Fellow Fringe Fans,
I was really looking forward to this episode (more so than usual) because I watched them film a bit of it. As you may or may not know, Fringe is one of the many shows which films up in Vancouver and several times this season they have been near my school – the filming of this episode was one such occasion.
Each time I get the opportunity to chat with anyone working on the production, they are incredibly friendly and more than willing to chat about the ins and outs of production on a major television show. This day I spent quite a while chatting with one of the guest actors on this episode: a man by the name of Leonard Tenisci who played Mr. Staller in this episode (one of the wedding guests who dies at the beginning).
We ended up in a rather involved discussion about some of the biochemistry I’d been studying, and the intricacies of the protein hemoglobin, which is probably my favourite protein (and yes, I’m aware it’s a bit odd to actually have a favourite). Of course, after having seen the episode I find this humourously ironic.
The episode starts off with the deaths of 15 guests at a wedding. Fringe Division is called in due to the fact that numerous people suffocating to death all at once in a room full of air is not exactly a usual occurrence. It turns out that the 15 people who died were all direct descendants of one woman who was herself a Holocaust survivor. Right before the wedding she had noticed a man (named Alfred Hoffman, played by Craig Robert Young) whom she appeared to recognize – and was horrified at doing so. This woman’s daughter in law was able to identify Hoffman on a wedding video, giving Fringe Division a face for their suspect.
After getting the bodies back to the lab, Walter makes the rather startling discovery that the victims’ blood has turned blue, likely from something binding to the hemoglobin. Peter finds cinnamon-scented candles that are out of place at the wedding, and they determine that that is the method which Hoffman used to deliver the toxin – airborne, and released by heat. Walter and Peter discover that the toxin is a mixture of hydrogen cyanide and chromium trioxide, along with a part which can be changed in order to select victims based on traits. That is, the toxin can be made to select people out of a crowd so that certain genetic or physical characteristics can be selected.
This was where the Nazi storyline comes into play: the guests at the wedding who had been killed were all Jewish, and at the second site of the toxin’s deployment – a coffee shop – all the people who were killed had brown eyes. Walter reasoned that these were analogous to trials in an experiment, and that there would likely be more. When Fringe Division was at the coffee shop investigating, we see that Hoffman was watching from afar, and recognized Walter, stating that he looks just like his father; this was the first hint about something curious with Hoffman (aside from the fact that he was rather creepy) given that he should in no way be old enough to have known Walter’s father. Did you see the Observer?
The Observer – behind the daughter and mother
(played by Sierra Pitkin and Alberta Mayne)
Back at the lab, it’s time for show-and-tell with Walter, and, while discussing a model of the toxin, they realize that the inert carbon chain – a signature of sorts – on the molecule looks rather like a seahorse. This leads to Walter’s revelation that his father – Peter’s grandfather – worked with the Nazis on science developments, but sabotaged their efforts while passing information along to the Allies; they called Dr. Robert Bishop the Seahorse because he was such a great swimmer. Walter tells Peter that Robert Bishop came to America in 1943, and had worked in Berlin prior to that. Walter realizes that he recognized the toxin from formulas in his father’s old books in which Robert Bishop had smuggled the information out of Germany. Once Walter is unable to find the books, Peter reveals that he sold the books 10 years before – ostensibly because he needed money. Walter, understandably, is furious with Peter, and is upset that due to his perceived inability to prevent it, his father’s work is killing people.
Olivia and Peter manage to track down the books through the rather amusing man who Peter seems to use for all his odd book dealings: we first met Markham (played by Clark Middleton) in Season 1 – he was the one who procured the ZFT manual. Olivia and Peter break into the person’s apartment who bought the books, only to find it strewn with Nazi paraphernalia. However, appearances are deceiving: the man is an artist and uses the pieces as part of a contemporary collection. This raises the question (which is never actually answered): if Hoffman didn’t get the formula from Robert Bishop’s books, where did he get it?
