Fringe Thinking: Mind Games


"Mind Games" it is, since "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" felt both a little too on the nose and not really descriptive of ...



Like my first actual "Fringe Thinking" post said, I'm going to attempt to blog weekly on Fringe, quite possibly my favorite TV experience of the moment. I sure hope that subsequent posts are more prompt than this dispatch; my oft-cited online problems and innately unpredictable abilities mean no guarantees, although I suspect that having gotten a new overview of the show out of the way will help. Now, better late than never, I offer my thoughts on one of the most intriguing and most disappointing installments of this excellent series to date.

I gather that there have been mixed reactions to Anna Torv's channeling of Leonard Nimoy as "Bellivia" — the soul (or whatever you care to call it) of William Bell in Olivia Dunham's body. Yet it tickled me from the moment she busted out the understated impression at the end of Episode 3.16, as much for its gumption as for the performance itself. So far Torv has played straight-up Olivia, Olivia's alternate-universe counterpart on the Other Side, Olivia's alternate-universe counterpart pretending to be Olivia, and Olivia drugged into believing that she herself was really her counterpart; granted, cultivating a measure of Nimoy's croak and cadences kicks things into another realm, risking caricature, but history suggests that the producers were right to take the gamble and I think that the past few episodes have validated that decision. It's mighty impressive that we're laughing for the right reasons at such dialogue as "Doctor, I have been jolted once today. If you do it again, you will kill me — and the young woman I am living inside of."

Nimoy had a decent swan song as Bell on Fringe at the end of Season Two, and since he expressed his intention to retire from acting last year it was a surprise for Walter Bishop's former partner to be brought back in any form. Many things are capable of delighting Walter; most aren't particularly pretty for the rest of us, however, so it was nice to see him feeling the pure, relatable joy of working alongside the dear old friend with whose legacy Walter was only beginning to come to terms during and after their short-lived reunion. "Look at this!" Walter exclaims in 3.17. "Me and Belly collecting human tissue and fluid samples just like when we were kids!"

Torv played Bell, appropriately, as more restrained but no less invigorated by his new lease on life, interacting hilariously with poor Astrid Farnsworth and mixing a sly, dry wit into his wisdom as he/she spoke to younger, greener characters like Lincoln Lee, whose counterpart Over There is a Fringe Division veteran — friends with Fauxlivia, working for Walternate — yet who Over Here is encountering the unbelievable in 3.17 for the first time.

"Well," Bellivia drawls after Lee explains that a missing-but-confirmed-dead woman's fingerprints were found on a ledge next to those of an apparent suicide victim. "Stranger things have happened."

"Uh... No they haven't," says Lee.

The single most charming line of Bellivia's has to be this episode's offhand "Aye aye, Captain," likely saved from being too tongue-in-cheek because the lips from which it came were actually Torv's and not Nimoy's. It served as another reminder, however, that Bell is not the first Nimoy character to be resurrected by channeling his essence into another person — the crucial (apparent) difference being that Spock, whose katra stowed away inside good old Dr. McCoy, made it out safely.

Despite Torv's delivery, Nimoy's actual return — even if in voice only — was cause for celebration. And the imaginative avenue of representing Olivia's consciousness through animation should have made this a more thrilling episode. Unfortunately, I was severely underwhelmed by how it all played out on screen.

When the cartoon Bell first appeared (and offered the Bishop boys some MacCutcheon), his yellowish tint made me wonder if Fox wasn't cross-promoting Fringe with The Simpsons — which might have been preferable to what we got. The animation was painfully stiff and outright ugly, with Walter and Peter Bishop (unlike the fairly recognizable, at least in context, Bell) looking nothing like the actors who actually play them yet being far too detailed for such lack of resemblance; fewer lines and greater abstraction would have been easier on the eyes as well as more forgiving in terms of the total miss of likenesses. After Olivia came into her own in the final scene inside her mind, she not only didn't look at all like Anna Torv but was animated in a different style than the other characters —which might have worked as some kind of commentary on Olivia's unique status within her mental landscape if the whole thing hadn't just been such a mess.

The fact that all of the "extras" on the street began chasing Walter and Peter could have felt less like an Inception knock-off if, again, it had all been of higher quality rather than some extremely poor man's mash-up of The Matrix and Waltz with Bashir (at least for the dozen of us in the audience who saw Waltz with Bashir). We really needed more pop-cultural references if the sudden shift to Walking Dead territory on that rooftop was to be anything more than random — and not in the kind of sensibly nonsensical way that dreams can be random or someone's imagination might naturally produce the fantastic, because most of what was occurring in Olivia's head looked almost dully down-to-Earth.

I don't really blame the writers for the fact that the animation was so lacking that I'd rather have seen those sequences filmed in live action. Showrunners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman handled the teleplay, based on a story they wrote with Akiva Goldsman (the consulting producer and occasional director who's had a hand in some of the series' most pivotal episodes), and the script as delivered by the actors holds up from start to finish. Going inside Olivia's head had great potential, although as I wrote in my last "Fringe Thinking" post Bell's revival — particularly if he really is gone now — did strangely little to further the overall plot of the series save for some insights that Olivia had late in this episode unrelated to Bell. I'm all for still getting occasional case-of-the-week episodes, whether they end up impacting the larger continuity only tangentially or doing so substantially — introducing Over Here's Lincoln Lee, say, or revealing Fauxlivia's pregnancy; the so-called Pattern, after all, has always had to do with the bigger picture, and while there are fewer agents from the Other Side running around now that the endgame appears imminent the breakdown of the universes' physical laws is only getting worse. Using such a pivotal figure in the show's mythology as William Bell merely for an enjoyable detour before the season's extended finale just feels strange, however. Perhaps it was simply a nostalgic valedictory in case the series wasn't renewed.

My biggest surprise was there was not even a hint of a last-second reprieve for Bell, at least that I could detect. The attempt to move his consciousness into the computer didn't seem to work, and Walter said that Bell knew it never had a chance — despite which I expected to see the cliché of a pregnant pause at the monitor, followed by some belated on-screen query or other indication to the viewer that Bell was indeed there, unbeknownst to those in the lab, but no such luck. Of course we didn't grok the save at the end of The Wrath of Khan until The Search for Spock, either, just as this first second coming of Bell was a mystery.

Olivia's reunion with Peter in her mind and their kitchen conversation before the end credits brought us this episode's, and by extension this arc's, lasting impact from a story perspective (the fate of Bell notwithstanding). Peter recognizes that the avatar of adult Olivia in her childhood home is not Olivia's core mental projection of herself, but just as important is the fact that she trusts him to recognize her after the heartbreaking deception of Fauxlivia. Surely that as much as anything helps her let go of her fear — of being alone, of not being safe, or at least of not having anyone to depend on and help protect her, although I'd like to think that Olivia Dunham has proven that she can take care of herself; none of us wants to have to take care of ourselves, without even the option of companionship or protection, but that's another discussion entirely. The final line in the episode, "I think that he's the man who's gonna kill me," was positively chilling — not only for the certainty with which Olivia delivered such an unknowable assertion, nor for the fatalistic content, but for the lack of concern in Olivia's voice. Could she now be a little too unafraid?

I love that Walter loves Zoom.


Next: Good Morning, Good Morning (Episode 3.20)
More 'Fringe Thinking': Iconocrypt (Bell, the glyphs); Women on the Verge, Part I (series to date through 2.15); Reversal Engineering (comic-book covers); Across the Universe (series to date through 3.18)

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