was obviously different than your usual threat on a series like this one, there wasn’t much to separate Newton’s plan from your run-of-the-mill terrorist attack – connecting it to the ongoing serialized story does make the episode work more effectively, and this formula is not a bad one by any means, but there’s really nothing special about how this episode is laid out structurally. For me, it’s a clear sign that it isn’t just serialized/procedural which indicates the success level of Fringe episodes, but rather how they use they develop stories which capture the essence of the series’ science and the emotional connections the characters share with those elements.
Accordingly, the best part of this week’s episode was easily Peter coming to the realization that he is from the alternate universe, a conclusion which he comes to more quickly than most, perhaps justified by his hyper-intelligent Frank Abagnale Jr.-like abilities. Joshua Jackson and John Noble nail the scene in question, and it makes sense that all of Walter’s attempts to tell Peter himself would be usurped by Peter uncovering the “secret” and seeing his entire life as a lie perpetrated by his so-called father. Yes, it was a bit heavy-handed that Peter just beforehand finally began calling Walter “Dad,” which became part of Peter’s parting words before disappearing from the hospital, but Noble is so good at depicting Walter’s pain that it never feels false.
Right now, the connection between Fringe’s recent episodes has been a clear focus on Walter’s secret, which has hung over the show since “Peter.” Perhaps it’s simple enough to say that “more John Noble = better,” or to argue that Olivia being moved into more of a supporting role within the emotional side of the series has allowed the show to evolve (much as Echo was decentralized on Dollhouse); at this point, I still think that Fringe has yet to entirely find its identity. However, as of late it feels like the stakes of each episode have increased, whether in a fantastic standalone like last week or in a solid if unspectacular serialized stopping point this time around.
- “The Man from the Other Side” refers to both Peter and the “Secretary” – we don’t know who the Secretary is, or more importantly what he is secretary of, but I’d say that Walternate seems like a solid bet (he may have risen to a government position by this point in time).
- I wasn’t a huge X-Files viewer, but I watched enough to know that next week’s fantasy episode seems like something that show would have done (and may have done, unless I’m horribly mistaken). It seems like something that’s quite popular these days, and we’ll see if it’s wise for Fringe to go from such emotional highs to something that seems to be reaching for the abstract.
- Newton isn’t that much of a personality – watching as much Buffy as I am, and with the show spending so much time on showing the soldiers organizing their plan (and improvising when the third soldier never made it), I sort of wished that he had a bit more of a sense of humour or something to make those scenes pop a bit more (ala Spike).