As Olivia and Peter resume their romance, a prickly villain returns (with friends) in "Nothing As It Seems"

By Jeff Jensen
Updated March 31, 2012 at 05:17 PM EDT
Credit: Michael Courtney/Fox
S4 E16
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An alternate reality riff on the season 1 episode “The Transformation” (aka ‘the one where the nerdy Bruce Banner hulked out into an incredibly rubbery human porcupine”), “Nothing As It Seems” was chockablock with strange mutations. Many of them were crammed into the episode’s final moments, which gave us a hideous menagerie of creature feature monsters locked away on a ship cruising the ocean. Call it: The Super-Tanker of Dr. Moreau. We saw a spider leg and a rattlesnake tail protruding between the bars of cages, as well as a squid thing squirting through an aquarium jail. All of them were presumably human beings once – the latest members of an ancient cult known by a Sumerian tat and organized around the principle of guided evolution. (Were these abominable critters call-backs to other Fringe freaks, too? Many readers say: Yes.) And so Fringe gave us a major new mythological idea, one that’s something of a hybrid itself, a blend of ZFT and The First People. Call these extreme science whackjobs: The Next People. Their motivation: To become gods. Or maybe they just want to morph into cockroach-tough genetic constructs capable of surviving the catastrophic extinction event that is imminent. (It is the year 2012, after all. The year that the Mayan celestial ship emerges in the heart of the galaxy, turns into a bearded snake, and gives us all enlightenment. OR EATS US.) Their new leader: David Robert Jones, of course. Only the brainiac with the David Bowie name could be behind something so spacey and odd. The zany zoo of scary monsters and super creeps reminded me of any number of comic book ideas, from The Un-Men to The Ani-Men, Swamp-Thing to Man-Thing, and more. Also: spider-man + reptile-man = The writers of Fringe are, like me, eagerly anticipating the forthcoming reboot of the Spider-Man movie franchise. Are they also gearing up for a story that comments on a calamity-spooked culture that’s gone crazy for stories about super-humans? My brain: A heaving Heap of geeky muck and mildewed newsprint. I will not apologize for it.

The opening sequence of “Nothing As It Seems” impressively restaged the opening sequence of “The Transformation” – except this time, Marshall Bowman (again played by Neal Huff) didn’t erupt into the “Were-porcupine” aboard Vertus Air flight 718 and crash the plane. Instead, Bowman blew up on the ground, during an interrogation by TSA agents. In the old timeline, Bowman was an undercover NSA agent working with two other men – a guy named Daniel Hicks and Olivia’s former partner and lover, John Scott — to hunt a bioweapons baddie. In Rebootlandia, Bowman was a transhuman cultist, one of many in the world, experimenting with serums developed by David Robert Jones during his days at Massive Dynamic. (Bowman + David = David Bowman, the astronaut turned plus-human Star Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey?) He had a partner, also named Hicks, who had a lover, a Beauty who dug his Beastly cheese – especially when he unfurled his leathery bat wings and took her flying across the city. (I was suddenly reminded of Lois Lane’s soaring date with the Man of Steel in the first Superman movie.) (You can fly! You belong to the sky! You and I belong to each other!)

The investigation into the mystery of these artificially-induced lusus naturae — a cornucopia of porcupine people; a porcucopia! — took Peter and Olivia to a new version of an old friend: Rebootlandia Ed, the near-neckless, manners-challenged proprietor of Markham’s Used Books and gnome-like know-it-all specializing in undergound and esoteric knowledge. I always liked Ed, always wished Fringe would do more with him. Peter and Olivia curried Ed’s favor by name-dropping Gene Wolf’s sci-fi novel Lake Of The Long Sun (the second book in The Solar Cycle series; Peter said it was for “the lady,” which left Ed doubly dazzled) and pushed his buttons by suggesting they had a research challenge he couldn’t possibly meet. In between his clumsy-funny attempts to hit on Olivia, Ed explained the cuneiform brand on Bowman’s body and sketched the framework for this new dimension of Fringeverse mythology. The Sumerian mark means “renewal” or “rebirth.” Ed explained there had been “some rumblings lately about a group out there… obsessed with the guided evolution of man. They want to create a new species. A better species. Mutation by design.” Mutation By Design — sounds like an HGTV show that Charles Xavier would love. Later, Astrid would find a website that elaborated on the cult’s ambitions: “Each generation of gods is overthrown by its children who become new gods with new tools.” Sounds like David Robert Jones — by seizing control of the creative powers of nature or God (depending on your perspective, as Walter noted) — wants to pull a Titanomachy and become our new Zeus.

