Fringe – “The Equation”

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“The Equation”

November 18th, 2008

In a burst of inspiration over the weekend, I wrote a piece about the sort of transitional state of Fringe, a procedural series that people expect to offer heavily serialized content; it appears to have various states of being, and the confusion between them has kept me (to this point) from really becoming a fan of the show. Yes, there have been high points (“The Observer” has got to be on everyone’s list), but the uneven nature of the show’s opening episodes have made falling in love with Fringe a problematic scenario.

No longer, however – “The Equation” was maybe the show’s best episode yet, one which felt less contrived (if not entirely organic) and infinitely more personal than most of what we’ve seen so far. Much as “The Observer” delved deeper into Walter and Peter’s personal lives in search of an answer to a question about the Pattern and how it operates, “The Equation” takes Walter back to his time at St. Claire’s Hospital and it send us on a creepy and atmospheric journey into a quest to solve the end of an unsolvable equation.

Yes, the show still feels a bit like a low stakes Alias at points, but this episode combined some of the most interesting qualities of Alias’ mythology while focusing on the dramatic pathos of the right character at the right time. I’m not quite ready to see it as a trend, perhaps, but I was enraptured and hooked on tonight’s episode and, well, might just now call myself a fan.

One week after J.J. Abrams seemed to complain that we were watching the show the wrong way (while appreciating that we were watching at all), we got what I’d consider vintage Abrams: an episode all about our journey into a strange, undefined and vague plot that threatens to shatter our sense of reality and safety within this world. The point here is not to understand what is causing this scientific mystery (especially considering the end question of the Apple), but rather to keep this child from ending up like Dash Kim – it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, it only matters that it does and that it is both visually and mentally stimulating for us as viewers.

It’s a bit of a break from formula for the series, as it doesn’t follow the usual path: whereas before Broyles seemed to be withholding information that Olivia should have been briefed on in general, this was a more specific case and therefore the briefing made sense as a “connect-the-dots” exercise which would logically take place. Similarly, Walter’s recollection of how to solve the puzzle was not based entirely on convenient research he did for the government, but tangential research as well as his ow experience in the mental institution. This isn’t to say that things aren’t a bit contrived (Like Walter happening to have been in the same hospital as the man in question, or Olivia being right in front of the read castle when Peter called her), but that I never felt distinctly pulled out of the suspense by these developments.

And the suspense was palpable: from the opening scene, this was just a really interesting case to follow. The gist of it seems to be that a group, related to the one who was after “Little Hill” with the parasite last week, is after this equation, something which comes to people through some sort of medical tragedy or other scenario and has the potential to do some very powerful (if a bit vague) things. Our personal example is a young boy, Ben, who woke up from a coma with newfound musicality and a single piece of music stuck in his brain. It is, however, unfinished: he always stops at the same point, unable to “see” the music like he does with the rest of it. Kidnapped on the side of the road by a strange woman, Ben finds himself in a dungeon where he is put into a room with a piano, sheet music…and his dead mother.

While some of the show has delved into so-called pseudoscience, this is pure science fiction and really well executed: while it was clear to us that this wasn’t possible, the moment where the mother’s face begans to tear away as he proves unable to finish the song through his own power was still really, really creepy. While the show has, visually, done a strong job of capturing the science (straight from the rapidly aging baby in the second episode to the creepy pirahna plant from last week’s episode), I found this was perhaps my favourite yet because it was, on the surface, so simple. This wasn’t an abstraction, but rather a manifestation of hope and desire that when lost would result in Ben turning into someone like Dash Kim – or, really, someone like Walter.

There’s a lot to be said about the fragility of mind within this episode: for Walter, all it takes is one night in the mental institution for him to be returning to a state of psychological instability, if this is how we choose to believe his self-vision that haunts him during the night. This episode did a lot of good things with Walter, first and foremost being how closely he was linked with Ben’s fate. The idea of Walter undercover, of sorts, in the institution may be questionable in terms of logistics, but it made for some great scene and eventually resulted in what Walter has been missing since the pilot:  a return not to conveniently stored memories of past cases but actual questions about his past time in that institution. We know that he was placed there for certain reasons, but we also know that he is incredibly smart and thus far helpful: this episode convinced me that, even if they go the easy route and have the Warden (Bill Sadler) try to get him placed into the state’s custody, that John Noble and the writers are going to paint an interesting and complex portrait of the man.

