We learned last week that The Observers are probably St. Louis Cardinals fans. How else to explain the machinations that led to the delay of this week’s “Fringe”? Maybe the return of Peter Bishop to the show prompted them to realize that they needed to interfere more, not less, with the course of human history. Who knows? In any case, we’re back tonight with “Novation,” an episode that re-inserted Peter Bishop into the mix but didn’t really solve any of the problems that his absence created. If that sentence makes your blood boil, don’t bother to read on. I promise I won’t take it personally. For the rest of you? Let’s continue.

It’s only fitting that the title of the episode comes from the legal system. Novation refers to the replacement of one obligation with a new one, or replacing a party involved in said obligation with a new member. Given the shapeshifting nature of tonight’s plot, the title is clearly meant to be ironic. But the tortured definition offers a few sentences ago speaks volumes about the insane narrative weight under which the show is currently operating. If the title of the episode meant to evoke the ways in which the new breed of shapeshifters can weave their way even more insidiously into our world, it also evoked the reality that Peter’s presence only leads to a new set of conundrums to replace the old ones.

On one level, Peter’s return is incredibly welcome. He’s the only character that exists as last we knew him. What a relief to have a character onscreen who shares the same history as we do on this side of the small screen. However, his displacement amongst those that no longer remember him only serves to emphasize how frustrating it is to still be spending time with people that are essentially strangers to us. There’s a difference between saying “John Noble and Blair Brown knocked their scene out of the park when discussing what happened 25 years ago on Reiden Lake” and “Walter and Nina’s scene knocked me off my feet.” I can still have appreciation for the work done onscreen, but still fail to emotionally connect with the scene I am watching. The time to admire the specifics of an episode comes in the post-show analysis, not during an in-show viewing. “Fringe” used to be a show in which I could lose myself on a weekly basis. Now, it’s a show I stare at from a distance. And that’s a shame.

That Olivia, Walter, Broyles, and everyone else didn’t instantly recall dueling histories upon Peter’s return is probably “right,” but it’s also “right” in this elaborately constructed storyline that didn’t need its presence in order to tell this series’ fourth and possibly final season. A season in which two universes try to live together in harmony while a new, more advanced form of shapeshifter threatens to unravel that fragile peace sounds like a kick-ass season of television to me. Now, shapeshifting in and of itself isn’t my favorite device. See Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s seventh season of an example of why this can be a great way to make smart characters look consistently stupid. But given the paranoia between the two worlds, not being able to trust any one with whom you come into contact feels like an appropriate way to cause conflict. It also helps establish a mystery around the person/persons behind this new breed. The new and improved magic typewriter at the end of the hour suggests Walternate’s hand in these proceedings. But it suggests it SO CLEARLY that it’s probably a fake-out. Maybe. Perhaps. Don’t quote me on this, is all I’m sayin’.

Everything on this particular level of “Fringe” works for me, mostly because it feels like the show it used to be. Now, shows can and should evolve over time. But they should do so in ways that still feel connected to the show’s past. “Breaking Bad” and “Weeds” have both evolved from their beginnings (to varying degrees of success), but still feel like they still inhabit the same universe from which events initially started. This season of “Fringe” doesn’t feel like that, primarily because the characters, the real connective tissue of any long-form narrative, don’t feel like they have evolved so much as been replaced. Walter’s 25-year old grief from watching Peter drown feels real to him, but feels artificial to me. They feel artificial not because the emotions in and of themselves feel disingenuous but the entire situation that forces Walter to act this way feel disingenuous. It all makes sense on an intellectual level, but there’s a difference between something making sense on paper and something making sense when actually deployed onscreen.

And this worry isn’t going to go away anytime soon. We spent four weeks with Peter haunting people, both literally and figuratively. Now he’s back, but nothing has fundamentally changed. We’re long past the point at which his absence could inform character. Then again, seeing Walter more agoraphobic and Olivia more closed off was something I’m not convinced we ever needed to see in the first place. The show did such a great job building those three up over its first three seasons that the removal of one from the equation could easily evoke scenes of what might be. To have them literally played out for us feels didactic at best, and overkill at worst. Are we supposed to root for Olivia to remember Peter? I imagine so. Then why have her tentatively ask Lincoln out on a date? If these are the “wrong” versions of these people, why should I care if Olivia’s unlucky in love? It’s as much a piece of trivia as the number of seasons of “The West Wing” over there, when we get right down to brass tacks.

Former Massive Dynamic scientist Malcolm Truss, who inadvertently supplies the shapeshifters with the formula they need to better blend into our world, quotes William Bell at one point tonight. "Some things are not ours to tamper with. Some things are God's," Bell told Truss, just before shutting down his experiments in cellular replication. The writers of “Fringe” might have set out to change the landscape by removing Peter from reality, but in actuality, they have tampered with the elements that made the show so strong for so long. Is creating this new reality something only God should have done? Of course not. (Although given FOX’s coffers, they might have Him on retainer as creative consultant.) But instead of honing their focus heading into what might be the show’s final stretch, they have expanded things beyond their reach. Spending all this time trying to solve a problem like Peter (which is INFINITELY more difficult that solving a problem like Maria, as we’ve seen) while ALSO setting up a major conflict for the season has left the show suffering in the one place from which it always derived strengths: its core characters.

Given the comments over the past few weeks, I am far from alone in thinking this, but there are just as many who vehemently disagree with this assessment. And that’s great. It’s not my job to convince you of something you don’t believe. I’m here to fully express my view, and do so in a manner that leaves as little doubt as possible to the reasons behind it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m glad I got Peter back tonight. I’m still waiting for Olivia and Walter to return. I haven’t seen them since Peter disappeared from reality at the end of Season 3. They are shapeshifters of a different sort: an emotionally different entity inhabiting a body that looks familiar but is fundamentally different. The show novated its characters when it launched a Peter-less world, and I want it to break that contract as quickly as possible and give me back the characters I loved. Only then will the show I once loved also return.

 

What did you make of Peter’s return? Did his appearance mark a turning point in the season, or did they simply lock him away too much to matter? Did the typewriter signal a return to Walternate’s evil plans, or did its return seem designed to fake people out? Sound off below!