Let’s get the obvious out of the way up front: dubbing the return episode of “Fringe” as “The Firefly” is a pretty good joke. It keys in nicely with FOX’s marketing strategy to make Fridays not simply another victim in the so-called “death slot.” (Incidentally? “Death slot” is a phrase I am so loath to use I feel like I just consumed some of Walter Bishop’s special milk that so does NOT make a body feel good.) But we’re not here as leaves on the wind, findin’ trouble in the ‘verse. We’re here to talk about “Fringe,” and the slam-bang return that was tonight’s episode.

[Full recap of said episode after the break…]

Lots of talk during the start of the fifth season of “Lost” centered around the popular meme that the show was finally letting its freak flag fly. In some ways, I get what people meant, but never understood how THEN was the point that people decided that stuff on “Lost” was truly weird. I imagine a lot of words will be spent on how the Friday slot will allow “Fringe” to hoist a similar flag, but what the Friday slot is really going to do is enforce what’s been working all along for the better part of a year now on the show. Some programs thrive on procedural storytelling. “Fringe” absolutely does not. By forgoing typical “monster of the week” eps and making each individual episode set against the backdrop of a multiverse war, “Fringe” found its voice, a voice that will only grow stronger in this new slot.

That means tons of continuity that would lead casual observers slack-jawed trying to pick up the various threads at play in “The Firefly.” Tonight’s episode introduced new aspects to familiar faces, but didn’t try and really bring newbies up to real speed. Characters reference events of the past, but not in overly dumbed-down monologues designed to recapitulate the plot. Events stretching as far back as the first handful of episodes through “Marionette” were sprinkled in to tonight’s story. “Fringe” has never truly held audiences’ hands since going headlong into the multiverse saga, even with better time slots and stronger lead-ins to earn larger sets of eyeballs. There sure as hell isn’t a reason to start now.

Most hours of “Fringe,” or dramas, for that matter, feature an antagonist that sets events in motion over which the protagonist must triumph. “The Firefly” asks this question: What if the protagonist and antagonist are the same? There’s no external threat during the hour, merely a host of broken people that need to move past their current psychological states in order to complete the work ahead. After the drama/trauma of the Over Here/Over There episodes, Olivia and Company seek to return to their “normal” lives, but find themselves hopelessly out of sync. They need to find a better frequency. Or, perhaps, a better tune.

Enter Roscoe Joyce, aka Christopher Lloyd, aka Doc Brown. Who better to tell a time-travel tell of woe than good ol’ Doc himself? Joyce looks like the undernourished love child of Graham Nash and Lukas Haas, and is used by The Observer to set up a type of Rube Goldberg machine involving the Bishop Boys. What the game truly is defines the central mystery of the show, a game that helps illuminate several key things about The Observer that I’m not sure we fully knew until tonight. To wit: 1) he sees all possible futures at once, but doesn’t know which one is THE future, because 2) he himself has limited ability to see the future on a micro level, which 3) gives him a heretofore unseen emotive reaction to the damage he unwittingly caused by saving Walter and Peter after they crossed over in 1985 from the other universe. (See what I mean about lack of hand holding?)

What ensues is a combination of past episodes “White Tulip” and “The Plateau.” The latter is represented by the insanely complex set of machinations put in place by The Observer to ensure that Anton Chekov’s milkshake only brings Peter Bishop to the yard. (And he’s like, it’s better than “UHHHH!”) The former is represented by the touching, and oddly heartbreaking, connection between Walter and Roscoe. Walter has of course seen the devastation that his interference has cost, but just like The Observer, he has only see it in grand examples such as ambered city blocks and zeppelins over Manhattan. He has never conceived of the individual, atomic ways in which his paternal love/possessiveness/hubris affected individuals. (In some ways, this episode could have easily been called “The Butterfly,” though that probably would have tipped the show’s narrative hand straight off.)

While The Observer’s plan ultimately spared Walter’s life, it also in some ways potentially renewed it as well. Walter’s prime directive stands to prevent loss: it’s a continually possessive stance that seeks to stop the loss of Peter. It’s not a way to live so much as a way to prevent death. Which isn’t much of a life at all. Similarly, both Peter and Olivia are also in in-between states, neither of them sure what their places are either in either world or each other’s lives. “If You Meet The Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” is about self-discovery, but both are past in the point in which their do-it-alone ethos isn’t going to cut it anymore. Seeing the elderly couple s happy in Roscoe’s hospital only enforced the current gulf between them.

“The Firefly” wasn’t about moving the pieces forward so much as prepping those pieces for the game that’s about to start. When done poorly, episodes such as this feel like placeholders, unnecessary pauses, a way for a show to drag out an episode requirement that exceeds their storytelling capacity. But “The Firefly” is in many ways a resetting of the “Fringe” universe, not only in terms of the timeslot itself but the luxuries that the slot could potentially afford. To bring up “Lost” one more time, it’s time for the show to make its own kind of music. Why not have a musician help them along the way?

 

Other stray thoughts about tonight’s episode:

*** Piero Umiliani’s “"Mah Nà Mah Nà" playing while Walter creates Super Brain Serum? Faaantastic. I want an episode where he does acid, puts on those funky glasses from tonight, and performs with The Muppets.

*** According to Amazon, “If You Meet The Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” is, “A synthesis of myth, philosophy and literature that illuminates the true nature of psychotherapy and the journey toward self-discovery.” You know how to charm the ladies with your sexy gifts, Peter.

*** I originally heard “Violet Sedan Chair” as “Violent Sedan Chair,” which gave me horrifying visions of Christopher Lloyd as Iggy Pop, shirtless and bleeding onstage.

*** Speaking of Lloyd, dude just KILLED tonight. Almost every line reading elicited either a smile or a tear. Some favorites: “Tuesday…Tuesday is chicken dinner!” “Brain mapping? Sounds like a good name for an album.” And my favorite: “But I played again! It felt good! It felt right! Maybe that’s why Bobby came back again.”

*** Walter called Astrid “Ashram” tonight, which is pretty accurate when compared to Roscoe’s guess of “Kelly.”

*** My least appropriate reaction of the night? Hearing Peter Bishop ask, “Ever feel like every time we get close to getting the answers, somebody changes the question?” and immediately shouting at the screen, “Oh my God, Rowdy Roddy Piper is behind this whole thing?”(The former WWE star once interviewed a jobber Frankie Williams on “Piper’s Pit,” and after beating him up, shouted at the camera, “Just when they think they've got the answers, I change the questions." I feel like you need to know these things.)

What did you think of tonight’s return of “Fringe”? How many of you stayed in to watch? How worried are you about the show’s future on Fridays? Leave your thoughts below!