Last Friday's penultimate episode of this fifth and final season of Fringe on Fox spotlighted crucial moments in time.
We visited the Invaders' future headquarters in 2609 with Windmark. We learned of the discovery in 2167 that sent humanity down the path of suppressing emotion in favor of clinical analysis, ultimately leading to the Invaders' subjugation of their ancestors in 2015. And we revisited, from the perspective of 2036 and Season Five, the fateful moment in 1985 on Reiden Lake back when the Invaders were merely Observers, the plural was a singular, and the Observer who would come to be known as September rescued Walter and his son from another universe, through the title of the episode...
We also metaphorically revisited Olivia & Peter's day in the park with Etta in 2015, a memory that's virtually been a recurring cast member this season. It's always savvy of a show to let us know that it knows what we're thinking; having Olivia be overwhelmed by the prospect of potentially getting her daughter back — a "reboot" plot point that's been discussed among fans since Etta's demise — was no exception. My only concern is that such an overt mention of the possibility somehow makes it feel, by the rules of dramatic writing, less likely to happen.
I'm sure, by the way, that if you arithmetically manipulate 2609, 2167, 2036, 2015, and 1985 in the right fashion you can end up with 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42, 108, or 815. But Lost is so three years and one colossally disappointing sixth season ago. The number that caught my eye in "The Boy Must Live" was the one on the apartment door of Donald, the former September: 211. While I don't really expect the years to have hidden significance, 211 is a number that plugs neatly into the season/episode format, and much like young Michael, the Observer Boy, Anomaly XB-6783746, Fringe Episode 2.11 was an irregularity — filmed at the end of Season One, it aired on a special night during Season Two out of continuity with the show's ongoing plot. An intentional reference in status and episode title, "Unearthed", or total coincidence? I have no idea. I didn't actually see if "6783746" was a phone number when the previous episode aired, either, partly because the "XB" suggested a Go Go Gophers emoticon more than it did an area code.
There is much to consider in "The Boy Must Live" that is not as ridiculous as the preceding paragraph. I'll try to take it in roughly the order presented.
Walter entered the sensory-deprivation tank, a prop that hearkens back to Fringe's first episode. The image of Olivia floating was even used in print ads. Skin is not unusual in a TV show's pilot even if it ends up unusual for the show on the whole — Dana Scully and Temperance Brennan, two of Olivia Dunham's forebears on Fox, were shown in their bras in the X-Files and Bones pilots — and Fringe was no exception. Olivia stripped down to a bikini to have her memories jogged back then; 5 years later (well, 28 years in-story... but still only 7 or 8 years to the characters... Aaarrggh!!!), Walter saw her skivvies and, uh, raised her one — a poor choice of words that Walter would doubtless appreciate.
I enjoyed seeing the floating metallic letters identifying the location (in this instance, of place and time) during Windmark's trip home to 2609 Manhattan written in Observer script as well as English letters and Arabic numerals. As mentioned in my very first Fringe review, J.J. Abrams took the conceit — also used in Alias and his Star Trek movie — from Panic Room, so there's something else you can blame Kristen Stewart for.
Nobody who's been reading these posts or otherwise heard me ramble on about Fringe Season Five will be surprised that I'm thrilled Walter now remembers the original timeline thanks to Michael's little mind-meld memory jog. His scene with Peter in the alley was just lovely, and I enjoy seeing him so happy, whole, and untroubled — even if that demeanor doesn't quite square with what we learn later in the episode, that Walter believes he will have to die for the plan to succeed and is not untroubled about that.
I was also thrilled to see September, alias Donald, interacting with our time-tossed rogue Fringe Division freedom fighters on a human level, recalling his and Walter's genuine friendship. It's hard not to love the thought of them watching Singin' in the Rain, from which September took his 21st-century exile name Donald O'Connor. Whether he took the whole thing, Donald David Dixon Ronald O'Connor, is unknown, although Windmark totally looks like a John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
Did it seem to anyone else, however, that Donald/September was convincing Walter a bit too unconvincingly that Walter had previously insisted he sacrifice himself? I don't want to think ill of September, and it's possible that at worst he's putting tragic events in motion for the greater good, but something felt hinky about that conversation — triggering the part of my brain that's always looking for plot-twist evidence and suggesting that maybe, just maybe, sadly maybe, September is looking out for Number One (or Number 211), having grown too attached to his new lifestyle and learned too well how to deceive.
You might think that September was acting to preserve his own progeny, Michael, above all else. And perhaps rather than an act of self-sacrifice Michael's move to ditch his guardians on the train at the end of the episode was part of a secret scheme September had silently communicated to him. Is that palm-to-palm touch just a gesture of greeting and farewell, or is it some kind of psychic connection? Having a hidden agenda doesn't really square with September revealing the intricate plan to bring Michael to a lab in Norway in 2167, though, to stop the genetic tampering that would lead to the predicament of 2036; Walter didn't remember much of the plan, and if September/Donald just wanted to string along Walter, Olivia, Peter, and Astrid (of whom there was too little, as usual), he needn't have gone into such detail. I'm probably seeing something that isn't there and without the help of any Black Blotter at that.
