The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 4


In a previous post, I began the best and worst posts for the TV series, Fringe, which I continue here with Season 4, the first full season of the show I actually watched. The fact that two parallel universes were so interlocked throughout the season actually was a compelling thing, for me.

The Best:

Back to Where You’ve Never Been, Enemy of My Enemy, Making Angels, Welcome to Westfield, The End of All Things, The Consultant, Worlds Apart, and Brave New World


As with the previous post, due to numbers, I will continue with blurbs on each of these episodes:

  • In Back to Where You’ve Never Been and Enemy of My Enemy, we are reintroduced to David  Robert Jones, who lives because of the events of The Day We Died. I was particular to the scale of the episode including both teams from both universes working side by side;
  • What I enjoyed about Making Angels was about the two versions of Astrid Farnsworth working together;
  • Welcome to Westfield is a particular favorite for bringing back a problem first introduced in Jacksonville, increasing it’s scale to an entire town, and having a pretty fantastic cliffhanger;
  • The End of All Things was an episode of smaller scale that really addressed some massive plot points that had been lingering around. There was also David Robert Jones. I am quite a fan of Observer-centric episodes, the few there are;
  • The Consultant is yet another David Robert Jones episode that brings both the universes together (like in Enemy of My Enemy);
  • Worlds Apart was essentially the closing for the relations between both universes which had developed since Over There, while also continuing from what we discovered in The Consultant; and,
  • Brave New World is one of the best season finales of a TV show I have seen in a long time, but the happy endings in this story are already foreshadowed to be quite short as seen in Letters of Transit.

According to The A.V. Club review of Back to Where You’ve Never Been:

I could wring my hands over how tonight’s Fringe should’ve aired last fall, when it would’ve transitioned us nicely out of this season’s initial arc, and would’ve given us a lot to chew over during the holidays. But then I’d be like poor Peter, dreaming of a reality where Walter makes him chocolate chip banana pancakes, and where he gets affectionate morning kisses from his Olivia. And we all know that just ain’t so. We have to make our way through the universe where we’ve found ourselves.

Instead, let’s accentuate the positive: At least we only have to wait a week to see what happens next.

I thought “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” was a mostly terrific Fringe, full of tension and meaning and emotion, all in service of a clear change in direction for this season’s big story of where Peter has landed and where he needs to go. To me, this episode fails only where this season as a whole has failed: in its overly fussy attempts to define the parameters of this not-quite-the-Fringe-we-know reality, which increasingly seems so much like the old Fringe that it all gets a little confusing. Take the shape-shifters, for example. The action in “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” is driven by Peter deciding to visit “the other side” to ask Walternate to help him get back where he belongs: a trip that Olivia and Lincoln agree to facilitate because they want to investigate the recent shape-shifter invasion. But what’s still unclear after all our weeks in amber-land is just what experience both Earth-1 and Earth-2 have had with the ‘shifters up to now. Is it exactly the same as what we’ve seen on the show up to this point, minus Peter? If so, then how… well, actually there are too many ways to finish that question.

Anyway, in the case of “Back To Where You’ve Never Been,” the shape-shifters are more significant for the plot intrigue they add, as well as for the layer of thematic meaning. In this episode, “our” Lincoln Lee pretends to be “their” Lincoln Lee, so that he can infiltrate the DOD and get Peter closer to Walternate, whom Peter hopes will be different enough from the Earth-1 Walter to offer some actual help. Strictly in terms of the story, the idea that “there’s more than one of everything,” to use a familiar Fringe term—and maybe more than two, given the ‘shifters—means that at any point, a character could be different than he or she seems. And some of these characters are mysterious by nature. While investigating a case involving a shape-shifter on Earth-2, their Olivia and Lincoln get frozen out by other DOD operatives, and after our Lincoln insists that the ‘shifters have been emerging from Earth-2’s Fringe division, they begin to question whether their Walter Bishop is the good guy they’ve always been led to believe he is.

Even beyond that, this episode raises questions about what sets people apart, even when they’re wearing the same skin (and have the same handprints, as with our two Agent Lees). The Walter of Earth-1 delivers a heartbreaking monologue about why he can’t help Peter—because the last time he tried to “help,” he killed another man’s son, drove his wife to suicide, and started a war between universes. But he says this while looking in a mirror, which gives Peter the idea to seek out the other Walter, even though there’s a strong possibility that Walternate will have him killed. Peter wants to tap the intellect that he knows the two Walters largely share. But are their hearts essentially the same as well, whatever the personality differences?

“Back To Where You’ve Never Been” moves from one nail-biting sequence to the next, all sprung from this idea of identity and trust. We see an ordinary Earth-2 bus depot terrorized by a multi-faced freak who can run up the sides of walls and vehicles. We see our Lincoln inadvertently alert his counterpart and bring down the heat when he reports his ShowMe missing. We see Peter visit with this Earth-2 version of his mother, who recognizes him immediately and keeps him safe until he can finally connect with Walternate. Throughout, Peter’s very existence seems perilously fragile. He gets shot at, he gets shackled. Even when he’s talking to Walternate, his “father” walks towards him holding some strange device in his hand. Here in this reality where there are so many versions of people, there’s still only one Peter. And he’s in danger of being eradicated.

Instead, Walternate shoots Brandon in the face. Just when Peter’s accusing the Earth-2 Dr. Bishop of violating the accords with Earth-1 and restarting the shape-shifter program, Walternate reveals that his own right-hand man is a shape-shifter, and apparently has been working behind his back with the still-alive David Robert “Mr.” Jones and Colonel Broyles to orchestrate a covert anti-Earth-1program.

So instead of complaining that we didn’t get to see “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” last November, let’s give thanks that we haven’t spent the last couple of months waiting out the various cliffhangers that end this episode. On Earth-2, Walternate and Peter have an uneasy alliance, with the former looking to deal with the dissension in his ranks and Peter looking for help in getting back to his proper timeline. The Earth-2 Olivia and Lincoln are following their suspicions, though perhaps in the wrong direction. The Earth-1 Lincoln is in the belly of the beast, with little to lean on. And the Earth-1 Olivia has just heard from a wounded Observer that no matter how he crunches the numbers, “You have to die.” In other words, it ain’t all chocolate chip banana pancakes in Fringeville right now.

According to The A.V. Club review of Enemy of My Enemy:

Say the old saw is true: say there’s a universe for every decision we make. In some universe, there’s a new episode of Supernatural on tonight, and I’m reviewing that instead of this; in some universe, Noel Murray stayed home from Sundance because he’s terrified of flying, and he’s writing different words about “Enemy Of My Enemy.” In some universe, you gave up Fringe at the start of this season, and tonight, you took up crochet; in some universe, the AV Club never came into being, and this web space is being used by a Roy-Orbison-in-cling-film fetish site. Say all of that’s possible, and it’s not that difficult to imagine, because it’s an idea science fiction has been getting mileage out of for years. But if all these things are possible, that means anything is possible. It means every choice that could’ve been made was made somewhere, and there are billions of trillions of infinities of you out there, doing everything. And that means that the only thing that really matters, the only thing that really makes the person you are here different from all the other yous, are the decisions you make. When every choice is a reality, specificity is crucial; a million grains of sand all appear the same from a distance, but each one is unique up close. If you can be anyone, the only way you matter is if you are someone.

