Unrecognized. Forgotten. Outcast. Peter Bishop tries to make sense of an alien world -- and a new form of shape-shifter -- in 'Novation' 

By Jeff Jensen
Updated November 05, 2011 at 05:31 PM EDT
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Fringe Ep405
Credit: Liane Hentscher/Fox
Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)
S4 E5
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  • TV Show
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  • Fox

Fringe returned from a longer-than-planned fall sabbatical last night (thanks to an epic, enjoyable Word Series), and so did Peter Bishop, fully restored to the show’s storytelling following four episodes stranded in the cold margins of reality. It was the same Peter Bishop that we’ve come to know and love during the first three seasons of Fringe — a Peter Bishop who still contained those three seasons of adventures in his head. As such, the prodigal found himself dazed and confused by the reboot history of season 4, populated by new versions of friends and family, loved ones and enemies that are strangers to him, and vise versa, because in this new construction of reality, Peter died when he was a child. “Novation” framed Peter in a provocative way: by labeling him a “paradox” that never should have existed in the version of Fringe we know best (seasons 1-3). Does that mean that the reboot represents “proper” history? Or might this iteration of history be flawed, too? Has Fringe given us “the best of all possible worlds” — or is that world still to come?

The episode may have given us a hint of which direction it’s heading during the closing moments, when an assistant handed a set of blue file folders to Olivia… then did so again a few moments later, as if it was the first time she had done so. It reminded me of the black cat/déjà vu moment in The Matrix. In that film, Morpheus explained that the buggy blip was something that occurred during a system update within the virtual reality prison created by The Machines. A couple recaps ago, we wondered if perhaps the new timeline wasn’t an organic expression of the question “What would happen if Peter never lived?” but a product of design — as if the reboot was a program executed by a computer capable of rendering reality itself. Peter’s inextinguishable existence and Olivia’s blue file/déjà vu moment could be proofs that the software isn’t working like it should, and might be fundamentally corrupt. The charade is starting to shatter…

Regardless, as Peter saw it, something went wrong when he activated Walter’s salvation machine last season. (I don’t want to call it a “doomsday machine” anymore, per Peter’s perspective that it was actually built by Future Walter to save both parallel worlds.) Peter’s new quest: To figure out why no one can remember him; to figure out why he still exists if he’s not supposed to exist. Once a paradox, always paradox. Perhaps that’s his role in the multiverse: To serve as The Variable; the chaos bringer that blows up the set order of things — or rather, the radical that blows up our understanding of what we think is the set order of things, so that we can pursue a better, deeper understanding.

Peter’s re-insertion into the mix promises to make for great drama — provided, I think, that you, dear Fringe fanatic, actually give a damn about this new timeline and these “new” versions of Olivia, Walter, Broyles, Astrid, Nina Sharp, and more. I think the show, at present, wants us to feel conflicted. Do I want to see the old version of Fringe history restored? Do I want this new version of Fringe history to flourish? What do I root for? But the only way that conflict can be interesting and entertaining – regardless of which outcome you want — is that you actually feel something for these new edition characters. Because if you don’t give a crap, it could be a tedious slog toward a conclusion that leaves you pissed. Our message boards desire your thoughts on this matter.

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While “Novation” had us cheering for Peter’s return, it was the anti-Cheers for the man himself: Nobody knew his name, nobody was glad he came. Bewildered and deeply bothered by Peter’s depth of knowledge about Fringe Division, and unwilling to set Peter free until the stranger proved himself trustworthy, Broyles had Bishop incarcerated within Fringe Division’s high tech Batcave somewhere inside the black rock Federal building in downtown Boston. (I missed being in the Harvard lab, and look forward to Peter’s transfer in the episodes to come.)

NEXT: Though I should walk through the uncanny valley of death, I shall fear no shape-shifter

It was left to Walter Bishop – the only man Peter would agree to speak with – to get answers out of him. Walter was wary. Nay: Freaked. Until last episode, Peter was either a visual or auditory hallucination. Now he had flesh. Flesh made out of his DNA! (A 99.999% match.) And he called himself Peter Bishop, to boot. If I was Walter, I’d be numbing myself to sleep with powerful drugs, too. The reunion of the Bishop boys was a great, well acted scene. Walter, unable to even look at Peter; Peter, his face full of warmth and grace for his damaged father. Poignant. I am amazed by how this cast is always able to find the emotion in the material they’re given, no matter how gonzo-heady. They also know how to sell the tricky ideas, and this scene gave us an intriguing, challenging one. As Peter began to realize that the salvation machine had produced a new history in which he never survived his childhood, the unrecognizable forgotten outcast had an epiphany. “I was supposed to die,” he said. “But when I didn’t, I became a paradox for both universes. I had to be deleted.” But Peter’s theory about himself is only correct if you agree that Walter’s salvation machine produced the timeline that was always supposed to exist. Did it?

