“There is much I need you to understand before I go.” -September
From a narrative perspective, I’ve always thought that the existence of the Observers was problematic. On one hand, they work symbolically as an analogue for the audience. Expressionless and unemotional, they project no personality of their own and are mostly content to simple stand idly by and watch the events of the show unfold. That is, in fact, their stated role. In practice, however, their presence is considerably more complicated. For starters, the Observer September insists on repeatedly interfering in the events he is observing. Second, they are a poor representative of us the audience since they know everything that is going to happen in every timeline and we have trouble keeping up with which timeline we’re even watching from week to week. Originally I had hoped that they would serve as a science fiction version of a Greek chorus, showing up every so often to provide some much needed clarity and answers. That didn’t happen quite the way I expected.
Instead the writers waited four seasons and got it all out of the way at once. I guess that’s what you get with a show about time travel. It would be like reading Moby Dick and suddenly having a Greek chorus show up to explain what happened in Oedipus Rex.
To my shock, it completely worked for me.
All the best parts of the Fringe engine were not only present this week, they were running at full throttle. You had uber-villain David Robert Jones in slimy Bond-evil-genius mode. You had Walter being alternately befuddled and brilliant, often in the same sentence. You had a heart-wrenching scene between Peter and Olivia. There were more parallels and echoes than you could keep count of. Oh, and Peter got to punch somebody.
The parallel storylines were both tied to Olivia’s kidnapping. On one side was Jones torturing Nina in an attempt to jumpstart Olivia’s supernatural abilities (pun very much intended given Jones’ choice of torture method). On the other side were the good guys attempting to rescue Olivia and Nina, first by searching the memory card Peter recovered from a hidden camera in Olivia’s apartment, and then by mind-melding Peter’s mind with September’s (who suddenly appears in Walter’s lab still dying from a bullet wound).
Both of these plotlines are variations on moments we’ve seen before, with particular weight given to Jones and his psychic lightbox. For all his smugness, Jones still seems somehow unnerved by his encounters with anyone that knows about him and his plans from the original timeline (first Peter and now Olivia). Perhaps it is the knowledge that they not only defeated him, but split him in half the first time around that bothers him so much. Or maybe good-looking thirty-somethings just make him self-conscious about his scars.
My only real problem with the episode was the scene between Olivia and Nina in-between torture sessions. Taken on its surface, it played as a heartfelt scene brimming with nostalgia between two people who fear that it might be the last intimate talk they ever get to have. The problem is that I didn’t buy it for a minute. The idea that this was the bad Nina and that the whole setup was part of Jones’ scheme seemed pretty obvious to me from the start and the way that Olivia was trying to catch Nina in a lie by none too subtly probing Nina’s memories of their life together reeked of old school Dunham manipulation. Therein was the problem. I thoroughly enjoyed the scene as a chess match, but it seemed like the writers really wanted it to play as a tearjerker so that they could have their big reveal minutes later. That’s an issue because if the audience actually does get emotionally invested in the scene then the eventual reveal punishes them for buying into it because the twist immediately negates the entire emotional reality of what came before. If they wanted people to enjoy it as a cerebral showdown as I did, then the writers should have tipped their hand a little more that that’s what we were watching. In my case, I wasn’t completely sure that I really knew what was going on so much as hoping.
All in all, that’s a small complaint for such a strong episode that consistently entertained and conclusively delivered some answers. The scene in September’s mind was precisely what fans have been waiting for and also exactly what fans of Lost never really got. Not that the revelations are game-changing or anything; many people have suggested or suspected that the Observers are far-future humans on a time-travelling field trip since September first appeared. But being pretty sure about something is far different than knowing it for a fact and it gives me great hope about the remainder of the show. Even great shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica struggled mightily when it came time to bring things to a close, providing concrete answers for some mysteries while leaving many questions in a state of limbo. Saddled with seasons filled with red herrings and continuity problems, the writers and producers of those shows chose to provide enough juicy hints to check lingering issues off of their to-do lists while still keeping things muddy enough that fans will debate the true answers for eternity.
Nothing in Lost or Battlestar felt as cut, dried, and straightforward as what we got from Fringe this week, even the mysteries that were directly answered. So kudos to the writers and let’s hope they use this episode as a blueprint when it comes time to cash in for good.
Some closing thoughts:
-I’m giving up on predicting which timeline is the ‘correct’ one that we want Peter to end up in. This week’s final scene has convinced me that the writers intend to change the rules of that particular game every week so I’m opting to stop playing and just enjoy the ride.
-I want to say that I’m reaching for this pop culture reference, but I really don’t think that I am. Faced with operating on the wounded September, Walter comments that he doesn’t know the Observer’s anatomy. This is very similar to a scene in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in which Bones is forced to operate on a Klingon Chancellor who has also been shot. If it were any other show, I’d chalk it up to coincidence, chide myself for being a huge nerd, and lament the enormous amount of useless nonsense taking up valuable space inside my noggin. Three things convinced me that the connection is valid. One, that particular Star Trek movie has a plot that involves a shapeshifter that at one point becomes a twin of Captain Kirk. Two, Leonard Nimoy played a major character on Fringe. Three, Fringe creator J.J Abrams is currently producing and directing the new Star Trek films. I refuse to believe that any Star Trek reference on an Abrams’ show is accidental, no matter how subtle or outlandish.
-I don’t want to jinx anything, but the fact that no formal announcement has been made bodes pretty well for Fringe lasting longer than eight more episodes. Given that House, one of Fox’s other major shows, made a big deal out of announcing its impending finale several weeks ago, one would think a similar statement would have been made by now if the same thing was happening to Fringe. At the moment, however, a 13-episode finale season a la Chuck seems more likely with each passing day if only to push the show past the coveted 100 episode mark that makes it more likely to be syndicated. Regardless of the reason, having a half-season with the express goal of wrapping things up properly would help me breathe a lot easier when the remaining episodes of this season start four weeks from now.