I could wring my hands over how tonight’s Fringe should’ve aired last fall, when it would’ve transitioned us nicely out of this season’s initial arc, and would’ve given us a lot to chew over during the holidays. But then I’d be like poor Peter, dreaming of a reality where Walter makes him chocolate chip banana pancakes, and where he gets affectionate morning kisses from his Olivia. And we all know that just ain’t so. We have to make our way through the universe where we’ve found ourselves.
Instead, let’s accentuate the positive: At least we only have to wait a week to see what happens next.
I thought “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” was a mostly terrific Fringe, full of tension and meaning and emotion, all in service of a clear change in direction for this season’s big story of where Peter has landed and where he needs to go. To me, this episode fails only where this season as a whole has failed: in its overly fussy attempts to define the parameters of this not-quite-the-Fringe-we-know reality, which increasingly seems so much like the old Fringe that it all gets a little confusing. Take the shape-shifters, for example. The action in “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” is driven by Peter deciding to visit “the other side” to ask Walternate to help him get back where he belongs: a trip that Olivia and Lincoln agree to facilitate because they want to investigate the recent shape-shifter invasion. But what’s still unclear after all our weeks in amber-land is just what experience both Earth-1 and Earth-2 have had with the ‘shifters up to now. Is it exactly the same as what we’ve seen on the show up to this point, minus Peter? If so, then how… well, actually there are too many ways to finish that question.
Anyway, in the case of “Back To Where You’ve Never Been,” the shape-shifters are more significant for the plot intrigue they add, as well as for the layer of thematic meaning. In this episode, “our” Lincoln Lee pretends to be “their” Lincoln Lee, so that he can infiltrate the DOD and get Peter closer to Walternate, whom Peter hopes will be different enough from the Earth-1 Walter to offer some actual help. Strictly in terms of the story, the idea that “there’s more than one of everything,” to use a familiar Fringe term—and maybe more than two, given the ‘shifters—means that at any point, a character could be different than he or she seems. And some of these characters are mysterious by nature. While investigating a case involving a shape-shifter on Earth-2, their Olivia and Lincoln get frozen out by other DOD operatives, and after our Lincoln insists that the ‘shifters have been emerging from Earth-2’s Fringe division, they begin to question whether their Walter Bishop is the good guy they’ve always been led to believe he is.
Even beyond that, this episode raises questions about what sets people apart, even when they’re wearing the same skin (and have the same handprints, as with our two Agent Lees). The Walter of Earth-1 delivers a heartbreaking monologue about why he can’t help Peter—because the last time he tried to “help,” he killed another man’s son, drove his wife to suicide, and started a war between universes. But he says this while looking in a mirror, which gives Peter the idea to seek out the other Walter, even though there’s a strong possibility that Walternate will have him killed. Peter wants to tap the intellect that he knows the two Walters largely share. But are their hearts essentially the same as well, whatever the personality differences?
“Back To Where You’ve Never Been” moves from one nail-biting sequence to the next, all sprung from this idea of identity and trust. We see an ordinary Earth-2 bus depot terrorized by a multi-faced freak who can run up the sides of walls and vehicles. We see our Lincoln inadvertently alert his counterpart and bring down the heat when he reports his ShowMe missing. We see Peter visit with this Earth-2 version of his mother, who recognizes him immediately and keeps him safe until he can finally connect with Walternate. Throughout, Peter’s very existence seems perilously fragile. He gets shot at, he gets shackled. Even when he’s talking to Walternate, his “father” walks towards him holding some strange device in his hand. Here in this reality where there are so many versions of people, there’s still only one Peter. And he’s in danger of being eradicated.
Instead, Walternate shoots Brandon in the face. Just when Peter’s accusing the Earth-2 Dr. Bishop of violating the accords with Earth-1 and restarting the shape-shifter program, Walternate reveals that his own right-hand man is a shape-shifter, and apparently has been working behind his back with the still-alive David Robert “Mr.” Jones and Colonel Broyles to orchestrate a covert anti-Earth-1program.
So instead of complaining that we didn’t get to see “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” last November, let’s give thanks that we haven’t spent the last couple of months waiting out the various cliffhangers that end this episode. On Earth-2, Walternate and Peter have an uneasy alliance, with the former looking to deal with the dissension in his ranks and Peter looking for help in getting back to his proper timeline. The Earth-2 Olivia and Lincoln are following their suspicions, though perhaps in the wrong direction. The Earth-1 Lincoln is in the belly of the beast, with little to lean on. And the Earth-1 Olivia has just heard from a wounded Observer that no matter how he crunches the numbers, “You have to die.” In other words, it ain’t all chocolate chip banana pancakes in Fringeville right now.
- Tonight’s Fringe was co-written by David Fury and Graham Roland, and directed by Jeannot Szwarc. Not too many weak link on the Fringe creative team these days, is there?
- It should’ve been obvious that Peter was in a fantasy sequence at the top of the show, because why else would Walter have been wearing pants?
- One example of how the months off hurt the flow of the story a little: When Peter goes to see Olivia at her apartment, where she’s taking the day off from work because of her “migraines,” I initially thought this was a subtle callback to Nina’s nocturnal medical experiments on Olivia. Then I looked back at my notes from this season and realized that it wasn’t meant to be subtle at all. We had just found out what Nina’s been doing to Olivia in the closing minutes of the last episode that aired. Watched in sequence, only about five minutes of screen-time elapse between Nina’s attack and Peter going to see the still-groggy Olivia.
- The pinwheel with the metallic qualities is spinning against the flow of air. I wonder if that’s a clue to anything.
- Didn’t notice anything new and strange about life on Earth-2, unless it’s supposed to be odd that their bus terminals have hot tea machines instead of hot coffee machines.
- Apparently, this E1 Olivia doesn’t know that she has the power to cross over any time she wants. And Peter doesn’t have time to explain it to her. (Or maybe that’s just how little he cares about her, that he doesn’t even try.)
- So many useful features in the new Nissan!
- There were a lot of little moments I enjoyed this week, but none more than Olivia fiddling with the Earth-1 Lincoln Lee’s hair, to make him look more like his counterpart. Such an affectionate gesture, and in keeping with this episode’s whole doppelgänger theme.
- Just when I was getting excited about having Fringe back, I have to leave it behind for a week so that I can visit my own personal Earth-2: the Sundance Film Festival. I’ll leave you in the capable hands of… well, that’s still up in the air. But there are three exemplary candidates for the gig, and each one of them has my support. Plus, almost every time I take a week off from Fringe, the show delivers one of its best episodes. So, fingers crossed….