Fringe: “Worlds Apart”

Fringe: “Worlds Apart”

I’m never always sure how much my love of Fringe is due to it being such a well-acted, well-shot, cleverly written show, and how much is because it pushes a lot of my geek buttons. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been a hardcore sci-fi guy, or fantasy, or horror—except in movies, and to some extent TV. My boyhood obsession was superhero comics, and in particular the team books: Fantastic Four, X-Men, Teen Titans and Justice League Of America. Fringe draws heavily on elements familiar to me from all four of those titles, in particular the classic Earth-1/Earth-2 “crisis” issues of JLA. So even if “Worlds Apart” hadn’t been an exciting, emotional episode, I think I would’ve loved it just for all the scenes of the two Fringe teams sitting around a conference table—just like the Justice League and the Justice Society used to do once a year—making decisions about the fate of their respective worlds. (All that was missing was a tiny chair floating about the table, for The Atom.)

That “Worlds Apart” is an exciting, emotional episode is a bonus—as is the way it seems to resolve some of this season’s storylines while setting up the upcoming two-part season finale. Note that I said season. As I’m sure you’ve all heard, we’re getting a 13-episode fifth and final season of Fringe, which is such terrific news that I’ve been a little giddy about it for the past 24 hours. I approach this show as a critic, but I’m also a fan, so I’m thrilled to see that the Fringe creators will be able to bring this series to a real conclusion. Though I have to admit: there was a sense of finality to tonight’s episode that left me convinced that had this been the final season of Fringe, the ending might still have been okay. But at least now we can be fairly confident that the time-jumping, almost non-sequitur-like “Letters Of Transit” won’t have been in vain. (I’ve already bumped up my grade as a result of the renewal. Also, I watched the episode again last night with my wife, who was out of town last week, and as often happens with Fringe, it looked even better on second viewing.)

The critic in me can’t help but question “Worlds Apart” on a couple of minor points. First off, this is a pedal-to-the-floor kind of episode, without much time for the philosophical elements I like to see in Fringe. (Not much to sort through thematically, in other words.) Second off, it ends conclusively, rather than tossing out a final twist to keep us on edge of our collective seats for the finale.

But do I really care about either of those points? Nah, not really. They’re matters of personal preference, not major aesthetic blunders. The critic and fan in me has no significant complaints about what was actually on the screen.

Plotwise, “Worlds Apart” brings the David Robert Jones plot to a head, explaining a little more about what our villain has in mind. At the start of the episode, Walter explains to the Earth-2 Fringers that he had a dream (illustrated by charmingly crude magic-marker drawings, on overhead projector slides) that Jones is planning to draw the two Earths together, to create a singularity and destroy both. More of the plan comes out as the episode progresses: How Jones is using Earth-1 Cortexiphan subjects to vibrate at a frequency that resonates with their Earth-2 counterparts, creating seismic activity in both universes; and how he’s got a “safe zone” set aside to house a select group of people, to make a new and better world. (As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, this essentially makes Jones another one of the utopian mad scientists that have dominated this season.)

The reason Jones can do this is because of the bridge between the universes, which presents the two Fringe Divisions with an obvious solution: shut down the machine and sever the connection, possibly forever. No one’s sure what effect this will have on the damaged Earth-2, but most likely it’ll stop the world from healing any further, which would be unfortunate. So to put that final decision off as long as possible, the Fringe teams try to track down The Cortexiphan All-Stars and see if they can stop all the vibratory activity before it rips the worlds apart. Helping them out? The Earth-2 version of our old reverse-empath friend Nick Lane, who’s been seeing through Earth-1 Nick’s eyes every time Nick and the other Cortexiphan-ers start shaking. Olivia’s always had a connection with our Nick, so Walter hooks her up to their Nick, so that she can guide the team to make an arrest.

As shot and played, this desperate dash to save two universes is thrilling, from the opening sequence of Jones’ army staking out positions around the planet, to the montage of Olivia seeing through Nick’s eyes while Fringe Division closes in (ending with Olivia actually seeing Nick get nicked). But nabbing one of Jones’ soldiers doesn’t stop the seismic activity, and with the collapse due to happen at any moment, everyone agrees that there’s no better option than to close the bridge.

I said that there’s not much going on thematically in “Worlds Apart,” but that’s not entirely true. Nick Lane makes for a poignant villain, especially when he’s insisting to “Olive” that he and Jones are actually on her side. But the very notion of his “reverse empathy” is also central to what’s really going on in this episode. Nick has the power to influence other people to feel what he feels, thereby directing their behavior. (The scene where Nick describes to Olivia how his suicidal feelings killed his sister is absolutely gut-wrenching; as is his escaping from custody by making the man guarding him feel miserable.) In a lot of ways, that’s what’s been happening between Earth-1 and Earth-2, as our heroes have gotten to know other versions of themselves, and have seen a little of what they’re missing from their own lives. In a spiritual sense, that’s what’s healing the universe, even moreso than the actual technology of Walternate’s big machine. These people have been projecting their feelings onto each other. And that’s what makes the closing of the bridge so much more sad than any of these characters probably expected.

