Fringe recap: Touching The Lizard
Major revelations, a heroic death and the return of an old friend launch 'Fringe' toward its final act
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The titular aberration of “Anomaly XB-6783746” was The Observer Child, aka Michael, one step if not one giant leap beyond (or below, depending on the point of view) your garden-variety lizard-brained bald-headed uber-man from the future. Captain Windmark briefed us on some (but not all) of the feral lad’s cryptic 26th century backstory. “You are mistaken about him: He is no child,” the bald brute told Nina Sharp. “He is a chromosomal mistake. A genetic anomaly. Designate progeny XB-6783746. Like all anomalies, he was scheduled to be destroyed. But. He went missing. It was a great mystery in my time. No one knew what became of him. Until now. I would very much like to meet him.” He did not explain why. Nor did he explain how Young Master XB-6783746 found his way into the past, or why he doesn’t age (or ages so slowly), or what exactly made him a mistake of… nature? Genetic engineering? Methinks an origin story episode – or at least a meaty flashback – would be cool to see, but there may not be time for it. I don’t think there is. Only three hours of Fringe remain, and so much more needs to be said and done before the show drifts away like Etta’s dandelion. Cue tears.
Michael was a riddle to the heroes of Fringe, too. They desperately wanted to know the finely freckled urchin’s significance to Walter’s master plan to defeat the Observers. But the boy wouldn’t talk. Literally. He was mute. Perhaps willfully. Perhaps not. Enticements of licorice couldn’t loosen his tongue. The previous form of communication – Remedial Writing With Olivia (soon to be a spin-off series on PBS Kids) — no longer worked. The problem he presented frustrated Walter more than anyone else, and the agitation further flushed out the hubris-challenged, emotionally deficient “old Walter” lurking like a cranky Komodo in the crags of Bishop’s cracked and rocky brain. The schizoid scientist proposed extreme, even ruthless measures to break into Michael’s egg. How about putting him in a coma like they did with September last season? “We’re not putting him in a coma,” said Olivia. Then how about putting an electromagnetic probe into the base of his skull and pumping him full of serotonin and LSD? “Walter!” said an exasperated Astrid. “He is just a child.” Here, Walter nearly exploded, and expressed himself with a choice of words that echoed the season’s uber-villain: “He is NOT ‘just a child!’ He’s more than a child. He’s an integral part of my plan!”
As the story unfolded, we were left to wonder if what made Michael “special” was the same quality that made him a “mistake” in the eyes of the Observers. Early in the episode, Olivia reminded Peter that the boy was – or used to be – an empath. He communicated through feeling. Emotion: The aspect of humanity that the Observers consider weakness; the aspect that Olivia, just a couple episode ago, identified as our heroes’ key strength. It seemed to Olivia that Michael had lost that ability… although in time, she realized (I think) that she was looking at the predicament the wrong way. He hadn’t regressed. He had progressed. To be plain about it: I think Michael had evolved since he last shared an adventure with the team, into a next gen human being that surpassed both 21st century homo sapien and 26th century super-lizard. In the Darwinism according to Fringe, we will all one day mutate into… extrasensory psychotherapists.
Still: How to talk, how to connect with this space oddity, this star child? Fortunately, Nina Sharp had an idea. The Ministry of Science double-agent had built an underground “black lab.” There, the Resistance experimented on Observers, for the purpose of developing technology and techniques that could help the rebels shield their thoughts from the telepathic tyrants. (This black lab immediately captivated me. All things considered, it would have made more sense if the team had used it as their HQ this season instead of Walter’s Harvard workshop… but I’m glad they didn’t. I know many have complained about the implausibility of our heroes living and working under the Observers noses. But Fringe without Walter’s lab wouldn’t be Fringe at all. And this season has been anomalous enough.) They hooked Michael to an “electro cognitive translator” that would project his thoughts on a screen. But Nina quickly gleaned that Michael’s mind was too sophisticated for the software to interpret. “Something has fundamentally changed with ‘the subject,’” mused Walter, whose chronic inability to call Michael by his name was used as a proof that Bishop was losing touch with his humanity. Nina proposed a solution: “We’ve been trying to get into his mind. Maybe the answer is to let him get into ours.” And so it went that allowing closed-off people to be touched by the Other — even our enemies — would define the heroism for the episode.