Tracing the substances used in the creation of the toxin yields Hoffman’s address, and when they first enter the house, they go in wearing gas masks – which they unfortunately take off after initial scans. It appears as though there is nothing to be found, but Olivia notices an odd airflow pattern and finds a hidden doorway to Hoffman’s basement lab. While they are down in the lab, Peter notices that Hoffman has one of Walter’s sweaters – which he presumably stole when he broke into the Bishops’ house earlier – and Olivia notices that Hoffman appears to have been making some sort of false identification. Then Walter collapses, suffocating. Olivia neutralizes the dispersal mechanism for the toxin, but they still have to put Walter on oxygen and get him out of the basement. It seems as though Hoffman was targeting Walter.
Peter recognizes the symbol on the identification as for the “World Tolerance Conference” and Fringe Division races to prevent Hoffman from starting his attempt to “purify” the human race. Peter and Olivia manage to stop the toxin from being spread, and Walter turns up, Astrid in tow, with a toxin which he has modified to target Hoffman and kill him. Walter faces some censure from Broyles, but he clearly does not regret what he did.
Walter – no regret
After Walter’s conversation with Broyles, Walter justifies his actions to Olivia, stating that Hoffman corrupted his father’s work. Olivia says she understands, but Walter say that it is more than just that: that family means everything to him, and that he would do anything for those whom he considers family. I can’t help but think that this is an allusion to what he did to get Peter back after his death; lately Walter seems to be making such references more and more often.
“Family is very important to me. There is nothing I wouldn’t do” – Walter to Olivia
Following the neutralization of Hoffman, Peter manages to get back some of Robert Bishop’s collection for Walter. We learn that the Bishops’ family name was initially “Bishoff”, but that Robert changed it when he came to America. In a picture from Robert Bishop’s time working with the Nazis, we are given another hint as to the fact that something was definitely weird with Hoffman as he shows up, looking the same age, in the photograph with Robert Bishop. This would explain why Walter’s analysis of the telomeres in Hoffman’s DNA indicated that he is over 100 years old.
Thoughts and Impressions
As usual with the more stand-alone episodes we see some interesting character developments: most obviously between Peter and Walter, but also some between Olivia and Peter.
When Peter and Walter first come to the wedding to investigate the deaths, Walter is driving their car – Peter later tells Olivia (who assumes that Peter lost a bet) that it was either that or flying lessons. Walter was rambling about Peter’s mother – one of the few times we’ve heard about her – and he says “God rest her soul”, which leads me to assume she must be dead. I wonder if this is part of what led Peter to his nomadic, often criminal existence before working with Fringe Division, given that he would have been left all alone after her death, with Walter still in St. Claire’s.
The funniest part of this conversation, however, was when Walter mused to Peter whether Olivia would call him “dad” when Peter and Olivia got married. This isn’t the first time someone has made an allusion to a relationship between Peter and Olivia, but it is the first time anyone has ever suggested that they get married. Walter tells Peter that she is just what Peter needs as she doesn’t let him get away with anything. Walter has insinuated things about Olivia and Peter’s relationship before, but never this blatantly.
“Don’t look at me like that. She’s exactly what you need: someone who can see right through you” – Walter
I find it interesting that following this conversation we saw a demonstration of just how well Olivia can read Peter: she knew that Peter was lying about why he sold Robert Bishop’s books. Namely, that he sold them because they were among Walter’s favourite possessions and at the time he was still very angry with Walter. I find that these glimpses we are given of how Peter used to be only serve to underscore how much he has changed since joining Fringe Division. Last year (at the end of Season 1) Peter built Walter a machine out of an electron microscope and various cannibalized parts which was meant to digitize Walter’s old vinyl records so that he could listen to them again; this is a far cry from the Peter of 10 years ago who sold some of Walter’s favourite books. Peter also seems to be able to read Olivia fairly well, as he answers a question Olivia didn’t really ask: that no, Peter was not proud of the fact that he sold the books.
