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'Fringe' Recap - 'This Boy Must Live'
The table is set for the series finale.
If one cannot remember a life lived, does that life matter at all?
That’s not merely a fundamental philosophical problem that has haunted humanity for thousands of years. It’s also the core question for the last few seasons of “Fringe”. The schism that formed in the aftermath of Peter stepping into the Doomsday Device cleaved fandom in two. Some argued that the characters that developed in the new reality were closely enough aligned with the original iterations that the discrepancies actually gave depth to the show’s analysis of human behavior. Others felt their connections to those onscreen severed, with all new work needed to find a way to emotionally bond with these new versions. While I fall on the side of the latter group, neither side is “right” or “wrong”. There are never such clearly shaded sides when it comes to questions such as the ones that “Fringe”, at its best, puts forth.
My ultimate feelings about “The Boy Must Live” will ultimately hinge on the overall outcome of the series, which will unfold in back-to-back episodes next Friday. (FOX has championed this show longer than it had any realistic right to do so, but also seems anxious to have this end and draw more eyeballs with another program.) Those feelings are tied up intimately with the question raised at the outset of this review. If, as posited tonight, this season-long plan to defeat The Observers means eradicating them from existence itself, would that constitute a satisfactory end for the show? If Walter sacrifices himself, as hinted at tonight, and the invasion never happens, and no one recalls the dystopian future because it never happens, does that give proper resolution to those remaining? In other words: if you don't remember what you did to earn the rewards you receive, are those rewards meaningful?
Let’s reframe this whole debate in another way, via an image that has come to symbolize hope in the “Fringe”: the white tulip. Donald/September brings it up tonight to help explain how Walter once steeled himself for self-sacrifice. After all, Walter believes that God sent him that symbol once upon a time as a sign that He had forgiven Walter for the sin of taking Peter from the other timeline. But we, the audience, know that the tulip was sent by time-travelling scientist Alistair Peck. Donald/September took the white tulip because he knew its importance…but also seems to hide its true origins in order to properly motivate Walter. Now, that act of lying to Walter is suspect. However, if that lie helps prevent a future in which humanity systematically removes the parts of its brain that make it human in the first place, is that lie justifiable?
The fact that Walter can even remember this at all is one of the more remarkable aspects of the show: until tonight, Walter’s memories were still in the post-Doomsday Device timeline. But thanks to Michael’s touch last week, everything from the first three seasons came flooding through. The result? Walter found himself filled with more joy than he thought possible, as he recounted key moments between himself and Peter in that timeline. The euphoria felt onscreen between those two characters matched that of many watching at home, undoubtedly. And that euphoria only seemed to highlight the disconnect felt at the start of the fourth season. If you liked the choice made at that point in the show’s run, then Walter’s remembrance felt like well-earned catharsis. If you didn’t like it, then Walter’s eureka moment only demonstrated what has largely been missing over the last 30+ episodes.
In either case, a hallmark of “Fringe” throughout the ages is that emotions always conquer intellect. The show’s “A LOVE WIZARD DID IT” explanation for Peter’s return to reality solidified that ethos, but it’s all over the place if you want to look for it. Learning that September learned about paternal affection through observing Walter was a fairly obvious assumption to make in light of the last episode, but it was a striking moment all the same to see on screen. Similarly, seeing an Observer unwittingly tap along to a jazz tune in Donald’s apartment was a wonderfully odd way to show how humanity has a way of “infecting” The Observers. Even Windmark, who is basically Agent Smith from “The Matrix” at this point, feels disturbed at the emotion of “anger” that the insurgents have planted inside of him. (Watching an Observer grow inside a liquid-filled tube only confirmed the association with that sci-fi franchise.)