The current season of Fringe is a case in point. This show has always been about identity, and how many different ways a person can be fundamentally the same and completely unrecognizable at the same time. We have Walter and Walternate—one man, two lives—and all the various duplicates and doppelgangers the show has thrown out over the years. Even the science questions the nature of “self,” with shape-shifters, human bombs, albino cave children, and various other monsters; how much can you change a body before it stops being a person? Again and again, we see its the relationships people form that help them stay who they are, even in the face of a universe determined to undermine the basic assumptions of reality. No matter how absurd it gets, the show could stay recognizable because, at heart, it was about a small group of characters we liked quite a lot, and no matter how many versions of them we met, we still had our characters. But here we are in season four, and the ground has shifted yet again. Peter believes he’s stumbled into another wrong universe, and everyone we see here is familiar, but just different enough to allow us to believe he’s right. (Although I spent the first half of the season assuming we were just seeing the original universes in a post-Peter alignment. I’m still not certain I was wrong, actually, but hold that thought for now.)

It’s a bold move for the show, but it’s turned off a lot of critics and fans, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the reasons we watch a television show (or get invested in any sort of long-form storytelling) is because it’s fun to care about fictional people. If these people are well-written and well-acted, it’s more than just fun; there’s something rewarding about the investment which can’t really be quantified. The longer a show goes on, the greater the investment, and the more possessive fans become. The fourth season of Fringe has, so far as we can tell, left nearly everyone we know behind. It’s the same actors, even the same names, but everyone’s just different enough to feel, well, wrong. This new Olivia still works in Fringe division, and she’s still a total bad-ass, but she’s harder now; this new Walter is the same lovable nutter he’s always been, but the deaths of both Peters have made him nervous, paranoid, and self-loathing. In a ways, it’s less like we jumped universes and more like we turned the clock back three seasons. The Olivia and Walter we see now are more like the Olivia and Walter we saw at the start of the show, before life, and Peter’s support, gradually brought them out of their shells. In effect, this seems to nullify so much of what made us care about the series to begin with, however all of this ends up; if these are characters capable of progression, we want to have faith that this progression matters, and isn’t just something that can be tossed aside when it becomes narratively convenient to do so.

All of this sounds like I’m not enjoying the show as much as I used to, but oddly enough, the fourth season has actually by and large worked for me. I thought tonight’s episode was a fun, thrilling piece of work, with plenty of solid emotional scenes to help ground the action sequences. It’s great seeing Jared Harris back on the show, and addition of a non-Walternate villain helps keep the current story arc from simply being a regurgitation of the conflicts we’ve already seen between the two universes. This new reality gives the writers a chance to riff on established characters, which is one of the main pleasures of any “mirror universe” scenarios. So while the Olivias are as noble and bad-ass as ever, Walternate gets to be more of a good guy than we’ve seen him, and the other side’s Broyles is, it turns out, a bad guy, serving as Mr. Jones’s inside man in the Fringe division. Although it could be that the other side’s Broyles isn’t really Broyles at all, but a shape-shifter made to look like Broyles, which means the actual other side Broyles is dead, which is pretty much what happend to him the last time around.

See, that’s another problem—there’s just so much weirdness on the show that it gets difficult to parse out at times. There’s nothing wrong with weirdness, of course; plenty of my closest friends are weird, etc. But the more complicated a narrative becomes, the more important it is to have something to hold on to, in order to put everything in context. For the most part, Fringe has gone off on its tangents and craziness by keeping a major conflict (the other universe is trying to kill us!) and major relationships intact. We may not have known exactly what the Observers were, or what Walternate was planning, but we knew bad news was coming, and we wanted Peter, Olivia, Walter, and Astrid to find a way through it. Now, though, it’s getting complicated, and while it’s not impossible to follow the current story arc, there’s less of a clear sense of what’s at stake. Should we be worried about this universe? Sure, but what’s going on back home? Are we concerned what happens to these Olivias and Walters et al? Yeah, but maybe not as concerned as we might have been.

The problem is that, having viewed this show in a serious critical context for maybe the first time this season, I’m starting to understand what everyone’s been getting at. Great as that scene between Walter and Peter was, it doesn’t quite sit right in my head, because I can’t help wonder what happened to the real Walter. When Walternate gives a big speech about everyone needing to team up to work together to stop the new threat, it’s hard not to remember that the end of last season seemed to promise we’d spend this new season watching the two realities come to grips with each other. Instead, we got something similar, but different. The longer this goes on, the more the show needs to stick the landing to justify this season, and there’s never a good position for a show to be in. I liked “Enemy” well enough, and I want to keep on liking it, but there’s something confusing about all this sideways material. The reason I care about a show is because it’s that show, and no other. I respect creative ambition, and I sincerely hope (and sort of still believe) this is going someplace. Because if it isn’t, I’m not sure how much any of this matters.

According to The A.V. Club review of Making Angels:

As fans of Fringe may know, Jasika Nicole has a sister with an autistic spectrum disorder, which means her portrayal of the Aspergers-affected Earth-2 version of Astrid—Austrid, if you will—has been inspired in large part by her own experiences. As the father of an ASD kid (our own little robot boy, as my wife and I sometimes call him), I’ve always appreciated how accurately Nicole conveys Aspergers/autism in her performance as Austrid. It’s not just the cadence she gets right, it’s the persistent anxiousness, and the way Austrid channels all her emotions through one overwhelming feeling: worry.

Nicole gets a long-overdue showcase in “Making Angels,” as Austrid hops on the Cosmic Treadmill and comes to visit her Earth-1 counterpart, to sort out her feelings about the death of her father. Austrid wants to compare notes about their respective families—“My mother died of cancer when I was a girl; did yours as well?” she asks in a heartbreaking monotone—but she also takes genuine pleasure in the way that she and her double share similar expressions and pasts, and the way that Astrid sweetly offers her coffee. Nicole gets to play both Astrid’s fascination with Austrid, and to play Austrid’s stunted version of grief. It’s a tour-de-force for her.

I was mildly dismayed that “Making Angels” builds to a big emotional beat in which Austrid says that she’s sure her late father didn’t love her fully due to her being “different,” but that’s only because one of my pet peeves about autism stories on TV and in the movies is that so many of them are obsessed with that same old question of how an autist shares love with his or her family. (And there are so many other aspects of autism ripe for exploration.) But I have no complaints about the way Nicole played that moment, from both sides, or with the surprise reveal that Astrid’s father is very much alive and is a doting dad—not at all like the distant technocrat she described to Austrid.

It’s also nifty the way that Austrid’s daddy issues dovetail with the story of our Freak Of The Week: an amateur scientist named Neil, whose favored brother Alex died as a boy, devastating their mother, who in a moment of weakness wailed too loudly to God that Neil should’ve been taken instead. Now Neil plays God, using his Austrid-like mastery of high-level differential equations—and his glowy blue wand—to pinpoint people who deserve to die, and to hasten their demise. Later we learn that Neil didn’t develop his “see the past, present and future” technology on his own; he found his glowy blue wand near his house at Reiden Lake, where the observer September lost it on the night that young Peter fell through the ice. But whether Neil worked out the math and science on his own or he had it handed to him, what matters is how he interprets his mission, as an extension of his mother’s inadvertent cruelty. Neil’s mom isn’t an evil woman, any more than Austrid’s dad meant to come off as cold and unloving. But sometimes one mistake—however brief or unintended—provokes another. (See also: September’s accidental wand-loss, and what that led to.)

There’s a lot in “Making Angels” too about partnerships. Walter—who, tellingly, refuses to claim parentage for the adult Peter—tells his non-son that he prefers to work with Lincoln, who is willing to take long breaks to play chess. Walter also gets annoyed with Peter for bollixing his smooth-running partnership with Astrid, about whom Austrid keenly notes, “You talk through her as though you were one person.” Olivia, on the other hand, has come to appreciate Peter’s skills, and calls him “a good partner.” Some people just fit together naturally. And biology doesn’t always dictate that.

