Fringe – “Stowaway”


March 18th, 2011

The conclusion of “Os” was laughable, a fact that I truly hope the writers at Fringe were aware of.

It’s not that this represents some sort of continuity issue: this is a weird enough show that something like this can be easily explained by William Bell’s genius and a newly introduced detail from nearly two seasons ago. Rather, this is an issue of simple silliness: the idea of Anna Torv putting on a deep voice and channeling Leonard Nimoy is just not something that is meant to be taken seriously.

The show has always been willing to mix comedy and drama, with Walter in particular adding a certain degree of silliness to the dynamic, but that feels intrinsically part of the character. By comparison, “Stowaway” does a few concerning things which make this bit of comedy feel less than organic, and which clashes with a compelling and emotionally complex standalone tale.

It isn’t enough to entirely unhinge the episode, each story ultimately fairly effective, but at the end of the day it still feels like something happening outside of the story, something being played with rather than something being dealt with.

In the show’s defense, there is a purpose to William Bell’s presence in Olivia’s body within “Stowaway” – it is the only way that the presence of our universe’s Lincoln Lee is able to pass by unnoticed, to be a small easter egg rather than a moment of complex meaning. Sure, it seems strange that Olivia would not have informed her colleagues about who was involved with Fringe division on the other side, and thus strange that Peter or Broyles were not more aware of the cosmic complexities being witnessed. But on some level Fringe revels in these kinds of smaller moments, these bits of convergence that William Bell would chalk up to fate.

I am officially over this whole “fate” nonsense. Bell is right to suggest that those who run away from fate often find themselves coming back to it, and the idea of fate operating as a force within a show’s universe perfectly suits the kind of stories that Fringe wants to tell (and the kind of stories that proliferate in science fiction in general). However, the show seems to be using fate to explain things a bit more than I would like, here suggesting that a simple question of fate is enough to explain the scientific mystery of Dana Gray’s death. Bell argues that a perfectly logical scientific explanation (or, rather, as logical as Fringe-related scientific explanations can be) is simply wrong because it’s probably just fate, because there is something more meaningful in that particular explanation. This perhaps explains why Lincoln showed up as part of this investigation, and why Bell happened to show up in an episode where a case pops up which deals with souls and passing on to the next life.

And yet, doesn’t that just link fate to the writers, rather than to any sort of higher power? It suggests that fate is a justification for thematic episodic content, or for bits of playfulness in terms of having one of the other side’s agents pop over onto this side. Fate becomes removed from the actual story world and is instead placed into the hands of the writers, the same writers who clearly conceived of the “Bell haunts Olivia’s body” storyline and its comic intentions.

Of course, on some level the writers are always seen as the true controllers of fate, and of the story in general: they are, after all, the writers. However, early this season some very writerly elements were quite vividly built into the show’s storylines: the efforts to explore the two worlds were achieved through a well-developed switcheroo which enabled the revolving narrative focus of those early episodes. The problem now is that there doesn’t seem to be a driving force between the show’s twists and turns beyond the writers themselves, a problem that becomes more evident in “Stowaway” than in any previous episode.

If we go back to Abrams’ Alias, the problem with the Rambaldi prophecy was in execution. In theory, it’s actually brilliant: it provides a driving force behind the show’s larger mythology which can be tied to an individual, an individual whose history would place him as a figure likely to play this kind of role. The problem became when the show started leaning on Rambaldi, or using Rambaldi as a crutch when there were no other story ideas to play out. In the process, the unseen (because he was, you know, dead) figure of Rambaldi lost all sense of agency, instead a tool for the writers to trot out when they wanted to explain a particular event. While it began in a way which set the show apart from other shows on television, the realization in Season 3 that it was simply all a masquerade designed to trick us into accepting plot twists was problematically transparent for many viewers. We want to get lost in a world like the ones found in Alias and Fringe, and things which tear us away from that are things which we tend to rebel against.

While I don’t know if Fringe fans are quite rebelling against the show, I will say that these last few episodes have been heavy on moments of transparency. Fauxlivia’s pregnancy was perhaps the most substantial, but Bell’s possession of Olivia’s body was the most recent, and nothing that happened in “Stowaway” convinced me it was particularly natural or necessary. Sure, having Bell (through Olivia) hitting on Astrid drew a brief smile, and seeing Walter get excited over working with “Belly” again was very charming, but I can’t shake the feeling that these are surface machinations designed to complicate rather than storylines intended to provide some sense of depth. Just look at the way Bell’s possession is used in this episode: it serves mostly as comedy throughout, and then becomes a volatile and interesting element just in time for a cliffhanger (which will go unresolved for at least two weeks, given we’re going back to the other side next week).

In catching up on “Os” earlier this week, what struck me was how the legacy of “White Tulip” is perhaps more problematic than we would at first assume. As great as the episode is, it set a standard the show might never meet in establishing a powerful connection between an ongoing character story for one of the series regulars and a complex procedural storyline. The problem is that the show will always perform the same basic function, just on a different level: “6B” featured a central relationship meant to bring Peter and Olivia together, while the father/son element to the Alan Ruck side of “Os” was clearly intended as a parallel to Walter and Peter. For me, as great as “White Tulip” might be, its most lasting legacy might be the way it makes these cheap parallels seem that much more transparent, and thus that much less satisfying.

The story of Dana Gray, taken on its own, is actually really interesting. A take on the concept of a living purgatory, and as well-anchored by Paula Malcomson as one would imagine, I found myself invested in her story even as the show expositioned it to death through the visit to the Church. It is a story with a sense of history, punctuated with moments (like replacing the flowers at her family’s graves) that suggest the toil of months repeating the same process with no results. It isn’t a particularly new story, but Malcomson’s performance gives things a new edge, and the uncertainty over her purpose offers some nice mystery in the early going.

