One of the real pleasures of watching Fringe is seeing the same themes and ideas brought up again and again, in new and interesting ways. Over time, these themes start to reveal more surprising facets, and you glimpse a greater meaning to the show.
When people look back at Fringe in the years to come, they won't remember the mysteries or the plot devices — they'll think about the characters and the thematic territory the show kept exploring. Last night's episode was a perfect example of this, giving us a brand new look at the bedrock themes of Fringe.
In a nutshell, last night's episode had an "A" plot about an apparently schizophrenic young man who recounts a home invasion and murder as it happens — and it turns out that he is linked in a kind of hive mind with a gang of creepy Funny Games-style murder boys. And meanwhile, in the "B" plot, Walter figures out why Olivia's remembering stuff from the "original" timeline... and finds that a vial of Cortexiphan is alarmingly tasty.
So here are the classic Fringe themes that jumped out at us from last night's outing, "A Better Human Being":
Madness is knowledge
Walter Bishop, of course, has always been the standard-bearer for the idea that madness and forbidden knowledge go hand in hand. But last night's episode gave us Sean, who's been in a mental institution for seven years because he hears voices — which turn out to be real. The episode gives us a nice fake-out, because at first we believe that Sean is directing the home-invaders, rather than just verbalizing their thoughts. And Walter, the great advocate of self-medication, actually advocates that Sean should go off his meds, letting the madness in.
People can choose to be human
After we discover that Sean is part of a hive mind with a group of genetically modified kids, we sort of expect him to turn nasty. Especially after he goes off his meds, it seems like he's about to join in the group killing spree — but the reason Sean checked himself into the institution in the first place was because he's somehow different than the other GM kids. He's appalled at the things the voices are saying, and he wants to be human.
The remorseful mad scientist who just wanted children
Fringe is full of mad scientists, who try to play god for sympathetic reasons. And quite often they wind up feeling remorseful, and realizing that there are certain things that people are not meant to toy with, etc. But also, as last night's episode made clear, the mad scientist principle is about reproduction. It's about perpetuating yourself, both because of ego and because everybody wants to leave something behind in his or her own image. It's hardly a surprise when we find out that not only did Dr. Owen Frank genetically modify the kids to give them quasi-telepathic powers, he's also the mystery sperm donor. (Rule of thumb: Whenever there's an unscrupulous fertility doctor and a mystery sperm donor, they're always the same person.) Because mad scientists always want, deep down, to have children.
Olivia has thoughts that are not her own
Poor Olivia. When she's not having John Scott in her head, she's having Fauxlivia's memories implanted in her. Olivia is like the poster girl for having someone else in your head — and yet, she always manages to be Olivia. And once again, Anna Torv does a great job conveying the weirdness of having multiple versions of reality in your head all at once. Like the items below, this one is perhaps more of a "motif" than a "theme" — but it does get at themes of identity and how we construct our selves out of contradictory, tangled memories.
Olivia is a guinea pig
If Olivia Dunham was any more of a guinea pig, she'd need a liberty ball to get around. It turns out her memories of the "wrong" timeline have nothing to do with her visit to the dimension-straddling town of Westfield, and everything to do with Nina Sharp's evil experiments on her. Once again, Olivia's being dosed with massive amounts of Cortexiphan, as Walter finally deduces. (It strikes me that the whole last couple years of Fringe have been a gambit to complicate the Peter-Olivia romance by throwing more and more bizarre obstacles in their path.) I'm really glad that the two dangling plotlines (Olivia getting Nina-related migraines, Olivia remembering stuff) turn out to be connected.
Peter is just a love pawn
It's so cute watching Peter try to figure out how to cope with the latest permutation of his "wrong Olivia" romance situation. Because he already screwed up with Fauxlivia, and he doesn't want to betray "his" Olivia again. But in the end, he's like, whatevs, might as well love the Olivia you're with. Until she vanishes, of course.
What was new, though, was the heroic, badass Walter/Lincoln team up. I really hope this is the beginning of the Walter/Lincoln partnership — much was made of the awesomeness of Lincoln and Peter teaming up a while ago, but for some reason the Lincoln/Walter team-up was even more fantastic. Maybe just because Walter was genuinely, full-on pissed that somebody (other than him) had been experimenting on Olivia, and Lincoln backs him up. The bit where Nina is like "Just let me make a few phone calls," and Lincoln smacks her down, was really special. (Also great: When Walter thinks Peter has somehow influenced Olivia to start remembering his version of events, and Walter starts giving Peter the stink-eye.) I kind of want a spin-off where Walter and Lincoln go around smacking bad guys and taking names.
So in the end, we discover the not-entirely-startling truth: Nina's a shapeshifter, and the real Nina is tied up someplace... where the kidnapped Olivia is now prisoner as well. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.