Fringe Thinking: There's a Place

Now we're talkin'!

... was a great episode, probably the best since the Season Five opener. I'm sorry that I didn't get this post up sooner, but once I realized it wouldn't be within a couple of days after airing I decided to wait until the day of the next episode to maximize some semblance of relevance. The way we justify or rationalize things to ourselves, as fortune would have it, is also very relevant to what Peter's doing.

One of the reasons why the hour grabbed me, no doubt, was its integration of premises past and present. Fringe began as a case-of-the-week series not unlike The X-Files, albeit one with a bigger picture to be revealed. Soon enough the mythology came to the fore with a vengeance. The Observers and William Bell and Massive Dynamic and the Cortexiphan trials and David Robert Jones and the First People and what I called the Two-Worlds War between alternate universes all lay before us. The parallel Earth that came to figure so prominently in the show was only evoked in 5.06 by proxy — on which more in a few paragraphs — but as was the case with the previous week's installment the kind of scientific anomalies that our Fringe Division team was built around served to inform and enhance this brave new future world.

I'm also a sucker for Alice references, so that helped.

Digression: Not long ago, I was rarely aware of even a favorite TV series' episode titles. Most shows don't run them with the opening credits. They're something that fandom has latched onto, however, and you'd find them in episode guides. These days they're not only used in blogposts and wiki entries on a show but in links to watch episodes on Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, or a channel's own website as well as through your cable/etc. provider's On Demand service or, heck, just DVR listings.

So I knew before viewing it that this episode was titled "Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There" — an echo of the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. If you haven't actually read the 1871 volume, you may think that you're less familiar with its elements than with those of its 1865 predecessor, and to a certain extent you're probably right. But you might also be surprised, since the animated Disney feature Alice in Wonderland — by extension, too, other popular culture using that interpretation of the books as a touchstone (as much as if not more than using the books themselves) — actually conflates certain sequences in the second book with the first. The poem "Jabberwocky" is in Looking-Glass, for instance, and the Red Queen of Looking-Glass is often merged in riffs or adaptations with Wonderland's Queen of Hearts. [Just so other Alice fans, who can be an entirely appropriately exacting lot, don't charge me with oversimplification, I should mention that the 1951 Disney film was not the first nor the last film or stage production to merge elements of the two books.] Among my Alice posts, should the curious care to look, are a general one singing the books' praises and a review of the 2010 Tim Burton film smacking it down.

Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass begins with Alice traveling via a mirror to a realm very like (yet not exactly) the one she visited, or perhaps dreamt, in Wonderland. On the other side she finds that the drawing room she has entered is, unsurprisingly, the mirror image of the drawing room from whence she came, at least as far as she could tell when peering into the mirror from home; as she travels beyond that room, however, things become odder. Walter discovers much the same when he enters the "pocket universe" that he helped create — despite having no memory of doing so — although the quirks are less Lewis Carroll and more M.C. Escher, bending the known laws of physics yet not as cartoonishly bizarre as in Alice.

The way in which the hidden dimension is accessed echoes the episode's namesake as well, as the deliberate steps Walter takes reminded me of the way knight moves in chess — I admit, not an association I would necessarily have made without knowing the title. In contrast to the Queen of Hearts, who reigns over a court of playing cards, Through the Looking-Glass's Red Queen commands a chess game, and indeed on a supermacroscopic level Alice moves through the landscape of the book as if a pawn on a chessboard.

It's unavoidable that the terms "pocket universe" and "the other side" remind us of the alternate universe with which Olivia, Peter, Walter, Astrid, and the rest of Fringe Division at first did battle and then united during the meat of the series. Also called Over There, in contrast to Over Here (the show's version of the world we know, home to our primary cast), that universe was referred to as the Other Side. This pocket universe, however, is said to exist in "interdimensional space" — presumably adjacent to or between the proper universes, for lack of a better phrase, easier to access and less dangerous to exist in confluence with This Side than the Other Side.

I'm extremely curious about how Walter and the mysterious Donald — previously mentioned in "The Recordist"; heard and partly seen on videotape in this episode — created the pocket universe, which Walter describes as having designed rather than discovered. Cecil, the man thrown into the pocket universe and trapped after an assault on the apartment building, has never found a way out of the otherdimensional incarnation of the building; I believe Walter says that there isn't one. I doubt we'll revisit the place with so little time left in the series, but I'm also quite curious, curioser even, to see if that's true.

I'll devote the rest of this post to various scattershot observations (an unintentionally fraught choice of words if ever there was one).

Peter and Olivia, maybe the most wanted fugitives in the world, are still somehow able to hang out at Etta's New York City apartment without being found. Even given Capt. Windmark's satisfied smile at the end of the episode after he sees Peter exercise his new abilities, I'm not sure that this makes sense; Windmark might be happy with that turn of events, but it sure hasn't seemed like he's wanted our heroes to have free reign up to this point.

