Fringe (S01E04): “The Arrival”

Grade: A

Never mind what I said about last week, because this is the best episode of Fringe so far. With my few, minor doubts squashed for the moment and the growing momentum this show is building, Fringe is easily the best show I’ve seen out of the crop of new series this Fall. “The Arrival” is not only a good stand alone episode, but a fascinating window into the world Abrams and Co. are working to construct, with new mysteries and characters stepping in to thicken the plot, as they say.

This hour definitely switches the formula up a bit, which eases the fears I’d versed last week of this show falling into a predictable rut. There’s no bad guy disguised as a seemingly innocent lead in the case, and Walter does have links to the strange going ons, but it’s in a different way than it has been so far. Instead, the bad guy is pure bad from go, even if he and his leftover prop gun from Star Trek fall on the cheesy side, and Walter only knows what he does because his brain is being fed information, which he describes as feeling “like a letter opening for the very first time with instructions on what to do inside”.

This week’s case has the closest ties to the overarching mythology this show is building, with the introduction of strange, space-age looking cylinder and a very bald man known only as The Observer, whose connection to everything has my interest piqued. We meet The Observer, who is not only bald but eyebrow-less as well, in a diner, ordering up a sandwich to season his bottle of pepper, hot sauce, and eleven jalapenos. He eats what would probably decimate the average human’s taste buds while living up to his name and observing a construction site through some high-tech binoculars. An explosion and simultaneous earthquake send everyone but him running for cover. From this first scene through the end of the episode, the mystery surrounding The Observer only grows. He doesn’t seem necessarily good or evil, but strictly neutral. He’s a hands-off kind of guy that knows what you’re thinking as fast as you know it yourself. He’s super creepy, but doesn’t seem dangerous. And, my first impression is that his presence is a welcome layer of depth to this show.

The second new addition is the cylinder–a sleek metal device that kind of looks like a spaceship from any number of sci-fi flicks. This long, metal thing (which, by the way, is very different from the small, circular…something in “Ghost Network”, but equally mysterious in nature) is transmitting (good) vibrations, and it’s not the first one to be uncovered. In fact, an old friend of Agent Dunham’s discovered the first back in the 80s. She of course sets out to investigate while Walter throws one of his adorable hissy fits until Broyles agrees to ship the cylinder to his Harvard lab. It’s a good thing, too, because not long after they leave the cylinder’s original holding place, in a creepy, abandoned warehouse, our laser blasting bad guy arrives and kills everyone in sight in his search for the device.

Going back to Walter: I love John Noble’s range with this character. He’s kooky, but sweet and rattling off the formula for root beer one moment and insane and filled with rage the next, giving death stares to anyone who dares stand in the way of what he wants. I also am coming to love his interactions with Peter more each week, and while Walter is great in any situation, I think Peter’s character works best when he’s got his crazy old man to bounce off of. The two are a dynamic duo, even if they wouldn’t admit it. The only character still struggling to hook me is Anna Torv’s perpetually sad-eyed Olivia Dunham. She did crack one smile this episode, but made up for it the rest of the time by remaining strictly straight faced and bland. She is a good sleuth, though, and…she’s almost as observant as The Observer himself, finding him popping up in many of the Pattern cases in 3 weeks while it took Broyle’s people over a year to make the same connection. There, I said something nice about her, so let’s move on.

So not only is this Observer character showing up in picture after picture taken from the scenes of well known cases linked to The Pattern, but he’s sending his telepathic e-mail to Dr. Walter. Walter “opens” it and proceeds to shoot up Astrid with a mild hella strong sedative and steals the cylinder. He hides it somewhere and then finally gets the root beer float he’s been pining and whining about since the opening scene, which is just as delicious as he’d remembered. He doesn’t drink it alone though–The Observer is there with him, being as observent as ever.

Walter gets caught, wandering around in the median of a busy highway, but won’t reveal where he stashed the cylinder. He says it’s for everyone’s safety that he hid it, and while I believed him, no one else seems to. He ends up shouting some pretty nasty things at Peter, who decides he’s had enough and goes to pack his things, but not before getting captured by the trigger happy bad guy with the unfortunate looking snow cap on his head. He hooks Peter up to a painful looking device (kind of like headphones…that plug in to your brain, through your nose) and probes his thoughts for the location of the cylinder. Peter swears he doesn’t know where it is, but somehow he gives up the answer anyway, surprising himself more than the crazy asshole torturing him.

It would seem this episode is all about the unknown nature of our thoughts. Walter is receiving messages from The Observer, Peter is able to know his father’s thoughts without consciously knowing them, and the Star Trek reject is hooking up people to his machine and reading their minds. But most mysterious of all is The Observer and his ability to read anyone’s mind as if it’s as easy as breathing. Lately I’ve been preoccupied by the mysteries of the human brain and the great depth of unknown information it holds, and Fringe seems to want to explore those concepts right alongside me. Might explain why I was such an early fan of the show.

Now, back to the action. Olivia gets Walter to give her his hiding spot by telling him Peter’s life may depend on it. The big showdown goes down in the cemetery where Peters grandfather (I assume that’s who it was?) is buried. Peter watches as his captor uncovers the cylinder, but Oliva shows up just in time to:

A) Do a magical transformation sequence and then kick his ass with magic

B) Use her feminine charms to seduce the bad guy by dressing as Counselor Troi from Star Trek: TNG

C) Instigating a high octane chase scene with a bunch of gun play tossed in for good measure.

If you guessed C, congratulations, you have common sense. But seriously, will Fringe ever have an episode without a chase sequence? So Olivia squeezes off some rounds into the guy, who drops the cylinder. Then right about the time the thing starts making some mighty strange sounds, it burrows into the ground and vanishes. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of…The Cylinder! Meanwhile, Peter meets The Observer in the woods, who finishes all his sentences before he can, like some annoying kid on the playground who grabs your arm and proclaims “Stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself!” But in his case, he can just read minds, and this bizarre encounter is the breaking point for Peter, who finally decides to stop threatening to leave and stick around for the long haul. Of course it was painfully obvious from the start that he wasn’t going anywhere. Joshua Jackson is simply too dreamy to let go.

Finally we have our obligatory twist, which have mostly revolved around Agent Scott. This week’s is no different. Olivia goes home (is this the first time we’ve seen her humble abode?) and eats a big girl meal of cereal and Johnny Walker Black, but most of it gets spilled on the floor when Agent Scoot appears in her doorway, very much alive. She could have simply been drunk and seeing things, but something tells me that’s not the case. Even if the gasp worthy moments at episode end have been about this same guy, they all serve their purpose well. Unlike Heroes, where I’m rolling my eyes, I am gasping at the appropriate moments in Fringe, at for that I deem them a success.

With all these new questions introduced this episode, I’ve never been more anxious to see the nest installment of Fringe. Will The Cylinder rear its shiny, non-existent head again? Will The Observer reach through the TV and read my thoughts? See you next time The Pattern leaves its mark.

P.S.: Last week’s excellent hour, “The Ghost Network”, wasn’t even written by Abrams, assuring me that this show is in good hands even when he’s not around to write. However, this week he’s back and dazzling me as usual.

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