And no, that headline isn't a spoiler, because I have no inside information. But Fringe has already given us a clear hint about where the show is going: The telepathic bald Nazis from the future will be defeated, not by becoming as ruthless and monstrous as they are, but by reclaiming our compassion and humanity. You heard it here first.
Of course, just as the "invasion of the emotionless people with mental powers" thing is kind of a trope, so is the "they were defeated by human kindness, the one thing they couldn't grasp" ending. Still, last night's episode definitely left me feeling as though mercy and compassion and faith and all that irrational human stuff that Dr. McCoy would be excited about will turn out to be a crucial factor in beating the "baldies."
The fight against the oppressive Observers has turned Etta into kind of a cruel, uncaring person. The meat of last night's episode involves Etta taking prisoner a "Loyalist" named Gael Manfretti who works for the Observers. As we've seen in the previous two 2036-set episodes, the Loyalists have special face tattoos and get special privileges in exchange for being the Observers' foot soldiers. Manfretti (played by the great Eric Lange) has the misfortune to stumble into Walter's old lab in Harvard to feed the pigeons, just when the Bishop family (and Astrid) have come there to look for clues about Walter's plan to defeat the Observers.
The gang needs to get into the old Harvard Science Building to turn on the electricity, so Walter can use a laser to cut his old Betamax camcorder out of amber, to watch a tape he left for himself explaining the plan that was erased from his brain last week. So they need some information from Manfretti — and Etta resorts to a particularly nasty sort of torture, aging Manfretti years in a few seconds using a process similar to the one the Master used in "The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords" (Luckily, Manfretti doesn't end up as an elf. But just like the Master, Etta can't decide whether Manfretti should live or die.)
And this turns into a big debate between Etta and her mom, Olivia — with Manfretti being a manipulative SOB the whole time and trying to play on Olivia's feelings by pretending he has a son who will need to be told that his father is dead. Etta is prepared to keep aging Manfretti until he talks or dies, but Olivia thinks this is barbaric — even if Manfretti's people would have done the same, if the tables were turned. Etta responds that Olivia just woke up from two decades in suspended animation, and "You don't know my world." (Which is my new standard response to any criticism. "Hey. You don't know my world.")
Olivia says that's true, but she'd hoped that whatever terrible things Etta encountered in the Observer-dominated future, it wouldn't "harden" her. Humanity is at war, Etta says, and we're losing.
The scenes between mother and daughter, with the just slightly slimy Manfretti in the middle, are some pretty great drama — and the episode makes a wise choice keeping it to just Olivia and Etta, rather than getting Peter, Walter or Astrid to weigh in. This episode is really about Olivia's relationship with her daughter, as evidenced by the opening where we see Etta's disappearance as a child from Olivia's point of view, in Olivia's nightmares. Olivia still isn't sure whether she's lost Etta.
In the end, Manfretti cooperates with Etta, giving up the access codes to the Science Building, and even helping out via walkie talkie when Peter and Etta run into an unexpected hold-up. But afterwards, Etta wants to hand Manfretti over to the Resistance, which will interrogate him some more and then kill him. Etta correctly guesses that anything Manfretti has told Olivia about having a family that he's trying to protect is a lie — Manfretti just wants to keep living, which is the impulse that's turned people like him into slaves of the Observers in the first place. But when it comes down to it, Etta can't kill Manfretti. She lets him go, because of something she saw in Olivia's eyes: pity. For everyone, including her.
Before he runs away, Manfretti promises to work for the Resistance, and seems like he might actually be a little sincere this time — and I'm betting we haven't seen the last of him.
Here's hoping this isn't the end of the "Etta is ruthless and uncaring and trying to beat the Observers by being as evil as they are" storyline — it'll be a bit disappointing if one argument with Olivia is enough to make Etta change her ways completely. And Etta's unsqueamishness seems like it might yield a lot more interesting story possibilties, going forward.
Separately, Peter also stops Etta from going ballistic (literally) when she sees the severed head of her former comrade Simon in the science lab — he's still alive and apparently consciously aware, even though he's basically just a head on a spike. It's just one of the horrid experiments the Observers are conducting, and it clinches that Henry Ian Cusick isn't going to be back. Peter tells Etta that there will be time for payback later — for now, they have to help Walter save the world.
One of the great teases in the episode is when we think Walter is going to slice out Manfretti's eye to fool the retinal scanners at the Science Building. (Especially when he asks "Astral" for another one, spongier this time.) In fact, Walter's making a fake Manfretti-eye using a pig's eye and some weird science — but it seems for a moment as though Walter is getting as callous as Etta. We don't really know what damage Walter's brain has sustained, especially since his experiments with the Transilience Thought Unifier at the start of the episode seem to be making him worse.
So in the end, our heroes finally get at the all-important videotape... and it's instructions on how to go about finding more videotapes, which are hidden all over the place and contain pieces of the all-important plan. This is obviously going to be the big season-long arc, as our heroes search for the
horcruxes tapes. It's more than a little contrived, but at least it'll give our heroes an excuse to explore lots of parts of the dystopian future.
This means we're going to be seeing the plan that September put in Walter's brain after all — but it still seems likely that the plan won't work out. Chances our, the Fringe gang will spend most of the season assembling the pieces of the plan, and then it'll fail at the last minute. Leaving our heroes to defeat the Observers, instead, by showing that Olivia was right all along, and human kindness is important and powerful. That's my guess, anyway. In the mean time, let's hope we see a lot more of Olivia and Etta butting heads over just how far over the line they're willing to go.