Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fringe recap: The day the Observers stopped watching

Henry Ian Cusick, Blair Brown, Georgina Haig and John Noble talk under a reminder of the omnipresent
Observers in "Letters of Transit," the 19th episode of Fringe's fourth season.

The New York Times honored Fox's 25th anniversary (which happens to be today) with a piece that discussed the way the network changed the television landscape, by consistently airing innovative shows that no other network would touch. The Simpsons, Married... With Children, were considered too low-brow and crude; The X-Files had a premise that, as the Times noted, was treated with derision and mockery. It's only fitting, then, that Fringe celebrated its network's anniversary with the kind of insane, out-there installment that could really only be pulled off by two shows: Fringe, or its parent series The X-Files.

"Letters of Transit" opened with a crawl that filled in its backstory; in 2015, the bald, taste-impaired Observers stopped watching and started acting, taking over our world and subjugating humans, now referred to as Natives (all of this meant that this was a very easy episode for Spot the Observer, the game that I succeeded at for the first time in last week's "The Consultant"). The episode revolves around the resistance efforts of Simon (Lost's very own Henry Ian Cusick, who has earned himself my undying love through his portrayal of Demond Hume) and Henrietta (Georgina Haig), a Fringe agent with psychic abilities. These two want nothing more than to release Walter and his team from amber captivity so that they can continue work on a device that will destroy the Observers and free humanity from subjugation.

We are given some incredibly intriguing glimpses of this future world. Apparently everyone's favorite Observer, September, tried to help the resistance and was somewhat unpleasantly punished for it. We also know that William Bell is alive (if Ambered), but that he did something so terrible to Olivia that Walter has no interest in releasing him. (The moment when Simon and Henrietta blast a female figure out of the amber, and that figure turns out to be Astrid, was a great bait-and-switch.) We see an aged Nina Sharp, who is secretly working for the resistance and has managed to keep her hair looking sharp, and an equally aged Broyles, who is policing the Natives as part of the new Fringe Division, and who, as usual, seems conflicted about his role in all this.

And, most importantly for a possible fifth season (the rumors currently going around suggest that the show will get a 13-episode renewal so that it can reach the number needed for syndication), we know that resistance leader Henrietta is the child of Peter (and presumably Olivia). Given that "Henrietta" is the female version of "Henry," and that Henry was Peter and Fauxlivia's child before the younger Bishop reset the timeline, this implies a number of head-spinning things about the resolution of the timelines. (For a more detailed mythology discussion I'll refer you to the great Doc Jensen over at EW, who has some things to say about that aspect of "Letters of Transit.")

The episode really had two primary focuses (or foci, if you will): Walter Bishop, and the Observers. John Noble, as usual, turned in a great performance tonight, one that really enhanced what we know about Walter as a character. When Simon and Henrietta first free him from the amber, he's a slightly loopier version of the Walter we all know and love; childlike in his love for candy, unable to remember anyone's name for more than a few seconds, eager to help in any way he can. The moment when he absentmindedly fixes Future Nina's malfunctioning robotic arm was sweet, as was the sight of the happy scientist playing on a bench without a care in the world.

But then the resistance, desperate to fix Walter so that he can help them banish the Observers, breaks into the old Massive Dynamic building and injects a solution of excised brain tissue into the base of his skull, that Walter disappears. He falls asleep a happy, contented, licorice-loving old man, but he wakes up as the brilliant, focused and incredibly chilling character that he was so desperate to leave behind. We've seen this Walter before: in "Grey Matters," when his brain was briefly restored by Thomas Jerome Newton, in flashbacks, and in the form of Walternate. Still, it sent a chill down my spine when Walter vaporized an entire building, not to mention several human agents, to stop an Observer from following them. And speaking of our new, bald overlords...

"Letters of Transit" answered a question that has been bothering me for a number of episodes now: are the Observers really as benevolent as we've been led to believe? The answer, according to "Letters of Transit," is a pretty firm no. Despite all their planning and advanced knowledge they've completely destroyed the earth, and in trying to survive have compromised their principles of only interfering to "correct" mistakes in the time line. If those principles even existed in the first place.

Some people have made the argument that this episode, unlike its partners-in-19th-episode-weirdness "Brown Betty" and "Lysergic Acid Diethylamide," was essentially unrelated to the ongoing season arc; but while there was no direct connection between the Observer-led future and, say, David Robert Jones' army of mutant hybrids, the pieces were all there. This season, we've seen September rebel against the other observers in his refusal to completely erase Peter from the timeline; we've seen him dying from a gunshot wound attained in unknown circumstances, only to be spirited away by his people; we've seen him come back to warn Olivia that she has to die; and we've seen him accept that Peter's return is outside of the Observers' control.

If I were going to put forth a theory about this - which I am, right now, so hold on to your fedoras - I would say that, per Nina Sharp's words, Walter is going to save the world from David Robert Jones, but "not without great consequence." That "consequence" is going to be an alliance with the Observers,  which will dispatch Jones but provide an opportunity for their takeover of the planet. September will try to help the Fringe team resist, and in the process will see Olivia die. He will then get shot by his compatriots and flee through time to warn Olivia of her death and try, in his own cryptic way, to help Peter, only to be spirited away by some (literal) thought police before he can finish.

When it comes to William Bell and Olivia, my theorizing is less certain. Maybe William Bell comes back to life in some way that uses Olivia's psychic abilities (he's done it before, after all, in the somewhat controversial "soul magnets" plot), but that destroys her in the process. Or maybe Bell is still alive (if I recall correctly, we have no definitive proof of his existence, or lack thereof, in the rebooted timeline), and helps facilitate the Observers' takeover because he's drawn to their scientific knowledge. Or maybe it isn't so clear-cut; Bell could have been forced to make some sort of choice, between Walter and Olivia maybe, or even between himself and Olivia (or, one supposes, Olivia and Henrietta), and chosen the wrong person to save.

The third option would play into the theme that really links this episode with the two that preceded it, as well as with the season as a whole: when does the cost of saving one thing outweigh the benefits? The series has toyed with this theme for much of its run, particularly as pertains to Walter's choice to save Peter and destroy two universes in the process, but the idea of the consequences of salvation has gained a new clarity in recent episodes. 

In "Everything In Its Right Place" the consequences of Olivia's decision to forgo her current life in favor of the one she shared with Peter were brought home by Lincoln's pain. In "The Consultant" we saw Colonel Broyles having to make an almost identical choice to the one that Walter made, and the heart-breaking installment ended with Broyles doing what Walter could not, letting his son die so that his world could survive. "Letters of Transit" plays with this theme by reversing it, having Simon and Henrietta destroy the kind, happy Walter because they needed the ruthless genius to save the world for them. And, if my theory about the Observer takeover is correct, the future dystopia is playing with similar themes, with the threat of Jones replaced by the domination of the Observers.

Of course, if the series ends after the season's two remaining episodes, all of this theorizing will be for nothing. But even if we never find out more about the 1984-on-steroids future - even if that cliffhanger never gets resolved - "Letters of Transit" will remain one of the most daring, confounding and, yes, entertaining hours that the continually surprising Fringe ever produced. Whatever you might say about the 25-year-old Fox's history with science fiction - Firefly immediately springs to mind - at least they gave a weird, crazy series about parallel universes and time travel a chance, even when its ratings plummeted (although, granted, the network has to take part of the blame on that one). There aren't a lot of other places where Fringe could have run long enough to produce "Letters of Transit," so let's take a moment to be grateful to Fox for giving it a home.

You know, until tomorrow, when we all go back to staging our deaths as suicides caused by the unjust cancellation of Fringe

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