In another universe, much like our own, last night's episode of Fringe probably served as the series finale, given how close the show came to cancellation. And in many ways, this would have been a fitting end to the series.
"The Day We Died" was a great summation of Fringe at its absolute best as well as its absolute worst, and it felt like a series finale in many ways. After all, it resolved many, if not most, of the show's dangling plotlines, and served up some baffling answers. Most of all, it felt like a great summing up of the show's great enigma, Dr. Walter Bishop. Both of him.
So before anybody gets the wrong idea, I'm still extremely glad that Fringe is coming back in the fall — this show has stumbled a fair bit lately, but it's still one of the best shows on television, and it may well have the best cast on TV, bar none. But I've had the uneasy feeling that Fringe was losing its sense of direction for a while now, and last night's episode only intensified that worry.
In a nutshell, "The Day We Died" was Fringe at its best — absolutely perfect character-based storytelling about its three core characters, especially Walter. And it was Fringe at its worst — nonsensical plot twists, loads of clunky exposition, and a storyline that appeared to be lifted wholesale from several episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.
So, first the good part. John Noble has given us Walter Bishop, his alternate universe counterpart, and both versions circa 1985. And now, Noble's called up on to give us two more versions of Walter, both based in the year 2026. What little makeup the show uses to age both Walters seemed fairly subtle, but it scarcely mattered because Noble created two whole new versions of the character — to the point where, when we finally saw the present-day Walters at the end of the episode, I was a bit startled by the transition.
In 2026, "our" Walter has been blamed for the wholesale devastation that struck our universe after Peter used the machine to wipe out the other universe. It turns out the two universes were linked inextricably, so destroying one doomed the other. After everything started to unravel, Walter was put on trial, and sent to a super maximum security prison, where he turns into a mirror image of the dissheveled Unabombery mess we met in the show's pilot. (There was a certain "full circle" feeling to the whole thing.)
Walter is still Walter — still playful and relentlessly weird — but he's much more broken and guilt-ridden than in our day. It's almost impossible to sum up in words the amount of remorse and grief and stubborn zest for life that John Noble puts into his portrayal of Future Walter. Just the tearful wonder with which Walter unwraps a package of Red Vines. Or rejoices in swivel chairs. Or the way he ruefully says that his past self would have found something fascinating, or catches himself admiring the clever design of a WMD. And the way he talks about the long-gone Gene the Cow. Or the way he pities Walternate for looking like the most hated man in the universe.
This Walter has long since given up on the idea of being forgiven, or finding redemption. He's long since abandoned any dreams of finding mitigating circumstances for his crimes. He's Present Walter's worst nightmare of how he'll end up, helpless and unforgiven.
Meanwhile, Walternate has only gotten more bitter, now that his whole universe has gone. He's turned into a mean, spiteful old man whose only goal in life is revenge. He's secretly behind the quasi-religious terrorist group, the Army of Brad Dourif, who are dedicated to bringing about the end of the world, Brad Dourif-style. And he's such a dirty bastard that even when he sees his own son, whose disappearance he mourned for so many years, his only response is holographic threats, and a cover version of Khan's "I wish to go on hurting you" speech. And not surprisingly, John Noble, television's MVP, brings it.
But the rest of the cast is amazing as well — especially Joshua Jackson, who doesn't always get his props. Peter and Olivia have gotten married, and debated whether to have kids on and off, and meanwhile, they've both advanced within the growing Fringe organization. (Whatever else Future Walter may have done, he certainly ensured lifetime full employment for his friends and family members.) And Peter now has his own share of the universe-destroying guilt, since he was the one who went into the machine and doomed both universes. (Although I guess they were both doomed anyway.)
The most compelling stuff about all the future versions of the other characters, though, is their relationship to Walter — nothing's really changed, except that everything's changed. Their friend is now universally reviled as the cause of worldwide suffering and death, and they've seen way too much of the effects of Walter's folly. And just to express affection for Walter feels like a transgressive act. He's a part of their family, more than ever — Olivia has married into the Bishop clan, Peter finally admits that Walter is his real dad — but he's become radioactive.
It's the paradox of Walter, taken to its furthest conclusion — he's the root of all evils, but he's also at the center of his family. And his boundless joyful curiosity has caused almost unimaginable suffering, but it's still rather sweet and lovable. With this episode, we finally see a world where everybody knows about Walter's crimes, but only a few people know what a gentle soul he is.
Meanwhile, everybody's moved on and changed, in the proud tradition of the "glimpsing a dystopian future" episode. Broyles is a senator with one messed-up eye. Astrid is a full-fledged agent at last, although people mess with her desk because she's too nice. Olivia's niece has just joined Fringe Division, and Gene the Cow has probably become president or something.
In the end, Walternate widens a catastrophic wormhole in Central Park and murders Olivia, leading to the second "future version of a character getting a Viking boat funeral" scene in the past month. Peter and Walter are both heartbroken, but then Walter finally sees a way that he can grasp at the redemption he's given up on, thanks to that wormhole.