I wonder if Peter is all the more emotional looking at the holographic image of Etta because he fears that the Observer chip he implanted himself with will leave him unable to access his feelings.

Of course we got follow-up to what Peter did in the previous episode, a callback to 5.03 through the enigmatic Donald, and a continuation of Season Five's overall macguffin — which is actually a string of macguffins — in the latest videotape excavated from amber. We also got a revival of a classic Fringe case in the form of the (suspected, now confirmed) Observer boy, however, first seen in Season One's "Inner Child".

And the biggest nod of all to Fringe history might be the appearance of the glyphs that have been part of the show's commercial breaks from the beginning on the doors of the pocket-universe building. For some reason this delighted me in the extreme. I linked to an early attempt to decode the glyphs in my first post on Fringe, and while I've neglected to include translations of each episode's sequence of glyphs in my writeups so far I might rectify that. Even more intriguing than those translations, which tend to reflect an episode's plot or theme without actually revealing anything new, is the thought that the sequence in which we see the glyphs in the doors within the story of 5.06, particularly after Walter makes note of them, might spell out something useful; that just occurred to me, and I don't have time to play back the episode now to see if the theory pans out, but it would be way cool.

I'm not sure whether there was an issue of time distortion that needs to be addressed in terms of a discrepancy between the time Walter, Olivia, and Peter spend in the pocket universe and the time that elapses outside — or more properly a lack of a discrepancy, which itself would be the discrepancy. A few conflicting arguments come to mind, so we can leave that one to hash out in the comments section if anyone's interested.

During one shot of Peter with his hair mussed up — more specifically, fluffed out a bit — as he fought the Observer towards the end of the episode, I had two particular thoughts: One was that he quite resembled Walter, not only a nod to good casting but a reminder that, early on in Fringe, when we knew that something strange was up with Peter but not what, I suspected that he was a cloning experiment. The other was the question of whether he was going to lose his hair as his Observer-chip abilities progressed.

Walter is afraid that he's becoming like Walternate, the Walter Bishop of the Other Side, more ruthless and less human. Peter can't help but be ruefully bemused at this fear because he is literally becoming less human as the Observer tech he implanted in himself takes over his perceptions. The irony is that Walter's more benign nature is ascribed to his personality having been altered when parts of his brain were removed; now that they've been reintegrated — and that he has a mission that requires single-minded pursuit — he feels that he's losing the man that Peter helped him become, emotionally if not intellectually and physically. Peter has by contrast added to his brain and is becoming a new man because of that.

Clearly the Walter seen on the videotapes being recovered has a certainty of purpose if not actually a certainty of outcome. I've heard it suggested that he may actually be Walter from the future, Walter after the Walter that we're seeing in 2036 following the clues that he left for himself in 2015, closing the loop that allowed for this scavenger hunt to defeat the Observers-cum-Invaders by transporting himself or at least the tapes back 20 years. Donald may have some part in that. I'm not convinced by this, because a lot of preparation clearly has to have taken place in 2015, although I'm always up for that kind of twist. More compelling to me is the idea that despite the concern we're clearly supposed to have over Peter losing his humanity, sacrificing himself in the name of the mission, his plan works and, once it does, either he or Walter travel back to and/or communicate with their past selves to ensure that these events play out. If the Observers have always been the adversaries of our heroes that they turned out to be in this run of episodes, they may have wanted Peter eliminated from the timeline for their own benefit rather than due to, as was suggested at the end of Season Three, a kind of preservation of overall multiversal purity.

I've been remiss about crediting the writers and directors this season, but this week their names stood out more than most when they appeared on screen. Writer David Fury is well known to acolytes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — mostly behind the scenes, although he had a couple of memorable moments in front of the camera as well; he also wrote some of the most significant episodes of Lost's first season. Director Jon Cassar was a driving force behind 24, and directed over a dozen episodes of the cult-favorite La Femme Nikita series including the pilot.

This episode's glyphs spell out the word "split".

Previously in 'Fringe Thinking': Gimme Some Truth (Episode 5.05)
Next in 'Fringe Thinking': Borrowed Time (Episode 5.07)


  1. I quite liked this episode, but then I've pretty much liked all the episodes so far this season. I was unaware of the episode title, but I like the comparisons you've drawn, Blam. I have to confess to not having read either of Alice's adventures (well, not counting the Alice sections of The New Traveler's Almanac in LOEG vol 2, which were brilliant), and I may have to remedy that.

    The pocket universe was very cool, and I loved the little dance that Walter did to get into it. As far as when it was made, if it does in fact turn out that post-2036 Walter makes the tape, I'm certain that he must go back in time, or at least he lets pre-2016 Walter know what to do, because I went back and checked the video and the walls are intact in the first frame of the building in the video.