I told myself before this episode aired that I wasn’t going to spend any time in this review dealing with the overall direction of the show, or launching any kind of extensive defense of those recent choices that some fans hate (but that I haven’t minded). I’m afraid I can’t avoid at least mentioning it though, for a couple of reasons. For one, the arrival of Fauxlivia to retrieve Austrid forces the issue. As Walter complains about her presence and reminisces bitterly about the time she impersonated Olivia and duped him, it raises so many questions about how everything can be so similar between this Peter-less reality and the reality we’ve known. It’s just hard to picture all the Fringe stories that we’ve seen for the past three years happening almost exactly the same, only without Peter. Even contemplating it kind of hurts the brain.

That said, “Making Angels” offers its own refutation for those who get frustrated trying to figure out what’s what, which is that for the purposes of the immediate story, all that matters is who’s pointing a weapon at whom, and how he or she can be stopped. Just like biology doesn’t necessarily dictate connection, so familiarity with characters doesn’t necessarily dictate concern for their fate. It’s like what Neil says to his victims as he lays out his predictions for them. There is no future. There is no past. Everything happens right now.

According to The A.V. Club review of Welcome to Westfield:

For the second time in this recent run of episodes, Fringe opens with a dream sequence in which Peter and Olivia are enjoying an easy, sensual romantic connection—only this time it’s Olivia’s dream, not Peter’s. And that’s not the last time in “Welcome To Westfield” that Amberlivia will have the memories and emotions of Ourlivia overcome her. Later, she’ll remember a case that she never actually worked on with Peter, and at the end of the episode Peter will come over to her apartment, where she’ll have ordered from Damiano’s—the usual Friday night fare for our universe’s Peter and Olivia—and where she’ll move in to kiss him, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. And why wouldn’t it be? Not to get too meta about it, but if Peter and Olivia are a couple in their own minds—and in ours—then doesn’t that make it so?

Peter and Olivia’s episode-long “Do you know me?” dance adds weight and meaning to a case-driven Fringe that resembled The Twilight Zone and The X-Files even more than usual. (Also The Prisoner. And Brigadoon. And Persons Unknown. And several other Fringe episodes.)

The action begins in Southern Vermont, where a strange magnetic spike disrupts traffic, and sends a passenger jet plummeting to the ground. Our Fringe team arrives—including Walter!—and begins their investigation in nearby Westfield, where they stop at a diner for rhubarb pie and get served by a counterman who keeps drifting in and out. One minute he’s friendly and gracious and offering Walter a free slice; the next he has crazy double-eyes and is slashing at Walter with a sharp knife. Meanwhile, in the back room, Peter finds a man gasping for his life, carved up like a brisket. Making matters worse, when the team tries to get him to a hospital outside of Westfield, they discover that they can’t leave town. Every time they drive out, they drive right back in.

So what’s afoot here? Now stuck in Westfield, the gang keeps meeting more people who seem to be in two places at once: forgetting that their spouses have died, or having sudden violent episodes. Are these folks experiencing episodes of intermittent amnesia? Or schizophrenia? How about this theory: Maybe this Westfield is co-existing with the one from “over there,” and the people who live in both Westfields are having trouble reconciling the different versions of themselves.

As I mentioned, the “inescapable town” premise has been done many times, and the “universes overlapping” premise has been done by Fringe more than once. Here, this story is mainly an excuse to stage a low-budget disaster movie, as Westfield begins to crumple and then wink out of existence, while Walter and Peter and Olivia rush to transport as many Westfielders as possible to “the eye of the storm,” to ride it out. In the end, after Westfield is gone, Fringe Division discovers devices around the outside of town powered by Amphilicite, which indicates that this was all a plot by David Robert Jones, for reasons as yet unknown.

What is known is why the Fringe creative team targeted this town. First off, it makes for some nifty, creepy action-horror sequences to see a rhubarb pie kind of town go all askew. “Welcome To Westfield” may be overfamiliar in its broad strokes, but the episode is wonderfully unsettling throughout, as one stunned Westfielder wanders through town with a bloody doll in tow, and another comes racing out of the shadows with two faces on his head. Even that early scene of Atlantic 591 flying low—before crashing over the horizon—generates goosebumps.

More to the point, the idea of a town freely shifting from one version of itself to another reflects the dilemma that Peter, Olivia and Walter now find themselves in. (Maybe a little too obviously, but whatever.) When the disaster strikes Westfield, one of its citizens—Cliff—looks to the future by thinking about his family and saying, “Well, we have each other.” And now Walter—who initially resented Peter’s arrival—is finding that he likes having his “son,” around, and that it’s serving to open him up and make him more like the Walter that Peter left behind. Relationships can be an anchor, making the unknown more comfortable.

Peter even speaks to that grounding effect when Amberlivia asks him to describe Ourlivia. He starts out by describing a bunch of traits that both Olivias share, but then he turns to what’s really important to him: how his Olivia made him feel. She gave him a purpose. “A place to call home.” So here’s the big question that “Welcome To Westfield” asks (and that makes it a stronger episode than its retread case-of-the-week would’ve immediately indicated): If Peter’s presence is making Walter more like the Walter he knows, and is now making Olivia more like the Olivia he knows, then what incentive does he have to head back to his proper timeline? At one point early in this episode, as Peter is demonstrating how he can control The Machine with his mind, he’s asked why he doesn’t just click his heels and wish for home. The answer: Maybe he already has, and now home is heading for him.

According to The A.V. Club review of The End of All Things:

How has it taken Fringe this long to use the word “palimpsest?” It’s such a wonderfully Fringe-y idea: texts or images inscribed over the remnants of other texts or images, such that with the right technology and a goodly amount of patience, a motivated person could scrape off the new and reveal the old. Fringe has always been about a number of different philosophical and scientific ideas, all tied to the question of what makes us human. But two themes in particular persist: how much we can modify our bodies and still remain “ourselves,” and how much of “ourselves” remain present in the universe even after we’re gone. “The End Of All Things” engages both intellectually and emotionally with both of those themes, thanks in part to a memory disk containing a piece of video that seems to show nothing, but that—palimpsest-like—holds a clue to a mystery, buried beneath layer after layer of pixels.

The palimpsest in this case is that disk, removed from a camera that has apparently been installed for a while in Olivia Dunham’s apartment. When Peter finds the camera and the chip, he checks out the video on it, seeing only an empty living room. But once he realizes that the camera has been programmed to record over the same chip on a loop, Peter goes ghost-hunting, and finds a face, which the FBI identifies as a man named “Leland Spivey,” who died three years ago. Leland (played by Monte Markham) is an associate of Mr. Jones, but Peter and the rest of the Fringe team don’t know that yet, and decide to table the mystery of Leland Spivey until after they solve the mystery of “Where the hell is Olivia?”

Olivia herself is yet another palimpsest in “The End Of All Things.” David Robert Jones pretends to torture Nina Sharp in order to engage Olivia’s emotions and thus provoke her telekinetic abilities, but the gambit fails because Olivia’s consciousness has been recently over-written, thanks (perhaps) to Peter. Olivia can roughly remembers the facts of her life with Nina, but she has no emotional connection to those facts, because doesn’t feel like she experienced them firsthand. (“It’s like looking a photo album of somebody else’s life,” Olivia explains.) So she asks Nina to make her feel, and there follows an enormously touching scene in which Nina describes the first night that little Olive and her sister came to live with her. In addition to some fine acting by Blair Brown and Anna Torv, the scene is fascinating for what’s actually happening here: Olivia is trying to scrape down to the version of herself that’s been recorded over, while Nina’s trying to create some associations in Olivia’s mind, playing off the theory that empathy, coupled with Olivia’s faulty memory, can reshape the mind of the Olivia in front of her.

