Walter considers a lobotomy, Peter begins losing hair, and Olivia gets really worried about both of them in 'Five-Twenty-Ten'

By Jeff Jensen
November 17, 2012 at 04:48 PM EST
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S5 E7
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“Five-Twenty-Ten” wanted us to believe that Walter Bishop was losing it all over again. Not his mind. His humanity. He saw this awful erosion – felt it – in his impatience with Astrid, in his pitilessness toward Nina Sharp. He feared he was changing back into the arrogant wannabe god who made a mess of two universes with his brand of so-called “heroism.” He felt he was becoming unsafe – to himself, his family, the future. He wanted to believe that his son’s love would be enough to rein him, to save him. Peter Bishop: Walter’s own Personal Jesus. Yet the episode’s adventure – an elaborate allegory for an inward journey toward self-knowledge – tried to teach Walter the lesson that all of us learned from The Lord of the Rings: The Samwise Gamgees in our lives can carry us when we fall, but only so far. In the end, we have to make the choice to battle our Gollums and throw away our corrupting rings ourselves. Did he get the message? TBD. He begged Nina to execute the quickest possible fix: Cut out the Bad Walter brain bits that had been reinserted back in “Letters of Transit.” But by story’s end, the elder Bishop had not yet received this lobotomy. We left Walter sad and sober and laying in the gloom, reflecting on his life as he listened to David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” a song about a man coming face to face with his dark doppelgänger. Good luck with that, sir. Hope you find Nirvana.

But “Five-Twenty-Ten” gave us another pop culture reference that spoke meaningfully to Walter’s plight, and offered, perhaps, the better prescription for it. It came early in the story, when Walter was recalling an incident in which William Bell betrayed him and his cohorts shortly before they went to amber decades earlier. But his memory seemed to go wiggy, and the tale he told morphed into the plot of Marathon Man, which features one of the scariest scenes in cinema: Laurence Olivier torturing Dustin Hoffman with a dentist’s drill, asking repeatedly, “Is it safe?” Marathon Man is about a long-distance runner haunted by the past, who is changed by a painful ordeal into a man capable of righting a very specific wrong. In the process, he finds catharsis for his demons, and acquires the strength to be the person he wants to be as he moves into the future.

My friends, I don’t think this was some funny little Walter brain-fart. I think Walter’s subconscious was trying to tell him something – something about the master plan to defeat The Observers, a master plan that had been stripped out of his brain by his own Olivier-esque torturer; a master plan which I believe isn’t really about acquiring objects but rather acquiring experience, and being changed by the experience, in order to become capable of righting a very specific wrong. I think Walter’s brain was trying to tell him: Run the race, keep the faith, and in the process, you’ll find the relief – and redemption – you seek.

The mission of the episode was another leg in the scavenger hunt designed by Walter 2016. This week’s treasure: Two beacons. Walter 2016 led to the 2036 team to believe that the beacons were hidden inside a safe located within one of Kelvin Genetics’ old storage units. (Hence, why Walter cut off ambered Bell’s hand in “Letters of Transit” – it was the passkey.) The facility was a metaphor for Walter’s scarred mind, beginning with an entrance blocked by rubble. They sought help from Nina (welcome back!), now head honcho at the Ministry of Science, but secretly aligned with The Resistance. She hooked them up with tech that could evaporate the debris. Once inside the repository, and after navigating the accumulation of clutter and resisting a trip into nostalgia or bitterness, Walter focused and found the safe, but he couldn’t remember the combination. He tried various sequences, but nothing worked. He became frustrated, stressed, but Peter calmed him, soothed him, and the numbers came to him. “5-20-10.” This was the combination Walter used back in the episode “Jacksonville” to access his old Kelvin Genetics lab – a mission designed to help Olivia recall important intel from her painful past. Interesting: In that episode, Walter said — conspicuously — that he couldn’t remember the significance of the numbers. Hmmm…

NEXT: Beacons Of Hope

Walter opened the safe, but the beacons weren’t there. Damn you, Belly! You fooled us again! (Or did he?!) Instead, Walter found a photo of Nina. It was a complex symbol. It represented Bell’s love for Nina, and Nina’s love for Bell; but it also represented the limits of that love. Specifically: It wasn’t enough to save William Bell from his own worst self. There was something else inside the lock box: A device that none of them recognized. Peter touched the gadget, stroked it with a thumb – and it activated. The device summoned the beacons, which burrowed up from underneath the floor.

Mission: Accomplished? Once again, the team recovered the treasure they were told to hunt. Once again, the significance of the treasure eluded them. But once again, I say the “treasure” wasn’t the point. The point was the experience itself, and the change that it produced (Walter’s epiphany that Peter alone can’t save him), and the crossroads moment that it facilitated: Walter’s dark night of the soul. We saw him open a cabinet and examine all the objects collected so far. We saw him pick up two things. The first was a symbol of the quick fix: the Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11. This was the thing that was going to unlock the master plan in Walter’s head, tell him what to do, solve all the problems. So much for that. Walter looked at it, and then returned this useless piece of tech to the shelf. The second object that Walter examined was a symbol for himself. It was the transistor radio he recovered last week. This thing also didn’t work. But instead of putting it back, Walter turned it on and placed it on top of the cabinet. He then laid down and listened to Bowie on the record player sing of confronting his shadow self. And Walter did the same. I got the sense of a man who was opening himself up to the possibility – the hope – of revelation, like a transmission from a phantom radio station. Run the race, Walter! Keep the faith! And just say no to that lobotomy! Because that ongoing struggle with your dark part is the whole point! And it’s exactly the fatherly example you need to set for your son…

