The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 5

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Fringe was a series that I started watching during the end of it’s third season, specifically the final episode of the third season. It isn’t surprising I would enjoy the series given it’s hardcore Sci-Fi appeal. Season 5 was unfortunately it’s final season, but dealt with some great philosophy and moral questions brought into the narratives.

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The Best:

   Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There, Five-Twenty-Ten, The Human Kind, and Liberty

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Due to the large amount of episodes that I really enjoyed, I will simply use small blurbs here to go over what I think was the best about them, or parts about them:

  • Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There happened to be my first real favorite episode of the season. It had a sense of adventure, while also taking place with much smaller scale compared to several episodes before it;
  • Five-Twenty-Ten and The Human Kind both deal strongly with Peter using future Observer tech to obtain their abilities, which becomes a means of revenge for Captain Windmark killing his daughter, Etta. Much of this thread deals with choices and why we make them, how to properly cope with grief, and pretty cool sequences reminiscent of The Matrix; and,
  • Liberty is great in that we are reunited with Fauxlivia and Lincoln Lee Over There, as I have been highly interested in their stories since they were introduced, before becoming busy in set-up for the final episode.

According to The A.V. Club review of Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There:

After the heady events of last week’s episode and the episode before that, this week’s “Through The Looking Glass And What Walter Found There” is decidedly quieter and stranger, and much less action-packed. It’s almost like a little interlude—an episode tucked away from the other episodes. A “pocket episode,” if you will.

For all its scantness, I found “Through The Looking Glass” very enjoyable, primarily because it’s in keeping with a lot of what this season has been about, structurally and thematically. It brings back an old friend—sort of—in that when Walter wanders away from the lab in the pursuit of a secret Boston location that he discovers on one of his old tapes, it turns out he’s looking for Lil’ O, the bald, empathic boy-C.H.U.D. who appeared way back in season one’s “Inner Child.” He doesn’t find the boy, unfortunately, but in terms of connecting season five with the earlier Fringe seasons, “Through The Looking Glass” does as it intends. (It even connects to season four’s “reboot,” in that Olivia suggests that Walter may not have experienced the Lil’ O case in the same way that she and Peter remember it.)

“Through The Looking Glass” also sustains this season’s motif of secret stashes. Last week, Peter found a hidden arsenal in Etta’s old room, and re-constructed a device that opened up a portal to the future. This week, Walter continues to carve paths through the amber in his lab, and goes through a series of steps—almost like a locker combination crossed with The Hokey-Pokey—that leads to the “pocket universe” where he hid Lil’ O over 20 years ago. Peter and Olivia eventually track Walter to the apartment at 167 Cedar Street in downtown Boston, and follow his steps into the pocket, which itself is a world of trompes-l’oeil, shifting windows, and floors that become ceilings. Even the transition between the worlds is a process that contains secrets. Walter’s videotape goes blank at one point in the regular universe, only to continue in the pocket. The missing Lil’ O left behind a radio with a jammed tuning dial, which doesn’t work at all in the pocket but appears to be ready to receive an as-yet-unsent transmission on the other side. As always with Fringe this season, the pieces of the puzzle are scattered and incomplete, left by people who no longer exist, to be interpreted by people who don’t really know what to do with them.

Or do they? The other similarity between this episode and the previous weeks’ is that Fringe is continuing to consider the emotional toll this final adventure is taking on our heroes. Olivia’s worried that she’s drifting away from Peter again, and so she reminds him that when he goes off to mourn Etta, he needs to tell her what he’s doing, and to include her in the process. Peter’s recently implanted Observer-tech is giving him the power to zip around instantaneously, and to counter the enemy’s moves, blow-by-blow, but it’s also making him colder, more ruthless, and more distant. And Walter, while his brain is still fried, is starting to revert to his old, gruff personality—easily peeved, and unconcerned when he encounters a scared man named Cecil who’s been trapped in the pocket universe for two decades. Cecil gets shot and killed when the Observers infiltrate the pocket, and later Walter confides in Peter that he considered this man “an acceptable loss,” and it scares him that he could go back to being that inhumanly calculating. “I’m losing the man that you helped me become,” he says to Peter, little realizing that his son is now looking at the world as a series of electronic blips, not as a collection of people and places. (Note too that while Peter’s staring blankly into the distance while listening to Walter, there’s a poster of an Observer right over his shoulder.)

