I thought Agent Broyles’ opening line tonight—“For those of you just joining us...”—was at once clever and useful. Clever because it winked at the audience a little, acknowledging that Fringe is about to wrap up Season One, and that the show is going to be bringing a bunch of storylines together, and potentially confusing all the latecomers (and lazy American Idol fans) who haven’t watched the previous 18 episodes. And yet it was useful because, hey, it’s always nice to get a recap.
“The Road Not Taken” begins with a quick slideshow reminder of all the freakiness associated with what Broyles has dubbed “The Pattern,” along with a synopsis of the new reality: that Massive Dynamic head man William Bell—formerly a friend to Fringe Division, in the person of his spokeswoman Nina Sharp—appears to be behind the anarchic techno-terrorist organization ZFT, and is thus behind all the bad craziness that has kept our heroes employed since last September. And that would have to include tonight’s multiple Freak-Meets, involving ordinary women who happen to burst into flames.
Then the episode starts solving lingering Fringe mysteries left and right. Why does Walter’s typewriter match the only existing draft of the ZFT manifesto? Because it’s not Walter’s typewriter; it belonged to “Belly” back when they shared a lab. Why did William and Walter inject young Floridians with Cortexifan back in the ‘70s? Because they were trying to create an army of super-soldiers to face a coming catastrophe. And what the heck has Peter been building in the lab with poached equipment over the past couple of weeks? Some kind of super-high-tech version of an LP-to-MP3 burner, which uses an electron microscope to photograph and digitize the grooves on a record.
Peter gets to use his invention in a Walter-y way when Fringe Division is sent to an apartment where another woman has spontaneously combusted. Peter cuts a portion of the apartment’s window, figuring that the heat generated by the woman may have softened the glass to the point where the auditory vibrations inside the room have been deeply impressed into the pane. In short: the window contains a recording of what happened in that apartment. Plausible? No way. But definitely cool in that Fringe-y “Hey why not?” kind of way that has made the show such a pleasure so often this season. Plus I liked Walter’s inappropriate reaction after Peter’s first attempt to use the machine shatters the glass. (“That could’ve been one of my records.”)
What I did not like so much about this episode was its big climactic scene, which was clumsily paced and staged. Using what Peter was able to lift off the glass, Olivia manages to track down one of the ZFT lackeys responsible for turning Boston women into tiki torches. And guess what? It’s that jerk-o Harris, back on the show after several weeks of not being an official pain-in-the-ass to Fringe Division. But no sooner has Harris' treachery been revealed than he’s set on fire by his pyrokinetic hostage (with help from Agent Dunham), following a poorly shot-and-edited gunfight and a too-brief suspense sequence in a locked room.
But that’s pretty much all I didn’t like about "The Road Not Taken." And if the Fringe folks had to shorten that sequence in order to give more time for the damn-near-tragic scene that follows between Olivia and Walter, than so be it. When Olivia grilled Walter on what he and Bell hoped to combat with their experiments on kids, and Walter sobbed, “I can’t remember,” it was easily John Noble’s finest moment in the series to date. Even when Fringe was iffy in the early going, Noble’s always been a reliable standout. He’s set a tone that the rest of the cast has come to follow, to beneficial effect.
As for my favorite parts of “The Road Not Taken,” those would have to be the scenes of suddenly “activated” Cortexifan guinea pig Olivia Dunham, now experiencing two realities simultaneously. At one moment, there’s one burn victim; at another, two. Desks are in different places; phones change color. There have been hints since the Mr. Jones episodes that Fringe is actually about parallel realities or other dimensions. Tonight, we saw a little bit of how that works, and to me, it was satisfyingly creepy.
And for all the questions this episode answered, it also raised some new ones, mostly involving The Observer, who Nina worries is appearing too much. (“Remember what happened last time?" she asks Broyles, who apparently does.) In fact, the episode ends with The Observer appearing in the lab, telling Walter that it’s time for him “to go.” But where? (And who are those masked men attacking Nina when she gets back from Broyles’ place?)
For a show that started out being a fairly dour procedural with wacky mad-scientist elements, Fringe has really worked its way into that fantasy/sci-fi sweet-spot, where its own forward momentum makes the ridiculous look likely and arcane mythology seem well-worth the time to sort through and analyze. After all, as Walter notes, what is a myth but “just an unverified fact?”
-Lab rule #1: Do not borrow Walter’s equipment without asking.
-I’m not buying Walter’s explanation of the phenomenon of deja vu. I’ve never experienced it as a “road not taken.” Of course deja vu usually happens to me when I’m sitting around the house, watching TV, so my alternative timeline would probably involve some cable channel shuffling its schedule.
-Am I crazy or did I see Mr. Jones’ light-box beside the pyro at the warehouse? (Perhaps it was shown more clearly and I missed it, but I only saw it for a split-second. That’s the peril of taking notes while watching a TV show.)
-Walter food update: He drinks some kind of massive Slushie at the first Freak-Meet site. And he demands Frankenberry to help him remember the ‘70s better. (Though he has to settle for Berry Boom.)
-Clint Howard’s brief appearance as a conspiracy-spouting loon who believed he was living in an episode of Star Trek was a bit of meta cross-promotion that I did not care for.
-There’s something strange in your neighborhood. Who you gonna call?
-Sadly—for me, anyway—I won’t be able to bring you home with Fringe. I’ll be out of town and away from my TV next Tuesday night. But I’ll leave you in the more-than-capable hands of Zack Handlen, who filled in for me before just when Fringe started getting good. If we’re all lucky, the show will level-jump again with Zack covering it.