An outbreak of infuriating little irritants unleashed by an old frenemy make life difficult for Walter and company in 'Brave New World.'

By Jeff Jensen
May 05, 2012 at 03:44 PM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S4 E21
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The fourth season of Fringe comes to an end with a two-part season finale over the course of two weeks entitled “Brave New World.” I was expecting – dreading – the year’s penultimate hour to be a protracted, drama-light wind-up for the second, the clock-killing stall before the game-winning shot at the buzzer. I didn’t want tedious dribbling; I wanted a story that mattered. But part one tried hard to be eventful and interesting. I liked the major sci-fi idea: Spontaneous human combustion, caused by nanotech bugs in the blood stream that ignite via kinetic energy generated by merely walking. (When Walter revealed we were dealing with nanotechnology, my mind hyperlinked to Nina Sharp’s foreshadowy speechifying about the technology way back in “Subject 9.”) The opening sequence – which left a plaza filled with briefcase-toting, coffee-sipping pedestrians smoldering into ashen husks from the inside out or too terrified to move – was creepy-cool. Bonus points for the hilariously cheesy Muzak version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face,” whose title refers not to the concept of a disembodied, omniscient, all-seeing entity but a 1960 French horror flick about a mad scientist who peels off faces from kidnapped girls and tries to affix them to the mug of his disfigured daughter. If only he had access to some of Doc Bishop’s Cortexiphan-juiced regenerative tissue. Speaking of the secret sauce: We saw super-powered Olivia apply her telekinetic abilities in new ways, including one that allowed her to save the life of true love Peter by manipulating his body as if she were playing a X-Box Kinect game. We also witnessed William Bell’s latest return (if you stay with me through the end, I’ll explain why William Bell = Billy Idol), David Robert Jones’s second death, and Astrid’s possible murder.

(Fun Fringe Fact! Fringe division previously investigated an apparent case of SHC in the penultimate episode of season 1 “The Road Not Taken” – a William Bell-heavy outing that imperiled Boston with the threat of incineration, ended with a surprise shooting, and included a conspicuous movie reference that baffled Olivia and paid off richly and ironically in the following episode. Then, it was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which set up Leonard Nimoy’s first appearance in the season 1 finale. Last night, it was Peter’s ‘don’t cross the streams’ allusion to Ghostbusters, which can only mean that next week, Boston will be terrorized by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Now that’s a big Twinkie.)

There was a nice extended cameo by Lost’sRebecca Mader as Jessica, a man-wary divorcee, troubled mother, and brave nanite victim who helped save the day by volunteering to be a guinea pig for a cure. She was also a nurse, and I detected a wink at the real-time viewing audience when she tried to shrug off the terrifying strangeness of her ordeal by saying: “I’m an E.R. nurse. Midnight shifts on Friday, now that’s bizarre.” More meta fun:  Samantha Noble  — the daughter of John Noble — playing the new chief administrator at St. Claire’s Mental Hospital. (Walter: “I must say, you’re much prettier than your predecessor.”) And I loved all things Dr. Bishop. The ramblings about alien invasion. “My hallucinations were rarely biped, and never men.” Ruminating about rhubarb-loving Uncle Heinrich. His surging self-confidence, which completes his season 4 journey from addled and cranky ‘fraidy cat to fearless if frazzled lion, from Harvard shut-in to on-the-go field agent… albeit one who could still use a little help from his friend, Alex. Errr, I mean, Astrid. (The nanotech plot was a metaphor for the anxiety about moving on, moving forward that troubled Walter — and Olivia — in this episode.)  And I was massively entertained by the certifiably nutty lab scenes, be it Walter thundering on about Bell’s deadly “disco ball” satellites or blazing out of the lab like a superhero flying into action Batman after conducting that DNA test using a toaster, lemon cake, and pig brains (which, when cooked at a temperature between 90 and 100 degrees, is capable for activating “a little known side effect of Cortexiphan which is tissue regeneration,” don’t you know). Kudos to Noble for somehow, someway saving those ripe beats from exploding into blazingly ridiculous camp. “Peace out!”

