Fringe returned Friday night for its fourth season, and going into the premiere there was one question on fans' minds: "Where is Peter Bishop!?!?!" An hour later, the episode ended and there was one question on fans' minds: "Seriously dudes, where is Peter Bishop!?!?!" It's always difficult to come back after a season finale that hinged on one major, mind-exploding question (Where is Peter Bishop!?!?!) and not get an answer in the season opener. This is going to divide Fringe's audience into two camps: those who are simply happy the show is back, and those who feel slighted. Where do you stand?
There was no responsibility on the part of the Fringe staff to answer the question of Peter's whereabouts in the first hour of Season 4. But I can't be alone in thinking it would have been nice to get a little more of a clue, right? Instead, "Neither Here Nor There" (great episode name, btw) served as a noob-friendly series relaunch, which is both exciting and worrisome.
Assuming my math is correct, we're now in the series' fourth "existence," for lack of a better term. We have our normal Peter universe, the "over there" universe, the Season 3 finale's future plane, and this season's Peter-less timeline. The problem with the newest universe is that it essentially throws a lot of the things we learned from the other existences out the window. At least, that's what I first thought, but that's wrong. Don't be dumb, Tim.
What started as a series about creepy-crawlies and G-Men from who-knows-where has become a series about existence and the lengths to which some cosmic force will go in order to tie things together. That's why it's now important to look at Fringe from about 30,000 feet away. Go top-down. See the big differences in the characters and the influence the various existences have on each other.
The new Olivia has regressed back to pre-Peter times, where she was a frump—an Eeyore to everyone else's Tigger. It's unfortunate that she's a more boring Olivia, but it just goes to show how much the old Olivia grew. (Personally I think Anna Torv overplayed it to the point of getting us not to like her, but that was probably intentional; for a similar example, take a look at soulless Sam Winchester in the early episodes of Supernatural's sixth season.) The difference in Walter is less noticeable, but to me he seems a little loonier than usual. He's all highs and lows without Peter, acting more like a child prodigy than the man who'd come to understand responsibility thanks to being a father three times (to original Peter, other-universe Peter, and adult Peter when he came back into Walter's life)—and, you know, also thanks to that thing about destroying a few universes. Something to think about.
To illustrate how all these familiar faces are getting along without Peter (which I would say is not that well), Friday's premiere was told mostly through the eyes of Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel). He's nerded out over here, with his suit and glasses, but still shows flashes of the more badass, "over there" Lincoln. Lincoln is great and I've loved Gabel since his days on Dirty Sexy Money, but let's get one thing straight: He is NOT Peter and never will be.
And that's one of my major concerns right now. How long can the writers keep Peter away? A few flashes of his image aren't going to cut it, and will get old fast. I'm also wondering how many of Fringe's small details are going to remain important now that a reset button has been pushed. Remember when you realized that half of what you'd learned in Lost didn't really matter? I'm scared that could happen again.
You'll notice that I haven't written much about the specific events of "Neither Here Nor There," and that's because there weren't actually that many big incidents (I've included some notes on what did happen below). Fringe is normally a pro at blowing our minds in the final few minutes of an episode, but when the show ended and the credits rolled, I checked my brain and found it safely in place. I'm guessing "Neither Here Nor There" was aimed more toward roping in a new audience to boost the series' sagging ratings, because a lot of the "wow" moments concerned things we already knew about: the shapeshifters, the secret room where the two universes converge, the Observer saying he wanted to erase Peter from time.
"Neither Here No There" wasn't the typical sprint out of the gate we're used to from season premieres; in fact, I'd go so far as to call it "slow." But Fringe isn't a typical show. We got a few answers and asked even more questions, but we also got some philosophy to ponder. Fringe is one of those shows where the more you stretch your brain to think about it, the better it gets. The answers will come, and from the look of the "Coming up on Fringe" segment at the end of Friday's premiere, so will the awesomeness. In the meantime, try to wrap your mind around the possibilities the show is positing and sprinkle some LSD on your brain.
Notes From the Other Side:
– A new intro (yellow!) means new fringe science terms in the opening credits: Psychogenesis, Psychometry, Philosopher's Stone, Quantum Entanglement (a Walter favorite), Viral Therapy, Gravitons, Psychic Surgery, Transgenics. But the ones I'm particularly interested in, and which clearly relate to Peter's situation, are Bilocation (the ability to appear in two places at once), Ethereal Plane (a plane of existence beyond our own), Time Paradox (for obvious reasons), and what I think is the big one, the simple idea of Existence.
– Near the end of the episode, when Walter was checking out the tech inside the shapeshifter, he said, "I knew we couldn't trust him!" referring to Walternate. Is Walternate sending people over to our universe, or is someone else sending them?
– "Neither Here Nor There" contained a bit of hand-holding that I don't expect from Fringe, with its constant reminders that "something is missing" or "there's a hole in my life that I've had as long as I can remember." We know. No need to rub it in our faces. We're smarter than that.
– Though I think it's been debunked, I really like the Peter-is-an-Observer theory, even though my understanding of Observers is shaky at best. Don't the Observers travel through time, ensuring the universes are as they should be? Didn't Peter essentially do the same thing? Can Observers be people who have ceased to exist, and in this state of non-existence lose their hair, go pale as a ghost, and thirst for hot sauce? Maybe the Observers are flickering like Peter back in the times/planes where they originally existed?
– It's time for some stream-of-consciousness theorizing about where Peter is now: He either was never born, died as a young child, or was simply erased. Did Peter sacrifice himself, Donnie Darko-style, when he saw the crappy future in the Season 3 finale? At one point in that episode, Walter said that if he could, he would go back in time and never pull young Peter between universes. Did he pull that off? Or did the Machines go back to the past through wormholes, planted there by Walter, or Peter, or the Observers? Guys, I'm confused.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom