"Smart and stylish. Sets out to stretch the boundaries of conventional network series."
-Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times (Fringe Season One box)-
There's no question a series like the fascinating Fringe took its inspiration from The X-Files (1993-2002). And like that equally smart and stylish series that also stretched the boundaries of television, Fringe clearly aims to do the same even if that isn't quite as evident in the beginning. It specifically mimics the rhythms of that aforementioned series regarding an establishment of mythology while alternating between standalone stories with an emphasis on self-contained fringe tales early on. The X-Files really got that balance right. Fringe is attempting to do the same and that effort is recognized and applauded.
In the early going, it worked to its detriment on one level yet cultivated a network of supporters interested in science fiction conspiracy. But, as Fringe steams along unveiling its own unique character dynamic and its own intentions and designs, Fringe is undeniably delivering a black oil all its own.
Fringe is indeed a different creature. It's much slicker in its production. The X-Files was darker, more grim even noir and somber. Fringe's crime procedural has a lighter tone with a touch more humor. I've been watching both series simultaneously and I've been having fun alternating between them. Fringe has offered little to suggest an alien component that defined The X-Files so profoundly. But its government and corporate conspiracy threads and machinations are very much in line with what The X-Files were able to achieve, but those ideas aren't entirely new. It's all about technique and style here and Fringe clearly looks and feels different in its approach the deeper it goes. Some stories take ideas like genetics and other aspects of Fringe science sometimes dealt with on the iconic Chris Carter creation and sometimes not, but begin taking these concepts in an entirely new direction. Season One begins to spread its wings here and strike its own path with its own merits.
The Fringe approach pays homage to a series like The X-Files, but that's the good news. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to find the kind of quality television The X-Files offered for nine seasons, not only is Fringe a welcomed new arrival, but more than an acceptable replacement - it's turning out to be a worthy successor. Will Fringe be as smart as The X-Files? Will the principals of Fringe offer the same depth and chemistry of Agents Mulder and Scully? There's no question these are starkly different characters. Time will tell if the evolution of character and story components truly create an original work of science fiction, but we have five seasons to investigate. On the up side, Abrams did bring us the mostly fascinating Lost after all. Like many X-philes, I had to start letting go of the comparisons.
We're making efforts to move on with Fringe, Season One, Episode 7, In Which We Meet Mr. Jones. Fringe does share a penchant for creature things with its cultural predecessor (The X-Files, The Host), but these are the comparisons we welcome. (Am I seriously prepared to move on?). And leave it to J.J. Abrams on co-scriptwriting duties to come up with a "thing." Abrams has no problem with a good monster tale. His stamp for cool monsters can be found on the Pilot for Lost (2004-2010), and films like Cloverfield (2008), Super 8 (2011) and Star Trek (2009).
It's clear too Abrams has a basic infrastructure in mind for Fringe. He returned as scriptwriter time and again through the first seasons to steady the ship. It may have worked because he delivered some of the strongest entries in Season One's early going and guaranteed series renewals going forward from his hand in the writing department ending with his Season Two, Episode 1, A New Day In The Old Town contribution. But Abrams indeed kicked Fringe off in a big way with the Pilot. He gave us the best entry of the first six episodes in The Arrival co-penned with Jeff Pinkner. He returns here with the best entry since The Arrival co-penning again with Pinkner. In fact, Pinkner himself dubbed this episode the start of the "next chapter" and as a "foundational" episode, much like The Arrival. Abrams caps his involvement off in the first season of Fringe in a big way with Episode 11, Bound, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. In other words, like Lost, Abrams definitely established the tone for his belief in Fringe.
Following an ill-timed stakeout in Weymouth, MA, FBI Agent Mitchell Loeb, a recurring character played deliciously by Chance Kelly, reports to Special Agent Phillip Broyles at the Boston Federal Building. Loeb, who returned from working in Europe, falls ill grabbing his chest following his briefing of a Joseph Smith with Broyles. Rushed to the hospital opening up Loeb reveals a parasitic creature inside his body wrapped around and constricting his heart. It appears to be forming a kind of root system too.
The creature is clearly CGI, but is mostly effective for this discerning Sci-Fi Fanatic. If The X-Files (Season One's Ice) can do it, so can Fringe.
Agent Olivia Dunham, Peter and Walter Bishop are briefed by Broyles who makes it clear Loeb is a friend. Loeb is taken to Walter's Harvard lab. Walter Bishop's bizarre and inappropriately timed requests for all manner of things like mints, gum, continues to amuse. It might be distracting for some, but eventually you simply give in.
Agent Olivia Dunham attempts to calm Agent Loeb's wife, Samantha, and convince her, and perhaps herself, they have a doctor at Harvard "uniquely qualified" to save her husband. We've yet to have substantive proof of that other than the fact Walter Bishop is something of an awkward genius. Samantha provides Olivia with a paper Mitchell returned from Europe with. Where's The Observer?
Walter discovers the creature is of "human design." Of course, this is Fringe. Walter was looking for a "signature" or genetic "footprint" of the thing's creator. Through DNA it is revealed there is code that is purposefully part of the sequencing, "too perfect to be natural." Astrid believes there is a real code in the DNA sequencing something referred to as a Caesar Shift. This was a simple form of cryptography or encryption dating back to Julius Caesar. Caesar used it himself in correspondence. The code reveals the letters ZFT. The organization was mentioned in Fringe, Season One, Episode 5, Power Hungry as part of the late John Scott's files.
Dunham visits Broyles. He tells her Loeb was in Germany tracking a British national named David Robert Jones (the real name of one enigmatic David Bowie - check out his new recording, the first in ten years, The Next Day), fittingly played by Jared Harris from Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Jones was arrested by Interpol in possession of state secrets. Jones specialized and trafficked in "deep" bio-technology and genetic weaponry and may be associated to a case handled by Agent John Scott regarding the group called ZFT operating out of Budapest where the container came from during the earlier stakeout by Loeb. So who are ZFT? Broyles tells Dunham "there is much you have not been made aware of regarding the pattern." Dunham assures she has time. The group traffics in scientific advancements. Whether Jones is a member or not, Loeb's investigations of the man in Frankfurt may be reason why Jones may know something about this parasite.
Broyles informs Dunham there are cells. Dunham assumes terrorists. Broyles admits "not in the conventional sense" suggesting Fringe is taking a more contemporary approach to conspiracy and science fiction. Guns and drugs are replaced with efforts towards scientific progress. These groups work toward bringing scientific theory to reality. Think Dr. Helena Russell's remarks in Space:1999's Voyager's Return from Year One, "many people have put science before responsibility." These groups operate on the basis of pure science realization, but in this mission there is indeed terror. Look no further than Voyager's Return for evidence of that sad reality. Fringe is taking such ideas to a new level.
Dunham is going to Germany. She has a contact that may be able to allow her access to Jones who is in custody there in Frankfurt. As she arrives in Germany The Observer too also arrives. He gets around. The Observer is everywhere. Could he have a vested interest in Olivia and the Bishops? The geek in me goes giddy over the appearances by The Observer. Actor Michael Cerveris has appeared in every episode to date. If you blink, it's possible you might miss him. Gosh, he was right under the nose of the FBI in The Same Old Story. It's a great touch and it's wonderful that the creative teams have been able to retain Cerveris' services for these brief little moments. A few dollars, a drink and a sandwich and I would have done that job.
Dunham meets old flame Lucas Vogel with the awkward hello kiss. Vogel is now working for the German government in the Bundestag. The Dunham character is always motivated to get answers, maybe not a grander truth despite the fact it is out there, but to gain access to solutions and affect practical change on a small scale. Dunham is very much a worker bee in this way slowly becoming more embroiled in a much larger web of deceit and technological machinations. But Olivia is very much a believer in what she does and what she has to do. She's very committed.
Meanwhile, the root of the parasite continues to spread including an appearance of a kind of tendril inside the IV drip all the way up a tube from Loeb's arm.
At the prison, the warden, Johan Lennox, expresses difficulty in allowing Dunham access to Jones. Vogel and Lennox have a dialogue in German. It may have been a secret and Fringe-philes should investigate to determine the exchange. Finally, it is revealed Dunham speaks German too, to which Lennox openly replies, "I like her." But he is not confident she will get Jones to speak. "He speaks to no one." Dunham is persistent and believes she can be persuasive. She has confidence in her abilities.