Searching for porcu-rogue Hicks, the agents of Fringe division got the final breakthrough they needed when Walter realized The Next People were using medical waste – specifically, human fat – to fuel and manage their changes. A gunfight within a plastic surgery clinic inside a Boston skyscraper left the Hicks dead and his heartbroken Lois in a pool of tears. In a beat prior to the super-tanker finale, we saw two more Next People — Bowman’s sister and her boyfriend, played by Battlestar Galactica’s Alessandro Juliani – shooting up with super-serum. “We can be born anew,” she enthused, “children of the new world!” They shot up… and then we faded to the super-tanker, and saw two porcupine creatures stuck in a cell together. Was that the sister and her lover? Gaeta! Don’t leave us so soon!

It should be noted that David Robert Jones himself never appeared, and the episode did not specify the relationship between these experimental life forms and the villain’s other passion project, next-gen shape-shifters, though I suspect these different endeavors are but varied iterations of the same ambition. As much as I worry that TV show special effects aren’t going to be able to do this mash of monsters the justice they deserve, I like them better than the shape-shifters, as the shape-shifters haven’t been capturing my imagination the way they did in earlier seasons. That said: My guess is that the next time Fringe revisits this story, The Next People will be more superman than super-beast, thanks to improvements in the formula. That super-tanker? A prison for mutant mistakes – a floating island of misfit X-Men.

BURNING QUESTION: Remember the scene when Peter was trying to recall the Bowman case that he investigated in the original timeline? What did you make of the moment when Peter couldn’t remember Daniel Hicks’ name? Was it just a way to get Olivia involved in the story? (She had been ordered to take leave because “the tenth floor” was worried about the implications of her rapidly dissolving Rebootlandia identity.) Or did you wonder if Peter might now be losing his memory? Is this Peter Bishop’s cosmic function? To keep falling into and out of alternate realities? To love all possible Olivias and save all possible worlds?

NEXT: Agent Lincoln Lee = Gregor from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Yes?

“Nothing As It Seems” gave us another transformative ch-ch-change that was perhaps more important to the show as a whole than just opening up a new wing of mythology. It seemed to me that with the return of Olivia’s memory, Fringe has – for one episode, at least — restored the relational dynamics of the original timeline among the core characters without restoring the original timeline itself. Peter and Olivia have equalized and righted. Walter’s original timeline memory hasn’t returned – but does he need it? Better question: Does it even matter? After all, the Peter/Walter relationship – a wonderful romance in its own way – has been the story of a son struggling to reconnect with his father and vise versa, a process complicated by their painful history and Walter’s mental illness. At the end of season 3, prior to the reboot, Walter and Peter were on good, loving terms with each other. “Nothing As It Seems” effectively returned the Bishop boys to that point, emotionally if not temporally, via a subplot that produced one of the season’s best moments. We learned for many years after his Peter’s death, Rebootlandia Walter bought a gift on the boy’s birthday. A bottle of beer for his 21st. Porn for his 16th. (Hump. Hilarious.) It was his way of remembering his son’s brief life and celebrating what little time they had together. Walter found the box of unwrapped presents and brought it into the lab. He wanted Peter to open them. Just for the fun of it, more than anything. “I know you’re not him — my Peter — but you’re as close as I’m going to get!” Walter said merrily. The moment facilitated a private epiphany for Peter: If Rebootlandia really was his home timeline, then this Walter was his Walter. Always had been. The realization caused a huge smile to spread across Peter’s face – and inspired Peter to give Walter the biggest of hugs. Walter went shock-faced. His breath, taken. His eyes, glassy with tears. “Thank you,” Peter said. “You’re welcome,” Walter replied. From this moment forward in the story, I never again thought about or felt the distance between the characters caused by the reboot, because with that hug, Peter was telling us that the reboot was no longer relevant; the space between them had been bridged.

Now: None of what I’m ascribing to Peter was verbalized. This is all interpretation. If you saw it or felt it differently, I’d love to hear your take in the message board below. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on poor Lincoln Lee, whose surreal tour of duty in Fringe division took a downright Kafakesque turn when he became infected with the Were-Porcupine virus and found himself flirting with metamorphosis. Fortunately, Walter was able to cure him, saving his life and his cholesterol level. (All that bacon!) Still, in the same way that Franz Kafka’s Gregor became alienated from his family as a consequence of a buggy transformation, Lincoln struggled with feelings of emotional abandonment as a result of Olivia’s memory displacement/identity swap. He was heartbroken to hear that she had forgotten their late night diner dates, and he had to make peace with the fact that her heart now belonged to another. He saw the way she looked at Peter. he knew he was beaten. “You’re a good guy,” Peter declared, sympathetic to Lincoln’s plight. “Yeah. I’m good guy,” said Lincoln, resigned, mildly sarcastic. Hmmm. Isn’t that the kind of thing people say right before they turn bad? Does a shape-shifter swap loom in Lincoln’s near future? If not: Where exactly can this character go now that Peter has all but replaced him? My prediction: Heroic, self-sacrificing death. What’s yours?

And a question inspired by the Lake of the Long Sun reference: Could Rebootlandia actually be some kind of generation ship?

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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