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You Can't Get There From Here: Northwest Passage on Fringe

"Technically, I'm from no place you ever heard of." - Peter Bishop

In its second season, Fringe has proven itself quite adept at tweaking its own formula, moving away from the episodic deadly-scientist-plot-of-the-week to a more balanced mix of procedural installments that have been underpinned by an increasingly strong mythology and an emotional core.

Last week's episode, the noir-musical "Brown Betty," offered a bit of a breather amid the shape-shifters, alternate world warriors, and brutal revelations gained by Peter Bishop, who quickly fled Boston to get as far away as possible from the man he believed to be his father, but who was finally revealed to him to be a kidnapper who yanked him away from his true family. It was a change of pace both for the plot and the general atmosphere of the series, creating a stand-alone episode that also revealed the true feelings--the wracking remorse and shame--felt by Walter Bishop.

This week's gripping episode of Fringe ("Northwest Passage"), written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Nora Zuckerman, and Lilla Zuckerman and directed by Joe Chappelle, continued the pattern so to speak, delivering a stunning episode that saw the Fringe team shattered as Peter went in search of himself in Washington State and encountered a mystery that seemed to swirl yet again around him. But was Peter being paranoid? Was he hallucinating? Or was there more than one mystery to consider?

Those were the thought-provoking questions pondered by an installment that saw Peter on one side of the country and his former comrades attempting to grapple with his disappearance on the other, creating an episode of Fringe that was about the chasm of distance between the two sides, both in an emotional sense and a physical one.

Peter's journey of self-discovery leads him to Noyo County, Washington, where he becomes the chief suspect in the disappearance of the waitress he was seen flirting with just hours before. Besides for the fact that Peter is acting shifty and checked into a motel under an assumed name, there's the fact that he seems to have knowledge of the killing that no one should know about: namely, that waitress Krista--who hours earlier was making music playlists for her customers--was missing part of her brain.

It's enough to make the local sheriff, Mathis (Martha Plimpton), deeply suspicious of Peter, even after he's vetted by the FBI. Of course, we know that Peter is innocent and that the removal of a part of the temporal lobe of this poor girl matches the modus operandi of Newton, whom Peter glimpses outside the diner where Krista worked. Did Newton kidnap Krista, operate on her, and kill her in order to locate Peter? It begins to seem that way when the bodies begin to pile up and Peter gets an increasingly bizarre series of phone calls at the various motels he's staying at.

Mathis is a believer, the sort of intrigued soul who likely has the box set of the entire run of The X-Files and an "I Believe" poster in her basement. Here, however, she's torn between her sworn obligation to protect and serve using deductive reasoning and her unerring belief that there's more to life than what's seen on the surface. She carries a pen, inscribed with the words "Find the crack," that her partner and lover Ferguson had given her on her first case. It's an entreaty to find the crack in the darkness that lets the light in.

In the dark woods of Noyo County, it's likely a good credo to adhere to. I couldn't shake the feeling that this episode reminded me both of The X-Files and Twin Peaks in the best possible senses. (The latter of which was originally entitled Northwest Passage.) Plimpton was absolutely fantastic to watch as Sheriff Mathis and I watched the hour secretly hoping that the producers would create a Mathis-based spinoff called Northwest Passage, where she investigates the spooky and inexplicable crimes that occur on the fringes of a sleepy former logging town. (Anyone else feel that? Hell, I'd watch it if it starred Plimpton.)

Back in Boston, Walter has a breakdown at a supermarket, spurred on by a chemical addictive in a box of toaster pastries. His angry rant and subsequent emotional collapse speak volumes about his mental state at the moment... and the fact that this genius scientist should not be living on his own as he can't care for himself. It's a sad fact that's all the more heartbreaking when Olivia and Astrid take Walter back to his house and see the filth and squalor he's been living in.

Walter's sadness and his pain have manifested in fitting ways. But he's not alone, as Astrid attempts to remind him. In a small but emotionally resonant scene, she asks why he didn't call her for help. While his answer is logical (he can't call her because he's out of toaster pastries), it really echoes the true answer of his situation: without Peter there to care for him, Walter is terrified he'll be sent back to St. Clare's.

But Olivia promises that won't happen. The bond between the group, shattered temporarily as it might have been by Peter's departure, is just as strong as ever. These are people who care deeply for one another. They are, for all intents and purposes, family now.