NEXT: That’s what got me hot. Now for what left me bothered…

Yet if you suspected my litany of flattery was leading up to a big old “But…” then you’d be correct. “Brave New World (Part One)” wasn’t a stall, but it managed to make me grumpy in other ways. Look, I don’t mind product placement in Fringe – not if it’s helping keep the show alive — but the bit of business with the nanite-dosed dude buying coffee with his Sprint phone in the first moments of the show was clumsy and intrusive. And to have Walter marvel over the technology (“What will they think of next?”) was absurd. My irritation intensified minutes later when Peter Bishop said something which, by now, Peter Bishop should never say. Told by Broyles that they were dealing with an apparent case of spontaneous combustion, snarky Pete replied: “You know that’s a myth, right?’ Really, Peter? Exactly five weeks ago, YOU FOUGHT A FLYING PORCUPINE MAN. And you’re rolling your eyes at spontaneous human combustion?! Similarly, I couldn’t believe that Walter’s cohorts couldn’t buy his mounting suspicion that Bell must have cheated death. (We learned in Rebootlandia, Belly – suffering from lymphoma – faked a car crash suicide in 2005.) Making it more difficult to accept their incredulity was my knowledge of Bell’s presence in the 2036 future seen in “Letters of Transit” and the drama-sapping awareness that Walter was absolutely correct. But more on this in a minute.

Poor Rebootlandia David Robert Jones. Is his Fringe destiny to be a squandered asset in every timeline? His second departure was more abrupt than his first, and I hated learning that all this time, the glazed faced monster-making fiend has merely been a bagman for Belly. It made a certain amount of sense for Jones 2.0 to parallel the arc of Jones 1.0, who died trying to cross over to his reclusive master hiding out in the “over there” world. But this new Jones deserved to be his own (big bad) man. His dying moan – a reference to Bell’s decades-long chess match with an unnamed opponent — was truly a groaner: “I got it wrong! I was the sacrifice! I was the bishop!”

One last quibble: Yes, Astrid’s shooting was a gasp-worthy shock, yet it was also exactly the kind of cliffhanger ending that I hate because it’s so cheap and manipulative… unless, of course, she dies. Then hey: Balls. But I don’t want Astrid to die. If they kill Astrid… I’ll… I’ll… (shakes fist in impotent rage at the unseen ‘they,’ then skulks away to cool down)

So yeah: Grumblegrumblegrumble. Yet Part One did what it needed to do: It got me amped for next week’s real-deal season finale, and it enhanced the question that captured our imaginations two weeks ago: Are we truly headed toward Observageddon 2015 and Dystopia 2036? Maybe. But maybe not, too. I find myself mulling the whole “butterfly effect” idea that changing just one little detail in the past can have a radical affect on the future. We know that Astrid is part of the “Letters of Transit” world. But what if she dies next week? Could that be enough to subvert Fringelandia’s Big (Bald) Brother destiny?

There’s also the matter of Henrietta, daughter of Olivia and Peter, who needs to be conceived and born ASAP for Fringe to stay on track for “Letters of Transit.” And yet last night, we heard Olivia in the present express doubts about the kind of life she can – or should – build with Peter as they moved forward together. Early in the episode, when she and Peter were scanning the classifieds for apartments, Olivia was electrified by the notion of starting a family with him. (“Nursery?” she inquired about one listing, causing Pete’s face to light up like a Christmas tree.”) But as the story progressed, Olivia began to fret. “One encounter with us, and her child nearly becomes an orphan,” she said, referring to Mader’s character. “We deal with this every day. We’re playing the odds, Peter. What do you our chances really are of having a normal life?” For the record: I think she was expressing cold feet about having kids, not Peter. Could a simple act of family planning save the planet from an invasion by bald sociopathic time travelers?

NEXT: A big theory about the finale.

And then there’s William Bell, the seemingly omniscient, near omnipotent wizard behind the season 4 curtain. We know that he, too, makes it to 2036. Part One didn’t reveal why Bell wanted to infect the world with fire-starting nanobots. We also don’t yet know why Bell had Jones making next-gen shape-shifters, unleashing Olivia’s super powers, seeding the world with beastly mutants, or trying to blow up The Bridge. Hopefully, we’ll get some answers next week. Do you really think Bell is driven by mad, cruel villainy? I don’t. My theory is that he’s driven by mad, cruel heroism. I suspect that everything that William has done has been in service of either averting Observageddon 2015 or laying the groundwork for ridding the world of The Observers in the more distant future. William “Billy Idol” Bell: A savior trying to build a brave new world; a mad scientist trying to put a new face on a disfigured reality; pop icon on a psychedelic trip, writing murder books and trying to keep the world hip. That’s right, readers, say your prayers, because I’m dancing with myself into total self-indulgent theory land. (Note: Recapping has officially ended.)

