In "Alone In The World," Walter tries to replace his missing Peter while Olivia and Lincoln try to catch a killer mold.

By Jeff Jensen
Updated October 08, 2011 at 05:29 PM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox

Fringe

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The strange story of a lonely kid and his pet disembodied brain (or was it the story of a lonely disembodied brain and his pet kid?), “Alone in the World” was a clever spin on the old ‘boy and his monster’ trope and made for a creative way for Walter Bishop to grapple with his Flashing Peter angst. One of the best things about the episode was Walter’s constantly evolving theories about the true nature of the episode’s freak of the week. At first the demented doc believed it was a mutant fungus that bred in darkness, eschewed the light, and fed on people. A viral vampire! Then he pulled out this wild idea: The organism was actually vast neural network — a brain. (To make this marginally easier for everyone to understand, Walter gave it a name: Gus.) Finally, the frazzled scientist realized that the mysterious mind-mold — whatever it really was — had forged a dangerous rapport with a sad, artsy misfit. (Are there any other kind?) But was Gus manipulating Aaron… or was Aaron manipulating Gus?

Now, I could be wrong, but “Alone in the World” left me convinced that Fringe was using the episode to send a coded love letter to its fans, and by extension, fans of shows like it — the well-regarded yet ratings-challenged drama that lives on the fringe of television, that owes its fragile existence to an intense relationship with devoted fans. We’ll explore this idea as we go. (Speaking of other shows: “Gus” was surely an affectionate wink at Breaking Bad via its own monster, Gustavo “Gus” Fring, the deadpan-demonic drug lord.)* In fact, this very meta episode of Fringe made me realize that the season’s lingering cliffhanger question – “Where is Peter Bishop?” – is a multi-faceted metaphor for the things threatening Fringe: Missing viewers and time-shifting TV watchers. Must I pound this sharply-filed point into your head with ALL CAPS, the way Walter tried to solve his own flickering Peter problem by LITERALLY TRYING TO POUND A SHARPLY-FILED POINT INTO HIS BRAIN? People: Don’t be a Flickering Peter. BE. HERE. NOW.

*Update at 1:09 Saturday: Via Twitter, Fringe writer/producer David Fury says no Breaking Bad shout-out was intended and says “Gus” was short for “fungus.” Of course. Guess I just have Breaking Bad season finale on the brain.

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“Alone In The World” began with Walter getting something many readers think I might benefit from: A psychological evaluation. Walter’s shrink (not seen since season 1) pressed the elder Bishop to explain his more-baffling-than-usual behavior – specifically, his practice of covering up or avoiding reflective surfaces. Walter — who kept seeing Peter’s face on the back of the doctor’s shiny clipboard — kept the secret to himself, copping only to a brief bout of banal hallucinations. Nothing that he and his regimen of (self-modified) pharmaceuticals couldn’t handle. Walter’s worry was writ all over his deeply wrinkled face. Unless I fix this Flickering Peter thing, they’re going to cancel the show! send me back to the mental hospital.

From this check-up, we moved to another. Olivia wanted to meet with new recruit Lincoln Lee for a meeting, just to make sure all this Fringe Division stuff wasn’t freaking him out. Lee arrived at her desk as she was searching a database, trying to ID a mug shot sketch that she not-so nonchalantly folded up and stuffed away before her colleague could see it. (But we could see enough of it to speculate: Was that Peter? Is Olivia seeing him, too?) “It’s hard when what you knew or what you thought your knew about the world no longer holds,” Olivia said. “I want you to know I’m here.” The hyper-punctual newbie – who spends his time reviewing past cases when he’s not investigating new ones — said: Freaked out? No! I’m having a blast! That’s why I always make sure I’m here every Friday night at 9 PM and why I spend my free time catching up on old episodes. No need to get the poundy ALL CAPS out – I am the model Fringe fan! Actually, Lincoln said: “I’m not freaked out.” And if he ever did freak out, he said, with a small, self-conscious giggle: “You’ll be the first to know.” The subtext of developing attraction/romance: Palpable. Hurry back, Peter. You’re gonna lose that girl.

NEXT: “Flesh eating bacteria! Or some kind of aaaaaalien parasite. Or: Bigfoot! Bigfoot!”

The road to Gus began in Hyde Park. In the opening scene, we saw two bullies chase a boy named Aaron into a dark tunnel where they were attacked by… something. The visual effect of black tendrils spreading across the skin — getting under the skin — reminded me of the black oil from The X-Files. By the time the two dead boys were found by Fringe Division, their corpses had gone way moldy, way fast. Broyles asked Astrid to ask Walter back at the lab to eyeball the video feed and theorize. Walter blew up. “You can tell Agent Burrrr-oyles that there appears to be no unusual environmental factors to explain the rapid deterioration. And it is absurd for me to make any determination without first examining the remains! For all I know, it could be viral. Or a mutation of some kind. Flesh eating bacteria! Or some kind of aaaaaalien parasite. Or: Bigfoot! Bigfoot! That’s it! Astrid, perhaps you could look around for massive field droppings!”

