Back when I was in college, there was a tradition called Founder's Day where once a year before finals, adventurous and free-spirited students would roll around on the grass under the influence of whatever mind-benders they could get their hands on while indie bands competed for their attention against some really cool-looking clouds, man (so I'm told, ahem). Fringe has a similar tradition, and each season, it reserves Episode 19 for a far-out trip away from the norm; in these trips have involved a whole lotta singing (Season 2's "Brown Betty"), a cartoonized adventure (Season 3's "Lysergic Acid Diethylamide"), and a seemingly unrelated leap into the fuuuture (Season 4's "Letters of Transit"). For both the Fringe writers and my fried college buddes, these experiments are/were a chance to let off some steam before the crunch. They're also a mish-mosh of unforgettable moments (the thrilling "Letters of Transit"/laying down on the ground right in front of a Penthouse-era Luna while the sky danced to the music) and mistakes we wish we couldn't remember (the regrettable "Brown Betty"/being attacked by invisible snake-worms while a friend morphed into a wizard).
I compare the two because despite the outcome, it's the anticipation and not knowing what to expect that makes them so much fun. Well, that and the psychoactive drugs. Because of its shortened season, Fringe turned Friday's ninth episode of the season into its special Episode 19, and it was one of the weirdest the series has offered. There wasn't a consistent theme or constant gimmick. It was just Walter doing some acid and trippin' balls. And though it was also not much else, I adored it.
"Black Blotter" was entertaining largely because of the powerhouse performance by John Noble (what else is new?). Surrounded by dancing fairies, rainbow tracers, and one amazing Monty Python-inspired vignette, "Black Blotter" was a risk that would've failed without a centerpiece who could shoulder the load, and Noble carried the episode all the way to the finish line and could have done it all over again without breaking a sweat.
When you look back on "Black Blotter," all that really happened was that our heroes eventually found Michael, the Observer boy the team encountered way back in Season 1 and was reintroduced to in "Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There." Wheels were spun as Olivia and Peter tracked down the source of Donald's radio signal to the site of an old fight and a signal relay, a fairly pointless exercise except for revealing what'd happened to our old friend Sam Weiss. But there was something in the way the whole episode was presented that made these frivolous tasks more than tolerable.
Fringe's fifth season shall forever be known as the broken-record season, as it's repeating its themes until they permanently become part of our brains. Walter's struggle with regressing back into his old egotistical self has been a key to the season since late in the premiere, and we got a lot more of that in "Black Blotter." But thanks to the magic of some kick-ass acid, it was never fully presented as such. Walter's brain created hallucinations of Carla Warren, an old colleague who warned Walter about the dangers of transuniversal travel in the excellent episode "Peter." She was an imaginary cocktail of hubris and guilt (she died in one of Walter's experiments) that tried to kickstart Walter's God complex, and was only thwarted by a hallucination of a young (and sorta creepy looking) Nina combined with Walter's willpower. And the final moments, when Walter was coming down and scenes from "Peter" were being projected onto the wall as Walter's memories flooded past, were nothing short of beautiful. Again, it was more of the same and nothing we hadn't seen before (Walter's struggle with keeping the bad Walter at bay), but thanks to a trippy presentation and Noble's superior talent, it was intriguing again.
Season 5 will also be known as the season we blindly followed a plan without knowing where we were going. "Black Blotter" may have connected the group with little bald Michael, but for what reason? We've now collected some red rocks, an old formula, some fancy tech that drills into the ground, and some other mystery items, but why? Even when Walter says these are all parts of his plan, that's undermined because Walter doesn't even know what his plan is. I feel like I say this every week, and I will continue to do so until we understand the purpose behind this treasure hunt: This pattern of running errands is the shackle that's keeping Season 5 in a frustrating holding pattern. It's still too early to say the scavenger hunt has damaged the season, but so far it looks like a misstep. Season 5 has been full of great individual moments, but it's just not working as a whole yet. I can't help but think that the attempt to keep some procedural open-and-closed elements in the series through Walter's tapes didn't work as planned.
And so we head we head toward the "winter finale" (that's just network hype-talk for Episode 10) with only three weeks of Fringe left. There's still a lot of work to be done on the story side, but at least the actors and characters are as strong as ever even if the overall picture isn't.
NOTES (and .GIFs)
– The Terry Gilliam animation sequence was incredible.
– For all the cool hallucinations Walter experienced, none was more powerful than when he saw himself—the arrogant version of himself he's trying to stay clear of—looking right back at him. And the LSD waiter. I frickin' loved that guy.
– So are we done with the Peterver storyline? Is Peter just back to normal and we can forget it ever happened?
– That was some real mushy wuvvy-dovey talk in the forest between Peter and Olivia! Get a room, guys!
– Housekeeping note: I didn't think Fox would air an original episode the Friday before winter break, and made travel plans accordingly to be with family for some holiday festivities. Which is to say: Posting a review of this Friday's new episode is going to be difficult, but I'll try my darndest!