Recap: 'Fringe' - 'Letters of Transit'
The team heads to the year 2036
FOX has been pushing tonight’s episode “Letters of Transit” as “yet another mind-blowing nineteenth episode” over the past seven days. I didn’t quite know what the heck they were talking about, until realizing that “Lysergic Acid Diethelamide” and “Brown Betty” also aired in this slot. (Complicating my research: “Brown Betty” was actually the twentieth episode of that season, due to FOX randomly airing an episode intended for Season One in the middle of that year. Ah, the good old days.) While the previous two seasons featured stylistically adventurous episodes in this particular slot, both also fit into the overall story arc of that season. “Letters of Transit” intentionally disorients the viewer from the first second, slowly revealing its context over the course of the house. “Transit” is a pretty sweet episode of “The Twilight Zone.” But was it a good episode of “Fringe”?
Within the current context of the show, I’d give a hesitant “yes” after viewing this episode twice. I’m sure many of you will be going back to watch this a second time, to see if the episode gives away the game in plain sight from minute one. I’m glad FOX offered this episode up ahead of time to critics, since it’s one I had to sleep on for a night before returning to it this afternoon. And sure enough, what seems like a fake-out actually reveals the show’s hidden secret: Etta, walking up to a swanky bar, hands perched in her pocket just like her mother once did. The reveal of Etta as “Henrietta,” the daughter of Olivia and Peter, is the climactic moment of the show, but it’s worth talking about at the outset since that, more than anything, provides context for the episode.
The trouble is, of course, establishing context in the world of “Fringe” at the moment. I battled reconciling what I thought I knew about Colonel Broyles from the old timeline with the events of “The Consultant,” unable to assume any existing backstory previously established might still hold true. Many of you correctly pointed out that pre-existing conditions (medically and narratively speaking) must have carried over in order to make Jones’ manipulation of Broyles makes sense. But “Transit” takes that disorientation to the max, hurtling us 25 years into the future and trying to make sense of a world we don’t recognize and people we have never met.
Following Etta retroactively makes the episode a stronger endeavor, pushing it past one of its most obvious pop-culture antecedents (the first and second season finales of “Dollhouse”) and giving the show a reason to follow this particular Fringe agent. Fringe Division, just as the world as a whole, has changed radically in the future. We learn during the opening crawl that the Observers actually stopped observing and starting despotically ruling over people. In the process, we stop past a few more cultural landmarks as Agent Simon Foster speaks of the purge (hi, “Lost”) that followed the arrival, along with the underground resistance that built up around the legend of someone who might stop them (hello, Series 3 of the Russell T. Davies “Doctor Who”) after they travelled through time to plunder the resources of a non-poisoned Earth (oh who the hell invited you, “Terra Nova”) and forcing humans to police themselves (whaddup, third season of the “Battlestar: Galactica” reboot).
It’s all interesting stuff, and it’s textured, and it’s unsurprising: As many problems as I’ve had with the show this season, I’ve never doubted for a second that the writers of it know how to create worlds from scratch that have their own unique histories, sociologies, and rules. It’s weird to say this about the nineteenth episode of a show’s fourth season, but “Letters of Transit” wouldn’t be the worst way to introduce a newbie to the show. Sure, long-time fans would get more out of Old Man Broyles picking up a piece of licorice left behind by Walter Bishop. But “Transit” was about myth-making, about the power of stories, about the way in which believe in them can forge inner strength that surprises people. It helps when one of the people who want to believe happens to be the offspring that might be the key to defeating the Observers.
Your interpretations may vary, and I’m certainly not saying I’m 100% right by any chance, but here’s what I took away from this episode: At some point after The Fringe Purge (the “Frurge”?), Walter and the rest of the Fringe team modified the tech of the Doomsday Device in order to somehow undo the influx of non-scientific Observers from coming to the past. These weren’t nice, curious, detached Observers: These were the menial workers, the laborers, the politicians, the ones that learned of the time-space technology and decided to jump ship. Rather than fight the Observers who could brainwash or even brainfry them, many humans join up with the winning side. One of those people? Mr. X, who eventually put a bullet in September (as seen in “Back Where You’ve Never Been”) and, ostensibly, Olivia. Why else would Henrietta be wearing that particular necklace?
