Tragedy roils the Fringe team in a stunning episode about master plans, living in the moment, and... time travel?

By Jeff Jensen
October 27, 2012 at 07:05 PM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S5 E4
Show DetailsAbout Fringe
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“The Bullet That Saved The World” spoke to those who grieve the Fringe that used to be, the fans that miss watching Olivia and Walter and Peter investigate freak-of-the-week cases at the behest of their boss, Phillip Broyles; the ones unsure that a heavily serialized crypto-thriller set within the bleak future seen in “Letters of Transit” is truly the best story Fringe could tell with its finale season. And yet, “Letters of Transit” was the story that earned Fringe one more (half) season, that has allowed the characters we love to live for 13 more episodes, that has given them and us a shot at satisfying closure. It was the bullet the saved Fringe. Such was the subtext that I saw in “The Bullet That Saved The World.” Everything else I saw was simply riveting. It was an armor-piercing round of emotional storytelling, a heartbreaker. I am shaken, and I am stirred, and I can’t wait for next week, because I now feel more deeply invested in the season, thanks to a well-executed sucker-punch of tragedy. Rest in peace, Etta Bishop. Your surprisingly moving sacrifice was not in vain, for it was exactly what the swan song season of Fringe needed.

Also, I’m pretty sure this episode wanted to convince us that we’re headed toward a time travel twist and a clever variation on Bootstrap Paradox shenanigans. More on this as we go.

The opening sequence has its own subliminal messages — about the risky nature of serialized yarnspinning; about the risk we take as viewers when we choose to follow such serials, filled with nervous faith/anxious hope that all the mystery pellets will add up, that the story won’t get lost, that the storytellers will bring it all home, so to speak. We began with Peter Bishop in downtown dystopia (i.e., Boston) in the dead of the night, alone and searching. The why and what-for was not immediately explained, and the lack of context lent the sequence an eeriness that was compelling. We didn’t know what was happening, or where we were going (and it was cool!), although we all probably trusted that eventually, Fringe would tell us what we needed to know. And it did! Peter, we would eventually learn, was looking to score gas for a vehicle that had run out of it. He found a derelict car and siphoned the tank. Then he spotted a storefront – the Thrifty Lion memorabilia/junk shop. He saw a cymbal-clanging monkey doing its thing next to an old camera. The toy made him smile, and reminded him of something– a present — he wanted to get for his daughter. Peter entered..

And before I tell you what happened next, let me first tell you that after I watched the episode, I did a Google search for “Thrifty Lion” and the first thing that came up was the Facebook page for a real-world Thrifty Lion resale store located in Hickory, North Carolina, run by… the Parent Teacher Association of Longview Elementary. With that in mind….

Peter the Parent entered the Thrifty Lion, and the first thing that caught his eye was a throw pillow embroidered with those famous words of wisdom about the folly of those who aspire to long-view master plans, given to us by that great teacher, Hickory Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh tell him your plans.” If true, then I suspect TV showrunners constantly keep the good lord in stitches…

Peter’s bemused interest in the pillow drew the interest of the Thrifty Lion’s proprietor. More wink-wink: “It’s been here for awhile,” he said. “I guess it hits a little close to home.” Peter then admired a relic from his ‘80s childhood – Milton Bradley’s high tech version of “Simon says,” called Simon, an electronic game of observation and memory skill. The slogan: Simon’s a computer. Simon has a brain. You either do what Simon says or else go down the drain. So cold. So emotionless. So oppressively, intimidatingly ominous. Why, Simon almost sounds almost like…

“This is what you were looking for,” said an Observer, materializing behind Peter. In his hands, the fedora’d fascist held a necklace chain. Yes, it was exactly what Peter was shopping for – a replacement for the silver he took from Etta two episodes ago, to make the laser that the team needed to melt the amber in the Harvard lab. The Observer knew this because he was telepathic, and so Peter tried to build a mental firewall, comprised of thoughts of baseball, so the Observer couldn’t probe more deeply and excavate the secrets in his head. But the Observer sensed that Peter was trying to block and baffle him. Peter tried to beat a hasty retreat by paying for the necklace with a greenback – so rare, it was something of a priceless antique, and worth more than the chain – but the Observer wasn’t going to let him go. On the street, the Observer commanded Loyalist soldiers to detain Peter, who responded by decking the bald baddie and sprinting away. He sought refuge by pulling a Harry Lime and descending into the drain pipes. You either do what Simon says or else go down the drain.

