After annoying a large chunk of its audience by airing a leftover first-season episode Monday night that was advertised as “all new,” Fringe made amends with a legitimately new episode that — despite being yet another stand-alone, freak-of-the-week plot — was a nicely calibrated story full of understated emotional beats. Fringe may forever be cursed by X-Files comparisons, but last night the writers found some new twists on a familiar setup.
The Evil: A boy runs away from his home in Edina, a sleepy upstate New York community. But when a policeman picks him up far from town, the cop discovers that the boy is actually horribly disfigured. Soon, other disfigured men storm the police station, kill everyone in sight, and return the boy to their hometown.
The Determination: At first, Walter believes that some of the citizens of Edina have the ability to metamorphose because of a failed government experiment that he assisted in overseeing. But soon he uncovers the truth: The electromagnetic testing disfigured the entire community, which caused the townspeople to concoct a low-frequency pulse that makes them appear normal to others who enter the community. It’s only when the townspeople leave Edina that outsiders can see their ghastly features.
Wacky Factor: One of the things the Fringe writers have done well this season is balance Walter’s wacky quirks with his growing warmth and charm. So whereas his eccentricities used to feel self-consciously “bizarre,” now we laugh at them because they’re just part of who he is. If he wants to believe in Bigfoot or insist that he saw werewolves in London — nice Warren Zevon reference, guys — who are we to argue?
Paranoia Level: Comfortably Medium. On one level, the episode was a disappointing time-filler that didn’t advance the show’s overall mythology. But from another perspective, “Johari Window” was the sort of story that rewards longtime fans who have become invested in these characters. Whether it was Dunham’s deceptively random story about running into an old friend from high school who looked at her like a freak because she became a federal officer, or Peter’s pride in his dad for fighting to protect Edina’s secret (which Walter contributed to creating), the writers kept circling back to the theme of perception and how our interpretations of others are often dependent on our own circumstances. Granted, there wasn’t anything mind-blowing that went down last night, but where The X-Files might have turned this kind of story line into a white-knuckle horror show, Fringe’s more humane treatment — with its emotional, character-driven moments — seemed perfectly suited to this show’s modest, likable nature.
Plus, John Noble continues to provide weekly pleasure as Walter. At the beginning of the episode, Walter, who was still shaken by his kidnapping at the hands of the First Wave army, was giving himself a little pity party and complaining about having to leave the house. But by the end, his realization that he helped mutate the citizens of Edina forced him to understand that he has in some ways done far worse things to others than his enemies have done to him — a neat little twist on our sympathies. Over the series’ run, Fringe has been better at the big moments than the small ones, but last night it got all the small ones very right, suggesting that hopefully the writers are getting ready to start correcting that imbalance.