One of the great pleasures of reviewing “Fringe” each week is that there’s rarely a lack of things to discuss. Writing about certain shows is akin to drawing blood from a stone every seven days, to be sure. But there’s usually a lot of ground to cover when it comes to this one. Even when I don’t like a particular episode (and both previous ones this season have given me pause), there’s hardly a time when I stare at my computer screen, blankly staring at the cursor blinking before me. Well, congratulations, “Alone in the World”: you’ve achieved the seemingly impossible.
I don’t want to make this space a weekly rehash of what I’ve called “The Peter Problem.” If you read this space after each episode (and comments lately indicate that many of you do), then you already know my issues with the narrative steps taken since Peter fused the two worlds together. Repeating these concerns won’t doing you or me any good. But “Alone in the World” married a boring case-of-the-week with a personal quandary that was well acted but still feels utterly unnecessary. If you thought anvils were dropping left and right over the first two hours of Season 4, then it was Wile E. Coyote’s worst nightmare this week.
The episode started with a visit from Walter’s doctor from St. Claire’s. We haven’t seen Bruce Sumner since Season 1’s “The Equation”. He mainly appears to set up tension surrounding Walter’s possible re-admittance to that facility. The problem with this lies two-fold: 1) we know he’s not crazy, and more important, 2) we know the show won’t actually follow through with that option. They are devoting a majority of their narrative energy in getting Peter back in a semi-believable fashion, and hardly have time to separate Olivia from both Bishop boys at this point.
With Walter in a downward spiral, along comes young Aaron. He has a friend. That friend is a giant spore-like neural network living underground in a manmade facility. The two bond like Elliot and E.T., only in this case, E.T. convinces Elliot to lure two bullies into his neural lair as appetizers. The less said about said network (named Gus* by Walter as a way to avoid continually saying “neural network) the better, since it’s up there among the lamer threats in he show’s history. No, the focus of the episode lay between Walter, Aaron, and The Boy Who Never Should Have Lived.
* “Gus”. “Fringe.” Just sayin’. Now where’s that box cutter…
Looking at Walter’s solution to Aaron’s connection with Gus is informative. It’s a metaphor in many ways for the approach that the show takes week in and week out. Walter’s analysis starts in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with things like decision making. It’s not exactly the epicenter of one’s intellect, but it linked with personality traits and social behavior. But Walter realizes the true connection between Aaron and Gus lies in the limbic area, which is associated with emotion. That emotion provides the way to solve the episode’s problem is emblematic of the show’s “heart over head” approach to the scientific wonders of the world.
This approach simultaneously lets Aaron break his mental link with Gus while Walter temporarily reestablishes his mental link with Peter. It’s an approach that I embrace: give me a strong emotional response over a strong mathematical equation any day. That humans can break the rules of nature through sheer willpower, emotion, and empathy gives them an agency that can undo even the worst circumstances. Even the rewriting of reality itself.
The big push forward in solving “The Peter Problem” comes at the end, when we realize that Olivia, in addition to Walter, has been “seeing” him all this time. Absolutely nothing in these past three episodes suggests this fact, but that’s fine: this version of Olivia is so tightly wound and buttoned up (emotionally as well as sartorially) that she wouldn’t give the game away unless Walter did first. And we know Olivia likes to draw men she sees in her mind (hello, Mr. X!), so her having the drawing handy makes sense. I’m guessing over the next few weeks we’ll see Fauxlivia and maybe even Walternate confess similar sightings on their behalf, building into a huge “Doctor Who”-esque moment in which their collective yearning for Peter will bring him back. (As The Doctor might say: doomsday devices are coooooool.)
But again, at the risk of breaking my own self-imposed rules: I am not sure why we need to see how Peter’s absence would affect these people as a major, multi-episode arc. We get it: Peter was important to them all, and their lives would have all been different. Point taken. I cry uncle. You win. Part of any drama is the need to overcome obstacles, to be sure. And many will see this particular phase of “Fringe” as a necessary step in order to bring its characters to the next phase of this interdimensional tale. And that could very well be true when all is said and done. But there’s a major difference in having characters deal with obstacles that stem from their own decisions, versus creating a new set of scenarios in which all previous decisions have been rewritten to fit the new reality.
That Anna Torv and (especially) John Noble are playing the hell out of these new iterations of Olivia and Walter is undeniable. Not for a single second would I want anyone to think things onscreen are ringing untrue in an emotional sense. It just all rings as overcomplicated and unnecessary in a narrative sense. The show is approaching a storytelling crossroads in the near future, and the possibility of a 42-car pileup at that intersection is incredibly likely. The two likeliest outcomes** from what’s currently transpiring: 1) the timeline in which both Peters died as children stays intact when he returns, meaning that the timeline before Peter entered the machine is gone forever, or 2) all of the episodes this season are set in a timeline that will disappear once Peter returns. In Scenario 1, we have lost the first three seasons of the show as having true bearing upon current action. In Scenario 2, we wasted a large chunk of time in what might be the final season of the show on a “what if” scenario.
How is either option acceptable?
**I say “likeliest”, not “only.” I realize there are other permutations here, but all of them give me a migraine when trying to tease them out. Most of them involve Colonel Broyles looking at his own corpse while Baby Henry has the greatest existential crisis any toddler has ever experience.
Now, the “what if” phrase caused a near riot last Spring when I floated it in my Season 3 finale review. So let me explain more fully what I mean by a “what if” scenario. Insomuch as Peter going to the future and gaining knowledge led him to create the interdimensional bridge, the time spent in the future mattered. But it mattered in a way that felt manipulative: the show wanted Peter to create the bridge, and did so through in a scenario that has no actual bearing on actions in the “present” of the show now. Olivia’s death in the future left me unfazed, because it will now, by definition, never happen for the people we are currently watching. Peter changed the future. That’s fine. But the writers changed the show. And with THAT I have a problem.
Much in the way that a certain storyline dominated the third season of “Sons of Anarchy” to the point of drowning out the importance of anything else***, “The Peter Problem” is an albatross hanging around the neck of “Fringe”. It’s currently as unbalanced as “SOA” was last year, because a cool cliffhanger doesn’t always guarantee a successful subsequent season. The work that “Fringe” has to do now feels less like an organic extension of its über-story. Instead, it feels like a scramble to figure out how to undo the narrative problem it created for itself. Because while the characters in the show are leading with their hearts in trying to find a man they can barely remember, the writers led with their head when they removed Peter in the first place.
***No spoilers for other shows in the comments below, please. We’re here to talk “Fringe”, though I feel the comparison is apt all the same.
In short: I want Peter back on the show, but I suspect not for the reasons that “Fringe” wants me to have him back. They want people to feel the ache of Walter and Olivia, and to have a desire to see them right the wrong enacted by The Observers. But all I feel is an intense desire to see him return so the show I used to love returns with him. And the longer this goes on, the more worried I am becoming. Some shows get a hall pass in times of uncertainty such as this, based on their previous track records. Before the end of Season 3, “Fringe” had that hall pass in my books. That I can’t see this all ending well doesn’t mean it can’t do so. But I can’t say I have full faith in the show providing a solution that’s emotionally satisfying as well as intellectually sound. Yes, the limbic region of the brain should always trump the prefrontal cortex. But I shouldn’t have to perform my own self-lobotomy to deal with Peter Bishop’s return.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Am I alone in wanting Peter back for the reasons listed above? Did Walter’s interactions with Aaron warm your heart or make you mad such a scene has to exist at all? How do you envision the world after Peter returns, and how much longer are you willing to wait? Sound off below!
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