My main complaint about “Through The Looking Glass” really is that not much happens in the episode; it’s primarily just about the changes happening to Peter and Walter, and even more than that, it’s an excuse for a little semi-psychedelic trip. But while this is not the most fruitful excursion, it is an entertaining one, thanks to the video of Past Walter stopping at a street vendor to grab a raspberry-filled pastry, and thanks to the very notion of a surreal world that exists just one pivot away from our own. It’s a familiar world too, where the apartment doors are marked with glyphs instead of numbers. Call this universe: Fringe.

According to The A.V. Club review of Five-Twenty-Ten:

The big problem with tonight’s Fringe episode “Five-Twenty-Ten” is that roughly a third of it is redundant to anyone who’s been watching the season so far. Several minutes are taken up by Walter and Nina Sharp talking about Walter’s fear that his restored brain is turning him into the cold and ruthless Walter Bishop of old, which is something that came up in the last episode, at some length. Meanwhile, Olivia is worried that Peter is responding to Etta’s death by withdrawing from her and becoming obsessive (a trait exacerbated by the secret Observer-tech in his head), which has been the major topic of conversation on this show for the past two episodes. Even the rudiments of the plot—which sees the team unearthing one of Past Walter’s videotapes and going hunting for some hidden technology related to an old Fringe case—is largely indistinguishable from any other episode in season five. Taken as a whole, “Five-Twenty-Ten” isn’t exactly a Fringe for the ages.

Taken in pieces, though? Well, there are some spectacular pieces. And besides, what has this season been about, if not the profoundly human quality of being scatterbrained, and only fleetingly excellent?

Okay, perhaps that’s a reach; perhaps I’m trying to make “Five-Twenty-Ten” sound better and more meaningful than it actually is. But I’m not reaching when I say that “Five-Twenty-Ten” is fleetingly excellent. Just about anything to do with Peter’s covert mission to sabotage The Observers—which takes up about a third of the episode—is both fascinating and tense, as Peter uses his new predictive abilities to chart where The Observers’ main lieutenants will be, and when. The problem for Peter is that by borrowing The Observers’ talent for precognition, he’s also borrowing their divorcement from humanity, which means that while Peter can predict what should happen, he can’t always predict what will, given the randomness that some might call “the human factor.”

Nevertheless, Peter’s efforts net him one big win, as with the help of their Resistance liaison Anil, Peter determines where three of Windmark’s top baldies will be, and arranges to replace one of their briefcases with a case containing the flesh-eating toxin that factored in the very first Fringe episode. Soon there’s an explosion, and The Observers’ jaws drop right off. (The benefit to this is that now they can’t eat, so they won’t act on their hunger. Lop off their arms and they’ll be perfectly safe. Or am I thinking of another show?)

As for the tape-of-the-week, it sends our heroes to William Bell’s storage facility, to find two of those cylindrical beacons that have been a part of Observer-related Fringe episodes since the first season. The return to Bell-ville occasions much discussion of why Bell was found with them in amber in the first place, and whether he had rejoined them in their fight against The Observers before they froze themselves, or whether he had betrayed them. The general consensus, based on everyone’s foggy memories? Bell sold them out. And it’s that fear of becoming like Bell that provokes Walter to have that overly familiar talk with Nina about what he is becoming, and to ask her to help him by cutting up his brain again.

On the other hand, once Walter and the team break into Bell’s storage facility and get into his safe—thanks to a Massive Dynamic device that converts mass into gas, and thanks to Bell always using the same “5-20-10” lock-combination—they find a disc that unearths the two cylinders they need, and they find a photograph of a young Nina Sharp. The latter tells Walter that even at his worst, Bell was still capable of human sentiment; which means that perhaps there’s hope for Walter as well, even at his most calculating.

Bell’s hideaway also contains Walter’s old copy of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World, which sets up the fantastic final five minutes of “Five-Twenty-Ten.” Though the entire episode may not be a keeper, the Bowie-scored ending most definitely is, bringing to a head the growing distance between Olivia and this new Pete/Observer hybrid. She’s fretful that he’s not sleeping, that he has weird headaches, that his ears start bleeding spontaneously, and that he keeps going off on missions without her (after she expressly said she wants to be included). Well, at the end of “Five-Twenty-Ten,” he explains himself, telling her the truth about what he’s done to his brain and why.