What I mainly enjoyed about “Worlds Apart” were all the scenes of the two Fringe teams working side-by-side, even in the little throwaway moments (such as when everyone’s phone starts ringing about the earthquakes, and both Olivias say, “Dunham” back-to-back as they answer the call.) If this really is the last time we’re going to see Earth-2—which I hope isn’t the case—I savored every blinking transition from the ambered-up Harvard to our Harvard, and every exchange between the counterparts. Theirlivia and Ourlivia have a nice conversation about how the atmosphere of the two universes is different after it rains, and as they bid farewell to each other, Theirlivia admits that she admires a lot about Ourlivia, while Ourlivia tells her, “Keep looking up.” Then there’s Austrid timidly waving goodbye to Astrid, and Peter telling Lincoln—who’s decided to stay on Earth-2—that it’s been a pleasure getting to know him and being his friend. Then, in an instant, the bridge is gone, and half of the space where it used to be is damnably empty. What an accomplishment by the Fringe writers, to have given us enough time with all of the versions of these people to feel their sense of loss.

But the most touching moments in “Worlds Apart” involve Walter and Walternate. The former wears a tie when he crosses over to give his presentation about Jones, trying to look more professional for his double, though Walter still feels ashamed every time Walternate is in the same room with him, because he knows that the damage to Earth-2 (and the loss of Peter) is largely his fault. Yet in the end, it’s Walternate who takes Walter’s Jones-dream seriously, and Walternate who tells Walter that their Peter grew up to be a fine young man, and Walternate who—echoing Nick Lane in a way—suggests that “our life is what our thoughts make it.” The last scene between the two Walters is something that I’ve been waiting to see for years now, and John Noble nails both sides of the conversation. It’s now one of the whole series’ signature moments: Walter and Walternate, side-by-side. And I never saw the JLA/JSA crossovers do anything like that.

Stray observations:

  • How do you say amphilicite in Mandarin?
  • Love Walter using Break The Ice to explain the impending collapse.
  • More classic Walter: He puts a a sugar cube on Nick-2’s tongue, and then says, “Ever tried LSD?”
  • That was a very nice shot of Lincoln and his reflection, as Peter talks about where he’s going stay when the bridge closes.
  • An interesting scene when Earth-2‘s Nick Lane first shows up at Fringe Division, looking for Lincoln, whom he says he knew as a kid. Unless I’m mistaken, it seems that our Lincoln never knew our Nick, and so he lies when he says he knows their Nick, in order to put the man at ease.
  • Lincoln, explaining to Nick how to deal with Walter’s wonky science experiments: “I find it’s best if you just… go with it.” Good advice for Fringe fans as well. (Also on-point with Fringe is this note from Walter: “It’s horrible and deranged, but I think you will agree… it’s really quite ingenious.”)
  • If this was our last look at Earth-2, it was a sweet goodbye, but I really hope we’re not done. I feel like there’s more that needs to be accomplished with those characters. Plus, I’d miss Lincoln like crazy.
  • While researching Nick Lane, I looked back at my review of season one’s “Bad Dreams,” which introduced Nick and his creepy reverse-empathy. I liked that episode a lot—the first written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, as I recall—but what I found most interesting about my old review was what I wrote at the end. I thought you guys might like to read it as well, as a reminder of how far we’ve come since the first season (and, somewhat embarrassingly, as a reminder of how low-profile Pinkner and Wyman were back then in comparison to some of the bigger names who helped launch the show):

It looks like there’s a very good chance that Fringe will be renewed. The ratings are strong enough and the show has clearly found a voice. Now here’s my advice to Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman/etc.: Start prepping for the endgame. Even with the freak-of-the-week format, I don’t see Fringe as the kind of show that runs for a long time. Peter’s line tonight about how Walter’s babbling is “like listening to a broken record but the lyrics keep changing” reflects my standing criticism of Fringe’s first season. I think the show has found interesting ways to keep spinning its recurring motifs—its pattern, if you will—but I don’t think there’s unlimited potential here, and Fox isn’t exactly the kind of network that sticks with tricky genre series once the numbers start to go down. And they will go down, once Fringe loses its Idol lead-in next fall. The show’s too weird to be wildly popular. I hope it gets to go out on its own terms, and the best way to do that is to plan out a finite number of “mythology” stories and keep them at the ready. The producers can always commission more monster stories, but the tale of Walter and William and Peter and Olive has to have an arc and an end. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that the people in charge know what they’re doing. It's been an enjoyable ride so far.

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