'Fringe' sets up its series finale with the promise (or threat) of death, time travel and another reboot in 'The Boy Must Live'

By Jeff Jensen
January 12, 2013 at 03:34 PM EST
Fox
S5 E11
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  • TV Show
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“The Boy Must Live” began on an odd dramatic note that made more sense and became more poignant only in retrospect. We found Peter Bishop working off some insomnia in the Harvard lab by burning another tape out of amber. (I dug his Dr. Horrible goggles.) Suddenly his Spidey sense tingled. He wheeled around, gun drawn. It was just headlights outside the window, a patrolling Loyalist. The car passed. (Oblivious as ever, these Vichy keystone cops!) Peter resumed his labor until he heard the shuffle of footsteps. He wheeled once more, ready to shoot. There was a figure in the shadows. My mind generated suspects — September? An Observer? William Bell? – but Peter immediately recognized his father’s distinctive silhouette. Suspense quickly gave way to relief, and then the business of the plot, but the ominous entry into the scene and Walter’s weirdly serene vibe created an unsettling tone that charged the entire story that followed. Something was up with Walter. He was lighter and more whole than he had ever been, yet touched by wistful melancholy, if not so. We would soon learn that Michael the Observer child’s touch in the previous episode had restored most of his pre-reboot memories. But that same magic had helped him remember something else, too, something about his master plan: In order to save the world from the Observers, he had to die.

Commence stocking up on tissue for next week’s series finale now. I’ll pick you up a box while you continue reading.

Michael’s psychic intervention had not restored every byte of Walter’s burned-out memory. He was still fuzzy on some things, like where exactly mystery man Donald – i.e., domesticated September with hair! – could be found. Hence, why Walter was up and about in the middle of the night like his son: An idea had roused him to action. “It involves The Tank,” said Walter with an implied wink. And so, once more, and most likely for the last time, we went into Walter’s sensory deprivation chamber, one of the show’s signature elements. [The second I saw it, I was reminded of the self-aware opening bit of last Thursday’s 30 Rock (“That’s a series wrap on Dr. Spaceman!”), another show in swan song season, making sure it hit all the fan favorite people and places one last time before the final bow.] He went for a trippy altered states float – sans underwear – and took a VR tour of his fuzzy recollection of meeting with Donald 21 years earlier. By playing psychic CSI, our heroes determined September lived in a Brooklyn apartment (such a hipster) under the Williamsburg Bridge with a pretty sweet view of Manhattan. Or he used to. Was he still alive? Did he still live there? Walter seemed confident. “I’m optimistic,” he declared radiantly while chomping on a licorice stick.

To Brooklyn, then, where Walter, Peter, and Olivia (and The Boy) searched the neighborhoods looking for Donald’s pad. The younger Bishop managed to slow his dad down for a few minutes to have a lengthy chat about the elder Bishop’s weirdly upbeat yet composed disposition – a far cry from the volatile grump of recent episodes. Walter revealed that The Observer Child had fixed his broken noggin. The lobotomy he wanted to reverse his “Letters of Transit” brain graft? No longer necessary. He oozed new humility and a healthy sense of hubris, and he felt liberated. “All once I realized that everything I had ever known or thought I knew as ‘a great man’ could fit into a thimble!” he said, eyes twinkling. Walter also confirmed what many of you suspected after the last episode: The Boy had reconnected Walter to his pre-reboot memory. He had a peculiar, ironic relationship to these experiences, as Reboot Walter hadn’t really experienced them at all. But it felt like he did.

“I remember when you first came to me at St. Claire’s, my first words were: ‘I thought you would be fatter,’” recalled Walter. “I remember when I was up late, making a peanut butter sandwich, you slipped and called me dad. The feeling of joy that game me! And the terror before you stepped into the machine! And I told you I had never been good at letting you go, and you said –”

“This time, you’re gonna have to,” said Peter, clearly moved. Walter! My Original Recipe Dad! He’s back!