This may be the strongest indication that he’s slipped completely into Peteserver mode. Not the Vulcan-like, “It’s logical that we split up.” Not the transparent boards in the living room, covered with Observer-movement timelines. Not that he can say what Olivia’s about to say a fraction of a second before she says it. Not that his hair is falling out in clumps. It’s that now he’s being honest, because he no longer cares if the truth hurts her.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Human Kind:

The Matrix-ization of Fringe continues apace with the introduction this week of Jill Scott as Simone, a sort of “oracle,” who gets psychic flashes when she’s near Olivia. But Fringe uses Simone in its own Fringe-specific way, to contrast her way of seeing the future with the way that the Observer version of Peter predicts what’s going to happen. The title of this episode is “The Human Kind,” and that’s what Simone’s all about. She feels; she intuits. “The heart will make sense of what the mind cannot,” Simone tells Olivia. But Olivia’s not buying it. A half-decade of cracking Fringe Division cases has taught her that there’s an explanation for even the strangest phenomena, and that anyone who looks to “the heart” or “God” for that explanation is trying too hard to ascribe meaning that isn’t there. “It’s all just numbers,” Olivia tells Simone. And The Observers are “better at math.”

Science-fiction fans often get anxious when a story starts venturing too far into the realm of emotions and faith, and I can understand why. Writers love to play the “love” card, because it seems like an unbeatable trump—it can resolve dilemmas, and force deeper feelings into the plot. But audiences are more skeptical of it, for the same reasons. Imagine you’re playing poker and have a natural flush in your hand, only to get beat by an opponent who has a full house cobbled together from wild cards. That’s kind of what it’s like whenever you’re enjoying an intense, complicated narrative and suddenly all the complications are overcome because the hero just “believes” or “feels.”

There are ways to handle this kind of development adeptly though, and while the Fringe writers may ultimately end the series by going to this well once too often—and while certainly last season’s finale gives fans reasons to be wary in that regard—I have to say that the emotional payoff to “The Human Kind” works, and works splendidly. Maybe that’s because this whole last season has taken the “what it means to be human” theme that’s always been at the core of Fringe, and has elevated it to the surface, giving it some intellectual depth in the process. Our heroes are trying to save the future for mankind, which is only a meaningful goal if they have an understanding of what mankind is supposed to be. Is it to be like Walter, whose natural tendency is toward an all-consuming ambition? Or Peter, so driven to prove himself that he loses touch with why he’s doing it? Or Olivia, who’s trained her whole life to be hard, and is terrified that making too strong an emotional connection will weaken her? Let’s face it: This is a motley bunch, humanity-wise. So the fact that they’re trying so hard to get this right? It’s touching.

The other reason that “The Human Kind” is so successful is that each individual plot point and character beat that leads up to the big tearjerker finish is well-honed. Olivia meets Simone because one of Past Walter’s tapes sends her up to Fitchburg, to retrieve an electro-magnet that has been waiting for 21 years, since Simone was a girl, when an unnamed gray-haired man visited Simone’s mother. But Olivia is wary of Simone’s almost evangelical zeal about her arrival, and draws a gun on Simone, just in case she’s being set up by bounty hunters. So Simone frames Olivia’s situation well, telling her that she can leave and come back later with backup to get the truck, or she can show a little trust, like a human being.

As it happens, Olivia does encounter bounty hunters, but only after she leaves Simone’s junkyard—and only incidentally. A couple of highwaymen trap her, scan her, and discover what she’s worth to The Observers. And interestingly, the robbers end up losing their bounty because of their own lack of trust. While they’re busy arranging with The Observers to hand over Olivia at a “Truth Church”—a place where The Observer can’t read their minds—she’s MacGyvering her way out of her constraints, and setting a trap for her trappers, putting a couple of projectiles through their brains. (The nature of one of those projectiles is important; I’ll get back to that.)