Peter cocked his gun and prepared for a fight. But The Loyalists had no intention of dropping into the underworld of Boston to hunt him. One of them was scared. The other one complained that the last time he went down the proverbial rabbit hole, he got bit by a rat. Instead, they dropped a grenade, which landed right at Peter’s feet. He ran. BOOM. There was a blinding flash of light, and Peter jumped, screaming “NOOOOOOO!” And we cut to the credits…

NEXT: And then Peter died, and everyone went to Heaven. The End.

But Peter had survived. Impossibly. Did he leap out of the storm drain? Was he knocked out and washed out? Did some kind of magic or science indistinguishable from magic save him? Is Peter dead and he’s now a ghost that everyone can see? Or was his soul uploaded into an ethereal simulacrum of the world he knew — a sideways world, so to speak? Oh, okay: Enough. Peter survived. He blinked awake. And he saw a dead-end kid garbed in street urchin rags looming above him, playing a mournful tune on a harmonica – another moment of effectively affecting disquiet in an episode with many such moments. “You’re bleeding,” said the boy with flat, master-of-the-obvious tact, and then this dirty-faced angel shuffled along, blowing his mouth harp. (Didn’t that boy look like Peter? Ah, geeze. He is dead, isn’t he?)

Peter returned to the lab at “Formerly Harvard University,” where the Fringe Freedom Fighters remain ensconced right underneath The Observers’ noses, burning old Betamax tapes out of the amber. (“Come to mama,” said Astrid, extracting Cassette Number Two in The Time-Life Master Plan Series.) Peter chronicled his encounter with The Observer, and how The Observer had scanned his mind and saw a fragment of the memory – the sunny idyll in the park with Olivia and young Etta, just before The Observers invaded. We remember that Captain Windmark unraveled Walter’s mind by latching onto a treasured memory of Etta. The love the Bishops have for each other gives them purpose and hope; hence, they can’t help but keep their happiest memories top of mind. Yet those same memories make them so vulnerable to psychic predators like The Observers. Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness, and they have so much to lose – specifically, the future of mankind.

“I don’t know how we’re going to beat them,” said Peter, surrendering, for a moment, to true despair, so much so that Olivia looked frightened. Etta tried to bolster his spirit. She knew how to block The Observers by creating “a labyrinth of planned thoughts.”  Can she teach the others? “I plan on it,” she said, using the episode’s most loaded word. (At that moment, in Heaven, God slapped a knee.)  Peter gave Etta the present he had procured at the Thrifty Lion – the chain. She was deeply moved by the gesture, especially since it nearly killed him. (OR DID IT?!) “Worth every bump and bruise,” said the father to the daughter. She reminded him of the expression “no good deed goes unpunished,” and he agreed that the affair of the necklace was truly “living proof.” Lots of irony there in retrospect, as Etta herself would prove the maxim herself in the adventure to come.

But more about the necklace later. Let’s go to the (latest) videotape! The team watched Throwback Walter explain that before they went hunting for the next component needed to build The Thing That Will Allegedly Save The World, they first had to wrap their minds around some trippy physics: “You must accept the reversibility of all phenomenon. Particles can have their speeds reversed [GarbleGarbledamaged-tapeGarble].” To me, it sounded like a fancy way of saying: Anything can be changed. Even history. Ergo: Master Plan = Time Machine!

Throwback Walter showed them a large sheet of paper filled with equations. “These are the plans that we must follow to the letter.” He rolled the paper and placed it inside a tube. “I have hidden them as I would my most prized possession. [GarbleGarbledamaged-tapeGarble] Funny story, actually. When I was a boy, my mother would take me on what she called ‘Manhattan mystery tours.’ We would catch the first train that came into the station and we would venture into the city, and then we would get off [GarbleGarbledamaged-tapeGarble]...” (Walter’s reminscience evoked three pop culture references: Manhattan Murder Mystery by Woody Allen, Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which a grieving son goes on a mysterious scavenger hunt in Manhattan planned by his late father that leads him to a family secret.)

The tape then busted, but Present Tense Walter had heard enough. “The subway platform beneath Newark Penn Station!” Why there? “Because as a boy, my most prized possession was my collection of detective comics, and like everyone, I was terrified the pinkos would attack,” said Walter, referring to the Red Scare of the 1950s. “I thought a subway platform would be the safest place to hide them, because it was underground.” Peter, Olivia, Etta and Astrid looked at Walter like he was… well, crazy. Walter, defensively: “I was 10!” [Might there be clues or Easter eggs to be excavated from this story? It’s tricky, given the discrepancy in Fringe lore about Walter’s age. In the pilot, we were told he was born in 1946. However, in the fourth episode of the series, we saw Walter’s father’s tombstone, which showed us that Walter’s dad died in 1944. So maybe not worth going down the creasy research hole… but I can’t resist pointing out that in Detective Comics #234, published in August of 1956 (1946 + 10 years), Batman and Robin were stricken with amnesia as a result of a villain who messed with their minds. Another story in the same comic was called “The Man Who Hid His Powers.” Also: Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a sci-fi movie often interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as a comment on the Red Scare – was released in 1956. The source material, The Body Snatchers, written by Jack Finney, was first serialized in 1954 (1944 +10 years). Finney’s other famous book was an illustrated novel called Time and Again. It was set in New York. It was about time travel. And the lead character was named… Simon.]