Meanwhile, Olivia and Lee tracked down Aaron. His story: Sad, so sad. No father. Mom abroad. Lived with a rarely-home neighbor. Quiet and friendless. An artist – his sketchbook full of shaded shapes arrayed in different patterns, suggesting diamonds and sunflowers and more. Olivia and Lee brought Aaron to Harvard so Walter could examine him. “You’ll like Dr. Bishop,” Olivia told the skittish kid. “There’s nothing scary about him.” Walter walked up wearing a visor, thick rubber gloves and a blood-flecked yellow smock. “All right, young man, let’s get started. Take off your shirt and hop on the table.” So much for “not scary.”

With his sandy curls and sad eyes, Aaron resembled something of Walter’s mini-me, and the two developed a strong rapport as the episode progressed. But there was a rocky moment at the start when Aaron dared to pick up an action figure mounted on a toy fire engine. Walter snatched it away with child-like petulance. Mine! Walter explained the toy belonged to his son, Peter, now deceased. Later, bonding over tin foil hats and beaker-blended milkshakes, Walter gave Aaron – and us — the (rebooted timeline) backstory: “Peter was very sick. I tried for a very long time to find a cure. I found it too late. He died. Then I discovered an alternate universe where another version of my son was dying from the same malady. So I crossed over to the other side with the intention of bringing him back to cure him. But the frozen lake where I had created a portal between universes was unsound, and when we crossed back, the ice broke. And Peter – the other version of him – drowned. I lost him all over again.” In this version of time, The Observer did not rescue Peter. (It’ll be interesting to see how much more embittered Walternate has become by this new version of events.) Aaron’s skeptic’s response reminded me of the MIA character who specializes in these quips: “And you don’t think you belong in a mental institution?” Walter sealed the deal on the association by telling his replacement Peter didn’t have to call him “doctor” – that “Walter” would suffice.

The episode’s central mystery (and the allegory) really began to reveal itself once the moldy corpses of the two bully boys exploded. (The grisly tableau at the morgue was especially striking. Loved the make-up effects on the stricken orderly. Also geeky-cool? The team’s blood-red haz-mat suits. Very retro-spacey.) The cause of death: An aggressive form of weird mutant fungi. For now, I’m going to call it “Fringe Fungus.” Origin: Unknown. Walter’s initial theories: Yes, Fringe Fungus was infectious, but only if you initiated the contact. Also: Fringe Fungus could send out shoots like lifelines to search for nourishment. “It shows a strong impulse to expand its reach as far possible.” In other words: Fringe Fungus can market itself aggressively, but can’t get under your skin and grow on you unless you expose yourself to it. You know: Like a TV show.

NEXT: The Allegory of the Gus Cave.

The metaphor evolved — and became specific to Fringe’s own evolution — when the agents returned to the tunnel to re-examine the original crime scene. There, Fringe Division newbie Lee — the embodiment of the new Fringe fan — took a closer look at a small sample of Fringe Fungus and noted: “Doesn’t look like much. No wonder we overlooked it.” (Some feel the same way about the first season of Fringe.) Then they saw some chalking on the wall — symbols similar to Aaron’s artwork. One ribbon of artwork ran parallel to a tendril of fungi and led to a major discovery: A massive colony of Fringe Fungus hidden behind a wall — a steamy, heaving subculture growing wild and weird in the dark. Fringe Fungus needs the dark. That’s why it lives underground. It can’t live anywhere else. If it did, it just wouldn’t be Fringe Fungus anymore.

Then Walter had a Eureka! that seemed to invalidate his previous theory. Fringe Fungus wasn’t a fungus at all — it was a massive, disembodied, viral brain that crackled with a single, unique consciousness. Walter gave it a name: Gus. It wasn’t spreading shoots to find food — it was trying to hook up with different parts of itself spawning throughout Boston. A major Gus infestation was underway; it had to be stopped.

Yet there was a complication. Gus had forged a special psychic connection with Aaron. Walter’s newest theory: Gus — increasingly self-aware and emotional — knew it was alone in the world, felt lonely and isolated, and needed a friend. He found one in kindred spirit Aaron. The lonely lad explained the tunnel had become his private retreat — his geek basement; his man-boy cave. He was impacted by the strange artwork on the walls and began obsessively drawing the symbols into his notebook. The longer he stayed, the more enmeshed he became with the ephemeral intelligence that he sensed living in the space, offering him companionship, promising him safety. What I found confusing — but also interesting — was the relationship between the artwork and the fungus/brain. Was there a connection? Was the artwork responsible for the fungus/brain — or was the fungus/brain responsible for the artwork? Neither? Both?

