At times, Fringe season four has felt like an extended epilogue to a story that concluded at the end of season three. But last night's episode was compelling evidence that this show still has something new to say about its "two universes" scenario — and also about its central figure, Walter Bishop. It's been ages since an episode of Fringe allowed John Noble to shine as much as he did last night, and it was a great reminder of what he (and this show) can do, given the chance.
After last week's almost Walter-free episode, it was especially great to get a Walter-centric outing. And thank goodness, Walter is almost back to being the quirky, lovable, mischievous figure we got to know in the first few seasons, rather than the tormented agorophobe we were watching for the first half of season four. Everything has been rapidly moving back to "normal," leaving the fact that David Robert Jones isn't dead as the main consequence of the new timeline.
Indeed, Walter is once again reveling in the fact that Peter and Olivia are a couple, instead of having misgivings about Olivia's mind being warped by the memories of a different timeline. Walter is practically skipping along as he gloats about his son and his son's girlfriend, and the fact that he couldn't reach Peter last night — because Peter was on a date. Instead of seeing Peter's death as a punishment and Peter's return as a temptation to ignore the lessons behind that punishment, Walter is starting to revel in having a son once again.
And then this episode gives Walter his latest foil — who might be the most surprising one we've had in a long time. A large number of Fringe episodes feature people who do terrible things for noble reasons, and often these misguided people are contrasted with Walter Bishop. But as seen in the clip above, this time around Walter's hubris is contrasted with alt-Broyles' decision to become a pawn of David Robert Jones.
For the second time, one of Jones' underlings turns out not to be a shapeshifter, but rather just a regular person who's come under Jones' influence for some reason. The fake-out is just as effective a second time — although it does make you wonder why Jones isn't just using his shapeshifters for this sort of job. In any case, we soon learn that alt-Broyles' son, who was terribly ill the last time we saw him, is suddenly a lot healthier, thanks to some super-advanced medicine that Jones provided. In return for healing alt-Broyles' son, Jones has been getting information on everything the Fringe Division has been doing — which indirectly led to the death of alt-Lincoln. (Who we can now safely assume really is dead.)
The contrast between Walter, who broke the universe to save a version of his son, and Broyles, who's willing to go along with a maniac's agenda to save his own son, is informative. For his own part, Walter acted out of hubris as well as love, and he at least believed he knew what he was doing — even though Nina and his assistant tried to warn him. In many ways, Broyles' choice is much worse, since he knows that Jones is a psychopath and he's helping to betray his entire world. Plus Broyles is choosing to be a patsy rather than at least making his own mistakes, like Walter did. It's hard to have the same respect for Broyles in this situation that we've learned to have for Walter.
It's also interesting that Walter explicitly recognizes that he's taken a step backwards in terms of moral certitude in the past few months — before Peter returned, Walter was pretty clear that he'd sinned and been punished, and that he'd made the wrong choice. Now that Peter is around, and Walter gets to have his adult son in his life, he is much less certain. What's interesting is that even though Walter has ended up having much the same relationship with Peter that he had in the "original" timeline, he seemed to be more certain of his repentance back in season three. Something about spending 25 years without Peter in his life — and then getting him back — has unsettled Walter's convictions a bit.
And perhaps not coincidentally, this Walter — who has never gotten a white tulip in the mail and thus does not feel that God has forgiven him — mentions God's vengeance without any discernible irony, early on in the episode. You can't help wondering if Walter is enjoying having Peter in his life, but bracing himself for the other shoe to drop and God's justice to strike.
In any case, this episode belongs to John Noble, and he totally runs with it. It's great to see Walter visiting crime scenes in person again, instead of sitting in the lab and commenting testily via video feed. There's just something about seeing him examining horribly mangled bodies in situ that's terribly rewarding. And his gratitude when Olivia is starting to open up and trust Walter, when he knows how difficult that is for her, is really something.
And later in the episode, Walter can't bring a casserole to Fauxlivia, but instead he brings her a severed hand.
And speaking of Walter having a new foil — the scenes between Walter and Fauxlivia were non-stop brilliance, and both Noble and Torv were able to bring something new and delightful to the characters they've been playing for four years. Walter starts out still hating Fauxlivia for infiltrating his lab during whatever version of the Olivia-switcheroo happened in this timeline — hence the crack about her being his "escort," not quite meaning prostitute. But when Walter sees Fauxlivia grieving horribly for the death of alt-Lincoln, he softens towards her, and they form an amazing team. Culminating in the best sleepover ever, when Walter makes the huge concession of wearing pajamas instead of sleeping in the buff, and then he helps Fauxlivia deal with the aftereffects of too much Bushmills by cooking her some scrambled eggs.
Any time Noble and Torv get a scene together, it's usually great — but especially seeing the normally perky Fauxlivia struggling to come to grips with the death of the guy she's been relying on for seven years, while Walter comes to realize she's not all that different from "his" Olivia, is amazing.
Speaking of which, this episode had a bunch of fascinating differences between the worlds: "Hitball" instead of baseball (or maybe football?). Domesticated pet badgers! No black boxes and no Sherlock Holmes. But oddly enough, Fauxlivia didn't bat an eye when Walter was talking about his disappointment with Nixon — maybe because she's studied up on our world's history.
Oh, and it's nice that we get a couple of scenes that focus on security guards — the anonymous guys who guard the entrance to the tunnel between universes or the machine that could destroy the fabric of reality. Seeing the security precautions and legalese involved in this stuff helps remind us that the Fringe Divisions of both worlds are actually pretty good at their jobs, and cements the reality of the situation.
So we're still not sure exactly what Jones' master plan involves — but it's something to do with collapsing the two universes together. He did something along those lines to the town of Westfield in "Welcome to Westfield," and in this episode he causes a plane crash and a car crash that take effect in both universes. The results of that test give him enough information to create a device that alt-Broyles can attach to the machine, giving him the power to collapse the whole of both universes together. (Whether this would create one unified-but-messy universe, or just result in the destruction of both is unclear.)
In any case, alt-Broyles faces a choice analogous to the one Walter faced back in 1985 — and he chooses to sacrifice his son instead of risking the destruction of two worlds. It's great to see that this show still has some new stories to tell about its ongoing crisis on two Earths. Let's hope the endgame of the David Robert Jones story, over the next few episodes, is as fresh and interesting as this episode was.
Speaking of which, next week's episode — set in 2036, in a world ruled by the Observers, looks like a doozy. I'm going to have a hard time waiting a whole week to watch this one, especially after that terrible glimpse of what looks like Walter in amber at the end of the promo. And meanwhile, John Noble and Lance Reddick told TV Line that the show has filmed two different endings for the season — a cliffhanger, in case it gets renewed, and a final conclusion, in case it doesn't. But if the show does get a fifth season, the seeds for that storyline are all in next week's episode.
At least with episodes like "The Consultant" — which give John Noble some material to stretch out with and a different view of Walter and his sins — this show is making a stronger case that it still has new places to go.