In the very first episode of Fringe, we were introduced to the idea of posthumous interrogation, which was the first of what would become a multitude of ways that the show’s heroes and villains alike would seek to communicate with the incommunicado. And it’s not just corpses, or monsters, or the unconscious that these folks want to hear from. At the start of tonight’s episode “Anomaly XB-6783746,” Captain Windmark and his lackeys use an “LQ7 Unit” and a special spray to capture the lingering soundwaves from a recent Nina Sharp telephone conversation, to learn that she’s meeting with the Fringe Fugitives and with Michael, The Littlest Observer. Then Windmark psychically probes the minds of several Massive Dynamic employees for info about Nina, while he has Loyalists scanning the atmosphere for signs of activity from her personal phone. While all this is going on, the Bishop family is falling into despair over their inability to get through to Michael, no matter how much technology or positive emotional vibes they throw him. Then at the end of the episode, after Windmark has found Nina’s “black lab” and she’s defiantly killed herself, the Bishops try to piece together what happened—and where Michael is—from pieces of security camera footage.
It’s hard to generate much dramatic momentum out of scene after scene of people (and Observer-people) trying to wring information from the unwilling and the inorganic, but “Anomaly XB-6783746” follows the pattern of a lot of the Fringes this season, by advancing the master-plot just enough in the first two-thirds to make it seem like something has happened, all while setting up a final act that’s full of action, revelations, stylistic filigree, and rich emotion.
Nina Sharp’s suicide automatically makes this a significant episode, but it’s just as important why she shoots herself. She’s compromised by Olivia at the start of the episode, when she calls Nina out of the blue and asks for help with Michael; and then The Loyalists track Nina down and seal her fate after she calls Olivia for an update. It’s an echo of what Olivia says about Etta, whose poster is still popping up all over town. “It’s hard to see her face, but at the same time, I want to,” she says to Peter, indicating that her memories of her daughter are worth being reminded of the pain of her loss. Similarly, Nina’s emotional connection to Olivia is both what dooms her and what sets her—and Olivia—apart from The Observers.
A couple of days ago, while writing up a little (as-yet-unpublished) something about how much I’m looking forward to the Fringe finale, it occurred to me that unlike some recent high-profile TV series finales, there aren’t many big mysteries that need to be resolved when Fringe’s story wraps up. And I’m glad of that, because the success or failure of Fringe as a whole won’t hinge on what secrets are or aren’t revealed in its final hour—or on whether those secrets turn out to be profound or weak. That’s not to say that I don’t have some personal hopes for Fringe’s finish. At the end of last season, I wrote that I’d like to see the show hurt its fans a little, rather than going for an “everybody walks off together hand-in-hand” happy ending; and I’ll probably write a little more about what I mean by that as the end draws closer. But no matter what happens, it’s going to be a treat to see a sci-fi TV series that ends on its own terms—itself a rare accomplishment—and one that’ll mainly be concerned with completing several satisfying character arcs, rather than working through a list of questions.
That said, there are some things the Fringe writers will probably need to address before the final glyph flashes; and they get to a couple of those in “Anomaly XB-6783746.” The big one: Who is Donald, the mysterious man whom Walter plotted with, pre-ambering? The answer: He’s September, which we learn after Michael brushes Walter’s face, prompting a heartrending montage of Walter’s encounters with September and Michael over the years. But another question that this episode semi-answers is just who/what The Observers are. We know from Peter’s journey into September’s mind last season that The Observers are an “advanced” form of humankind, but Nina suggests otherwise, saying that by heightening their senses and dulling their emotions, The Observers have “redeveloped primitive instincts,” and have become more like lizards. (Hence the head-tilt.)
Windmark, though, is able to muster enough humanity to be outraged by The Resistance’s experiments on his brethren in Nina’s black lab. “You… animals,” he hisses. And his anger is not entirely misplaced. This has been a recurring question all season, whether the harsh methods employed by The Resistance make them indistinguishable from their enemy. Then there’s the matter of Walter Bishop, who keeps sliding further into his arrogant, unfeeling self, snapped back into humanity only by extreme events like Nina’s death. If The Observers are “us,” only further along the evolutionary timeline, then will the efforts of Walter and The Resistance to defeat The Observers be what starts us on the path to becoming them?
Perhaps, unless Olivia and Peter and Astrid can really save the world, by assuring that it remains a world worth saving. That’s why these three often stand aloof, waxing philosophical about the choices being made, and whether there’s a danger of something vital being lost. We’ll be superior to The Observers for as long as Peter can hear about Walter’s plan to excise chunks of his own brain again, and can wonder whether he’ll still be able to connect with the father he loves. We’re fine so long as we can ask questions like, “But what happens to Walter?”
- Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen posted a few brief comments from Fringe showrunner J.H. Wyman today, and one of items from that piece that stuck in my head while watching “Anomaly XB-6783746” was Wyman laughing off the implausibility of the Fringe team working at Formerly Harvard University right under The Observers’ reptilian noses. I get what he’s saying, that a show like this requires some dramatic license and suspension of disbelief. But after reading that, I found myself wondering how likely it would be that Captain Windmark would leave Nina’s corpse and all her technology just sitting there in the black lab, without stationing some Loyalists to keep an eye out for Walter, Peter, and Olivia, who were bound to show up eventually. I try not to fret over such things in shows like this, but this week in particular, after that article, it was distracting.
- Also, it’s good that none of The Loyalists who were stopping cars out on the street paid any attention to the strange looking folks carrying giant cases down an alley to a parking garage.
- I know this is a cruel thing to say, but when Nina told Michael that they’ll have to move “quickly,” the first thing that passed through my head was that there’s only so much “quick” that Nina can accomplish in her wheelchair.
- Really liked the sound design in this episode. There were some evocatively atmospheric sounds accompanying The Observers’ interrogations, and during the telephone conversations, the emphasis on who could hear what was both suspenseful and a strong evocation of this episode’s theme of strained communication.
- Nice to see Michael Cerveris again. And with hair!
- Another question to be answered: What is Michael? He’s the source of this episode’s title, and Captain Widmark describes him as “a chromosomal mistake.” But the tone of the “Walter’s life flashes before his eyes” montage suggests that there’s more of Michael’s story to be told, and that he might have more of a connection to September and/or the Bishops. Could he be the child of Peter of Fauxlivia, erased from the timeline? Or another alternate version of Peter? Or September’s progeny, born in a future world where children are not supposed to exist? I suspect we’ll learn more in the next episode, which is titled, “The Boy Must Live.”
- Have a good break everyone. Fringe (and I) shall return on January 11th. Only three episodes—and two Fringe Fridays—left to go.