The war to rid the world of brutal bald men begins with a major setback for Walter Bishop and friends in 'Transilience...' 

By Jeff Jensen
September 29, 2012 at 03:23 PM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S5 E1
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They saved the multiverse from William Bell’s wannabe god machinations. They took on death – he was erased from history; she got shot in the freakin’ head — and somehow, someway survived.  They pledged their forever love, and rejoiced at the revelation that they would be bringing new life into the world. That’s exactly where we left Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop at the close of season 4, and in the opening moments of season 5, we saw them living the dream of happily ever after…

Until it all came to an end with a jolt that evoked Sarah Connor’s playground apocalypse from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Lyndon B. Johnson’s shameless and shocking “Daisy” campaign commercial from 1964. But instead of bombs, we got Observers.

Peter and Olivia were in a park, watching their daughter Henrietta, age three, picking and plucking dandelions, blowing their ghostly seeds to the wind…

BADDA-BOOM!

A skyscraper in the distance: Vaporized. Wha?!

And then they were there. Materializing out of thin air. Clad in mortician black, descending on the park like a murder of crows, moving with mean purpose toward Etta…

Peter, panicked, rushed to his child –

BADDA-BOOM!

And then he and Olivia, bloodied and concussed, were in a triage tent, doctors working madly to save the injured citizens of a city under siege, and a world invaded by time travelers from a wrecked future, a strange new race of humans with parched skin and psychic powers, bringing death for all who opposed them…

And Henrietta was gone.

Peter woke up. On a couch, in an apartment, in a bombed quarter of New York 2036, 21 years after Observageddon. The prologue was but a dream of a memory of the moment everything went to s–t, a Dandelion Wine reverie spoiled. (Long live the late great Ray Bradbury!) “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11” picked up the thread of story left dangling from “Letters of Transit,” the season 4 left fielder which unexpectedly whiplashed us forward into the near-future and showed us dystopia ruled by The Observers. In “Letters…” last act, Henrietta, now mid-twenties and working for a Fringe division that (reluctantly) served the Bald World Order, found Peter, Walter, Astrid and William Bell sealed within blocks of amber hidden away in some dank Manhattan catacomb. They had been there for over two decades. With the help (and sacrifice) of her colleague Simon Foster (Lost’s Henry Ian Cusick), Etta sprung three of the perfectly preserved four; Bell was left behind, although Walter severed and swiped his frenemy’s hand, because he needed it to gain access to one of Bell’s warehouses. Olivia? MIA. Walter alluded to some nasty business with Bell, that the Massive Dynamic Doc Frankenstein had messed with her in some malevolent fashion. As we left them, Peter was getting reacquainted with daughter Etta (his little girl lost, now old enough, and cute enough, to be an ex-girlfriend), and the freedom fighters riding the rails into the night, toward refuge…

Which turned out to be Etta’s apartment, a pretty decent pad in a pretty dismal quarter of The Big Apple. “Transilience” (a leap between two states) traversed from here, and told a tale of two missions. Part One: Find Olivia. Peter wanted his wife back. Etta wanted the mother-and-child reunion to complete her de-orphaning. Olivia was also essential to Walter’s master plan for overthrowing The Observers – a plan, we learned, that friendly Observer September (fate: unrevealed) had scrambled and locked away inside Walter’s brain, to keep it safe from his brutal mind-reading brethren. In 2015, Walter dispatched Olivia to New York to retrieve a device that would unlock and decrypt the protocol stored in his gray matter – a “transilience thought unifier model-11.” She disappeared. Last known whereabouts: On the outskirts of Central Park, at Columbus Circle. (What had Bell done to her? Not mentioned, not revealed.)

Finding Olivia allowed the story to establish and explore what promises to be the season’s primary setting, Observer-controlled New York. Central Park, now paved over, was the site of the ginormous mill that pumped carbon monoxide into the skies. 21st century air was too oxygen-rich for The Observers, who had evolved within – or rather, adapted to – a far future epoch with a damaged environment. The Observers had pollution factories on every continent, and according to Etta, the deleterious impact on the planetary ecosystem had reduced the average human life span to 45 years. Following a hunch that Olivia had sealed herself in amber but had subsequently been claimed by “amber gypsies,” the heroes next traveled to a black market – a Twilight Zone bazaar of Geisha girls, old toys, crap food, the weird whatnot (so like Comic-Con, in other words) — and met a man with a golden earring who scavenged and sold amberfied people for a living. Peter plied the urban pirate with fresh walnuts — precccccciousssss stuff in this miserable near future (street value: $3000!) – and Golden Earring told them that yep, he had once sold a hot blonde in a leather jacket that was probably Olivia to a guy. Someone that Peter knew…

