Heading towards the finish line, the show indulges in its best and worst instincts side-by-side.
“Fringe” positioned tonight’s ninth episode “Black Blotter” as its final edition of “the nineteenth episode”. That’s been the slot for past episodes such as “Brown Betty”, “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”, and “Letters of Transit”. I don’t like the idea of arbitrarily assigning a slot in each season as “the completely off-the-wall trippy installment,” since that goes against what should be the organic process of telling a long-form narrative on the small screen. But that quibble isn’t a particularly big one, especially since I tend to like when the show gets even weirder than usual. “Black Botter” wasn’t particularly strange by the show’s standards (except for the Monty Python sequence, which made ME feel like I’d just taken a whole buncha drugs), and it wasn’t up to the standards of the three episodes just mentioned. But it was a solid, if wildly inconsistent, hour of television that gave us both the best AND worst of “Fringe” in sixty minutes.
All year long, I’ve noted how the season-long scavenger hunt that has dominated the final season of this show has risen and fallen based on each step’s connection to its central characters. When the showed veered into “gotta catch ‘em all!” mode as a ways to simply assemble the pieces of the larger puzzle, it has generally failed. But when the search is rooted in character, such as tonight, then the results have been much more satisfying. Tonight represented the flip side of “Through The Looking Glass And What Walter Found There”, a meandering episode that was weird for weird’s sake without really moving the plot forward. Tonight, we not only got a key component in the overall end-game through the discovery of the Observer child (named “Michael” by his surrogate parents), but also got to see Walter’s conscience in action via the good fairy Nina Sharpe and the evil fairy Carla Warren. You may have remembered Carla from her appearance in the all-time classic “Fringe” episode “Peter”. I love that episode, but even I didn’t recognize her when she first appeared onscreen. So I was grateful to have an in-show reminder.
While Walter wrestled inwards during his acid-inspired journey, Peter and Olivia started tracking down the signal that suddenly appeared on the radio obtained in “Through the Looking Glass” in lieu of the child himself. After a brief detour that looked like an outtake from the “Lost” episode “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead” (with Sam Weiss here taking the place of Roger “Workman”), the pair meet up with Walter and Astrid at a house on a small island. They don’t find Donald, but do meet a couple that worked with the resistance from the outset and were assigned by Donald to watch after the child until someone who knew the password came to claim him. This final season of the show hasn’t had a lot of time to introduce, nevermind develop, many new characters this season. But the couple in that house, Richard and Carolyn, engaged me instantly. When they said goodbye to Michael, we couldn’t hear what they said. But somehow it broke my heart more than a little anyways. This small scene is the acme of “Fringe”. Explaining the plot to a non-viewer would produce quizzical looks at best. But my God it kills in the moment, and it’s one of the best the show has produced involving non-core cast members since season 4’s “And Those We’ve Left Behind”.
John Noble is so good at playing every note of Walter Bishop (the child, the savant, the tyrant) that it took me a majority of the hour to figure out that his arc tonight was almost identical to the one Peter just took through his ill-advised use of Observer tech. In both cases, a Bishop wrestled with being patient in his revenge upon The Observers versus taking a short-cut to achieve the same goals. But while Peter almost lost his soul through tech, Walter is in danger is losing his through hubris. “You’ve been him longer than you’ve been you,” Carla continually reminded him. So even though the central four managed to track down Donald’s signal and locate Michael, Walter still isn’t fully convinced on a molecular level that he isn’t still a god-like figure. The plan is still afoot, but “The Walter That Was” might still undo it.
And here’s where everything basically falls completely and utterly apart if you think about it for more than a second. If you don’t want to read on about the negatives of this episode and “Fringe” as a series, just stop reading and pretend like this was a rave.
After the gorgeous goodbye scene with Michael and his surrogate parents, we were treated with a visually stunning scene of Walter watching his previous life unfold as a projection upon his lab walls. He (and we) watch his actions leading up to the moment of original sin in the “Fringe” universe, when he crosses over despite the protestations of both Nina and Carla. It was one of many moments in a call-back heavy show in which the accumulated weight of the show’s story seemingly stuck to every fiber of Olivia’s black coat. These are the kinds of accumulations that serialized televisions can do. It’s what makes the medium stand out from almost all others out there. And I would have stood up and applauded, had anything actually projected on the screen ever actually happened.
Now, that’s a bit harsh, so let me explain. One of the many callbacks tonight lay in Olivia and Peter noting that Sam Weiss was only an important figure in their timeline. He didn’t mean anything to Walter and Astrid, because they still remember things like everyone else. I was surprised to see the show bring up the dual timelines again, because so much of this season has seemed to try to make us forget that the fourth season of the show didn’t happen. Aside from using it to explain why Olivia can no longer use Peter like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot from fifty feet away, the fifth season really hasn’t spent much time explaining how it’s really freakin’ weird that we’re still in a reality that doesn’t completely align with the first three seasons of the show.