But Peter also tweaked with questions. Who or what was The Observer Child? Why did The Boy do this to Walter? For what purpose? And why not also restore the memory of the master plan along with everything else? “I don’t know,” said Walter, who actually knew a teeny bit more of said plan than he was telling, as we would soon learn. What was more important was that he tell Peter something that had to be said before it was too late, the kind of thing people say to those closest to them when they worry that their remaining days might be few and dwindling. “Peter, before I met [The Boy], I didn’t think it was possible to love you more. But now, knowing what we’ve been through, and everything we’ve had, I do.” Peter melted, and the Bishop boys embraced. “You never liked public displays of affection,” said Walter. “Or going Number 2 in a public restroom. I remember that, too.” It was a very touching scene, although the staging distracted me: All of this took place outside, on a city street. The Snarky Nitpicker in my head kept saying, “Talk about awkward inappropriate PDA: Remember the part of the story where you’re all wanted fugitives?! Get a room, already, before you get caught!” But then the sensitive part of me who appreciates emotionally resonant, well-acted drama teamed up with the forgiving and wise parts of me who understand that shows on a budget can only afford so many set ups, and together they beat up the Snarky Nitpicker in my head, then doused him with gasoline, set him on fire, and pissed on his ashes. (I know! So violent! Someone should really call the police.)

Anyway. What were we doing again? Oh, yes, recapping…

NEXT: The Origin of the Observer Species

Our heroes found Donald’s building, and they found Donald’s apartment, and they found Donald. The man they once knew as September looked a little older and more haggard than the blissful homebody seen in Walter’s 21-year-old memory. Had he been waiting for them all the time? Had he spent years holed up in this location, waiting for this very moment to occur, per the demands of the master plan, and per knowledge of what needed to happen, knowledge acquired through years of time travel and parallel world exploration? If so, he acted otherwise. Walter! Peter! Olivia! What a complete and total surprise! And you brought The Observer Child, too! Wonderful!

Indeed, the second Donald saw the lad, he only had eyes for him. He kneeled, raised his hand, and they communed withs touched palms, cocked heads and lizard blinks. They were kindred: The Boy, we learned, had been engineered from September’s genetic material. Did you wonder if The Boy’s touch did something to Donald? Like, say, unlock some memories in his brain that Donald had hidden away for the sake of protecting the plan?

Donald’s apartment was furnished with a large piano and photos of mid-century photographs, including “V-J Day In Times Square” (aka sailor kissing the nurse). Also conspicuous: A Bible. Had The Observer found religion during his Brooklyn wilderness exile? Donald had a little music box which he kept hidden in an old fashioned cigarette box. It  played a tune originally known as “Greensleeves,” but perhaps more recognizable in modern times as“What Child Is This?”, the Christmas carol about the mystery of the Christ child. The Boy was enthralled by the music, and was one of two moments in the episodes in which we were shown how music has a unique, infectious affect on the Observers. Theory! In the series finale, Walter will invent a sonic-based device that rewires the Observers’ brains — for the better. (Other theories: “What Child Is This?” foreshadowed The Boy’s future as (self-sacrificing) salvation hero. Or: The “Greensleeves” to “What Child Is This?” transformation — a new song imprinted on another, older one — is a metaphor for timeline reboot.)

In the epic catch-up that followed, September-Donald revealed the true origin of his kin, and explained how he went from a bald headed quantum leaping surveyor of the multiverse to a middle-aged Ewan McGregor living alone and lonely in Brooklyn, with his scripture and music and vintage photos — expressions of a soul, creativity, passions, and other qualities that Observerkind would consider superfluous and unessential to optimum logical living. He said that on Feb. 20, 2167, a scientist in Norway found a way to expand the potential for human intelligence by rewiring the part of the brain that dealt with jealousy. Soon, mankind was machining out all emotions, and voila!  A new race of aggressively efficient hairless humans with flukeworm palor was born. Or rather, manufactured, in high tech Build-A-Baldie labs, as love and lust has been purged from humanity’s make-up, thus squelching the desire for sex, and necessitating new means for procreation. (Unspoken in the origin story: The sexism/misogyny of Observer World Order. Now we know why there are no female Observers: The Sexless Eggheads who rule the future just don’t make them. By choice.) September had become enamored with the 20th century, and more, oddly interested and deeply invested in the lives of Walter and company. Something about these people, something about their drama, and something about the Walter-Peter relationship stirred something in him — something his customized kind had thought they had deleted like unwanted, obsolete apps. He wanted to create life. He wanted to be a father himself. He wanted a child to love. And so he secretly conspired to make a kid stewed from his own DNA.

