Monday, March 18, 2013

Fringe S1 Ep8: The Equation

"Numbers make everything work."
-Agent Mitchell Loeb-

As you know, I've been attempting to understand Fringe's place within the vast, complex science fiction television universe to offer an argument of validation for its existence when so many discounted its qualifications.  It's easy to come back time and again to The X-Files and Millennium, because in many respects Fringe feels like a natural heir to these programs.  Even The Equation relates back to such grim, dark tales as Millennium's A Room With No View and that episode's frightening Lucy Butler played so seductively and deliciously by Sarah-Jane Redmond with her abduction of the young also with talent.  Fringe is very much the offspring as the next step in this respective evolution.

As I keep putting the pieces together with each episode, I continue to ask myself why Fringe is different or at least why it should be respected as a separate entity outside of those comparisons to The X-Files.

I was reading an excellent excerpt of writer John Kenneth Muir's analysis of The X-Files Pilot recently which inspired further exploration of the issue. Here is the excerpt that furthers the discussion concerning Fringe's placement within the pantheon of great science fiction television and within the context of the evolving science fiction crime procedural.

"If one considers the Victorian Age to be Pax Britannica, a time when England experienced prosperity because of colonial imports from Europe and Asia, and developed new technologies at homes (Kodak cameras, and early motion picture devices such as “cinematographs”), then one may also be tempted to look at the Age of the X-Files-- the Age of Bill Clinton -- as a version of Pax Americana. Technological advance came in the form of the Internet, and that decade saw the dawn not of colonialism, but globalism (consider, NAFTA, for example).

Yet in both the Victorian Age and the Clinton Age, many people began to suffer a spiritual ennui, and experienced worry about the “mechanical” de-humanization of “modern” civilization and the loss of racial/cultural identity. How could a single Age accommodate both the miracle of surgery and the terror of Jack the Ripper? The science of Darwin and the magic of Dracula?

Or for that matter, how could the World Wide Web and Jeffrey Dahmer exist side-by-side?

Essentially, The X-Files represents a new Gothic paradigm in which Enlightenment and Romanticism ideals compete again and go one more round, each trying to gain a foothold. Whereas Dracula could transform into the form of wind, fog, thunder, owls, bats, wolves or foxes, consider the myriad villains of The X-Files. They too are atmospheric (“D.P.O.”) in nature, or hail from the natural world. There were bats (“Patience”), wolves (“Alpha”) and other strange, quasi-natural menaces to challenge Scully and Mulder. These monsters were re-assertions of the Romantic Ideal in a world that was apparently enlightened.

If one is so inclined, certainly one can gaze the prologue in “Pilot” and see that it serves as a kind of metaphor for the entire series, for the new debate between science and superstition, knowledge and faith.

The final imagery of “Pilot” may seem familiar for another reason. It appears a deliberate homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In that Steven Spielberg film, the Lost Ark of the Covenant (a symbol, once more of Romanticism) is tucked away by 20th century man in a place where it can’t threaten Enlightenment, inside a giant, endless warehouse."

I've come to realize Fringe is the next logical step in the evolution of the science fiction procedural within the context of 21st Century Man.  This is the logical leap forward.  This is the next step in the modern revolution as Fringe embraced the complexities of today's discoveries, many of which were in their infancy when The X-Files was born.  The X-Files feels like a bridge between the ideas of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Fringe today as these series take the surrounding culture and reflect certain beliefs.  The X-Files began more closely resembling the application of the crime procedural as portrayed in the influential Kolchak, but by the series end it became more closely connected to technological man.  It began to change, while remaining true to its romantic roots as Muir correctly reflected.  But Fringe, makes that massive (dynamic) leap forward into the 21st Century unabashedly embracing the wild proliferation of technology and computers as well as medical wonders and applies that to its affect on humanity in a sterile, corporate world.  The X-Files even laments the arrival of computer technology in The X-Files, Season Two finale, Episode 25, Anasazi, in a scene between Bill Mulder and The Cigarette-Smoking Man.  "Who could have predicted the future Bill?  That the computers you and I only dreamed of would someday be home appliances capable of the most technical espionage."

The aesthetic of the Fringe series also embraces, not the dark, grim blacks and whites of The X-Files, but the freakish technicolor of today's modern world set against bright white and black. It's a pleasure to note the contrasts as much as the comparisons and not that the two stand mutually exclusive in these approaches.

