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Recap: 'Fringe' - 'The Consultant'
The show ramps up to its season/series endgame, but it's the small moments that really shine.
As we approach the end of this season of “Fringe”, it’s time for the show to start showing its hand about what it’s been up to all season. What seemed at first like a temporary detour has instead been a season-long journey inside this alternate reality. “The Consultant” aimed to shed light on what’s been happening all season, but the Jones plot has always felt tacked onto the mystery of Peter’s disappearance than directly related to it. Now, that’s not necessarily a knock on the show: I would rather have things come together organically (and often messily) than be beholden to an overly rigidly structure from the outset. Still, even if I don’t care much about another threat of the two universes collapsing upon each other, the smaller moments in tonight’s episode often worked like gangbusters.
Having Jones conduct experiments in “retuning” part of one universe to affect the other isn’t a bad idea around which to build an episode. And it allowed the show to do something it hasn’t done nearly enough this season: take advantage of the bridge between the worlds in order to have close collaboration between both sides. That collaboration leads to the aforementioned revelation that Jones wants to essentially obliterate reality. At last we know why he’s gone through all the trouble of emotionally blackmailing Colonel Broyles, stealing the amphilicite, looking at pictures of hot women in a wallet left in a cab*, and so on. Well, we sort of know. The problem is this: complete and utter obliteration isn’t exactly an interesting endgoal, no matter what show in what reality. Were this his plan in Season One, I’d be scoffing all the same. The best villains allow us to empathize with their emotional journeys, even if we’re appalled at the methods by which they seek to achieve them. (See Linus, Benjamin.) There might a perfectly reasonable psychological justification for Jones’ actions. But there’s a difference in providing a reason that’s intellectually satisfying versus one that’s emotionally resonant.
* Whoops. Wrong show. My bad.
Earlier in the season, I posited that Colonel Broyles was actually a shapeshifter. I did so for two reasons. The first? It would be a nice way to sidestep the paradox of the old Colonel Broyles dying while saving Olivia Dunham. The second? In no way could I see how any version of Broyles in any reality could be a traitor. A lot of that has to do with my love of Lance Reddick, who has been criminally underused on the show for so long that it’s actually astonishing when he gets good material. Even though he brought his A game tonight, I wouldn’t say his storyline was particularly well-written. GOOD GOD, the exchanges with his son Christopher were mawkish and manipulative throughout. Changing reality has allowed the “Fringe” writers to explore certain sides of their existing characters. But in this case, it allowed them to invent a whole new backstory for Broyles’ son that intentionally obfuscated Colonel Broyles’ motivations this season. Without any knowledge of Christopher’s illness, there was no way to guess what his father has been up to.* Sure, putting that into play would have given up the game almost instantaneously, but it also would have been a more honest narrative approach.
* A few of you in the comments have noted that The Candyman storyline in Season 3 left Christopher with various ailments, and assume this was cured by Jones' meds in this hour. I didn't assume the meds in this episode were connected, as the conversation with Broyles and Walter heavily hinted that Christopher would die without the medicine. But it's certainly possible he'd simply regress to his previous status without them, and that is what Broyles feared. Fair point. Still a mawkish storyline, but this makes more sense even if a single mention of the Candyman tonight would have cleared this all up.
But while all this big picture stuff stumbled somewhat, there were loads of grace notes, pathos, and downright funny material for Walter and Fauxlivia throughout the hour. We’re past the point now where we have to try and figure out how these two versions of these people interact. After a season in this new reality, we have enough of a bearing to make their interactions feel appropriate while also be surprising. Before Walter heads over to be the titular “consultant,” he warmly notes how Peter and Olivia are acting around one another. Walter calls Peter his “son” to Astrid, and while we’ve seen him acknowledge that this version of Peter is as close as he’ll get to the real thing, I honestly thought the show was planting a subtle clue that Walter had “returned” to his reality before Peter disappeared.