Peter and Olivia
Even with all the wonderful character moments, my favourite aspect of this episode was the science behind the toxin. I always find it intriguing to try and figure out how the science is meant to be working, and whether – given my knowledge of the fields – it may actually be possible. The idea of a targeted toxin is not a new one, but the way it was used by Hoffman in this episode was certainly chilling. Going into the episode – mostly from the promotional trailers – I was a little bit worried that the focus would be mainly on the Nazi aspect of the plot-line, and I was relieved to find it took a back seat to the other happenings of the episode. In what I am sure is no coincidence on the part of the writers, the major lethal component of the toxin was hydrogen cyanide which was favoured by the Nazis for use in the gas chambers in Concentration Camps during the Holocaust.
Show and tell: the toxin
One major problem I had with the science is that Walter states that the toxin must bind to the hemoglobin in the blood, changing its colour and robbing the body of oxygen. The chances of something actually changing the colour of the blood upon binding is highly unlikely – given that the red colour is due to the porphyrin ring in hemoglobin which binds the iron atom – but I am willing to accept that premise given that it is science fiction, after all. However, my major problem with the mechanism of the toxin is that hydrogen cyanide (actually, the cyanide ion) – the deadly part of the toxin – is lethal due to the fact that it halts cellular respiration by inhibiting a crucial protein complex involved in the electron transport chain. However, it is stated that the toxin functions primarily by binding hemoglobin and preventing it from carrying oxygen: this would be feasible, given the structure of hemoglobin and the fact that any sort of competitive binding would hinder its function, as well as supported by the fact that administering oxygen to Walter helped mitigate the effects (if you increase the concentration of oxygen upon exposure to a competing molecule it can help reverse the effects). The only problem is that respiration – the physical process involving breathing air in and transport by hemoglobin – is a distinctly different process from cellular respiration – a biochemical process which occurs in the mitochondria of cells.
Also, the fact that the toxin is apparently water soluble (as evidenced by the fact that it can be boiled to be dispersed and dissolves in blood) is contradicted by the fact that there is an inert carbon chain as the toxin-maker’s signature: carbon is an organic compound and would be non-soluble in water. Given the fact that there is also a targeting group – which would have to contain some genetic bases in order to actually target a group’s genes – it would be much more likely for the toxin to be a protein rather than comprised mostly of hydrogen cyanide and chromium trioxide.
Obviously, I enjoy analyzing the science behind this – and while it’s certainly not perfect, I love that it’s actually detailed enough that I can try and muse out how such a thing might be accomplished in reality.
One thing I find curious is that the toxin Hoffman used to target Walter had no effect on Peter. Given that the toxin used to target the wedding guests seems to have been based on the Holocaust survivor’s genetic code, and that the toxin killed her direct descendants, it stands to reason that a toxin targeting Walter ought to also target Peter. However, I am not sure whether this is because Hoffman was only targeting Walter because of Robert Bishop’s betrayal of the Nazis (and thus had no intention of targeting Peter); or whether it is because Peter is from the Other Reality and, while similar, there is something intrinsically different with his DNA that let to him being unaffected by the toxin.
I know I am continuously praising John Noble’s performances – and many of the other cast members, for that matter – but there are usually moments in a certain episode which strike me. One such moment in this episode was the sheer panic that Mr. Noble displayed when Walter was affected by the toxin at Hoffman’s house. If you didn’t notice this the first time, go and watch the scene again and really watch Walter’s reaction. As someone who’s had a couple nasty respiratory infections, in that scene Walter looks like what it feels like to experience that panic.
Another notable moment was when Olivia discovered Hoffman’s secret doorway: she always seems to be picking up on details which escape everyone else. Whether this is simply because she is naturally perceptive, or because of her experiences with Cortexiphan as a child remains to be seen. Walter has previously stated that she is a keen investigator and that Cortexiphan seems to enhance natural qualities in subjects.
Overall I really enjoyed this episode. I loved that we learned more about the Bishop family history, and the conversations between Peter and Olivia. And even with the flaws, the intricacies of the science in this episode were some of my favourite so far.
Definitely a solid stand-alone episode, but I am waiting in eager anticipation for next week’s episode which seems – from the promotional trailers – like it will return to the “mythology” of the show in a big way.
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