But there was a problem. As The Boy began to quick-grow like an albino sea monkey, he began to develop traits that had been deemed undesirable — all the emotional stuff – and his development was halted. Anomaly XB-6783746 was deemed a runty mutant, but he was actually exceptional: He represented a next gen Observer, a fully integrated transhuman who could be both super left brain and super right brain. September didn’t see all of that in The Boy at first, but he knew the kid embodied something significant, and more, he loved him, like a son. And so September pulled a Walter: He abducted The Boy to save him (from certain junking), and hid him away in another time, another place – the past. (“The boy must live,” September told Walter when they first meet, decades earlier, after saving the Bishop boys at Reiden Lake. In what struck me as crafty bit of ret-con storytelling, we were told in this episode that the Observer was actually referring to his son, not Peter.)

When 27th century Observerkind decided to invade the 21st century, September was deemed suspicious due to his sympathies for us inferior human folk. As punishment, they removed the quantum powered sparkplug in his brain that gave him his teleportation, time traveling, and data crunching super powers, rendering him… well, much like us. “Truly, it wasn’t much of a punishment. I always held this era in the highest regard,” said September, adding that he took the name Donald as a nod to Donald O’Connor, who starred in the first movie Walter showed him: Singin’ In The Rain. He and Bishop began working on a plan to save the world, as well as the future: They would travel to 22nd century Norway with The Observer Child and ask the geeky boneheads about to brew a Bald New World of sociopathic, hyper-bland, robo-toned albeit retro stylish he-virgins to reconsider their emotions-are-inhibiting-and-icky lunacy by showing them a better way, represented by a better model human, i.e., the anomaly now known as Michael. (Silly Frigid Future Norwegians! If they won’t listen to common sense and can’t be moved by an appeal to basic decency, maybe Walter could thaw them out with an Orgasmatron.) If the plan worked, the Doc Frankenweenies in Oslo would choose a different path for humanity, which in turn would reset history, as the Observers, as we know them, would no longer exist, and therefore no longer invade… you know, that whole headachy Back To The Future/Looper time travel logic thing. But before they could put any plan into motion, Walter went missing (he and Peter and Astrid went to amber, following an altercation with William Bell), Donald was taken into custody, and all seemed lost. Until now.

NEXT: Why what Olivia wants is wrong.

Donald’s chronicle of the plan didn’t add up for me. I don’t mean that as a complaint or criticism. But I am convinced he wasn’t telling us everything he knew. Just one reason for my suspicion: Donald made it sound he wasn’t expecting to ever see Walter and company again. So why did he remove The Boy from safe keeping the pocket universe, place him with the kindly couple on Thimble Island, and instruct them to begin broadcasting signals at a specific point in the future?

A later, private conversation between Donald and Walter as they were collecting items for their time travel device heightened my suspicion. Walter revealed that he could now recall one aspect of the plan: He needed to die in order to make it work. But he couldn’t remember why. Donald filled in one blank. He said the Walter of 21 years ago felt that if self-sacrifice was necessary, Walter should be the one to make it, in order to atone for all the collateral damage he had caused from his well-intentioned but often catastrophic mad science. Donald then told Walter that at one point during their work together 21 years earlier, the elder Bishop began to doubt himself and the plan. At that time, Donald gave him a gift to buck him up, an artifact from the original timeline: The white tulip drawing, which, if you can recall (The Greatest Episode of Fringe Ever!), had been sketched and sent to Walter (anonymously) by a fellow genius (heartbroken, tragedy-rocked time traveler Dr. Alistair Peck), who could not accept the bum hand history had dealt him and risked dehumanization to change it. Original Timeline Walter had received that drawing at a low point in his relationship with Peter, and he interpreted it a symbol of God’s providence and forgiveness.

