Feel free to listen to some Yazoo's "Only You," the song from the final scene of tonight's episode, while reading this!
Fringe is no stranger to throwing things out the window. Just ask the perturbed fans of the show who whined about Season 4's reset, in which Peter Bishop was erased from the memory of Olivia, Peter, and everyone else in the new timeline that Etch-a-Sketch'd all the relationships that had been built up over three seasons. Similar things are afoot in Season 5, the series' final (sad face), as things have jumped forward two-dozen years to 2036.
This jump might be easier to land for fans, as all the characters' relationships are intact—it's just the setting that's changed. And we were all aptly prepared for the year 2036 thanks to Season 4's daring "Letters of Transit," one of the most ambitious episodes of Fringe to date. In fact, it's reasonable to say that Season 5 started with "Letters of Transit," as the "What if?" scenario posed in that episode proved to be more than a hypothetical question.
I love Fringe for these maneuvers; you just don't see a lot of television shows making these kinds of creative decisions nowadays. The idea of alternate universes in Seasons 2 and 3 posed all sorts of metaphysical questions about human nature, and Olivia and Peter's burgeoning romance put those questions in bold and became more important to me than the fate of the world. Season 4 did wonderful things with the idea of love being stronger than even existence when it erased Peter from Olivia's mind and the universe somehow slowly filled her heart with memories from another plane. It's deep stuff, guys. Fringe is a thinking person's show, the kind of nerdy philosophical drama where the greatest rewards come after episodes end and pay off for hours, days, and weeks while we stare at the ceiling in bed and contemplate not only what happened on screen, but how it relates to the core of being.
That's why I'm slightly hesitant about Fringe achieving that type of mind workout with Season 5 and its 2036 storyline. The entertainment value will be there for sure. I mean, "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11" was awesome—just for different reasons. But I wonder where the questions will come from in a season that appears to be largely plot-driven in order to come up with a satisfactory conclusion for the series. And with 13 episodes, I'm not sure there's time for the show to put its finger on its chin and ponder the ramifications of jumping forward in time, being frozen in amber, or whatever else can be twisted into existential questions.
But there is one thing that might be the key to all that, and we'll get to it in a bit. "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11" was Fringe without being Fringe, a sci-fi action movie where Hollywood leads were substituted for our favorite Fringe characters. Things picked up some time after "Letters of Transit" took place (at least enough time for Astrid to familiarize herself with the 2036 version of Words With Friends), with the most obvious goal being to find Olivia. A few amber gypsies later (really? Amber gypsies?) and we learned she's become the sweetest coffee table ever for Edward Markham, Peter's bibliologist buddy with a hard-on for Olivia. Still encased in amber, she was the Han Solo of the group, but was quickly ejected from her orange prison following a sweet fight with some very incompetent loyalist cops. I loved how well Olivia took waking up in the year 2036. That's a solid woman! What she didn't take so easily was seeing Henrietta, all grown up, standing before her (again, more on this later).
I'm not entirely happy with the "we found one team member but lost another team member so now we have to go looking for the other team member again" pattern that occurred after Walter was captured while rescuing Olivia, but it allowed for the great exchange between Observer bad guy Windmark and Walter, establishing Windmark as an irredeemable jerk and Walter as a feisty old man who's more than a handful. That was John Noble doing more work that Emmy voters refuse to acknowledge, and Michael Kopsa held his own right there with him.
The rest of the episode was a lot of fixing broken things (the titular Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11) to repair other things (Walter's mind) and rescuing the old man with some other unusual technology. And this is where this season of Fringe will depart drastically from what was the core of the show in Season 1. It's called Fringe because the show has dealt with fringe science, technological advances just out of our reach. But in going to 2036, Fringe might want to change its name to Far Out, because the series has now moved into pure science-fiction with its ability to partition brains to obscure thoughts and create serums to simulate death (though to be fair, there are no flying cars or personal jet packs). Again, this isn't a problem for the series, as so far everything has stayed within fathomable canon, it's just become a show with a different set of roots compared to those of Season 1.
But underneath, Season 5 of Fringe is still Fringe. It may be in a new place with new enemies and new science, but the show is still so very strong in its characters and character relationships. You can see it in the genuine glances everyone gives each other, and it was especially strong tonight in the episode's emotional ending, when Walter followed the beacon to the CD tree and abandoned taxi cab. Earlier in the hour, he and Windmark had discussed music, something Windmark didn't understand. It's a fact that was clearly meant to distinguish Observers from us (they do party to shitty techno, after all), as if their milky white skin and need to make everything such a formal occasion with suits weren't enough. (Note to self: Invest in Men's Wearhouse in 2015.) But to Walter, music is a sign of something more. It's hope. And as Walter sat by himself blasting Yazoo's "Only You," he saw the ultimate sign of hope in this wasteland desolated by the Observers: a lone dandelion with the strength to crack the pavement. (What, no tulips?)
Maybe it's a sign that getting rid of the clean-air hating Observers lies in reclaiming the planet with shrubbery and other Oxygen-creating vegetation (remember, they paved over a park to create carbon monoxide pumps, as they aren't fans of Earth's Oxygen-rich atmosphere). But it's also more than just a Wall-E moment. It's a sign that their hope is pinned on Henrietta. If the official plant for Olivia, Walter, and Peter is the White Tulip, then the dandelion is Henrietta. We saw her playing with one in the opening flashback to 2015 when the Observers came, and it's her symbol.
And that leads us to what is perhaps the most important point of discussion of the episode. Henrietta. We don't know everything that's going on with her, but we have enough info to have questions. I'm not even sure she's who she thinks she is. Did Peter really mean that they "lost her" in the past? Did she actually die in that opening flashback? Was that enough to put so much stress on Olivia and Peter's relationship that they split up, enabling Olivia and Walter to move on and work on saving the world while Peter stayed behind to find a way to bring her back? Was she captured by the Observers? Olivia said Henrietta was three years old and change when she last saw her, but Henrietta swears she was four years old when she last saw her parents. That's not just a detail thrown in to show that Henrietta has memory issues. There's something big going on here, and I'm happy the episode didn't make a big deal out of it, instead allowing us to say, "Wait, WHAT?" and pursue it on our own. I welcome all your theories in the comments.
We're in the year 2036, Gene the cow is probably long dead, and alternate universes are a thing of the past. But Fringe returned strong because of the show's constants: showrunner J.H. Wyman's strong vision, impossible production values on a shoestring budget, and impeccable acting and unbreakable passion by the cast and crew. Things on the outside may be different, but the heart and soul of Fringe lives on.
– Anyone else think the action-packed rescue of Walter was an homage to rescuing Princess Leia in Star Wars? Straight down to the sounds of the pew-pew lasers. And seriously, how horrible of an enemy are these loyalists? Olivia and Peter had no problem shooting multiple guys before they could even get a single shot off. Stormtroopers are better than these guys. Our Fringe agents thawed out more badass than ever, apparently.
– I loved Peter's reasoning while trying to cut off the machine in Observer HQ: "It's always the red wire." *Nothing* "Unless it's the white wire."
– More Hollywood eco-conscious propaganda! Plants good! Fifty square miles of asphalt bad! Maybe some of us LIKE coughing up brown chunks of phlegm after a walk around the block, ever think of that, Tinseltown?
– It looked like Henrietta was wearing an old bullet around her neck. Was that the same bullet that "killed" Olivia in the Season 4 finale? I think so!
– Henrietta and Olivia! Hottest mom-daughter duo on television? Yes and YES! What about Rachel and Charlie from Revolution? Or Honey Boo Boo and Mama Boo Boo?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom