If I'd had any doubts about Fringe becoming my new guilty pleasure, this week erased them. I am now officially a watcher of Fringe, rather than a sampler of it. Last night's episode "The Cure" gave us a healthy dose of WTF back story on several of our main characters — Agent Olivia and Mad Scientist Spawn Peter — as well as some frankly awesome exploding heads. It was the first time that the show really gelled, and I'll tell you why. Spoilers ahead! I've been dubious about Fringe partly because it felt like the setup was flimsy and derivative, while the characters (except for the delightful mad scientist Walter) were falling flat. The one part of the show that kept drawing me back was the mad science, which has been so demented that I couldn't help but love it even when it was egregiously new agey. Ground zero of the science freakitude was biotech conglomerate Massive Dynamic, where bionic-armed Nina Sharp raises people from the dead and dispenses aphorisms about the sexism of high tech companies. What makes Fringe intriguing is that Massive Dynamic is both the Big Bad and the Chaotic Good of the show. Sometimes it reanimates Olivia's ex-boyfriend in order to interrogate him, but sometimes it helps our scooby gang investigate "the Pattern" of strange experiments on human subjects in Boston. Corporate conspiracies are infinitely more fascinating than para-governmental ones ala X-Files.
Tuesday's episode deepened the ties between Massive Dynamic and Olivia, Peter, and Walter's investigation of "the pattern." It also humanized Nina, after she admitted to Peter that she and his father Walter had been "very close" when they were young. At the same time, we learned that Olivia has spine of steel. She told Peter the story of how she shot her abusive father almost to death when she was a kid. He disappeared after healing up, but he makes her life creepy every year by sending her a card for her birthday to remind her that he's "still out there." Now we know why Olivia is so intense, and we also know she's been capable of hardcore self-defense since she was a little girl. This is a character I want to know more about. And Olivia's dad is still out there, creepier than ever. For her birthday during this episode, he left a card in her apartment mail slot, without an address on it. So we know he personally dropped it in there. And Papa Olivia isn't the only new creep we meet in this episode. A small corner of the Pattern is revealed when the scoobies investigate the strange case of two women whose bodies have been turned into microwave rays. Turns out the guy running this whole kidnap-and-weaponize-ladies operation is a pharmaceutical magnate named David Esterbrook, CEO of Intrepus (a competitor with Massive Dynamic). I just love the idea of evil pharma magnates. Plus, Esterbrook is played by my favorite actor from every Whit Stillman movie.
There are a lot of awesome mad science torture scenes where Esterbrook keeps his weaponized ladies in an isolation chamber and converts the experimental radioactive isotopes in their blood into explodey microwave ray gun things that make everybody bleed out of their eyes and die. Yeah, it's not much more sensical than that, but it makes for a cool story with a lot of gross eye-popping. Esterbrook may be part of the Pattern, or he may not. Though Olivia busts him at the end of the episode, I have the feeling this isn't the last we'll see of him.
Also, of course, the Pattern is about how pharmaceutical and biotech companies are part of an evil conspiracy to convert all of us into human weapons. Now we know exactly how Peter will get sucked into that Pattern, too. He's made a deal with Nina Sharp to trade information and favors, and his side of the bargain will involve helping her to get anti-development, indigenous people to give up some of their natural resources to Massive Dynamic. So Peter's superpower is helping biotech companies exploit tribal and aboriginal groups? That's random and fucked up and I like it. Not only has Peter grown a new dark side, he's also managed to turn on the sexy. Yes, there was actually a moment of genuine sexual tension between him and Olivia at the end of the episode. Let's hope they don't act on it, since we know actual sex between main characters ruins everything, but it's nice to see a little racy Pacey coming out in Peter.
I think Fringe hit its stride last night because it finally showed us our main characters' true strengths. Olivia even stood up to her FBI boss Broyles, who keeps accusing her of being "too emotional." Finally she squares off with him and says, "Aside from the fact that men always say that the women they work with are 'too emotional,' I will admit I am emotional and that's why I'm good at my job." And we finally know what makes Peter interesting: He has connections with tribal peoples who are essentially the opposite of corporate execs. (Although I hope we'll never have an "indigenous people rescue the souls of white people" episode.) More importantly, Fringe has finally gotten into its main groove: human experimentation. That's what links all the scooby gang's investigations together into the Pattern, and that's what makes this show particularly timely in an age when people are scared of how biotechnology will change humanity. Plus, exploding heads!