Further complicating things is that right after the revelation that Michael was September's offspring, making us even more sympathetic to him/them and drawing a stark parallel with the Peter & Walter Bishop relationship, September launched into a description of the plan that really used Michael as more of a thing than a person; he spoke about Michael as if the perennial child weren't in the same room and as if his (d)evolution to Donald hadn't excised much of the clinical Observer perspective after all. It's also weird, from both directions, that September had such affection for this son of his that he squirreled him away in a pocket dimension — and then put him up with a couple on a rustic Massachusetts island — 600 years before his native era until such a time as Walter followed the bread crumbs. Or something; I'm afraid that it all falls apart a little when you realize that September must've taken Michael out of the pocket-dimension bedroom for good reason, but left the radio there, then let him board with anti-Invader resistance sympathizers for decades while he lived his life as Donald a couple hundred miles away. It could be that Donald was afraid Michael wouldn't be safe with him until, if ever, Walter showed up, but I dunno.
I hate to lecture an Observer on time paradoxes, too, but if the existence of Michael convinces scientists in 2167 not to take the steps that will lead to humanity becoming Observers/Invaders then September and Michael themselves would not exist to prevent themselves from existing, therefore they would exist, therefore they wouldn't exist, etc. etc. etc. Which reminds me that I need to finish that danged Looper review. And if the Observers in general don't and September in particular doesn't exist, then Peter doesn't survive at Reiden Lake, or at least Peter remains in the alternate universe because September didn't distract Walternate from achieving a cure for Peter's illness. I'll get back to that shortly.
Fringe actually rewrote its own meta-history in establishing that when September uttered this episode's title to Walter back in 1985 he meant not Peter but his own son. Depending on how you like this odd-man-out final season, or more properly how much slack you're willing to give it in trying to prove itself, you may love or hate the fact that it's recontextualized something so fundamental to Fringe mythology. Me, I understand that it's going out on a limb, but then again I want this last batch of episodes to be as much of a whole with Fringe Proper as possible, so hauling out the tank and referencing the title memento of the great Episode 2.18, "White Tulip" (itself all about tempting fate and changing the course of human events), are more than just nods to the past; whether the appropriation/substitution of Michael for Peter as "The Boy [Who] Must Live" is earned won't be known until it's all over. I do like the comparison being made between the two father-&-son pairs and their children's importance, especially as it suggests a third point on a triangle for Etta, although it can't be said enough that the focus has been inexcusably off of Olivia this entire season.
I also got a kick out of a friend misstating this episode's title as "The Boy Who Lived" — a phrase familiar to those who've read or watched Harry Potter. The idea of a child who possesses special abilities and/or is foretold as being some kind of great leader, key, or solution is of course very common to stories reaching back very long ago. Once I realized that writing this post wasn't happening in the timeframe I'd hoped for, I allowed myself to read some other episode reviews and found that among the most popular Christmas carols set to the tune of "Greensleeves" — whose music is played by the wind-up box of Donald/September's that interests Michael — is a paean to the infant Jesus called "What Child Is This?".
The concept of the music box itself is what grabbed me about it — precision clockwork gears producing art, the kind of order that the Observers value replicating the kind of creative expression that they can't fathom. It's an apt metaphor for Anomaly XB-6783746 himself, possessed of his people's rigid intelligence as well as their progenitors' emotion.
Where and when Fringe's characters will be left after tomorrow I don't know, although my bet is still on some yesterday or another. I've avoided any news since the promo at the end of last Friday's airing. My dream scenario is still to see something like Olivia, Peter, Walter, Lincoln, Fauxlivia, and Walternate enjoying a thermonuclear-family picnic with little Henry and Henrietta chasing butterflies, only now it includes Donald and Michael as well. If September's plan for 2167 is real and works, however, we could be in for a jump back not to a reconciled-timeline 2015 but a new start in 1985. It could even be that both Peters survive. Although Fringe has at heart been very much about family, I was neither wanting nor expecting a romance between Peter and Olivia in the series' early days, but now I'd like to think that they'll always find each other somehow.
I gotta say, though, showrunner J.H. Wyman is going to need a pair of J.J. Abrams' trademark giant red balls to leave us hanging with Fringe rebooted to before anything we've seen on Fringe.
Fringe's two-part series finale airs from 8 to 10 p.m. tomorrow on Fox, like I need to tell you that.
This episode's glyphs spell out the word "grace".
Previously in 'Fringe Thinking': This Boy (Episode 5.10)
Next in 'Fringe Thinking': Ticket to Ride (Episodes 5.12-5.13)