Just like the contrast between Simone’s psychic abilities and Peteserver’s predictive acumen, “The Human Kind” contrasts Olivia’s scrappy adventure in Fitchburg and Peter’s more analytical action. (Relatively analytical; when Peter fights with Captain Windmark, and the two of them blink around each other while trading blows, it’s pretty damned exciting.) Peter is treating the movements of humans and Observers like one big physics problem, much the way that Milo Stanfield did in season three’s “The Plateau”—which probably not coincidentally was co-written by Alison Schapker, the scripter of tonight’s episode. The outcome of that problem, according to this new version of Peter, is that he will ultimately outguess and outmaneuver Captain Windmark, and get the baldy to a certain place at a certain time, so that Peter can snap the bastard’s neck, and thus complete the equation.

The problem, of course, is that Peter may soon be permanently Observered, based on what Walter has seen in his experiments with the Observer tech and a spare Porcupine Man brain. And since Walter needs Peter to keep him in touch with his humanity, and since Olivia needs Peter so that she’s not cold and ruthless all the time, they both try to convince him to abandon his plan of revenge, and see the larger picture of their mission. (It’s essentially what Peter once tried to explain to Etta, when she saw Simon’s head being experimented on in “In Absentia.”) The episode ends with Olivia coming up with the right combination of words—a mix of logic and emotion—to get Peter to cut the Observer tech out of his head. Yes, it’s a “love conquers all” hail mary. But “The Human Kind” has fought for it every minute, and ultimately earns it.

Besides, for those not so interested in the emotional content of the episode, there’s still a lot to contemplate in that other ever-present Fringe continuum, between the crazily scientific and the supernatural. Simone sees her abilities as a gift; Olivia sees them as an anomaly. But there’s a difference between Peteserver’s three-dimensional chess games, and the way that Past Walter continues to manipulate the events of the future through his videotapes, and the way that Etta provides Olivia with the bullet that she’s later going to need to kill one of her captors. Call it fate, call it luck, or call it good planning—really what’s going on here is that human beings are resourceful. We take our instincts, and what we have at hand, and all of our life experience and guesswork, and we improvise.

According to The A.V. Club review of Liberty:

I’ve been watching, enjoying, thinking about, and writing about Fringe since the first episode aired on September 9th, 2008 (my 38th birthday, as it happens), and I’m still not entirely sure how best to recommend the show to people who’ve never watched it. For fans of intelligent genre fare—in particular science-fiction and horror—Fringe is remarkably philosophical and imaginative, recontextualizing dozens of cool fantasy concepts in the form of memorable monsters and troubled heroes. But it’s also a sappy show, that falls back on the usual TV drama abstractions of “love” and “trust” and “fate” and “change” to drive some stories to non-science-based conclusions. For fans of sophisticated serialized television, Fringe has spun a complicated and unusually consistent longform narrative over its five seasons, anchored by acting and directing as strong as some of the most acclaimed shows of this era. But the narrative doesn’t really start to become compelling until around episode 35, and after that it takes so many jarring turns with each new season that even people who come to love the show may find that love tested sorely. Plus Fringe really can be corny, in ways unlikely to appeal to those not already inclined to like Porcupine Men and inter-dimensional romances. It’s never been a smooth ride, this show.

But I still say that Fringe has been a hell of an achievement, and one likely to be thought of more fondly with each passing year, in the way that The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and Firefly have been. The creative team has delivered very few mediocre or outright bad episodes, and are responsible for enough high points that tabulating a definitive list of Fringe’s Top 20 episodes would be a struggle. (Believe me, I tried.) These characters will be remembered. These stories will be remembered.

Where does this two-part finale rank on the continuum of Fringe episodes? Typical of Fringe, it’s a mixed bag, with a little foot-dragging, followed by a bit of “wow,” and a not-so-surprising swell of emotion. And then: A final image so perfect and poignant that I think it’s going to be pretty easy for Fringe fans to forgive some of the unevenness that precedes it.

The first part, “Liberty,” takes a while to get going, though it ramps up considerably in its second half. Once our heroes learn from Philip “The Dove” Broyles that Michael: Boy Observer is being held on Liberty Island—in the stump of what used to be the symbol of American freedom—Olivia comes up with the bright idea to cross over to Earth-2, travel to their Liberty Island, grab Michael, and then cross back at Battery Park. Then it’s just a matter of killing twenty minutes or so while Peter tries to talk Olivia out of it, and Walter prepares painful injections of Cortexiphan. There’s never any doubt that this adventure’s going to happen. Peter poked himself in the back of the neck to avenge Etta; Olivia has to poke herself in the back of the neck to try and bring her back.

