Fox Network, Fridays, 9 PM
Written by Jeff Pinkner & J. H. Wyman
Directed by Brad Anderson
“Who am I to play God with other people’s lives? Who am I to make that choice?” – Colonel Broyles
I hesitate to brand any single episode of a complicated series as Best Episode Ever, but this week comes darned close. In a season marked by outstanding writing, this hour of Fringe brilliantly resolved several ongoing storylines, while at the same time bringing to the fore some long-simmering conflicts which will enrich the next half-season. All while keeping the pace and the emotional tension at a rolling boil. For me, television just does not get better than this kind of science fiction, balancing the gee-whiz Big Idea with the small and intimate moments between characters that make them real and vital.
Having alternated over the past eight weeks between stories set in our universe, and stories set in the other universe, tonight’s episode blends the two as the endgames in both universes converge. Both Olivias find that their covers are blown, which makes it imperative that each of them goes home. Each of them is coming to the end of a journey which has profoundly changed them. AltLivia has had a chance to observe us long enough to know that we are not deliberately waging war with her world; Olivia has made allies and commitments to those she thought were her enemies over there, commitments that will follow her home. Caught in the middle, again, is Peter Bishop, who discovers that the Olivia in his bed was not the one in his heart. And, brilliantly, a man we were introduced to as a cold-blooded, iron-jawed paramilitary grunt turns out to be a self-sacrificing hero for whom anyone would weep.
“I failed the test, didn’t I?” — AltLivia
We begin with a repeat of the final scene of “The Abducted”, which ended with Peter getting a life changing phone call from a stranger. Olivia has finally gotten her message through: she is trapped in the other world. A brooding Peter gets out of the bed he shares with AltLivia and accesses her laptop, seeking confirmation. But when she interrupts him, and then fails to recognize the seminal Greek phrase Olivia quoted to Peter on her first trip back from the Other Side, the game is up. And AltLivia knows it: she pulls a gun on Peter. Now on both sides of the barrier, Olivia is compromised and endangered. She temporarily paralyzes Peter and dashes for an exit. When Peter recovers, he is forced to confess the affair to Broyles. Now everyone knows about Peter’s affair with Olivia – except the real Olivia. That’s gonna be awkward. The rest of this storyline in Our World is devoted to chasing AltLivia down, cornering her in Penn Station, and losing her in a flash transfer back to the Other Side.
“How do you want to send back their Olivia – alive or dead? Because I feel that there are very valuable parts for study.” — AltBrandon
Meanwhile, Our Olivia is in deep trouble. Now that Walternate has synthesized Cortexiphan, he finds her disposable. To him, she is only body mass to be exchanged for his Agent Dunham. When AltBrandon proposes to part her out like a stolen car, he shrugs. Olivia begs Colonel Broyles for help, and that’s when Lance Reddick really starts to shine. You can see in his eyes, in his body language, the conflict developing in his Philip Broyles. He’s a soldier, a fighter, a patriot, but he’s beginning to question the need for war. He definitely acknowledges a debt of honor to Olivia for her help in saving his son. At the risk of his own life, he rescues her from a horrific vivisection attempt by AltBrandon, takes her to Walternate’s abandoned laboratory, and in the end dies protecting her from his own SWAT team. Olivia travels back to our side, but AltLivia travels back to her side—leaving in her wake the mutilated corpse of Colonel Broyles on our side. Lance Reddick, in a scene both macabre and tender, closes the eyes of his own corpse. I cannot say enough good things about Reddick’s performance in this dual role, which humanized Broyles (both of them) without sacrificing his tough, brittle personality in any way. We saw the conflict which ravaged AltBroyles as well as the astonished Broyles on this side who confronts the outcome of his self-sacrifice. From now on, this will be a very personal war for Philip Broyles.
“I’m gonna get answers. And if I find out that you did anything to Olivia, then I’m going to kill you.” – Peter
We have not gotten to see as much of Peter Bishop as I’d like in recent weeks, but tonight Joshua Jackson really made up for it. The cold fury in his eyes, the rawness in his voice, the taut body language all tell us that Peter’s not just angry, he’s humiliated. The emotional tension is dialed up to 11 in every scene, right down to his quick-thinking head shot in the Penn Station standoff with the woman who woke up in his bed that very morning. His more tender scenes absolutely rocked: in his final scene in the hospital with his own, real Olivia, we could see guilt, confusion, anger and wounded love in his eyes. This is the kind of thing I love in science fiction: given the completely weird, out-of-this-world (literally) circumstances of his “betrayal” of their love, it comes back down to a quiet, human moment between two people. Alternate universes, bizarre technology, the hints of actual aliens (who are the First People?) – all of that is important but it is, for Peter and Olivia, secondary to their emotional connection. Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson really showed us that true connection in those final moments. Which will make the inevitable repercussions next week really combustive. While Peter can honestly say that he thought AltLivia was Olivia, Olivia is bound to wonder if that means all he sees is the “surface”, not the inner person. But that’s a conflict as old as men and women, always new and never really resolved.