Fringe takes all of the radical concerns embodied by the likes of a man like American terrorist Theodore Kaczynski who railed against technology and wrote manifestos about those industrial developments and it places these concepts within a science fiction context.  The Unabomber (referred to an FBI case file called UNABOM for university and airline bombings), as Kaczynski was known, waged a national war against technology through bombings.  The one-time professor penned a type-written manifesto called Industrial Society And Its Future.  The idea of anarchists in popular culture is nothing new, but the vehicle of Fringe takes a long, hard look at the realities of technology far beyond its predecessors and the nature of this evolving reality. More on the Kaczynski effect and his type-written (a common method in The X-Files and Kolchak) manifesto to come in Fringe, Season One, Episode 14, Ability.

Both good and evil are indeed working sometimes to deleterious effect with the rapidly expanding technology and information.  It is happening in concert and a war is indeed being waged between these forces with the tools of the 21st Century.  Nina Sharp reflected upon this in the Pilot episode. It plays out each week with sometimes gruesome consequences.  But the fabric of humanity, so intertwined with technology and today's advancements, is forced to keep up at a breakneck pace. With technology moving so quickly, humankind seems incapable of sustaining a relationship with it, and Fringe mines those ideas, that territory with the possibility that we are incapable of fully understanding the deleterious effects of the technology employed on today's world and tomorrow in the hands of both good and evil men. Nevertheless, efforts by the likes of Agent Olivia Dunham are in play actively attempting to understand and set things right.

Thus, Kolchak: The Nightstalker (1974-1975) + The X-Files (1993-2002) + Millennium (1996-1999) = Fringe (2008-2013) today.  That's having a bit of fun with an oversimplification, given the entry's title, but the progression exists.  This evolution is more apparent to me now and Fringe is seen by this Sci-Fi Fanatic, not as a copy or a clone, but as a natural step in the evolution of the crime procedural within science fiction within our 21st Century culture.   Up to this point, this is the best possible explanation for the seemingly logical approach Fringe takes toward its world and its growing mythology not to mention very different character dynamics. Fringe is setting up to be an original in its own right.

In Middletown, CT Jeremy Stockton stops to aid a woman in the rain by her disabled car.  Upon opening the hood the man is hypnotized by a series of flashing green and red lights (green, green, green, red), in effect, hypnotized by technology.  When he awakens from his hypnagogic trance (a transitional state to sleep) by the tow truck operator he called earlier, not only is her car missing, but now his son Ben is missing too.

Welcome to the nightmare world of the technologically challenged machinations of Fringe, Season One, Episode 8, The Equation.

Phillip Broyles brings Agent Olivia Dunham up to speed.  The abductions have happened before and the same woman is involved in each case.  All of the abductees eventually turn up but then inevitably "go insane."  All of the abductions involve academics.  This time it is ten year old Ben Stockton, who demonstrates a genius gift for music and rhythm with an obsession for a particular piece.  This is noted in the opening just prior to his abduction.  Walter Bishop recalls the green and red sequencing and their ability to create a state of hypnosis.  He would later employ its use in Season One, Episode 17, Bad Dreams. Again, underscoring the use of technology in the hands of both good and evil.

Dunham visits Mr. Stockton and discovers Ben was involved in an accident, which led to a coma for six days.  He awakened as a kind of musical prodigy composing his own music.  In a sense he has awakened an untapped ability, often a recurring theme in Fringe.  Sadly, Ben lost his mother in that accident.

As we mentioned, The Equation reminisces of Millennium, Season Two, Episode 20, A Room With No View, as Ben is held against his will in a dark undisclosed location and the forces working against him attempt to break him psychologically.  It is suggested to Ben that his mother is still alive.  Joanne Ostler, while no Lucy Butler, is the abductor and is played quite effectively by Gillian Jacobs, as she works to break Ben's will to achieve her ends in much the same way Butler worked to break the spirit of the young boys in the basement of A Room With No View.  While those elements exist, the two stories differ entirely on a substantive level.

Back at the Harvard lab, Walter performs an experiment on his son Peter (again).  Some things never change noting these things began when Peter was a child as noted in Fringe, Episode 7, In Which We Meet Mr. Jones.  Walter utilizes red and green lights as stimuli for hypnosis.  It works.

Charlie Francis informs Dunham the female abductor has been identified.  She was a neurologist at MIT.  Her name is Joanne Ostler only she died ten years ago.  Her car went off a bridge in 1998, eight months before the first abduction.  Though her car was recovered her body was never found.

Walter remembers his connection to the red and green lights.  The man who can help them is Dashiell Kim, a fellow inmate at St. Claire's Hospital. Kim once shared a story with Walter about being hypnotized by a Christmas tree.

Kim was the head of astrophysics at UMASS and was abducted in 2006.  He was returned after a week, suffered a psychotic breakdown only to bludgeon his wife to death with a tire iron.  He shared his memory of events with Walter.  Kim remembered being put to sleep by a Christmas Tree and disappearing.  Dunham is told by Broyles seeing him will be difficult because he is in a 1027, incarceration for the criminally insane with state secrets on defense.  Access in in question.

Meanwhile, Ben is taken to another room where his written compositions are arranged in a different order then he is accustomed.  His mother greets him with a hug.

At the lab, an image of the Kim murder scene is handed to Walter. The walls in the image are covered with mathematical equations.  Bishop says he never could complete the equation.  Dunham recalls Mr. Stockton telling her something similar about Ben not completing a composition of music.  These people become obsessed with their puzzle.   Peter points out that music is essentially a mathematical equation too. Chords and notes are like numerical values. Ben's song or piece is the equivalent of Kim's math formula.  Walter assures that curious minds converge on like ideas, but what it is those minds are attempting to solve is another matter.

Walter completes the translation of the math into music.  Peter performs the piece.  Ben's selection is the musical equivalent of Kim's math.

Ben's mother tells him he needs to complete the song for Ostler in order for her to stay. Ben's mother displays a visible scar on her face.

Elsewhere, Dunham meets with Dr. Sumner, played by William Sadler.  Sumner insists to Dunham that Walter Bishop, who left his care three months ago, has no business being on the outside, despite Olivia's claim that Walter is doing well and is aiding the FBI.  Sumner is fairly evasive in allowing Dunham access to Kim.  He will allow Walter to speak with Kim - alone.  Dr. Sumner clearly enjoys the game, or field, of psychology. Sadler is terrific in the role.

Peter is defensive of Walter expressing concern to Olivia about sending him back into the institution.  The Equation certainly paints the picture that the asylum was a big part of what made him unstable in the first place.  One of the great issues with Fringe, thus far, has been Peter as a character.  He's a bit of an enigma and is seemingly inconsistent in his decision-making ability.  At first he denies his father's existence.  He rails against the treatment of his father toward him as a child, but then quickly defends him.  But perhaps, Peter is softening to his father aware of Walter's instability.  Peter and Walter suffered from years of dysfunction.  There's no reason to think movement to bring them closer and develop understanding between them should be easy, logical, or anything less than complicated.  But Peter does exhibit precious signs of empathy toward his father.  Gradual connections are being made even if Peter's actions at times appear irrational.  There's certainly no manual for relationships especially one as estranged as Peter and Walter's connection.

Walter takes umbrage at being discussed in the third person as if not in the room, like a child himself.  He speaks and informs Peter and Olivia, "I'd rather not go" back to St. Claire, but says he will do it as he watched repeated video of young Ben playing the piano.  Something in Walter connects with the loss of a child and perhaps Walter's own negligence at not being there entirely for Peter as a boy.  Though I'm not entirely sure Peter sees the bigger picture and reacts by taking it personally to a degree.  Walter demonstrates a recognition of those outside of his own sphere of genius, which comes as something of a revelation too.

Sadler appears to operate with a sadistic nature, but at the same time his behavior could be perceived as sincere.  It's no wonder he was cast in Die Hard 2 (1990).  But Sumner looks like he plays a good mind game or two harming rather than helping his patients.  Sadler is like the male alternative to Nurse Mildred Ratched, played devilishly by Louise Fletcher, in Milos Forman's film version of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975).

Sumner greets Walter, Peter and Olivia.  As Sumner takes Walter into the hospital, you can see tremendous anxiety in Walter.  He is indeed experiencing stress even at the touch on his arm by Sadler.  This scene drew me into watching Fringe that much more deeply.  It's one of those moments that gives Fringe its own identity.  Again, the impression may be incorrect, but Sumner appears almost as though he takes inner pleasure at bringing Walter back down that hall.  There is great power in that scene as Walter walks back into the institution behind bars as Olivia and Peter shrink away in the distance.  The scene gives great understanding and power to the character of Walter.  I have been harsh on my assessments of Walter at times as he proceeds to sound unhinged socially when he speaks with others.  But seeing Walter walk down that hall surrounded by darkness, people who are mentally unstable, with all manner of crazy habits, it puts who he is and his experience into perspective.  Walter was in prison for years.  He's on the outside now.  You're not going to change in weeks or months.  All that separates Walter from being considered a patient at St. Claire's is the fact he has been on the other side of those metal doors and locks for days.  That's it.  And when he walks down the corridor toward the world he left behind, you can see his apparent unease.  Will Peter and Olivia still be there?  Walter's love for everything from cotton candy, seat warmers, onion soup, and mints to gum and root beer make perfect sense, but it was difficult to accept with Walter functioning as an asset of the FBI almost from the word go on Fringe.  These things certainly resonate with greater perspective by experiencing this sequence and framing Walter within this world.  It's powerful and it's clear this has not been a place that would make him well but rather much worse.  It was an impressive moment in the series for me.  It's also easy to feel Peter's concern.  Walter looks like he could fit in just fine at St. Claire's. Yet, slowly, ever so gradually, Olivia and Peter are bringing Walter back from the abyss.

