We’ve only ever known one Walter Bishop, really. When we met first met Walter, he was shaggy and shaky, but he was still fundamentally our Walter, and while we’ve seen him blossom under Peter’s care—and regress without him—the baseline Walter for us has always been this gentle, sugar-addicted drug-enthusiast with brilliant ideas and a compassion so deep that it wounds him to remember the man he used to be. Our firsthand experience of that other Walter has been limited to a couple of flashbacks, some scenes with the doggedly stern Walternate, and the chilling last act of tonight’s “Letters Of Transit.”
As Fringe fans likely know, tonight’s episode was the 19th produced for the fourth season, which puts in the same slot as season two’s musical “Brown Betty,” and season three’s animated “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide.” The big gimmick in “Letters Of Transit” is that it’s set in 2036, some 20 years after The Observers flooded back through time and took over the Earth. As gimmicks go, the time-jump doesn’t quite measure up to what Fringe has offered before, if only because the show has already done a spontaneous time-jump, in last season’s controversial finale. But there’s still an awful lot to like about “Letters Of Transit,” from the John Carpenter-style score to the sly nods to Casablanca. The episode also features a terrific performance by Lost favorite Henry Ian Cusick, strong direction from Joe Chappelle, and a script by Fringe honchos J.H. Wyman, Jeff Pinkner and Akiva Goldsman that largely avoids the clunky exposition that Fringe often leans on when it drops us into a new world. (This episode’s not devoid of clunk; but it does reasonably well at minimizing it.)
Nevertheless, these kinds of Fringe episodes tend to be divisive, so in the spirit of the multiverse, permit me to offer three different arguments: two in favor of “Letters Of Transit,” and one opposed.
1. It’s pointless!
At the moment, we don’t know if Fringe is going to get a fifth season, which means that after tonight we’ve only got three more episodes to (potentially) wrap up everything this series has been setting up regarding David Robert Jones, the manimal cult, The First People, Peter’s universe-altering purpose, the war between the Earths, the prophecy of Olivia’s death, and roughly a dozen other plots and sub-plots. And yet “Letters Of Transit” opens with the following crawl:
They came from the future. At first they only watched. Arriving at key moments in human history. We called them OBSERVERS. But in 2015 they stopped watching… and seized control. Citizen uprisings proved bloody and futile. Those who survived became known as “Natives.” In an attempt to show their allegiance, some Native factions became “Loyalists” and were marked by the OBSERVERS. The original FRINGE TEAM fought the invasion, but was quickly defeated. FRINGE DIVISION was allowed to continue at a reduced capacity, but only to police the Natives. The resistance was quickly overcome… or so they thought.
What the hell, people?
Look, the mystery of who The Observers are and what they want is a major part of the Fringe mythology, but this sudden visit to a future where The Observers are malevolent and dictatorial feels awfully left-field, and hints at a lot more plot than the show will have time to address in the (roughly) two hours and 10 minutes of screen time left this season. It’d be one thing if we got to spend a lot of time with the future versions of our main characters, to get a hint of what might become of them. But instead, we get a bit of Old Broyles (still a Fringe Division boss, and reluctantly in cahoots with one of the head Observers, Captain Winmark) and Old Nina (a top figure at the Ministry Of Science, and a covert supporter of the resistance), while most of our time is spent with two resistance-minded Fringe agents, Simon and Henrietta. The former (played by Cusick) was motivated to fight against the Observers when was a student at Stanford in 2015, after he watched “the purge” go down on television. The latter (played by Georgina Haig) lost her parents in said purge when she was only four years old, and has spent her entire career chasing the mythical heroes of the original Fringe Division, one of whom is delivered to her at the start of the episode, frozen in amber.
The frozen one is Walter Bishop, the core Fringe character we see the most here. His brain appears to be damaged, but Old Nina points Simon and Henrietta to the original Massive Dynamic HQ, where the hunk of brain that William Bell hacked out of Walter remains in storage. Simon is able to use that hunk to bring Walter’s intellect back, so that Walter can guide them to where the rest of the team is frozen, and free Peter and Astrid. And… that’s pretty much it. This episode ends with the events of the future largely unresolved, and since we’re unlikely to return to future-world this year, chances are that not much of what we learned about 2036 tonight will be relevant in the weeks to come. Just as time seems to be running out too quickly on this season, so this episode ends just when it seems to be getting somewhere.
2. It’s essential!
Rumor has it that Fringe is going to be picked up for a shortened fifth and final season, in which case the events of “Letters Of Transit” might well matter quite a bit. After all, we do find out that The Observers poisoned the planet in 2609, then traveled back to take over ours, which is huge. We meet Henrietta, the daughter of Peter and Olivia, and discover that she has the ability to shield her true thoughts from The Observers. (“Agent, you are always exactly what you seem,” Winmark says to her.) We learn that Walter and the others froze themselves in amber in 2016, at a time when Walter was working on a machine to beat back The Observers. We know that Walter saved the world once (“but not without great consequence,” according to Old Nina). We see Simon sacrifice himself to free Peter from the amber. (How Biblical!) And, most significantly, we see that one of the people in amber alongside the rest of the team is William Bell, who apparently did something so unforgivable involving Olivia that Walter refuses to free him, and only brings along his severed hand, presumably for fingerprint purposes.
