Two stunning guest performances serve as a Rosetta stone for the season's problems
I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth repeating in light of tonight’s episode of “Fringe
.” In writing about the works either inspired by or directly overseen by J.J. Abrams, certain “patterns,” if you will, have emerged. These patterns extend to both the abstract and the concrete. The former is marked by having mysteries, time travel, and near operatic family issues. The latter is marked by a recurrence of certain objects (red balls, Slusho) and numbers. I think the red balls and fictional drinks are amusing Easter Eggs, but I think the numbers speak to something else at the heart of what I call “Earth-J.J.”: there are things in this world that are unimportant until certain people pour importance into them. Both “Alias” and “Lost” used certain numbers as a way to signify connections between events, but ultimately revealed the connection inherent in those numbers to be people. In humanizing the abstract, Earth-J.J. shows just how interconnected we all are.
It’s a grand notion, and a deeply romantic one. And it’s why so much of this fourth season of “Fringe” has driven me absolutely batty. More than ever after tonight’s episode, “And Those We’ve Left Behind,” I understand the logic behind what the show is trying to accomplish through Peter’s disappearance and reintegration. I’ve always intellectually understood what they were going after, but I didn’t understand how things would go once Peter returned. I can still appreciate what they are doing…and yet be completely unmoved by it. Oddly enough, tonight’s episode was a Rosetta Stone for helping tease out what has not worked about this season, and why that has been so frustrating for so many.
In many ways, tonight’s episode played like a “Greatest Hits” episode of “Fringe,” with callbacks to episodes like “White Tulip” (genius scientist with the power to manipulate time) and “The Man From The Other Side” (Peter attempts to breach a time-space anomaly that kills another agent). At the heart of this week’s case lay a couple inside a Brookline house. Raymond (Stephen Root), and his wife Kate (Root’s real life wife Romy Rosemont) have set off a chain reaction of time displacements, thanks to Raymond building a time chamber in their basement based off her research. He’s built the device after she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, in an effort to keep themselves in a literal bubble from disease and aging. Raymond is the classic “Fringe” sympathetic antagonist: our heart breaks for him even as he reigns down death and destruction around him. He does so unwittingly, but in getting the chamber to reset for 47 minutes (a classic Rambaldi number that Sydney Bristow would be all too familiar with), he’s also disconnected the pair from the world around them. They may live together, but plenty others will die together as a result.
Root and Rosemont are insanely good together in this episode, and I felt every emotional moment between the pair. And while it was a delight to watch, it also highlighted the fundamental problem with the rest of the series: this emotional connection is missing in every other frame of it. It didn’t help that the show used Olivia Dunham to baldly state the problems in her dialogue. At one point, Peter asks Olivia what she felt when she saw him in her dreams after he disappeared. "You're a stranger. So what would I feel?" she replies. Perfect. Couldn’t have said it better myself, Olivia. You hit the nail right on the head.
Yes, this is the entire point of this season: getting Peter to return to Kansas, as it were. He tells Broyles by the end of the hour that he must be in the wrong place, and that he has to figure out how to get home. All of this is meant to evoke a strong desire for these people to reconnect and remember what happened. But all it’s really doing is presenting obstacles that ensure we don’t get that happy reunion for quite some time. Yes, drama is defined by conflict. But if you don’t care about the people involved, what does it matter? “I was important to you, wasn’t I? The other version of me,” Olivia asks Peter inside Walter’s campus housing. He takes the tarp off the furniture, just as he did in Season 1. You know, when we didn’t know anything about these people, long before the show had done incredible work making us care about these people. If that “other version” of Olivia was important to Peter, then it’s equally important to the viewers of “Fringe” as well.
It’s one thing for characters to be disconnected, to be separated, to be at odds with the people they want to be. But it’s quite another for them to not possess the ability to reconnect or have any memory of the people they were. “Earth-J.J.” constantly puts ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Say, like time chambers. But “Fringe” is currently a chamber of secrets in which people aren’t keeping things to themselves: external forces have actually stolen things in the metaphorical night and hidden them away. That shift things away from character-based drama to deus ex Doomsday machina. Do we really need a half season of Walter cooped up in his lab, unable to look Peter in the eye? That makes sense on paper, perhaps, but plays terribly once onscreen.
In short, it’s not terrifically important to me as to the mechanics of how Peter returns, and what that means for the relationship between the two universes. Peter’s reintroduction seems to have made the once theoretical now possible, but Walter already achieved that by crossing over. So there’s nothing really new there. The only thing new is that our main characters no longer remember Peter, and Peter no longer seems sure he’s even in the right reality. Meanwhile, we had Raymond and Kate, reminding us all of the type of show “Fringe” used to be. I promised myself I’d never use this phrase again, but “Fringe”? We have to go back. Back to when these characters mattered, not only to us, but to each other. You put forth a fine episode this week, one that had all the hallmarks of a classic “Fringe” episode. But you’re missing the central component of “Earth-J.J.” right now: the relationships between its denizens. And until that returns, not unlike Peter, I’ll be looking for home.
Other observations about tonight’s “Fringe”:
*** Poor Seth Gabel. Both as an actor and as a character, he’s already been marginalized with Joshua Jackson’s return.
*** Speaking of Jackson, he’s doing great work. His annoyance at his own time jumps made me laugh, and humanized the fantastical aspects at play in the hour.
*** “Earth-J.J.” links: time bubbles link to events 4 years ago; the time chamber eventually set to 47 minutes; Peter bemoaned the lack of constants in his equations, and the use of Faraday cages, and use of the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series. Sure, in “Fringe,” it’s the 2007 World Series, but still!
*** Another unintended reference, but one I couldn’t help think about: Stephen King’s recent novel “Under the Dome,” in which a mysterious bubble drops over an entire town. The correlation between that novel and this episode break down past that, but that’s quite a fun read all the same.
*** I miss seeing the Other Universe. I wonder if/when we’ll see Peter go over there, and what might happen once he’s there.
*** Anvil Clang of the Week: Walter listening to Styx’s “Too Much Time on My Hands” while watching Peter work in his lab. For those that say “Fringe” has always been anvilicious, just watch those Raymond/Kate scenes again tonight. It’s not the show’s default position. Saying so does the show a disservice.
What did you think of tonight’s “Fringe”? A return to form, or did it highlight the season’s problems even more? Is the show handling Peter’s return well? How much longer are you willing to tolerate people not remembering him? Sound off below!
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