Review: Fringe, Season 3, Episode 13: “Immortality” Part I


Cockroaches.

I hate them.

With a passion.

And so, a very unusual something happened to me while watching this episode of  Fringe: I closed my eyes. Thrice. Once when a cockroach came out of the first victim’s nostril (shudder), once when Altivia had cockroaches crawling all over her (double shudder) and again when Silva pulled the queen out of the victim (triple shudder).

I guess Fringe really is about imagining the impossibilities.

The thirteenth episode of the third season of the now renewed for a fourth season Fringe takes us back to the alternate universe, where we find Altivia pursuing a case involving an extinct insect, which couldn’t be butterflies or ants, but just had to be cockroaches.

What got me through the pain and anguish of watching an episode featuring these disgusting insects was its role as backdrop for the real human drama. An innocent child conceived in not so innocent circumstances and complicated the lives of four adults (two of whom are alternate versions of each other) as well as the destiny of the two universes: the one the parents come from, and the one the child was conceived in. How could I not be sucked in?

Despite the cockroaches, this episode possessed some of the usual Fringe awesomeness. For example, the name of the Skelter Bettle immediately reminded me of “Helter Skelter”. After talking to some pretty epic Fringe fans, I came to realise that there was quite a fun wordplay going on here: the name of the cockroach species, “Mansohnium Boogliosus”, is a word play using the names of both Manson and Bugliosi, at which point it became rather embarrassingly obvious that the entire thing is a word play on the former’s book about the latter. I wonder if this particular word play is done in isolation, or if it is related to something else in the Fringe mythology. After all, in a certain way, Walternate, using his charm and way with words, has his followers do things that they don’t quite believe in, just like Manson did.

Although I hate to spend so much time talking about the dratted things, it needs to be mentioned that cockroaches represent a recurring theme in Fringe, that of humans as hosts for parasites. The most obvious examples are Scarlie Francis being a host to spiders, Charlie Francis being infected with the eggs of a hybrid creature in Season 1’s “Unleashed” (episode 16) and the genetically engineered, giant hookworms in Season 2’s “Snakehead” (episode 9).

In other recurring news, the Observer can be seen near the beginning of the episode, standing behind Altivia while she is waiting for Frank to arrive. The hint to next episode was in the license plate of one of Silva’s victims, which read APT6B. The episode’s glyphs spell ROMAD, which engenders the reaction of: “What in the world is THAT?” Once again, Google came to the rescue: one of the meanings of this acronym, according to Freedictionnary, is “Recon Observe Mark and Destroy”, which is basically what Walternate has been doing, first with the deployment of shapeshifters followed by the substitution of Altivia with Olivia. Peter has been marked (by the machine) and, if Walternate were to have his way, will be soon destroyed, along with the universe he turned his back on.

One of my favourite things about this season is becoming the time spent by the Fringe production team in making the alternate universe just as grey as our universe.  The alternate universe’s Fringe team is really growing on me – and yes, even Altivia is growing on me. Lincoln’s inability to hold a secret, the easy banter between Altivia and Scarlie when Mona is all over him, the loyalty they display towards one another, all combine to make for the type of team I personally would love to belong with.

In a cunning move, the time spent by the Fringe production team making Frank the perfect boyfriend rendered Altivia’s pregnancy all the harder to take, in sympathy to a person from the other side. While that doesn’t make me a traitor to our side, it does bring forth yet again the fact that the other universe as a whole is just as innocent as ours, and that, as AltBroyles told Olivia in Season 3’s episode “Entrada”, there has to be a way other than the destruction of either universes.

On yet another recurrent theme, Walter’s admonition to Peter not to hide wrongs from those you love might have helped in giving Altivia a better outcome to her pregnancy. Granted, she only found out about the pregnancy at the end, but telling Frank about Peter at the beginning might have prevented a break-up.

Is it too far of a stretch to think that the Frank we have come to know would have reacted less harshly had Altivia admitted the entire truth? If she had told him she had been working on a case and had to seduce Peter, only to start developing feelings for him, couldn’t they have been able to work it out, just like Peter and Olivia are (hopefully) working it out in our universe? Yes, it would have hurt him, but Altivia openly sharing the truth with Frank would have reflected an honest desire to put the incident behind them, and to make up for the betrayal.

