Fringe recap: The Observer Effect
In physics, “the observer effect” is the idea that the act of observing an experiment can affect the outcome of the experiment. Let me give you an example of this principle that I’m sure any decent egghead would find woefully flawed, but whatever. It’s not like we come to Fringe for credible and accurate extrapolations and applications of science, either. Prior to watching “The End Of All Things,” I had read that the episode was going to be a humdinger. Our own Ken Tucker had even raved about its merits via Twitter, calling it “a very moving, as well as exciting, episode. The series keeps avoiding the cold-sci-fi trap.” This got me pumped, and that pumpage amped my expectations, and it was through the filter of those amped expectations that I watched the episode. But I’m thinking my act of watching the episode through that filter tainted and diminished the show that Ken and everyone else watched, because “The End Of All Things” failed to make my dinger hum. It was, to my eyes, ‘just okay.’ Certainly not the equal of the past two episodes. And not the strongest possible kicker to a strong second act for Fringe’s fourth season, which now takes a four-week snooze before rising anew on March 23 for the first of eight consecutive episodes – a sweep of story that might represent the very end of all things Fringe. Damn, I’m such a downer this week, aren’t I? Ah, but so was this episode.
My least favorite part of “The End Of All Things” was its central storyline, which saw Olivia trapped in a cell with her alt-timeline surrogate mommy and Massive Dynamic honchoette Nina Sharp. David Robert Jones, the shapeshifter-building snake with the hideously molting skin (his face resembled a dried-out glazed donut), had abducted both women for the purpose of activating Olivia’s latent, Cortexiphan-seeded super-powers. Since Olivia’s abilities required a strong emotional stimulus in order to manifest, Jones tortured the mutant’s substitute mama – first by drilling into Nina’s cybernetic arm (I liked learning that the limb was lined with nerves), then by strapping her to box springs and zapping her with a car battery. Nonetheless, Olivia couldn’t psychically ignite Jones’ box of light bulbs. Initially, she attributed her failure to the mysterious event transpiring within her – the recovery of her original timeline identity. In what I thought was a significant development, Olivia confessed to Nina that while she retained Rebootlandia Olivia’s memories, she could no longer emotionally connect with them — suggesting that she now regards her original timeline identity as her authentic self. Consequently, Jones wasn’t going to successfully unleash Olivia’s inner Firestarter by abusing Nina. Then Olivia revealed to Nina during a torture respite that she had only ever been able to “Flame on!” when Peter was in the room. Suddenly, Nina doubled over from abdominal pains and was taken out of the cell, and when she was safely out of Olivia’s sight, she revealed her true colors: This Nina was not Olivia’s Rebootlandia surrogate mother, but either: 1. A shapeshifter; or 2. The Nina Sharp from Rebootlandia’s “over there” world. Regardless: She was the Nina that was revealed to be in league with Jones at the end of “Enemy Of My Enemy.” They resolved that the only way to activate Olivia was to nab Peter.
Now: Why was the Olivia/Nina stuff my least favorite part of the episode? A few reasons:
First: The storytelling made us privy to information that Olivia did not know: That while she was locked up with one Nina, another Nina was being held by Broyles and co. at Fringe HQ on suspicion of dosing and abducting Olivia. From the beginning, I found myself questioning which Nina was “good” and which Nina was “bad.” My suspicion came at a cost: I was unmoved by the dramatic set pieces between Olivia and (Fake) Nina – for example, the bit business about trying to recall the first time Olivia called Nina “Nina” instead of “Ms. Sharp” – because I was so fixated on the issue of Nina’s credibility. But the bigger issue is this: I was never fooled. Never. It seemed pretty obvious to me we were going to get the twist we got, that the Nina in Fringe custody was “good” and the Nina locked up with Olivia was “bad,” and my certainty influenced my experience of the show, subverting the effectiveness of the storytelling.
NEXT: Moriarty, Squandered.
Second: The episode made poor use of David Robert Jones. He’s a great character (played by a great actor). I want to see him in stories worthy of his presence. This story didn’t need him. One of his subordinates could have executed (Fake) Nina’s (fake) torture. Actually, I would have rather seen a new baddie – a third sinister spoke for the Jones/Sharp axis of evil. Indeed, if the episode kept us wondering about the identity and motivations of the fiend that had abducted Olivia and Nina, it may have cultivated more suspense for the which-Nina-was-which? gambit.
