How has it taken Fringe this long to use the word “palimpsest?” It’s such a wonderfully Fringe-y idea: texts or images inscribed over the remnants of other texts or images, such that with the right technology and a goodly amount of patience, a motivated person could scrape off the new and reveal the old. Fringe has always been about a number of different philosophical and scientific ideas, all tied to the question of what makes us human. But two themes in particular persist: how much we can modify our bodies and still remain “ourselves,” and how much of “ourselves” remain present in the universe even after we’re gone. “The End Of All Things” engages both intellectually and emotionally with both of those themes, thanks in part to a memory disk containing a piece of video that seems to show nothing, but that—palimpsest-like—holds a clue to a mystery, buried beneath layer after layer of pixels.
The palimpsest in this case is that disk, removed from a camera that has apparently been installed for a while in Olivia Dunham’s apartment. When Peter finds the camera and the chip, he checks out the video on it, seeing only an empty living room. But once he realizes that the camera has been programmed to record over the same chip on a loop, Peter goes ghost-hunting, and finds a face, which the FBI identifies as a man named “Leland Spivey,” who died three years ago. Leland (played by Monte Markham) is an associate of Mr. Jones, but Peter and the rest of the Fringe team don’t know that yet, and decide to table the mystery of Leland Spivey until after they solve the mystery of “Where the hell is Olivia?”
Olivia herself is yet another palimpsest in “The End Of All Things.” David Robert Jones pretends to torture Nina Sharp in order to engage Olivia’s emotions and thus provoke her telekinetic abilities, but the gambit fails because Olivia’s consciousness has been recently over-written, thanks (perhaps) to Peter. Olivia can roughly remembers the facts of her life with Nina, but she has no emotional connection to those facts, because doesn’t feel like she experienced them firsthand. (“It’s like looking a photo album of somebody else’s life,” Olivia explains.) So she asks Nina to make her feel, and there follows an enormously touching scene in which Nina describes the first night that little Olive and her sister came to live with her. In addition to some fine acting by Blair Brown and Anna Torv, the scene is fascinating for what’s actually happening here: Olivia is trying to scrape down to the version of herself that’s been recorded over, while Nina’s trying to create some associations in Olivia’s mind, playing off the theory that empathy, coupled with Olivia’s faulty memory, can reshape the mind of the Olivia in front of her.
This has always been fascinating to me, the way Fringe seriously weighs who we are and why we are. I like that nothing’s ever as easy as the theoreticians hope on this show. Understanding that there’s a parallel universe is one thing; but reaching across to it is really damn hard. Olivia knowing that she has special mental powers doesn’t mean that she can exercise those powers at will. From the very first episode, there’s been a spit-and-bailing-wire aspect to the technology on Fringe, and a sense of genuine delight when one of Walter’s crazy contraptions works, especially since they rarely work exactly as they’re supposed to.
In this episode, Nina and Olivia’s empathy plan is a washout, for any number of reasons, but primarily because this Nina Sharp is not the Nina who raised Olivia (and, moreover, Ourlivia is not Amberlivia). This Nina is the one who’s been in cahoots with David Robert Jones all along, which Olivia figures out when Nina gets one key fact about their past relationship wrong. Olivia then tells Mr. Jones and Nina that the only way she provide them with a demonstration of her powers is if they bring Peter to her. Once they do, Olivia goes full Carrie on their asses, freeing herself and Peter and forcing Jones and Sharp to scurry back to their own universe.
It’s not a wholly happy ending though, because after using her powers, Olivia seizes up, which is further evidence to Peter that this is not his Olivia, and that he’s been affecting this Olivia’s life for the worse. But just as Evil Nina couldn’t force an emotional connection on Olivia, so Peter can’t sever one. “I’m in love with you and I can’t just turn that off,” she pleads with him, to no avail. Again, this is so very Fringe-y: the way that human emotions and human error gum up our plans, no matter how precisely we draw them.
In fact, human error may be mostly to blame for this whole Peter/Olivia fiasco, resulting from Peter’s possible misinterpretation of what the Observer code-named September tells him about his destiny. In yet another rich and remarkable scene in “The End Of All Things,” the wounded September stumbles into the Fringe lab and lapses into unconsciousness, near death. Peter pulls a Walter, and ventures into September’s mind, even though he knows that if the Observer dies with him in his head, he could die too. During the brief time he has with September, Peter witnesses The Big Bang and learns that The Observers are from far in the future, representing a possible path that humanity will take. (They’re not The First People; they’re The Last People.) September goes on to explain that Peter was never meant to father a child with Fauxlivia, which is why he had to be erased from the timeline. But Peter is important to the future, provided that he pairs up with the proper Olivia.
Peter takes this to mean that it would be disastrous for him to pursue a relationship with Amberlivia, even if she now has the consciousness of Ourlivia. But I’m not so sure that’s what September meant. Peter gets yanked out of the Observer’s head (and the Observer’s body suddenly disappears) before he’s able to explain himself fully, but I’m betting that if Peter had asked the right questions in the time the two of them had together, he’d have learned that he actually has the right Olivia now.
Anyway, it wouldn’t be Fringe without these kinds of missed connections. What I mainly take away from the scene between Peter and September is the former’s sense of awe both at the dawn of creation and the images of the son that no longer exists. This is all so beautiful. And of course we get the essential information that the Observers are human after all, not aliens or robots or balls of energy. But of course we should’ve realized this already. September is a scientist, tasked to watch the past and not intervene, and yet he couldn’t stop himself from talking to Walternate, which set in motion the events that led to September saving Peter’s life. Nearly everything that’s happened since then has been the result of people trying to fix mistakes. The mistakes are a big part of what makes us human. The fixing even moreso.
- This season has been fiendishly clever in the way everything connects. In this episode we have a technology-based version of the deja-vu-like phenomenon we saw earlier in season four, in which people were experiencing events slightly ahead of when they were actually happening. Here Peter is drilling down deep within a piece of video to find the events of the past. It’s all about echoes and premonitions this year.
- Peter assures Walter that the Observers have human physiology, citing the Walter from his own timeline. “I suppose I have no reason to doubt myself,” Walter muses.
- Is this something to file away for later? When September’s body disappears from the lab, a table falls over for no apparent reason.
- I watched the episode a second time just now, and when Nina talks about Olivia calling her by her first name for the first time, the look of disappointment on Olivia’s face is heavy. It’s clear she knows at that moment what’s really up.
- (The episode holds up well the second time through, by the way, though it struck me as a little explanation-y in its first 15 minutes. After that, it soars.)
- David Robert Jones shrugs off being shot by Olivia before he crosses back to Earth-2, saying, “There are some fringe benefits to having one’s body reassembled on an atomic level.” Get it? Fringe?
- Shorter September: “Proof of heaven, as you’re living, pretty women….”
- Mmmm… butter and rainbow sprinkle sandwich….