NEXT: The Lizard King learns the meaning of sacrifice
To do that, the team needed another “E-Cog” device. To get one, the team needed to infiltrate a Ministry of Science facility. No problem… except when Olivia, Peter and Walter got there, and found the correctly numbered box in a storeroom full of numbered boxes (numbers vs names = illustration of episode’s impersonal vs. personal themes), they discovered that Captain Windmark was in the very next room, interrogating Nina’s associates, trying to ascertain her location, as he had finally figured out that she was in league with The Resistance. (I loved the moment earlier in the episode, when the Observers used that piece of tech to recover sound waves trapped – recorded — in the glass of Nina’s office.) Olivia realized they needed to stop Windmark from psycho-torturing Mr. Hastings – sorry: Doctor Hastings – before the Walter Bishop fanboy spilled his guts. He didn’t need to: Nina gave away her location by making an ill-timed, ill-considered call to Olivia, and the Loyalists tracked the signal. Before they could be stopped, Windmark and his associates BAMFED! away to the black lab.
The subsequent scene between Captain Windmark and Nina was remarkable in the moment, but suffers in retrospect, for reasons I’ll get to in the moment. The deceased lab rat Observers in the oversized tubes outraged Windmark. “Animals!” Worse, Anomaly XB-6783746 was apparently no longer on the premises, and Nina wasn’t talking. She also wasn’t about to let Windmark rape her brain, although she knew it was only a matter of time before he broke through the defenses that her ethically dubious research had acquired. Before Nina executed a final solution, Fringe gave her a juicy soliloquy. “Do you know why you tilt our head in that way? It’s an involuntary reflex in your physiology. It changes the angle in which sound waves hit the eardrum, allowing you more stimuli. Like a lizard.” (Cut to: The most lizardy-looking actor Fringe cold have plucked from central casting to play an Observer, turning his head like a gecko.) “I studied them, too. Intriguing characters. Their brains have evolved over 320 million years. Yet for all their evolution, they form no bonds. Love does not exist for them. They are incapable of dreaming. Of contemplating beauty. Of knowing something greater than themselves. Not unlike your kind. The experiments we conducted right here in this lab yielded a surprising result. Because for all your years of evolution, you inadvertently redeveloped and honed primitive instincts that we moved beyond long ago. So in reality? You’re the animal.”
Then, before a most unpleased Captain Windmark could shred her mind, Nina Sharp bid adieu from the Fringe narrative for good by grabbing a Loyalist’s gun and blowing her brains out.
It was a stunning and sadly heroic exit, and I’m still sussing out how I feel about it. Nina’s presence has been so spotty and so odd over the past couple years – the reboot season ret-con that morphed William Bell’s shady lady aide de camp into Olivia’s mother; her unlikely role as head of the Ministry of Science in the Observer-controlled future – that I don’t know if I’d feel anything if not for the always compelling Blair Brown. So it goes. Adios, Ms. Sharp. Long may your gloved robo-hand wave and silver bangs sway. With the passing of this longtime stalwart character, it truly feels like the endgame of Fringe has officially begun.
What bothered me most about this sequence was learning that Michael had been there the whole time, hiding under the corpse of a lab rat Observer. Did the kid use superior psychic abilities to block the other Observers from detecting his presence? Oh, probably. I still think it’s ridiculous that they didn’t find him. Just like I think it was ridiculous that Captain Windmark didn’t order this illicit Resistance facility to be locked down, and also left the deceased test subject Observers — plus dead Nina — behind. And so Olivia, Peter and Walter returned (why?!), found the boy (convenient!), and saw Nina… which, I admit, was effective and affecting. Michael of all people set the tone by shedding a magnificent tear for the woman who died to keep him safe, and I subsequently wondered if Nina’s heroism inspired Michael to reciprocate by making the brave, relational movement toward Walter – a scary man, in his eyes, a bigot who could barely acknowledge his humanity — in the episode’s final moments. When Peter accessed the security camera footage and the trio realized what Nina had done to protect them, Olivia turned her back on the violence – either because she couldn’t deal, or out of respect, or both, or neither: Not seeing her face made her response all the more poignant. It was a very nice beat in an otherwise buggy scene.
Yet an episode I was ready to deem subpar was single-handedly saved by the very last scene, which brought together the episode’s themes in a subtle yet powerful way. The major revelation wasn’t so shocking – I think we’ve seen this coming for awhile – but what elevated the sequence was the way it was done, the trippy-poetic visual storytelling, and the implications, I think, for what Walter’s master plan might really be all about. It began in the lab, with Walter and Michael putting on their E-Cogs, about to execute Nina’s communication plan. Their heads looked like they were lit with Pentecostal flame. (Pentecost: the event that occurred Christ’s death, when the apostles received the Holy Spirit, in the form of “tongues of fire” on their forehead, which allowed them to speak and understand foreign language.) Walter established contact. He verbally asked Michael if he remembered meeting him and Donald, and Michael, in Walter’s head, responded in the affirmative. And then, the big question: “Do you know why I needed you for my plan?”
NEXT: Who’s Donald? Now we know!
