FRINGE: The Equation

Join TLN Author InferMage in an in-depth look at one of the episodes from Fringe.

If you haven’t watched Fringe, it’s something you should really consider.  Series creators J. J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman are absolutely masterful, and they’ve brought along an excellent cast and crew.  Everything about this show is fully thought through and thought-provoking, and it really does upset me here that I can’t include the episode legally in this post.  If you are intrigued, though, as always, feel free to Netflix, Blockbuster, or buy the season and see how amazing this show is for yourself.

Now, this episode revolves around a child abduction case.  This child happens to be a musical prodigy, and the woman (who happens to be played by Brita, from Community, by the way!) who kidnapped him happens to have the same features as a woman who’s kidnapped several experts in scientific field over several years, apparently hypnotizing the victims using a series of flashing lights.  When the victims return from where she’s taken them to, they all have psychotic breaks from reality.  Following a lead, Dr. Walter Bishop returns to St. Claire’s, the mental institution he had been hospitalized at for several years to speak with one of his friend’s there, who appears to have been one of the woman’s victims.

When Olivia goes to speak to Dr. Sumner, who heads St. Claire’s, about speaking with astrophysicist Dashell Kim, Dr. Sumner immediately shows himself to be an uncaring psychologist with very little interest in his patients.  “I can’t imagine what help Dashell could be to the FBI,” he says.  Turning the conversation to Dr. Bishop’s mental stability, Dr. Sumner says, “He has no business being out among the rest of us.”  He seems to view his patients as inherently flawed, to play no contributing role to outside society and to have no connection to “average” people.

The hospital itself is a foreboding, threatening place, appearing old and in disrepair physically, and complete with mood-setting music full of deep, booming notes, reminiscent of a heart pounding in fear.  Plot-wise, we see Dr. Bishop entering the facility, see the look of concern on his face, notice the guard armed with a rifle behind him (I’m fairly sure typical mental health facilities don’t include armed guards at the doors, but it was interesting to see that image included and accepted as commonplace by the characters), and watch the metal prison-like door clang shut behind him as he passes through.

As Dr. Bishop meets with Dashell, and tries to get him to speak about the unsolved equation Dashell had become obsessed with following his abduction (as it was learned the piano piece the abducted child had become obsessed with was the musical equivalent of the same mathematical formula), Dashell immediately shrinks from the topic, saying, “I don’t do math anymore.  Mathematical formulae are not conductive to my mental stability.”  We see Dr. Sumner and his staff appear to have taken a position with their patients of removing them from the familiar aspects of their lives from before their stay at the facility.  Indeed, something one obsesses over is just ignored entirely in an apparent hope that it will cause symptoms of mental illness to fade away.

We see this further as Dr. Sumner decides that because Dr. Bishop has entered the facility, Dr. Sumner has a moral obligation to keep Dr. Bishop out of the community despite what may be a lack of legal right to keep him there (especially considering he is obstructing an FBI investigation, as Olivia points out).  Dr. Sumner says of Dr. Bishop, “Indulging his pseudoscientific notions has exacerbated the worst features of his mental illness.”  Aside from the fact that Dr. Sumner is admitting to taking classified information from an FBI consultant, we see that he marginalizes Dr. Bishop by calling his work abnormal and fanciful, turning Walter’s professional interests into a mere feature of mental illness because it is something he does not understand.  As the audience knows, what Dr. Bishop has to say of his work is unusual, but factual in the show’s context.

Later on, as we return to Dr. Bishop and Dashell, Dashell finally speaks of what went on while he had been abducted by the woman with the flashing lights, Joanne Ostler (a neurologist, by the way).  Dashel says, “She promised me what I wanted most of all.  When I couldn’t solve the equation, she took it all away.  None of it was real…She put me in a dungeon, and filled my mind with images of people I loved and tortured them, trying to suck the answer she wanted out of my head.”  That sounds rather like stereotypical understandings of mental institutions like this St. Claire’s, doesn’t it?  By Dr. Sumner’s portrayal, it seems psychologists are just uncaring staff members, trying to “suck” the answer of how to deal with a mental illness from a patient’s mind, perhaps “leading him on”, in a sense, with treatment and medication that doesn’t seem to lead to any discharge.  Meanwhile, the patient’s loved ones might visit, perhaps visibly uncomfortable at the knowledge of a family member’s non-typical mental status.

Fringe paints a very convincing picture of contemporary society’s distrust of mental institutions, as this episode follows these parallel plot points of hospitalization and abduction.  It’s interesting how mental health institutions gain such a convincing reputation of hostile environments, and maybe it’s something some facilities should work on improving.  After all, it wasn’t long after this that news broke of an even more disturbing real-life facility staff being completely inappropriate.

And as a bonus, here’s the alleged “full” theme (which might be the fully completed “Equation” piano piece of this episode?).

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