Third: The case-of-the-week storytelling of the past few episodes has been so strong. Getting a pure “mythology” episode – and especially a weak one – doubled my disappointment.
Question: Forget “good Nina” and “bad Nina.” What if the two Ninas are actually in cahoots with each other? And was it just me, or did tortured-haggard (Fake) Nina bare an uncanny resemblance to Emperor Palpatine circa The Return of The Jedi?
I enjoyed better the Peter parts of “The End Of All Things.” His story began with Agent Lincoln Lee jumping all over him the way Walter did last week for continuing to cavort with Olivia in light of evidence that his presence was causing her internal destabilization. Lee shared Walter’s view that alt-timeline refugee Peter – so desperate to be reunited with “his” Olivia – was psychically projecting “his” Olivia onto “their” Olivia via the odd empathic rapport they share, wrongly destroying “their” Olivia in the process. Last week, Peter became convinced that whatever was happening to Olivia, she was truly becoming “his” Olivia. The purpose of this week’s story was get him second-guessing that conviction or at least the “happy ending” implications of that theory.
The investigation into Olivia’s dosing and disappearance led Peter and Lincoln to the discovery of a surveillance camera hidden inside the smoke detector within Olivia’s apartment. Peter theorized that the memory card may contain some valuable clues. As Peter pursued his idea in the lab, we got what I thought was an oddly staged discussion between Astrid and Walter about what Peter was trying to accomplish. It began when Astrid asked Walter to define the word “palimpsest.” Walter: “A manuscript page from a scroll or a book, where the text has been scraped off. Which means it can be used again.” Astrid: “Like when you record over an old VHS or cassette?” Walter: “Precisely. And what was underneath bleeds through.” (By the way: Walter’s definition can be found almost word-for-word in the Wikipedia entry for “palimpsest.”) Basically, I think what Fringe was doing here was giving viewers a metaphor for the reboot – and possibly a clue to the endgame of this storyline. To wit: A new version of history was recorded over the original version of history; the older version of history can be accessed and brought to the surface using the right tools and techniques, which – I suspect – will be the Peter-programmed, Olivia-powered
doomsday machine salvation machine magical electromagnetic waffle iron. Regardless, what bothered me about Walter’s bleeding palimpsest blah blah blah was that he himself did not recognize and verbalize the same plain-as-day metaphorical significance that I saw (we saw?) at home. This man is supposed to be smarter than me and crazier than me. He should be seeing and saying this s—t!
The path to Olivia’s rescue then detoured through The Observer, who suddenly materialized inside the Harvard lab while Peter was fiddling with the chip. September was something of a bleeding palimpsest himself, as the marvelous if humanity-challenged recorder was injured and bloodied, just as he had been injured and bloodied when he appeared to Olivia in “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” and warned her that she was destined to die. Before he could volunteer any further info, September passed out and slipped into a coma; he was dying. Peter speculated they could cull intel from The Observer’s brain by pulling out the old mind meld tech. He jacked into September’s skull and found himself inside a space that resembled a skyscraper’s observation deck (clever) – except that the vistas that could be seen were moments in time. To start: The creation of the universe itself. Then September showed up and at long last told us some stuff about himself and his kind. The Observers come from the future – or rather, a possible future — and represent some next gen iteration of humanity. (So much for hair, taste buds, and emotions.) He belongs to a group of scientists who explore history using time travel tech. I wasn’t blown away by September’s dish. The details didn’t feel revelatory; they weren’t anything we hadn’t assumed or theorized. Which was fine. My bigger issue: I suddenly realized while listening to The Observer talk that somewhere along the way over the past three-plus seasons, I had lost my burning need to know his bio. The more he remained a mysterious entity, the more I had become content with him always remaining a mysterious entity. He’s just cooler that way. If you feel differently: We will have to agree to disagree.