Now, all of this opens up about 200 more questions, none of which I’m particularly prepared to answer even after watching this through a second time. The issue surrounding Olivia’s potentially fatal fate has never been one the show has consistently followed. It first arose exactly one season ago, in which Olivia saw Mr. X inside of the animated world in “Lysergic” before appearing again in “Back Where.” The idea that Olivia was always going to die in every possible future always seemed a bit of a hollow threat, in that…well, we’re all gonna die, right? (If Dick Clark can die, we’re all eventually going to the grave.) I assume September implied that she would be murdered in every timeline despite his every effort, which obviously gives the story some more juice.
But we’ve seen “Fringe” kill Olivia before, in a timeline altered thanks to Peter’s actions. The future in “The Day We Died” never happened, replaced by one in which The Observers decided to have their way with cocktail waitresses. It’s unclear if the two universes co-exist, if the bridge still works, or what it means to other realities if The Observers took over this one. Moreover, WHY this one? It seems like a bad choice, since it’s the one in which the offspring of a cortexiphan-laced badass agent and a man who belongs to two worlds and combined them together with the power of his freakin’ mind can roam around immune to their powers. It’s a bit like that famous line in “Casablanca”: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all theuniverses, she walks into mine.”
On top of that, we still don’t know why Walter, Astrid, and Peter ambered themselves three years in our future but 20 years in Henrietta’s past, or why Olivia wasn’t part of that scenario. Old Nina Sharp talks of a great sacrifice when Walter, Olivia, and Peter saved the world once upon a time. And there’s the bizarre moment where we realize William Freakin’ Bell is encased in amber as well. Why is he alive, and what awful thing (hinted at by Walter) did he do to Olivia THIS time? This sets up a narrative structure that actually ruined a bit of the fourth season of “Lost” for me, one in which we have knowledge of a future event that those in the narrative present do not. We could, of course, just stick in 2036 for the remainder of the season/show. (I don’t know what’s ahead, and I’d appreciate comments keeping things spoiler-free without a massive warning.) But assuming we go back to the present-day, we’ll be waiting and watching for signs hinted at in tonight’s episode. This technique can lead to a lot of tension, but it can also turn into a scavenger hunt of sorts. I prefer a story, like tonight, in which the end isn’t pre-determined. And perhaps it’s not in this case, despite what we saw this evening. Maybe this is another potential future that will be undone. Maybe Olivia’s not actually dead but hiding. Maybe Princess Olivia is in another castle. Who can say?
In any case, we may have lost Baby Henry Over There, but we’ve gained Baby Henrietta Over Here. But we’ve also ostensibly gained her quite a ways in the future from the narrative present: The invasion starts in three years’ time from now, assuming the normal “Fringe” timeline more or less coincides with ours. But Simon’s speech to Henrietta suggests the Observers were around in the public consciousness long before The Frurge, which means we may start seeing Observers try to pull the ol’ “we come in peace, check it out, we can make this state senator cluck like a chicken, isn’t that great, hahaha, OK, we’re just melt all of your brains now KTHXBAI” trick. And why not? “Fringe” already opted for the lazy environmental pollution excuse to send The Observers back. Why not go full “V” in getting humans to accept The Observers?
With this episode, “Fringe” is continuing to confound what it’s trying to do this season. But that’s not a slam on the show: It’s a cautious curiosity to see what, if anything, this season has been building towards. Showing an episode like “Letters” certainly hints that we’re never going back to the original timeline. I mean, why should there be a SECOND alternate future that will be wiped out from existence, right? Right? (Quick, someone tell me I’m right.) It’s a bold hour, and a well-executed self-contained story. That’s why I opened by calling it a successful episode of “The Twilight Zone”: it quickly sketches in an entire world and populates it with intriguing ideas. The true test of the episode will lie in how well it meshes with everything around it. Was this a one-shot comic approach to the “Fringe” world, or something greater? We’ll see in the next three episodes.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did you pick up on Etta’s true identity? Did seeing Desmond Hume in Fringe Division blow your nerd mind wide open? Do you hope they stay in this future or are you anxious to get back to the present? Sound off below!