Even beyond the master-plot implications though, “Letters Of Transit” extends one of the major themes of Fringe, which is how our memories and personalities persist, even in different forms, and even after we die. Walter Bishop survives first as a legend, and then as flesh-and-blood. And when The Observers surround our heroes at Massive Dynamic and are given the order, “Shoot first… I’ll read them later,” the line reaches back to the very early days of Fringe, when we learned that death does not preclude interrogation. There’s always something left behind.
3. Who cares? It’s fun!
Pardon me for dragging out my old broken record (just for one paragraph, I promise). I have nothing but respect for my critic friends—and for some of you—who haven’t enjoyed this season of Fringe because you say you can’t connect to the characters anymore after their changes at the end of season three. Honestly, I bear no grudges. But I just don’t feel the same way. It’s like comedy: If you don’t laugh at a joke, I’m going to have a hard time convincing you it’s brilliant. If you have no interest in the characters on a serialized show, I can’t make you feel for their plight. For me, as I’ve said before, my only issue with the new timeline has been all the time the writers had to spend early in the season catching us up with what had changed. I’ve never had trouble thinking of Walter as Walter, or Olivia as Olivia, no matter what’s been different about them. Maybe if this were a different kind of show I’d feel differently, but Fringe is a show about those degrees of variation—the fringes between life and death, human and inhuman, self and not-self, et cetera—so I’ve found it all intellectually engaging. And I tend to appreciate shows that give me something to think about more than ones that try to play on my emotions. (I also don’t care all that much about the real and perceived plotholes that Peter’s disappearance and reappearance have created, because as was the case when I wrote about Lost, I’m not overly concerned with plausibility when it comes to sci-fi. Your mileage may vary, naturally.)
So regardless of whether “Letters Of Transit” ends up being the key to the entire series or just a digression that leads nowhere, what ultimately matters to me is whether or not it’s an entertaining episode—and to me, “Letters Of Transit” passes that test easily. I enjoyed the appearance early on of a club owner named “Rick,” which (along with the episode title) seemed to be setting us up for more of a direct Casablanca homage than we ultimately got. I enjoyed Walter scarfing red licorice, asking for Ring Dings, wondering if his brain fragments are “monkey feces,” and popping pills without needing much prompting. A lot of what makes Fringe so fun is on display here.
And I especially appreciated the further look into who Walter Bishop really is. The addle-pated man who emerges from the amber at the start of the episode is so happy, and takes such joy in simple pleasures, and yet as we see when he idly fixes Old Nina’s broken hand, he’s not useless. He’s just Walter. Given time and nurturing, he might’ve snapped back into focus on his own. Instead, Simon rushes the process by restoring Walter’s brain with the piece he’d purposefully extracted, and in an instant, we get to see the Walter that he tried so hard to stop himself from being: a man who is cunning but hard, and more concerned with his mission than with the people by his side. Walter all but abandons Simon and Etta while he constructs a makeshift device that blips out the entire Massive Dynamic building and everyone in it; and he shows no concern as he effectively slaughters his enemies. Contrast that to the guy who smiles at the sun and hops along a curb, and the gap between the two is heartbreaking.
Yet, back at the storage facility where the Fringe team has been amber-ed, Walter calls Astrid “Astro.” And when Old Broyles arrives later to investigate, he finds a hunk of red licorice at the crime scene. That hunk of licorice? That’s Walter. And that’s Fringe. No matter what changes, the show leaves pieces of its true self strewn about.
- Alternate realities mean alternate credits! Here, we find out that in the future world, the oddities include “community,” “private thought” and “free will.”
- Is the existence of “coffee chews” but no coffee an indicator that this timeline is not an Earth-1 timeline? My feeling is no, because of the presence of Peter and Bell and Walter’s brain-hunk. If anything, the shot of Bell in amber is a cue that this is the same timeline that we’ve been watching this whole season, and that in the Peter-less world, Bell never died. I guess the real lesson here is that no matter what we do, we’re doomed to a world with no coffee. (In the meantime, I’m going to drink all the tripleshot lattes I can.)
- What are we supposed to make of Winmark’s response to Old Broyles’ question, “What did you do in the future to get yourself such a crap detail?” He says—if I heard him right—“I like animals.” Is that a reference we should get, or a clue to something we’ll find out about later? (Something to do with the manimal army, perhaps?)
- Also, say what you like to Captain Winmark, but I’d advise you not to spit on him.