'Fringe' report: The beauty of the new season's storytelling, and what it means for the future

The frequently heart-breaking, beautifully romantic yet action-packed season of Fringe continues, with the series moving along on great swells of emotion, as though trying to reach the peaks of the Mozart that Walter was listening to in “One Night in October.” This week, the hour titled “Subject 9″ returned to the series’ most potent, everlasting element of its mythology: the Cortexiphan experiments conducted more than two decades ago on “37 innocent children,” including Olivia (“Olive”) Dunham. Oh, and in part because we saw the writing credits — showrunners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman plus Akiva Goldsman — we knew we probably were in for some fundamental shifts in the season’s main plot line, the search for Peter Bishop, and we sure got ‘em.

I’m going to leave the close reading of “Subject 9″ to Jeff Jensen and his recap. (Have fun, comrade, with double-gloved Nina!) Here, I’d like to write more broadly about this episode and the season thus far. The apparitions of Peter that both Walter and Olivia had been experiencing this week manifested themselves as a blue charge of amorphous energy. Walter has a theory that it relates to astral projection, which reminds him of experiments he did with William Bell 25 years ago during the Cortexiphan trials. In this Fringe universe, Olivia recalls having set fire to the Florida building but seems less psychically damaged by what she went through — unlike Cameron James, subject number nine in the trials, whose life has been cursed. When anxious, he “sends metal flying,” he tells Olivia and Walter when they visit him, and he’s bitter and depressed about the lonely life he’s led.

That’s just one level of the story-telling. An equally important one is the follow-up on last week’s psychiatric evaluation of Walter. Discovering that St. Claire’s Hospital is seeking Olivia’s opinion as to whether Walter should be re-admitted for further evaluation, Walter is moved to leave his lab for the first time in three years. This placed him in the midst of the action and face-to-face with Cameron James, and the old guilt stole over the older man. He’s still not without guile — he tries to mollify Olivia’s questions about her youth by assuring her, “You were always the strongest; you were always the favorite.” But we are also told that Olivia ran away from Bishop and Bell’s house of pharmaceutical horrors. This is an Olivia who’s suppressed a great deal. With immense yet discreet skill, “Subject 9″ returned us to Fringe’s richest subjects: Children lost (both literally and psychologically), children loved too little and too much.

One of the reasons I like Fringe so much is that it is fearless, in a time when cutting-edge television is supposed to be dark/edgy/pessimistic, about asserting the notion that life is a never-ending wonder capable of healing souls and bringing people together in inexplicable ways. Fringe works in the sci-fi, speculative-fiction genre to work out themes of unity and duality, the spirit and the soul, love and the agony of love’s absence.

In the second episode of this season, Broyles said to Olivia, “At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ve always felt there are people who can leave an indelible mark on your soul, an imprint that can never be erased.” He was talking about the case at hand — the one about the serial-killer-researching professor who meets his alt-world serial-killer double and knows that what saved the former (the love of a woman who helped this man-boy past his violence-filled upbringing — but we know this was dialogue foreshadowing the overarching plot: The way Peter has affected Walter and Olivia without their knowing it.

The absence of Peter, even as Peter haunts Walter, Olivia, and us in the ghostly use of Josh Jackson’s visage and voice, has actually made Peter more central to the show — he’s its heart. Last week, the episode’s musical cues served as metaphors for the signals Peter is sending out. The use of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” (Peter has helped the universes by connecting them, and can continue to help, if he can only be freed) and the Manfred Mann version of Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn,” with the emphasized refrain, “Come all without, come all within, you’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn” — well, this is Peter, moving (to switch to Beatle-speak Walter would key into) within you and without you.