This has always been fascinating to me, the way Fringe seriously weighs who we are and why we are. I like that nothing’s ever as easy as the theoreticians hope on this show. Understanding that there’s a parallel universe is one thing; but reaching across to it is really damn hard. Olivia knowing that she has special mental powers doesn’t mean that she can exercise those powers at will. From the very first episode, there’s been a spit-and-bailing-wire aspect to the technology on Fringe, and a sense of genuine delight when one of Walter’s crazy contraptions works, especially since they rarely work exactly as they’re supposed to.

In this episode, Nina and Olivia’s empathy plan is a washout, for any number of reasons, but primarily because this Nina Sharp is not the Nina who raised Olivia (and, moreover, Ourlivia is not Amberlivia). This Nina is the one who’s been in cahoots with David Robert Jones all along, which Olivia figures out when Nina gets one key fact about their past relationship wrong. Olivia then tells Mr. Jones and Nina that the only way she provide them with a demonstration of her powers is if they bring Peter to her. Once they do, Olivia goes full Carrie on their asses, freeing herself and Peter and forcing Jones and Sharp to scurry back to their own universe.

It’s not a wholly happy ending though, because after using her powers, Olivia seizes up, which is further evidence to Peter that this is not his Olivia, and that he’s been affecting this Olivia’s life for the worse. But just as Evil Nina couldn’t force an emotional connection on Olivia, so Peter can’t sever one. “I’m in love with you and I can’t just turn that off,” she pleads with him, to no avail. Again, this is so very Fringe-y: the way that human emotions and human error gum up our plans, no matter how precisely we draw them.

In fact, human error may be mostly to blame for this whole Peter/Olivia fiasco, resulting from Peter’s possible misinterpretation of what the Observer code-named September tells him about his destiny. In yet another rich and remarkable scene in “The End Of All Things,” the wounded September stumbles into the Fringe lab and lapses into unconsciousness, near death. Peter pulls a Walter, and ventures into September’s mind, even though he knows that if the Observer dies with him in his head, he could die too. During the brief time he has with September, Peter witnesses The Big Bang and learns that The Observers are from far in the future, representing a possible path that humanity will take. (They’re not The First People; they’re The Last People.) September goes on to explain that Peter was never meant to father a child with Fauxlivia, which is why he had to be erased from the timeline. But Peter is important to the future, provided that he pairs up with the proper Olivia.

Peter takes this to mean that it would be disastrous for him to pursue a relationship with Amberlivia, even if she now has the consciousness of Ourlivia. But I’m not so sure that’s what September meant. Peter gets yanked out of the Observer’s head (and the Observer’s body suddenly disappears) before he’s able to explain himself fully, but I’m betting that if Peter had asked the right questions in the time the two of them had together, he’d have learned that he actually has the right Olivia now.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be Fringe without these kinds of missed connections. What I mainly take away from the scene between Peter and September is the former’s sense of awe both at the dawn of creation and the images of the son that no longer exists. This is all so beautiful. And of course we get the essential information that the Observers are human after all, not aliens or robots or balls of energy. But of course we should’ve realized this already. September is a scientist, tasked to watch the past and not intervene, and yet he couldn’t stop himself from talking to Walternate, which set in motion the events that led to September saving Peter’s life. Nearly everything that’s happened since then has been the result of people trying to fix mistakes. The mistakes are a big part of what makes us human. The fixing even moreso.

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

I’m reviewing tonight’s Fringe at a disadvantage, because I started watching the episode about 10 minutes past the start time—to facilitate fast-forwarding through the commercials—and after half-an-hour, our HD signal froze up. I quickly scrambled over to the non-HD signal to watch the rest of the episode live, but in total, I missed about seven minutes of “The Consultant.” Because of that, I won’t be grading this episode, and if I missed any key plot points, I hope you’ll pardon me.

It’s too bad too, because the roughly two-thirds of “The Consultant” that I watched were very strong, with some forward movement on the David Robert Jones plot, and a continuation of last week’s rich character moments between the personnel of the two universes’ Fringe divisions. This week they’re brought together because of a weird incident in which a plane crash on Earth-2 causes the victims’ Earth-1 counterparts to be lifted into the air and then dashed to the ground, where they suffer bruises that resemble seatbelt lacerations. Walter journeys to the other side, toting along a severed hand from one of the corpses, which he isn’t that surprised to find is resonating at an Earth-2 frequency. Wheels start spinning in that addled pate of his.

Walter is in fine form in this episode: emptying his bladder before making the “long” 10-second trip across the bridge; confessing to the bridge-agent that he’s taking a lot of meds, but most of them recreational; referring to the other side’s Olivia as his “escort” and hastening to add that he’s not calling her a prostitute; offering condolences for the loss of Earth-2’s Lincoln Lee and admitting that, “I wanted to bring a casserole.” About all that was missing—unless it occurred during my seven-minute gap—was a face-to-face between Walter and Walternate. Still, we did get the strong scene where Walter sees the updated list of Earth-2 “hotspots,” caused in part by his past meddling. The world over there is healing now thanks to the inexplicable magic of Paradox Bridge, but Walter still has to bear the weight of what he did.

In the meantime, what Walter has to offer to the people of Earth-2 is a fresh set of eyes. At one point he half-jokes that, “Anything’s possible… even Santa Claus,” and he brings that spirit of possibility both to the trans-dimensional plane crash case and to the case that’s preoccupying the other Olivia: the death of her partner, due to Evil Nina, David Robert Jones, and some Fringe Division mole. Late in the episode, Olivia gets drunk—something that she doesn’t usually do—and Walter guides her through the logic of the Jones case, telling her to look for the Holmes-ian “dog that did not bark.” Olivia doesn’t get the reference, but she does see what Walter is getting at. Looked at objectively, the figure in this case who’s conspicuous by his absence is Colonel Broyles. The next day, Olivia bluffs to Evil Nina that they have Broyles in custody, and Nina confirms Olivia’s suspicions by saying, “Philip is irrelevant… he’s just another pawn.”

The look on Olivia’s face when Nina sneers about Broyles is one of those rich character moments I referred to earlier. So is the scene of Olivia getting drunk on a bottle of her ex-boyfriend Frank’s leftover booze, while she sorts through Lincoln’s paltry possessions before she passes them on to his parents. She doesn’t want to talk to his folks until she has something to say about the so-far-non-existent progress in the case. In the meantime, she’s hoping that the alcohol will give her courage, when instead it’s just making her sick.

Even better in “The Consultant” is the focus on Colonel Broyles, that terrible turncoat, who it turns out is in cahoots with Jones in part because Jones is providing Broyles’ son Chris with the treatments he needs to stay healthy. Here’s where the missing parts of my recording most come into play, because the HD recording froze right when Broyles walks into his living room and Jones hands over a case with the medicine (?) that Chris needs. But before that happened, I did see Broyles’ easy give-and-take with his wife, and I got to hear Chris talk enthusiastically about being popular at school for once—a poignant reminder of how frail Chris was when we saw him last, in another version of this world. And I saw the end of Broyles’ storyline, as he ominously walks past security to the chamber housing The Doomsday Machine, where he gives himself up to the other Broyles. So the Colonel proves himself to be a man of honor after all.

Unless of course this is all part of a larger menacing plan, revealed in the portion of the episode that I missed. But context clues tell me that we were supposed to believe that Broyles was up to no good when he walked into the lab, and that his surrender was a moment of redemption. (And sacrifice, given what this choice might mean to Chris.) Also, when Colonel Broyles walks past Evil Nina in the Fringe Dungeon, she looks genuinely concerned. Earlier in the episode she was boasting to Olivia that she wasn’t going to be around very long, because Jones would come for her. Now… maybe not.

As for Jones’ master plan, at the end of “The Consultant” Walter suggests that it has has to do with collapsing both universes, and that the plane crash that starts the episode—along with, I gather, some Fringe event that happened during my recording-gap—is merely a test of bringing the two dimensions together.