Before we go further, I would like to remind you anew of my theory about the master plan, that it has nothing to do with the objects but the personal change produced by the shared experience of acquiring the objects. Many of these changes have occurred right when the characters have needed them the most. For example: Olivia’s jaunt to the scrap yard to acquire the truck and the electromagnet produced a clarifying moment that seemed to help her emotionally connect with Peter during his Observer daze and inspire him to give up the corrupting Observer tech in his head lest he go full lizard. Now, in this episode, we had Walter, struggling with an analogous crisis: He was losing his mind and his humanity, regressing to his own version of a super-powered lizard-brain monster, “old Walter.” What’s his fix? I submit that the fix was Michael.
“Do you know why I needed you for my plan? Can you tell me why you’re important?”
In response, Michael stood up and took off the E-Cog. He walked over to Walter and touched him on the cheek. He had done the same thing to Nina, too, during a moment alone in the black lab, and she responded to it was if she had been struck by a heavenly lightening bolt, and we were led to believe the experience made a difference, i.e. prepared her in some way for her heroic showdown with evil. We didn’t go inside Nina’s head, and so we weren’t allowed to see what Nina saw…
But we did get to witness the mental event Michael triggered for Walter. We saw a burst of light in the darkness, like a star exploding into being. We saw flashes of Walter’s painful “Peter” drama: His son getting sick, dying; the tragedy of trying to save “over there” Peter from the same illness, but failing; sorrow. Then we saw that same exploding star effect – except it was fading, like the closing of an eye…
Then we saw flashes from the episode “Inner Child,” when the Fringe team found Michael. We heard September telling them, “The boy is important. He has to live.” We then saw flashes of Olivia pulling Walter out of the asylum – his recruitment to Fringe division. But it wasn’t Rebootlandia Walter’s memory of the event – it was Original Recipe Walter’s memory of the event, for the memory (from the pilot episode) included his reunion with Peter after years of estrangement. Initially, I wondered if this was a continuity error. But in the very next flash, we saw a moment from last season that occurred right after Peter’s reintroduction into the timeline, when Walter spurned the son that should not exist. Question: Was Michael restoring Walter’s pre-reboot memory? The episode didn’t give us confirmation – but I’m thinking that he was.
We saw other flashes: Peter and Walter saving September; William Bell performing Walter’s cut-my-bad-parts-out lobotomy; Walter begging 2036 to remove those same parts anew; Walter getting a kiss from Etta; Walter watching Etta die; Walter weeping.
Michael was making Walter relive the most painful moments of his life, as well as the bonds he had formed, too. In short: all the stuff that makes humans — even Walter — different (and better!) than lizards. And I think Michael was trying to teach him anew how important these moments were – are — to the ongoing redemption project of his life… and to the redemption projects of others, as well.
And so the final flash of memory. An ordinary man, in an ordinary house, rocking a blue sweater and a head of hair. We took Walter’s point of view as he reached out and touched the man on the shoulder. The man turned to camera, and we saw a familiar face, albeit presented in a way we had never seen before. It was September. And he smiled.
Back in the lab, Michael removed his from Walter’s face. Walter offered a hint of a smile – an expression which, to me, said “thank you” to the child. Peter asked, “What happened?” Walter responded with the episode’s slyest yet most meaningful ironies. “I know who Donald is,” he said. “Donald is September.” No, this revelation wasn’t an OMG! epiphany. But the significance transcended mythology/plot. Remember that throughout the episode, Walter’s plight – his escalating dehumanization; his increasingly paralysis of empathy – was symbolized by his inability to refer to Michael by his name. To him, the boy was just “The Subject.” Now, here at the end, I think Walter was signaling that an important shift had occurred within him: By putting a name to the most depersonalized, objectified character in the show – for years, September was not just an Observer, he was The Observer – Walter effectively recognizing and affirming the humanity of the Observers – i.e., The Enemy – and in the process, regaining and reclaiming his own humanity, i.e. conquering his internal crisis. Hence, Michael’s significance to the master plan. His purpose was to reboot Walter, in more ways than one, and more, show Walter that Nina was wrong: The Observers aren’t “animals.” They are simply human beings who’ve lost their way – human beings have the potential to be so much more than what they’ve chosen to be.
At least that’s how I read the moment. I also think I gleaned something else: The true nature of Walter’s master plan. The memory of Donald did not specify a date. Were we seeing Donald as he used to be, before he became September the Observer? I say: No. I say this was post-September Donald. I say this was Donald after being “cured” – most likely by Walter – of his Observer affliction. I say this was The Observer, rehumanized.
And so we come the truth of Walter’s master plan to “defeat” the Observers — a plan, remember, he hatched with Donald.
They don’t want to banish them or destroy the Observers.
They want to save them.
Merry Christmas, my friends. See you next month for The End.
Note: This post will be updated throughout the day to fix grammar, spelling, and the usual oversights.