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Recap: 'Fringe' - 'Welcome to Westfield'
A trip to a small Vermont town yields one of the strongest hours of the season
Let’s not bury the lede: I quite liked this week’s episode of “Fringe.” Sorry, should I have told you to sit down first? Apologies. I was in a rush to ensure you didn’t pick up your pitchforks before settling in. Do I think “Welcome to Westfield” solved the show’s problems? Heck no. Problems a-plenty are lurking around each corner. But this was a solid, speedy hour that promised some forward momentum on a topic that’s been stalled for so long it’s almost as if David Robert Jones set up a series of amphilicite-powered devices around its perimeter.
So why did I enjoy this hour, even if I’m still not sold on the season? Three reasons…
1) A single episode is the most important unit of television measurement.
It’s fun to look at a season or a series as a whole and make judgments upon those. But there’s a fundamental difference in reading a 22-chapter book and watching a 22-episode television season. Chapters and episodes have to achieve different things. Both contribute to the whole, but an episode of television can, and should, be entertaining for an hour in and of itself. If the entire point of an episode is simply to weave the larger story in play, then there’s a good chance it might fail. Something has to start, progress, and end within a single episode in order to be viable. Not everything need be solved in that discreet timeframe, but there should be a sense that we’ve finished something even if we’re heading towards something much larger.
And, as a Stephen King fan, I enjoyed the heck out of the “creepy isolated New England town” vibe of this episode. I obviously have no idea of the homage was intentional. Had this taken place in Maine, not Vermont, I’d take it as a given. But I couldn’t help but think of novels such as “The Tommyknockers” and “Under the Dome” while watching this week’s episode. The locals didn’t really have much color, something that’s a staple in King’s work. But King also has a thousand pages to draw these denizens. “Fringe” had 45 minutes of air time. It’s forgivable, if unfortunate. But fortunately…
2) The episode’s mystery tied into the season’s mystery.
“One Night in October” and “And Those We’ve Left Behind” worked, insomuch as they did, due to a strong correlation between the timey-wimey stuff in play on “Fringe” and the emotional stakes of its characters. Unfortunately, those characters weren’t our central players. This means that guest stars had to provide emotional catharsis in lieu of our core protagonists. As much as I enjoyed Stephen Root and real-life wife Romy Rosemont manipulative time and space in order to maintain their fragile connection, I would rather have seen Walter try and find Peter, or Peter rekindle his romance with Olivia.
Unfortunately, the show has attempted to provide obstacles for those attempts by staving off any possibility these people could even attempt such a reunion. For a while, Peter was little more than a faint memory. Once he returned, he was a stranger touting nonsense in the eyes of those he loved. Recently, all parties have been under the assumption that Peter is in the wrong universe.
“Welcome To Westfield” did a few smart things to tweak these nagging problems. First and foremost, it gave Walter a reason to perhaps not want Peter to go “home,” wherever that might be. The build from this Walter being terrified of seeing Peter to now preemptively making him breakfast-for-dinner has been well-handled. I don’t like that this Walter is different from the one from seasons past, but I am not so blind as to ignore the fact that this relationship has been carefully built this season. It doesn’t cure the central ailment of this season’s conceit, but it makes the pain infinitely more tolerable.
Secondly, it made the odd event of the week directly tied into the fourth season’s central premise: that worlds forced apart have a weird way of coming back together again. Just like the cars along the road were magnetized as a result of Jones’ devices, so too are the realities undone by The Observers stubbornly clinging to each other. “Forced Perspective” tried to pull this off, through the girl who could predict deaths through her drawings, but never managed to truly connect her with Olivia in anything but a superficial way. In its prime, “Fringe” could construct a case that had emotional resonance with its main characters in its sleep. Now? We have to rejoice when they rekindle that ability.
But the other smart thing that “Welcome to Westfield” did leads into my third point…
3) The episode finally gave a sense of momentum towards resolving this season’s amberverse.
How the show solves this conundrum is something I won’t even dwell upon. I honestly don’t care. A lot of you noted last week that the show dropped a huge bombshell in its final moments by insinuating that the “amberverse” is just the old version of reality altered. I didn’t realize there WAS another option, quite frankly, but it speaks more to my own disinterest rather than anything else. Maybe people have been raging on and on and what version of reality we’ve been in this season. I’ve just been raging on and on about the characters I once loved being ripped from the show.
Regardless of how this all ends up, at least “Fringe” seemed to indicate this week that it’s ready to put the metaphorical pedal to the metal in terms of moving towards resolution. I’m not sure anyone was supposed to be surprised by the solution to the Westfield problem, but I’m also fairly confident we the audience were supposed to understand long before Olivia and the Bishop Boys did. Knowing that personalities were bleeding between realities gave a sense that something was actually going to start changing on the show, and that excitement alone overcame the oddness of me actually being ahead of the show’s mysteries for once. (In general, if I can see the resolution to a mystery on TV, it’s not a good mystery. I am TERRIBLE at predicting these things.)
But while Olivia, Walter, and Peter assume the personalities are bleeding through from Over There in their reality, I assumed personalities were actually bleeding through from Over Here in the “real” reality, the one that existed before Peter went into the machine. I assume that due to Olivia suddenly acting like the Olivia from the first three seasons: she remembers the pair as lovers, she remembers the events from Season 2’s “Johari Window,” and in the show’s climatic moments, is going through her usual date night routine with Peter. Did her transformation start before she went to Vermont? Does it have anything to do with the injections that Nina has been giving her? Do I remotely care? Nope. All I know is that things are moving forwards, as opposed to being stuck in neutral. I’ll let the show take me along for the ride, especially if “Welcome to Westfield” also welcomes the start of a season I might actually start enjoying.
What did you think of “Welcome to Westfield”? If you’ve been unhappy with the season, did it turn you around? If you’ve been happy already, did this augment or hinder your enjoyment? Is Olivia “back”, for a lack of a better word, or will we see this version disappear sooner rather than later? Sound off below!