Fringe finds itself in an unusual, perhaps even untenable place as the show begins its fourth season. Last year, with dwindling viewership and dimming prospects of roping in newcomers via its case-of-the-week episodes, Fringe went weird in ways that were thrilling and dramatically risky. Since the first season, I’ve admired how Fringe has used the procedural format to explore what makes us human, by having its heroes investigate paranormal events that reveal the human body as a kind of meat-based machine, capable of alteration but not necessarily of transformation. Over the past two seasons, showrunners Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman have expanded that theme to encompass the overarching plot of the series, by telling stories about alternate universes and doppelgängers and shape-shifters and disembodied spirits. They’ve also dabbled in musicals, and animation, and timeline-jumping, and retro-looking flashbacks, proving that even their own show can bend yet still be recognizably itself. And through it all the creative team has deepened the characters and their relationships, such that Fringe is now wholly its own entity, no longer a just-clever-enough hybrid of The X-Files and Lost.
But in the process, Fringe has shed some of the mysteries-within-mysteries approach that once anchored the series. We no longer need to ask what “the pattern” is, or what happened to Peter Bishop as a boy, or where William Bell has disappeared to, or many of the other questions that used to drive the narrative forward. At the end of last season—in a finale that I liked, and that most of you seemed to like, but that the majority of my critic pals found profoundly disappointing—those questions were replaced with one big new one, as Peter Bishop brought the show’s two universes together and then promptly blinked out of existence. So Fringe going forward has to answer the question of what happened to Peter, and what these worlds are like with him gone, and whether the two Earths can co-exist and… well, not much else. Yes, The Observers and The First People are still huge and largely unexplored parts of the mythology, but over the first three seasons, Fringe used its cases and mini-arcs to help establish the decades-old conflict between Earth-1 and Earth-2, and now that the conflict is more or less out in the open, is this still the same show?
The season four premiere, “Neither Here Nor There,” tries to pretend that Fringe is still Fringe, and while I enjoyed the episode overall—largely because it’s just such a treat to have be back in this world with these people—I’m not sure it was wholly successful in its attempt to play by the old rules. After an opening exchange between Olivia and Fauxlivia where they exchange boxes of files, bicker about “trust,” and accuse each other’s Earths of causing all the trouble between them, “Neither Here Nor There” settles in to a fairly typical Fringe COTW-er, complete with Freak-Meet.
In this case, the Freak is quickly and aptly dubbed The Translucent Man by Earth-1’s Fringe Division. His M.O.? Draining the blood of his victims, leaving them dead and… well, translucent. Sort of like a science class anatomy model. As Olivia investigates, she learns that there’s actually more than one Translucent Man on the loose, and she learns that these creatures can change form, adopting the appearance of the people they killed with the help of some kind of alien-looking mechanical device inside their bodies. They’re like the old Earth-2 shape-shifters, in other words, except that their changes take a while to go into effect. At the end of the episode, Olivia meets Fauxlivia again at the “bridge” between the two universes, and all but accuses Walternate of re-starting the Crisis On Two Earths. Fauxlivia smiles cockily, neither confirming nor denying, though it’s pretty clear that she has no idea what Olivia is talking about.
So that’s the superficial mystery-plot in “Neither Here Nor There”—a slight one, but reasonably effective. But if you’re like me (or any other longtime Fringe fan, I’ll wager), you were less attentive to the main story in this episode than you were to what it revealed about the series’ larger story. What’s changed, in the absence of Peter Bishop? Without Peter, what’s the source of the beef between the two universes? How much of what we’ve previously seen on Fringe actually happened?
As to the biggest question of all—Where’s Peter?—that’s addressed obliquely, in a subplot that sees The Observers trying to erase all traces of Peter from the timeline (apparently using a makeshift machine that requires an electron-gun from an old television set, because Fringe loves its obsolete tech, and also because there’s something meta-symbolic about using a piece of a TV to eradicate a character from a TV show). In the meantime, we get the occasional Peter-flicker, as he pops up in the periphery of scenes for a split-second, or haunts people when they look at their reflections.
The rest of the questions are answered only in hints and fragments, if at all. For example, there’s the matter of Lincoln Lee. Prior to the season three finale, Olivia Dunham had met the Lincoln of Earth-2, and the Lincoln of Earth-1 had met Olivia (sort of… her body was occupied by William Bell at the time). Now though, according to The Observers, “things changed,” and Olivia and Lincoln 1.0 don’t know each other at all. Why? No explanation… yet.
