Welcome to Fringe Observations: the comprehensive clues and eastereggs round-up for episode 3.04 “Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?”.
We dive deep into the mythology, symbolism and resonating factors to explore the meaning and unlock the interconnected mystery of Fringe.
This post has been updated with an amendment to the “Baaad Robot” easteregg.
Seeing red-blooded universian Altlivia wearing the blue of Over Here is worth a mention, particularly in light of Newton questioning her loyalties. By the end of the episode Altlivia sheds the blue and leaves her commitment in no question. Or so it appears. Peter is also wearing his baby blue – the color he was wearing when Walter snatched him from his home world.
Oh Livia Blues
This rare moment of Altlivia intimacy mirrors Olivia’s bathroom retreat in the premiere:
Oh the parallels!
As speculated in “The Plateau” Observations, the Van Horn Tavern sign was the episode clue for “Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?” – featuring the return of Senator Van Horn the shapeshifter. Who seems to have changed his name from Dennis to James since last season. I guess the shapeshifter decided that James was a better fit. That or continuity error.
Poor Senator Van Horn. Shapeshifter or not, he was a good tipper, and those lemonade kids will be in business for years thanks to his custom alone. That sweet little scene was an insight into his growing humanity, but perhaps not the first. We initially met Van Horn when he displayed superb bench-warming skills back in “Earthling” – an episode where he did his old pal Broyles a solid:
Van Horn: “I’m not CIA”
Broyles: “There was a time [James] when you would say that as a matter of pride, not an excuse.”
Van Horn: “I understand..what this case means to you. But I am sorry, there is nothing I can do here.”
*Broyles gets up to walk away*
Broyles: “Please give my regards to Patricia.”
Van Horn later comes through for Broyles by sending him the classified files so that he could pursue his case – was this an act of kindness from a shapeshifter who had developed genuine companionship for Broyles, or was he just keeping up appearances? It’s interesting to speculate.
Either way, it’s possible that writers may have planned Van Horn’s shapeshifter reveal all along, particularly because they had Broyles mention Patricia. It informed us of the relationship between Broyles and Van Horn, but the scene is now a lot more meaningful. I mean, who thought we’d ever get to see Patricia?
Furthermore, Van Horn’s bemusement at Peter’s plea to ‘save his dying pen’ back in “Olivia” now also has a new dimension to it. We could take the view that shapeshifter Van Horn still hadn’t quite developed an proper understanding of the human desire to preserve objects near to the end of their life cycle.
And his response: “nah, it’s OK, we’re almost finished here”, may actually have been an unwitting reference to the shapeshifters demise – although one sincerely hopes not. I’ve learned to love them, OK.
And what about weird CIA guy. Shapeshifter?
Bridging The Gap
Bridges are always useful metaphors, and Fringe loves them. This shot of Newton running repairs underneath a bridge seems to symbolize his importance in the war between the two worlds. Although rather than repairing the conflict, he’s actively trying to sever the bond. That he’s under the bridge also speaks of his ‘out-of’sight’ status in the battle. A ‘machine’ built by man to win his wars, not to celebrate in them. It makes his final sacrifice in ensuring that Altlivia bedded Peter that much more..selfless. Not that he didn’t get immense satisfaction from it, but you know.
Altlivia and Peter also begin their ‘no talking’ session against a picture of a bridge. Will their new relationship unite the two worlds and bridge the gap? Unlikely, but who knows.
I should also mention that Newton gets captured inside a bridge – a character who had ‘tunnel vision’, this seems representative of his walk towards the light as he enters fusion.
Notice how Altlivia travels down the stairs as Newton fixes an idea in her mind – she literally begins to descend down the levels of her own morality. As I suggested in my review, this scene was the moment Newton won his personal battle with Altlivia – not the cell exchange, that was simply a mauling. A personal battle, but knowing Newton, he was no doubt thinking of the war as he planted those cruel seeds in the garden of Altliv.
The fact that Newton shot Van Horn through the eye is no coincidence. On a symbolic level, I mean. This powerful image of Van Horn’s hollow, yet ‘bleeding eye’ socket screams perception, and highlights the idea that the only part-human shapeshifters were unable to see human life properly.
