Walter searches for missing friends, family, and brain matter in a future world ruled by Observers in 'Letters of Transit' 

By Jeff Jensen
April 21, 2012 at 04:40 PM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S4 E19
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“Letters of Transit” was one of those let’s-go-gonzo stories that we get from Fringe toward the end of the season like “Brown Betty” and “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” a creative lark before the climactic storm. Yet this one pulsed with big picture significance, for it fancifully and emotionally dramatized a question that I suspect will be the crux of season five, should there be a season five: How much can we really trust The Observers?

Written by Fringe’s key mythology architects Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman and Akiva Goldsman, “Letters of Transit” sketched (another) potential future for our heroes, one more classically dystopian than the catastrophe-plagued 2026 shown to us in the season three finale “The Day We Died.” The story was set in 2036 – 21 years after time-traveling Observers from 2609 pulled a Terra Nova and invaded the past after making an environmental wreck of the 27th century. According to legend, Olivia, Peter, and Walter fought in the failed uprising against the pale dapper baldies, then went missing. The peoples of Earth, broken and tamed, were divided into two camps: “Natives,” the rank citizenry, mere cattle in the eyes of their pasty oppressors; and “Loyalists,” Vichy humans willing to pledge allegiance to – and brand their cheeks for — their fair skinned overlords. References to The Prisoner (“I am not a number! I am a free man!”) and Star Wars (“These are not the droids you’re looking for”) helped orient us: Fringe in 2036 was The Village writ global and under Imperial rule. A new credit sequence also helped establish the tone. The new “fringe” concepts in Observius Rex culture: “Community.” “Joy.” “Individuality.”  “Education.” “Imagination.” “Private thought.” “Due process.” “Ownership.” “Free will.” “Freedom.”  Instead of zooming into the crackling wonder of inner space, we got visuals that dragged us out of the realm of quantum mystery and into a land of concrete human misery, all concentration camps and faceless masses, shabby soldiers. The color scheme: Blue steel, drab black and white. The Fringe logo, a bleak monolithic rock, foreboding as The Wall, threatening as The Voice of Fate.

There was still a role for Fringe division in The Observers’ new world order, although it was a less Romantic one: Policing the Natives and quashing their rebelliousness. The Boston office was still run by Broyles, albeit bitterly. He dared to bitch-banter with his supervisor, a cruel, ashen-faced Observer named Windmark. “What did you do up there in the future to get yourself such crap detail?” Broyles asked. Windmark, with a chilling Palpatine smirk spreading across his coarse and chalky face: “I like animals.” (Dude needed moisturizer. That’s what you get for poisoning our oceans, a—hole!)  Broyles had a next gen Olivia (literally) in his employ, another feisty soul who dreamed of better. Meet Etta, an agent with a secret mutant ability: She could hide her thoughts from the mind-reading cue balls. It probably had something to do with Cortexiphan-juiced genes: In a late episode twist that came as no surprise, Etta revealed herself to be Peter and Olivia’s daughter. She hoped against hope that her parents – and the original Fringe team, including Walter and Astrid – were still alive. Finding them could save the world: Prior to their disappearance, the challengers of the unknown-turned-freedom fighters had designed a machine that could destroy The Observers. (In one throwaway bit of business that captured my imagination, it was suggested that their disappearance had spawned some wild myths — that they were wandering a desert; that they had vanished to Peru; that they had become immortal.)

Just as Papa Peter used to be a grifter before he began Fringe-ing, Etta liked to moonlight in the underworld. It was rebellion against The Observers, part intel gathering for her parent-hunting hobby. We met her on the night of a breakthrough made possible by an old contact named who traded in black market tech and ran a nightclub/vice den catering to pervy Observers. Think: Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca. Even had the same name. Rick had made a stunning discovery: Walter Bishop, sealed in super-durable third generation amber – and by choice, too, judging from the device in his hand. Rick had unearthed the other members of the lost Fringe team, too, but a Loyalist gunned him down before he could tell Etta where to find them.

