TV Review: FRINGE Season 5 Premiere

FRINGE goes back to the future. But can the show survive more big changes?

So much for set up. Say goodbye to hand holding. You’re either in or you’re out, because Fringe ain't waiting for you to catch up. The show is charging full speed ahead with a twisty but focused story about – what else? – the end of the world.

You gotta admire the bravery on display here, even if you’re unsure about the risky moves the show is taking in this fifth and final season. Last year, Fringe erased its own history and built a new one that hinged on the characters’ relationships and emotions. This year, the story has zapped those characters more than 20 years into the future. It’s a dark, cold and dangerous future run by the bald totalitarian Observers bent on suppressing human hope, progress and joy.

This isn’t the happy ending Peter, Olivia and Walter were hoping for. It’s a nightmare. The Observers have turned the world into a colorless prison camp, and they’ve turned people against one another. Hearts have grown cold, hope has faded, and “egg sticks” are for breakfast.

This will not stand. Let the revolution begin!

This premiere episode, titled “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11,” was a rush of emotion, action, suspense and heartbreak. We caught up with Walter, Peter, Astrid and Henrietta (or Etta), Peter and Olivia’s progeny, shortly after the events of last season’s brain-boggling 19th episode, “Letters of Transit.

We learned that Walter and September, the rogue Observer, had cooked up a plan to defeat the Observers and save the world. But September somehow fragmented and hid the details of the plan inside Walter’s head in an effort to keep them from the Observers. In order to unlock the plan and set it in motion, Walter needed a piece of sci-fi tech to fetch and unscramble it from inside his brain. This was complete craziness, which I loved, by the way.

The team went on the hunt for Olivia, who was on a mission to retrieve the descrambling tech before she disappeared in the past. Luckily, she was trapped in amber just like her friends, and she was preserved as the decades passed and the world turned grey. Peter and crew found Olivia’s ambered body in an unexpected place – Edward Markham’s apartment.

I didn’t expect to see Markham show up here, but I’m glad he did. His reappearance provided a little levity to release some of the tension the episode had built. Markham’s insistence that he died a hero’s death was both tragic and hilarious.

There weren’t a lot of laughs or silly Walter-isms to chuckle at in this episode, but it was still a lot of fun to watch. The hunt for Olivia was quirky and exciting and Walter’s rescue was thrilling. Oh, yeah, Walter was kidnapped again. An Observer raped his brain and tortured him in what was one of the most hard-to-watch sequences of the entire series.

The torture scenes were tense and disturbing and real, which is hard to pull off since the torturer wasn’t pulling Walter’s teeth, yanking out his fingernails or cutting his belly open. The Observer didn’t even touch Walter during the torture sequence, so there was no violence that we could relate to. We squirmed because pitiful Walter squirmed. The pain Walter felt was palpable because of John Noble’s convincing performance. He was remarkable here. Again I say: Give him all the Emmys!

The torture scene worked as a brilliant microcosm of the season’s major conflict. The fascist Observers want to crush people’s hope and are trying to convince mankind that “nothing grows from scorched earth.” But hope can spring from the darkest and most unexpected places. And hope, I’m guessing, has the power to shut the Observers down for good.

It’s fitting that the world’s salvation rests on the shoulders of the Fringe Division team. Season 4 proved that Peter, Olivia and Walter’s hope, love and familial bond have the power to defy even the rules of time and space. So why wouldn’t their power be able to beat a race of fedora-wearing super fascists?

But beating the Observers will be an uphill battle. Walter’s brain is fried (again) thanks to the Observer’s brain rape. And Peter and Olivia are not the happy loving couple we left at the end of last season. Apparently, they drifted apart in the years between the season 4 finale and this premiere. Peter remained in Boston obsessed with finding the child version of Henrietta, who went missing after the Observers’ first attack. Olivia followed Walter to New York where they worked to resist the occupation. Tragedy tore Peter and Olivia apart, and even though they seemed willing to reunite in this episode, they didn’t seem quite ready to get there just yet.

But I have hope that Peter and Olivia will find their good place again. The relief in Olivia’s eyes when she awoke from the amber and saw Peter’s face was unmistakable. And the meeting between her and Henrietta was powerful and touching. Fringe has reunited this family for a purpose – to save the world and to save each other.

Olivia and Henrietta’s meeting was emotional, but it was the final scene of the night that made me get a little misty eyed. Walter was feeling abused, inept and guilty. Earlier in the episode, he reminded us that music has the power to help us shift our perspective. After his devastating breakdown and the failure of the memory device, he found hope and joy in two simple but powerful things: the image of a tiny flower growing out of concrete and the joyful synth pop groove of Yazoo’s “Only You.” What an incredibly tender and powerful way to end the episode and set the stage for the season to come.

Not everyone is going to like the huge changes happening on Fringe this season, and I’ll admit, the sudden shift in time, place, pace and tone was a little awkward. And the reveal that Peter and Olivia are on the outs was disappointing, especially since the show has essentially reset their romantic relationship back to zero after building it up for the past two seasons. But the focus here is clearly on the characters, which has always served the series well in the past. Something tells me that strategy will work here again as Fringe comes to a close. I’m looking forward to exploring this strange new world with the characters I’ve come to know and, yes, love.

I didn’t address the premiere’s every development in detail in this review, but that’s what you’re here to do. Let’s talk time travel, rebellion and popular premium pleathers in the comments.