TV Review: FRINGE 5.11 “The Boy Must Live”

As FRINGE nears its final episode, the series takes a break for the inevitable infodump episode. 

With a season as rushed as this, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Fringe delivered the inevitable infodump episode.

“The Boy Must Live” was loaded with talky revelations – September is now human, Michael is September’s son, and Walter’s plan to defeat the Observers involves erasing the bad baldies from history. As interesting as these reveals were, none were as powerful or as emotionally stirring as the brief scene between Peter and Walter at the start of the episode.

After a quick underpants-free dip in the tank, Walter pinned downed September’s location, and the team set off to meet him. On the way, Walter was acting cheerier than ever, which puzzled Peter, who wanted answers. Why, after being haunted by the threat of reverting to the callous “Walter That Was” for so long was Walter suddenly acting like that huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders? It all had to do with a change in perspective.

Walter told Peter that when he bonded with Michael in the last episode, the boy Observer gave him great insight into the workings of the universe as well as his memories from the previous timeline, an act that helped him learn two important things: his love for Peter could grow even larger, which made him happier than ever, and all of the great and complex things he thought he knew about the universe don’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

In an instant, Walter realized that love and family were infinitely more important and powerful than intelligence. You know, classic Fringe stuff. The dangerous God complex Walter has been struggling to suppress, it seems, simply vanished in an instant.

And so it goes with this brief final season of Fringe - another major character arc seems to have been resolved too quickly, too easily and without much payoff for the viewer. As much as I loved the scene between Walter and Peter, especially John Noble’s bare performance, it was disappointing to learn that Walter’s character-defining identity crisis, which he has been struggling with all season, has simply been wiped away by the magic bald boy who only showed up a few episodes ago. The quick resolution here reminded me of Peter’s exciting slip into Observer-dom earlier this season and how the show resolved that situation too neatly despite building it up as a game-changing event.

These issues highlight the major problem with this season: the writers only had 13 episodes to tell the story and wrap up the entire series. So character arcs have felt rushed, some major characters have been underutilized (*cough* Olivia *double cough* Astrid), and most episodes have been good instead of great. But these problems are forgivable. While these and some other arcs have felt truncated and the season has felt rushed, this season has also delivered a myriad of unforgettable emotional moments, ballsy moves and sublime surprises.

Take this episode, for instance: watching Walter tell Peter he remembered their greatest hits from the alternate timeline made me get more than a little misty. That was great TV. It may have played a little cheesy to some, but at this point I believe there’s no amount of cheese that these actors, especially Noble, can’t sell as genuine emotion. And I nearly lost it several episodes ago when Olivia convinced Peter to honor Etta’s memory by de-Observer-ing his brain. More great, heartstring-yanking TV. These conflicts may have felt shortened because of the abbreviated episode order, but that didn’t stop the actors and writers from creating some powerful and remarkable moments this season. So while every episode hasn’t exactly been brilliant, we’ve gotten pockets of brilliance all season thanks to a talented cast and a writing staff that knows how to craft rich drama laced with strong character interactions, sci-fi badassery and sly humor. So, yeah, I can forgive the rushing through.

And who’s to say we’ve seen the last of Walter’s struggle or of Peter’s Observer arc? We’ve still got two more hours of show to go. I wouldn’t be surprised if, despite signs that point to the contrary, we saw these two conflicts resurface in a big way before the series ends.

But we’re not there yet. This episode, which could have used a little more action to balance out all the exposition, set things up quite nicely for the finale, with September’s/Donald’s story about Michael’s origins and the origins of the Observers. We learned that Norwegian scientists from the future designed the tech that led to the creation of the emotionless Observers. The Norwegians concluded that limiting the parts of the brain that produce and process emotion could increase intelligence, thus creating a race of cold, calculating beings with the power to travel back in time. Unfortunately, the Observers’ arrogance and apathy made their eventual decision to enslave humanity and take over the planet all too easy.

As for Michael, he was an anomaly, a brilliant and powerful Observer somehow gifted with the capacity for great emotion, born in the future. Walter and Donald’s plan to defeat the Observers involved sending Michael to the future and showing him to the Norwegian scientists, in hopes that they would abandon their emotion-killing tech, thus erasing the Observers from history.

There are plenty of holes in this plan. Giant ones. While erasing the Observers from history ensures that they won’t ever take over the planet, the plan also creates a troubling paradox: no Observers means no Donald or Michael, which means no plan. And even more troubling are the plan’s consequences for the Bishops. Fans will remember that Donald saved Peter from drowning when he was a boy. If the Observers are erased from history, it stands to reason that Peter would die as a boy because Donald won’t be around to save him. Olivia, who seemed overwhelmed here at the thought of resetting the timeline and getting to be with Etta again, seemed to be missing the larger picture: if the plan works, there would be no Etta, because there would be no Peter.

Please, somebody get me Doc Brown’s chalkboard.

Even though I’m pointing out these potential problems here, they don’t really bother me all that much. Like I wrote previously, I have faith that the end will deliver on an emotional level. With the plan to defeat the Observers hinging on a literal show of emotion, and Donald revealing that Walter must sacrifice himself to save the world, it’s clear that Fringe, like many other great sci-fi shows before it, will go out with a whole lotta heart, and that’s something I’m excited about. If the finale comes close to delivering the emotional highs and unforgettable, delightful surprises the show has offered in the past, then it will have succeeded for me.

Next week’s finale promises two hours of mind-frakkin’ fun. This episode offered a thrilling glimpse of the far future, with Windmark traveling to 2609, which probably means we’ll get to see more future time traveling before the end. Exciting! Here’s another thing to look forward to: the Observers are starting to feel real human emotion. This episode made it pretty clear that the bald boys are starting to feel things like obsession and anger, perhaps as a side effect of living in the human-inhabited era for so long. In 2609, while requesting permission to go back in time and eradicate Fringe Division for good, Windmark admitted to being consumed by obsessive thoughts about destroying our heroes. I loved this development, but I loved watching an Observer unwittingly tapping his toe to the sound of Donald’s jazz record even more.

With Windmark’s request denied, and his obsession with killing Fringe Division consuming him, it’s likely we’ll see a tense and destructive showdown between him and our heroes next week. This episode ended with the Observers apprehending Michael, which means we’ll either be treated to a suspenseful rescue mission or maybe a few wild scenes of Walter coming up with a risky alternate plan to save the world.

There’s no telling exactly how it’s all going to end, but I’m sure of one thing: Saying goodbye to Fringe isn’t going to be easy. Over the past several seasons, the show has opened doors to new worlds and countless new story possibilities, not to mention poignant themes and compelling examinations of the human race’s relationship with science and technology. I’ll be sad to see those doors closed when Fringe Division solves its final case next Friday.

A few brief thoughts:

- Walter’s memories from the previous timeline have been restored. I don’t know about you, but I love this. I’m glad that this version of Walter is also essentially the Walter we met in the season premiere. And, again, the show did a great job of playing this revelation out with the Walter-Peter scene here.

- I love how Donald seems to have embraced life as a human. He’s got hair, stubble, a cool record collection, and he reads the Bible.

- What did you think of the White Tulip reference? I appreciated it, but I thought it could have been worked in a little more organically. I’ll just chalk that up to the rushed nature of this final season.