"Science and technology has reached a point where our needs are finally catching up with our imaginations, and the only thing preventing us from doing truly visionary work are these moral-based restrictions that lawmakers put up in the name of public policy."
-Olivia Dunham in a manufactured conversation with researcher David Esterbrook in an effort to determine his involvement in developing human bio-weapons-
"When did this happen? When did this become the world we live in?"
-Agent Olivia Dunham-
The Cure is the last episode that plays into the nostalgic memories of shows like The X-Files and Millennium for the forseeable future. It would be the final entry to mine the kind of familiar territory that so often left Fringe open for criticism. As author John Kenneth Muir noted at his Reflections On Cult Movies And Classic TV the episode "plays more like an episode of Chris Carter's late, lamented Millennium" than it does The X-Files. This point is well-taken and The Cure places itself squarely within debate territory, but beyond this point Fringe openly becomes something of an original and unique animal more in step with the myth-arc based story of The Arrival. That's not to say Fringe won't have its share of missteps, but the quality of the series more often than not improves following The Cure.
In keeping with Muir's point, the blood-soaked windows of Holly's Diner in all of its unabashed horror glory certainly paints a Millennium-styled picture. But Fringe was still burning to be something greater and by the seventh episode in the series Fringe comes into its own and in that moment attains something of a unique identity. Many have opined that the series really takes off after its initial six episode introduction or "Prologue" episodes as executive producer Jeff Pinkner referred to them. As later episodes would bear out, Fringe establishes a much stronger character chemistry and its balance between mytharc-based stories and just plain storytelling thrills genuinely seems to click. No longer would it feel as though it was aping the ideas and memories of our science fiction past.
Fortunately for Fringe, despite walking that line of familiarity it generated an energy and enthusiasm for its world to garner enough of a fan base to continue proving it was an entirely unique identity of its own within the pantheon of science fiction. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a look at Fringe, Season One, Episode 6, The Cure, arguably the most problematic entry to date.
Gruesome as it is, the story opens with Holly's Diner lathered in blood for the pre-credits Prologue. It is indeed the gripping, dramatic stuff of nightmares. A girl is dropped off at night on a street in Milford, MA by a van and people wearing hazardous material suits. She walks into a diner following experiments she cannot remember apart from recollecting red and blue medicine. The local beat cop, Marty, arrives after a call from the caring college-aged diner boy and all hell, literally, breaks loose. Everyone inside dies as blood oozes from every individual's orifice. The scene ends with the head of Emily Kramer exploding like an homage to David Cronenberg's Scanners (1981). As Agent Olivia Dunham is finding out, welcome to the wonderful world of Fringe.
The tribute to Scanners can certainly be gleaned further. The idea of Emily Kramer as a scanner of sorts pays direct homage to the Cronenberg classic. Scanners are individuals with an ability to scan others' thoughts in the fringe art of telepathy. They also are capable of telekinesis, the ability to cause something to occur simply by thinking about it. A variation on this concept was certainly imparted to poor Joseph Meegar in last Fringe entry, Episode 5, Power Hungry. Much of the vibe from Cronenberg's film regarding the mental state of these scanners is also in play. A variation on the Scanner ability to hear others' thoughts creates a sense of depression. This idea was played to a certain extent in Fringe, Episode 3, The Ghost Network through the sympathetic character of Roy McComb. There is indeed a sad or unhappy component at work here regarding Fringe's victims. It's awful hard to be happy when Emily Kramer embodies the very tagline of the Scanners promotional material. "10 seconds the pain begins. 15 seconds you can't breathe. 20 seconds you explode." That about sums it up. Emily's impact on others isn't the only concern, but also, without control, the recipient of said experimentation can thus become a victim of their own powers gone awry - in effect, a self-contained microwave.
Of course, the recurring theme of weaponized humans continues to propagate Fringe from the character of Morgan/Richard Steig (Pilot) and Christopher Penrose (The Same Old Story) to Roy McComb (The Ghost Network) and Joseph Meegar (Power Hungry). Experimentation on humanity and unlocking your "hidden" potential (as noted in Power Hungry) is an underlying theme that would continue to play out including a significant revelation in Fringe, Season One, Episode 14, Ability.
Massive levels of radiation are detected within the diner and haz mat suits are required for the crime scene. Emily Kramer is the greatest source of the radiation. Fringe enjoys employing haz mat suits along with torture tables or gurneys and the trademark nighttime flashlights.