Walter meets with Kim, given a moving performance by Randall Duk Kim (The Keymaker in The Matrix: Reloaded).  They exchange pleasantries and Kim clearly isn't right in the head.  As my father once said, "He's one short of a six pack."  Walter brings up the abduction story Kim once shared. Kim simply stops smiling, shuts down and tells Walter he is mistaken.  Walter proceeds to write out the math formula on a coffee table.  Kim becomes irate. "I DON'T DO MATH ANYMORE!"  All of the patients become upset and animated.  Rather than take Walter from the room he is sedated and kept within the hospital.  Sumner acts against the agreement.  Olivia threatens a court order for his release and Sumner tells her to go ahead and get it.  Again, is Sumner perverse or acting within the field justification of his oath?

In Walter's room he sings songs almost as a coping mechanism.  It's something we've seen Walter do while living with Peter.  The door opens and another version of Walter Bishop sits at the end of his bed and tells him "Welcome back Walter."  Walter holds back the tears.  This is indeed a potent moment within the series that leaves viewers with many questions.  Is this Walter real?  Is this a psychological construct developed by Walter while a patient at St. Claire's?  What is the significance of that moment?

Dunham is informed the court order will be available in the morning. She is apologetic to Peter, but Peter knows this was also Walter's choice. This choice by Walter was indeed a form of freedom or free will, which was formerly stripped of the man as a patient of St. Claire's.  Exercising that freedom of choice was liberating but certainly difficult for Walter.  Meanwhile, Peter ascertains some aliases for Joanne Ostler [middle English for Inn Keeper] and the search for Ben Stockton is expanded based on the PO BOX address of a Joanne Ritz.

In Ben's prison he is unable to finish the musical piece.  His mother sits with him.  Her face begins dripping blood.  She literally bleeds to death in front of Ben all over again.  Like the efforts of Lucy Butler breaking down her captives in Millennium's A Room With No View through the use of Paul Mauriat's number one hit Love Is Blue (1968), a hideous, insanely repetitive but addictive instrumental, Ostler's efforts to break down Ben are working, but her efforts to create an allusion for Ben through electrical stimulus are also breaking down as images of his mother turn to horrifying nightmares.

At St. Claire's Walter meets with Kim again.  He also sees an image of himself across the courtyard once again.  Is it a life left behind?  Walter convinces Kim that he can remember.  It says something about Walter's own ability to dream again, live again and believe in himself again.  He brings that spirit with him into St. Claire's.  Kim cries.  Kim tells Walter the woman promised Kim things and used images of people he loved.  Ben is placed in a similar environment within the dungeon with the promise of his mother.  He is hooked up to wires and attempts to complete the promise of the equation.  Kim couldn't do it for the woman and he is unable to do it for Walter.  All Kim remembers is a red castle.

Peter retrieves Walter despite Sumner's efforts to keep him.  "My personal assessment is that he's safer with me than he is with you," declares Peter.  And like me, Peter, too, saw Walter change when he walked through that door.  "He was afraid."  Sumner takes offense, feeling as though Peter is suggesting he intentionally harmed Walter while in his care.  In turn, Sumner tells Peter he did some backgrounding on him.  He feels Peter is unfit based on a questionable background to be Walter's guardian and he is going to petition the state to remove him from his care.  The Observer in the house.  Do you see him?  In some cases, and this may be one of them, it appears he may have been photoshopped into the frame.  That plays directly into the idea of technology affecting our reality on Fringe.

Walter tells Peter he wants to leave. He also feels he has failed and Kim rambled nonsensically about "red castles and dungeons." "Is that what it's like to talk to me?," asks Walter with a hint of sadness.  He asks Peter if that is what it is like talking to him. Peter neither confirms or denies but by his actions forgives his father and accepts him and wishes him to return home with him.

