On last night’s “Community,” the show enacted several different timelines that played out based on a single roll of a die during a group game of Yahztee. I’m not as big as fan of the show as some people at HitFix, but I did appreciate how the show succinctly demonstrated how the removal of one person from the group brought out interesting sides of the others that remained. What works for twenty-one minutes, however, doesn’t always work over a much longer time period. We’re now four episodes into whatever roll of the die “Fringe” has currently cast, and the final moments of tonight’s episode doesn’t mean that we’re any closer to figuring out what Yahtzee reality we’re currently in.


So, first thing’s first: Peter Bishop’s back, and he’s gonna save the show’s reputation. (Hey ha, hey na, my Peter’s back!) Am I psyched? Mostly. As I’ve stated since the beginning of the season, the success of all the time spent in a Peter-less world would ultimately be judged based on the final outcome of this narrative choice. And even with Peter back, it’s clear that this arc hasn’t ended. It could end in one episode, two episodes, twelve…it’s unclear at this point. So I’m not ready to judge these first four hours as a whole yet, even though the younger Bishop crashed back to Earth by skinny dipping in Reiden Lake.

I’m not ready because it’s still unclear what, if anything, will reset now that he has returned. Him snapping back to “reality” forces me to put that word in quotes. I’m not doing it to be cute or to add emphasis. I’m doing it because I’m not sure how we’re supposed to view the world we’re seeing. That’s fascinating from a theoretical perspective, but often maddening from a practical one. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that Peter’s return would erase the timeline created upon his disappearance at the end of Season 3. But that isn’t the case…at least yet. It’s still in play, however. So just like Peter hovered between existence and oblivion, I’m hovering between being fully on board with the show and treating it the way Walter Bishop treats hotel rooms.

All of this is a shame, since Anna Torv and John Noble once again brought their respective A games tonight. A large part of “Subject 9” was a chamber piece, designed to put the two of them alone and watch what Peter’s absence had done to them. Were this an irrevocable, Peter-less New World Order, we as the audience could ache for the losses they could feel but not fully comprehend. But Peter’s Blue Energy Cloud perpetually reminded us of how fragile, how reversible, and potentially how immoral this order might be.

I would prefer that the reality that existed before Peter entered the Doomsday Machine be the “correct” version, because that contains the people I’ve watched for three seasons. But I could be ultimately swayed by a show that had the nerve to unmake that in order to produce a new reality. (And several of you have pointed out over the last few weeks that, technically, what we’ve seen this season shows the way things were always supposed to play out. Although that assumes that September’s actions on Reiden Lake in 1985 were not part of the correct time stream. Ugh. I have a Yahtzee-induced headache. ) However, “Fringe” currently plays out in a nebulous world that is teasing every possibility without committing to any of them. This may very well all have a fantastic payoff down the road, and I’m 100% rooting for it to do so. But that’s making the here and now very difficult.

What makes it difficult is that when I should be admiring Olivia and Walter sharing their first root beer float, I’m thinking a multitude of thoughts that remove me from the emotional immediacy of the scene. Some of those thoughts: “Has Olivia not met any other fellow patients from Jacksonville in this reality?”, “Why the hell does Nina Sharp know so much about Olivia’s teenage dating life?”, and most importantly, “Will these emotional scenes be wiped off the map once things are ‘fixed’ through Peter’s return?” Chadwick Boseman played the hell out of former cortexiphan subject Mark Little, but the shadows of Nick Lane and all of Olivia’s other childhood compatriots loomed as large as Peter’s has over this entire season. Little’s backstory is heartbreaking, but also serves primarily as a metaphor for Peter’s liminality: he’s neither a normal person nor a full-on superpowered freak. Just as Peter was neither alive nor dead. Just as reality itself has neither been completely set or completely rewritten.

Options are great to have in a storyteller’s back pocket. That we can discuss the multitude of ways in which this story can unspool is thrilling for many “Fringe” fans, for sure. But I long for the days in which the unspooling took place in one fixed reality that already had a limitless set of possibilities. What I loved about “Fringe” was the ease with which I could try and hook people in: “Two worlds. One door. WHO YA GOT?” That was approximately 108 times easier than trying to sell someone on “Lost.” But now, I’m watching a show in which largely unknown, nearly inscrutable puppet masters (The Observers) have played God(s) with our beloved characters, their lives, their memories, and their realities. That’s far more complex, and quite frankly, more than a little less interesting.

That the persistence of emotional memory is bringing Peter back represents a very “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” thing for the show to do. It suggests that the show views the reality on display as somehow “wrong.” But while the two universes can be connected by an interdimensional bridge, how can two realities also be connected? How can Olivia have never met Peter, yet always have met Peter? How does “Fringe” fuse the characters from before his trip fifteen years in the future and the ones that arose afterwards? Will they even try to do so? And will any of them scream “YAHTZEE!” at any point? (And while I’m throwing out questions to you all: have we ever discovered who let the dogs out, or how to solve a problem like Maria?)

The good news, hopefully, is that with Peter now back in the show, speculation will give way to actual answers, and we’ll know once and for all what the true stakes of this fourth season truly are. My hope is that we’ll look back on these first four episodes as a necessary arc to get us into the real narrative meat of this year. The show works best when it gives us moments with characters we care about. Right now? I’m sadly unsure about who these people truly are. So while I admire the talent on display, I’m admiring it from a slightly removed distance. And for a show that has long sucked me in more than just about any show on television, that’s a horrible place to be. Like Peter, I’ve been on the outside looking in. Now that he’s back, I hope I am right behind him.

 

A few more thoughts on tonight’s episode…

 

*** Last year, we saw an attack at 6:02 a.m. Tonight, we saw Peter’s first “appearance” at 5:59 a.m. The lesson? It doesn’t pay to be a morning person in “Fringe”.

*** The subplot about Walter’s potential remanding to St. Claire’s may have provided him a reason to leave the lab, but certainly didn’t produce any true tension. What were the odds of sending Walter back there? Zero.

*** When I first saw Walter’s set-up for the peanut photography experiment, I scribbled down, “‘Matrix’ rip-off.” So I was delighted when Astrid mentioned he got the inspiration from that movie. Now, I want Walter to re-enact at least one experiment from a sci-fi film in every episode of “Fringe” from this moment on. C’mon: he can totally send a DeLorean back in time using the power of lightning!

*** Speaking of Astrid: “Claire? Really? That doesn’t even start with an A.” That, plus Mark’s irrational fear of raisin toast, made me laugh more than a little.

*** The fake out with Mark Little’s ability not causing the blue electrical anomaly was totally predictable, but I’m going to give the show a pass and assume we’ll learn Peter took this form in order to connect Olivia with the one person who could dislodge him from his personal purgatory. Or something. That’s much easier to swallow than the show not having a better way to initiate Peter’s plunge into the lake.

*** I really want to know whose name is below Broyles’ on the masthead Olivia produced, and why it scared the local police officer so much. But only if this reality sticks. Also, why is Olivia a freakin’ cat burglar now? Wait, darnit, I am so not getting sucked down this rabbit hole…ending the bullets now…

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Happy to have Peter back, or are you more perplexed than ever? Did this show’s emotional moments work for you, or are you hedging your bets until we see where this all goes? And will you be able to wait two whole weeks to find out? Sound off below!