The Fringe division cases continue the series’ practice of working as stand-alone puzzles and as enhancements of Fringe recurring motifs. Two weeks ago, “One Night in October” brought us the tragic consequences of a boy who’d been raised with violent impulses in the alt-universe, contrasted with his equivalent in the re-booted universe — a professor who’d been emotionally rescued early on by a woman who showed him unconditional love. Last week’s “Alone in the World” was another of Fringe‘s tales of children scared, frightened, terrorized by the world, who either become victims or who lash out supernaturally — or both. (Fringe would never exploit the stop-the-bullying campaign that’s a-crackle in our pop culture these days, but the opening scenes, of bullies being overtaken by a fungus, was a pretty damn effective anti-bully message.) These Fringe cases work like the voice of Peter in our heads, reminding us of Olivia’s miserable upbringing, Walter’s loss of a son (and in the amber universe, Olivia killed that awful stepfather, and both Walters lost a son).

In the worlds created by Fringe, a hero (Olivia) can admit to “a hole in my life for as long as I can remember”; Walter can muse over a corpse about “two people meant to be together and then something intervenes.” We get the references in the context of the show, but many of us also recognize those holes, that thwarted romantic destiny, in our own lives.

SPOILER: Do not read further until you’ve seen “Subject 9.”

To circle back to this week: Yes, Peter is back — risen from, baptized in, Reiden Lake, Observed. Yes, he recalls everything. No, the other characters do not. Olivia’s question — “Who are you?” — is far-reaching. I’m thrilled that we’ll spend time now with Peter helping the woman he loves and the father he’s learned to love connect all the Fringe-y dots. Aren’t you?

Be sure to read Jeff Jensen’s complete recap.
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Comments (104 total) Add your comment
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  • Liv

    yeay! Ken Tucker is back, even if in a limited fashion! We missed you!

    • Rekka

      What a great episode, wasn’t it? After I finished watching, I couldn’t wait 10 minutes to watch it again. What an epic episode; one of the very best Fringe episodes OF ALL TIME!

      • clearly

        This season continues to amaze with its wonderful subtlety – the writing, the acting, the scenery is all beautiful – this show will go down in history as one of the all time greatest, it is truly unfortunate that more do not watch it.

      • psyche

        It is a shame that its not more loved. Each season has brought something new and different, and yes I love how remarkably *subtle* everything is — how much attention the writers and actors are giving to the individual details and shifts in behaviour. Just wonderful.

      • Mo

        I loved it too. I introduced my 12-year-old daughter to this show (she’s now 13) exactly because of the reasons Ken puts so eloquently up there – it is ultimately uplifting and about people who love one another and whose love changes them for the better. Plus it has some kick-a$$ stories. She is so very hooked… And I really really really need to know how the HELL this episode got the same rating (TV-14) as the premiere of The Walking Dead did. I realize it’s about ratings (some people might not want to watch Fringe if it was rated PG, some kids may be able to fool their parents into letting them watch TWD “but mooooom, look, it’s only TV-14!), but is it all voluntary and do the networks set them? Isn’t there some sane board somewhere that says “Whatever, Fox. Good try, AMC, but that’s a definite M”.

    • Bette

      Ken Tucker, your timing is impeccable .

  • Jiji Moran

    A wolf in sheep’s clothing, some may say, Mr. Tucker.

    — Not me, though, cause as long as someone makes a recap, I’m happy.

    — Loved the episode, but somehow reminded me of something I have seen before but can’t put my finger on… something like… deja vu.

    — Maybe I saw the same thing advertised on a night show or something. Will check some back episodes to see why it looks so familiar.

    — Anyway, FRINGE ROCKS!!!

  • Amanda

    I am so glad that Peter’s memory is still intact . It is going to be heartbreaking for us viewers to see Walter treat Peter, the man who has been his center for so longer, as a stranger. At least TPTB gave us a lot to ponder during the two week wait .

  • popnotes

    Awesome and beautifully captured, Ken.

  • Dessy

    That was one hell of an episode. Stellar writing, acting, directing and Special effects. I’ve just been watching that end again and again and again.This is truly the best thing on television. It pains me physically to think about the many (terrible) reality shows that will live on long after Fringe.

    Fox, why so cruel?? I can’t believe we need to wait 2 weeks for the next episode!

  • Amy

    Peter’s back! Peter’s back! I haven’t jumped off the couch and rooted myself directly in front of the TV like that since LOST. I can’t wait to see how this plays out especially with Peter remembering everything and everyone else missing nothing. I am glad it’s not a complete reboot. I know it was just a few episodes, but it has felt so long since Peter was really here. Fringe is amazing!

