Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

In another universe, much like our own, last night's episode of Fringe probably served as the series finale, given how close the show came to cancellation. And in many ways, this would have been a fitting end to the series.

"The Day We Died" was a great summation of Fringe at its absolute best as well as its absolute worst, and it felt like a series finale in many ways. After all, it resolved many, if not most, of the show's dangling plotlines, and served up some baffling answers. Most of all, it felt like a great summing up of the show's great enigma, Dr. Walter Bishop. Both of him.

Spoilers ahead...

So before anybody gets the wrong idea, I'm still extremely glad that Fringe is coming back in the fall — this show has stumbled a fair bit lately, but it's still one of the best shows on television, and it may well have the best cast on TV, bar none. But I've had the uneasy feeling that Fringe was losing its sense of direction for a while now, and last night's episode only intensified that worry.

In a nutshell, "The Day We Died" was Fringe at its best — absolutely perfect character-based storytelling about its three core characters, especially Walter. And it was Fringe at its worst — nonsensical plot twists, loads of clunky exposition, and a storyline that appeared to be lifted wholesale from several episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

So, first the good part. John Noble has given us Walter Bishop, his alternate universe counterpart, and both versions circa 1985. And now, Noble's called up on to give us two more versions of Walter, both based in the year 2026. What little makeup the show uses to age both Walters seemed fairly subtle, but it scarcely mattered because Noble created two whole new versions of the character — to the point where, when we finally saw the present-day Walters at the end of the episode, I was a bit startled by the transition.

In 2026, "our" Walter has been blamed for the wholesale devastation that struck our universe after Peter used the machine to wipe out the other universe. It turns out the two universes were linked inextricably, so destroying one doomed the other. After everything started to unravel, Walter was put on trial, and sent to a super maximum security prison, where he turns into a mirror image of the dissheveled Unabombery mess we met in the show's pilot. (There was a certain "full circle" feeling to the whole thing.)

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

Walter is still Walter — still playful and relentlessly weird — but he's much more broken and guilt-ridden than in our day. It's almost impossible to sum up in words the amount of remorse and grief and stubborn zest for life that John Noble puts into his portrayal of Future Walter. Just the tearful wonder with which Walter unwraps a package of Red Vines. Or rejoices in swivel chairs. Or the way he ruefully says that his past self would have found something fascinating, or catches himself admiring the clever design of a WMD. And the way he talks about the long-gone Gene the Cow. Or the way he pities Walternate for looking like the most hated man in the universe.

This Walter has long since given up on the idea of being forgiven, or finding redemption. He's long since abandoned any dreams of finding mitigating circumstances for his crimes. He's Present Walter's worst nightmare of how he'll end up, helpless and unforgiven.

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

Meanwhile, Walternate has only gotten more bitter, now that his whole universe has gone. He's turned into a mean, spiteful old man whose only goal in life is revenge. He's secretly behind the quasi-religious terrorist group, the Army of Brad Dourif, who are dedicated to bringing about the end of the world, Brad Dourif-style. And he's such a dirty bastard that even when he sees his own son, whose disappearance he mourned for so many years, his only response is holographic threats, and a cover version of Khan's "I wish to go on hurting you" speech. And not surprisingly, John Noble, television's MVP, brings it.

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

But the rest of the cast is amazing as well — especially Joshua Jackson, who doesn't always get his props. Peter and Olivia have gotten married, and debated whether to have kids on and off, and meanwhile, they've both advanced within the growing Fringe organization. (Whatever else Future Walter may have done, he certainly ensured lifetime full employment for his friends and family members.) And Peter now has his own share of the universe-destroying guilt, since he was the one who went into the machine and doomed both universes. (Although I guess they were both doomed anyway.)

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

The most compelling stuff about all the future versions of the other characters, though, is their relationship to Walter — nothing's really changed, except that everything's changed. Their friend is now universally reviled as the cause of worldwide suffering and death, and they've seen way too much of the effects of Walter's folly. And just to express affection for Walter feels like a transgressive act. He's a part of their family, more than ever — Olivia has married into the Bishop clan, Peter finally admits that Walter is his real dad — but he's become radioactive.

It's the paradox of Walter, taken to its furthest conclusion — he's the root of all evils, but he's also at the center of his family. And his boundless joyful curiosity has caused almost unimaginable suffering, but it's still rather sweet and lovable. With this episode, we finally see a world where everybody knows about Walter's crimes, but only a few people know what a gentle soul he is.

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

Meanwhile, everybody's moved on and changed, in the proud tradition of the "glimpsing a dystopian future" episode. Broyles is a senator with one messed-up eye. Astrid is a full-fledged agent at last, although people mess with her desk because she's too nice. Olivia's niece has just joined Fringe Division, and Gene the Cow has probably become president or something.

In the end, Walternate widens a catastrophic wormhole in Central Park and murders Olivia, leading to the second "future version of a character getting a Viking boat funeral" scene in the past month. Peter and Walter are both heartbroken, but then Walter finally sees a way that he can grasp at the redemption he's given up on, thanks to that wormhole.

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

So now for the bad. I've rewatched chunks of the episode a couple times after my first viewing, and I still don't think it makes much sense, or is a very coherent plot. This comes on the heels of some other questionable plotting lately, from the "Whichever Olivia Peter loves will get to save her universe" thing to the "Bellivia" thing. I've started to feel as though Fringe does character-based storytelling much, much better than it ever does plot-based storytelling.