As an allegory for television shows like Fringe, I break it down like this:

The tunnel. Your living room.

The artwork on the tunnel wall. A capture-the-imagination TV show.

Gus. The medium that contains the TV show and gives the show its reach: Broadcast television. (But when you consider the fact that increasing numbers of people are consuming TV in new ways — DVD; video on demand; Web streaming — then Gus’ final fate takes on a provocative significance. We’ll get there in a second.)

Aaron. The super-fans that become emotionally and intellectually enmeshed with a show and whose passion helps keep that show alive.

But like I said at the start: I could be wrong about this.

There’s one more important metaphorical element in this mix: Walter, who embodies Fringe itself. Now, keeping all this in mind, consider what happens as the story gives us yet one more twist in its characterization of Gus. Due to the symbiotic link between Gus and Aaron, Walter had to find a way to kill Gus without also harming if not killing Aaron. As he brainstormed, Walter began to question who was really controlling who. Earlier, Walter speculated that Gus “told” Aaron to lure the bully boys into the tunnel so he could attack them, eat them, and use them to spread his influence. Ergo, Gus must be the dominant force — a vampire demon holding Aaron in his thrall. Aaron affirmed Walter’s theory — except he was lying. As the battle with Gus in the tunnel reached a crisis point (the agents tried to kill Gus with a toxin that didn’t work; Agent Lee became infected), Walter suddenly realized that Aaron held all the cards. Gus didn’t have a hold on Aaron — Aaron had hold of Gus. So it techincally wasn’t Gus that killed the dude that injected the toxin. Aaron’s fear of losing Gus — or whatever it was that Gus contained that meant so much to him — animated Gus’ defensive action.

NEXT: Olivia spills a secret; Walter pounds a nail.

There was a bleak implication to this revelation: It was Aaron, not Gus, that killed those boys in the tunnel. I believe Aaron when he said he didn’t mean for those boys to die — but they did. Just like Walter didn’t mean for “over there” Peter to drown and die when he abducted him. All of the parallel narratives in the story reached an emotional climax when Walter realized that to save Aaron and kill Gus, he had to coax Aaron into letting go. Walter: “I know you’ve come to believe he’s your friend. But he’s not real! It’s something that’s invaded your mind! It’s hurting you!” Aaron: “It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares.” Walter — who kept projecting his Peter issues onto Aaron throughout the story, just as Aaron kept projecting his issues onto Gus — committed a Freudian slip during his last appeal. “I care. And I don’t want to lose you! Not again!”

Then, regaining his focus, the embodiment of Fringe said this the embodiment of Fringe fandom: “I won’t leave you, Aaron. And I’m begging you not to leave me!” See? A valentine! For you! In a story in which the monster was basically… a giant social disease. How romantic.

Aaron let go, and with that, an increasing archaic model of television distribution Gus shriveled up and died. Agent Lee was released. “A little freaked out,” he told Olivia. “You wanna talk about it?”

In the aftermath, Aaron was sadly sent away to a “hospital” (prison mental institution?) and Walter promised to visit him. (I suspect we haven’t seen the last of Aaron.) Was Walter lying? After all, in the very next scene, in the most chilling moment of the night, Olivia found Walter just as he was about to give himself a lobotomy. Walter had come to a conclusion about his Peter flashes: He had gone really, really insane. His brain was infected, as Aaron’s brain was infected. The only cure was to take out his frontal lobe by pounding a needle through his eye socket. Olivia had to save Walter, and so she did what all good Fringe stories do: She made a play for the limbic system, which is to say, she connected with his emotions. She had been seeing Peter, too. In her dreams. For three weeks! And she didn’t tell anyone. (I bought the reveal — but id you think the show should have planted more clues in earlier episodes?) In that moment, Walter felt for Olivia the way Aaron felt for Gus. Not alone. And not insane. Just kinda insane. “A shared vision like this — it must be real,” he said. “And if it’s real … we have to find him!”

So how about you? Did the fungus that was “Alone In The World” get under your skin, too? Will Walter’s bloody, swollen eye be haunting you all week? And do you have “Quinn The Eskimo” stuck in your head, too? Was that song choice another nod to Peter? (The wintry lyrics remind me of the references to “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” and California Dreaming” in the premiere.) The floor is yours.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble star in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama
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