NEXT: A pint-sized Jabba grieves the loss of a Carbonite prize

Cut to: The apartment of our old friend Edward Markham, the former proprietor of Markham’s Used Books (the only place where one might find Walter Bishop’s one and only stab at writing science fiction, i.e. the ZFT manuscript) and Peter’s go-to guy for intel on the forbidden and esoteric. Markham was watching an old episode of Maverick – “Duel at Sundown,” guest-starring a young Clint Eastwood as “a mean killer” (so sez Wikipedia) – when Peter and company kicked down his door. They found Olivia amid the clutter of books and geeky knickknacks; her amber block served as Markham’s living room table. (Nice.) The Olivia-smitten gnome wasn’t too keen on parting with his carbonite-preserved princess. “I was supposed to be her savior,” he whined. “She was supposed to look over my height issue and realize that I’m really good for her and that I love her…” (Anyone get a good look at the Isaac Asimov books that Walter was admiring? My guess: The “Galactic Empire” novels, Pebble In The Sky in particular.)

As the heroes made plans to ferry ambered Olivia to safety and bust her out: Observer attack. Golden Earring had sold them out. A pair of teleporting baldies led a garrison of loyalist soldiers into Markham’s building. The heroes fought and fled – but Walter got captured. So commenced Part Two: The Rescue. Structuring the episode around urgent missions didn’t allow too much time for people to sit around and talk about their feelings. But there were some well-played pops of poignancy. The Bishop family reunion that followed Olivia’s liberation didn’t involve a lot of words, just a lot of intensely expressed non-verbals. Etta’s wide-eyed awe. Peter’s glassy-eyed relief. Olivia’s wild-eyed WTH?! Olivia was as awkward with her daughter as Peter. Yes, they were her parents. But they had missed 21 years of her life. She was a stranger. A stranger with whom they shared an innate connection – Olivia recognized her immediately – but a stranger, nonetheless. (The Peter/Olivia relationship to Etta – an ironic metaphor for the audience’s complex relationship to season 4 Rebootlandia, so familiar, yet so profoundly “other.” Debate!)

In another quiet moment later in the episode, Peter and Olivia processed their own troubled rapport. After The Observers invaded and Henrietta was taken from them, the couple went their separate ways. Peter wanted to focus on finding, saving their child. (Like father, like son. Think about it.) Olivia – the true superhero of the bunch – wanted to fight The Observers, save the world. Their different, competing activist approaches to a sucky-tragic-victimizing crisis had produced conflict, and I’m not going to judge them or take a side  — although I’m seeing that other recappers are, either blasting Olivia for being a bad mom or Peter for being a bad husband. My only complaints are these: 1. It felt to me like Fringe was making more out of the matter than it should have, trying too hard to make some emotional drama, to give Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson something to play. 2. I struggled with factoring the collapse of their relationship into the historical context of season 5. The Observers invaded in 2015. The Fringe folk ambered up not long after – less than a year later, based on what we were told in “Letters of Transit” and “Transilience.” Or am I mistaken? (Tell me if I am.) The way Peter and Olivia talked, they made it sound like a profoundly painful amount of wounding estrangement had occurred –- maybe too much to be believed, given the brief interval between Observageddon and hard candy hibernation. This is all to say that while I appreciate Fringe’s constant commitment to tending to the internal lives of its characters and the relationships between them, I didn’t totally buy the Olivia/Peter dissonance. Maybe this is moot: Given the gracious way the couple processed the past, perhaps the tension has been resolved. We shall see. [Addition at 4:00 PM Saturday. Allow to me to clarify: I’m NOT saying I don’t buy the idea that grief over a lost child can complicate and subvert a marriage. This happens all the time; I’ve seen it happen. I accept Peter and Olivia would have experienced that drama, that struggle. But I also believe that Peter and Olivia are strong people, and that they are a strong couple. I think they would have weathered the stress — or at the very least, I think the stress wouldn’t have busted up a relationship that sturdy, that battle-tested, in the short, extraordinary time between when Etta disappeared and when they were ambered. I just wish the show had left it at ‘we had different, competing approaches to handling the Etta/Observer thing, we were upset with each over that.’ I buy/bought that.]

