Part of the fascination of Fringe over the past four years has been seeing Walter Bishop atone for his many sins, partly by grappling with their lasting consequences. A lot of the worst stuff the Fringe Division had to cope with was due, one way or another, to Walter's mistakes. So it's really fascinating, once and for all, to see a world where Walter is unambiguously a savior and champion. Spoilers ahead...
Of course, you can spin it that the Observer-dominated world of 2036 is dreadful and dystopian because Walter and the Fringe gang failed to save the world back in 2015, when the Observers mounted their takeover. Peter and Olivia do bring up that idea at one point during last night's season opener. But the fact remains — this is one Earth-spattering mess you can't blame on Walter Bishop, and his only role in all this is to try and fix it.
John Noble pretty much carried last night's episode, even more than he usually does on Fringe. He has most of the great lines, but also he's the one who really has to stand up to the sadistic Observer, Windmark. We get to see him growing angry and frustrated about his impossible situation, and we also see plenty of his whimsical side (particularly when he explains to the aged Edward Markham that he tried writing science fiction — once.) And then there's that amazing scene at the end of the episode when he listens to Yazoo's "Only You," stares at a lone flower, and contemplates just how terrible everything has gotten.
As excited as I am about a 13-episode season set in a dystopian future where bald, repressed sadists from the future oppress the human race, I'm even more excited for a whole storyline where Walter Bishop is a freedom fighter, who (presumably) triumphs over impossible odds.
We first glimpsed the Observer-dominated future in last year's "Letters of Transit," where Walter Bishop seemed to be running rings around the Observers (at least, once his brain was fixed), blowing up a whole building with an antimatter device and sneaking out through secret doorways. Not surprisingly, he's not having quite such an easy go of it this time around.
In "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11," it's shortly after "Letters of Transit," and the three generations of Bishops (plus Astrid) are searching for Olivia. It turns out that Olivia went to fetch a device to defragment the secret plans to defeat the Observers that were scrambled inside Walter's brain — but she almost got captured, so she ambered herself. (Shortly before Walter and the others followed suit.) Now, Olivia's gone missing, and it turns out she's been taken by "amber gypsies," who in turn sold her to Edward Markham, the old bookseller who's in love with her. In the course of rescuing her, Walter gets captured by the Observers — and Windmark probes Walter's mind, wiping out the hidden knowledge of how to stop the Observers. So now our heroes are back to square one, only it's 20 years later.
This episode did a pretty spiffy job of increasing the already-high stakes. Not only has Walter lost the plans to build an anti-Observer device (which the friendly Observer, September, had put in his brain), but also we know more about the Observers' plans. Not content with ruling the world, they're also altering the planet's atmosphere to make it more like the polluted, horrible future they come from — and within a few years, the lifespan of regular humans will be down to around 45 years. Oh, and Walter's granddaughter Etta has been found out as a member of the Resistance, so she can't use her Fringe Division membership to help the good guys any more.
Oh, and it's neat that the episode begins and ends with a dandelion — at the start, Young Etta is picking dandelions and blowing their spores away, and at the end, a despondent Walter is staring at a dandelion in the wreckage.
Great Walter Bishop moments in this episode (besides the aforementioned "science fiction" line, and the final flower scene):
- "I'm aware of not wearing pants, Peter. I'm not an idiot." Plus all his sniping at Peter for abandoning Olivia and him.
- Trying to use music to fight against Windmark's psychic interrogation. I love a good "fighting the mind probe" scene, and this was an especially good one, bloody face and all.
- His lovely tender moment with Etta, where he tells her she'll always be a little girl to him. And then he can't help seeing her as she was, during the interrogation.
- Calling Astrid "Afro" after having been brain-drilled by Windmark, and asking her if she has any music.
- His freakout/meltdown when he can't remember the seekrit plan, and he starts yelling that he's failed everyone — until Olivia comforts him and calms him down.
Walter's brain must be swiss cheese by now, after having had bits cut out of it by William Bell, and then suffering brain damage from being ambered, which was partially reversed by having his missing brain bits reinserted, and finally getting psychically poked by Windmark. It's a miracle Walter knows which way is up.
The bit where the rebels are trying to decide whether to commit all their resources to rescuing Walter reminded me strongly of a similar scene in the Doctor Who episode "Day of the Daleks", episode three, where the anti-Dalek rebels finally decide to risk everything to save the Doctor, because he's the one man who can save the day. Which just brings me back to thinking that Walter Bishop is going to be at his most Doctor-ish, fighting off an invasion.
Also great this time around: Astrid, who gets to be the stand-in for the ordinary viewer, dealing with all the futureshock of arriving in a world where everybody eats those disgusting "eggsticks" and nobody remembers what Naugahyde was. (The horror!)
Sure, there was plenty of silly stuff in this episode that seemed to be just thrown in to keep the plot wheels spinning — like the "amber gypsies." (Actually, they prefer to be called "amber Romani," thank you very much.) With all the other stuff the Observers crack down on, why do they allow people to go around carving out ambered people as souvenirs — and why are there enough people in amber to make it worth anybody's while? (Did someone mass-produce ambering devices at some point? What for?) It feels like a silly contrivance that we'll never hear about again. Likewise, Edward Markham's sudden doomed love for Olivia feels ever so slightly random.
Also, the latest Peter-Olivia relationship crisis felt pointless, particularly since we just got told about it in a fairly "as you know Bob" conversation. In a nutshell, when the Observers invaded, Peter and Olivia lost their daughter Etta. Peter couldn't face losing his daughter and wanted to keep searching for her, while Olivia wanted to go to New York and fight the Observers with Walter. And they couldn't really be there for each other, because they were both so wrecked by the invasion from the future as well as their missing daughter. So they parted ways, although Peter apparently got back together with Walter in time to get ambered with him. At this point, enough hurdles have been put in the way of Peter and Olivia's relationship to make it an Olympic event, and being told in shorthand about yet another relationship setback feels slightly inconsequential.
Although it is very sweet getting to see Olivia meet her daughter as a grown-up for the first time, and hearing Peter talk about how much it means to him to see Etta is out there fighting for everybody, after he let her down.
But back to praising all the things this episode did right — I really loved the look of the dystopian future. It was a really open question as to whether this show was going to be able to keep creating the oppressive visuals of "Letters of Transit" week after week, on what is by now probably a shoestring budget. But the desolation and Orwellian signage look just as stark and horrible as they did last time, and there were a few scenes where I wanted to pause the episode to admire a dreadful vista — except that I also wanted to keep watching, to see what happens next.
It's a good thing that the heroes faced such a huge setback this episode, because a huge part of watching Walter Bishop match his wits against the almost-Talosians will be seeing him improvise and scheme with his back against the wall — watching Walter carry out a surefire plan, with no screwups, wouldn't be nearly as much fun. As it is, we get to see Walter in a light we've never seen him in before: not just searching for redemption, but fighting to save everybody. Can't wait to see how it turns out.
GIFs via GCatherineV on Tumblr.