The terrifically dark opening is quickly followed by an equally good scene mixing humor and forensic inspection at the diner between Agent Olivia Dunham, Walter and Peter Bishop. Regardless of the crime scene Walter, at times, is capable of becoming an entirely inappropriate and loose cannon. At the diner he requests a review of the "headless one" and a cup of the diner's onion soup. However inappropriate Walter may be, or how a scene might come off just a little wrong, the juxtaposition is often strange and amusing. The character science in Fringe is most fascinating as the triumvirate makes efforts to get the chemistry right. It can be hit and miss at this point, but the hits keep coming.
As it turns out Emily Kramer was missing for two weeks before things came to a head at the diner. She was suffering from a fatal and rare (but fictional) autoimmune disease called Bellini's Lymphocemia, but that disease had gone into remission. The question is how does a fatal disease go into remission? Walter plunges a thermometer into the officer's head. The sound effects accompanying these simple moments are an absolute sensation of grotesque fun. SPLAT! The bodies are brought to the Harvard lab for a deeper analysis following deduction that brains were indeed boiled.
Another victim, Claire Williams, suffering from the same illness has been abducted and is now missing. This information comes following a visit by Dunham of Patel Health Care and Emily's doctor Nadim Patel. He informs Olivia that Emily's recovery was something of a miracle.
Claire is strapped to one of those tables in Southern Framingham, MA. [Nothing good ever happens there ;)]. At the furtive location a woman in haz mat gear confirms Claire is another good candidate and that she is indeed "special." This reminds us once again of the driving motivation by those performing the experiments on the likes of Joseph Meegar and others. Like Claire these are people that are capable of realizing their full human potential. The idea of being special harkens back to J.J. Abrams' Lost, Season One, Episode 14, Special.
Olivia and Agent Charlie Francis approach Claire's husband Ken about Emily and his wife Claire, but Ken lies and suggests he has no knowledge of Emily.
The investigation continues and it's clear the cure for Emily also made her a super weapon, in essence a human microwave emitter only the experiment went wrong and killed Emily too. Walter performs a microwave test on a papaya to illustrate. The papaya is decorates like a Mr. Potato Head and is perceived to be the happiest of fruits by Walter. Radioactive isotopes within capsules are found in Emily's bloodstream. The event is a kind of time release radiation therapy that cured her of Bellini's but, in effect, turned Emily into a Microwaving super weapon.
Walter continues his near deranged scientist mode with bizarre requests for blue "not pink" cotton candy as his self-awakening manifests itself. Walking that line is a fine one and The Cure seems to cross it a bit, but The Cure is the last time I remember feeling this particular sense of unease regarding John Noble's quirky bits.
Speaking of odd, Olivia and Peter visit the Kramers during Emily's wake unannounced. Instead of requesting permission to see Emily's room, the two literally waltz upstairs to her bedroom without even a notice. Emily's mother, Paula, is stunned to discover the two perusing through Emily's things in a rather bizarre confrontation and one that couldn't have been comforting to her grieving mother who is justifiably upset by the intrusion. It's an absolutely inexplicable move by a representative for the FBI and one that you simply cannot condone. Of all the minor quibbles one might have with Fringe, this was my biggest to date.
Paula shares a photo of her daughter Emily with Claire and Ken Williams highlighting the fact Ken lied to federal investigators and obstructed a federal investigation. You should think more than a WHY? might be coming his way.
Dunham and Francis revisit Ken Williams. With roughly 3,000 people suffering from Bellini's there is little interest by pharmaceutical companies to fund a cure. There's simply no profit in it. These individuals pooled resources to work outside the industry without FDA oversight. In fact, Nadim Patel is fully aware of it.
Olivia retraces back to Dr. Patel. He was aware of the connection to Intrepus, a drug company working in human/animal hybridization, viral warfare and apparently human weaponization. In another unexpected shocker, a seemingly rational Patel kills himself after giving Olivia the name of David Esterbrook who handles the research division of Massive Dynamic's competition, Intrepus. Stunning. The Cure, more than any episode has its lapses in plausibility.
Also, this particular scene featuring Torv turning away and wincing at the death of Patel is noteworthy because it speaks directly to the complaints of a number of writers regarding Torv as an actress on the series. Selling the moment is what an actor or actress does and The Cure has a few of these specific examples that illustrate Torv perhaps at her weakest. As most know from reading here, I'm an avid supporter of Torv and enjoy her character immensely. As the first season wears on she really comes into her own and moments like this one become infrequent. It's inevitable for any young actor or actress fronting a series to miss a beat or two especially in the early going as rhythms are established and deadlines are met. But I do believe this moment speaks directly to two quotes worth mentioning.
