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Fringe Recap: Date Night

Was it just us, or was there something really off about last night’s Fringe? The episode strayed from the show’s conventions by focusing on Peter who, while hiding out in the state of Washington, tries to solve a series of murders linked to Thomas Jerome Newton. But although this rare Peter-centric plot gave the writers the opportunity to explore his character in the wake of his learning the truth about his past, more often than not it just resulted in a pretty clunky hour of television.

The Evil: In Noyo County, Washington, Peter stops in a diner and chats up a cute waitress named Krista. But before she can meet up with him later that night, she’s abducted and murdered, left in a riverbed with part of her temporal lobe removed.

The Determination: Peter is convinced that Newton and his shape-shifter cronies are trying to track him down now that he’s ditched Boston and the Fringe team. To find him, Newton is removing brain tissue from people Peter has interacted with to determine his whereabouts.

Wacky Factor
: Since “Northwest Passage” dealt with Peter, Walter was relegated to the sidelines, although his separation from his son inspired moments of melodrama and looniness. Shopping in the grocery store, Walter suddenly became enraged when he discovered that his favorite strawberry toaster pastries contained the unhealthy food additive potassium bromate and started yelling at the employees that they were trying to poison their customers, landing him in jail. Plus, his house is an utter mess now that Peter is gone, and the good doctor fears that without his son around he’ll be sent back to the mental institute because he can’t take care of himself. Apparently, as we learned from last week’s episode, he’s going to need to come up with more stories to tell Dunham’s niece Ella to help keep his mind occupied.

Paranoia Level: Low. For an episode with so much potential, “Northwest Passage” ended up being full of intriguing ideas that never gelled. Like this season’s “Johari Window” http://www.vulture.com/2010/01/fringe_recap_eye_of_the_behold.html (also directed by Joe Chappelle), last night’s story took place in a creepy forest locale far outside of the show’s usual Boston setting, creating a sense that the main characters’ usual scientific acumen would be powerless in such primal, lush surroundings. And by having to conduct the investigation mostly on his own — alongside guest star Martha Plimpton’s Sheriff Mathis — Peter would be forced to fill the roles that Dunham and Walter usually occupy, thereby demonstrating how integral they are to his life, no matter how much he doesn’t want to admit it to himself.

So what went wrong? Blame it on a series of factors: The attempts at creating a mood of menacing unease fell flat; the plot was all tease with not enough payoff; characters made dumb choices; the writers insisted on pulling out of mothballs the goofy notion that Peter is some resourceful badass who, for instance, knows how to buy a bunch of weapons from a gun shop after hours. Any one of these failings individually would have been forgivable, but last night the head-on collision of so many off-key moments started to become seriously frustrating.

Because Walter remains our favorite character, it might be easy to assume that it was his absence that caused all the problems, but Joshua Jackson has become a steady presence as the stubbly and slightly cocky Peter. What he can’t do, though, is outwit a script in which his character is almost unreasonably obsessed with capturing Newton on his own, insisting to Mathis that she doesn’t need to call the FBI because he can handle it. (Granted, he doesn’t want the Fringe team tracking him down, but his explanation to Mathis for why she shouldn’t involve the Feds wasn’t particularly convincing.) And as if to compensate for Peter’s overamped intensity, Mathis seemed weirdly muted about the fact that her partner and lover’s abduction almost certainly means he’s dead. When the episode finally got around to its big emotional payoff — Peter admitting to Mathis that he doesn’t know who he is anymore — it didn’t feel like it had really been generated by anything that had happened last night but was, rather, something the writers wanted to make sure we noted as we move toward this season’s finale.

Like with last week’s “Betty Brown” standalone musical-noir episode, you could have skipped ahead to the last five minutes of “Northwest Passage” to get everything you needed to know moving forward, which was that Newton captured Peter and introduced him to the Secretary, who was revealed to be alternate-universe Walter. Rather than deepening our relationship with Peter after his realization that he’s from the other side, last night’s program mostly spun its wheels. Hopefully Walternate will help get things moving again.

More Recaps:
The AV Club’s Noel Murray admired the episode’s Twin Peaks–like qualities but had some issues with Plimpton’s accent.
MTV’s Josh Wigler thought Jackson did a great job, but he’s really excited to see Noble sink his teeth into his role as alternate-universe Walter.
TV Squad’s Jane Boursaw wouldn’t mind seeing Sheriff Mathis get her own spin-off TV show.
And TV Fanatic’s Agent SAHM believes that “Northwest Passage” was the best Fringe episode of the season. (Really?)

Photo: Liane Hentscher/Fox