That’s an interesting wrinkle, because a lot what’s been compelling about Fringe’s exploration of these two Earths has been the way the show has delineated the differences. Ourlivia can handle her liquour; Theirlivia can’t. Their Earth is damaged, but the characters seem more confident and upbeat; our Earth is largely intact, but the people are damaged. The two Earths aren’t mirror opposites exactly, but they do seem to complement each other in unexpected ways. Does “collapsing” them mean destruction? Or is Jones a secret Utopian like so many of the mad scientists we’ve seen this season, looking to create a more unified and perfect world?

According to The A.V. Club review of Worlds Apart:

I’m never always sure how much my love of Fringe is due to it being such a well-acted, well-shot, cleverly written show, and how much is because it pushes a lot of my geek buttons. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been a hardcore sci-fi guy, or fantasy, or horror—except in movies, and to some extent TV. My boyhood obsession was superhero comics, and in particular the team books: Fantastic Four, X-Men, Teen Titans and Justice League Of America. Fringe draws heavily on elements familiar to me from all four of those titles, in particular the classic Earth-1/Earth-2 “crisis” issues of JLA. So even if “Worlds Apart” hadn’t been an exciting, emotional episode, I think I would’ve loved it just for all the scenes of the two Fringe teams sitting around a conference table—just like the Justice League and the Justice Society used to do once a year—making decisions about the fate of their respective worlds. (All that was missing was a tiny chair floating about the table, for The Atom.)

That “Worlds Apart” is an exciting, emotional episode is a bonus—as is the way it seems to resolve some of this season’s storylines while setting up the upcoming two-part season finale. Note that I said season. As I’m sure you’ve all heard, we’re getting a 13-episode fifth and final season of Fringe, which is such terrific news that I’ve been a little giddy about it for the past 24 hours. I approach this show as a critic, but I’m also a fan, so I’m thrilled to see that the Fringe creators will be able to bring this series to a real conclusion. Though I have to admit: there was a sense of finality to tonight’s episode that left me convinced that had this been the final season of Fringe, the ending might still have been okay. But at least now we can be fairly confident that the time-jumping, almost non-sequitur-like “Letters Of Transit” won’t have been in vain. (I’ve already bumped up my grade as a result of the renewal. Also, I watched the episode again last night with my wife, who was out of town last week, and as often happens with Fringe, it looked even better on second viewing.)

The critic in me can’t help but question “Worlds Apart” on a couple of minor points. First off, this is a pedal-to-the-floor kind of episode, without much time for the philosophical elements I like to see in Fringe. (Not much to sort through thematically, in other words.) Second off, it ends conclusively, rather than tossing out a final twist to keep us on edge of our collective seats for the finale.

But do I really care about either of those points? Nah, not really. They’re matters of personal preference, not major aesthetic blunders. The critic and fan in me has no significant complaints about what was actually on the screen.

Plotwise, “Worlds Apart” brings the David Robert Jones plot to a head, explaining a little more about what our villain has in mind. At the start of the episode, Walter explains to the Earth-2 Fringers that he had a dream (illustrated by charmingly crude magic-marker drawings, on overhead projector slides) that Jones is planning to draw the two Earths together, to create a singularity and destroy both. More of the plan comes out as the episode progresses: How Jones is using Earth-1 Cortexiphan subjects to vibrate at a frequency that resonates with their Earth-2 counterparts, creating seismic activity in both universes; and how he’s got a “safe zone” set aside to house a select group of people, to make a new and better world. (As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, this essentially makes Jones another one of the utopian mad scientists that have dominated this season.)

The reason Jones can do this is because of the bridge between the universes, which presents the two Fringe Divisions with an obvious solution: shut down the machine and sever the connection, possibly forever. No one’s sure what effect this will have on the damaged Earth-2, but most likely it’ll stop the world from healing any further, which would be unfortunate. So to put that final decision off as long as possible, the Fringe teams try to track down The Cortexiphan All-Stars and see if they can stop all the vibratory activity before it rips the worlds apart. Helping them out? The Earth-2 version of our old reverse-empath friend Nick Lane, who’s been seeing through Earth-1 Nick’s eyes every time Nick and the other Cortexiphan-ers start shaking. Olivia’s always had a connection with our Nick, so Walter hooks her up to their Nick, so that she can guide the team to make an arrest.

As shot and played, this desperate dash to save two universes is thrilling, from the opening sequence of Jones’ army staking out positions around the planet, to the montage of Olivia seeing through Nick’s eyes while Fringe Division closes in (ending with Olivia actually seeing Nick get nicked). But nabbing one of Jones’ soldiers doesn’t stop the seismic activity, and with the collapse due to happen at any moment, everyone agrees that there’s no better option than to close the bridge.

I said that there’s not much going on thematically in “Worlds Apart,” but that’s not entirely true. Nick Lane makes for a poignant villain, especially when he’s insisting to “Olive” that he and Jones are actually on her side. But the very notion of his “reverse empathy” is also central to what’s really going on in this episode. Nick has the power to influence other people to feel what he feels, thereby directing their behavior. (The scene where Nick describes to Olivia how his suicidal feelings killed his sister is absolutely gut-wrenching; as is his escaping from custody by making the man guarding him feel miserable.) In a lot of ways, that’s what’s been happening between Earth-1 and Earth-2, as our heroes have gotten to know other versions of themselves, and have seen a little of what they’re missing from their own lives. In a spiritual sense, that’s what’s healing the universe, even moreso than the actual technology of Walternate’s big machine. These people have been projecting their feelings onto each other. And that’s what makes the closing of the bridge so much more sad than any of these characters probably expected.

What I mainly enjoyed about “Worlds Apart” were all the scenes of the two Fringe teams working side-by-side, even in the little throwaway moments (such as when everyone’s phone starts ringing about the earthquakes, and both Olivias say, “Dunham” back-to-back as they answer the call.) If this really is the last time we’re going to see Earth-2—which I hope isn’t the case—I savored every blinking transition from the ambered-up Harvard to our Harvard, and every exchange between the counterparts. Theirlivia and Ourlivia have a nice conversation about how the atmosphere of the two universes is different after it rains, and as they bid farewell to each other, Theirlivia admits that she admires a lot about Ourlivia, while Ourlivia tells her, “Keep looking up.” Then there’s Austrid timidly waving goodbye to Astrid, and Peter telling Lincoln—who’s decided to stay on Earth-2—that it’s been a pleasure getting to know him and being his friend. Then, in an instant, the bridge is gone, and half of the space where it used to be is damnably empty. What an accomplishment by the Fringe writers, to have given us enough time with all of the versions of these people to feel their sense of loss.

But the most touching moments in “Worlds Apart” involve Walter and Walternate. The former wears a tie when he crosses over to give his presentation about Jones, trying to look more professional for his double, though Walter still feels ashamed every time Walternate is in the same room with him, because he knows that the damage to Earth-2 (and the loss of Peter) is largely his fault. Yet in the end, it’s Walternate who takes Walter’s Jones-dream seriously, and Walternate who tells Walter that their Peter grew up to be a fine young man, and Walternate who—echoing Nick Lane in a way—suggests that “our life is what our thoughts make it.” The last scene between the two Walters is something that I’ve been waiting to see for years now, and John Noble nails both sides of the conversation. It’s now one of the whole series’ signature moments: Walter and Walternate, side-by-side. And I never saw the JLA/JSA crossovers do anything like that.