While Walter Bishop chose the harder, better road toward enlightenment, Peter Bishop continued down the more perilous path he set upon a couple episodes ago – the quick fix of Observer tech augmentation, which has given him extraordinary physical and mental abilities, but at the expense of his humanity. And his hair. A great scene at the beginning of the episode showed us that Peter now processes data so quickly, so thoroughly, that he can anticipate future outcomes in a way that resembles precognition. He leveraged that skill to orchestrate a plot that would put three of Captain Windmark’s top lieutenants in a room together so he could kill them with the flesh-eating bioweapon from the Fringe team’s first case together. The plan didn’t go super-smooth – there were variables that Peter didn’t calculate/foresee, and he kept drifting away from the team (literally and emotionally) to remedy them – but it went smooth enough to strike the violent blow against The Observers that he’s wanted to inflict since Etta’s death.

But Peter wanted more. He wanted Windmark. When Olivia discovered him crunching the data and mapping potential timelines, Peter came clean about everything – how he super-sized himself with Observer tech; his assassination of Windmark’s men; his ambition to kill Windmark. He spilled his beans with the emotionless, detached, near-robotic tone of an Observer. What was chilling about his confession to Olivia was that it really wasn’t a confession at all. Confession implies connection with another human being. Peter was just executing the operation of providing requested facts. Olivia backed out of the room, horrified at the dehumanized superman that had replaced the mere mortal she loved.

In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman’s character, like Peter, was transformed by tragedy into a dark avenger. But he only used violence to defend himself. And in the final confrontation with Olivier’s villain, Hoffman’s hero didn’t have to pull the trigger to get bloody vengeance. He created a crisis that forced the rogue to make a choice, and the choice he made led to his downfall. (I suspect Team Fringe will ultimately defeat The Observers in very similar fashion, most likely at the very same place where Marathon Man staged its climax: Central Park, where The Observers are building their smog factory.) The movie ends with Hoffman throwing away his gun. It was a symbolic act: He did a dark thing to right a wrong, but he didn’t want to become a dark thing in the process.

And so we worry about Peter, and we wonder – and for now, doubt – that he will be able to make the same choice. His only hope is to open his eyes to the parallel story of his father, a story that has been unfolding since the very first episode of Fringe, and is revealing its most important lessons now, right when everyone needs them the most.

A few additional thoughts:

+I liked this episode, but it’s time to activate Olivia. She’s been on the fringe of this season for much too long. I’m sure the show knows this. And I wouldn’t be too surprised if the second half of this season is very much her story.

+The hair clump: Genius.

+Also genius? The moment when Observer-Peter began real-time mirroring-parroting Olivia. It was also a callback to the season 1 episode that introduced the beacon, and the great scene in the graveyard when September mirrored-parroted Peter. Oh, my: What if September has always been Future Observer Peter?

+I think this episode effectively killed the Peter-Olivia romance. Start with the obvious: Peter is no longer Peter. So he’s no longer the man Olivia loved, and no longer the man who loved Olivia. But the Nina/Walter/Phantom Bell storyline was all about critiquing “you complete me”/”I can fix you” relationships. The last time we saw a beacon in an episode of Fringe was the season four outing “A Short Story About Love.” That was the episode in which Olivia allowed her reboot identity to slip away, so she could regain her pre-reboot identity. She made this choice at the expense of her mother-daughter relationship with Reboot Nina, and to recover her pre-reboot romantic relationship with Peter, because she felt she was incomplete without it. It felt romantic, and many fans were deeply moved by Olivia’s choice. I was one of them. But I also know many fans that were disappointed with Olivia (and the writers) and believed the story sent the wrong message, i.e. that Olivia needed a man to be fixed or whole. I wonder if Fringe now agrees with this perspective, or has always agreed with this perspective. This season seems to be about blowing up Olivia-Peter so they can start anew, properly. At the beginning of the season, we learned that Peter and Olivia drifted apart after Etta’s disappearance/abduction. At the time, I didn’t like that idea, because I thought the whole idea of Olivia-Peter was that they belonged together, in a cosmic kind of way, that their soul-mate connection was indestructibly strong. Yes, the death of a child is a catastrophe that can subvert a marriage. But I thought the Peter-Olivia bond was resilient enough to withstand that shock, and so it struck me as out-of-character odd that they fell apart so easily, so quickly. But now I wonder if Fringe was making a statement: Their love was never really that sturdy. Yes, they share a deep bond forged by experience. But do they make any sense together outside the context of Fringe division? How long would their relationship have survived if they never had Etta? And are these exactly the questions Fringe wants us to be asking right now?

+Final thought, final theory. For weeks, I’ve been advocating the idea that Walter recorded these tapes with knowledge of the future. But now I wonder if Walter has always been unwittingly, unknowingly under the influence of future knowledge. What if Walter’s genius and his madness are byproducts/consequences of his subtle psychic communion with his past/future selves? Hence, the significance of the “5-20-10” combination. He told Olivia back in “Jacksonville” that he had forgotten the significance of those digits. Could it be that “Five-Twenty-Ten” just told us the origin story of how those numbers got their meaning?

No, I’m not sure if I understand what I just wrote, either. Which means I should stop writing now. Your turn: Did “Five-Twenty-Ten” capture your imagination?

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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