Certainly the were capable of the human experience, as I suggest in my review, but they still lacked a certain connection to the human take on life. Van Horn, for example, couldn’t understand why Peter would want to “save a dying pen” – the very notion was ridiculous to him. So much so that he tried desperately to relate to the idea by suggesting that the pen was alive in the first place! Interesting when you think about it, and very telling.
Bleeding also represents loss. The loss of sight (perception) and his loss of life. And yet this sleeper agent, this product of science, was mourned, in a way, by Patricia. So his ‘tears’ may also signify deep sadness – the disappointment at having to let go of something that he has come to identify with. And let’s not forget the lemonade – the best he’d ever tasted. They don’t make it like that in shapeshifter purgatory.
And of course, eyes are the windows to the soul. Do shapeshifters have souls? It’s a question that was not answered, only implied. Van Horn’s eye is still open – why didn’t Walter close it like he has done with deceased humans in the past? Does he not see shapeshifters as deserving of this human custom?
Identity In A Box
Ray’s shapeshifting device all scratched and beaten. As we know he’s been Over Here for a while, and most likely used it frequently before growing accustomed the the Duffy way of life.
It got me thinking about the human boxes that hold the power to transform our identity. A wardrobe, perhaps? A make-up box, maybe? If the shapeshifters are a metaphor (and they surely are), then the device that allows them to shift may also serve as a description of some kind.
Van Horn Empathy Test
“Pretending to have an emotional connection, caused a real one to form. The ability to process complex emotions is built into the machines operating system. We just need to find a stronger trigger to find the data.” – Walter.
Walter came up with an ingenious way to locate the shapeshifters memory disk by performing a kind of empathy test. I dubbed this the ‘Van Horn Empathy Test’ in my review as it serves as a reference to Do Androids and Blade Runner‘s Voigt-Kampff test – a polygraph like machine used to test whether an individual is truly human through a series of emotionally provocative questions.
The belief is that androids are incapable of feeling human emotions and so they will fail the test.
Our ‘Van Horn Empathy Test’ performs a similar function. Patricia tries to connect with Van Horn to stimulate an emotional response. As we see, Van Horn eventually responds once she speaks to him and not at him. The more real she was with him, the more she penetrated Van Horn’s emotional walls.
Are shapeshifters capable of experiencing human emotions? Fringe says: you betcha!
Though note how they don’t go all the way. They temper any notion of shapeshifter emotion through the restraint shown by Ray (notice that while he clearly has feelings for his adopted son, he also struggles somewhat to connect with that emotion as succinctly as a human might), and the apathy of everyone’s favorite antagonist, Thomas of Newton.
I do believe that Newton also experienced ‘the human condition’, but on a very low, left of center, level. I mean, when was The Newt ever conventional? Exactly.
Back to Van Horn. It’s also worth noticing that he responded to Patricia when she was about to ask for ‘his’ forgiveness. Isn’t that interesting, considering how significant forgiveness is in this story? What is it about this pure emotional need that compels a being – any being – to involuntarily lurch back from the dead and respond?
While the focus is always on what it means for a individual to seek forgiveness, the capacity to forgive shouldn’t be overlooked.
“No, he’s on a loop”
Ah, the cyclical nature of the story is represented at least once per episode in an interesting way. And so it goes. And goes. And goes.
Hands in prayer position. Walter looming over a dead shapeshifter he ‘possibly’ had some hand in designing. What are you searching for, Walter? What is going on inside? Talk to us.
Observing The Observer
Do Observers dream of getting involved? That is the question.
Hand In Robot Hand
Walter says he’s “no longer high”. Shortly after he ascends with a shapeshifter. Totally unintentional device, and a random observation for sure, but indulge me. What could this imply about mankind’s progression to the next stage of evolution?
Does he rise hand in robot hand with machine? Can he make it to the next level without his ‘vacuum cleaner’ to do his dirty work for him? Will machines continue to develop ambitions of their own? Will humans become obsolete?