As a result, we get the pleasure of re-meeting Lincoln Lee, an FBI agent who works alongside his partner Robert Danzig in a remote Connecticut office. Lincoln ribs Robert for his slow breakfast habits—“Toast takes time,” he cracks, before telling Robert’s son that “If we don’t catch the bad guys, there might not be any toast”—while Robert ribs him back that “According to a study, sarcastic people get more illnesses in their lifetime.” Then Robert gets killed by The Translucent Man, and Lincoln shows up at Walter’s lab to demand answers from Fringe Division, which is holding Robert’s body alongside more than 30 other victims.
Without Peter, Lincoln gets to serve the function of Olivia’s sounding-board and conscience for this episode. He talks about how Robert was like “family” and how Fringe Division’s order to hold these corpses (and classify their deaths as top secret) is leaving a hole in the lives of their families. And Olivia responds by telling Lincoln about how she lost a partner after a horrific incident on an airplane, and how since then she’s been alone with no one to talk to. Structurally, bringing Lincoln into the fold keeps “Neither Here Nor There” from being The Olivia Dunham Show. Thematically, it underscores how Olivia (and Walter, as we’ll see in a moment) are missing Peter, even though they don’t consciously realize it. This is a smart choice overall by the writers, I think. (And it helps that Lincoln is such a charismatic, energetic character, well-played by Seth Gabel.)
The Walter parts of this episode are fairly oblique, too, though I think all the information we need to track his sans-Peter backstory is there in plain sight. At one point Walter snaps, “People die. It happens. Sometimes they even die twice,” which to me implies that in this new reality, Walter still lost his son and still stole Walternate’s son, but that the Earth-2 Peter Bishop died as well. (This is backed up by The Observers saying “They can never know the boy lived to be a man” as their justification for erasing Peter altogether.) Now, with “nothing to tether him to the world,” Walter is every bit as batty as he’s been these past few seasons, only now he seems to be dangerously unstable as well. He never leaves the lab—he even sleeps in his office—and he tracks cases in the field remotely, via a camera and earpiece that Astrid wears. Perhaps that’s because he’s afraid to go out, though my reading is that Agent Broyles doesn’t want him to go out.
The concern that I think a lot of Fringe fans are going to have after watching “Neither Here Nor There” is that the show seems to be planning to proceed as though the previous three seasons didn’t happen the way we experienced them—that instead, some alternate version of the events of the past three seasons took place. Is Alt-Broyles still dead? What about William Bell? Where’s Nina and Brandon? Or the Lincoln Lee of Earth-2? Or Charlie of either Earth? A lot has been left unanswered by the back-to-basics approach of this episode, and those unanswered questions aren’t of the “deep secrets of the Fringe cosmos” variety, but more in the “Has the show we love been scrapped and replaced by an inexact copy?” vein.
Here’s why I’m not that worried: because of scenes like the one where Walter reanimates a dead pigeon for a minute, or the one where the team realizes that one of The Translucent Man’s victims had a commuter pass auto-renewed, briefly leading them to believe she’s still alive. The Mystery Of The Missing Peter ties directly into this recurring Fringe theme of how the organic and the inorganic can be dead and yet alive—resurrected and/or revived by memory, electricity, or the sheer will to revive. Even beyond whatever unexpected new direction the rest of the seasons hold, the soul of Fringe lives on even in this episode, in my opinion. That’s why right now I’m taking my cues to Fringe’s future from Lincoln Lee’s blood type: B-positive.
- I watched an online screener of this episode (and have one for next week as well), so I don’t know what music is in the final cut, but if it remains unchanged, the Fringe jukebox this week shuffled up “California Dreamin’” and “Rockin’ Robin.” Beyond the dropped “g”s, I can find no thematic connection between the songs or their possible link to the show’s overall narrative. Feel free to let me know what you think.
- The opening credits this week were neither red nor blue, but sort of… amber? Has the show been declared a Fringe Event and thus frozen?
- Speaking of Fringe’s color scheme, I liked the way we had alternately flashing blue lights and red lights in the background of one crime scene.
- Anyone want to suggest any meaning to the fact that the key witness to the assault on Nadine Park was named Olivia?
- “I’ll need to check her anus. Have that large lady there help you.” Welcome back, Fringe.