This season on Fringe, we've lost most of the crucial father-son dynamic that had shaped the show's first three seasons. And in the process, a lot of the themes that had been propelling the show have been stripped away. What's remained, in their place, has been a bare-bones exploration of the show's most basic underlying question: when are potentially unethical scientific experiments justified?
Like a lot of Fringe episodes, "Wallflower" featured a "monster of the week" who's sympathetic and has an understandable motivation for racking up a huge body count. This time, instead of a sick loved one or an unbearable loss, this week's killer, Eugene, is dealing with a medical problem — one which a subsidiary of Massive Dynamic arguably made both better and worse.
Eugene was born with a weird genetic disorder that made him incredibly pale and so photosensitive that ordinary lights burned him. He would have died within days — so the scientists experimented on his tiny body, giving him chromatophores like an octopus has. This somehow allowed him to control his pigment to the extent that he became invisible — but now Eugene, who escaped from the lab after a fire, wants to be seen, so that he can have a real life and connect with people. Thus, he's going around killing people and stealing their pigment.
As usual for Fringe, the "A" plot is good for a few super-creepy moments, including Eugene in his weird bath, and Eugene stalking a woman around her apartment. But mostly, yet again this week's misguided killer is mostly a metaphor for what's going on with our main cast — who feel invisible or as if they're lab rats.
The thing that elevates "Wallflower" over some other recent episodes is its strong character focus, and the fact that a few of our main characters seem to be getting pushed to their limits by all this craziness. Olivia's been having terrible headaches, which she's treating using some prescription medication that she's popping like candy. Meanwhile, Lincoln Lee confesses that he basically hasn't slept since he joined the Fringe team, and he's starting to get frayed around the edges. And poor Astrid only copes by going to the Department shrink.
Peter Bishop, meanwhile, is being followed around by a guy who's sort of his guard and sort of his buffer — Tim is instructed not to let Peter interact with any civilians. Peter's kept so separate from anyone, he doesn't even take part in helping to solve this week's case — instead he just hangs out and works on trying to design a version of the Machine that would enable him to go back to his original timeline — which he's now assuming still exists. (Does it? Or was it wiped out when he used the Machine before?)
Peter is absurdly grateful when Lincoln treats him like a person instead of a Fringe Event. And seeing that Lincoln has the hots for Olivia, Peter decides to get those crazy kids together — because this isn't his Olivia anyway. Having already made the mistake of sleeping with the wrong Olivia once, Peter is being careful to avoid repeating that blunder — so he gives Lincoln some spiffy new glasses to make him more Olivia's type, or something.
So everybody is being driven slightly nuts by dealing with Fringe Events — except Walter, who's his usual onion ring-eating, octopus-collecting, mouse-invisible-turning self. Olivia confides in Lincoln, Astrid and Nina, in a nice series of scenes that show the relationships among the gang getting stronger (and show Olivia's childhood bond with Nina in this version of reality.) Along the way, we're reminded that Olivia is actually different from Lincoln and Astrid — she's been a part of this world since she was a little girl.
Like Eugene, Olivia was experimented on as a child, by people who may have had noble motives, but who were committing a monstrous crime. Olivia's response to hearing about Eugene's situation — that it might have been better if he'd just died — illuminates how much unresolved crap she still has about her Cortexiphan experiences in this world. Olivia's worried that the fact that she's actually less freaked out about stuff than Lincoln and Astrid means that the Cortexiphan has left her emotionally shut down. But Nina reassures her, saying that she can't let that one thing define her, and she just hasn't found her place yet.
And then at the end of the episode, we find out why Olivia's really having those headaches — Nina and her goons have been gassing her and drugging her and doing some new round of unethical crap to her, leaving her with no memory of these events and one hell of a migraine.
So I guess the final takeaway from the episode is that you never really escape from being an experimental subject — once they've got their hooks in you, you're caught for life. Eugene is permanently disabled by his invisibility and he's left so desperate to be seen, that he literally dies to have the nice elevator lady, Julie, notice him once. And Olivia thinks that her past as a Cortexiphan subject is far behind her, but actually some experiments are still going on, without her knowledge. And Peter? Peter gets to go from being the boy who broke two universes to being the man who's trapped in a world where everybody treats him like another monster of the week waiting to happen.