This one’s more for elimination purposes. The shape of the shifter memory disk somewhat resembles the long-speculated-about symbol on Newton’s head (inset). Unfortunately, the resemblance is not nearly close enough to give us the connection we have been hoping for.
A Dagger to My Heart
On the wall of Newton’s cell are the letters “H.I.M” (or H.L.M?), beside what appears to be a bloody dagger. Is this another ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ reference, or does it pertain to something else?
Will we see someone getting stabbed in the next episode? Will we see the introduction of another 3-name-villain in the mould of David Robert Jones and Thomas Jerome Newton? *swoonage*
Frenemy At The Gates II
The faux gatekeeper walks through the gate as Newton’s fate is sealed.
UPDATE: On closer inspection, I realized that this easteregg appears to be a clip from The Invisible Boy rather than Forbidden Planet. Cheers to those who also let me know. Amended appropriately below.
Robby ties into the shapeshifter storyline and helps us to consider the ‘intelligence’ and freewill of machines. Though the significance of this easteregg also seems to relate to Peter’s role in the war.
For added context, here’s the plot outline for The Invisible Boy:
The Invisible Boy is a curious mixture of lighthearted playfulness and menacing evil. As it begins, ten-year-old Timmie Merinoe (Eyer) seems only to want a playmate. After he is mysteriously invested with superior intelligence (with the aid of an hypnotic suggestion that the super computer plants in his mind), he reassembles a robot that his father and other scientists have been ready to discard as unrepairable junk [..] When Timmie expresses a wish to be able to play without being observed by his parents, the robot—with the aid of an evil Supercomputer–makes him invisible. At first Timmie uses his invisibility to play simple pranks on his parents and others, but the mood of the film soon changes, when it becomes clear that the super computer intends to take over the world through a satellite.
One of the most remarkable things about this film is the near-indifference of Timmie’s parents to his invisibility. His scientist father expresses no curiosity about how Timmie has achieved his invisibility and seems to be concerned mostly about the difficulty of disciplining him when he can’t be seen.
Another remarkable thing is that when the supercomputer threatens to torture Timmie to death, unless Dr Merinoe provides an encryption key that will allow its atomic power supply to be moved, Dr Merinoe basically says “Take a walk”, placing the value of his son’s life below that of the computer’s threat to rule the world.
Here are a few things we can take from this easteregg:
- Walternate could be argued to be the super-computer. The doomsday device = Robby the Robot. Peter = Timmie. And Walter = Dr. Merinoe.
- In many ways, Timmie is a fitting representative our story’s Peter. Timmie reassembled Robby the Robot, while Peter plays a similar function in relation to the sparking the doomsday device and finding its missing pieces.
- I also wonder if this easteregg is in part the writers way of acknowledging that Peter has become a bit of a plot device? Peter has played the ‘Invisible Boy’ role for quite some time. Like Timmie, he’s at the center of the struggle, but he sort of fades away into the background.
- Has Walternate planted a hypnotic suggestion in Peter’s mind, just as the super-computer did with Timmie? We’ve speculated before about the level of control that Walternate and/or the doomsday device might have over Peter – will that soon come into play? Is this another reason for Walternate allowing Peter to leave the alternate universe, instead of stopping him when he could? (because he could have at the end of 2.22).
- ‘The Invisible Boy’ also highlights something I’ve spoken about quite a bit on this blog. The fact that Walter is unable to put the welfare of two worlds above his ‘love’ for Peter. (I maintain that Walter’s motives – including his recent admission that he’d do it all over again – have been self-interested, considering 16 billion lives are potentially at stake). In the film, Dr Merino places the value of his son’s life below that of the rest of the world, which is in stark contrast to Walter (and possibly Walternate). Will Walter eventually make such a turn?
- Robby the Robot seems to be a nice metaphor for the doomsday device. Robby was brought back from the future, while the doomsday device is “old tech” (possibly from the past, or so old that it’s from the future). A potentially interesting parallel.
- In the movie, Robby appears to be following two sets of orders – one from Timmie and the other from the super-computer. Will Peter have a fight on his hands to control the doomsday device? Can someone else also power it?
- If we’re talking playing roles, it could also be argued that the doomsday device is the super-computer. Which would then beg the question – how much sentient control does it have?
- This easteregg also pushed through a thought that has been residing at the back of my mind. The so-called doomsday device – while it might be a weapon in the traditional sense, I wonder whether it’s also a type of ‘wishing’ or thought-mechanism for the person who has control over it? To me this would be right in line with the Fringe story, with the importance of dreams, mind control and perception. Perhaps Walternate’s desire to heal his world using the device has a different connotation in terms of how that will be done? Just something to think about.
The following portion still applies but is less relevant now in light of this easteregg being The Invisible Boy and not Forbidden Planet. I’ve deleted accordingly:
Upon being instructed by his master to kill the “id monster” (who is the subconscious entity of his human master), Robby is unable to fulfill the request because doing so mean for him to disobey his programming and kill a human. Robby is smart enough to detect a ‘human’ but his inability to think for himself and override his programming leaves him conflicted and useless. Though the shapeshifters display elements of freewill, in some ways they mirror Robby. Note that Ray didn’t kill Walter, even after he was attacked. Was this out of kindness, or did Bellie place some kind of ‘law’ in the shapeshifters programming, preventing them from killing Walter – someone who could be argued to be the “id monster” in our story, the alter ego of Walternate. (Though granted, the id monster in Fringe has many different levels and interpretations. For now I want to focus on the Robby reference). It’s something we’ve touched on previously, and it’s worth considering how much freedom the shapeshifters have. Bellie was a believer in laws and ethics – skewed as they were, would he really create hybrid assassins without some kind of fail-safe for the ‘owner’ – in this case, Walternate? It’s worth remembering that while Newton had issues with some humans, he LOVED his world, and he seemed to have enormous respect for his ‘master’. Are these two loyalties real or programmed? Perhaps a bit of both? Certainly both sides of the coin have been represented, shapeshifters can be ‘shaped’ by their experiences, but some are less changeable.
And what about that shapeshifter who apologized to Walter in “The Man From The Other Side” - what compelled him to do that, considering he was virtually an embryo with little ‘real world’ experience to draw from? Back to the main point – and this is where I think the reference may tie into Peter “The Machine” Bishop. He is able to operate this device of potential mass devastation, but why, and how? Has the machine been specifically programmed for Peter? Has Peter been specifically programmed for the machine? Does his connection to this machine make Peter more human, or “tin can”? How will Peter handle the conflict of being connected to the machine and the fates of two worlds? And perhaps most importantly of all, can Peter fight his fate and override his own programming..his own destiny? Boy, must he be wondering.
I Newt He Loved Blue
I see no irony in the fact that upon his death, Newton is wearing a lovely shade of blue for the Over Here universe. Nope, no irony whatsoever.
I observe that Altlivia mounts Peter. What does this tell us? I’ll save that for Fringe Observations: After Dark.
- Ray’s (spiritual) passing on to the next stage is seemingly implied through the gust of wind as Newton dumps his dead body in the car.
- As you would expect there were a lot of parallels to both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner. Another small reference was the naming of Ray Duffy which is surely a shout to Roy Batty. You can see the intent with the proximity of those two names. And I still maintain that they somehow made Altlivia look extremely Rachael Rosenesque in the end scene with Newton, with those dead eyes that have haunted me ever since.
- Newton also shared parallels with Roy Batty. (movie spoilers) Roy caused an ultimate shift in Rick Deckard’s perspective by a final act of humanity. It can also be seen that Newton caused dramatic shift in Altlivia, through his final psychological and human act of manipulating her to sleep with Peter.
- The glyphs for this episode spelled SHIFT – as in shapeshifter, as in shift in perspective.
- UPDATE: I noticed the parallel between Ray’s scene with Nate and Peter’s nightmare of his abduction in “Dream Logic”, but forgot to include it. Thanks to mlj for the reminder. Visual comparison coming soon.