The second half of “Liberty” is much more exciting, as Olivia hallucinates and drifts in and out of the two worlds, while tracking down Michael, whom The Observers have decided to “disassemble” for further study. Longtime Fringe devotees were probably hoping for a little more interaction with—and action from—Fauxlivia and Lincoln Lee. But it was nice to see that they’re living happily, with a kid of their own; and it was nice to hear one last energetic “Dunham!” from Fauxlivia. Anyway, the Michael-rescue is genuinely suspenseful. Will the drifting Olivia see The Observers in time to shoot them? Will her presence end up infesting Earth-2 with Observers? Ultimately, all resolves in our heroes’ favor—after the first of many touching goodbyes, this time between the two Olivias—and the stage is set for “An Enemy Of Fate.”

If I wanted to be nitpicky, I could note that “Liberty” is mostly busy-work. If Michael never steps off the train at the end of “The Boy Must Live,” then there’s no need to go to Earth-2, and this episode doesn’t exist—with no major change in the overall plot, really. But “Liberty” does establish a little more about Michael—that he has an intellectual capacity and a depth of emotion that The Observers are “unable to comprehend”—and it gives the Fringe faithful what we’ve been demanding, which is another trip to the other side, and a few more minutes with Lincoln and the gang.

The Worst:

The Recordist, and Black Blotter

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As with above, same here, small blurbs:

  • The Recordist was a pretty bland episode, overall, that didn’t become worth remembering later on; and,
  • Although Black Blotter deals with some pretty heavy topics, I have not considered myself a fan of the eccentric episodes within Fringe about Walter. They have never really appealed to me.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Recordist:

Over the past week I’ve been thinking a lot about fictional dystopias—as depicted on TV in particular—and how hard it is to build one from scratch and make it compelling. I thought the recent V remake had its moments, and I’ve been enjoying some parts of Revolution, but there’s just so much groundwork that has to be laid with shows like these, from explaining the nature of the trouble that’s befallen the world to describing how the resistance has developed, that the characters and the story tend to get shortchanged. Fringe has the advantage of four seasons’ worth of character-development (or three, if you discount last year’s “reset”), and now has a task-based narrative structure to help shore up the story elements. Even still, I’ve been impressed with how easy it’s been to adjust to this future, and all its little quirks and nooks.

It wasn’t even that difficult in this week’s episode “The Recordist” to get used to a community of nebbishy treepeople with a weird bark-like growth all over their skin—perhaps because the treepeople have such an interesting purpose, and such a tragic dimension.

It’s one of Walter’s “how to beat The Observers” tapes that sends the Fringe Division (Resistance Subdivision) out to the wilds of Pennsylvania, where Past Walter may have left something vitally important to the cause, although the tape’s too garbled to confirm what may be there. So while Astrid works on ungarbling the old message, the Fringe team goes into the woods, where they meet these bark-faced technophiles, who’ve been busy for the past two decades documenting human history on little data cubes, so that someday when the story of the Observer Invasion is told, it won’t entirely be written by the winners. (Note the pessimistic inevitability embedded in these historians’ cause; like the Loyalist we met last week, they just assume defeat.)

Edwin Massey is the main “recordist,” who also explains to Walter that the reason for their skin condition is unknown, but that it affects everyone in their camp, and eventually spreads and kills the affected. But the recordists can’t leave, because they have a job to do. Walter, meanwhile, figures out that the source of the trouble is a kind of radiation, emanating from a mine that contains red rocks. Thanks to Astrid’s work on cleaning up the tape and Edwin’s extensive records, the team surmises that Past Walter was headed to that camp some 20-odd years ago to meet a man named Donald and to retrieve those rocks, which are a power source for whatever The Resistance needs to build to defeat The Observers. But before that could happen, Donald was taken by The Observers. (My guess is that we haven’t heard that name for the last time, especially since Walter says he doesn’t remember Donald. My other guess is that Donald may not have been waiting for Walter at all, but rather some other “scientist from Boston” … perhaps William Bell.)