Peter updates Dunham who is investigating their expanded lead in Clarksburg, MA. She happens upon a red castle, a carousel noted thanks to Walter's intel.

Underground Dunham finds Ben, but also the woman.  A tense duel ensues and Ostler's escape results in the woman's use of a trap of hypnotic green and red lights (the two colors would have recurring significance in the future).  In a trance Dunham is awakened by Charlie Francis and Ostler is gone.  One thing is certain, Dunham knows how to throw it down in a fight.  She can turn the skills on as she does here in her first official physical duel.

When Walter returns home, he requests a place of his own.  Peter tells Walter he was very brave going back to St. Claire's to which Walter replies, "Thank you son."  Walter has tasted freedom and appears more hungry than ever for it.  There is real growth of character between Walter and Peter in The Equation.

Later, Ostler meets with FBI Agent Mitchel Loeb, apparently a party to child abduction now too.  Chance Kelly continues to savor an intriguing recurring role as Loeb.  Loeb has recovered to a good degree from the nightmare existence he manipulated in Fringe, Season One, Episode 7, In Which We Meet Mr. Jones.  Ben succeeded for Ostler.  Loeb programs the numbers to the equation she was able to retrieve from Ben into a frequency generator.  "Numbers make everything work," replies Loeb.  Fringe is great for science and math classes.  Moments later, his hand moves through solid matter retrieving an apple from within a metallic safe.  He turns to Joanne Ostler and without hesitation shoots her dead then takes a bite of the apple.  No soul. No conscience. No loose ends.  Adam killing Eve on the dawn of something entirely new. He phones someone and tells them "It worked."  It's a shame Joanne died. There was something incredibly hot about that chick.

Ben is reunited with his father.  Dunham takes pleasure in the moment taking in their embrace.  This is what she lives for.  She takes pleasure in positive resolutions.  But no doubt questions will come for Dunham.  Will it be revealed the boy solved the equation? Will Ben come into question again?  Elsewhere, The Observer continues walking under the nose of the FBI.

Images of Walter seen by Walter back at St Claire's are certainly open to interpretation.  Was this a ghost of his former self?  Was it a mental construct?  Was it justification to Dr. Sumner's concerns? Was it a sign of things to come?  It couldn't be real.

The real highlight of The Equation is Walter's development and his fateful return to St. Claire's asylum.  The experience has all of the negative connotations associated with the concept of an asylum or institution. Actor John Noble delivers big.  Jane Boursaw of AOL TV accurately reflected on this aspect of the serial as "heartbreaking."  In general, IGN's Travis Fickett noted the series required "patience."  Noel Murray of The AV Club felt the ending slipped into "something out of dozens of mediocre cop shows."  While mostly positive some felt the storytelling quality still had a tendency to "wobble" and that's not unfair. Generally, The Equation is a solid answer to Fringe's ills.

As the title of the episode might suggest, The Equation speaks directly to the need for certain components and variables to reach the answer.  The Equation is just one small part of the much larger picture of Fringe and the opening up of that world.  Ramifications would follow in Fringe, Season One, Episode 10, Safe.

The Equation is another visually impressive  entry in the series as it continues to wow.  Director Gwyneth Horder-Payton offers some impressive credentials having directed episodes of some terrific series including The Shield, ten episodes of Sons Of Anarchy, two episodes of The Walking Dead and an episode of Battlestar Galactica. She brings a unique stamp to the series.  It would be her only appearance.

I've been watching a bit on the history of magic on History channel, and one can certainly look at today's contemporary special effects as an extension of that magic, hence movie magic.  But Fringe really does a splendid job of employing those special effects sparingly as it does here in The Equation essentially teasing us and leaving our mouths agape as we walk deeper into its magical world.  This is indeed the magic of Fringe science and its mythology as we peer much further into the dark unknowns that the creators originally intended, but have yet to barely glimpse.  The Fringe formula is getting interesting weaving very original ideas into more tried and true conventions.

The Equation: B.
Writer: J.R. Orci, David H. Goodman.  Director: Gwyneth Horder-Payton.
Glyph Code: TAKEN.


Troy L. Foreman said...


Another great review of what is fast becoming one of my top 5 shows of all time. I remember this episode as being a good one and especially with the addition of William Sadler in this episode.

I can't wait to go back and do my own full rewatch once the complete series comes out on blu ray!

SFF said...

Thank you so much Troy

I'm definitely trying to do justice to the season one experience. I hope I am conveying my thoughts on it well. It's a lot to cover, but I hope by the end of it all I will have offered a comprehensive look at season one.

I don't want to do it an injustice here.

Thanks again