That makes all the projections of “Peter” problematic. The introduction of the alternate timelines without the show being able to re-stage the previous timeline for us to see means that we’re never sure as audience members what changed and what didn’t. The fourth season of the show basically posited “no much really changed on a massive scale”, which allows supporters of that choice to state that the core characters were still on display. And that’s a fine position to take, so long as we’re talking about things on a pure character level. But when things towards to plot, things get so messy so fast that it makes the entire endeavor of watching the show turn into a massive migraine. I think we’re meant to understand that everything leading up to Walter crossing over played out exactly the same way (looking at transcripts of “Peter”, the dialogue seems identical). Or maybe the reintroduction of Michael means he’s seeing the “old” timeline himself, since Michael remembers Olivia from the season one reality. I have no clue.
But here’s the central problem: I don’t really know “The Walter That Was”, which makes my fear of his return muted. It’s hard to fear the return of someone I barely know. All I do know is that “Fringe” has made things so unnecessarily difficult for itself through the introduction of alternate realities that the pros simply outweigh the cons, and have so for some time. I want to simply watch a key point in the show’s history unspool on a laboratory wall and not wonder from which version of the show’s multiple histories this scene actually exists.
Nothing of any real consequence (character-wise) in this show would mean any more or less had one reality always stayed intact. Let’s do a little thought experiment to see if that hypothesis holds true. Take stock of Walter, Peter, and Olivia right now. And ask yourself if any of them would be a different position now if Peter simply bridged the two worlds together and reality itself had continued onwards. If the answer is “yes”, then “Fringe” still works for you. If the answer is “no”, then the disappearing Peter act was a failure, and have crippled (if not severed) your engagement with the program.
Now, we’d seen different universes before that, sure. But those also had one and only one reality. The difference between “Olivia” and “Fauxlivia” is NOT the same as the different between “the Olivia from the first three seasons” and “the Olivia that we saw for two-thirds of season four”. The former allows for the kind of “what if” scenarios in which season four tried to traverse. But they also allowed for internal consistencies that allowed us to follow singular paths of each individual character. The latter produced “Choose Your Own Adventure” storytelling which can be sometimes thrilling in theory but eventually end up hollow in practice.
And after all this, the appearance of Michael hints at the fact that we could be heading into another reality altogether, one that not only eradicates The Observers but potentially eradicates the timeline in which their invasion was necessary at all. The final scene of the show might very well be Peter and Olivia getting to finish their lovely picnic with a young Etta, with Walter joining them to share in the copious amounts of ice cream he and Astrid procured for the happy family. That’s a lovely sentiment, but I’m not sure it fits in with the show’s overall examination of hubris, human solitude, and above all, consequence. Many that believe season 4 has weight because it’s the direct result of Peter’s actions at the end of season 3, therefore everything on the show is connected. Intellectually, I understand that, and even agree with it. But emotionally, it just falls apart for me. I don’t want a complex-yet-perfectly-interlocking timeline that Observer Peter could sketch out for me. I like my “Fringe” the way I like all my television: messy, emotional, and written with narrative simplicity. Simply making the problems bigger doesn’t make the show (or ANY show) inherently better. Give me Michael’s surrogate parents choking up over losing a boy that neither aged nor spoke a word in two decades any day over a plot device that saw William Bell return from the dead to create “Jurassic Spock”.
And so while I see the poetry and the symmetry of our characters sitting in a field of white tulips, blissfully unaware that they went through hell in order to achieve happiness, I do wonder how satisfying that will be. I’m not saying it CAN’T be satisfying. But more than wanting a happy ending for the show, I want resolution for these characters. And resolution can only come through both hard work and the honoring of that work. That latter part almost necessarily involves sacrifice of some sort, if the goal is worth attaining. If you don’t remember the sacrifice, I’m unsure if it carries as much weight.
The idea of tinkering with the universe in order to achieve one’s deepest desires lies at the heart of nearly every good “Fringe” story. Whether or not the person manipulating the laws of biology, physics, or some other branch of science has good or ill intent is often beside the point. The point is that such meddling usually leads to suffering, and almost always is the byproduct of selfishness. What makes selfishness good or bad lies in the eyes of the observer (or the Observer), which makes the desire in and of itself so dangerous.
Only four more hours left to find out which way things will go.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Are you a fan of the “19” episodes, or do they seem like showy distractions? How do you handle balancing the two realities while watching the show? Sound off below!
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