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Recap: 'Fringe' - 'An Origin Story'
Peter and Olivia grieve in different ways in tonight's pivotal episode.
“You don’t even know what you don’t know.”
Thus sayeth a captured Observer to Peter Bishop in tonight’s episode of “Fringe”. But it also sounds like a showrunner talking to his or her audience, as well. Part of the fun in reviewing a show on a weekly basis is the opportunity to capture immediate reactions in real time. The downside, of course, is that you’re always operating with only part of the overall puzzle revealed at any given time. Just as Peter tries to assemble a cube that might deal a crippling blow to The Observers, those following along with the show on a weekly basis are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating how to fit the pieces of the show together in order to produce a coherent image. “An Origin Story” doesn’t fill in all the gaps, but certainly provides some sense of where things might go over the last eight hours of the program.
To wit, the title refers to Peter’s “birth”, if you will, as an Observer. Of course, the word “Observer” in and of itself has always been problematic, much in the way that “The Others” was always a troublesome moniker on “Lost”. Both are insufficient terms to collectively describe that which is unknown. Given what we know about how Peter and Olivia reacted after Etta disappeared as a child, it makes sense that Peter would take a more active role in avenging her death than Olivia would. That doesn’t make Olivia’s approach weaker than Peter’s. In fact, the episode ends siding with her in terms of her moral and emotional dealings. But this was The Peter Bishop Power Hour, by the end of which he has successfully removed a piece of tech from the Observer’s spine and affixed it to his own. He’s either The Six Million Dollar Man or Locutus of the Borg.
What an idiot.
Still, he’s an idiot in a way that the show intended, which makes the decision unfortunate but keeping with the world established at this point. Many of you astutely prognosticated in the comments last week that Etta’s death set up a possible situation in which Peter could re-stage his own version of the original sin of the show: Walter’s abduction of him as a child. I didn’t think that far ahead, since thinking ahead in this show has led me down too many incorrect paths over the years. But it felt right from the moment I read it. So when I saw The Observers open a window to another time and place, I thought we’d see an attempt of that re-enactment tonight. Instead, the show took a different approach, using the spirit of Walter’s action in 1985 and letting Peter put his own spin on things.
Like I said, shoving that semi-omniscient needle into his neck was an extremely dumb maneuver on his part. But it’s designed to be dumb, which justifies the decision to have Peter lose his mind while going all “Man On Fire” on the Observer. Learning about his decision to press on looking for young Etta while Olivia went back working for Fringe Division in the season premiere rang false, since we only heard about that choice anecdotally. We didn’t have any context. All we had was exposition. It’s one thing to hear about it and another thing to see it. And while “Fringe” rebooted its reality in Season Four, Peter Bishop remained the one true character who has remained the same since Day One. So you can quibble all you want with the massive time leap and insane compression of this final season storyline all you want. (I have before, and probably will again!) But I couldn’t argue with this turn of events as the sadly inevitable result of what had come before. I couldn’t have predicted it, but it seems now like a logical series of events.
I don’t watch the previews for upcoming shows, and I hope we can avoid talking about them in the comments below. But the insertion of Observer tech into Peter’s brain brings up plenty of plotlines over the last half of this final season. The plotlines in and of themselves don’t particularly interest me, especially if “Fringe” drags out “people notice something is off about Peter” for 4-5 of the final installments. But the moral questions of Peter’s decision tie in deeply to the show’s core question: namely, “What does it mean to be human?”
Pondering just how Peter’s new form might be related to the giant “RESIST!” signs that popped up all over town the instant he took off to torture the Observer is cool and all. (I welcome and any all theories you have below in the comments.) But let’s get back to the quote that started this review: “You don’t even know what you don’t know.” It’s true that we don’t know how those signs showed up, but the show ostensibly will answer it in due time. I’m content to not ask questions about that until the show’s ready to reveal it. What I am interesting in asking are the types of philosophical queries that genre shows like “Fringe” excel in posing. Are we doomed to be the agents of our own unmaking? Is grief a curse or a blessing? Do science, medicine, and engineering help us unlock our humanity or in fact close it off? What function does life serve if it always ends in death?
“Fringe” at its best has always served up interesting conundrums such as these within fantastical procedural drama coupled with serialized narrative. The introduction of this post-apocalyptic setting semi-obscured these elements in favor of world-building. And Etta’s time on the show was too short by far, because I don’t miss her so much as grieve for Olivia and Peter. That’s not to say that fourteen episodes would have solved the problem, unless those fourteen episodes were dedicated to making us care about the Bishops as a united family. Etta could have only been in a single episode and had an effective death, had the show earned her iconic stature. Desmond Hume and Penny Widmore earned their place in the “Lost” pantheon in the second season finale of that show. It’s totally possible to fall in love with a character in just a single installment. Those of you that did grieved for her. I grieved for her parents, who never got the proper onscreen time to truly bond with their re-found daughter.
Still, I buy that Peter and Olivia would mourn the way they did tonight, so I’m ultimately talking about degrees of success rather than any thought of failure. It’s somewhat cheeky for me to write, “Why did we get her back, and then lose her again?” But it’s absolutely devastating to hear Olivia say it, and it’s even more powerful to hear Walter try to offer his sadly expert advice on dealing with grief and loss. I tweeted earlier today that while I’ve had issues with the past two seasons of the show, television will be less interesting as a whole when “Fringe” is gone. And much of that has to do with Walter Bishop, and John Noble’s portrayal of him during the show’s run. He’s trying to comfort Olivia in the scene in question, offering up a tape of Etta’s birthday party as a healing agent for two grieving parents. But Walter is barely there himself, which makes his efforts to help Olivia that much more affecting. Watching that mixture of fragility and strength in tandem was wonderful to behold, and I’ll gladly take all the Walter I can get in the little time remaining on the show’s run.
A lot of tonight’s episode featured Olivia and Peter gazing at their own reflections, searching to identify the person staring back at them. How these two find their way back to each other will chart the course of the final run of the series. I have a feeling the show will starting pointing its way back to 1985 before all is said and done. Whether or not it decides to reboot things one last time is anyone’s guess. Only Joel Wyman know how to put the show’s narrative cube goes together when all is said and done. Let’s see if he produces something shocking or simply something that singes all who observe.
A few more thoughts about tonight’s episode:
*** “That’s my girl!” Peter’s line early in the episode was both awesome and sobering simultaneously.
*** Still no Nina this season. No Broyles this week. And poor Astrid might never leave the lab again in this series.
*** If Peter starts developing a taste for really, really, REALLY spicy food, I’d start to worry.
*** Walter’s explanation for destroying the wormhole was the best episode of “Mr. Wizard” ever.
*** During the interrogation scene, I kept flashing back to this past week’s episode of “Homeland”. Carrie Matheson would be an incredible Fringe agent.
*** I was going to quibble with Etta’s birthday party being on VHS, but then theorized that Walter would have simply grabbed his camera from the lab before attending the party.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did Peter’s decision at the end shock you in a good way or a bad way? If the show ends with history rewritten and Etta alive again, how would you feel about that? Sound off below!