Plotwise (and even thematically), “The Recordist” would’ve been a little livelier had Astrid discovered something on the tape that had seriously changed the mission: like if in one of the warped sections, Past Walter had said, “No matter what, stay away from the treepeople!” The biggest complication in this episode is that The Observers figure out roughly where the good guys are, though even then, a Resistance spy is able to tip off Etta that they’re running out time. So outside of cutting the Fringe-ers stay with the treepeople short and forcing them to mine those red rocks as quickly as possible, it’s not that big of an obstacle.

Well… not to the Fringe folks, anyway. It’s a problem for Edwin, who knows that he’s not going to be able to get the copper that Walter needs to make a safety suit for the mine excursion—and who also knows that his son River thinks he’s a coward for not being willing to risk anything to help Walter. So Edwin lies and sends Peter and Olivia on a wild goose chase, while he goes into the mine himself to get what Walter needs, and set a good example for his own son.

The conversation between Edwin and River about cowardice is corny, yet moving (especially in the way it all plays out, which I’ll get back to in a second). It was trumped though by the conversations between Peter and Olivia about their own history of “strength” and “weakness,” in regards to the time when Etta went missing. When Peter downs an apple pill and tries to reminisce about some awesome apple pie they ate together in Boston while on their Etta-hunt, Olivia changes the subject, because she finds the whole memory embarrassing. Etta and Peter admire Olivia for staying with Walter to fight The Observers, but Olivia admits to Peter that when Etta disappeared, she assumed it was a punishment for her feeling so conflicted for so long about becoming a mother; and adds that she found it much easier to to re-channel her energy to something else than to face finding the dead body of the little girl who changed her understanding of herself.

This is one of the reasons why this grimly futuristic version of Fringe is working so well: because it’s not just about the the big issues of what it means to be a hero, but also the small ones, like how best to document and remember that heroism. Edwin just compiles and cross-files all that he can, while his son River draws his own very cool-looking comics about the past adventures of Fringe Division, giving history a much more dynamic slant. Meanwhile, Peter and Etta remember Past Olivia as a brave woman fighting for a cause despite crippling grief; while Olivia remembers herself as cold and terrified.

I suspect parents may identify with what Edwin does (and what Olivia is saying) more than non-parents, and that may affect some opinions of this episode. Personally, I think “The Recordist” wasn’t as good as the last two weeksof Fringe episodes have been, because as I said, it’s straighter in its storytelling and pushes its emotional buttons too hard. But I’m not going to pretend I didn’t get choked up at the end, when River found the data-cube that his dead father left for him, full of family memories. I kept thinking back to what Edwin told his son about facing the fear of losing everything, and how River may think he understands it, but he can’t, really—not yet. “You don’t know,” Edwin says, speaking to how the meaning history changes as we change. “But you will one day.”

According to The A.V. Club review of Black Blotter:

The Walter That Was came of age in the 1960s, at a time when people were encouraged to experiment on themselves with chemicals, to tap into parts of their brains that few had bothered to explore before. We’ve heard a lot about The Walter That Was throughout the run of Fringe, mostly from his own recollections, with a few flashbacks to the ‘80s that have shown us a very different man the one he rambles on about. So who was Walter Bishop? Was he the fun-loving acid freak who had wild adventures with his partner in crime, Belly? Or was he the coldly brilliant bastard who tormented children and almost destroyed an entire universe? Or has there ever really been a difference? Perhaps it takes a certain arrogance to take all that LSD in the first place.

“Black Blotter” is this abbreviated fifth Fringe season’s version of an “episode 19”—one of those crazy Fringes that tries something different with the storytelling. We’ve had a musical episode, a partially animated episode, a futuristic episode, and now we get one that combines all of these elements: It’s set in the future, it features more music on the soundtrack than usual, and there are little cartoons woven throughout it. I’ve always liked Fringe’s episode 19s, so whether “Black Blotter” had been effective or not, I would’ve given it a lot of credit just for trying to be the out-there Fringe that I love so.