NEXT: A big theory about Captain Windmark

To execute Operation: Rescue Walter, the Bishop clan sought help from The Resistance, scruffy underground-dwelling rebels armed with experimental tech, like drugs that could simulate death. (I believe one of these underground freedom fighters referred to a not-seen leader named… “JJ”? Did I hear that right? Theories, anyone?) It was fun to see Father, Mother, and Daughter team up to kick ass and free Grandpa, who took a psychic beating during some intense interrogation scenes with the year’s big bad, Captain Windmark. Walter fought hard to protect The Master Plan from the telepathic rogue. He filled his consciousness with music. It helped him shift his perspective, he said. Gave him hope. Windmark understood the power of this art. It was one reason why The Observers chose to limit humanity’s access to it. Alas, Walter’s classical gas was no match for Windmark’s psi-bullets. The captain managed to break into his brain via a memory that Walter kept top of mind – Little Etta, age three, playing. Windmark pushed further, and had his way…

The Observers now know that Walter and September had been building a machine that could somehow, someway hurt them. I found myself wondering: How much does Windmark really care? He’s a vicious piece of work, for sure, with zero regard for the human animals he must police. I got an Agent Smith-in-The Matrix vibe from him – a bitter zookeeper, imprisoned by his job. How far would he go to be free? What was he really thinking as he was studying the retracted memory of little Etta, not to mention that hologram of Walter’s machine, the exact nature and function of which has not yet been explained to us? You think maybe Windmark was the one who raised Etta after the invasion – that he claimed her as his own child the way Walter kept “over there” Peter for himself? And this machine: What if it doesn’t exterminate The Observers, but does something else, like, say, change history? Maybe banish The Observers to another point in time? Something that somehow produces an outcome that perhaps Windmark and our heroes would both find desirable: To be rid of each other, yet survive? Holy Judas Contract! What about this theory: What if Windmark and adopted daughter Etta are secretly in cahoots? WHAT IF WINDMARK IS REALLY “J.J.” THE UNSEEN RESISTENCE LEADER?!?!?!?!?!!?

Sorry. Got a little crazy there in Theoryville. All to say, if Windmark winds up becoming an ally, you heard it here first.

And if he doesn’t, well, make like Walter and forget everything I said. In the aftermath of the rescue, the team put the transilience thought unifier model-11 on the elder Bishop’s noggin… and it didn’t work. The Master Plan had been erased from his head. So, too, his memory of slicing off Bell’s hand, and who knows what else. A kick in the nuts for our heroes – the first of many, I’m sure, before this is all said and done 12 episodes from now. The episode ended with an echo of the way it began — with a flower. Noticing a shimmer of refracted light on the wall of Etta’s apartment, Bishop tracked the source to the streets outside, and amid the wreckage, he found an attempt at art – a collection of CDs, whole and broken, hung from a frame like ornaments on a tree. He sat in a dead car. He inserted one of the discs – labeled “Trip Mix” — into the stereo. He heard the voice of Alison Moyet, singing “Only You.” He saw a single dandelion, sprouting from a crack in the road. In the ruins, beauty, and better, hope. Walter smiled. Perspective: Shifted. Now: Fight on.

It’s tempting to make some sweeping critical pronouncements — positive or negative — about the story that Fringe has chosen to tell to conclude a great if often frustrating run. I’m going to hold off until we get a few more eps under our belt. That said, I think it’s fair to note the major shift in storytelling structure. For four years, Fringe was basically a detective show — FBI agents investigating mysteries… which just happened to involve parallel worlds, transhuman shape-shifters, and memory-slupring serial killers. The extreme science monsters of Fringe provided a story to tell each week, as well as horror show spectacle, and even better, heart. Because one of the things the Fringe writers have always been able to do well is imbue the inhuman with as much emotional resonance as their human characters. Fringe’s frequently praised depth often came from this parallel thematic relationship between the heroes and the fiends and unfortunates they hunted. This structure, it seems, is gone, and I will miss it. Season 5 wants to be a swift-moving serialized thriller, and I hope it has the weight and power that we’ve come to expect. But this is a different Fringe. A different animal. A different beast. Call it…  Naugahyde Fringe.  “Naugahyde,” as defined by Astrid, is “a very popular premium pleather.” After Astrid dropped that conspicuous bit of business on us, I clicked over to Wikipedia and read the entry on Naugahyde, and I was startled to find something we used to see on Fringe — a monster. When Naugahyde was introduced in the 1960s, the ads featured a friendly-looking beast-creature named Nauga, which became a rather popular pop icon. “Nauga is ugly,” read the copy, “but his vinyl hide is beautiful.” Reports Wikipedia: “The campaign emphasized that, unlike other animals, which must typically be slaughtered to obtain their hides, Naugas can shed their skin without harm to themselves.”

Here’s hoping that Fringe can do the same.

The message board is yours. See you next week.

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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