In the basement at Harvard University Broyles appears to be sincere when he thanks Walter for his work and expresses that he is grateful. It's amusing and dumbfounding to Broyles when Walter turns to him, and this is the second time this episode he seems to befuddle and surprise Broyles, and tells him, "I had a fruit cocktail once in Atlantic City, mind you, I'm not the fruit cocktail sort of guy." Walter turns and continues doing his work in an absolutely stunning and bizarre fashion not missing a beat alternating between science and random, shiny penny-like minutia about the things he enjoys. The whole scene reminds us of Broyles efforts to connect with Bishop in The Same Old Story. Instead, Walter told Broyles about the seat warmer. Broyles tells Peter that Walter needs to "focus," but Peter remarks that he has no control over his father, a man obsessed with the foods he missed while incarcerated. Peter shows genuine exasperation and Broyles seems to understand his frustration relenting to the accepted situation in which he oversees. To the contrary there is an almost inhuman-like quality to Broyles as an equally strange man. He's a great selection for the role, and in these small moments with Walter, even Broyles shows his compassionate side. The Broyles and Walter exchanges becomes something of a humorous trademark in Season One. Peter wipes a tear and clearly has a heart with intriguing father issues ripe for exploration.
Charlie Francis contacts Broyles. His investigation places a local connection to the ZFT. The document brought back from Frankfurt, each line is attached an agent ID number from the local FBI field office. "Another mole in this office," replies Broyles. There have been others? Peter hears that remark. I understand there is clearance for Peter, but a little more privacy might be in order. It's unclear whether John Scott was connected to ZFT. Charlie points to a number having upper level security clearance to the FBI main frame. It belongs to a Joseph Smith, the man Loeb was briefing Broyles on before collapsing and succumbing to a coma-like state from the parasite. A raid is planned on Smith.
In Germany, Jones agrees to meet wth Dunham. The prison will allow her fourteen minutes in the morning. Institution hours and rules. Jones first requests to speak with Joseph Smith. Olivia speaks with Peter and updates her that Broyles is en route to Smith's residence with a SWAT team. She tells Peter he needs to be alive. Of course, Broyles has radio silence.
Peter's effort to save Smith is moot. Smith's attempt to escape his home results in his death. There are rousing moments like this in Fringe and J.J. Abrams certainly creates that stirring, white knuckle ride he could swoon fans too with his intense and exciting Lost. In Which We Meet Mr. Jones is indeed the offspring of the master. Briskly paced, slick and refined. It certainly packs the excitement.
Of course, this is Fringe and with the suspect now shot and killed what to do? Jones wants to speak with him. Well, if you're Walter Bishop you ask if the man still has a head and you want the dead brought in for analysis and data extraction. There is always hope with Walter around. "His death might just be an inconvenience."
Vogel asks Dunham to stay the night but she declines. Peter rings Olivia regarding the story of Smith and Jones and the fact Jones doesn't know Smith is dead and thus she should still meet with Jones.
Upon receipt of Smith, Walter is upset to discover he was shot in the head. Peter didn't think to mention it since Walter didn't seem to have a problem with the fact he was dead. Walter will alter the procedure. "The human brain is like a computer. It just needs electricity to function."
The body is dropped in ice to retard degeneration. While Walter prepared his subject he discusses a similar feat performed on Jimmy Hoffa in a bit of the classic Fringe revisionist history.
In a brief, emotional moment, Peter recalls his father once experimented on him in a similar fashion when he was a young boy and Peter literally wipes away a tear. That could certainly play with your head a little.
In Germany, Dunham explains to Vogel rather matter-of-factly the events of her relationship surrounding John Scott and admits, as she suggested in the Pilot episode, that she is a little "inept" with relationships. A near sexual encounter is interrupted by a call from Peter which sends Olivia back to her hotel.
The next day Olivia meets with Jones in a dark, dank, dungeon-like room, while across the Atlantic Peter is hooked up to a dead Smith? Peter becomes a passive receiver. There is a Dr. Frankenstein-like tribute to the sequence. Jones informs Dunham he is not responsible for Loeb's infection. In fact, maybe the group who is responsible brought she and Jones together. Jones suggests their meeting is orchestrated and that they in fact are being manipulated. The question he puts forth to Dunham to be asked by cell phone is "Where does the gentleman live?" Olivia loses the call. Jones wonders if she really has Smith. She wonders why he would answer his question after being arrested. Jones replies, "the people I work with are loyal to the end, can you say the same?" This is certainly a question we have regarding Broyles and John Scott and perhaps others.
