Even for an already divisive series of “Fringe”, tonight’s episode is one for the books in terms of splitting an audience right down the middle. The show’s last outing, “The Recordist”, was a middling but ultimately inoffensive hour. No one was going to get particularly worked up about it either way. But “The Bullet That Saved The World”? Here’s an hour designed to evoke a response. And not just any response, mind you: It’s meant to evoke a visceral response. There are times in which the show exists in order to get from Point A to Point B. And there are times in which the show blows up the caravan on the way to Point B with an antimatter baton.
 
I’m of two minds about this episode, which I luckily got to absorb for a bit before committing thought to pixel. My initial reaction involved throwing my hands up and punching invisible elves out of anger. I didn’t understand the show’s decision to kill off Etta in the four episode of its finale season. Including “Letters of Transit”, we only got five total episodes with a character that seemed like the focal point for what this show would ultimately be about. Reality was rewritten partially to ensure that Peter had a child with the right version of Olivia Dunham. An unwitting encounter with Fauxlivia yielded Henry, but that child was written out of existence with the show’s reality reboot at the end of Season 3. Even if the show had been slow to flesh out the timeline involving Henrietta, surely such a story would unfold before all was said and done, no?
 
No.
 
And while that seems insane, I also do appreciate the show zigging where many of us expected it to zag. I’m not sure I even had to time to contemplate about whether or not Etta would make it out of the show alive, given the short time we spent with her. If you did think about that possibility, then the show simply zigged ahead of what one might consider an appropriate time within the season. Still, “Bullet” is another it what’s an increasingly long list of television episodes in 2012 that seem to use the audience’s understanding of season structure in order to subvert expectations. This past week’s “Homeland” did this masterfully, unfurling events that could have easily happened in that show’s fifth season. Viewers are simply too savvy about the pacing of television seasons (and by extension, series) for showrunners to hide their hands any longer. So what have some writers done? They’ve changed the game.
 
I admire all that in theory, but I’m left somewhat cold by the developments tonight. Were they shocking? Sure. But did they matter? Of that, I’m less sure. I certainly felt for Olivia and Peter, who at this point seem like they are perpetually tied to kharma’s whipping post. Putting aside the mechanics of this season, which seemed to intentionally put Etta at arm’s length from her parents, it’s still devastating to watch Oliva and Peter essentially close up after their daughter’s death. To go through her disappearance once would have been unbearable enough. To have them go through it just weeks after being freed from their amber slumber could be enough to render them catatonic for good.
 
I’m just not sure the show has earned this misery porn at this point in the series. A recent death early in the fifth season of “Sons Of Anarchy” came at an incredibly early part of that season’s run, but was also the culmination of four plus years of narrative and character work. “Fringe” skipped those steps with Etta, relying instead on our compassion for her parents to make tonight’s episode hurt. Given all the sci-fi kookiness that has populated the show’s run, it’s also felt like a five-season journey towards Olivia and Peter making a life (and ultimately, a family) together. With the universe literally getting in their way at various points, their reunion with Etta felt like the show’s confirmation that love ultimately triumphs science. That’s a corny point, but it’s one that the show earns more often than not.
 
But now? Etta’s run through the show has been confusing at best, and now feels like a wasted opportunity. Without any context for this long-awaited reunion, these episodes retroactively have less meat on their bones. “In Absentia” offered hope that this cipher, made opaque by design, would soon have layers to rival Olivia. But “The Recordist” pushed aside that character work in favor of the fifth season’s scavenger hunt, leaving a single episode for the show to impart as much knowledge about her as possible before shuffling off her mortal coil. Peter gave Etta a new necklace not because of anything we witnessed in their time together, but because the show needed a visual through line to track her doom.
 
Even if Etta’s character remains a symbol more than a three-dimensional character, her death did establish one thing sorely missing from this season thus far: a sense that The Observers are lethal, terrifying adversaries. The first three weeks of this season have painted this still mysterious group as stormtroopers that can occasionally teleport. Outside of Windmark’s brutal mindfrakking of Walter in the season premiere, The Observers have seemed as dangerous as a child with a super soaker. Sure, both might annoy you, but neither will do a lot of actual damage. I rolled my eyes at every scene in which Walter and Astrid loudly burned through the ambered lab to fetch another tape, with Observers all around them completely oblivious to their activity. We were supposed to worry about these bald buffoons? But from minute one tonight, The Observers were omnipresent, overwhelming in numbers and sheer power. Somehow, just seeing Broyles get into an elevator with one felt like the scariest thing I had seen all season.
 
Ah, yes, Broyles is back, and he may or may not save the show’s reputation this season. (Hey na, hey na, my Broyles is back!) Hearing him say “Agent Dunham” for the first time brought an undeniable lump to my throat. Lance Reddick has always been criminally underused on the show, and the idea that he’ll be part of this now morose band of insurgents gives me hope that there will be a new dynamic in the show’s weekly routine. Broyles has always existed on the periphery of the show, outside of the two or three episodes that put his family into focus. I’m still not sold on the scavenger hunt itself, but I appreciate the show demonstrating how difficult it will be to execute it fully. Having them re-enact the fringe event from Season 1’s “Ability”, releasing a gas triggering hyperactive growth of scar tissue, was both a nice callback but also a statement of purpose. No more, Mr. “Fringe” Nice Guy.
 
Just because I haven’t the slightest idea where this is all headed is my problem, not the show’s problem. “Fringe” has always been a show about family, first and foremost. And that, above all, is why Etta’s death is so shocking. It’s cold in a way that show usually doesn’t operate. The story of “Fringe” is the story of this family, and this family just experienced a huge loss while trying to save humanity as a whole. Olivia and The Bishops may eventually triumph, but that victory has already had a cost that may make the entire endeavor ring hollow. That’s certainly a more realistic approach to fighting such an uphill battle, but the show has always favored romanticism over reality in cases like this. (Again: the show’s explanation for how Peter Bishop came back from oblivion in Season 4 was basically “A LOVE WIZARD DID IT.”)
 
What remains to be seen is how much this death actually sticks. Remember, Over There Broyles died helping save Olivia Dunham before Peter got into the doomsday machine and The Observers rewrote reality. Would “Fringe” try to have a grieving Peter try and reboot reality again in order to have his daughter back? It’s possible. It would distract from his current mission, which is exactly what Windmark hoped to effect by killing Etta. Even if Windmark doesn’t understand the concept of love, he’s seen how much can be done in service of it through the insurgents’ recent successes. Killing Etta helps take the wind out of the sails of the freedom fighters, both physically and emotionally.
 
But rebooting reality in order to get her back just means the show would have found a way to exploit time travel in service of cheap sentiment. If Etta returns to the show alive in anything other than flashback, then we witnessed a cheap parlor trick designed to make fans batty. There’s no need for me to reiterate how much I loathed last season’s reality reboot, and there’s certainly no need to express how much another reset button would have me punching AND kicking invisible elves. Even if I didn’t like the execution of Etta’s death, I’m impressed that the show went there, and I’m curious to see how this event shapes the program’s end game. What felt like a 13-episode geotagging excursion has turned into something much different. Whether or not that’s a good thing is yet to be seen.
 
What did you think about tonight’s episode? In which camp do you fall concerning Etta’s death? Did the show give us enough reason to care about her departure? How does this change your opinion about this show’s post-apocalyptic fifth season? Sound off below!