Fringe: “The Firefly”

Goldberg Variations


Fox Network, Thursdays, 9 PM

“The Firefly”

Written by J. H. Wyman & Jeff Pinkner

Directed by Charles Beeson

“It doesn’t make sense. Why would the Observer do all this?” — Walter

Back in the twentieth century, cartoonist Rube Goldberg became famous for inventing amazingly elaborate machines to perform trivial tasks. His name became synonymous with any overcomplicated scheme to accomplish something that otherwise would be absurdly simple; his legacy includes the board game Mouse Trap and an episode of The X-Files incorporating a wondrously convoluted toy. I have a suspicion Walter Bishop probably loved Rube Goldberg. Yet the Fringe character who most embodies this principle of doing less with more is not Walter, but The Observer (Michael Cerveris, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men). Tasked with correcting his “mistake” of twenty years before (rescuing Peter from drowning), he sets out to “undo” the harm that Walter (and he) committed against the laws of nature two decades ago. Of course, the person at the crux of this problem is not even Walter, it’s Peter, and the implications for Peter’s future grow very ominous.

“Why would an Observer drag a dead man twenty five years through time just to talk with his father?” — Peter

An elderly man in a senior center goes sleepwalking and meets his long-dead son. Roscoe Joyce (Christopher Lloyd, Chuck) turns out to be a former rock star, one of Walter’s boyhood idols. Lloyd plays this character like an elderly version of Reverend Jim from Taxi. In the throes of hero worship, Walter has him taken to his lab so he can find out what Roscoe’s son allegedly told him in this visit. It doesn’t take long for the two to establish a bond forged of music and strawberry milkshakes. A deeper connection emerges as Roscoe tells Walter how his son died—in a traffic accident. This resonates strongly with Walter, as the Observer has just told him how his rescue of Peter resulted in a traffic accident—the very same one that killed Roscoe’s son. The accident itself is described in terms that only Mr. Goldberg himself could have recognized: young Peter caught a firefly, which means another child did not, so she went looking for one, and her distraught father, looking for her, ran a red light and killed Roscoe’s son in a crosswalk. If Peter had not lived he would not have caught the firefly and young Bobby Joyce (Nick Oullette, Behemoth) would not have died; Walter realizes that he is responsible for the boy’s death.

Except he’s really not.

“There are things that I know. But there are things that I do not. Various possible futures are happening simultaneously, but I cannot tell you which one will come to pass, because each action causes ripples obvious and unforeseen.” – The Observer

Sometimes I wonder if Chris Carter is writing for this show, because that little speech has all the earmarks of one of his labored expositions. It doesn’t really make sense, even standing by itself: if “various possible futures are happening”, then how can only one “come to pass”? Either the Observer is confused, an idiot, or does not understand the English how she is spoke. Even in the terms established by the show, Walter is not to blame for the death of Roscoe’s son. Everyone labors to let Walter off the hook on moral grounds: “You could not have known.” But in actual physical fact, there is no actual, defined future that Walter unraveled – not if “various possible futures are happening simultaneously”. No one particular future is privileged over another. Even the Observer tells Walter repeatedly “I could not have known” how his actions would affect the future he allegedly hails from. If the future is “fixed” and must be brought back “into balance”, then that means our actions today are “fixed”, and we can toss out the window any notion of free will or moral responsibility. But if we insist that we have free will and Walter bears moral responsibility, then we must accept the Observer’s statement that there are various possible futures, all of which depend on Walter’s choices today. This is, in fact, the way 99.999% of mankind lives its life; if free will does not exist, it doesn’t matter what we do, but if free will does exist, (which 100% of mankind acts as if were true) then the future does not (yet) exist to be “re-balanced”. What you cannot have is a “fixed” future and actual, functional free will in the present. This fuzzy, sentimental and highly confused thinking is a disappointment. The writing for this show has consistently shown a respect for actual science, so I am saddened to find it abandoning simple logic.

“This book is just a reminder of all the things I’ve missed.” – Olivia

Olivia receives a book Peter sent to AltLivia a couple of weeks ago. Rather than receive it in the spirit in which it was sent, she takes exception to the fact that it was “really” sent to AltLivia, despite the fact that at the time, Peter thought he was sending it to her. Olivia remains stuck in a snit fit against Peter. I make all due allowance for the fact that Olivia has serious abandonment issues in the wake of her betrayal by her lover, John Scott, but I cannot believe that that emotional response is stronger than her deep love for Peter, one that impelled her to cross universes to rescue him. Peter tells her he was trying to open up to her, the Olivia he has known for the past two years, but all she can focus on was that he somehow failed to divine that AltLivia was not Olivia. Her irrational rejection of Peter’s love just because he could not tell the difference between herself and herself lessens my respect for the character. Moreover, it smacks of exactly the kind of character manipulation I despise most: making a character stupid for the sake of the plot, or some external factor like audience demographics. To me, if a character acts stupid, it means she is stupid, and right now Olivia Dunham looks like an idiot.

“I feel like Rip Van Winkle.” — Olivia

Our sub-plot reflects the now increasingly artificial and contrived distance between Olivia and Peter. Having brought our two lovers back together again, the writers are now going to extreme lengths to prevent the natural consequence of reunion. God forbid that two normal healthy adults should act like normal healthy adults; in accord with the tedious rubrics of television writing, sexual tension must be maintained at all costs. Except what’s happening here has nothing to do with sexual tension. I have never felt any less sexual tension between Peter and Olivia than I do now, when they are going through the motions of the Misunderstanding, the Hurt Feelings, the How Could You dance so familiar to viewers of daytime melodrama. What used to be a humming subtext to the show is now dull and quotidian; Peter advances, Olivia retreats. I know that at just about the time Olivia turns around and begins to approach Peter, he will find a reason to retreat. In fact, that reason was already foreshadowed by the Observer’s comment to him that “It must be difficult, being a father.” Something tells me it isn’t our Olivia who’s pregnant. Yawn.

“If I can think like him, maybe I can figure out what he’s doing with that device.” – Walter

I was quite frustrated with this episode, and not just for the sloppy writing. I was unhappy to see that the first Friday night episode of this series, one which might have heralded the arrival of a new and enlarged audience, chose to focus on complicated themes that would be entirely opaque to new viewers. While this episode garnered 4.8 million viewers, for a 12% increase over last season, it did nothing to really whet the appetites of newcomers. Focusing on the “Olivia” arc will only turn away viewers unwilling to invest their time in catching up on a complicated storyline, and toning down the sexual tension between Peter and Olivia by keeping them apart will further alienate the romantics among us. Bringing in faulty reasoning, time travel, uncertain futures and slipshod logic regarding fundamental concepts like free will is bound to further confuse audiences. This is a poorly written episode that should have been saved for later in the season.