Peter was ticked about being locked up, and it stung that his father and Olivia, the woman he loved, didn’t remember him. He eventually settled into a wry regard for his surreal situation, though he wasn’t going to sit on his hands and do nothing about it. I liked the beat when the crafty hustler reminded us of his ingenuity by hotwiring the intercom in his holding cell suite so he could eavesdrop on Broyles, Olivia and Lincoln Lee as they discussed the episode’s case of the week: Another outbreak of shape-shifter hostility. Peter began the work of proving himself by sharing what he knew about the shape-shifters; after all, he had accumulated quite a bit of experience with them in the previous timeline. For example, Peter was able to explain the gizmo that Walter found inside the shape-shifter in the season premiere: It was a “memory disc” that held cognitive, biochemical and mission objective data. Nudged by Lincoln, Broyles set Peter to work on decrypting the disc. In the process, Peter made a discovery about these new model mechanical-human hybrids. “These things are able to switch between every single identity they’ve ever taken, not just one,” Peter said. “They replicate their appearance down to molecular level. … They are the perfect infiltrators. They can replace any one of us. Short of doing surgery to find those memory discs, they can be anyone.” I’m wondering if we’re headed toward another Fake Charlie situation, with a shape-shifter infiltrating Fringe Division by assuming the life and role of someone we know.

I like the idea of Peter earning his place in the new world order by leveraging his knowledge of the old world. Peter should also accelerate the rate of disclosures about the differences between the old timeline and the new one. Example: When he mentioned The Observers, Astrid went: “Observers?” In this new history, Fringe Division has not encountered the hot sauce-swilling continuity cops. I also like how Peter represents us, the fan, in the show itself. He embodies our conflicted feelings about the new timeline; he keeps the memory of the old continuity alive.

The shape-shifter drama itself mirrored some of Peter’s ordeal. Nadine Park –- the shape-shifter last seen in the final moments of the premiere — came back and abducted a former Massive Dynamic scientist named Malcolm Truss, who was separated and estranged from his wife and yearned to get his old life back. But Karen had moved on. Even fell in love with another man. (Truss = Not just Peter, but also Walter, the obsessed genius who neglected his family; Truss’ wife = Olivia, who’s moved on from Peter for… Lincoln?) Nadine needed Malcolm’s expertise in cellular replication to fix a flaw in the shape-shifters’ morphing abilities. Long story short (because honestly, I didn’t find the Nadine/Truss drama all that compelling), the dilemma facing the shape-shifters struck me as a metaphor for the problem with the new timeline. “Your genome isn’t fully propagating through the artificial tissue,” Truss told Nadine. Applied to the reboot sitch: The history of the previous timeline didn’t fully propagate into the new reality. Truss survived his ordeal, but learned his dream of reconciliation with his wife and restoration of his old life was impossible: Nadine had murdered Karen (and her new boyfriend) and swiped her identity. Here’s hoping Peter and friends have a happier ending.

NEXT: Some pointed speculation about a woman named Sharp

Truss created a serum that fixed Nadine’s problem, and at episode’s end, she escaped to share the solution with her fellow shape-shifters. She sent a message to someone via a Hermes 3000 magic typewriter. The message she got back: “UNDERSTOOD. BEGIN PREPARATIONS. WE’RE SENDING THE OTHERS.” Presumably, Nadine was communicating with someone in the “over there” world. Do you think it was Walternate, still unseen this season? Or do you think the shape-shifters have gone rogue and are pursuing their own agenda? And was it just me, or did you get the sense that Nadine was doing a Nina Sharp impression? Especially when she told Truss: “Great work requires great sacrifice. Your work created me.” It made me wonder if Nina is the season’s Big Bad. Actually… what if the Ninas of both parallel worlds are in cahoots with each other?

Speaking of Ms. Sharp, we got more revelations about her relationship to Olivia in the new timeline. During a visit to Massive Dynamic, Lincoln saw a photo of young Olivia in Nina’s office. He inquired; Olivia explained. “After our mother died, my sister and I were due to go into the foster system,” she said. “Instead, Nina pulled some strings and we went to live with her.” Lincoln: “So the acting CEO of one of the richest companies in the world was your nanny?” Olivia: “Something like that.” Joshua Jackson addressed this bit of business in our recent interview with him, so SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH. The Nina-Olivia relationship is key to the unfolding mystery of the season, according to Jackson. Is Nina playing a wicked game and using Olivia as a pawn? TBD.

“Novation” left our heroes more estranged from each other than ever. Walter accepted that Peter was some version of his son – but he believed he didn’t deserve a relationship with the boy as punishment for the sins of his past. This was a very clever inversion of their relationship, when Peter was the one keeping Walter at arm’s length, refusing to even call him “father,” effectively punishing Walter for neglecting and damaging the family. Olivia made a move on Lincoln Lee – asked him out “for a bite” – but he turned her down. He could tell she had some Peter issues she needed to work out. Then: The file folder déjà vu. In the words of the chosen one: Whoa. But what did that mean? I’d love to know your theories, and your thoughts on the episode in general. The message board is yours.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv)

Fringe

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