The weird science continues on the other side of the big pond. Peter draws vertical lines applying horizontal lines to achieve the answer. Peter gets his answer in a nick of time as the fourteen minutes expire: Little Hill. As Olivia is literally dragged from the cell arguing with the Germans she spouts off "Little Hill" and Jones cooperates giving them the antidote to killing the parasite. It works. Loeb will live.
In the epilogue, Broyles speaks with Loeb in the hospital about who the mole might be. Loeb suspects Scott seemed like the most likely suspect. "You're making me paranoid," says Loeb. Broyles submits he wants to see him better.
Dunham confronts Broyles looking for more answers to which Broyles offers this. "Do you have a problem Agent Dunham? You're not easily satisfied. You want everything and you want it now. In your mind somehow a small victory is no victory. What you did is save a man's life, but that doesn't land for you. I would tell you to snap the hell out of it. Stop whining about what you can't know, can't control, can't change. ... Tomorrow we'll do this all over again, and guess what, you'll have a million new answers and a million and one new questions. I would tell you those things but I won't, because your dissatisfaction is what makes you so damn good. Someone I'm proud to say I work with." Part of that air of mystery echoes familiarity. Lost anyone? Of course quotes like this are both exhilarating and a concern. Lost had its problems of resolution too. Lest we be too short-sighted one could argue The X-Files never resolved its case files satisfactorily either.
In a creepy little final minute, speaking of small victories, Samantha visits her husband in the hospital and with everyone gone he asks "did it work? what we did?" She says, it did and it led the FBI back to Jones. He asks if they got the answer and she whispers Little Hill. They smile. It's a deliciously Lost-like ending.
Obviously there were questions. Was this man such a zealot he was willing to have a creature potentially take his life? A lot of things had to go right for him to survive. It had to be for a very big cause. I mean the man was cut wide open on a hospital table and his wife is in so deep she plays dumb as a box of hammers for this true-believer. This is certainly conviction. What is the significance of Little Hill? How did Smith know?
If you step back, the story is convoluted enough when you consider the bizarre need to hook up Peter to get the answer to a single question. There's also no credible way to understand how Peter would extract the one answer he would need to save Loeb. This is just one of those leaps of pure television faith.
In Which We Meet Mr. Jones is indeed a different kind of story than those to date.
The parasite, at first, and perhaps subliminally or intentionally reminded me of the parasite from the film of the same name, Parasite (1982). From a distance it looked like it had teeth, but instead, up close, it was rather like a large centipede constricting the heart. In the end, Fringe delivers a relatively believable little creature reminiscent of the constricting tail of an alien facehugger.
In Which We Meet Mr. Jones also grew more interesting from start to finish. The best critical summation came by way of writer Jon Lachonis from UGO Networks. He wrote, "If you were on the fence before, [the episode] will drag you kicking and screaming into the dark world of Fringe's science wielding bogeymen. "In Which we Meet Mr. Jones" is what Fringe promised it would be from the beginning, a suspense driven procedural that probes deep into our technological phobias. With this new formulation of Fringe, we get the challenge of a sophisticated crime drama mixed with sad sack characters that tempt the everyman into the game, while blowing us away with a level of wordplay and pseudo science that CSI or Alias could only have dreamed of." That is indeed well put.
Fringe is packing in a lot of information, but ultimately it was a well-paced, entertaining yarn with the rhythms becoming more natural as the actors grow increasingly more comfortable in their roles. Is Fringe flawed to date? Positively - but it's becoming adventurous and for all its blemishes it's a hell of a lot of fun. And if you are in serious withdrawal from the absence of something like The X-Files or Lost and you want your perplexing science fiction fix, Fringe is the perfect vehicle for corporate, governmental and scientific collusion. Fringe serves up the kind of intrigue made popular on The X-Files if a little clumsily in the early going. Episodes like The Arrival and In Which We Meet Mr. Jones generate evidence something else is in play. Certainly give it a chance. After all, we've only just met.
In Which We Meet Mr. Jones: B/B+.
Writer: J.J. Abrams, Jeff Pinkner. Director: Brad Anderson.
Glyph Code: CODES.