    • Hanna

      Dessa lista, eu juogei (em emu) Sabrewulf (boas idéias mas meio chatinho) e Astro Boy (muito bom e difícil à beça). O Kuru Kuru Kururin eu lembrei de um preview numa revista de games (acho que a Nintendo World), muitos anos atrás. E eu fiquei interessado nesse Drill Dozer!

  • Xena

    OK, who else saw M. Night Shamalyan as the smoker on the street? He cameos in his movies, so did he write some of this episode? (forgive me if this was already covered in the blog, I’m typing this while watching the dvr’d show).

    • ash

      not him

      • Amy

        Bah outro 3 q TEM q ser lrnmeabdos são 3 beat'n ups excelentes: Dragon Ball Adventure, Star Wars Episodio 3 e TMNT (aquele do ultimo filme de animação. JOGASSOS!

    • Kendra

      me and my boyfriend saw it right away I believe it was him not 100% but definitely 99%. i rewound it and showed my BF.

  • Pamela

    Excellent episode!

  • dadslife

    This season has been excellent. I am beginning to notice changes in the background scenery and what we are not seeing. Is it just a coincidence that Nina’s hair is just as orange as the title sequence? Personally, I think that we are not in any of the real/alt universe thing but in a 3rd dimension. Fun stuff. BTW. John Noble = Emmy winner.

    • PAaolaa

      Sooooo jealous of the gorg wtehaer as well! Thats definitely not New York City! And as i was watching 90210 last night, i thought of u cause it was a wide-leg pant showcase for the first few scenes.lol Also, i hope u post more dresses/skirts that can transition into the winter, regardless of the beautiful wtehaer in these pictures

  • v

    Great episode, back to the basics.

    • s

      I completely agree! This is the first episode of the season that I really liked. I’m glad Peter is finally back, I missed the character. I hope the series reverts back to how it was in the beginning. I disliked last season and the 1st few eps of this one. I just found it all very confusing. Its just my opinion and I’m probably in the minority since I don’t normally like sci fi but none of it made any sense. This episode was really well done and simple.

      • josh

        so you dislike a show for being too smart for you? if you didn’t like last season, you don’t like fringe. go watch ncis.

      • Dicazi

        No, don’t go! Stay and learn.

      • s

        Josh, since when is watching sci fi considered smart? I think its the exact opposite. I have a hard time following the story because it is honestly idiotic. just because someone has a different opinion than you does not mean they automatically watch ncis and whatever other shows you think are beneath you. get over yourself.

  • Leithen

    I have just one question…

    If there was no Peter in this timeline…who was in the machine?

    • OldDarth

      A very good question indeed.

      The answer will likely be tied into the revelation that Peter is telling the truth about who he is.

      • Rodrigo

        Jogo bom mesmo do Game Boy Advance que me snrrpeeudeu foi Bruce Lee: The Return of the Dragon, Muito Foda esse jogo de ação.PQ:- Tem Finais diferentes, que muda completamente o rumo da historia (tem diferenca entre o modo EASY, HARD e MASTER).- tem fases q vc sai batendo e outras que voce tem infiltrar sem ser notado.- Lembra muito as caracteristicas dos filmes do Bruce Lee, os Chefes, as musicas de fundo… fases que vao desde navio, caverna, trem, templos, etc- Tem varios Bruce LeeS pra liberar O_O (Cada um de uma época)- Tem extras e modos de jogo pra liberar…- Apesar da limitacao de botoes do GBA, o jogo tem Combos de golpes, sequencias faceis, com tipicos golpes e gritos do Bruce O_O.Muito legal, recomendo.

    • Dicazi

      Maybe noone was in this timeline.

  • bill

    How well does Nina know Olivia? and what a great reference to john scott from the pilot

    • Cate

      Yes, that comment about not seeing her that nervous since the prom (am I getting that right?) was really interesting. As though Nina had been a surrogate mother.

      • Lelys

        Love the color blocking checios here. It has a summery feel but just right for fall. If you’re into vintage there are plenty vintage stores in LA, especially in Burbank. The stores in Burbank give Melrose a run.

