Destiny versus self-determination. That old chestnut reared its head on tonight’s “Fringe” in an episode that essentially put all of its mythology on hold for a Season 1-esque standalone episode. Sure, bits and pieces moved along on the periphery, but this was an examination of two women that felt isolated due to childhood traumas that defined their lives. Putting aside my issues with Season 4 as a whole, was this a good hour of television? “Forced Perspective” was…fine. Perfectly perfunctory. It was also, unfortunately, fairly dull. Forced, you might say.
 
I look back on those Season 1 standalones with a certain fondness now, even if those episodes aren’t particularly good. But they were definitely exercises in cookie-cutter storytelling: “Fringe” had an almost immutable formula within which it worked. Start off with a scene in which something freaky/grotesque happened, put Fringe Division on the scene, have Walter realize what happened was somehow tied into experiments he did with William Bell, and Olivia would save the day in the nick of time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
 
It’s also what passes for continuity these days on FOX as a whole. Look at “Alcatraz,” a show that seems like a complete repudiation of the serialization that blew hardcore “Fringe” fans away even as it sent casual fans fleeing for the hills. If you saw “Touch” this weekend, then you saw a similar approach in which an overarching premise is doled out in morsel-sized bites to invite the unwashed masses to occasionally check in on the series. This isn’t an evil way to produce a television series, but it’s certainly not the most interesting way. “Fringe” embraced serialization, but it also put that on the backburner in favor of character study. The show followed the characters, not the plot.
 
“Forced Perspective” is an episode that had a lot of stuff on its mind, and quite a bit of it was interesting. But it was also ham-fisted, with the pre-cognitive teenager Emily Mallum essentially spelling out the plot in plain sight. When asked why she gives drawings to people about to die, she replies, “If people knew, maybe they could say I love you to someone, or do one good thing.” It’s a powerful idea, albeit clunkily delivered. But that’s “Fringe” in a nutshell. Certain shows wow you with their actual writing. “Fringe” is a show, like “Lost” before it, in which the ideas behind the words are often more powerful. One’s not necessarily better than the other. Juicy dialogue sounds better, but can be covering up some massive structural holes. “Fringe” often sounds prosaic, but its heart is poetic.
 
Emily’s case coincides with Olivia’s recent run in with The Observer, who told her she was doomed to die in every possible variation of future events. Since Emily can draw the deaths of those around her, Olivia is keenly interested to see if Emily hears the “hum” of future events blowing back through time. (Don’t look at me. That was Walter’s idea. It sounded completely stupid, but no one questioned it. There’s “faux science” and straight up “we can’t be bothered to come up with a good explanation.”) And quite frankly, I was keenly interested in this up until the point in which it became clear that The Observer’s actions would remain as opaque as ever by the end of the hour.
 
Notice how I haven’t talked about my issues with this season’s new reality? I know. I’m proud of me too. But I bring this up now via The Observer, because the free will/fate dynamic at play in this episode mirrors the actions that The Observer took upon first helping save Peter from drowning all those years ago. Rather than passively watch the universe unfold, he took action and changed the course of the future. Then again, saying he changed the course of the future is in and of itself a subjective statement. A determinist would say he erred. A humanist would say he succeeded. All of this makes the undoing of Peter’s existence at the end of Season 3 either a massive correction or a compounding of a mistake, depending on your perspective.
 
I focus more on this than the parallels between Massive Dynamic’s treatment of Olivia and Emily for a reason. The decisions of The Observers as a whole created a scenario in which Olivia was now raised by a now evil Nina who is now the boss of a new version of Jones. Part of my frustration comes from the creation of a new version of these characters. But a huge part comes from the way in which the agency of all involved has been stripped by actions of The Observers. As a big free-will fan myself, Season 4 has been watching puppets on strings that are unaware they aren’t real live humans. Were these people onscreen the same iterations from the first three seasons, I’d still have a major issue with The Observers invisibly tampering with their lives. Olivia tonight talked of free will and active choice. This isn’t the Olivia I remember, but it’s certainly a sentiment with which I agree.
 
All of this is a way of saying that I’m down for more information about The Observers before I’m down for more information about the new “medicine” that Nina has developed for Olivia. If the characters from the first three seasons are never coming back, that’s fine. Well, it’s not fine, but I’m done complaining about it. The show is going to go the way it’s going to go, and if they feel the best way to tell character stories is to present brand new versions of them, that’s great. But any iteration of these characters will be ill-served if they are being jerked around by creatures outside of time that feel they can impose their will upon we mere mortals. It’s hard enough to sustain a suspension of disbelief in the show without an onscreen reminder that we’re watching players upon a stage, instead of individuals in whose fates we should be invested.