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The Shadow Knows: Ashes to Ashes on "Fringe"

Now that's what I call a fantastic episode of Fringe.

While I've been pushing the series' producers to shift towards a sleeker serialized format for the series since its inception, last night's episode of Fringe ("Earthling"), written by J.H. Wyman and Jeff Vlaming and directed by Jon Cassar, was the perfect compromise: a self-contained mystery of the week that also served to deepen the characters.

Or one character in particular, the enigmatic head of Fringe Division, Phillip Broyles (The Wire's Lance Reddick). I've been on a tirade since the very first episode of the first season that we still know next to nothing about both Broyles and lab assistant Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) so I'm glad that the writers are finally giving some layering to both of them, who have served more or less the thankless roles of exposition dumps until now.

Last night's mystery had the Fringe Division attempting to capture a shadowy organism that may or may not be extraterrestrial in origin but which managed, during a space walk, to attach itself to the body of a Russian cosmonaut, who brought it back to Earth where it began killing people in an effort to obtain their radiation while its host body was trapped in a comatose state. Weird? Youbetcha. Scary? Hells yeah.

But while the central mystery may have been quite the perfect sci-fi thriller (loved the opening scene and the ash effect the creature's victims exhibited), it was the fact that it was such a personal case for Broyles that made the episode truly sing. We haven't known much about Broyles until this point. We know that he has or had some sort of romantic entanglement with Blair Brown's Nina Sharp in the past and that he wasn't a fan of military investigator Olivia Dunham, after she went on a crusade against his best friend following charges of rape. There have been shadowy instances of Broyles knowing more than he has let on and he's clearly passionate about the Fringe Division and its purpose.

And that's really been it. Until fairly recently, Broyles' main purpose within the series was to tell Olivia that the strange and bizarre phenomena they are witnessing has happened before and is part and parcel of a larger Pattern, yada, yada. But last night's installment took a huge step towards adding some much needed layering to Broyle's character. After all, when you have an actor as amazing and awe-inspiring as Lance Reddick, you better use him to full effect, no?

The shadow killer case is one that's close to Broyles' heart, not only because it wasn't ever solved but because it also played a huge role in the disintegration (heh) of his marriage. I'm glad that the writers didn't pull a cliche and have Broyles' wife one of the last victims of the unknown killer; instead Broyles' dogged determination to catch the killer and end his murder spree result in his wife leaving him and taking his kids.

Four years later, he's still haunted by the case and still saddened by what he lost in pursuit of justice. The scene in which Broyles finally tells his wife that he closed the case was both triumphant and bittersweet. He knows that he did what his conscience told him he had to but at the same time he feeling a keening sense of loss for what it cost him. The effect not only deepens our appreciation of Broyles but fleshes him out into a three-dimensional character, one with a tragic backstory that speaks volumes about the commitment he has to the Fringe Division. He's willing to put everything--his family, his career, his reputation--on the line in order to do some good in the world.

It's a path that puts him at opposition with the CIA, as seen in that final scene between Broyles and the shadowy agent who warns him against filing a report about the case. Could it be that the Fringe Division is about to become even more embattled from all sides? And why did the Senator disobey orders and send Broyles that file? Hmmm...

All in all, a fantastic installment in a series that proves once again that it's hitting its stride with flair and creativity and wisely focusing its efforts on exploring the relationships between our leads while also delivering some first-rate thrills and chills. Now if only we could get some development for Astrid...

Next week on Fringe ("Of Human Action"), a kidnapping quickly escalates into a hostage situation in New York at the hands of a mysterious man with mind control abilities; the Fringe Division connects a link between the kidnapping and Massive Dynamic.


Greer said…
Great episode! The opening scene was very spooky and the visual imagery of people turning to ash was cool and really well done. Plus, I was thrilled to see an episode focus on Broyles as Reddick is a superb actor and, up until now, they've mostly been squandering his talent. Hope we will continue to learn more about the enigmatic Broyles and, possibly, even Astrid.
CrazyCris said…
Great episode indeed!
And speaking of that mysterious CIA agent... it was great to see Martouf (SG:SG1) again! I hope he'll be back!

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