So, following in the proud tradition of "visiting a terrible future" stories, you pretty much know in the first five minutes that none of this stuff is going to come to pass. Fringe shows admirable restraint by not having Walternate gun down Broyles, Astrid, Olivia's niece and Gene the Cow as well, since none of the future deaths are going to stick. (Although given the amount of time the show spends building up this dark future, it's possible we'll revisit it next season.) Walter figures out a way to send Peter's consciousness back in time using the Central Park wormhole, so he can make a different choice 15 years ago. (Or bring Peter's consciousness forward in time from 15 years ago, I guess.)

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

And suddenly, Walter offers a somewhat nonsensical explanation for the whole First People thing that the show has been dangling all season. The creators of the mysterious universe-juicing machine, the First People, turn out to be none other than Future Walter, who will build the machine so that only his son can operate it, and then send the pieces back in time millions of years. (And how do the pieces wind up scattered all over the world? My guess: dinosaur soccer.) Somehow, Future Walter also makes sure that the knowledge of the machine's scattered pieces will get buried in the past, so that several generations of men named Sam Weiss will uncover it and write a nigh-incomprehensible book in most of the world's languages, then sit around in a bowling alley waiting for someone to come in seeking help with a limp.

Why does Walter build the machine and send the pieces back in time? Because he's already done it, and thus he's fated to do it. It seems like an odd thing for Walter, who's always been skeptical about mysticism and a proponent of free will, to insist that he has no choice about following the course of action that he's already taken. Especially as he insists, in the very next breath, that they can change history in a different way. When Peter looks at Walter and says, "it doesn't make sense," it feels like the writers are just throwing up their hands and admitting it.

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

And here's where I admit to a bias: I hate closed-ended time travel plots. Absolutely loathe them. This is a bias that I am willing to cop to, and I recognize that not everybody shares it. I believe that every event must have a cause, and every choice must come from somewhere. And the mere fact of time travel does not annul cause and effect. (Apart from anything else, cause and effect are where good storytelling comes from, and any time you say "Cause and effect no longer matter," then you're really saying "Storytelling is not important." We want to see people make choices, and we want to see those choices have consequences.)

In a nutshell: I love time travel, but I hate closed-loop time travel. Except for The Man Who Folded Himself, which gets a free pass because of all the other crazy stuff in it. (See also my recap of the Warehouse 13 episode where they tried something similar.) Again. I am biased, and maybe you don't hate this sort of thing as much as I do.

So in this instance, there has to be a cause that makes Walter build the machine and send the parts back in time, and it can't just be a loop with no beginning or ending. Otherwise, it's not clever, it's just lazy. Here ends my rant.

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

With the First People and the machine's origin explained, a lot of storytelling potential feels like it's been tossed into a wormhole — unless Future Walter is wrong, or there's more to the picture than we've gotten so far. In either case, Peter winds up back in the present, where it looks for a moment as though he's still doomed to destroy both universes. Then Peter does something surprising instead: He merges both universes, but only in that one room. (He "punches holes" so that the two universes can meet on Liberty Island.)

And what follows is a very series finale-ish scene, where the two Walters and the two Olivias meet up, and Peter finally gets everybody to realize that either both universes will survive, or neither will. The two universes are inextricably linked, which is a revelation that's sort of dropped via exposition earlier in the episode. And so instead of plotting to save their respective universes, the two Walters need to work together to fix the damage in both universes. You feel a group hug coming on, as the show finally reaches pan-universal harmony.

And then Peter fizzles out of existence, as a helpful gathering of Observers explains that "Peter never existed" and thus nobody remembers him. But it's okay, because "Peter served his purpose."

I'm guessing the "vanishing Peter" thing won't stick next season, but meanwhile, what does this mean? A few theories:

Fringe finally sums up the central paradox of Walter Bishop, the gentle destroyer

1) Peter's Quantum Leap-ing ways changed the timeline so much that he was never born. (Maybe Future Walter sent a packet of condoms back to his 1970s self?)

2) Somehow Peter changed things enough that Walter never crossed over to rescue him from the other universe, and thus he died of that disease in 1985. (But that wouldn't explain why Walter and Walternate are still at loggerheads. Or indeed, why Walternate still accuses Walter of breaking his universe, after Peter's vanished. This is also a problem with theory #1.)

3) The machine does stuff we don't know about, and one of its functions is to erase its operator from the timeline for his own protection.

4) The Observers did it — the way in which they say "Peter served his purpose" makes you wonder if they've been keeping Peter in existence all along, using their Observer powers, and now they no longer need him.

Update: The producers answered this question over at TVLine. It's basically option #1.

In any case, it's another paradox: Peter never existed, and yet all of the stuff that happened because of Peter still happened, including Walter's original crossing-over and the activation of the machine. (And I wonder if Fauxlivia still has a baby.)

Bottom line: this was a great episode and a terrible episode at the same time. It felt like a brilliant summing up of all the show's themes and a wonderful exploration of the deep contradictions at the heart of Walter Bishop. And it also felt as though the show's attempts to come up with ever more startling plot twists are becoming increasingly self-defeating. Whenever Fringe reveals something new about its main characters, it's a thing of wonder. Whenever the show reveals a new plot device, it's a source of bafflement.

But I freely admit I may be too harsh, and maybe I'll come around to loving this episode eventually. What did you guys think?

Images via Fox and FringeFiles.com