Etta’s best friend in Fringe division was her supervisor, Simon Foster, played by Lost’s Henry Ian Cusick. Fun Facts! Simon was old enough to remember when coffee was a drink, not a chewable lozenges sold in vending machines. He had replaced his bad eyes with black market optics. And he had no love for the empire he grudgingly served. He considered the legend of a lost Fringe team biding its time in the wilderness, hatching a scheme to save the planet, to be a pipe dream… but one he clearly wished was true.  with So when Etta showed him Walter frozen in amber, his eyes lit up like Desmond after Sideways enlightenment: “Well I’ll be a toe on a foot in a grave!” (Reference, anyone?)

NEXT: Jedi mind tricks.

Etta and Simon blew Walter out of his rocky road cell using electromagnetic buffers and a crowd control repulsor weapon – a complicated process that required split second timing, as it was impossible to transmute solid amber into a different state of matter for very long. (This proved to be a very important plot point.) Walter awoke with a severe case of the munchies (appropriate for a 4/20 episode). He also had a spotty memory and the emotional maturity of a precociousness child – the result of brain damage sustained during his cryogenic slumber. Hence, Walter had forgotten how to complete the Observer-purging killer app and where exactly he left his other ambered cohorts. So Etta and Simon sought out Nina Sharp, now in a wheelchair and rocking silver hair. She toiled for The Observers as a senior stooge at The Ministry of Science — but her loyalty belonged to the resistance. She told them that long ago, Walter had asked William Bell to cut some brain out of him because he didn’t like the man he was becoming. The excised gray matter was locked away in Massive Dynamic’s old HQ in Manhattan, or “The City,” now a wretched hive of Observer villainy. Nina theorized that they might be able to inspire Walter’s broken noggin to repair itself by re-introducing some of the extracted tissue back into his head. It was Fringe at is most “We know this is ridiculous but just roll with it.” (Don’t you think The Observers would have destroyed Massive Dynamic years earlier instead of boarding up this treasure trove of extraordinary – and extraordinarily dangerous – technology at the risk of infiltration and plunder by rebel Natives?) But I rolled, as I usually do, thanks as always to a cast that could sell sand to Jawas. Cusick and Georgina Haig as Etty worked well in this world. And John Noble had frisky and poignant fun with Unhinged Kid Walter, whether he was chomping on licorice or relishing potty talk like “monkey feces” or making “Simon Says” wordplay from Simon’s name. His attempts at Jedi mind tricks during the “letters of transit” scene were hilarious. The small moment when he casually, sweetly fixed Nina’s bionic arm was touching. And yes: “LSD! I loved LSD!”

Alas, Walter’s delightful childishness evaporated when Etta and Simon fixed his brain. The rebuilt Walter was a no-fun grown up, ambitious and focused and suffer-no-fools grim – the jerk that Walter never wanted to become. Our critic Ken Tucker saw Fringe riffing on themes of identity in Walter’s transformation. I saw Eden all over again. A fall from grace; innocence lost. Deep. Any-hoo, with he mental hardware restored, Walter dropped some interesting facts (including a cryptic mention of benevolent Observer, September: “What happened to him was… surprising”), quickly recognized Etta for the Bishop she really was (“You!”), and whipped together an anti-matter bomb (!) that incinerated all of Massive Dynamic just as a nasty-ass Observer and his Loyalist stormtroopers arrived to kill them. Walter brought Etta and Simon to his ambered cohorts in a subterranean locale filled with old typewriters. (“Over there” communication devices?) Big revelation: Walter’s team only included Astrid (“Astro!” said Walter in greeting) and Peter. Olivia had met an unspecified fate at the hands of William Bell, who was also sealed in amber in another section of the basement. Walter – who instructed Astrid to keep Belly’s presence a secret from Etta and Simon — didn’t tell us the backstory, but I got the sense that perhaps Walter might have activated the amber protocol during a pitched altercation with his longtime frenemy. Because the repulsor ray was running low on juice, Simon had to improvise a solution to spring Peter. His heroic, self-sacrificing gambit that left him sealed in caramel carbonite. Poor Desmond. Another life, another kind of Hatch. See you in another season, bruthuh.

