Welcome to 2012, “Fringe” fans. Did you miss the show? Most likely. Did you miss my reviews? Less likely. But that’s fine: it was probably as little fun to read my frustrations with the show as it was to write them. I’ve gone over my problems with this fourth season week after week this season, so regurgitating them here is pointless and waste of all of our times. What I will say is this: while “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” didn’t solve those systemic problems by a long shot, it was certainly a step towards something better in what may be the show’s final season.

The biggest shift? Using Peter Bishop’s third-rail status as a way to both drive the narrative engine and explicitly comment on ways in which these unfamiliar iterations of beloved characters’ interaction with the singular constant in this show’s universe. If the first few weeks of Season 4 played as a series of “what if” episodes, “Back” gave temporary purpose to this reality by grounding it in some old-fashioned character-based moments that reflected as much on those versions no longer around as much as those presently onscreen. Peter’s presence helps tether these individual moments since his mere presence acts as a type of mirror to reflect what has been lost and bring it temporarily back into the fold.
 
Let’s take one example and extrapolate things from there. The Peter/Fauxlivia relationship in Season 3 was spectacularly tangled, driven through complications that were both fantastical (he’s dating two versions of the same woman without realizing it) and realistic (love can make us blind in ways both positive and negative). Undoing the reality we saw last year means that there’s no longer little Henry roaming around, something that still drives me up a wall. But if we can’t have him around, it’s good to have small moments in which Fauxlivia is caught off guard tonight by a seeming stranger’s trust in her inherent goodness. It’s a moment that pays homage to Season 3 precisely because the stranger is anything but. The dramatic irony exists not simply because we know something that NONE of the characters know. That way lies madness. Rather, even though Peter is under the false assumption about his own reality, he sees the inherent qualities that still persist in those that no longer recognize him.
 
Again, this isn’t ideal, but at least we’re no longer regressing in terms of the show’s overall storytelling. Pre-Peter, Season 4 was horrific, asexual fanfic. Upon Peter’s return, the show didn’t seem to know what to do with him. Now, his journey to return home is like pinball careening wildly across the table, without regard for what it’s going to hit. It’s messy, but it’s the kind of messy that unearths truths hidden in plain sight. It forces characters that shouldn’t interact come face to face with each other. The results tonight were often fascinating, especially the fun Lincoln-on-Lincoln snipefest. Would I rather see such a confrontation with the two Lincolns I got to know this year? Absolutely. But that ship has sailed.
 
What’s left is a story about the New World Order Mr. Jones as the culprit behind the shapeshifters. Had FOX not been determined to spoil his return via its PR department, his reveal would have been fairly shocking. I was trying in vain to think of the third option for their creation that the show had been teasing for weeks, but honestly didn’t think of him until he showed up in the Fall finale tease for 2012. Jones was the hook that got me into the show in Season 1, transforming a solid if unremarkable show into a horror house of oddness. The bonds between the characters made me fall in love with the show, but Jones was always a character that made me sit on the edge of my couch whenever he appeared.
 
His appearance ties into what seems to be the central theme of this season: even when things are seemingly put back together, something will always try to undo those bonds. As Yeats once famously wrote, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…” In this case, the forging of the two universes and the removal of Peter were acts enabled by The Observers in order to guarantee stability. Of course, such a guarantee is/was fruitless. Harkening back again to Yeats, the next line of his poem “The Second Coming” speaks of “mere anarchy” being unleashed upon the world…or, in the case of “Fringe,” upon two worlds. All of this works, and speaks to the show’s overall romantic ethos that actually relying upon other people is both a noble goal and the only way to prevent Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” from drowning us all.
 
So here’s today study question: did we need this new world order to achieve anything related to the show’s current narrative arc? If you took out every single thing related to erasing Peter and the domino effect thereafter, would that prevent Alterna-Jones from still being a third party responsible for once again plunging two newly-united worlds back into the brink of war? I think you can guess my particular answer to that. Now, of course, everything around that central narrative (i.e., the character interactions) would change, which means that’s the more important thing to discuss. In that regard, it is still unfortunately true that everyone besides Peter is in some ways as much a shapeshifter as Alterna-Brendan apparently was. The new Walternate is seemingly more like Walter than before, but is that important or merely anecdotal? Last season, we lost Over There Broyles to a noble sacrifice. Now, he’s either a traitor or a shapeshifter. In either case, his sacrifice has been undone, which makes the pathos we felt upon his death now seem silly.
 
What made the Over There versions of these characters work in Season 3 was that the show demonstrated how equally “real” they were to “our” versions. I put both words in quotations marks because last season shows our arbitrary those words are. Context is key, and the context for each world was equally legitimate based on your point of view. Both occupied the same reality, just different slivers of it. And now, both are occupying what feels like an un-reality, one forced upon them by external sources that don’t occupy different slivers but rather a completely different universe. While Peter is paying homage to those we experienced as real in those first three seasons, the truth is that those people, along with their lives, loves, and losses, have not yet come back. And they may never come back.
 
All of this points to the cryptic words of The Observer, seemingly mortally wounded, telling Olivia that in every permutation of the future, she is doomed to die. Perhaps this ties back to the mysterious Mr. X we met in “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”. But maybe, just maybe, this means that the show’s narrative is finally demonstrating the futility of The Observers’ efforts to rewrite reality, and that their meddling to date has only made matters worse. I won’t hazard a guess to where this is all going (I’m guessing her heart stops, and Peter smooches her back to life), mostly because the mechanics of this show don’t terribly interest me in this point. The only way in which they serve a purpose is to get me back to the people I cared about for the first three seasons. Sure, it’s heartbreaking to see Peter repeatedly tell people he’s not the version they remember, even though we all know he’s actually right. But such heartache is muted without any sense of knowing if anyone, including Peter, will ever truly know how right he is. Tonight wasn’t a bad start. But let’s see where this journey takes us before I start getting truly excited again.
 
What did you think of the show’s return? If you’ve been happy all along, did this help/hurt your opinion? If you’ve been on the fence like me, did this help you jump off or jump ship? Sound off below!