And this really helped the storyline in this episode: this was as much about Walter finding himself than it was the group finding Ben, and I thought it did both his character and the plot a lot of good. This was also one of the best episodes in terms of the balance of comedy and drama – while it certainly ended on a dramatic note, there was some great stuff early with Walter singing christmas carols that slid fairly naturally into the more dire situation that followed. There were a few points where it was clear that things had to happen a certain way to get the result the show wanted to, but it worked because there were multiple objectives: the writers were previewing the plans for the equation, delving deeper into Walter’s character, and giving the viewers something pretty cool to experience at the same time.

As far as the big plans go, the end experiment certainly explains why they tried to get a molecular biologist to complete the equation. I had a couple of issues with the equation, one being that it was a total Alias cliche of having a MacGuffin of some sort in the episode and then showing it do something very weird and entirely without any sort of context. Long and short of it is that he was able to shift the molecular structure of the safe to the point that he could reach through it and grab the apple, not a small feat and certainly an interesting piece of technology. I don’t quite know what its usefulness is within this universe, but it is definitely the kind of things that feels like a group making considerable progress and, likely, harbouring bigger plans for the future.

It’s also another sign of serialized storytelling: even with a strong procedural story guiding it and keeping the episode entertaining, they were able to reintegrate the Godfather (it’s the only term we can refer to him as due to his time on Generation Kill over the summer) into the storyline as the FBI Mole. I had a few issues with this sequence, like how Joanne was so fascinated by the apple/safe thing when she had just completed a psychological mindgame where she brought a kid’s mother back to life.

This episode, by connection, has really brought the show to life: by re-enaging with Walter with the key narrative and offering up the most interesting mystery since “The Observer,” the show has convinced me that it’s worth my time. Whether or not they can keep this up is another story, but one that I actually want to follow through on for, at least, the rest of the season.

Cultural Observations

  • I definitely completely missed how they managed to identify the woman’s name who abducted him: was it something that Walter got out of the prison, or what was it?
  • The show’s introduction of the flashing lights raises a point I’ve seen made in regards to lights flashing on the edge of the screen when watching the show on television. I don’t know if this is true, as I haven’t seen it myself, but it certainly makes one wonder whether they’re on purpose and, perhaps hiding some sort of secret.
  • The levity was good to see in this episode, especially “What’s up, Chachi?” as Walter made Peter cut off his own sleeves.
  • Anna Torv is no Sydney Bristow, but her fight scene was pretty well done all things considered, and I much prefer angry fighting Olivia to whatever other Olivias the show usually has to offer.
  • I can’t believe I forgot to note this earlier: the haunting piece of music that the equation played was really well done by Michael Giacchino, and the first sign of real life in his scoring work the series thus far. He should record similar pieces for all episodes, and maybe stop with the darn brass sections already. We get it, things are intense.

5 Comments

Filed under Fringe

5 responses to “Fringe – “The Equation”

  1. This was the first episode for me that didn’t feel like the show was reaching too far and not really touching anything. All these vague allusions to shadowy organizations don’t really do anything for me unless I can see logic and scary reasoning behind it.

    And seriously, what is up with Olivia. I swear, sometime s it feels like Walter is more of a main character than her. She just so . . . BLAH.

  2. James

    Maybe part of me just wants to play contrarian, but I’ve liked this show very much from the start. No, I haven’t fallen in love with it, but I’m not as determined to view it as cautiously as everyone else seems to be. I have a lot of the same issues as the critics, but I’m not so put off by them. Yeah, a lot of the plot points are fudged, but there are so many moments of poignancy that ring true for me.

    Contrarily, I’ve been watching every episode of Chuck, simply because I’m baffled by the praise it’s getting, and continue to look for what I’m missing. Boring mcguffins. Lame jokes. Uninspired plots. The slowly evolving relationship between Walter and Peter in Fringe is deeper than any of the character development in Chuck.

    Just my opinions, of course, but it’s strange to have my opinions for two shows opposed to the general consensus so much.

    And Giacchino’s work on the Star Trek trailer alone makes up for all the brass on Fringe. He’s still, by far, the best composer working in television.

  3. Meiji

    Where can I find the piano sheets of both the theme of Fringe and the song played by the little boy from this particular episode – The Equation?

  4. Mike

    Can someone PLEASE tell me the song played by Christopher Lloyd’s character is an actual song and if so, the name, artist, and where I can get it (most likely iTunes)? Thank you VERY much!

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