In the epilogue, we saw that Walter had hacked off one of Bell’s hands. He and Astrid needed it to access… something. My guess? A portal into the “over there” world. We also saw Etta having the reunion of her dreams. Or half of it, at least. “Do you know me?” she nervously asked Peter. It took him a second, but he did the math and puzzled it out. “Henrietta?” The name was a female gloss on Henry – the name that Fauxlivia gave to the timeline-anomalous son she had with Peter. Etta’s eyes filled with tears. “Hi, Dad,” she said, and they embraced. Yeah, I saw this coming. Still got misty, anyway.

+++

A few weeks ago, in the episode “The End Of All Things,” September revealed that he and his kind were time-traveling scientist-explorers from the future who were, or had been, human. He told Peter: “They are coming.” I now wonder if September was referring to the Observer invasion that was imminent, not the threats that were specific to that story.

Regardless, we have other, more pressing things to think about.

First: What’s been the true mission of the specific set of Observers – December and September and August and all — that have lurked in the background since the beginning of Fringe? Have they always known about The Invasion? Have they been trying to stop it? Preparing the way for it? Perhaps they were tasked to survey history and pick the right time period for invasion. A moment when mankind was weakest and most vulnerable for takeover; an epoch that could be successfully colonized without creating a paradox that would negate their existence. Theorizing in another direction: Perhaps they’ve been looking for a way for their people to avoid becoming tyrannical invaders. In this scenario, September and co. have been scouting history, looking for moments to tweak that could produce a different 27th century fate. Of course, these theories, especially the last one, have flaws. Regardless: This is exactly the kind of the Big Twist that The Observers needed. You know that I wasn’t happy with the so-called “revelations” that we got from September in “The End Of All Things.” I’m thrilled to learn there’s more to the story – and I am gladly eating crow for assuming that there wasn’t.

Second: I found it interesting that in an episode filled with amber, we got no mention of the “over there” world, no hint that this aspect of the Fringe mythology was still in play in 2036. Perhaps it is, and the story simply chose not to deal with it. As I suggested earlier in the recap, perhaps The Observers sealed off access to the parallel world. But here’s another thought: What if the “over there” world no longer exists? Theory! What if this season will conclude with the creation of another iteration of the Fringeverse, one brought about by the merging of the “over here” and “over there” worlds and characters? I think the business with Walter’s brain – an act of integration leading to identity transformation – could have been metaphorical foreshadowing for this development. But the bigger clue was Etta. We were told that she last saw her parents when she was four. We were also told that the Fringe team disappeared in 2016. That means that Etta was born… in 2012. Peter and Olivia will need to get busy, right now – and Etta will need to arrive prematurely – to be born before December 31. Hence, I have to think reboot is looming, one that will bring Etta into the world in 2012 – and put the Fringeverse on track for Observergeddon 2015.

Third: Where does David Robert Jones fit into all of this? I now wonder if he knows about the peril to come and if he’s been creating shape-shifters and transhuman monsters to fight against Observergeddon. And maybe that’s why Jones said last week he was going to miss drinking tea: In the Observer-controlled future, there will be no more hot drinks. Yeah, that sounds a little silly. Yet think through this episode. Your clues: The Observers poisoned the earth’s water supply with their environmental carelessness in the 27th century. Windmark’s seemingly illicit sips from a flask filled only with chilled H2O. Chewable coffee. Conclusion: In 2036, water is tightly regulated. So no tea. Are you with me?

Finally: If “Letters of Transit” was a set-up for next season, do you think will we get stories set in the years before the invasion (i.e., “now”) or will we get stories set in the year 2036? My theory is that next season might toggle between time periods, will be about trying ways to prevent Observergeddon from ever coming to pass.

Your thoughts and theories?

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble star in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama
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