By the way: Newark Penn Station? is in New Jersey. So Walter was a… Jersey Shore kid?!

NEXT: Walter Bishop’s Secret Locker of Fringe Cases Past

In order to break into Newark (the first time in history, I think, that anyone has ever wanted to do such a thing), they would need to get past a Loyalist-controlled checkpoint, and to do that, they would need a diversion. Walter had an idea. And so we come to one of the most welcome ret-cons in Fringe history. It seems that there has always been a secret basement beneath the lab, a basement that Walter used as a storage locker for sensitive materials and various specimens collected during the group’s Fringe Division adventures. The frog car from “Night of Desirable Objects.” Brains from “The Box.” The cracked alterna-universe viewscreen from “Peter.” And, of course, The Porcupine Man from “The Transformation.” (Or was it “Nothing As It Seems“?) Walter’s secret stash was a museum — a tribute — to the Fringe That Was. But that time is over, and by the end of the episode, the crypt would be sealed, the lab re-ambered and abandoned. “There was a time when we solved Fringe cases,” Walter declared. “Now it’s time we made a few of our own.”

While Astrid worked to weaponize the InstaSkin toxin from “Ability,” and while Walter and Peter worked to make a rocket-launcher delivery system for the flesh bombs, Olivia and Etta did more virtual recon of the Newark checkpoint. As they did, Etta threaded her most treasured possession onto the replacement chain Peter purchased for her. It was the bullet that had adorned Etta’s old necklace. She had found it inside a matchbox, hidden within Olivia’s old jewelry box, located in the bedroom of their old home on Quincy Street. She went there when she was 13; she wanted to know more about her past, about the parents that were taken away from her. “I figured it had to be important,” Etta said. Indeed it was. It was the bullet that Walter Bishop had shot into Olivia’s super-powered brain in order to stop William Bell’s plot to create his Brave New World. “Your father used to call this ‘the bullet that saved the world,'” Olivia said. She was profoundly moved that Etta had made a memento out of it — and she wanted her to keep it. It was a lovely bonding moment between mother and daughter. It was one of the last they’d ever have.

While the Fringe family prepared for the Jersey assault, one of their distant relatives was helping them from afar, trying to keeping them safe from Observers who were very close to tracking them down. Welcome back Phillip Broyles, not yet seen this season. Captain Windmark — an ace Simon player — summoned The General to the Thrifty Lion and showed him footage of Peter purchasing the necklace. The emotionally-challenged Observer wanted to know why Peter would risk his life for a piece of metal of seemingly little value. “What is its purpose?” asked Observer Number 19. Broyles: “Purpose?!” His withering expression finished his thought. Have you no ‘Ability’ to appreciate ‘Desirable Objects’? Do you not understand the concept of sentimental value? Have you not gleaned that the meaning of this show is all about the transforming power of love? Windmark told Broyles that he believed that Peter and friends were aligned with The Resistance, and that he was certain they we being aided by a mole in Broyles’ department. The suspected turncoat was Loyalist 58693TA, and in a subsequent scene, Broyles watched as another Observer used his psychic powers on the traitor to pry loose a couple big secrets: 1. That the fugitive Fringe team was hiding at Harvard; and 2. The Resistance had another mole, a well-placed deep throat, codenamed “The Dove.” The interrogation sequence was an extremely well-acted piece of work, but it was topped by the follow-up scene between Broyles and the interrogating Observer, who wanted to know what Broyles knew about Peter. What was remarkable about the confrontation was how little was said, and the long gaps of tense silence between the men, and yet we knew exactly what was going on, and we could feel the unseen warfare raging. The Observer trying to hammer into Broyles’ brain; Broyles filling his head with nonsense to cloak the fact that he was indeed The Dove. It was a psychic High Noon, and Broyles was prepared at any moment to draw down and blow the Observer away. He didn’t have to. Broyles escaped with his secret intact. Well done, General. And well done, Lance Reddick and The Actor Who Played That Creepy Observer-Interlocuter. If “The Bullet That Saved The World” accomplished anything, it was imbuing The Observers with the menace they needed to become truly compelling heavies.

