This season of Fringe is just bursting with storytelling potential. The invasion of the bald superfreaks from the distant future, and the dystopian world they've created in the present, are rich seams of narrative. But last Friday's episode of Fringe was the first time in a few weeks that the show seemed willing to explore the deepest, darkest recesses of that mine. And the result was very, very dark.
First of all, sorry I didn't get to recap this episode for a couple of days. I was in Toronto for the World Fantasy Convention, and didn't manage to watch it for a while. But when I did, I was pretty amazed.
In the previous episode, the show had thrown us a major curveball, killing off Peter and Olivia's daughter Etta — the only sympathetic new character this season. This shocking development was more or less tacked on to the end of a "caper gone wrong" episode, but this week was entirely focused on the fall-out. We see Olivia and Peter coping with Etta's death in very different ways.
Olivia is grieving for Etta, but trying hard to be stoic and unshakable — and worrying that losing Etta will break Peter and her up, just like Etta's disappearance as a child did. Olivia is trying to keep it together and keep up a brave face, until Walter comes to her with another one of his videotapes. But it's not a new tape in the endless "Walter's plan to defeat the Observers" sequence, it's a video of Olivia's childhood birthday party, which Walter found in his desk. (And even without amber's preservative properties, it's still playable. Another point for Betamax.)
Walter — who's taken for himself a vial of Etta's perfume to help him remember her despite his screwy memory — tells Olivia that it will be incredibly painful to watch that tape, but it's extremely necessary. He has a lot of experience with losing a child — especially since he's from the timeline where his attempt to save the Peter of the other universe failed — and he knows that grief can cause you to shut down emotionally, and also make you want to do things that break the universe. So it's important for Olivia to watch the tape and fully experience the loss of Etta, so she can begin the grieving process.
At the end of the episode, Olivia watches the tape of her and Peter with their little girl, and she breaks down and cries at last, faced with the image of her perfect family as they once were. She calls up Peter and tells him she loves him and Etta would have wanted them to survive her death as a couple — but she's already too late, because Peter has already chosen a different path.
Peter and Olivia have a conversation about what to do about Etta's death, halfway through the episode, but it's sort of cloaked in terms of what to do about the Observers' tunnel to the future. The Observers have a wormhole that allows them to transport components for their air degradation system to New York, so they can complete the process of wrecking our atmosphere and reducing human lifespans to around 45 years. Peter wants to find a way to use the Observers' own machine (which has fallen into his hands) to destabilize their wormhole, possibly turning the future side of it into a black hole. Olivia thinks it's too risky, and she's scared she'll lose Peter too.
And then Peter tells Olivia that Walter's plan to defeat the Observers is still just a few fragments that they have no idea how to assemble, with a dwindling chance that they'll be able to make it work. Meanwhile, this is an opportunity they can take right now. Now that Etta is dead, he wants to make sure she didn't die for nothing — when the Observers are defeated, he wants everybody to know that Etta was responsible. (Even though Etta died for the plan that Peter is choosing to put in jeopardy.) Peter's way of honoring Etta's memory is to go Rambo on the Observers.
Luckily for Peter, not only did the Resistance capture the Observer wormhole device, they also captured an Observer and his notebook — which Astrid decrypts, by figuring out that every character has multiple meanings at once. Peter manages to convince the Resistance folks to let him interrogate the Observer alone, and he uses the unnamed Observer's involuntary facial responses to help him figure out the correct way to assemble the wormhole machine. (The Resistance have drugged the Observer so he can't just blip out of there.)
This means one thing: a lot of scenes of Peter facing down the captive Observer. Peter proceeds on the assumption that the Observers are still, on some level, human — they've just been enhanced with lots of future technology. (He seems to ignore the possibility of genetic engineering or accelerated mutation.) He believes the Observer is still capable of feeling something like fear, and he's determined to instill the closest thing the prisoner can feel to that emotion. And he believes the Observer still has an instinctual desire to avoid dying, which will lead to involuntary responses such as dilation and expansion of the pupils — signals that Peter uses to guide him in assembling the device.
The Observer, for his part, keeps taunting Peter with the idea that Peter is an ant, and the Observers are walking past his anthill without any feelings about him whatsoever. An ant may think the sky is getting darker, when in fact it's just a shoe coming down to crush him. Likewise, Peter thinks the Observer has involuntary "tells," but in fact the Observer is as likely to respond to a fly on the window as to a puny 21st century human. Peter's success in assembling the wormhole machine just comes from his intuition and his experience as an engineer — believing, incorrectly, that he could read the Observer's responses gave Peter the confidence he needed.
In any case, Peter is trying to be an impassive badass and channel his rage at Etta's death into an effective strike against the Observers. It's not pure revenge, because revenge is an end in itself and Peter's goal is to deal a massive setback to the other side of a war he's engaged in fighting. It's only after Peter's plan appears to fail that he falls back on pure revenge.
I say "appears to fail" because it's not at all clear what happens. Peter sets off his wormhole device, and then implodes the wormhole using a shotgun — crude, but apparently effective. The wormhole goes in reverse, sucking stuff back inside, until it collapses. According to Walter's theory, this should lead to a black hole at the other end. Instead, the Observers simply open another wormhole nearby, sending out the same stuff they were trying to send out before. Except that all of a sudden, the posters that showed an Observer's face and the phrase "The Future In Order" now bear Etta's face and the word "Resist." Does this mean the Observers were weakened somehow? Did the timeline change in some way? It's really not clear.
But Peter believes his plan has failed, and so he goes back to the captive Observer, who deflects Peter's questions about why collapsing the wormhole didn't create a black hole in the future. "You don't even know what you don't know," says the Observer, repeating something he said earlier.
The Observer contends that Peter's emotions have clouded his judgment to the point where he's making huge mistakes. He quotes something Anil said at the start of the episode: "When you set a course for revenge, dig two graves." (A quote from the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only.) And now, the Observer manages to goad Peter into taking actual revenge, cutting his head open while saying that the Observer is feeling something like the pain a father feels on losing his daughter. Peter insists that he'd be ten times as great as the Observers, if he only had all that tech in his own head — and then sets out to prove it, implanting a piece of Observer equipment in his neck.
That's the moment that Olivia chooses to call and tell Peter that she loves him and she still wants to be with him. Peter manages to say he loves her back, but he's clearly struggling with something nasty — and this does not seem like something that will end well.
There are still some eyebrow-raising logic holes in this episode, like the show's usual belief that Harvard University and Midtown Manhattan are about 15 minutes apart, if the traffic is okay. And the idea that you can mount a major terrorist attack on the Observers, in the heart of their stronghold, and then make a clean getaway in a van, even pausing to inspect the results of your attack. And the notion that everybody can talk on cellphones openly about their terrorist plans, without ever getting snooped on.
But nevertheless, the tried-and-true "interrogation" storyline provides some great opportunities to shed some light on both Peter and the Observers. The debate over whether the Observers are still human on some level, still susceptible to fear and to Peter's "reading" techniques, is pretty fascinating, especially since Peter is one of the few people who could claim to have been friends with an Observer.
And I'm totally down with the "Peter becomes an Observer to fight the Observers" storyline. Especially since he was sort of goaded into giving up (some of) his humanity because his emotions allegedly prevented his attack on the wormhole from succeeding. Fascinating. This development did what nothing else, including Etta's death, has done lately — make me really curious to see what happens next.
Screencaps via The Fringe Podcast.