Recap: 'Fringe' - 'Brave New World, Part One'
The show reveals the man behind the curtain...but didn't they already do that two episodes ago?
I’m not going to go into a tremendous amount of speculation about tonight’s “Fringe,” since the first hour of two-part finales are tricky ones to really analyze. Everything truly important will go down next week, with this installment serving primarily as set-up for the major shakeups coming down the pipe in the season (not series) finale seven days hence. My biggest instant reaction to the first part of “Brave New World”? I want that second hour NOW. Not because I need answers this second, although that wouldn’t be awful. Rather, this felt like an unbalanced installment of the series, one that was holding its cards back for future play rather than creating a satisfying hour unto itself.
What’s most remarkable at this stage of the game is just how much the show doesn’t even bother noting how weird it is that we’re still in a reality that changed at the end of the third season. Whereas the first half of the season teased out Peter’s absence and re-integration, “Fringe” really has stopped concerning itself with bothering to explain why it felt the need to take such drastic narrative steps. Now, I’m not saying the show HAS to do this. But it’s weird all the same that, outside of Olivia and Peter, it’s given up on trying to create emotional links between the first three seasons of this show. There’s chockfull of continuity on the story side of things. After all, the realities this season wouldn’t be possible without the events that played out in the first three. But rather than continually and overtly comment on the differences between then and now, it simply saunters forth.
All of this leads to the return of William Bell, who died both corporeally (Season 2) and spiritually (Season 3) in the other reality. Now, am I gonna hate on Spock returning to TV? Heck no. All hail Leonard Nimoy. And look, either you love the fact that “Fringe” altered the rules in order to facilitate another appearance from the geek god himself, or you wonder if stakes really matter in a show that can simply shift realities in order to serve its own needs. The problem with genre fiction is that while it can explore topics in ways normal fiction can’t, its fantastical elements can lead to some shortcuts that, if misapplied, can undo the hard work it’s trying to accomplish. Introducing the concept of different universes could have been a disaster, and yet worked like gangbusters. But the introduction of a new reality is, to use imagery the show would approve, has been a bridge too far.
Then again, it’s only a bridge too far for those interested in characters, not character types. I can see the appeal of looking at the same person (let’s call him “Walter Bishop”, for funsies) in multiple scenarios to analyze humans from a nature/nurture perspective. “Fringe” has certainly been preoccupied with the question of what truly makes a person this season, and it’s a fine question. But it’s also often an academic one, especially when it relates to long-form televised narrative. Something like “Run Lola Run” works because it’s a 90-minute meditation on fate, choice, will, and the branching paths a person can take through their interactions and applications of those criteria. But it’s one thing to watch that play out over an hour and a half. It’s quite another to see that play out over four seasons.
There’s always a schism between those that watch genre fiction for the ideas versus those that watch them for the characters. Such a binary is inherently limited, and clearly most people don’t watch solely for one versus the other. Those in it primarily for the ideas of this show have loved this season, by and large, and that’s great. I don’t dismiss those views, and don’t look down upon them in the slightest. Personally speaking, I want to watch people I care about (or at least can empathize with) engaged in fantastical scenarios that force them to make choices that reflect something interesting about human nature. The extent to which I can view these people as the characters I’ve invested several years in has varied all season long. And even if we have our primary players back, it’s still unclear to what extent they have actually returned at all.
Case in point: While we know have Original Recipe Olivia back (in terms of her memory), that model exists inside the physiology of someone experimented on by a different Walter and a different William Bell. So what constitutes the “real” Olivia? The nature of identity itself is a fundamental tenet of genre fiction. (What makes us human? Where does technology end and consciousness begin?) It’s an interesting concept, but one that’s often dramatically inert.
Adding to the problems of tonight’s episode is the fact that “Letters of Transit” has contextualized events that should be surprising in ways that feel themselves academic. Had we not seen William Bell encased in amber two weeks ago, would his reveal tonight have been more dramatic? Absolutely! (Also helping matters? Had the show not run Nimoy’s name during the opening credits. There are SAG rules around such appearances, and thus this isn’t the network’s fault. But MY GOD.) But more problematic than telegraphing his appearance, “Transit” has telegraphed certain beats that have to happen in order to make that episode make sense. Astrid getting shot at the end of tonight’s episode should have floored me, rebooted universe or not. Instead? I’m pretty sure she’s OK, since she’s in amber a few decades from now.
I haven’t talked much about the mechanics of tonight’s episode, since they were fairly simple. In essence, the entire hour is a long con in order to separate Peter and Olivia from Walter on behalf of William Bell. Bell wanted to lure Walter out via the specific form of nanites embedded in the device used to melt people from the inside out, and sacrificed his greatest acolyte (David Robert Jones) via a complicated plot lifted from the film “Batman and Robin.” (Akiva Goldsman, producer of “Fringe” and co-writer on the finale, also wrote “Batman and Robin.” Just saying.) The idea of Boston burning to the ground was potent, but it was also just a ruse in order to lure Walter to a warehouse which now houses the transformed humans from “Nothing As It Seems.”
Why did any of this happen? Again: We won’t know until next week. But we “know” a few things. We know that Rebecca Mader’s character will probably be back. Putting aside the fact that she’s enough of a star to warrant more screen time than afforded her this hour, nurse Jessica Holt’s character all but had “I’m A Mole” written across her shirt during her time onscreen. What else do we know? That all the sudden baby talk between Peter and Olivia will come to a head next week, either to provide fans of that pair a summer’s worth of hair pulling or to help explain future Henrietta’s existence. What else do we know? That mentions of Bell’s cruelty in “Transit” will probably play out next week, and will probably involve a certain bullet already seen around Henrietta’s neck, and it may or may not involve Olivia’s rapid transition into full-blown Jean Grey. (I know nothing at all about next week, but I’m guessing any bullet that hits her will be one intended for someone else that she mentally redirects in an act of sacrifice.)
So we’re already looking to the future, on both a micro- and macro level. But I still can’t shake the feeling that the failings of “Fringe” this year have been its inability to leverage its past. It can’t leverage it because it actively severed it, not unlike the way it severed the bridge’s connection to the other universe last week. The latter was an act of narrative necessity, one that temporarily solved a problem but also left them more vulnerable and alone. But it’s one that would have been infinitely more powerful had it happened with the same characters we grew to love. Fauxlivia was just as real to me as Olivia before Peter disappeared. I could accept that since the realities for both characters were as real to us as to them, and therefore put all parties onscreen on the same level as those off. But the disconnect this year has been so profound for so long that certain moments work in spite of themselves at this point, not because they were truly earned.
At one point tonight, Walter looks over the scribblings he etched into the tables in St. Claire’s. He puts his fingers over them, remembering the time he spent in there. But we never spent a second in there. His time in St. Claire’s was spent with the incorrect assumption that his son had died. All of his recollections are based in the timeline established after Peter’s disappearance. That scene works because John Noble is pretty much a god, not because our connection with Walter is so strong. And “Fringe” has absolutely no idea there’s a difference at this point. Those etchings are supposedly permanent. But they are in fact transitory. There are an infinite amount of etches that Walter makes in an infinite number of realities. That writing has changed, no matter how much the show tries to sell us that they haven’t. That’s been the show’s problem all season long. And it looks like a problem that will carry through into its final year.
Where do you stand on this season as a whole at this point? Did “Letters of Transit” augment or hurt your love of the currently unfolding events? Any bold predictions for the finale? Sound off below!