According to The A.V. Club review of Brave New World:

As I know I’ve mentioned before, I tend to get a little wary when it comes to reviewing and grading the first part of a two-parter. Assessing a serialized show mid-season is dicey enough as it is, but at least the episodes are designed as discrete units. (Or should be, anyway.) But when there’s a “to be continued” tag at the end—either literal or implied by the episode title—then so much is left hanging that it’s hard to know what to say. So you shouldn’t take the relatively low grade for the first part of “Brave New World” as indicative of where I think this two-part season finale is headed. Given what happens at the end of part one, and given the possibility of some rather charged back-and-forth between Walter and William Bell next week, I’d say there’s still a lot to look forward to.

I will say though that after watching this week’s episode, I’m extra-glad that next week isn’t the series finale. There’d be way too much riding on “Brave New World, Part 2” if so, and frankly after “Part 1,” I’d be a lot more worried about whether the Fringe team could pull it off. It’s not that “Brave New World, Part 1” was bad, by any means. It just felt a little… small. After the intensity and emotion of the episodes that preceded this one, “Brave New World” had more of the casual pace and limited scope of an early-season episode, and not so much the penultimate Fringe of season four.

Maybe that’s because the episode had such an unusual structure—almost like two half-hour Fringes yoked together. The first of those half-hours starts out as a case-of-the-week, and an especially nerve-wracking one. A group of random Boston citizens fall to the ground and catch fire, infected by heat-generating nanites that have worked their way into the victims’ bloodstreams after they rode an escalator tampered with by David Robert Jones. Now everyone else who rode that escalator has to stand stock-still, lest they overheat as well. We get to experience their static panic through one character: Jessica Holt (played by Rebecca Mader, yet another Lost favorite making a Fringe appearance), who agrees to be Walter’s guinea pig because she has a daughter, and will do anything to stay alive for her.

It’s remarkable how much Mader—and A-team Fringe writers Pinkner, Wyman and Goldsman—are able to generate viewer-investment in Jessica in just a few short minutes of screen time. Maybe it’s the way she puckishly says, “That’s what all you men say,” when Walter tells her that the discomfort from his tests “will only be momentary.” Maybe it’s the way she barely keeps it together when she calls who I assume is her ex-husband, to tell him to pick up their daughter even though it’s “not his day.” Whatever the reason, it’s genuinely tense when Jessica begins to heat up spontaneously, and when Olivia uses her telekinesis to cool her back down until Walter can inject her with his nanite-destroying antidote.

What follows is also quite exciting, though perhaps a little less than it might’ve been were it not for a certain “special appearance by” credit at the start of the episode. Walter studies the nanites under his microscope, and determines that they must’ve been created by William Bell. And sure enough, we next see Jones meeting with Bell. And it’s the actual Bell—by which I mean the actual Leonard Nimoy—and not some voice on a speaker, or cartoon, or actor doing a Bell imitation. Earlier this week, Pinkner and Wyman participated in a conference call in which they talked about their hope of bringing Nimoy back for season five, but they gave no indication that he’d be around this week. It would’ve been a grand surprise to see him all of a sudden—again, if not for the credits.

Still, the scene between Bell and Jones is a good one, as they study a chessboard—with bell-shaped pieces!—and Bell talks about how he hasn’t made a move in this game in 40 years, and how it’s important not to “confuse a winning move with a winning game.” The art of chess, according to Bell, is to sacrifice a piece right when it’s most valuable, and then to exploit the desperation that follows in the race to fill the void. Bell tells Jones that the most valuable piece in this game is “the bishop,” and that for the game to be won, “the bishop” must be sacrificed. So Jones heads out to follow orders and knock off a Bishop.

While this is going on, Walter is trying to convince everyone that Bell is alive by proving that Bell visited him seven years ago when he was still institutionalized, a few days after Bell was supposed to have died in a car accident. To do this, Walter has to return to St. Claire’s, where he studies the old carvings in his cell, gets spooked by an orderly, and sniffs the 2005 log book (which lacks a Bell signature). If “Brave New World, Part I” is really two connected Fringes, then Walter’s visit to St. Claire’s represents the start of the second—and it’s a good start, too, bringing back the old notion that Walter’s grip on his sanity is easily affected by his physical location.

It’s down the stretch that this episode seemed to me to fizzle. Bell and Jones adjust a pair of satellites, to direct a narrow sunbeam through a building in downtown Boston toward a subterranean oil reservoir. Peter and Olivia follow Walter’s directions to switch off the satellites, while Walter—inspired by the presence of Chilean almond dust on a page from the 2005 log books—gets Astrid to drive him to A1 Imports, where Bell once regularly procured said nuts. But Walter and Astrid don’t find A1 there; instead they find men with guns and radios, along with huge crates that seem to be emitting manimal-like noises. And while Peter and Olivia are successful at shutting down the satellites, Peter gets beaten around by Jones, and Olivia has to remotely control Peter’s body to knock Jones into oblivion. As Jones crumbles into dust, he says, “I got it wrong. I was the sacrifice.”

I found the way Jones was dispatched so quickly to be pretty weak, given how important the character has been all season. I feel the same way about Jones being caught on a security cam earlier in the episode, installing his nanite machine. All kind of shabby for a supervillain. I’m also not sure that Olivia’s telekinetic powers were as dramatically effective in this scene as they were earlier in the episode. The effect of her fighting through Peter looked odd—though also lovely in a way. (I might be more moved by it on a second viewing.)

Then there’s the big cliffhanger of this episode—Astrid getting shot in the back at the old A1 warehouse while she and Walter are trying to escape. In part because of the leisurely pace of “Brave New World, Part I,” the moment didn’t seem to be as much of a shocker as it should’ve been. It wasn’t the culmination of a long stretch of mounting tension, in other words. Also, I could be very wrong about this, but I’m not that worried about Astrid’s fate. I find it hard to believe that Fringe would kill of a fan-favorite character so callously at the end of the season; plus, Walter’s little experiment earlier in the episode with lemon cake, pig brain and Cortexifan showed how this particular miracle drug can regenerate organic matter. I’m guessing—just guessing, mind you—that this little tidbit might come into play. (But I suck at science. I could be way off there.)

So part one ends disappointingly, but as I said up top, but I’m not without hope. Everything that was true of the Jessica Holt scenes is doubly true of the scenes between Peter and Olivia, who talk about having kids, and worry about whether they’ll ever have a normal life. Yes, these are dramatic clichés in the superhero/action/adventure genre, but we’ve spent enough time with these characters to know what these questions mean to them—which means they’re not just clichés, at least not for these two. Peter and Olivia’s potential happiness will, I’m sure, be a major factor in next week’s finale, and it’s been set up well this week.

As for William Bell… well, I have a theory about William Bell, and the role he plays in defining what this season has been about. But in the spirit of the two-parter, I’m going to make you wait.

According to The A.V. Club review of Brave New World, Part 2:

The fourth season of Fringe began with two major questions: “Where are we?” And, “Where’s Peter?” But while the show has been distracting us—and sometimes even dividing us—with these mysteries, it’s also been developing a motif. The story of Fringe is largely the story of Walter Bishop, a cocky mad scientist who discovered an alternate universe, found a way to penetrate the barrier between our universe and theirs, and then was so shaken by what happened next—death, destruction, “fringe events”—that he hobbled his own brain, and descended into madness, before being pulled back into semi-sanity by his emotional attachment to a man who resembles his son. And week after week in season four, Fringe has introduced us to a series of Walter-types: men who commit terrible crimes in the cause of curing disease, or in order to help people find love, or just because they themselves never had the strong familial bond that Walter enjoys.

So who else could the season’s big villain be but William Bell, Walter’s old partner in scientific crime, and a man with the arrogance to torch the world in order to save it?

