The Science Channel, which aired a fun Firefly reunion special last night, will begin airing Fringe episodes on November 20. Awesome! The channel has been running a promo featuring scenes from the show’s first few seasons, when Fringe was less about the tragedies that befall and shape the Bishop clan and more about the wacky cases of the week. Watching the promo, I was reminded of how much the show has changed since those first few seasons.
I never would have thought we’d end up here – in a dark future world where Walter is reverting to his callous and cruel ways, Olivia mostly sits on the sidelines after quelling her inner demons and Peter has become a futuristic tech-enhanced human bent on revenge after losing his adult daughter.
And while the characters have grown and changed in remarkably tragic ways, and the terrible world they now reside in is driving them to become darker versions of themselves, it’s refreshing to see that Fringe hasn’t thrown what happened during those first few seasons out the window. Everything that happened back when Fringe Division was still solving cases of the week still matters, as we saw in this trippy episode, in which Walter was searching for the bald empathic boy he met in the season one episode “Inner Child.” The boy, who is most likely a young Observer, is an integral piece of Walter’s plan to defeat the Invaders, and Walter would have never known about him if he hadn't met him while investigating a classic season one case.
It’s exciting to see Fringe, which in many ways looks and feels like a completely different show now when compared to its first season, reference the early episodes in ways that feel earned and important. When we see the bald boy show up, and when we see Fringe Glyphs appear on apartment doors in Walter’s “Pocket Universe,” it feels less like empty fan service and more like smart, engaging arc-based storytelling.
And it’s our memories of the way things used to be that give Season 5’s most emotional moments their power.
This episode, “Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There,” began with Peter watching a holo-recording of Etta alone in her empty apartment. Sad and unable to move on, Peter replayed the recording over and over, not caring that Olivia was looking for him or that she felt the need to be a part of his grieving process. This was an incredibly sad scene, and it only got sadder once Olivia found Peter and sat with him, hoping they could mourn and eventually move on together. But Olivia doesn’t know about the decision Peter made last week. He yanked untested tech out of an Observer’s head and stuck it in his own, hoping that it would give him what he needed to defeat the Invaders.
As most of us suspected, the tech is making Peter less human. Near the end of this episode, he bested an Observer in hand-to-hand combat by using new tech-enhanced powers like super speed and teleportation. He brutally killed the Observer, but not before the baddie let out a warning: “I know what you have done. You have made a grave mistake. You do not realize what is happening to you.” And in the episode’s final moments, we saw the world through Peter’s new eyes, which was pretty shocking. Everything he sees is covered in a techy blue glow. This, as well as watching Peter navigate everyone out of the puzzly Pocket Universe without missing a step, points to an alarming evolution for our man – he’s becoming more focused, logical, methodical and mechanical. But his humanity is slipping away.
Fringe pointed to Peter’s loss of humanity in subtle ways here. He clearly could not let Olivia in at the start of the episode while they were in Etta’s apartment. He went though the mechanics of the thing, holding Olivia close and stroking her hair, but his eyes told a different story. He was alone in his pain and anger, and he struggled to accept the comfort Olivia was offering.
Perhaps the most emotional moment came at the end of the hour, only seconds before we saw through Peter’s tech-enhanced eyes. After our heroes escaped and were riding home on the bus, Walter realized that he was becoming more like “him,” the cold and cruel version of himself that ripped a hole in reality in a selfish scientific quest decades ago. Walter is right to be worried. His old self began surfacing here, as he referred to Cecil, the man who was trapped in the Pocket Universe, as “collateral damage” and treated the man like something to be used instead of a human being. Walter also left the lab on his own, hoping to find the next piece of the puzzle in the apartment building but not letting anyone know where he was or what he was doing. When Peter and Olivia finally caught up with him, Walter was acting more like the single-minded scientist who broke reality than the lovably kooky Walter Bishop who has helped saved the world. On the bus Walter asked Peter to keep him grounded, and Peter responded with comforting words. He promised Walter that he wouldn’t let him go, and he even called him “Dad.”
Scenes like these between the Bishop men always make me go all cry face, but this one was even more complex, emotional and powerful than any other we’ve seen before. While Peter, in all earnestness, was telling Walter what he wanted to do – keep Walter safe, grounded, and tied to his friends and family – Peter was also realizing that his ability to protect Walter was slipping away. Both men are losing their hearts, and it seems like they won’t be able to help one another hang on to their humanity for long. The pieces of Walter’s brain that were smushed back into his head in “Letters of Transit” are turning him back into a cruel man, and the tech Peter shoved into his head in “An Origin Story” is turning him into a super-powered machine man.
With the Bishop boys slipping further and further away from what they’re supposed to be - the great men they’ve become over the last four and a half seasons - it feels like it’s time for Olivia to step up and start leading them back home. Olivia saved Walter and Peter by bringing them together once before, when the show first started. I’m betting she’ll be the one who helps them find their humanity again before the show is over.
This episode wasn’t all doom and gloom. We got some great, trippy alternate reality sequences in the Pocket Universe, some hilarious Walter-isms on Betamax, a fun hokey pokey dance that served as a ticket to another dimension, and a few short but thrilling action scenes – my favorite was Olivia pulling the Observer through the portal, where her gun would work, and shooting him in the chest.
There was some great Fringe-y fun to be had here, but it’s clear that dark times are ahead. And now that Windmark knows that Peter possesses the Observer tech, he’ll be even more obsessed with catching and eliminating Fringe Division. Maybe "Donald," whoever he is, will help our heroes put the plan together before Windmark closes in on them.