Likewise, Walter stumbles on a way to track down Peter but sabotages himself, as Astrid discovers. While he wants to reclaim his son, Walter is scared that Peter won't forgive him. But his fears may come true after all as Olivia tells them that she's found Peter in Washington and invites Walter to come with her.

But back in Washington, Peter is on his own. Or at least, teamed up with Mathis, who doesn't quite know what to think about Peter. After Ferguson disappears and Peter claims to have been fired at by Newton in the woods (after discovering a Bazooka Joe comic that sums up his whole dilemma: "You can't get there from here."), things begin to fall apart. Why would Newton be going to such lengths to find out Peter's whereabouts when he could just flash a picture at people and ask if they've seen him? It's a point that Mathis makes and which seems lost on Peter. Suffering from a distinct lack of sleep, he's not thinking clearly about his situation and seems determined to uncover a conspiracy that is intended to ensnare him.

The killer, ultimately, isn't Newton but a local ex-dairy farmer turned serial killer, who was kidnapping women and cutting them open in order to "feel close to them." (Peter realizes he's the killer after spying the CD Krista made for him among his things.) Which I can buy on the one hand but which also didn't sit totally well with me either. Just where did the guy, living in a trailer, get access to such expensive medical equipment? How did he have the knowledge to operate on these women in such a clinical and precise fashion? And why, of all organs, did he decide to take a part of their temporal lobe? While it's meant to cast suspicion on Newton, it seemed too likely of a coincidence here.

But that's a minor quibble about an otherwise fantastically perfect episode. I loved the final scene between Peter and Mathis as he confided in her that he doesn't know who he is anymore and she told him the story about how her family was murdered and she still hopes to track down whoever killed them. (A potential spinoff plot!) Just as she found her place in the world, so too will Peter... and she gives him the "Find the Crack" pen that Ferguson (luckily rescued before he was murdered) had given her back in the day.

And then there's the final bait-and-switch, a masterful narrative double-cross that I didn't see coming. Just when you believe that Peter had been hallucinating about Newton being there, the writers managed to pull the rug right out from underneath us. Peter finally attempts to get some rest and settles down on a motel bed with his Discman (clearly, iPods only exist in the other dimension) and the mix that Krista had made for him.

But as he closes his eyes, Newton appears in the motel room, armed with the dart gun we saw earlier. And if that wasn't enough, he brings Mr. Secretary into the room, forcing Peter to come face to face with his biological father, the alternate-universe Walter Bishop.

It's a staggering cliffhanger that will have to tide us over until next week's episode, the first part of what promises to be a series-altering two-part season finale... and another example of just how Fringe's writers can manage to surprise us, just when we think we have everything figured out. Well played.

Next week on Fringe ("Over There, Part One"), Walter and Olivia travel to the parallel universe and the anticipated face-off between Walter Bishop and William Bell occurs.


Torrey said…
I really enjoyed this episode a lot but I'm not sure I fully understood what Newton was up to the entire episode. What kind of game was being played with Peter? Why didn't they confront him at the first hotel? What was with phone calls? I feel like I missed something with this.
Erin W said…
Excellent review of an excellent episode, thanks so much for posting. By the way, did you notice the name that Peter said he'd be registered under at The Northwest Passage (just after he signed his statement)? Gene Cowan. I love these writers.
gina said…
I had some of the same questions as Torrey, but despite those questions I still thought this was one of the absolute best episodes they have ever done.

I had the exact same thought, Jace, that the episode had a strong X-Files influence, with a dash of Twin Peaks mixed in. Martha Plimpton in a Mathis spin-off called "Northwest Passage"? I'm there!

The depth of emotion and storytelling in this show always surprises me.
Bella Spruce said…
I also didn't quite buy that this dairy farmer dude was performing such a specific kind of surgery on his victims but, honestly, the rest of the episode was so excellent that I was will to suspend my disbelief.

Walter's breakdown in the supermarket about the "poison" in the toaster pastries was heartbreaking (though I would like to nominate him as a new spokesperson for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution)!

And Martha Plimpton, who I haven't seen in anything in years, was truly amazing and I would definitely watch a "Northwest Passage" spinoff with her in the starring role!

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