Then again, Altivia makes it clear that she isn’t as much into Frank anymore as she would have wanted to be. Her reaction to the proposal, beautifully portrayed by Anna Torv, underlines clearly that Altivia is trying to convince herself that this was what she wants, rather than a dream proposal from a man that really is actually “kind of perfect”, as she explains it to Lincoln. Her dilemma is reminiscent of the famous quote courtesy of Sir Walter Scott: “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”.

On a side note, the proposal is really well done. I was a little nervous that it would become yet another really badly done romantic moment in a sci-fi show, but the Fringe production did a very good job with it.

However intriguing a character Frank might be, it doesn’t compare to the fascination of Walternate. Seeing his softer side, when his defences are down, made for quite a scene; it underlined the fact that Reiko is not just the passing fancy of a rich and powerful man, but a real consort and confidant, one whom Walternate allows to see behind the façade he puts on for, well, everyone else.

The most interesting part was when Walternate shared with Reiko that what was troubling him were “many things. If you had asked me a week ago, I would have told you that I would sacrifice anything to save our world. But in fact, there are lines I simply cannot cross. Does that make me weak?”

It always comes as a surprise to me when people confuse high moral values with weakness. Strength is standing up for what you believe; Walternate being able to stand for his beliefs that children shouldn’t be test subjects comes as the first sign of an inner strength of the right kind, one that in my opinion cannot compare to his position in the government. Hopefully Walternate’s determination, which makes Reiko certain that he will find an answer like he always does, won’t cloud this newly found ethical boundary. It is going to be interesting to see how the parallel between Walter and Walternate’s ethical bondaries is going to evolve.

As with every visit to the alternate universe, we find out more details about this disturbingly similar yet completely different universe. The top things we learn: all sheep died out ten years ago; Texas is such a primitive place that it doesn’t have hot shower facilities; they also have Tylenol; an iPad-like device is an inherent part of day to day life there; that on the other side, Salk cured polio, but only (well, “only”) created the polio vaccine here; and that Watson and Crick are also the DNA guys on the other side.

The relationship between the two universes is once again emphasised in a subtle-yet-obvious way: the infection for which Silva is seeking a treatment is Avian Flu, which of course is what both Peters suffered in 1985. It is the infection from which Peter 1.0 died and caused, indirectly, the collision of the two universes.

With regard to this collision, we don’t find out much more about the infamous machine and how it works. We do learn that Peter has to be in our universe “of his own choosing”, and that the piece of the machine that Altivia brought over from our universe is being tested on by AlterBrandon. He tells us that the piece seems to be functional and that it will be integrated fully with the machine “by the end of the week”, which is rather ominous, all the more that we still don’t know what is this machine, what is the specific piece Altivia brought, and how the two are linked.

However, we do get some ominous insight in the character of AlterBrandon as he tells Walternate about his experiments with Cortexiphan (to which it seems the alternate universe has not given a name yet).  AlterBrandon has had some success with his initial trial in the form of one individual in whose dissected brain he hopes to find some answers. It isn’t mentioned, but I sincerely hope this individual is dead. Then again, who knows what the Fringe production team has in mind. Could AlterBrandon be our Hannibal Lecter?

Oh, the fun I can have with this comparison!

Hanni… I mean, AlterBrandon’s theory about age as the differential factor between subjects that died and the one who developed telekinetic abilities brought something interesting to light: just like Walter, Walternate developed a theory on how the brain is infinitely capable at birth. But while Walter tests his theory on young subjects, Walternate was firm: AlterBrandon is not to do so.

To be fair to Walter, his tests are probably a lot less dangerous than those AlterBrandon had in mind. Nevertheless, testing on children, however benign the test might seem, is unacceptable, as they are incapable of understanding and accepting to take the related risks.

It makes you wonder: what kind of ethics guide a world in which test subjects dying in the name of science isn’t something out of the ordinary. It also makes you wonder at the thought process that guide a man who allows such experiments to be carried out, but who refuses to test children.

Which brings forth an interesting debate: who has a stronger ethical foundation, Walter or Walternate?

I’ll leave you to ponder on that while I write on part two of this review.

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