Fringe – “Northwest Passage”

“Northwest Passage”

May 6th, 2010

I didn’t necessarily need to go back to review last week’s episode of Fringe, considering that I saw it quite a few days late and it wasn’t particularly spectacular, but there was some interesting conversation about the show on Twitter that I wanted to comment on. Alan Sepinwall, having moved to his new home at HitFix was asked on Twitter about why he wasn’t writing about Fringe at the new site, and he responded by noting that the show had fallen out of his rotation before the move, and it just wasn’t compelling to him at this point. This resulted in responses begging Alan to reconsider, as the episodes since the Spring hiatus have been particularly strong and no one could understand why he remained unmoved.

I was more compelled by the show’s Spring episodes than Alan, but watching “Northwest Passage” I found myself thinking back to his commentary – while there are some fun elements of this episode, there is a manipulative quality to the episode which keeps me at a distance from the story at hand. The conclusion is big and bombastic, but it ends up having nothing to do with the episode itself, and I find the show at its most frustrating when it creates moments which seek to overpower, rather than crystallize, earlier elements in each episode. It’s the sort of crass serialization that got Abrams in trouble on Alias, and I think the show needs to be wary of it.

Martha Plimpton has been a highlight this TV season, turning in some fine supporting work on How to Make it In America and also delivering some great guest appearances on The Good Wife, so having her show up here was a nice turn of events. The basic premise of the episode worked well, as Peter has to convince Plimpton of his crazy theories and works his way through his former uncertainties regarding this case, so on a character level it worked pretty well, and Joshua Jackson has done a nice job of adding complexity to Peter as a character over the past season. A show like Fringe does well to take its status quo and apply it to situations where people will be skeptical/uncertain, and the sense of invasion as Newton’s methods clash with the general population was smartly played.

My issue is that the conclusion, as we learn that Walternate was the Secretary they have spoken of in the past and that he is the person who has been organizing the shapeshifters in order to “rescue” Peter, doesn’t entirely make sense. The whole mystery phone call situation, and the desperate quest to find Peter, never comes together: in fact, the episode even tries to trick us into thinking it was all in Peter’s mind. I’m still struggling with why they were calling Peter instead of just grabbing him, or why they needed to kidnap people instead of interrogating them; Peter’s explanations were vague for the sake of Plimpton’s character not learning too much, but I’ve seen every episode of the show and I don’t understand either. It seemed like the show was being more opaque than it actually needed to in order to heighten suspense and mystery, and there was some sense that the ending was supposed to connect the dots when all it really did was scribble across the page and flip to the next one.

I’ll admit that some of my issues have to do with watching the preview for next week, where the sight of a manuscript page featuring weird text and Peter’s image gave me all sorts of Alias flashbacks that the show is best to avoid. That show ran into problems when it equated mythology and “big” storytelling with good storytelling, when it used big reveals and shocking surprises even once they had run out of any connection to the show’s characters. Here, John Noble is fantastic enough that anything surrounding Walter will probably work pretty well, but I don’t want them to fall so far into the “mystery” of things that everything else gets lost. Here, the big reveal is certainly interesting (if quite predictable based on what we’ve seen to this point), and I’m looking forward to watching Noble play two different characters, but I felt like it tried to fill in too many gaps that the episode needed to do itself in order to really connect with me.

Instead, it felt like the show arbitrarily transitioning to this next stage in the season rather than clearly using Peter’s experience to get there, a bait and switch which ramps up tension in a way which keeps me from feeling like a part of the process. I think I’m still more engaged with the series than Alan is, but moments like this are hyped as big moments but sometime at the expense of the subtlety the show is capable of (see: White Tulip, and bits and pieces of this week’s story).

Cultural Observations

  • I feel like I’m going crazy and conflating them in my mind, but I swear I’ve seen that bridge area before in Kings, Human Target and Caprica. I don’t think Kings shot in Vancouver, which would make it impossible, but it just seemed really, really familiar to me.
  • I’d normally hope that Noble playing two versions of the same character would help him in the race for the Emmy, but Terry O’Quinn already has that gimmick locked up.


Filed under Fringe

2 responses to “Fringe – “Northwest Passage”

  1. I fully agree that the episode was problematic in Newton and Walternate’s plot to get to Peter making as little sense as Peter’s attempted explanation of it. There were a lot of elements to it that never gelled together, and while it’s possible they’ll be explained later, it was hard to buy the connections within this 44 minute stretch. Compounding the nonsensical actions by Newton were Peter’s desperate rationalizations for not calling the FBI in. His desire to be away from Walter approached dangerous levels of conscious negligence regarding the episode’s case. This was partially a necessity of the procedural nature of the show – we need Peter alone but we also need to have him involved in a case – but it was still incredibly hard to forgive.

    After all, here’s a new man in town who knows an awful lot about a series of kidnappings that result in grotesque brain operations, who is disturbingly stubborn about not calling in proper authorities and oh, he wants to take a tissue sample from you. Naturally, Peter’s partner happens to “want to believe” so she never follows her gut and saves herself from this crazy man. Peter had some serious psychoses going on, if not for the script working to his favor in the end.

    Unfortunately, that psychological element was never really touched upon and Peter’s unfounded promises to the sheriff turned out correct as the partner was found relatively unharmed (which made no sense given the timetables for the other disappearances) and the conspiracy did in fact turn out to be aimed at finding Peter (though how any of those kidnapping/murders helped, I have no idea).

    In short, the step-by-step plotting of the episode was beyond my ability to suspend disbelief. If I were around Peter during this escapade, I’d have him locked up while real authorities stepped in.

  2. tabernacle

    “when it creates moments which seek to overpower, rather than crystallize, earlier elements in each episode”

    That’s really insightful.

    I enjoyed the episode a lot on a moment-by-moment basis, but I had the same problem, that the ending struck me as not really following logically from what we’d seen throughout episode.

    re: the bridge, in the “Human Target” episode with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and in the “Caprica” episode where Mrs. Graystone flashes back to her brother’s death, I think we might have seen the same bridge. I don’t remember it in “Kings,” though.

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