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Recap: 'Fringe' - 'Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There '
The show's season-long scavenger hunt slows things down to a crawl at an inopportune time
There’s a tendency to overanalyze episodes of television shows as they approach their announced end dates. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it’s one that’s coincided with the rise of online analysis of shows on a weekly basis. Even when a show like “M*A*S*H” ended, there simply weren’t the forums available for widespread, multidirectional analysis, no matter how many fans watched that finale. So on one level, it’s unfair to judge tonight’s episode of “Fringe” based on the fact that only seven more will ever air. On the other hand, “Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There” would be a middling episode of “Fringe” at best were it not placed at this time in the show’s run. As is? It’s a borderline travesty.
I almost used the word “disaster” there, but that’s too strong by half. I’m not mad at this episode. But I was almost uniformly bored by it. Establishing the premise of the episode, which entailed a pocket universe inside which Walter placed the unnamed boy from season 1’s episode “Inner Child” as part of his anti-Observer agenda, took up nearly two-thirds of the proceedings. Having a slow episode inside a final season is fine, particularly if that show uses the slowed-down pace to do some serious character work before the final few legs of the journey. In fact, after the cataclysmic events of “The Bullet That Saved The World”, we had just such an episode. Not much forward plot momentum happened in “An Origin Story”, leaving time for the ache of Etta’s death to settle over things. When something did finally happen, it felt seismic: Peter putting Observer tech into his body came as a shock, and promised to push the show into its final phase.
By contrast, “Through The Looking Glass and What Walter Found There” felt less like a pause and more like a stall. With only a handful of episodes left, it’s simply astounding that the show felt the need to pad out its season by presenting a leg of its season-long scavenger hunt that unfolded at the approximate speed of continental drift. Sure, the MC Escher-esque construction of the pocket universe was neat, and did lead to some interesting visual moments. (I particularly dug the faux end of the hallway, and the vertiginous chase once The Observes popped over.) But those moments served themselves and themselves only. It didn’t really teach us much about these characters, offered little in the way of tension, and mainly served as a walking tour of a place Walter Bishop visited twenty-five years ago as part of a plan I barely have any interest in following anymore.
At the outset of the season, I wrote that the “gotta collect ‘em all” aspect laid out there might be a fine way to construct the final season. But that optimism was based on each piece of the puzzle aligning with a specific part of the characters’ journey. I’m not suggesting that this episode’s refusal to deal with the fallout from Peter’s decision to plug into this show’s version of The Matrix until its final five minutes was the sole reason this episode failed to excite. But without that last-minute fallout, everything that happened before it lacked context. Walter excavated a tape by himself because the plot needed him to do so. He left of his own accord because the plot needed him to do so. He let a poor man die inside the pocket universe because the plot needed him to do so. Walter’s final speech tried to retroactively justify his actions. Instead, it served as exposition because the actions he took were unintelligible without it. When the show has to explain why a character does something, that’s usually the sign of poor writing, plan and simple.
Similarly, aside from a bittersweet moment early on in which Peter and Olivia watch a hologram voicemail from Etta, little they do throughout the hour served any particular purpose for their characters. Nothing carried the weight of what they had been through. After Etta all but said, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” the pair floated through the episode, carried through by little besides creaking plot mechanisms that had them following in Walter’s footsteps for the majority of the hour. Had all this led to some major revelation regarding Walter and September’s Master Plan To Beat The Observers®, at least we would feel as if some forward momentum had been achieved on the season-long narrative front. Instead, we only got more mysteries. We’re still no closer to learning who Donald is, what the boy’s role in the Master Plan is, or why any of this is matters in the long run. Having this scavenger hunt support the final arc of “Fringe” is fine. Having it bear this much of the overall structure is highly problematic.
What’s good about tonight’s episode only happens in the final five minutes. In those three hundred seconds, Peter starts unlocking perks on his Observer skill tree*, Windmark gets his best Emperor Palpatine smile on, Etta’s face starts to get appear on the sides of skyscrapers, and most importantly, Peter and Walter have a major powwow about the nature of hubris in the Bishop bloodline. Again: it’s unfortunate to have the episode’s themes highlighted, underlined, and then affixed with the Christmas light effects that certain companies use in their holiday-themed Power Point presentations. But when you have John Noble delivering these words, they inevitably carry more weight.
* That one’s for you, Three People Reading This Who Also Have Played “The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim”.
Peter’s sin in inserting Observer tech into his brain is the same as the sin that pushed Walter Bishop Over There in 1985 to retrieve Walternate’s son. Both men thought that had to fix things alone, and that no one could aid them in their pursuit. Walter eventually lost his wife to suicide due to this decision (at least in the original timeline), and now it’s possible Peter will lose Olivia long before he loses himself. She’s the sensible one at this point, but she’s also far from the show’s focus at this current stage of the game. I’m hoping that’s by design. But it’s still curious to have all the focus be on Peter when Olivia lost just as much as he did. (And don’t get me started about him leaving her in the pocket universe alone. UGH.)
But again, we’re at the point in the story in which Peter has to massively, massively screw up in order to achieve redemption by the end. She has to either save him or at least redeem him before he makes a sacrifice that ultimately defeats The Observers. To be honest, at this point, I quite honestly don’t see how he makes it through the show alive, or at least in the same plane of reality as Olivia and Walter. In contrast to Harry Potter, Peter Bishop is The Boy That Shouldn’t Have Lived. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad he did. That assignation speaks more to his part in reality versus the moral choices he has made after being saved. But let’s look at the facts here. He had to be removed from reality in order to save two universes. Now, instead of bridging the gap between two worlds, he’s now bridging the gap between two iterations of humanity. He’s always been at the edge of two touching Venn diagrams, simultaneously belonging to both circles yet neither. Now, he has to be the one to not only break the connection between The Observers and 2036, but also break the cycle of hubris that has infected his lineage.
This is all strong, fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, it only made up 10% of tonight’s hour. The rest was immediately forgettable, mere cogs in a machine operating at a frequency I can barely hear. Defeating The Observers is a distant secondary concern for me compared with the resolutions of the journeys that Olivia and The Bishop Boys started five seasons ago. Despite every misgiving I’ve had about the show since Peter stepped into the Doomsday Device, I still want to see how things ends for these characters. I don’t give a flying fig about Donald, Tape 8, or any other such nonsense. Show us these three making decisions that define who they are, make those choices surprising yet true to their natures, and let the chips fall where they may. In January, this show will be ambered forever. There are only seven episodes left. The time for stalling is over. The time to push through to the end is now.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Do you agree that it was too slow for this stage of the game, or did the pace suit you fine? Did the decision to not follow up on Peter’s new biological status feel like a smart move? Does the scavenger hunt still hold you interest? Sound off below!