Fringe "The Boy Must Live" Review: Work of Smarts

Fringe S05E11: "The Boy Must Live"

In an effort to be a more accommodating host to your Fringe Fridays, allow me to first apologize for not reviewing the last episode, "Anomaly XB-6783746." Holidays put me in a holy daze, and I was either in an airplane or a automobile or a dog-pulled sled for about three weeks and didn't even get to watch that episode until earlier this week. So, sorry about that. But here's a mini haiku review of that episode:

Mike is Donald's son,
Donald is September obvs,
What was the point of the first 45 minutes of the episode?

That's a special 5-7-17 professional-grade haiku used only in the Grand Haiku Championships in Japan, but whether or not you're familiar with the format, hopefully it gets the message across. Though Season 5 has hit some of Fringe's trademark emotional apexes, it has also spent a lot of time running in place, standing on a broken escalator, leaning face-first into a wall, and whatever other clichés you can come up with for lacking forward progress.

There's a well-defined goal here (stop the Observers), but when you think about it, not much else. That's not a terrible thing, and I'm repeating myself, but the show we're watching still isn't the Fringe of old. With one more Fringe Friday to go, when I look back on the rest of the season, it just doesn't seem like there was enough story to fill 13 episodes, so the pacing feels off. In previous seasons, any voids were filled by standalone cases-of-the-week, but now that time is mostly spent evading Loyalist checkpoints or talking about Etta posters. One thing that has made Fringe such a sci-fi triumph over the years is its ability to weave compelling personal stories into the season-long tales of multi-universal destruction and doomsday machines. But Season 5 has been light on substance with regard to our characters' personal journeys (aside from the whole Etta dying thing, of course).

Peter flirted with becoming an Observer for a few episodes, but that was wrapped up quickly and didn't have a significant influence on the main story. Walter has been battling his inner demons for a while and even requested brain surgery to remove the evil parts of his melon, but in tonight's episode he changed his mind after being touched by Michael. And Olivia has spent much of Season 5 just sorta standing there, sorta sad about Etta and sorta having problems with Peter. With all our heroes plopped into a time where freedom isn't free, there's little for them to do except focus on the immediate task at hand (death to the baldies!), which changed Fringe from a philosophical, brain-tickling, theme-heavy drama into a plot-heavy science-fiction yarn. (It's still worth watching, it's just not as compelling as it was before.)

"The Boy Must Live" was a great example of the plot working in favor of this shift for the final season, because unlike the winter finale, things happened before the last commercial break and a lot of background was revealed, particularly as it pertains to our hairless child-freak Michael. September/Donald (seeing actor Michael Cerveris with hair and a regular skin tone makes me appreciate his performance and the makeup job a lot more) laid it all out for Walter, Peter, and Olivia. A Norwegian scientist tinkered with humans in 2167 to increase intelligence at the cost of specific emotions; jealousy first, then other un-desirable feelings like greed and the happiness you feel when you see an old woman slip and fall. Soon the pursuit of even greater intellect meant that good feels—like empathy, compassion, and love—had to be jettisoned to make way for more IQ points. The visual depiction of a fetus rapidly developing into a totally buffed adult Observer was great eye candy to go along with the origin story, but when you think it out, is it really satisfying? That's going to depend on how much of a stickler you are. I don't know what was going on in 2167, but I have a hard time believing any scientific community would approve of and research ways to sacrifice human emotion for smarts. Were all scientists at that time clones of Sheldon Cooper or something? Even the nerdiest of science geeks has a soft spot for the joy of cracking a theorem, or leveling a League of Legends character, or finding new internet porn. How stupid do you have to be to want to be that smart? From a scientific standpoint, the origin of the Observers makes sense, but from a societal point of view, it sounds a little far-fetched.

But let's move on to Michael! Michael is a freak among freaks, a mutation of carefully planned mutations who somehow possesses the desired intelligence the scientists sought and also retained the capacity for emotion. He's proof that evolution doesn't mean turning into a robot, which brings us to Walter's grand plan to defeat the Bald Invaders from the Future. After Walter's convenient amnesia (ugh) kept the plan secret from us for most of the season, Donald once again laid it out: Walter's plan is to take Michael, living proof that emotion doesn't have to be shoved in the corner in favor of opening up brain real estate for intellect, to those future scientists, causing their research to shift and preventing the creation of the Observers. This would theoretically mean no invasion, no death of Etta, and no terrible Observer techno music. It isn't the most graceful plan, and it certainly isn't as foolproof as Walter and Donald seem to think it is. What if the scientists have other ideas? What if the scientists view emotions as a weakness (which would make more sense for the creation of Observers)? What if it's the increased intellect that's responsible for the death and destruction and not just the lack of emotion? Why not bring evidence that the super-smart experiments being made in the lab will destroy the world in 2609 or time-travel back to 2015 and enslave humanity? That kind of approach worked for teenage John Connor in Terminator 2 when he confronted Mr. Scientist about future Skynet. And let's not start on any time-paradox issues going on. Hey, I'm just asking questions here!

What I found interesting were the apparent changes happening in the Observers. Windmark found himself consumed with the destruction of "the fugitives," and correct me if I'm wrong, but there's emotion behind that. The Lizardman Observer also showed some pep, tapping his foot to some smooth jazz like young Steve Martin in The Jerk. Is this a sign that evolution toward humanity is inevitable? Are these moments of weakness for the Observers, or are they indications that their "species" is salvageable? I'm hoping this becomes the wrinkle that elevates the final two hours of Fringe to something more than just zapping Michael into the future to erase the Observers. If the show really wants to drive home the idea that emotions are what separate us from them, it would set up some sort of situation in which humans see their potential and spare the Observers. It all goes back to that ant-under-boot analogy. The Observers stomp down the boot down and crush the ants, but humans, feeling empathy and some sort of connection to the world, let them live.

The whole sequence when Michael returned to Donald—all the way up through the moment that Windmark walked into Donald's apartment—was the best that Fringe has offered in Season 5. But the sad truth is that it hardly involved Peter, Olivia, or Walter. Not that that's terribly surprising—Season 5 has become all about the Observers, and our Fringe heroes are just audience surrogates to carry on that story. It's a shame, because while the Observer stuff is fascinating, it doesn't feel like a fair send-off for Olive and the Bishops.

There are only 120 minutes left of Fringe (about 88 minutes of you want to be technical about it), and we now know Walter's plan to take care of the Observers. And we have to assume that a large chunk of that 88 minutes will be spent getting Michael back from the evil clutches of Windmark. There still doesn't seem to much else going on, but at least "The Boy Must Live" pushed the plot forward faster than previous episodes did.


– Ahhhhh! The Observer Commander is a scary-looking dude!

– In addition to being extremely handsome, incredibly smart, and fashion savvy when it comes to dope jackets, Peter and I also share a crippling fear of pooping in public toilets.

– It's interesting how The Tank can be used to jog certain parts of Walter's memory but not others, eh?

– If Donald chose his name after his shared love of Singin' in the Rain with Walter (Donald O'Connor), could that also be the source of Gene the Cow's name (Gene Kelly)?

– What is it about 2036 that makes the Observers' plan 99.999999999 percent infallible?

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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