Last week, Fringe proved once again that it's possible for a series to contain both heavily serialized AND procedural elements; the show's unique blend of the two has become its trademark, and has been responsible for Fringe's resurgence, particularly during Season 3.
Episodes that lean toward the procedural side of things are called "mythalones," a term Fringe's producers coined for installments that, while technically self-contained, somehow enrich the show's season-long arcs. The good guys get the bad guys (well, most of the time) while also unwittingly exploring metaphors for Fringe's numerous themes. It's an incredibly difficult task to keep making them all season long, but it appears the writers are committed to the device, for better or worse.
"Alone in the World" showed us what happens when most—but not all—of the mythalone components click. The episode featured a wonderful, fully formed metaphor about loneliness and fatherhood that managed to carry the hour despite a weaker case-of-the-week. But you know what? Given the choice, I'd rather see Fringe sacrifice its cases in favor of spending more time on its themes. Themes are for the hardcore audience; the cases are there to ensnare the random viewer who happens to be home on a Friday night.
The writing credit for "Alone in the World" goes to Fringe newcomer David Fury, formerly of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost (he's credited as the writer of "Walkabout," one of my favorite hours of television ever) and very recently formerly of Terra Nova (he left due to creative differences; smart choice). Fury was thrown right into the fire and tasked with penning the first Walter-centric episode of Season 4, a sad tale of a father stripped of his son(s) and on the verge of mental collapse.
Walter has lost two Peters: his natural son Peter to illness and his alternative-universe son Peter to drowning. Those tragedies chewed up and spat out a less stable Walter than the one we've come to know, and lately, the voice and image of a strange man (our Peter) shimmering through existence have been shaking him up even more. John Noble turned in a brilliant performance this week as yet another Walter, one who's fragile without the support of his son. He's lonely, reclusive, and less empathetic. This is a Walter we never wanted to see, and he serves as a reminder of how much the character grew over Fringe's first three seasons. I think I wrote almost exactly the same thing about Olivia last week; this is no mistake, as it shows just how important Peter is to both of them.
Walter formed a bond with Aaron, a bullied boy who was also lonely... and psychically connected to some mold (more on that later). There was some real sweet stuff went down in the lab, most notably Walter and Aaron slurping down milkshakes while wearing tinfoil hats, and glimpses of a more familiar Walter started to bubble up. It was almost as if Walter's paternal instinct kicked in; maybe destiny and fate were teaming up to open Walter's eyes so he'll recognize what's going on. Peter is somewhere, and he needs his father's help.
But Walter responded like most of us would have: "I've got a one-way ticket to Looney Town aboard the Crazy Train Express, with stops in Depressionville and Lonelyburg." He saw a strange man and heard a strange voice, he's already been committed once, and he was pumped full of some shrink's meds. And it was in that final scene where we saw Walter driving a railroad spike INTO HIS EYE that things became clear: While the universes may be in better condition without Peter, our friends Walter and Olivia are not. The writers wanted us to want Peter back soon, but first we had to see how bad things could get without him. It was some beautiful stuff.
The case, however, was gross. I don't know how many of you share my crippling fear of spores, but ICK! The Fringe team set out to investigate a case of two dead bullies with an unusual cause of death: fungal explosion! A tip led them to Aaron, who'd formed a psychic connection with a gigantic mass of fungus named Gus (har har, Fringe). I hear Gus is a fun guy. (Swish!) It turned out Aaron and Gus had bonded over being lonely, much like Walter and Aaron did. Except Walter didn't go around killing anything that threatened Aaron.
My problem with the case was that Fury didn't put enough effort into explaining the science behind the man/fungi connection, which was a tough concept to accept in the first place. It's almost as if he decided that the idea of a gigantic mushroom and a boy sharing emotions and brainwaves was ridiculous enough, and that we'd either take his word for it or not. Then the mass just disconnected its brain waves with the kid, and the reason we found out was that Astrid told us. It all just seemed a little cross-your-fingers-and-hope-they-buy-it.
But ultimately it didn't really matter if we bought it, because the point of the episode was to spend some time with Walter. And since the series-long stories are more important than the single-episode ones, I'd call "Alone in the World" an imperfect success.
Notes from the other side:
– There were questions about why Fringe Division didn't wear hazmat suits all the time. I think, but I'm not sure, it was because of THE SPORES! And the spores only pop out of decomposing corpses, not the fungal mass itself. Mmmm, fungal mass.
– After Olivia told Aaron there's nothing scary about Walter, the boffo scientist showed up in a blood-spattered apron and said, "Alright young man, let's get started—take off your shirt and hop on the table." Very funny stuff!
– Is it just me or was Olivia flirting with Lincoln? I like the idea; what if Olivia gets with Lincoln but Peter comes back and Olivia realizes he's her guy? Drama, that's what.
– The old black-veins-in-the-face thing is really popular right now. Supernatural, Fringe, and Alphas have all used it in the last month or so.
– David Fury could have used the following information to make the fungus' abilities more believable. Be warned: If you don't currently have sporephobia, you will after watching this video.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom