Many science fiction and fantasy stories feature a theme of facing your inner demons in order to conquer evil. This is one of the most common tropes, because it allows us to see people getting over their baggage — something we all agree is good, in these therapy-obsessed times — and making the world a better place in the process.
Only Fringe has the courage, sometimes, to show that confronting your terrible past and facing up to your old traumas can actually make things worse. In fact, sometimes it's just what the bad guy wants you to do.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Belly is back! And our heroes are heading into the belly of the beast! Sorry, couldn't resist.
William Bell is still alive in this timeline, because he didn't sacrifice his life during the effort to rescue Peter Bishop from the Other Side. (Because there was no Peter Bishop.) And he's a full-fledged baddie, who's apparently been behind the whole evil scheme involving David Robert Jones, alt-Nina, alt-Broyles, the new-fangled shapeshifters, Cortexiphan kids, amphilicite, merging the two universes, and all the rest. This makes a lot of sense — William Bell developed the shapeshifters the first time around, so it's not surprising he's the real culprit again. And he was instrumental in the Cortexiphan trials.
This also explains why David Robert Jones always seemed a bit aimless as a villain this season — he wasn't the one really pulling the strings. He was just another puppet. (Of course, if Leonard Nimoy had turned out not to be available after all, then no doubt Jones would have been the big bad in any case. And it's great that Nimoy comes back in an episode called "Brave New World, Part 1," since he starred in one of the few adaptations of Huxley's novel.)
In any case, in last night's episode William Bell does things that apparently are designed to make our heroes confront their terrible pasts, in very specific ways. He engineers a nanotech attack that causes a bunch of people to undergo "spontaneous combustion," and leaves his own fingerprints all over it, in a way that will convince John Noble that Bell is alive and running things. The nanotech attack also forces Olivia to use her Cortexiphan-given psychic powers to save a woman's life, and later Bell creates a situation where Olivia can't save Peter unless she cranks up the telekinesis.
The nanotech attack scene is ultra-creepy. It starts out with an elevator music cover version of Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face," which adds a +5 enhancement for creepiness right there. (Sample lyrics: "I'm on a bus on a psychedelic trip/Reading murder books trying to stay hip/I'm thinking of you out there, so/Say your prayers/Say your prayers/Say your prayers.") Anyway, the nanites turn out to have a weird effect, where if you move at all, they're triggered by the rise in your metabolism and they basically cook you. Is there any purpose to this mass murder other than a warning shot across Walter Bishop's bow? Maybe we'll find out next week, but I'm guessing not.
In this timeline, William Bell faked his own death in a car crash seven years ago — another clue that things were very different between Belly and Walter after this timeline's Peter died. Not only did Bell keep Walter's brain pieces closer to hand, in a vault at Massive Dynamic, he also felt the need to disappear more completely than he did in the original timeline.
To prove that Bell is still alive, Walter has to go back to St. Claire's, the mental hospital where he was a patient for years — and the place he's so terrified of, he was paralyzed by fear that Olivia would send him back there earlier this season. Walter has not even remotely gotten over his issues about his stint in the funny farm in this timeline, and going back to St. Claire's sends him into his darkest place, where he's basically lashing out at everybody and then cowering like a beaten dog. But he keeps digging for proof that Belly came to visit him in the hospital, six days after he was supposed to be dead, and Walter wasn't just hallucinating due to a surfeit of electric shock therapy.
(And apparently the FBI can't spare a few warm bodies to look into this assertion by their top scientific advisor, based on his analysis of the nanites.)
Walter is at his absolute nuttiest this episode, culminating in the bit where he makes lemon cake with pig brains, as a means of activating some Cortexiphan, which in turn allows him to restore any organic matter that was left on the log book from the day William Bell came to see him. Somehow, this leads Walter to decide that the clue to William Bell's location will be found at the company where he used to import almond oil wholesale, back in the day. (Maybe William Bell left the almond oil as a clue seven years ago, knowing it would eventually lead Walter to his door?)
The bit where Walter goes "Peace Out" to Astrid, after having just called her Alex, is already being made into several GIFs on Tumblr. Here's the best of the bunch, via Rambling Rambles. Alas, Walter turns out to be right — but Astrid pays the price, getting shot. (Of course, we know she'll be fine, since we've seen her alive and well in 2036, and I doubt this show would contradict that future timeline so soon, unless there was a good reason.) In any case, at least this episode gave us a lot of Cool Astrid, including the bit where she's doing three searches simultaneously, and Action Astrid, who shoots people and takes out Bell's thugs. Before getting shot, of course.
(Oh, and was I the only person who thought it sounded like Astrid said, "Whatever the raisin, there are no almonds here."?)
Meanwhile, Olivia and Peter have been getting closer again, talking about getting a place and moving in together. (And apparently Medford is not on their list of places to live. What's wrong with Medford?) They're even talking about having a baby — whom we've already met, of course. But then Olivia is shaken up by the fact that she uses her psychic powers to save Charlotte from Lost, and she worries about what she's becoming. And then William Bell sets up a whole complicated Rube Goldberg death trap to get her attention — two satellites in orbit are reflecting sunlight into a compressed laser-y beam, that destroys a whole building in Boston and threatens to ignite some underground oil, torching the whole city. (And yet the FBI doesn't send anybody but Olivia and Peter to the towers where the two satellite transmitters are.)
William Bell tells David Robert Jones that he's playing the exact opposite of speed chess, in a classic "supervillain gloating" scene, and that he's ready to sacrifice a bishop in order to win the game. David Robert Jones, apparently knowing nothing about chess, thinks that Belly means Peter Bishop, because of the name. Bishop, right? It totally fits. Except that in chess, you don't sacrifice the opposing player's pieces, you sacrifice your own. And Jones is the bishop who's being sacrificed, because William Bell says that sometimes giving up the most important piece opens up all sorts of possibilities and stuff.
What does William Bell get from letting Olivia kill David Robert Jones? He forces her to use her Cortexiphan powers again — although how, exactly, did he know she was going to be ordered to drop her gun by those two security guards? Seems a bit too omniscient, even for the master manipulator who thinks of everything. But whatever. Also, maybe Bell lures the Fringe team into a false sense of security, because they think their enemy is dead — except that Walter already knows that Bell is the real baddie.
In any case, the nanite attack and the "solar laser from space will blow up Boston" attack both seem aimed at getting the Fringe gang's attention, rather than any other concrete goals. Also, it seems more and more likely that the whole "destroying both universes" threat was aimed at getting our heroes to shut down the machine and close the bridge between universes, for some purpose that hopefully will be revealed next week. In any case, Bell now has Walter as his prisoner, and he has Olivia fully activated in her Cortexiphan powers.
Are we done with the newfangled shapeshifters? And with the other universe as a setting, rather than just a reference point? It certainly seems likely. If so, then it's a bit sad that the super-shapeshifters were built up as a huge, major threat and then fizzled. I guess the "lojack system that contains the location of every shapeshifter" really did allow the other Fringe team to neutralize the threat. Off-screen.
In any case, this was a pretty good episode — but it felt more than a little kludgey, and the plot hammers were more visible than usual. It was also a little disappointing to see David Robert Jones go out quite so easily. Unlike the tail end of season three, when the threat that Walternate would destroy both universes felt real and pressing, I'm not sure what Bell's endgame is at all. The L.A. Times points out that those shipping containers in the almond warehouse are probably connected to the ship full of weird half-human monsters we saw a few episodes back — so Bell's plan probably involves creating a monster army. And using Olivia's Cortexiphan powers to do something huge. And then... Profit!