NEXT: Exit Etta

The Assault on Newark Penn Station went down like clockwork (who says master plans can’t ever come together?!), even if Walter got electrocuted by an Observer. (Walter — no stranger to getting baked — looked like he enjoyed it. I loved the smoke coming out of his ears.) They found the tube hidden in a wall marked with “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti. They escaped, leaving a trail of skinned-over, suffocating Loyalists. During a respite under a bridge marked with another scrawl of curious graffiti (“MANIFEST DESTINY” — your theories welcome), Walter examined the equations that he himself allegedly scribbled (or transcribed) and announced he didn’t understand them at all. They described science that was beyond his ken… although I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually learned that they’re plain gibberish. There’s fakery happening here, some sort of misdirection. I can smell it! Here’s what I’m thinking: Whatever scheme that Walter and September hatched back in the day, it anticipated Walter getting wiped by Windmark, and it required using Amnesiac Walter and company to sincerely believe in a master plan that doesn’t actually exist — the rocks, the equations, they’re all meaningless — for the purpose of duping The Observers into a course of action that will lead to their destruction… or rather, self-destruction. Yes? No? OR! What do you think of this idea. What if the Walter in the videos isn’t Walter of old, but actually… WALTERNATE! Who is the leader of The Resistance, yes? And he’s… uh… er… somethingsomethingsomething. Yes! I like it. WALTERNATE!!!

From confusion to elation: Etta announced that someone was coming to meet them. Up drove The Dove. Broyles got out of the car, eyes wide with I don’t believe what I’m seeing wonder. He approached Olivia, who approached her old boss, hands clasped to her lips, overcome with emotion. “Phillip,” she said, and they embraced, and wow, I’m actually tearing up writing these words. The scene worked because of the actors, who collectively may have never been better than they were in this episode — but yes, it also traded off our nostalgia for the Fringe that was, and the knowledge that soon, there will be no more.

The reunion was short-lived. The Observers attacked. Broyles left the Bishop quartet with weapons; they entrusted him with the tube of perplexing plans and fled. They sought shelter in an old chemical company warehouse, but Windmark arrived with troops and trapped them inside. We got a cool run-and-gun chase/shoot-out, teleporting Observers popping in and out, the heroes trying their best to mow them down. Their best wasn’t good enough. Walter hid. Olivia and Peter tried to lose the bad guys by leading them on a wild chase that would have doubled back to Etta, then away to safety.

So much for master plans.

As soon as Etta was left alone, Windmark ambushed her and subdued her. He saw the necklace around her neck. The mystery nagged him anew. “He bought this for you,” he said. “For what purpose, I would like to know?” Etta said nothing… but a memory escaped from the labyrinth of thoughts in her mind — the day in the park, the last memory of her mom and dad — and finally, Windmark understood. One word.

“Love.”

Etta reached for the knife she kept hidden in her boot. Windmark took a step back and shot her in the chest. He left her to hunt the other Bishops. Olivia, Peter and Walter head the blast. Olivia knew instantly. “Etta.” They found her alone, bleeding out. She was a goner. Her father shattered. He couldn’t accept it. He had to. Etta activated an anti-matter baton. It was going to incinerate everything and everyone within the warehouse, and if Peter, Olivia and Walter had any chance of escaping, they’d have to leave her behind. Olivia grabbed Etta by the face and stared into her soul with those green eyes. “Etta: I love you so much.” It was what Olivia wished she could have said when Etta was taken from her decades earlier; it was what Etta needed to hear now, as life was leaving her. She would die knowing she was loved. I found all of this really affecting (again: great acting), despite the fact that I didn’t feel particularly close to Etta… which meant that to some degree, I could relate to the Bishops. She was their daughter; they saw, recognize familial connection. But feeling it has been another matter altogether. They hardly knew the woman their girl had become. Peter tried to connect. It was harder for Olivia. It made for very complex poignancy, which I found interesting. Bottom line: I care about the Peter, Olivia and Walter, so I care about what they care about. They were devastated; so was I.

Did Etta anticipate that Windmark’s next move? I’d like to think she did. The Parable of The Bullet had taught Windmark that the Bishops were bonded by love; ergo, they would not leave her behind. He returned to Etta with all his troops — and they all saw the bomb.

BOOM.

Windmark teleported, escaped. The other didn’t.

And so it went that a bullet — or perhaps a pair of them — had saved the Bishops once again.

From a safe distance, Peter, Olivia and Walter watched the warehouse evaporate and take Etta with it. There was nothing more to be done. And they needed to move, and move on. Olivia, so strong, forced herself to turn and walk away. But Peter could not. Not yet. Etta was the embodiment of everything his world once was, and everything he hoped it could be again. “We need to leave,” Water said. “It’s gone, son. It’s gone.”

Time for tissues — and for you. See you next week.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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