” Listen, whatever happens to me, this started out as an assignment but it became something more.” — AltLivia
I’ll say a word about AltLivia. It’s easy to see her as a shallower, more militant version of our heroine, but as the weeks have gone by we’ve seen enough of her background to discover a more complicated person. We know “our” Olivia has gone through a horrific orphaned childhood, torture, betrayal by a lover. She has nevertheless had the courage to form strong bonds with her sister, Peter, and others. She has fought against high emotional odds to become the warm and compassionate person that she is – as Peter describes, her always trying to right some wrong. But where is AltLivia’s trauma? She lost a sister to childbirth, but her mother is still alive, loves her and comforts her. She has a loving husband/boyfriend, a respected job, and outstanding co-workers. She has never questioned her world—so when she comes to our world, despite her commitment to her mission, she learns things Walternate never intended. She learns that we are unaware of the damage we caused her world, that Peter Bishop is a man worth loving, that her world is doing as much damage to ours as we are to hers. Most of all, she heard Peter Bishop tell her that there must be another way than war. I hold out some hope that, when she gets home (and probably gets promoted to replace the late AltBroyles), she will challenge Walternate’s war plan. What with the rich set of characters already established for the Other Side, I could actually wish for a spin-off with these characters. There’s loads of drama built into these characters; I will hate to lose them. As I said in my last review, I cannot praise enough the performance that Anna Torv has given this season, playing three versions of the same character: our Olivia, our-Olivia-pretending-to-be-AltLivia, and AltLivia. This is a tour de force.
“My world is dying because of what your side is doing to us.” – Colonel Broyles
It’s also emblematic of what a strong show Fringe has developed into. There was a bit of wobbling in the first season, as the show could not seem to decide what it was—a weird science show, an X-Files clone, an FBI procedural? But since the end of the second season, it appears that the producers have decided to concentrate on their strongest and most innovative plot, the alternate universe. In this season, its strongest by far, Fringe has developed a fascinating premise into an urgent story of life, death and love. Whereas Flashforward never did convince me of a good reason to assign FBI agents to investigate unusual events, the presence of Walter Bishop in the mix makes the oddball team of Fringies plausible: no ordinary task force could handle a Walter Bishop.
“They’re genetically identical, so they think alike.” — Olivia
No detail was left to chance. As usual, we got the fun reversals in the Other World that show how it differs from ours in striking ways: Penn Station becomes Springsteen Station, AltLivia cannot get enough coffee (because it is rare in her universe), Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” is a slow ballad over there. The seemingly trivial fact that Peter and AltLivia have matching MacBook Pro laptops become a critical plot point. Walter’s love of a particular pastry leads the team to a device that communicates between the world—and I’ll bet money that “quantum entanglement telegraph” becomes a major gizmo in upcoming stories. Peter’s search of AltLivia’s computer shows bits and pieces from earlier episodes; again, a reward for the watchful viewer. I am impressed with the care taken in editing these two universes together in one episode, from the red/blue flipping of the credits background to the transitions that told us where we were. A complicated story like this one could have been endlessly confusing, with multiple versions of the same character, two extremely similar universes, and plot points reaching back to the first season. Yet the writing and direction kept it all sorted out, without resorting to voice-overs, flashbacks, or other lame expository devices. This is classy, tight writing, and my hat’s off to the entire team.
At the same time, I think it’s a wise decision that led the writers to close down the alternate-universe storyline now. It has been a fan and critical success, but it did have its drawbacks: it split the lovers up, it doubled the numbers of (identical) characters, and it introduced a whole new world. Casual viewers are bound to have been confused and put off. If the January return brings with it more “monster of the week” cases and fewer “mythology” cases, I will absolutely not be surprised.
“Be a better man than your father.” – Peter (quoting Olivia)
Now that everyone is back where she belongs, more or less, I look forward to seeing some tantalizing seeds take root and grow. Chief among them is the Peter/Olivia romance, of course, but there is also the matter of Walter’s inheritance of Massive Dynamics. I still want to know more (I think) about the First People. Cortexiphan is taking center stage as a drug of choice, and I’d like to know how it will affect Olivia from here on out. The future of this show is not only filled with possibilities, but with an optimistic aura hard to find in these parlous times: both Peter and Olivia, and maybe now Walter and Broyles, want to head off a war, not win it.
“Only one world can survive.” – Walternate
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether Fringe will survive the move to Friday night next January. Fringe came in at a dismal 5.13 million viewers, with a 1.8 rating in the 18-49 demographic. Alas, this 5% drop against last week is pretty average for the show, which consistently finishes fourth in its timeslot. Next week is the last episode before the winter break. The producers have voiced their faith in the network, the fans, and their show, but then, that’s pretty much a given. Common wisdom calls Friday nights a death slot, but I’m not so sure. For one thing, Fringe viewers routinely time-shift their show anyway; DVR statistics from regular episodes show that Fringe often gets a boost of over 50% in ratings when delayed viewing is factored in. If that’s the case, the show’s fans probably won’t care that the show has moved. If they do follow the show, the ratings that look abysmal on a Thursday night may look much better on Friday night. Let’s hope so.