As it happens, I thought “Black Blotter” was effective—though intermittently, and despite some moments that were, as the hippies used to say, “a drag.” The biggest bummer about the episode is that so much of the first half is spent with characters merely talking about its central dilemma. We spend a lot of time in Walter’s head, where he’s tripping on the titular acid and being lectured at by younger versions of Nina Sharp and his old lab assistant Carla Warren, who died in a fire at Walter’s lab so very long ago. (That is, when Walter’s not being entertained by the green and red fairies that keep sparking about.) Walter dropped the Black Blotter in the first place because he wanted to try to remember what he’d forgotten about his plan to beat The Observers, in a quicker and more gentle way than the way he had been headed—by slowly becoming The Walter That Was. But in his mind, Carla pushes him to remember the self-made God that he’d been, while Nina urges caution.

This is ground that’s been well-trod on Fringe this season, and honestly, I wasn’t overly impressed by Jenni Blong’s performance as Dr. Warren, which struck me as a little stiff and one-note. Aside from the moment when Carla leads Walter to find his old notebook, and the moment where she watches him try to burn it, I found the scenes between Carla and Walter fairly tedious.

But maybe that’s because there are two scenes in “Black Blotter” that showed how to suggest and evoke deeper feelings in a more sophisticated, almost cinematic way, without spelling everything out. The first scene involves the child Observer that we used to know as Lil’ O, though now I suppose we have to call him Michael, since that’s the name that his guardians have been calling him for the past 20 years. We last saw the tiny baldy at 167 Cedar Street, where in a pocket universe Michael left a radio, awaiting a signal. Well, at the start of “Black Blotter,” at the lab at FHU, we see the power of the AM and the radio on, as an encoded message finally begins to beep its way through. When the team traces the signal to an island in a lake near Willington, Connecticut, they find Richard and Carolyn, a kindly couple who’ve been looking after Michael ever since the mysterious, still-unmet Donald dropped him off with them. Richard and Carolyn know that their mission requires them to relinquish Michael to Walter, but it tears them up inside to let the kid go after 20 years of taking care of him. The goodbye scene is devoid of dialogue, and yet we can project our own emotions onto it, which makes the moment so much more effective than all the chatty Carla scenes.

And speaking of projection, the other powerful scene I’m thinking of happens toward the end, as Walter is coming down from his trip. He sits sadly in his lab, thinking back on the events of season two’s classic episode “Peter,” which had told the story from the ‘80s that set most of what’s happened on Fringe into motion. Those scenes from “Peter”—involving Carla, Nina, Elizabeth Bishop, and the portal to the other Earth that caused all the trouble—are projected onto Walter and the lab while he remembers them, like a home movie without a screen to catch and contain it. It’s a lovely effect.

As for the rest of “Black Blotter,” it’s a mix of remarkable moments and scenes that mainly spin wheels until the team arrives on Richard and Carolyn’s doorstep. (Because, broken down purely into its plot elements, all that really happens in this episode is that Michael gets found, and Walter slips a little further into the mindset of The Walter That Was.) On the remarkable side: A badass shootout on the dock where Astrid, Peter, Olivia and Walter are casting off to reach Richard and Carolyn’s island. Loyalist officers corner them, ask for their papers, and Peter obliges them by saying “right here” and firing his gun. Very cool.

I’d also say that a lot of Walter’s tripping is remarkable as well, though I know some Fringe fans don’t like it when the show gets that nutty. Me, I enjoyed seeing Walter watch on TV what’s actually happening right behind him in the lab, and him hallucinating that he’s sitting in Manhattan, or over the horizon from The Emerald City. And I loved the Terry Gilliam-style Monty Python interlude, where Walter rides on Gene alongside a dog, a frog, and a Fringe seahorse. (Have you noticed the proliferation of seahorses this season, stretching all the way back to the seahorse dangling from the car mirror back in the first episode?) Again, this episode works best when it’s being impressionistic about what’s going on in Walter’s subconscious, rather than just saying what’s on—and in—his mind.

That’s why the best scene between Carla and Walter is the last one, as he burns a notebook that he’s only imagined, and she tells him, “You’ve been him longer than you’ve been you,” just before Walter finds himself face-to-face with a smug-looking Walter That Was. It brings back this question of which Walter is the real Walter, and whether he’ll ever be the man he wants to be so long as the knowledge of The Walter That Was remains lodged in his brain.

 

they-are-coming

Next is the best and worst of Season 4.

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6 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 5

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 5 | Liberty News

  2. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 4 | The Progressive Democrat

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  4. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  5. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Farscape: Season 3 | The Progressive Democrat

  6. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

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