NEXT: The Ghost Of Timelines’ Past
Like some benign Dickensian specter, The Observer brought Peter to a couple select turning points in his known and not-known past. First stop: The moment when September visited Young Walternate during a crucial moment in his pursuit of concocting a cure for Peter’s childhood illness, setting in motion the chain of events that have defined Fringe’s epic saga. (The Observer Effect in metaphorical action. September showed up to witness and take the measure of this momentous historical event, wound up influencing the result.) The problem, according to September, was that his meddling ultimately precipitated an event that apparently should never have happened: Bolivia giving birth to Peter’s son, Henry. Why was Henry’s life so problematic? Because (I think) Peter was supposed to have this child with Olivia, not her “over there” doppelganger. The reboot erased the Henry “mistake” (we were given no insight into why the lad’s existence represented such an epic fail) but it also erased Peter, at least for a spell. Which is funny when you think about it. Basically, the
doomsday machine salvation machine magical electromagnetic waffle iron rebooted history in order to… prevent Peter from having sex with Bolivia. So why and how did Peter return when he did? Unclear. September seemed to suggest that Olivia was somehow responsible. Or maybe it was because history had progressed to a point where it had become safe for Olivia-horny Peter to come out and play again and presumably knock up the right woman instead of siring Henry the Fringe-verse AntiChrist. I don’t know. I must confess I am beginning to tire of puzzling through this trippy reboot mystery. It’s time for clarity, already.
Anyway: Peter pressed September for info on how he can find and rescue Olivia. Instead, The Observer gave him riddles. “They’re coming,” he said obliquely, referring to… Jones’ goons? A future event? Involving his fellow Observers coming to punish him for his illicit interventions? (And don’t the other Observers with the exception of December look rather goofy? Not many people can rock the style.) “Go home,” September instructed. And with that, Peter ported back into his own body in the lab – and The Observer vanished. Next stop: Judgment Day — and rifle squad execution? Peter decided that “Go home” should be taken literally, so he returned to his house on the Harvard campus. There, he was jumped and knocked out by Jones’ goons. Question: Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if September had told him this:
“Listen. Here’s what you need to do. Go back to your house. Some shapeshifter dudes that work for David Robert Jones are hiding in the shadows and waiting to beat you unconscious and take you to their leader, but hey: Let it happen. Yes, it’s going to hurt like hell, and you will run the risk of a fractured skull. Let. It. Happen. Because what’s going to happen next is that Jones is going to threaten to hurt you right in front of Olivia, which is going to produce the emotions needed for Olivia to manifest her Cortexiphan super-powers, which is going to cause all the electricity in the building to go haywire, which is going to spook Jones and (Fake) Nina into fleeing. The bad news is that Jones and (Fake) Nina are going to get away even after Olivia puts a bullet into Jones – he can survive such a thing, as his body was reassembled on an atomic level (don’t ask, just roll with it) – but the good news is that you and Olivia will be reunited to live and love and make little Peters and Olivias, and that’s all that matters. Right?”
My ‘point” (such as it is) is that I’m not sure why September couldn’t have been more direct and explicit with Peter. It’s not like the boundary-challenged watcher has a problem with meddling in human affairs. And it’s not like Peter wouldn’t have done any of this, anyway! I know, I know: Really not a big deal. I just think it would have been cooler if Peter had known what was waiting for him inside his house instead of just blindly blundering into a blow to the noggin.
The aftermath: Peter – now convinced that he was negatively impacting Rebootlandia Olivia – told the woman who now feels with every Cortexiphan-soaked fiber of her electrifying being that she loves him and he should love her that they should break up. All of Olivia memories, emotions, and freaky sparking – all wrong, all his fault. With that, Peter was back to craving pancakes and resolved anew to recalibrate the
doomsday machine salvation machine magical electromagnetic waffle iron so it can get him back to where/when he once belonged. In the month-long intermission before the end of all things the next episode, we debate: Is Peter truly projecting “his” Olivia onto new timeline Olivia? Does his ‘happily ever after’ reside in another timeline that still exists somewhere in the quantum foam of the cosmos? Or is Olivia truly recovering her recorded-over original life? If so: When will Walter and everyone else finally start pulling a bleeding palimpsest, as well? A date with the magical electromagnetic waffle iron looms. Until then, the message boards are yours… to hate on me for not liking this episode.