Season Analysis: With all the destruction, crossing over, rebooting, and combination of universes, it is hard to keep track of which characters to identify with and how to do so, which is not to say that Fringe is still not just as fascinating as it has always been.
“Welcome to Westfield”
Fringe, like many sci-fi shows, started off more or less as a freak-of-the-week series, but it became its best when it fully developed its more serial side. Interestingly enough, though, some of the best episodes of Fringe have been the one-off episodes that break from the present serialized plotline, e.g., “Peter,” “Subject 13.” While those episodes did break from the show’s normal setting, they were still quite important in how they related to the whole series – “Peter” revealing how Peter was brought over as a boy from the other side, “Subject 13” revealing what happened to young Olivia during the Cortexiphan trials. Initially, it seemed that “Welcome to Westfield” was going to be a perfectly enjoyable one-off Fringe episode that would work well on its own but would not really relate to the series as a whole. Olivia, Peter, and Walter enter a town from which there is no escape – essentially a living, breathing Twilight Zone episode. The appearances of extra pupils and extra sets of teeth on some of the townspeople were fascinating examples of eldritch horror. And while it was not clear initially how “Welcome to Westfield” would fit into the larger plot of Fringe, the confusion of memories from the townspeople’s versions of themselves from the other universe did fit in nicely thematically in terms of the show’s interest in identity insofar as what makes people who they really are. Ultimately, this episode did prove to be rather important in the overall developments of Season 4, as Westfield prompted this current Olivia to have the memories of Olivia from the first three seasons, and the destruction of Westfield turned out to be a test by David Robert Jones for bringing together and destroying the two universes. A show that originally needed to become serialized to become truly good now needs to mix its serialization up a bit to remain good and keep itself moving forward.
Can all Fringe episodes be set in the eighties? Alas, I cannot make that request with full sincerity, because if every episode of Fringe was a flashback episode, then they probably would not all reach the storytelling heights that were reached last season with “Peter” and this season with “Subject 13.” John Noble’s portrayals of the two Walter’s became more and more legendary in an episode that screamed multidimensionality. As the main-universe Walter, he alternated between an overreaching manipulator and a surrogate father figure for a young Olivia abused by her stepfather (I get choked up just thinking about the moment when Walter warns her stepfather what he will do if he ever harms her again). As Walternate, he was not yet the obsessed revenge-seeker that Fringe fans had come to know him as, but instead a man driven to despair, both because of the loss of his child and the failure and of his cognitive abilities, as he was unable to figure out the circumstances of his son’s kidnapping. The most tantalizing scene was the test footage of Walter attempting to coax Olivia’s ability to cross over. Another J.J. Abrams creation – Lost – was most consistently successful in terms of amping up a mysterious mood with its use of test footage, and Fringe has now shown itself to be just as capable with this simple, yet clever technique. The scene in which Olivia crosses over and speaks to Walternate teased what was still to come, thankfully making it clear that the eighties storyline is not finished.
Next up: Community
For anyone who wants to know how to make a great flashback episode, “Peter” can serve as the template. It provided a backstory that we knew needed to be provided: how and why did Walter take Peter from the alternate reality? John Noble turned in his best performance as Dr. Walter Bishop yet. There was no question that this was the Dr. Bishop of 25 years ago. The portrayal of every character was consistent with their 2010 counterparts; no hokey techniques were necessary to make clear that consistency. Gimmicky jokes that scream “We are in the past!” were mostly avoided, except for a few moments (Eric Stoltz on a marquee for Back to the Future in the alterna-world, the ’80s-style opening credits) that did not get in the way and were satisfying because they stood out. “Peter” worked because it was treated as any other Fringe episode – one that just happened to take place in 1985.
Next up: Saturday Night Live