Now, here in Rebootlandia 2036, Walter told Donald he could very much use that white tulip totem… but he didn’t know where it was, and neither did Donald. My theory? The white tulip drawing is the last item in the scavenger hunt. And when Walter finds it, he’s going to have an epiphany: The plan is all wrong. I think this is why The Boy restored Walter’s memory of the original timeline. It wasn’t just because he wanted Walter to remember he had been loved in advance of his death. It was to prepare Walter to learn for himself the lesson of so many previous episodes of Fringe, from “White Tulip” to “And Those We Left Behind” and “A Short Story About Love.” To quote and paraphrase from another show dear to my heart: Whatever happened, happened. All of this – the experience of five seasons of formative turmoil — matters. Our past is important. We need it to create meaning for the present, to build a better future. We need it so we can give and receive the most powerful things we can give another human being, the things we need as a people to do more than survive, but thrive: Forgiveness, redemption, and love. We shouldn’t try to escape it, change it, destroy it. (Also see: the entire scavenger hunt storyline, a complex metaphor for the interplay between/interdependency of past and present; a storyline in which the lessons learned/changes produced as a result of arduous, often painful experience has been as vital and important than the stuff acquired, if not more so.)

So sorry Olivia: I do not support your hope to resurrect your dead daughter and your dream of recovering dandelion days in the park via the magic bullet of resetting history. After hearing the plan, she so salivated at the prospect of Etta’s return that she had to excuse herself to Donald’s kitchen and gulp down a glass of water. Peter showed more reserve, either because he didn’t want to get his hopes up – or he knew better. We shall see.

Bottom line: Ret-con is a really, really bad idea.

Which, interestingly, was the explicit point of the episode’s other storyline: Captain Windmark’s trip to the 27th century – a perpetually dark retro dystopia – to investigate the origins of the anomaly and to seek permission from his superiors to travel back in time to a point where he could kill our heroes, thus neutralizing them as a threat. The request was denied for a few reasons. First, Windmark was told that The Powers That Be were not prepared to deal with the historical ripple effects (i.e., a timeline reboot) such an action would produce. He clarified that this was exactly why the Observers invaded when they invaded: This point in history offered a 99.999999% chance of success (i.e., colonizing the past without subverting the future). Second, Windmark was told that The Powers That Be simply didn’t view Team Bishop and The Child as meaningful threats, and in fact, they were concerned about Windmark’s fixation with them. “Is there something wrong with you?” asked The Commander. Yes, there was, said Windmark. He was experiencing something he shouldn’t. Emotions. Specifically: Hatred. He wanted to eradicate lowly, beastly humanity from the face of the Earth. His sentiments were truly scary… and yet, I felt badly for him, as Windmark was basically admitting that he was broken. He shouldn’t be feeling anything, because Observers don’t feel.

Now, in my last recap, I theorized that Walter Bishop will save the world from the Observers by saving the Observers themselves. This episode certainly seemed to corroborate that speculation. September’s father yearnings, Windmark’s hate, and the great scene in Donald’s apartment when the Observer tapped his toes to the music on the radio — all of these bits were meant to demonstrate that the Observers aren’t total machine men — that they can be redeemed. (Tangent: The Observer, infected with music, reminded me of this great essay that traces the evolution of music via viral meme theory.) I still like the idea that the road to salvations goes through fixing, not destroying, the Observers… but I really don’t know if I like the idea of accomplishing that fix in such a way that leads to another reboot.

But here’s another idea.

If you were a logic-driven being, and you could see that you weren’t operating properly, what would be the logical thing to do? Maybe turn yourself in for repairs? Perhaps even shut down? And what if you were to conclude that your malfunction was due to a design flaw that affects your entire artificially created species? Would you might consider shutting down the rest of your kind, too?

My alternative theory for how our heroes will defeat the Observers: They won’t. Windmark will.

The episode left us with a couple curious cliffhangers. First, Donald disappeared again. He said he needed to do a couple things on his own. I think of one of those things will be to get one of those Observer brain jacks and Observer-ize himself again. Second, The Observer Child did an unexpected thing: He gave himself up to The Loyalists. Reasons? Unknown. My theory? Our “What child is this?” messiah boy with the purple hoody was putting himself in position to make a heroic act, a sacrifice that will help save the day, affirm the themes of Fringe, and replace Walter in the somebody-must-die requirement of the plan.

In other words: The father must live.

The end is nigh. See you at the apocalypse. The message board, for one more week, is yours.

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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