In an interview with actor Lance Henriksen by James McLean and Troy L. Foreman from the article written by Adam Chamberlain called The Mystery Guest: A Conversation With Lance Henriksen from the book Back To Frank Black: A Return To Chris Carter's Millennium, Henriksen speaks of the craft. "I'm hoping I never get caught acting." He continues, "It's not acting. That's an odd phrase for it. Acting implies you're going to fake this." I think an argument can be made that as Torv got comfortable in her role she had to endure a few moments or scenes along the way that perhaps never quite materialized as fully intended. It happens. But these moments where the viewer cringes almost like they have noticed the "fake" is where Fringe and Torv sometimes invite the critics. A more mature and seasoned Henriksen was indeed a master and, at the very least, was so for three seasons of Millennium. Torv, too, becomes more and more natural as the series progresses and she gets her performance and the character right with each passing entry appearing more and more like a seasoned professional. Eventually, you don't have those occasional moments where you're thinking she's been caught.
Another actress who was never caught and more than natural was an equally seasoned Megan Gallagher who played Catherine Black, the wife of Frank Black on Millennium. She was a gem for two seasons and an episode - another actress who never got caught. In another terrific interview by James McLean and Troy L. Foreman and written by Adam Chamberlain titled The Good Wife: A Conversation With Megan Gallagher, Gallagher too gets it exactly right about the art of performance. "The camera is right on your face. If you have a contrived moment, the camera is going to pick it up. If you look like you're acting, it's just going to be dreadful." I don't want to appear to be picking on Anna Torv, because more often than not in the early six episodes she is excellent. But, Torv is also a young actress and these moments are notable as she navigates the learning curve of her character and her craft. And, as I said, I think she is a wonderful actress that seems to really get the magic of the Olivia Dunham character right as the series continues. I just wanted to point to an example where people might find fault with her in the series' infancy. Torv is hardly alone in this critique. Even a seeming veteran presence like John Noble offers some examples along the way too. He's not immune. It's not just Torv and the writing deserves some of the credit for these momentary lapses. Obviously this is pinpointing specific examples and most series have them, but generally speaking, without being too critical or belaboring the point, Fringe is moving in the right direction.
So Dunham visits Esterbrook at a symposium under the guise of being a fan of his work. This is a perfectly executed example of social engineering to obtain information through deception. A stirring exchange results in a physical threat of Dunham by Esterbrook once she reveals her true intentions as an agent with the FBI.
Broyles is informed of Dunham's "reckless" interrogation technique and reprimands her as attempts are made to rein in the FBI. Dunham informs Broyles she has complete disregard for "politics" out of concern for the latest abductee, Claire Williams. Dunham and Broyles really come to blows and Broyles makes it clear he needs to "trust" her. He also emphasizes that the Fringe Division is "at best controversial." He adds, "We need to be perfect." Those words would have greater resonance with the introduction of a new character in Fringe, Season One, Episode 11, Bound. Dunham asks if there is "anything" else she needs to run by him. Broyles turns to her as he walks away and tells her "not anything - everything." Lance Reddick was well-cast in the role of Broyles for the series. He just looks like the complete bad-ass. He impressed me in Lost as Matthew Abaddon, but is in a much meatier role here on Fringe with the promise of more exciting aspects of his character to come.
Following the modifications made to Claire, a rat is released into her room whereby she bakes the rat proving her special abilities are functioning. The capsules within her body are ready to be triggered remotely. Esterbrook informs his lab assistant that the "client" will be notified of delivery. Who is the client? This is one of those questions that intrigues but may never be answered.
Olivia and Peter have a conversation that opens with a joke. It's actually appropriate because The Cure seems to be abundant with black humor, but even Dunham is annoyed by the "jokes." She asks if there will be "anymore jokes?" The answer is no doubt yes! Olivia has a short temper this day, and as it turns out today is her birthday. The day is also marked by a horrible event. She shares a disturbing story about her abusive stepfather whom she shot twice when he returned home, but never killed out of protection for her mother when she was just nine years old. Taken to a hospital, her stepfather never died and then disappeared. Each year she receives a birthday card to remind her that he's out there. She regrets finishing the job and that anxiety and uneasy anticipation looms each year.
While admittedly unnerving it's surprising Olivia has not made it a priority to find him. What about bringing the full weight of the FBI down on him? This thread will likely be revisited in the future. It would be awfully strange aside not to address it. How would Olivia get through a psychological exam on that one? How would she mature without being damaged at a very young age? And if she is damaged wouldn't that be picked up in a psychological? This particular scene, again, points to the idea of being "caught" spoken of earlier reflecting back on the quotes of Henriksen and Gallagher. The scene isn't entirely bad, but it does feel a little contrived and Torv is left to sell it.