So having that emotional “bleedthrough” means that any potential reboot of reality that might ensue from sending Michael to 2167 and convince the scientist that first removed jealousy from the human brain in order to increase intelligence that both can coexist harmoniously isn’t necessarily a clean reality wipe. (Also? Look at that sentence! I need an aspirin.) But it does make one question the morality of one Olivia Dunham, who is near giddy at the prospect of getting Etta back should the Walter/Donald plan succeed. Let’s put aside for a moment the logistics of what a “no Observer” reality would entail. (A colleague of mine pointed out this probably means Over Here Peter dies, but Over There Peter lives since Walternate doesn’t get distracted by September while making the serum. But then Over There Peter never meets Over Here Olivia, which means…no Etta. But maybe Henry. Again, aspirin, please.) Let’s ask a basic, but incredibly difficult, question: Olivia’s desire to have her child back makes her a well-intentioned mother, but does it make her a morally upstanding human being?
Since there was a lot of confusion over my questioning the validity of Peter and Olivia breaking up over the loss of Etta in this season’s premiere, let me be clear: I don’t question for a second the desire for any parent who has lost their child to have them back. It’s a fundamental wish that’s ingrained in everyone’s DNA, and extends not only to children but parents, other relatives, and friends as well. But what I am asking here is what I suspect the show is also asking right now: How often to do good intentions often stand in the way of the greater good? We sympathize with Olivia’s position not only because it’s relatable, but also because we’ve spent five seasons with this character and have been positioned/conditioned to want what’s best for her. But in television, we often have our sympathies determined by whom the show decides to focus on. If “Fringe” were about Alistair Peck, would we feel differently about his journey? If it were about the couple in Season 4’s “And Those We’ve Left Behind,” wouldn’t we semi-loathe Fringe Division for stopping Raymond Green from spending time with his wife Kate? Moral questions become infinitely more complex when applied not to an individual, but society as a whole.
The fact that “The Boy Must Live” has me contemplating these types of questions means the episode is a success. I’d rather get interesting questions than hard-fast answers. Because let’s be honest: did the exposition dump about 2609 Earth, and the scientific advancements in 2167 that led to it, add anything to your overall understanding of the show? Sure, it filled in tiny bits of trivia, but I’m not sure it did anything to fundamentally change our understanding of the show’s meaning. It helped change our understanding of the show’s story, but all that information means is that we can’t fill in the gaps ourselves. Anytime the episode felt like an examination of how humanity’s best (and worst) parts will always endure worked fantastically. Anytime the episode felt like Michael Cerveris reading from the “Origins of the Observers” Wikipedia page, it fell flat.
But ultimately, as stated before, the success of this episode won’t be determined until the finale, at which point people can decide for themselves if the show as a whole made the right choices along the way. To bring things full circle: let’s imagine for a moment that the final scene of “Fringe” is young Etta, running into the arms of Peter and Olivia as they sit on a blanket in Central Park. They are a blissful family, and a family blissfully unaware of the pain and suffering that has unfolded for them over the past five seasons of the show and the past decades of their lives. But they are also blissfully unaware of the time spent with each other, the moments they laughed, loved, and found comfort in each other. They are also blissfully unaware of an odd, irascible, sweets-loving scientist who both caused all of the aforementioned moments but also endangered reality as we knew it in the process. Who needs resolution here: the characters, the audience, or both?
I think the answer to that is a matter of personal taste. But also defines how such a moment might play out, should it play out. (Nothing I listed above is a spoiler. But many surmised the final shot of “Lost” before it aired, even if they didn’t have any way of truly knowing it. Both guesses “feel” equally right, though.) On the one hand, the scenario above could represent the sum total of all actions that happened before it, which means there’s absolute narrative weight behind yet another reality reboot. On the other hand, Walter’s sudden memory gain tonight highlights just how much emotional weight is behind remembering the sum total of one’s life. Does meaning lie in the actions one takes? The memory of those actions? A mixture? Those are questions I look forward to “Fringe” engaging with in the final two hours. Answering those will say more about the show than anything else in cementing its legacy in television history.
What did you think about tonight’s episode? Are you excited for the finale, or sad about the show’s imminent ending? Does the prospect of seeing Etta again excite you, or worry you? Sound off below!