I’ve got to play it straight, friends: “Brave New World, Part 2” is a wildly erratic episode, in some ways living down to my deflated expectations after the last half of “Part 1.” The action is rushed, and the dialogue occasionally super-stilted, with poor Blair Brown forced to shoulder some of the most awkwardly expository and/or corny lines in the show’s history. (And that’s saying something. Fringe can be beautifully written, but the writers are also unafraid to embrace the show’s B-movie roots.) Yet there are plenty of moments of real old-school Fringe gusto in “Part 2,” which to me largely counterbalances the groaners. Also, knowing that there are more episodes coming to properly finish this story makes me feel more forgiving. Maybe there’s another universe where this was the last Fringe ever, and the Earth-2 version of me is feeling grumpier about the parade of happy reversals in the final five minutes. (Olivia comes back from the dead! And she’s largely Cortexiphan-free! And she’s pregnant! And she and Peter are buying a house! And Fringe Division is fully funded! And everybody gets a free pizza!) But I’m eager to see how all of this leads to the dystopia of “Letters Of Transit,” and how Bell and Olivia factor back in to that story, given that we may not have yet seen the unforgivable betrayal that Walter holds against William in the future. (Or have we?)

Plus, let’s face it: It’s hard to get too bent out of shape about any episode that begins with a computer projection of an all-manimal world, or any episode that features this classic Fringe exchange:

Olivia: “Our only lead is dead.”
Peter: “Doesn’t mean we can’t still question her.”

The lead in question is Jessica Holt, who it does have more of a role to play in this two-part season finale than merely “Nanite Victim #3.” Turns out she’s working for Bell, and being followed by September, whom Jessica traps by luring him to the stasis runes on her floor, then having that section of floor cut out and transported to the A1 warehouse, where Jessica confronts Olivia and Peter. The scenes with Jessica are a prime example of what this episode does poorly and does well. There’s a bit too much pulp villainy in the way Jessica smirks at the trapped Observer and says, “This is a future he didn’t foresee.” But then we get September plucking Jessica’s bullets out of mid-air, and Jessica pulling out a more powerful gun with bullets too fast for September to catch, and then Olivia telekinetically flinging some of Jessica’s bullets back at her. There’s nothing about any of that that’s not exciting.

Nor is there anything not-exciting about Peter’s attempt to question the dead Jessica, by attaching her to electrodes, injecting her “right in the thinker,” and calling in Nina with her big bolt-gun to get the corpse properly wired. Once Jessica’s juiced, her eyes jerk about spastically and she speaks with two voices at once, spilling memories from her childhood—“My bicycle is blue and it has a little chimey bell!”—while also tipping off Peter, Olivia and Nina that William and Walter are on a boat. A quick check with Broyles at Fringe Division confirms some atmospheric disturbances at sea, leading all concerned to conclude that Bell is still planning to collapse the two universes, and that he’s relying on the Cortexiphan-saturated Olivia to be his power source. (Olivia frying Jessica’s corpse with her mind is another tip-off.) Last season, Peter was the battery to power a machine that would destroy one world. This season, Olivia’s very existence threatens both.

Again, this turn of events brings out the best and worst of “Brave New World, Part 2.” On the downside, we have Nina explaining to Olivia why Bell and Bishop picked her as a child, and how, “At heart, you’re still the same girl I knew.” Then, when they’re all choppering out to Bell’s Manimal Ark, it’s Nina who leads Olivia and Peter by the hand to an explanation for why Peter can see the ship and no one else can. (It’s because he’s vibrating at its frequency.) And it’s Nina who urges Olivia to take Peter’s hand and jump toward the ghost-boat, because, “You’ve had the power all along.” (Ugh.) On the upside, we get Peter helping Olivia deal with the way Bell has experimented on her for most of her life, telling her that unlike when she was a kid, now she’s not alone. And we get the lovely image of Olivia and Peter, hand-in-hand, jumping toward the water and miraculously landing on the deck of a ship.

This episode raises a lot of Fringe-friendly questions about the line between technology and magic, and scientific knowledge and divinity. Jessica shrugs off September’s bullet-catching trick, saying it’s “just tech” that allows the Observers to move super-fast. She also suggests that no one should feel bad when she slips a bullet past September’s defenses, because he feels no emotion, and perhaps no pain. But is that really the case? Or is just that the Observers are so advanced that their version of emotion and pain is imperceptible to us?

Meanwhile, on Bell’s ship, he and Walter are having just those kind of conversations about “fate” (which scientists know as “nothing more than the convergence of a set of probabilities into one potential outcome”) and “providence.” It’s not that William suddenly believes in God; it’s more that he believe he’s become one, now that he has the capability of creating a new world. Bell quotes Yeats—another man of vision—and appeals to Walter’s scientific curiosity, to urge his old friend to join him on this amazing new adventure.

I could knock the Bell scenes for being over-explanatory, and for ultimately being all about him building a space for a race of humanoid beasties to roam free, which is a little goofy, I admit. But while I know some of you hate the manimals, I do not. I think they’re cool. Maybe not “what the entire season has been building to” cool, but cool nonetheless. Also, I enjoyed Bell’s enthusiasm, as he’s saying to Walter, “You were right right right!” and as he greets the arrival of Peter and Olivia by saying, “Y’know, I was not planning on having any humans” (while still magnanimously offering them the chance to be his Adam & Eve). Like so many Fringe antagonists, Bell is so appealingly sure of himself, and thus sympathetic in his way.

What ultimately elevates “Brave New World, Part 2” beyond its more forced or clunkily functional moments is the way the Bell storyline resolves. Walter proves more cruelly logical and scientific than his old friend had figured. If Olivia’s powering this armageddon, then there’s only one solution: Walter shoots and kills Olivia. Then, after Bell rings his namesake and vibrates his way into the fifth season, Walter uses what he learned from last episode’s lemon-brain cake, and creates an exit wound for Olivia so that he can extract the bullet and her Cortexiphan powers can revive her. Better living through chemistry.

The episode then tumbles into that overabundance of happy endings I mentioned earlier, whereas it might have been better served by something simpler and more elegant. But the real ending to “Brave New World” is more beguiling. Back at the lab, Walter gets a visit from September, warning that trouble’s a-brewing. Earlier in the episode, Olivia holds a bleeding September and mentions that he looks the way he looked when he visited her and told her that she was going to die, to which September says that this hasn’t happened to him yet. Now here’s September again, un-shot, talking to Walter. From whence in time does this Observer come? And what colossal mistake will our top scientists make in trying to prevent the Observers’ future from corrupting our own?

All of which is a way of saying that even though “One Night In October” doesn’t address the larger issues that some skeptics have been having with the show since the end of last season, and even though it’s a little rehash-y (though not without reason, as I’ll explain in the Stray Observations), I hope we can all more or less agree that this was a terrific hour of television, making excellent use of the resources Fringe has available to them right now, both behind the camera and in front.

Special kudos go to John Pyper-Ferguson, this week’s guest star, who takes the clichéd character of the super-genius serial killer and invests it with real pathos, partly by playing it from two sides. On Earth-2, John McClennan is a ruthless, brilliant creep who lives in a house filled with candy, toys and frozen dinners, and kidnaps happy-looking people so that he can pump their brains full of a freezing blue liquid while they tell him about their happiest moment. (McClennan’s intro at the start of “One Night In October” is what tipped me off that this was probably an Anderson effort: the trembly victim, holding a picture of his kid, and the bright blue of the freezing agent working its way into his body, were all emphasized in ways that set the mood as well as told the story.) On Earth-1, meanwhile, John McClennan is a professor of clinical psychology, specializing in serial killers.