In Torv's defense, the writing of these particular scenes leaves too many wrinkles. It's difficult to suspend disbelief. There needs to be some internal logic to accept certain scenarios even in science fiction. These moments are few and far between, but they speak directly to issues that pepper The Cure. These are precisely the kinds of elements that make The Cure one of the more problematic entries in the series in terms of believability. But the writing deficiencies rest squarely on writers Felicia D. Henderson and Brad Caleb Kane. While this would be Henderson's one and only appearance for Fringe, Kane would return for Fringe, Season One, Episode 12, The No-Brainer and Episode 15, Inner Child, perhaps his best collaboration.
So Peter visits Nina Sharp for information about Intrepus and Esterbrook. Peter visits without Olivia's knowledge. Sharp, played by Blair Brown, delivers information in her typically selective, Mephistophelian panache. She also expresses to Peter the suggestion of a relationship with Peter's father, Water Bishop. She tells Peter as a child he spent many a day around the equestrian center. Making a deal with the devil, Sharp offers up Claire's off-the-grid location, but expects Peter to one day return the favor with no questions asked. Do they have a deal? It's Peter Bishop. Yes! Of course you have a deal.
The Peter character can sometimes ring uneven. Earlier, he expressed an issue with crashing a wake for information. In The Ghost Network, he showed poor ethical judgment in breaking into his former house. Making a Faustian pact with Sharp should hardly come as a surprise, but he does appear to have selective ethical boundaries. Sharp even alludes to a South American deal of which Peter was involved and once again we question Peter's questionable background. This continues to be hinted at along with a diner scene from The Ghost Network.
Walter determines the radioactive isotope as methyl eugenol. Peter informs Olivia he has located Claire and did so through radioactive signatures via satellite through a friend hacking the National Reconnaissance Office [NRO]. Walter almost inadvertently tips off Olivia that radioactive isotopes do not give off heat signatures, but he is hushed by Peter.
Walter is still calling Astrid other things, in this case, Asterix. Walter has found a cure. Walter tells Olivia the cure must be injected directly into the jugular vein.
Claire is saved in a nick of time in a fairly disturbing, but delicious, sequence that is most reminiscent of the mood and atmosphere of Chris Carter's Millennium (Season Two's The Mikado comes to mind) or even Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs or any number of today's contemporary horror pictures complete with video screen fascinations.
In the final minutes, Dunham proves she's a crack shot with a gun and will do so time and again. Dunham and the FBI storm the underground experimental facility and find Claire in a locked room. Esterbrook's people have triggered a mechanism that will irradiate and kill Claire forcing her to explode like Emily Kramer. With the room irradiated Olivia pleads with her to inject herself. Claire writhes in pain but succeeds.
In a move to disparage Intrepus Dunham ensures the media is tipped off on Esterbrook's arrest. It's a cute move, a political play and one that demonstrates Dunham is unabashed at playing hardball with these players. There is no question Dunham is a sexy FBI agent, but she's very unassuming in her sex appeal which is why I have not made mention of her natural good looks to date. She walks the line of tough agent and appropriately feminine as required. She is walking that line and becoming more credible to me with each entry. She tells Broyles he could fire her, but she hopes he doesn't. He tells Dunham she isn't getting off that easy. He is less than enthused about the public arrest of a figure like Esterbrook. The Observer is to the left.
In the epilogue, it's clear when Intrepus' stocks plunge and Massive Dynamic's rise sharply (as in Nina Sharply), Dunham's gears are turning. The resolution is interesting because it is such a reflection of life's balance. Politics, culture, business can sometimes be consumed by a greater evil when a vacuum or void is created through dissolution of another. This occurs globally every year. Here those consequences occur on the corporate level. Winners and losers are generated every day.
Dunham isn't as naive as one might think, always connecting the dots. Olivia knows Peter visited Sharp. "What was her price?," she asks. Peter assures her not to worry. There's clearly some electricity between Peter and Olivia, but will it go anywhere or will it remain professional a la Scully and Mulder?
Peter asks if Olivia got a card today and she says no. He tells her happy birthday. That sweet moment quickly turns unnervingly sour when Olivia arrives home to a card slipped under her door arriving right on time. She was clearly visited. Thinking of you. Time to address that Olivia. No doubt that day will come.
The critics got their "pound of flesh" as Olivia referred to the media at the end of The Cure. "The press, they always get their pound of flesh." Could the writers and creators have been referring to you and me?
