Last night, Fringe went Outbreak on our ass, unveiling a story line in which our heroes had to battle a mysterious, super-lethal virus that was threatening to wipe out all of humanity and, more importantly, Peter. Despite the high stakes, it wasn’t a particularly memorable episode, but for those who can’t get enough of Walter and Astrid’s growing bond, there was further proof of why these two are the show’s best platonic couple.
The Evil: In a Boston high-rise, a man visiting an energy company called Vitas Petrol suddenly feels ill, starts bleeding from the nose, and drops dead. As his final act, he spews blood out of his mouth. Slowly, other people at the company start to show the same symptoms.
The Determination: The victim was sneaking energy secrets to Vitas Petrol, but accidentally unleashed a 75,000-year-old virus that can spread rapidly. Walter declares that the high-rise must be quarantined so that no one inside can spread the disease further, but that becomes an unworkable solution when (1) Peter becomes infected, and (2) the CDC decides to eradicate everyone inside the building to prevent further risk.
Wacky Factor: With his son’s life in danger, Walter stayed relatively normal by his standards. Still, he had a nice moment near the show’s opening when he got his museum membership revoked after freaking out a bunch of kids with his delightful tale of Ferdinand Magellan’s tragedy-filled circumnavigation of the earth. Also, he probably shouldn’t have said that thing about being digested in the stomach of a monster.
Paranoia Level: Moderate-to-Low. Ostensibly, “What Lies Below” was meant to be a suspenseful episode in which Peter’s fight to stay alive would affect not just the audience, but also Walter and Dunham. In other words, the character work that’s occurred this season should have paid off last night when we realize just how deeply these people all care for each other. So why wasn’t Peter’s dilemma more nerve-wracking?
For one reason, the writers have been beating the Walter-can’t-bear-the-thought-of-losing-his-son-again emotional ploy to death throughout season two, so by this point it’s starting to feel a bit like a tease. The new wrinkle was that Astrid overheard Walter muttering about not wanting Peter to die again, which made her curious and, naturally, will probably lead to some confrontation at a later date. But giving Peter a virus that nearly killed him hardly seemed like enough justification for a pretty innocuous plot point.
Also, no matter how hard the writers try, we’re never going to feel any spark (romantic or otherwise) between Peter and Dunham. There were attempts last night to show how he’s the only person who really “gets” her and vice versa, but there’s never much resonance to these moments. By comparison, look at how nicely the friendship between Walter and Astrid has developed this season. Where once he treated her condescendingly, she’s now his trusty and respected companion, especially last night when Walter was starting to think that Peter’s situation was futile and she was able to pull him back from the brink by showing him some kindness. Hopefully, Fringe will never decide to make Walter and Astrid lovers, but the genuine warmth and charisma between them demonstrates how comparatively inert the Peter-Dunham dynamic is. Viruses can be deadly, but working relationships are tricky in their own right.
The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff (filling in for Noel Murray) wasn’t overly impressed with the episode, saying “Fringe is a show that constantly seems to be about three-quarters of the way there and then it just stops, figuring that’s good enough.”
MTV’s Josh Wigler liked the claustrophobic setting and almost-real-time plotting, but he’d like Fringe to get back to investigating the alternate reality.
TV Fanatic’s Agent SAHM explains why the episode works so much better if you’re a hypochondriac.
And TV Squad’s Jane Boursaw noticed something that occurred to us, too: Were we supposed to think that maybe Dunham and Peter were going to kiss when they were talking about needing someone to care about? Unlike Boursaw, though, we weren’t thrilled by that possiblility.