Finales are hard work for some shows. On some levels, they are easy, in that they get to burn through story they’ve been holding back on all season long. But pacing everything in a satisfying manner can be difficult, often leading to rushed episodes that are sound and fury signifying…well, something, but something much less than potentially intended. “Fringe” is attempting to get around that conundrum by essentially staging a three-part finale, which kicked off tonight. As Act 1 of that trilogy, “6:02 AM EST” laid some satisfying groundwork for the next fortnight. But as an actual episode? It left a little something to be desired.

[Recap of Friday's (April 22) "Fringe" after the break...]

Now, before you huff and puff and head to the comments section, let’s take a moment. Deep breaths. Let’s talk serialized narratives for a moment. Let’s talk about what they should accomplish. Networks tend to be wary of them for well-established, economically-based reasons: they want newcomers now and in the future to be able to drop in on an episode and still understand what’s going on. The thought process on high suggests, not entirely incorrectly, that shows such as “Fringe” that are heavy serialized hurt chances for larger viewers by featuring storylines that can be impenetrable to the casual viewer. Nothing revelatory there, but I think there’s something networks miss.

After all, most episodes of “Fringe” subsume or incorporate the larger narrative inside miniature, episode-sized bites. A person sitting down to an episode such as “6B” might have a little trouble following along at first, but the über-narrative of “Fringe” isn’t altogether difficult to understand. (I’d offer this summary to give a friend/family member the proper context: “Two worlds, one machine: WHO YA GOT?”) People can latch onto “Fringe” more easily than some executives might think: each episode by and large works in and of itself as a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. They are signposts along the cross-country road that is a season. Season 3 started in metaphorical/metaphysical Boston, and is nearly all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It’s not enough for the season to work as whole, although that’s a noble and laudatory goal. The only way for anyone to agree to a ride that long (either as a hardcore or occasional fan) is to have those individual legs of the journey be entertaining. Then, and only then, can one look back at the long journey and truly appreciate how far they’ve come.

“6:02 AM EST” is an odd narrative duck in this context. It comments upon all that’s past, and gazes wearily into the future, but there’s little forward push in the present. We got a lot of exposition, some nice Peter/Walter and Peter/Olivia moments, and a ridiculous amount of foreshadowing. It’s incredibly difficult to really draw a lot out of this episode, other than to note that prophecies work about as well in the Bad Robot Universe as they do in the Mutant Enemy Universe. Which is to say they work horribly. Peter as Modern Day Metruvian Doomsday Man? Not so much, apparently. All that work put in by The First People? Kaput, thanks to an interdimensional booty call. (Ain’t that always the way?)

Normally, this would be the part where I try and pull some of my own future glasses out and try to see what all this might mean. But with two weeks left, I’m kind of content to let the events wash over me. I’m far more fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics at play surrounding the machine than in the physical mechanics of the machine or Sam Weiss’ Aurora Borealis View-Master. Those things are fun, to be sure, but not nearly as gripping as the all-too-calm-before-the-storm sunset for Olivia and Peter, or Walter praying to a God he thinks answered his prayer back in “White Tulip.” In our heart of hearts, we’re pretty sure Peter isn’t going to die, but the characters don’t know that, and it’s no surprise that Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble knocked their scenes together out of the park tonight in this universe.

Torv and Noble also did nice work Over There tonight, with both script and performances eschewing histrionics that would have been so easy to invoke given the circumstances. Walternate neither revels in his imminent victory nor dwells too deeply in the suffering of his son on the other side. He understands of the consequences but doesn’t possess the humility to stop himself from activating the device. For her part, Fauxlivia makes an almost immediate decision to cross over, which is less to do with saving her baby daddy and more to do with realizing that a genocidal granddad might not be the best role model for little Henry. She’s not only saving our world: she’s in some ways saving Walternate from himself. After locking Fauxlivia up in the same cell that once housed Olivia, he chides her for having “the luxury of [her] ideals,” but Walternate’s lack of any himself contributes mightily to his self-justification for the act.

As far as the Sam Weiss stuff goes: well, basically we didn’t get much. Nina Sharp had to deliver a painful amount of exposition that I could sum up as, “I figured you didn’t need to know about the bowling alley guy’s connection to The Doomsday Device so long as you and Peter were having sex.” Other than that, we saw him writing down equations after peering through what looked like the same viewing device created by Walter in the 1980’s to peer Over There. Of all the long arcs this season, the one involving The First People has probably been the most problematic. It hasn’t been bad, per say, so much as incredibly opaque.

Now it may all turn out to turn out fantastically over the next two weeks. But while the tension between Over Here and Over There has played out in essentially every episode this season, we’ve only had glancing mentions of Weiss and The First People. Then again, answering the question “Who are The First People?” probably answers the question “What is the Doomsday Device?”, so I understand why it’s only being answered in the final stretch of the season. That being said, given the show’s nimbleness at dropping small hints about its larger narrative in the confines of what amount to stand-along stories within a single episode, it’s too bad Weiss couldn’t have factored in more regularly once his connection to the machine was established.

Here’s the thing about episodes such as tonight: if you liked it, you call it a “table setter.” If you don’t like it, you call it a “placeholder.” I’m calling it a table setter, a potentially necessary one that will allow the next two weeks to have non-stop momentum. But I would be lying if I said I wish table setters weren’t necessary this late in the game. At least the episode contained some stellar character moments to overcome the relative inertia of the plot itself. Hopefully the next two weeks will combine both elements, as the best episodes of “Fringe” always do.

 

A few bullets about tonight’s ep…

*** I love this show, but good God, they have some of the weirdest episode titles ever. “6:02 AM EST” doth not roll trippingly off the tongue (or the keyboard). This show is like the “Final Fantasy” of television shows in terms of naming its individual installments. (Says the man who owns more “Final Fantasy” games than he should ever publicly admit.)

*** Should I be asking “Wouldn’t Walternate getting a blood sample of his son while Peter was Over There in Season 2 have solved a ton of problems?” Or is that a question the show wants me to just keep to myself?

*** Note to self: never eat at the Bishops’ residence on Tuesdays. EVER.

*** With all the talk of electromagnetic events this week, and even mention of Faraday cages, I kept waiting for Eloise Hawking to stroll into Massive Dynamic and give everyone disapproving looks.

*** “I was told on good authority that if you and Peter were together, everything would be OK.” Someone actually wrote that line, and someone else made Blair Brown say it. Unbelievable. Is this “Fringe” or “Gossip Girl”?

*** On the other hand, I quite enjoyed Peter’s line to Broyles: “If this works, and I save both universes, I want you to consider me officially retired.” Not as funny as Torv’s “oh God don’t let Walter’s penis touch me” looks, but a nice moment all the same.

*** If Peter turns into Dr. Manhattan in the series finale, I might lose it. I have no idea if that will be in a good way or a bad way. 

 

What did you make of tonight’s episode: table setter or placeholder? Does Weiss’ role in the grand scheme intrigue you or frustrate you? With Peter now out of commission, how much can we rely on the schematics showing him inside the device? Leave your thoughts below!