And yet, in the end, her story is thrown away by the narrative. It doesn’t become a resonant story point, it becomes a fable the writers can use to make a point about fate which helps justify other story decisions. It’s a fascinatingly hypocritical scene, in that it is trying to emphasize the potential meaning of the scene while undercutting whatever meaning it might have had. The way we just abandoned her story, the way her death was played out from the perspective of the train, damaged the resonance of the standalone storyline without any real, honest value to the ongoing narrative. Dana Gray was, in other words, used: her story was a convenient bit of storytelling, useful only as long as the writers felt it would be useful. It isn’t fate that she died when she did: it was that there were only a few minutes left in the episode, and they needed time to put a button on the story.

I don’t expect a show to be purely natural: this is fiction, and fiction leaves behind the fingerprints of those who wrote it. However, the transparency in recent weeks has been threatening to undo much of the goodwill earned earlier in the season, goodwill which stemmed from some well-camouflaged behind-the-scenes machinations. It felt like an expansion of the world, a thoughtful and meaningful move in a new direction; by comparison, recent developments feel like omniscient hands moving pieces around, impregnating and possessing characters in an effort to complicate the narrative as we head towards the finale.

If the payoff is strong, one might argue, then perhaps all of this is short-sighted criticism – all serialized shows of this nature are best judged in their long-term storytelling, and so to suggest that “Stowaway” condemns Fringe is ridiculous. And yet I can’t shake the ridiculousness of what some are referring to as Bellivia, and I can’t help but feel that Bell’s final evocation of fate as the great answer to all of life’s mysteries reflects the recent machinations that seem to have overwhelmed the more naturalistic storytelling last year.

This may not yet be in Rambaldi territory, but I’d argue that it has become similarly transparent – not as much of a betrayal as in the case of Alias, perhaps, but an unsatisfying turn nonetheless.

Cultural Observations

  • I was wondering if they brought Gene into the picture just to force Lincoln to have a “WTF” moment upon entering the lab, but nope – he was also there so that they could suggest putting Bell inside of him.
  • Let’s be honest: if Nimoy did not retire, would they have brought him back in some capacity instead of going through this whole process? I’m all for lemons out of lemonade situations, but it feels like they’re pushing things for me. Some suggest that its ridiculousness is admirable, and I don’t entirely disagree with that, but is it actually functional? I’m not so convinced.
  • I know that some people have resisted the return to the other side, but I’ll be glad to get some time to let the recent events in our universe settle next week – I’ve very much enjoyed the other side stuff, and welcome as much of it as they’re willing to give us.
  • Because it came up with Community yesterday, let’s put it out there: despite my reservations about recent events I think Fringe is strong enough to deserve a fourth season. I wish it all the best in terms of ratings success, think it has done some very interesting things this season, and am interested to see where the show goes from here and would like to see it happen. That doesn’t mean that the show hasn’t been a bit off the rails recently.


Filed under Fringe

11 responses to “Fringe – “Stowaway”

  1. Tausif Khan

    I have heard that even thought Nimoy said he was retiring he is still considering coming back to reprise the role of Bell.

    • Nimoy’s Twitter suggests that he is coming back (as of 2/25). One has to wonder whether he is referring to an actual return or whether what we are seeing now is the “return” to which he refers, considering his reference to the bell ringing. Uncertain of the capacity to which a dead man can return unless, like Lost, dead doesn’t actually mean dead.

  2. Tausif Khan

    Who is better?

    Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham possessed as William Bell


    Enver Gjokaj as Victor imprinted with Laurence Dominic or Topher Brink or sexy dancing girl?

    • Jennifer

      Enver as “Kiki” or Topher, definitely. For the lulz if nothing else…

      That said, I think Anna Torv is doing a great job with having to impersonate not only an older guy, but a freaking legend. We really have to give that girl credit for pulling this stuff off. She’s definitely proven that she’s not the wooden actress we thought she was in S1.

      I think I liked the episode better than most people, apparently.

  3. Tausif Khan

    William Bell I think that this point is theorizing. While he may be smarter than the rest of us he may be completely wrong.

  4. belinda

    I think if you take what Bell is saying as truth, then, it would seem like the show is going off the Rambaldi Prophecy rails.

    LikeTausif posted, Bell could simply be wrong. Or, what I think, is actively manipulating Peter with all his talk of fate into certain choices Peter will make later on. I don’t know if it’s just me, but from all the instances we’ve seen Bell, I don’t think we’re supposed to trust what he says 100%. There’s something always lurking behind what Bell says or does, something he’s not telling you about, that makes me doubt everything he says.

    I’m hoping that the show is pushing all this fate stuff out now because the resolution will go in the opposite direction.

  5. Dave Thompson

    I’m pretty sure Gene is a she.

  6. Matt

    Maybe I’m just grasping at straws here but did anyone else have alarm bells go off when Bell/Olivia offered Peter tea? It seems to me that Bell may have an alterier motive for coming back, especially with his talk about fate. With the tea, I’m wondering if he won’t try and use Peter to host his soul and try to get closer to the machine. Once again, maybe I’m just making too much of it.

    Unless it’s just the writers saving it for later or just shoddy writing, why didn’t Bell and Walter jump right into solving the universe crumbling? To me the episode seemed to just have them goofing around and being chums again. I’m not saying the episode wasn’t good and that they didn’t have a legitimate problem to solve, but it would seem like there are bigger fish to fry.

  7. Jeffster

    I find it odd that you’d take issue with the idea of fate being raised when you rarely, if ever, called out Lost on its fate-driven mythology and “just because” justifications. Fringe’s tackling of this theme doesn’t come close to the insultingly shallow writing on display in both Alias and Lost.

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