  • sensitive steve

    HORRIBLE episode! What is this s–t? This was easily the worst episode in the past couple of seasons. They created an entire alternate universe and in their fourth season they seem to be wasting it. So sad. I skipped through the last twenty minutes of this. The only really interesting stuff happened in the last 3 minutes of the episode. If Fringe keeps squandering their final episodes like this, its ratings are going to sink even lower…

    • Dessy

      ugh. Just shut up.

    • PJ

      If you skipped the last 20 minutes, how would you know what happened in the last 3? Get lost, troll.

    • Scott

      Ironic name for someone who wouldn’t know sensitivity if it smashed you in the face. The last season was almost entirely about the alt-universe, so I think it’s wise to give it a rest for a while, but I’m sure we’ll see more of it. And if you really did skip through 20 minutes of the episode, then I don’t think you’re in any way qualified to give what you must believe in your narrow mind to be an informed opinion. So, I suggest you take your unwelcome trolling self and find a lame, non-thinking-person’s reality show to drool over and let the rest of us enjoy a top-quality series. Thank you and good riddance.

      • Unglyboy

        Pas mal du tout, ce Bullion !C’est mnaarrt, les choeurs de “Are you the one” me font vraiment penser à du Beach Boys passé à la moulinette Lee Perry / The Meditations… Et c’est vrai que les basses sont pachydermiques !Bises

    • passing

      I guess 4.02 with Olivia and Fauxlivia working together(and awesome acting from Anna Torv) on the other side, was throwing away the other universe???
      4.02 was with 4.04 the best so far, I loved the journey in 4.04 , the scenes between Olivia and Walter and we know that this Olivia has more secrets and a different dark past. What Anna Torv does with this character is amazing, she has little backstory and it has to be a stoic FBI agent, so what room do you have? John Noble has it easy with Walter, overload of backstory, his changes more through situations then the inside. If it was his choice, he had it wrong in thinking that someone with a phobia was going to smash a hotelroom, if anything the agression would be on himself..
      This season has been set up from midway S3, 3.11, where Olivia was reduced to a needy woman and Peter made the hero, and now even more.
      So what do they want from Olivia? She was sidelined S1 and mostly 2 got some attention in S3 mostly because of Anna’s fantastic acting, but the character was replaced, brainwashed, possessed.

      • passing

        If one thing has become clear from the first 4 episodes it is that Peter isolated Olivia completely, . In season 3 we were promissed a rebuilding of Olivia, instead we got Olivia insecure begging for Peter and Fauxlivia pregnant of him, how more cliche can you make your female character?
        With all the attention on Peter for so long, and please Jackson had plenty to do with Noble in S1 and 2 in contrast to Anna, who had not, I wonder if the writers realize what a fantastic female character they have and what an amazing actress portrays her.
        I love this Olivia, strong, bad-ass, independent, self-assured, warm. caring, and she is allowed to interact with the other characters. Do not let peter ruin that again.

  • Justin

    Loved this episode. Peter is back; and the way they brought him back slowly but surely was perfect to me. It’s gonna be hard for me to take Walter reacting to Peter like he’s a stranger, though. I hate to see Walter suffer like this, especially after everything he did to save Peter. Man, I love this show!

    • love

      She moved on to a new phase of her career. She now works as a cottuibrnor on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and stars in NBC’s Perfect Couples.***My 1,000th Answer!***

  • Javadude54

    Great episode. After Walter read that form in Olivia’s coat you could see him running everything he did through a filter so as not to appear crazy. The stress and fear that he’ll be sent back to the hospital growing in him until he has a violent outburst in a hotel room.

    For me, the enjoyment of Fringe is based on the actors and their interactions, all revolving around the otherworldly acting skills of John Noble. Whatever they are paying this guy… it isn’t enough.

    • Maria

      i love this and things that resmlbee this outfit and the color mis-match. i immediately ran to show my mother this because she thinks i’m the only one who likes when colors dont match but go well togehter(like purple n yellow, blue and warm shades)and the colors you’re wearing.

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