If you’ve been keeping up with TV Surveillance and following me on Twitter, you know that I haven’t been the biggest fan of the early going of Fringe season four. As I said in my short review of the premiere and in my extended podcast conversation with my buddy Tim Bavlnka, the series seemed aimless and lacking any real, substantial emotional punch without Peter around. I know that some of that emptiness was purposeful, as it was there to show the audience what this world is like when Peter isn’t around. However, big chunks of the first three episodes – particularly the premiere and last week’s plodding effort – have taken the “emptiness” one step too far by piling on the obvious dialogue and failing to really explore what is supposed to be a completely altered world. In short, I’ve been bored and detached and when taking into account my negative reaction with the season three finale, I started to worry about Fringe’s creative future.
Tonight’s episode, “Subject 9,” doesn’t quite squash all the fears I have about the series and where it is headed, but it does go a long way of doing so. This one features fantastic performances from Anna Torv and John Noble (what’s new), some interesting “backstory” and a number of simple, yet moving conversations. For all its apparent mythological complexity, Fringe works so well because the emotional impacts and consequences are fairly straightforward and believable. This is the first episode of the season that hits on those cylinders.
On that point, one of the other big problems I’ve had with this season is that it has tried to return to the season two model of telling procedural stories that reflect or inform big character beats in an apparent, but subtle way. Unfortunately, as I sort of mentioned above, the subtlety has been lacking and the “reflecting” or “informing” has been relatively one-note. Thankfully, “Subject 9” is a welcome return to form in this regard.
This week’s case is directly tied to Walter and Olivia’s “past” (I use quotes because obviously it’s not necessarily true) and more importantly, the emotional resonance is there without the massive dialogue anvils about “holes” in hearts or lingering sadness or whatever. Although this episode ends with Peter’s return, “Subject” isn’t about him or the impact he has or hasn’t on these people. This is a story about Olivia and Walter and how both of them need one another even if they don’t know how to express those feelings and emotions because the former is a detached and stoic and the other is insane.
These are the kinds of stories that I wanted to see after the events of the season three finale. If Peter isn’t going to be in this world, I not only want to see how he changed Olivia or Walter’s lives, I want to see how they reacted or didn’t to his absence. This episode reaffirms the premiere’s assertion that Olivia and Walter have a slightly different relationship than they did in the original universe. This Olivia is less patient and this Walter is more petulant and wonky and combined, the loving, warm father-daughter relationship they developed in the series’ first three seasons didn’t come to fruition in the same way. How heartbreaking was it to listen to Walter talk about how he and Olivia weren’t father and daughter? Sadness.
Nevertheless, “Subject 9” goes out of its way to show us that this Olivia isn’t as different as it appears. Lincoln is not present here and Astrid and Broyles have very little to do, as the episode strips away everything and basically sends Olivia and Walter on a road-trip that repeatedly shows us how Olivia grinds her teeth and cares for Walter, even when she doesn’t want to. She helps him walk down the street, she makes sure he’s safe in the hotel room and returns when he freaks out because he realizes he’s not and she’s always up to learn about proper rootbeer float drinking procedures. This Olivia might be missing something because Peter isn’t around, but she’s still an inherently good, caring person who might just have some trouble expressing those feelings.*
*I would argue that this was Peter’s biggest effect on Olivia. It’s not that season one Olivia didn’t care about people or didn’t like getting close to them, it’s that she felt incapable of doing so. She was holding herself back from expressing what she felt and separating Peter from her brings that version of the character forward again.
The same kinds of things can be said about Walter, really. Although this version is more prone to insane fits and breakdowns, it’s not as if he’s more evil or less willing to help people in need. If anything, this Walter is sadder because he so desperately wants a personal connection with someone that no one will really replicate. He wants to have the father-daughter relationship with Olivia, but she’s too closed off to admit what’s really there between the two of them.
Plot-wise, “Subject 9” raises some interesting, albeit possibly temporary questions about Olivia and Walter’s relationship and the trials that took place in Jacksonville. Unless Olivia was lying to Cameron, the aforementioned Subject 9, it appears as though she and Walter haven’t contacted any of the other trial kids in this timeline. If that’s the case, I’m curious about how the two of them crossed over to the other universe? Obviously it didn’t happen like it did in “Over There,” and obviously part of that has to do with the fact that there was really no reason to go over there since Peter didn’t exist.
And I’m also curious about how Olivia and Walter discussed their time together in Jacksonville. Maybe it’s just me, but it felt like Olivia was somewhat less angry or upset with what happened back then. She mentions that she ran away and yet there is a sense that it’s less of an issue. Perhaps that’s true or perhaps the two of them just got past it. However, Olivia and Cameron have multiple questions about trusting Walter, so I guess it’s conceivable that in this reality, Olivia knows quite a bit less about what happened in Jacksonville? Or, those conversations about trust are all contextual set-up for the coming episodes when Walter starts to side with the just-returned Peter, who no one recognizes or believes?
Oh yeah, Peter’s back. I don’t want to sound like I’m changing my tune – even though I absolutely am – but now I’m somewhat disappointed that it is happening this early. “Subject 9” did such a nice job of developing the characters and their “new” world without focusing too much on the Peter of it all. I am definitely happy to have Peter and Josh Jackson back, but I have to ask: What the hell was the point of this then? Two solid episodes, two mediocre episodes and a whole lot of waffling and vagueness?
I understand that the series is going to use Peter’s return as a way to crystallize the big differences between “his” world and this one, almost as if he’s the audience surrogate into a whole new place, they’re playing the long game here. Nevertheless, I still feel like Fringe should have shown us a little more leading up to it. We’ve seen very little of the alternate universe and spent too much time roughly talking about Peter or working on less important cases. Basically, the series hasn’t done enough to show the point or substantial impact/consequence of Peter’s absence outside of the obvious holes in people’s hearts. And now he’s just back. Things aren’t going back to normal anytime soon, but Fringe has done such a weak job of telling us what the new not normal is that I don’t totally care either way.
Despite all that, “Subject 9” is certainly an early season highlight. I have reservations, major ones, about where this is all going, but if Fringe can continue to provide these episodic pleasures, I’ll be less concerned as the season moves along.