    But much more than that, what intrigues me most is what's happening to Peter. I'm not so much caring that he's sacrificing himself to save the world (he's a hero, they're supposed to do that), but more so about how it's affecting him emotionally (or lack there-of). Just watching the end of this episode again, I noticed that in Walter's speech to Peter, Peter barely reacts. Almost not at all, apart from what I've taken to be a latent reaction to Walter's plea. It was like (to me, anyway) that the person that was Peter is still there, but in the background, and that Peter knew that what was required by Walter was reassurance, and that Peter prompted Pete-server to respond in the expected way. That Peter was also the one who smiled at Olivia just then (and it's obvious that she knows something's up, and I'm certain that the next episode - which I'm about to watch - will address that). It's also that Peter, who I'm thinking has been in the background ever since the fight with the observer who tells him he's made a terrible mistake, that sees the (completely awesome) blue tinted train car, and it freaks him out. He shows the first bit of emotion (which just had to be fear) since before that fight. Even after he breaks the dude's neck, he just looks at his hands, blank faced, and then bamfs away. It's going to be very interesting seeing how Peter is going to deal with his new Peter-server personality, and whether he can maintain his humanity. Somehow, I think he might be the first of a new (relatively speaking) breed of observer.

    Also, another thing that I may have missed in the last season, but do you think Olivia's powers will manifest themselves again?


  2. I'm counting on the fact that Olivia's powers will manifest themselves again — but quite possibly in vain. As neat as what they're doing with Peter is, and despite the fact that in many ways the whole premise of the series hinges on Walter, and as much as this is an ensemble focused on the trio, the star of this series is Olivia and I've been surprised by her getting short shrift this season. I really hope that the show is merely holding back on her a bit in the first half of the season so that the other characters can shine before she takes center stage in the second half.

    I've pretty much liked all the episodes so far this season

    While I haven't disliked them — except kind-of for "The Recordist" — I just tend to think that after a neat (re)introduction to the 2036 setting in the season opener, with that killer Yazoo song in the final scene, it's been, perhaps inevitably I keep saying, a bit lackluster in comparison to the Fringe that we knew. If it were actually a new show it might not suffer under those standards, but then again we wouldn't have the emotional connection to the characters and the mythology. So much feels like it's missing, because the core of the show was so inextricably tied to the Walter's early well-meaning but devastating follies — the kidnapping of Peter and the Cortexiphan trials — that to have the parallel universe and Olivia's powers completely absent from the whole scenario now just leaves a big hole where a pink elephant should be... or something.

    I noticed that in Walter's speech to Peter, Peter barely reacts.

    And yet I found it notable that Peter called Walter "Dad", something that he rarely does and is clearly born of concern. I suspect that on the train we were seeing the last of Peter's emotional connections flicker through before the Observer chip really kicked in.


  3. but quite possibly in vain

    I meant that I'm quite possibly counting on it in vain, not that her powers would manifest again but in vain, although that's a possibility too.

    Like I've said in previous writeups, I know that part of why this season feels a bit detached from the previous four is that we were given a satisfying conclusion to those four seasons, and I can't blame the showrunners for not just going back and rehashing stuff with William Bell or the Other Side, yet the result is still that this season feels rather tangential. I would love some more greatest-hits "fan service" in part because I trust the crew to do it so well. So I hold out hope that we'll get more callbacks if not a surprise grand unified plotline.

  4. I read a bunch of Fringe reviews around the Web and most folks liked this episode a lot less than you did. Maybe I liked it a little less than you did, but I didn't dislike it the way they did. I guess mostly I want more for Olivia to do.

    Your take on the Alice stuff was great. Good point about the trend towards awareness of episode titles, too — hell, good points about everything! These writeups are really blowing me away, both the plot points and the digressions.

    For my part I can't hear "Pocket Universe" without thinking of Byrne's whole Superboy/Superman Time Trapper maneuver, which was a neat idea that went a little weird.

    I really hope that whatever the deal is with Donald it isn't a letdown.

    Your compare-and-contrast with what Peter and Walter are going through was a nice insight.

    The Observers potentially wanting to eliminate Peter from the timeline for their own purposes is a great call and a suspicion that I not only share but rather hope for as I really want this season to tie into previous season as much as possible. September may have not only grown attached to him and the rest of the Fringe team on a personal level unusual for his kind but may have had more knowledge or at least concern of those nefarious purposes than he could let on.

    I found myself actually taking notes as I read through your post and still feel like I haven't addressed everything that's worth talking about.

  5. I'm clearly not alone in missing Olivia as the centerpiece of the series, both from your comments and reading others online. Also, I forgot to mention that you're right, Blam, about how ridiculous it is for the Observers not to have people watching Etta's apartment constantly. I'd respond to Batcabbage's talk about Peter but there's another episode writeup to get to and it makes more sense to continue there.

    Great stuff!


  6. I appreciate the kind words, Arb.

    For my part I can't hear "Pocket Universe" without thinking of Byrne's whole Superboy/Superman Time Trapper maneuver, which was a neat idea that went a little weird.

    Ditto. And I almost brought that up in the post, but there was plenty of material to discuss already, especially with the Looking-Glass stuff, without having to get into explaining that for a general audience.