Regardless, here’s a Walter who acts less like the recluse at the start of the season and more like the man with whom we spent three seasons. He is getting out of the office with regularity. He’s socially awkward but perfectly capable of interacting with strangers. His relationship with Fauxlivia has moved beyond fearing her “vagenda” and turned into a type of father/daughter relationship that he doesn’t even have with this Olivia. For her part, Anna Torv pretty much nailed every moment as Fauxlivia, from her jocular attitudes towards Walter at the outset to her broken, vulnerable, yet sweetly drunken self looking in vain for evidence to help locate the mole within the Department of Defense. Moments like this only work within context, and thanks to the time spent with characters over the long haul. If Captain Lee died in first half of this season, Fauxlivia’s reactions wouldn’t have registered nearly as powerfully as they did tonight. Too many moments early on referenced events that we never experiences, and thus registered as trivia instead of catharsis. But after a good chunk of time within this new timeline, there’s a history that we now can share with her.
Here’s a strange thing, though. Ostensibly, this entire season has been about Peter. It started with his disappearance, and followed through with his reintegration into a mysterious timeline, and ultimately seemed to settle upon him as the most important person in the universe. And yet, he’s been all but absent in the last two episodes. There may be good real-life reasons for such a lack of Peter, or it simply could have been a storytelling choice. In either case, it’s really, really weird to remove him from the equation at this late hour of the season/series. If the show hadn’t built up so much importance around him, the absence wouldn’t matter. I didn’t particularly miss him at any point, which has nothing to do with Joshua Jackson so much as the awesomeness of Torv and John Noble. (My Patronus is so gonna be a grinning Noble. I already know this.) But to remove him so much so late indicates as shift in overall priorities that makes a lot of the legwork earlier this year seem somewhat unnecessarily prolonged.
“Fringe” is in a weird situation right now for many reasons, and not all of them have to do with the reality that it might not get renewed for a fifth season. I am horrible at handicapping these things, but my guess is it will, with a reduced budget and episode order. The big picture plot stuff isn’t terrifically important and probably not worth as much episode time as given tonight. (I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest existence itself DOESN’T end in the season finale.) Rather, it’s got some tricky business to do with figuring out where it wants to go once this latest threat ends. “Fringe” might be saying that every version of reality features a psychopath who wants to end it all. That’s a fine in theory but sort of repetitious in practice. There’s been plenty of speculation in the comments this year (sprinkled in between the “Die in a fire, McGee!” missives that I cherish so much) about what will happen once the reality problem gets “solved.” Well, what if it never gets solved?
“Fringe” might envision a narrative worldview akin to the one in the strong “Community” episode “Remedial Chaos Theory”. In this scenario, each subsequent season from now on reveals character through a brand new prism of reality. I’m not sure that could work, but the fourth season is essentially already one roll of that mystical die played out over a large number of episodes. “Community” played out 3-minute versions of each reality within a single episode, which allowed them to get in and out of the concept quickly before moving on. “Fringe” does not have that luxury of spending so much time within each. It’s one thing to have the “darkest and most terrible timeline” be a stinger over the closing credits. It’s another to spend twenty episodes inside of that same reality. Getting out of a three-minute reality into the old one is easy. Getting out of a twenty-two episodes reality is incredibly difficult, both for those that have wondered why they watched a season-long detour and for those that grew to love the new iterations onscreen.
Some of you have suggested we’ll get “merged” versions of the characters inside of this current physical reality, except we’ve already seen with Olivia that it doesn’t work that way. She barely remembers anything from this new timeline at all at this point. But what about Colonel Broyles? He’s trapped in prison now. Does he regress to remembering that he was cut in half? Does physical energy regress along with memory? Will people start wanting the physical world to match their returned mental landscapes?
These are all fun, but impractical, questions to ask. And I don’t even bother to ask them while watching Walter, in Fauxlivia’s robes, comforting the redhead as she seeks to drown her sorrows in a bottle of her ex’s Scotch. “Fringe” has always sought to tell big stories, but usually has grounded them in small character moments that make us root for them to survive whatever threat may come. Even if the big stuff still isn’t quite clicking, at least a lot more of the smaller things are at this point. And that’s more than I could have hoped for at the outset of this final fourth season run.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did the explanation for Broyles’ betrayal make sense, or ring hollow? Is Jones’ return this season working for you or feel like a pale retread? Do you need others to remember in the way Peter and Olivia do, or should they stay in the dark for as long as the show lasts? Sound off below!