“You never know when to give up.”-Captain Windmark
There are many questions raised by this week’s episode of Fringe, but one looms larger than the rest. What took so long? I truly want to know where they’ve been hiding this episode and the people that made it. It was directed by David Straiton, a journeyman television director, whose most recent work on Fringe was last season’s Stephen King riff “Welcome to Westfield.” The writer was Alison Schapker, a veteran of eight Fringe episodes, including one of my personal favorites, “The Last Sam Weiss.” If tonight was any indication, the producers should seriously consider getting them both back on board for, oh I don’t know, all of the remaining episodes.
Compared to the hesitancy and trepidation of the past few outings, this week’s show is paced like a bullet. It was actually a bit jarring. I’d started getting used to bloated water-treading so I was a bit unprepared for something so lean and efficient. Of course, all of this would be useless if there wasn’t some meat underneath and I’m very, very happy to report that despite the breakneck pace this episode also housed the biggest emotional moments of the season by far. For future reference, this is how you set up the future of your story AND deliver a compelling hour of television all at the same time.
Everything I’ve said so far is the good news. The bad news is that we’re going to be a character short from here on out.
This week picks up with another tape rescued from the amber and another garbled patchwork message recovered by Astrid (if the episode has a major flaw, it is that it failed as miserably as the rest at finding something interesting for Astrid to do). The scavenger hunt treasure this week was a poster of equations hidden in a train station. While the setup isn’t an appreciable improvement over last week, the execution makes all the difference. Replacing the leaden forest plot from last week is a crackling action scene with a particularly satisfying twist; hidden away under his lab at Harvard, Walter has been stockpiling every Fringe event device, contagion and mutation that our team ever came up against. Seeing the nightmares of Fringe’s past turned against the Observers is a clever switch-up and thankfully the execution lives up to the conceit.
It’s exactly that twisted energy that has been missing from the season so far. The other missing ingredient has been heart. With the shift in time period, locale and (to a large extent) cast, the entire tone of the series changed this year and as a result many of the attempts at heartfelt emotion have rung hollow. The return of an old friend and the loss of a new one corrected that issue tonight.
We gained a Broyles but lost an Etta.
Despite some legitimately terrible old age makeup, it was a genuine pleasure to have Lance Reddick back on the show. Given his tendency toward stoicism, you wouldn’t think that he would be the one to finally deliver some much-needed warmth to the show. Perhaps then it is because of his usual restraint that seeing him smile and embrace Olivia when they are finally reunited gave me my first emotionally resonant moment of the year. Professional respect aside, the relationship between Broyles and Olivia has always been prickly as Broyles struggled to play by the book while the rest of the Fringe team made it up as they went. But those moments of head-butting and petty threats seem small in hindsight and with a two-word greeting, “Agent Dunham,” Reddick sums up their entire relationship.
Not only was it a nice moment all around for both the actors and the audience, it served as a stark reminder of what Fringe can accomplish emotionally despite the budgetary restrictions of this final season. I’ve been pretty vocal about how much the diminished cast list has hurt the overall quality of the show. This week’s installment was a dandy of an example that with four years of character development under its belt, Fringe is still playing with a stacked deck of people that we, the audience, care about deeply (Nina Sharpe comes to mind) and if the creative team can pick their spots with other supporting roles as well as they did with Broyles tonight, then there is still reason to hope.
One of the few missteps of the week was the somewhat heavy-handed repeated mention of the training required to circumvent the Observers’ psychic powers. It was overtly raised in the opening scene with Peter in the pawn shop, and then finally driven home with the death of Etta where it also served to underline the impact of her demise. Not only was it an emotional loss for our heroes, it was also a tactical loss for their cause.
It pains me to say it, but her death was by far the most interesting thing to happen to Etta Bishop since we met her. It’s a shame that the writers have struggled with the character so badly because it undermined what should have been a devastating moment. I’ll admit that I was affected by Etta’s death more than I would have expected (credit where credit is due, Georgina Haig shined in her final moments), but the primary takeaway for me was to finally understand the point of the Etta character; she only existed in order to die so that her parents would finally be motivated to fight like they have nothing left to lose. Looking back at the blandness of the character in past episodes, Etta makes a lot more sense when you just think of her as a plot device. All in all, a wasted opportunity to be sure, but perhaps one that will pay dividends as the focus of the show can narrow down from here on out.
Then again, perhaps a narrowed focus isn’t what the creative team has in mind as they introduced yet another new mystery to the show (I guess the scavenger hunt storyline just wasn’t keeping them busy enough). In addition to chasing down all the parts to Walter’s master plan, there is also an enigmatic and appropriately codenamed rebellion leader to unmask. With a line delivery seemingly invented to be hashtagged and tweeted, the gauntlet was laid down. Who is “The Dove”?
With all the cutaways to Broyles looking uncomfortable, there was definitely an initial implication that Broyles was the bird in question, but I think that will turn out to be a red herring and the show will have a little fun teasing the audience until the eventual reveal. I’d say the smart money is on an existing character that we haven’t seen so far this season (Nina, I’m looking at you).
The bottom line is that it’s a good sign that there is even a mystery for fans to contemplate. Fringe is compelling, interesting and, most importantly, fun again. That’s something I couldn’t say two weeks ago.
Some closing thoughts:
-The train station assault was not only the best scene (action or otherwise) of the season, it also contained the night’s best line. When the Observer hits Walter with the Taser and Walter merely smiles gleefully and exclaims, “You electrocuted me!” I almost fell in the floor. It would have been funny regardless, but as a payoff for all the self-destructive behaviors that the audience has seen Walter engage in over the years (and the necessary tolerance that must have built up from that abuse) it was like finally getting the punchline of a four-year-old joke. Glorious.
-The writers really went out of their way with pop culture references this week with the first, and perhaps the best, being a twofer. Upon arriving at the train station, the wall where Walter hid his plans is marked with the infamous “Kilroy was here” graffiti. The graffiti itself dates back to World War II (some say World War I) and was often placed by soldiers as a warning to their enemies that nowhere was safe. Just as relevant, Kilroy Was Here was the title of a 1983 concept album by the band Styx. What was the story concept of the album? It was about a small band of rebels fighting against a fascist government in an apocalyptic future. Granted, the fascist government in question had banned rock music and the heroes were fighting to bring back rock and roll, but still…
-There have already been some overt nods to the Matrix films so far this year, but there were some big hints tonight that we may be headed for the largest yet. With Etta’s death and time running short, there doesn’t seem to be any way to train our heroes to resist the Observers’ psychic readings…unless, that is, someone can come up with a way to just upload that kind of training directly into someone’s mind. I’m not saying that it will happen, I’m just saying I won’t be shocked when it does.
-While we’re on the topic, the whole psychic resistance training (along with the untimely death of the “master”) had more than a whiff of Jedi Knights and their padawans with Liam Neeson’s Qui Gon Jin coming to mind in particular. I’m not sure what that means (probably nothing), but as I said in the last bullet point, I’m very interested to see where they go with this telepathic training storyline. Which reminds me: didn’t Olivia have some pretty serious telepathic abilities of her own, like ten minutes ago? How come nobody brings that up in all these conversations about taking on the Observers? Just curious.