Liane Hentscher/Fox


S4 E19
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April 21, 2012 at 04:40 PM EDT

“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.

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