When McClennan-2 accidentally leaves a hair at the scene of his 23rd crime, Fringe Division-2 asks for help from FD-1 in bringing over the other McClennan. The plan is to keep M-1 from knowing that he’s crossed over, but it doesn’t take long in his counterpart’s house before he begins to realize that something’s up. He sees a set of chairs that he had when he was a kid, and then he sees a photograph of his father among M-2’s assortment of souvenirs of his victims and potential victims. M-1 gets so freaked out that he flees into the front yard, where he spots a blob of amber sealing off part of the neighborhood, and two Olivia Dunhams staring him down.

The idea behind “One Night In October” is fairly straightforward: to show how two otherwise identical people can be shaped by subtle changes in the paths of their lives. In one deeply moving scene—seriously, way to go John Pyper-Ferguson—a less-panicky McClennan-1 confesses to the Olivias that reason he chose his field of study is because “what’s in him is in me.” He has a rage that he successfully fights to suppress, thanks to the influence of a woman named Marjorie. One night in October when he was a boy, John went to the fair, and his father found his collection of dead things. Dad moved toward John to whip him, but John ran, and found Marjorie, who told him that, “Even when it’s the darkest, you can step into the light.”

McClennan-2, on the other hand, never had a Marjorie. His dad did beat him, and he never learned to control his impulses. He tells M-1 this when M-1 shows up at their old family farm, where M-2 has his latest kidnap victim, a young mother, bound and plugged-in to his frost-maker. M-1 takes the woman’s place—freeze-plug and all—and shares his happiest memory, which is of him meeting Marjorie. As shot by Anderson—with drifting camera and hazy light—the flashback to Marjorie is both poignant and unsettling, especially when Marjorie opens a mysterious box in a barn. Even more disturbing: after Fringe Division rescues McClennan-1, he loses his memory of his trip to Earth-2, and his memory of Marjorie as well. Is he destined to become a serial killer now that he no longer has the voice of Marjorie in his head? (Or to shoot himself, as M-2 did?) As we take our leave of McClennan, we learn that he remembers her advice at least, even if he doesn’t remember her. Perhaps that’ll be enough.

Like the best Fringe case-of-the-weeks, the “One Night In October” case has parallels with our hero’s situation. Olivia bonds with McClennan over coming from an abusive home, which fascinates Fauxlivia, who turned out much happier and more confident than her Earth-1 self. The two women have no real sympathy—or even empathy—for each other. Fauxlivia thinks Olivia is stuck-up and not as smart as she thinks; Olivia thinks Fauxlivia plays too loose. (You can tell a lot about the two characters in the way that Olivia tells Fauxlivia “I button my jacket” when Fauxlivia is impersonating her for McClennan-1’s benefit. Also, let’s give it up to Anna Torv once again for giving the two Olivias subtle but distinctive traits even when they look exactly alike.) Yet Lincoln Lee-2 senses that the two Olivias are more similar than they realize, in that both women want to be in charge of a situation, not sitting around and waiting.

Of course, the McClennan case also speaks directly to the situation confronting poor, half-mad Walter Bishop, who spends a lot of his time in this episode covering  the reflective surfaces in his lab and cranking up Mozart, so that he won’t hear or see Ghost Peter trying to reach him. (Nice touch: When Astrid pulls the needle off of his record so that she can speak to him, we clearly hear the voice of Peter saying “Walter” for a split second.) I was reminded of season one’s “The Equation,” when Walter was re-institutionalized for the sake of a case and was visited by himself. Or of the stretch in season three when The Soul Of A Bell was trying to reach him from the beyond. Walter typically tries to turn these spirits away, through self-medication or by cowering in a corner. But if he could just let Peter in—in whatever form he’s now taking—maybe that would be the “Even when it’s the darkest, you can step into the light” that keeps Walter sane.

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

Have you ever considered how many of our problems are essentially invisible? Even physical pain—like, say, the blinding pain of a migraine headache—is internalized, and un-observable unless someone hooks the sufferer up to the kinds of machines that register what the body is actually feeling. As for doubt, fear, anger, frustration, loneliness, distrust… I’m sure I don’t have to tell you where I’m going with this.

Invisibility is the dominant theme of this week’s Fringe episode, as externalized—well, sort of—by our freak of the week, one Eugene Bryant, a man who who was born so pale that fluorescent lights burned his skin. The doctors declared him dead at four days old, though he was actually smuggled out of the hospital by representatives of a subsidiary of the company that would become Massive Dynamic, which more or less purchased the kid from the baffled docs. They moved the baby into a lab, named him “Eugene” (short for “unknown genetic disorder”), and experimented on him to see if his condition held the secret to making human beings invisible. As it happened, the process of causing Eugene to disappear also saved his life. But now, ten years after a fire at that lab seemingly killed Eugene and every person in the building at the time, people are turning up dead, with white hair, red eyes and pasty skin. Is it possible that a still-alive Eugene is killing people and stealing their pigment, to render himself permanently visible? And is it possible that this process will bring about the death he avoided as an infant?

The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” obviously. And in fact, my major beef with “Wallflower” is that too much of the episode travels in a straight line, at least in regards to the main case. There are very few complications when it comes to finding Eugene, and though Fringe Division doesn’t play much of a role in halting his killing spree, Eugene’s condition is such that he effectively stops himself, by hastening his own demise with every pigment-bath.

I wish there’d been a little more dimension to Eugene as a character (so to speak), a la last week’s Raymond Green or the second episode’s John McClennan, or at least a little more excitement in the procedural elements of “Wallflower,” because there were moments in this episode that were really beautiful and touching, and I was disappointed that they were so isolated. I’m thinking here of the way that the visible version of Eugene is shot so that he tends to fade into the shadows, or the way he stalks a neighbor he has a crush on, by sneaking into her apartment and sprinkling her bed with flower petals. (Even when Eugene’s trying to be romantic, he’s creepy.) I’m thinking also of the nurse who remembers hearing “Baby Boy Bryant” crying as his tiny “corpse” was carried out, and of the way that Eugene is able to hide just as effectively when he’s visible, because no one’s ever really looked at him. These are sad little details of a sad little life. And then Eugene dies, immediately after his neighbor Julie sees him and acknowledges him, which means he dies content, which is either sweet or chilling, depending on whether you think a murdering weirdo deserves happiness.

As is usually the case with the weekly plot of Fringe, Eugene’s plight in “Wallflower” is clearly meant to echo what is going on elsewhere: in particular the situation that Peter Bishop now faces. Fringe Division has Peter sequestered in his new house, where he’s working on plans to recreate some version of The Walternate Doomsday Machine and possibly find his way to his true home. Peter’s not even allowed to interact with civilians when he’s out on supervised shopping trips, because who knows what kind of crazy extra-dimensional damage he could do. The one person who treats him kindly is Lincoln Lee, whom Peter rewards by trying to help Lincoln win the heart of this dimension’s Olivia, initially by buying him a more handsome pair of glasses.

Olivia though doesn’t get a chance to notice the new Lincoln—there’s that “being seen” theme again—because she doesn’t make it to her semi-date with him at an all-night diner. Instead, Olivia’s attacked by home-invaders, who inject her with a serum that fogs her short-term memory and appears to be the cause of the wicked headaches she keeps experiencing. And the mastermind of what I’m assuming have been frequent assaults on Olivia? None other than her beloved mother-figure Nina Sharp, who also knew far more about the sad story of Eugene Bryant than she probably should’ve. Nina claims earlier in the episode that although she and William Bell had nothing to do with the Eugene-napping of so long ago, she does believe that the experiments on the kid were a better fate for him than death, and important to the world at large to boot. Could it be that Nina has been looking after Olivia all these years so she could continue the too-important-to-ditch Cortexiphan experiments? If so, how devious: to earn a little girl’s trust, so as to be the threat she never sees coming.


Next is the best and worst of Season 3.

3 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 4

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Fringe: Season 3 | The Progressive Democrat

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

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

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