The key line was Bell’s chessboard soliloquy. “The art of chess – the art – is knowing when a piece is most valuable, and in that moment, being willing to sacrifice it. For in the vacuum created by the loss of what is most precious, opportunity abounds, influence is maximized, and desire becomes destiny. For example, on this board, the most valuable piece is the bishop. Therefore, for the game to be won…” It was Jones who finished the thought: “The bishop must be sacrificed.” He then promptly went about deploying those “disco ball” satellites to begin burning up Boston with refracted, magnified sunlight – just so he could trap Peter Bishop and kill him. (Citywide inferno as smokescreen-misdirection for a simple homicide. That’s one way to do it. Jones was some piece of work, huh?)

But Jones got it wrong. In more ways than one. Which was fine by Bell, because Jones’ misunderstanding (as well as his perverse pathology and sycophantic loyalty) nourished Bell’s master plan. I believe everything that Bell has done – all of his infernal works, all the catastrophes he had wrought, large and small – has been about winding up Walter and giving his old frenemy every reason in the world to kill him. The sacrifice that must be made to save the future isn’t Present Astrid or Future Etta — it’s William Bell himself. And the twist upon the twist will be this: It’s all Walter’s idea.

Or rather, Future Walter’s idea. Remember how “Letters of Transit” ended: With the 2036 Fringe team racing off to build “The Beacon” – a mechanism that could rid the world of The Observers. I suspect The Beacon is a machine that can send psychic messages back in time. Now, remember how when Bell was telling Jones about his mysterious chess match with an unnamed opponent? How no one had made a move in decades? My theory is that,  decades ago, Walter received a telepathic communique from his future self right in the middle of a chess match with Bell. Heck: Maybe Future Walter dumped his entire mind into Past Walter, a la Kitty Pryde in the classic X-Men tale “Days of Future Past.” Regardless, Walter got Chucked with a veritable database filled with bits and bytes about the dark, doomed future that loomed. I think Walter shared that intel with Bell. I think Walter went mad from the future knowledge, and that’s why he had himself partially lobotomized and was admitted into St. Claire’s. And I think that ever since, Bell has been faithfully executing the plan they together or most likely he alone hatched from the data Walter got from 2036 — a plan that must culminate with Bell’s death, by Walter’s hand, here in 2012. Those two events and actions, in tandem, executed right now, will be enough to effective rewrite the future. By the way, per this theory, it’s possible that everything we know about Rebootlandia’s version of Fringe is the product of this noodle-cooking conspiracy between past, present and future to save the world from The Observers – including the death of “over here” Peter and the abduction of “over there” Peter.

Nothing like a frustrating episode to activate the theory brain.

Still don’t want Astrid to die, though.

Some additional thoughts:

+Where exactly was Bell’s HQ? With the nautical map on the wall (which — at first blush — I thought was a drawing of the parallel worlds, side by side), low cabin ceiling, and watery-shimmer coming through the windows, I thought: Boat. Or: Belly’s Ark. Speaking of which…

+Those roaring rhinos. Walter’s search for Bell brought him and Astrid to a warehouse that was once home to an import/export company where Bell used to buy his Chilean almonds. Just as they were about to leave, they heard the roar of… a rhino? That was the working theory. Obviously, Bell was using the place to store the mutant manimals before he sends them out to sea. (Unless he’s brought those monsters back from their oceanic wanderings for some awful purpose.) I’m thinking Bell bought that import/export company to ferry his freaks around the world.

+Requiem for September? Next week must be the episode in which The Observer gets shot. And like you, I’m eager to know more about September’s ominous prophecy about Olivia’s death. Gulp. Will we see that, too? Maybe the sacrifice that needs to be made to save the future… is Olivia?!

Time for me to re-read some Aldous Huxley as prep for next week’s grand finale (that is, right after I skip off to watch The Avengers). The floor is yours for reactions, opinions and theories. Feel free to also share your thoughts with me via 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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