Writer John Kenneth Muir saw Olivia's stepfather/greeting card thread as nothing more than a riff on the Polaroid Killer from Millennium. You'll recall that killer sent photographs to Frank's yellow house, a symbol of safety.
Muir saw a significant problem with Olivia's stepfather back story too. There is something indeed troubling about the writing of that back story. It just doesn't sit right for a host of reasons. I expressed my concern with the scene earlier, but Muir has strong feelings on the matter as well.
The story is "rather unbelievable. An incident of this nature this would have likely disqualified Olivia for consideration as an FBI agent. Not merely has she committed a crime (shooting someone several times...), but she's quite obviously become psychologically-scarred about it; or at the very least erratic. I found it even more unbelievable that her swarthy buddy in the FBI knew all about her stepfather's birthday cards, and jokes about it with her. Hmmm...how about an investigation instead?" Nine years old or not, this story presents some problems in a psychological context and it further compounds the issues people might have been having with the series.
Muir adds, "This hackneyed bit of character "development" feels uncomfortably like a plot point added late in the creative process." It's hard to support that sequence. There's certainly a level of discomfort about it, but as I've said, The Cure stretches the boundary of logic beyond the parameters of expected believability in science fiction more than any of its stories to date. Muir points to Millennium episodes like Sense And Antisense, Walkabout and The Time Is Now for comparisons to the gruesome content and approach within Fringe's installment. Muir also noted, as my own viewing did, that the relationship, humor and banter between Peter and Walter is "growing increasingly amusing." He would prefer the "quirky" Walter and Peter relationship take center stage and somehow "minimize" Anna Torv to be relegated to secondary character perhaps behind Kirk Acevedo's Charlie Francis or Jasika Nicole's Astrid Farnsworth. It's severe criticism. Has there ever been a show to make such a move? Maybe.
I remember Life Goes On (1989-1993) shifted focus away from Chris Burke's Corky Thatcher character after the first season in favor of Kellie Martin's Becca Thatcher character in later seasons. The ensemble cast led by Anna Torv would unlikely receive such a perceived cure.
The Cure continued to receive negative input and it's understandable. IGN's Travis Fickett let loose on the entry. "The level of preposterous is just too high, and the level of fun and excitement far too low. There was an awful lot of talking about very little in this episode. The opening gross out had a 'been there, done that' feeling. Again, hard to argue. Fickett added, "It's starting to feel as if Walter's loony logic is starting to influence the actual writing of Fringe." He also noted the problems with the science and Walter's "silly ranting[s]", Olivia's stepfather storyline, and believed certain lines of dialogue to be "dangerously close to self-parody." Fickett actually co-penned two episodes of Terra Nova in 2011.
Others had a similar opinion of Torv. Tim Grierson of New York Magazine felt the focus on Olivia Dunham made for "a long hour of television." Grierson, like Muir, also preferred a focus on Walter, but added, "we shudder to think how his flatulence will factor into the plot." Still others had their concerns with the logic.
No one expects their science fiction to be scientifically explained or answered with purely fact-based resolution, but the usually smart fans of science fiction do expect the writers to play within certain conceivable boundaries of logic and that's where The Cure falls down.
But somehow io9's Annalee Newitz approved of The Cure going forward. Surprisingly, she felt the "show really gelled" for the first time. Entertainment value aside, The Cure is truly the series biggest setback in Season One.
The Cure, as entertaining as it is, has its leaps and jumps in implausibility that will certainly leave you wincing a touch. It did me. The rhythms of the episode seem to clash a bit between humor and the remarkably severe, but Fringe is indeed positioning itself as a different kind of irreverent show despite elements that nod to pop culture classics like The X-Files, Millennium, Scanners and even The Silence Of The Lambs. The trick is keeping great company with the likes of Carter, Cronenberg and Demme without appearing derivative. I can't say Fringe succeeds on that mark with The Cure despite the fact I enjoyed it. Hopefully a better, stronger episode will be the cure for this energetic and sometimes funny misstep that doesn't seem to add up in the logic department. As noted earlier, if executive producer Jeff Pinkner saw the first six episodes taken in their entirety as a "prologue" to the series, that stands to reason. The "next chapter" begins to change things up. The true antidote for those dubious with the start of the series would be just around the corner from The Cure. Fringe begins to emerge with its own identity growing more comfortable within its own skin.
At the very least, you'll think twice about those diners.
The Cure: C+/B-.
Writer: Felicia D. Henderson, Brad Caleb Kane. Director: Bill Eagles.
Glyph Code: CELLS.