This past week I wrote a column about the first episodes of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, in which I argued that both were models for how to launch a TV show: by establishing a vivid world with multiple fascinating characters, while demonstrating their rich storytelling possibilities. That’s an under-appreciated aspect of serialized television I think, the way that the good ones keep opening doors, giving their creators plenty of places to go if they should happen to run for five or more seasons. The downside to this though is that if a show does get to run long enough to end on its own terms, the writing process shifts to closing doors—which can be frustrating to fans who’ve been hoping for years that some of those now-blocked paths would be explored.
“The Boy Must Live” gives a strong indication of which Fringe doors are now closed, and which the show is planning to walk through for its final two episodes (which are airing back-to-back next week, in case you’d forgotten). From my point of view, there are reasons to be excited about where we’re headed, and reasons to be concerned. I’ve said for the past year that I’d like to see a Fringe finale that’s intellectually challenging and not merely sappy, but after watching “The Boy Must Live,” it seems pretty clear to me that we’re likely to be flooded with sap next week. Still, if it goes the way I hope—if the Fringe team steps through the right doors—the sap should be contained within a structure fortified with the same philosophical and ethical questions that have made the past five years of this sci-fi drama so meaningful.
The plot of “The Boy Must Live” follows two tracks (though it doesn’t follow either of them very far). In one half of the episode, Walter taps into his subconscious and figures out where September/Donald is, leading the team to an apartment in Williamsburg. There, Donald explains that his fellow Observers stripped him of his tech, and that ever since he’s been waiting for Walter to retrieve Michael—Donald’s son, from the far future—so that they can execute their secret plan, to travel through time and show Michael to the Norwegian scientist who launched humanity on the path to Observerdom, and thus to get that scientist to reconsider. The other half of the episode involves Captain Windmark’s own trip through time, where he requests a “protocol suspension” from his commander, so that he can do his own timeline-tinkering—and where he’s given a flat “no,” because he’d be messing with carefully mapped-out probabilities.
“The Boy Must Live” is a very talky episode, and doesn’t really balance its exposition-dump with quite enough action. The episode ends with a cat-and-mouse game in and around a monorail station, but the chase is over before it really begins, because Michael gives himself up right before the closing credits. The episode also suggests that Fringe is going to push all-in with a “power of love” resolution, via a scheme that hinges on a scientist believing that humankind thrives when it embraces emotion. In other words, Fringe may join the list of science-fiction shows that ultimately ditch the science and shoot straight for the heart—and not the bloody, beating four-chambered organ, but rather the abstract shape that festoons valentines.
Why am I not completely dismayed by this? I’ll give you three reasons.
Firstly, the actors on this show have consistently been strong enough to sell even the corniest scenes. I think of Anna Torv and Joshua Jackson a few episodes back, beautifully playing out the moment where Olivia convinces Peter to cut out his Observer tech. And this week, as Walter tells Peter that he’s been restored to his daffy, loving original-timeline self by Michael’s touch, and as Donald describes what he sacrificed to save Michael (and why), the performances of John Noble and Michael Cerveris sell the emotion like crazy. (Also: I like that not only does the non-Observered Donald have hair, he’s sporting a little stubble too. He’s really embracing the whole “human” thing.) I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the scene between the two characters toward the end of “The Boy Must Live”—when Walter says that he knows he has to sacrifice himself for the plan to work, and Donald calls back to the drawing of the white tulip, in what seemed to me like a bit of a stretch to recall a fan-favorite episode—but I do know that I’ll gladly watch Noble and Cerveris murmur meaningfully at each other for as long as they wish to, no matter what they're saying.
Secondly, there’s a lot that’s very Fringe-y about Donald’s backstory and his plan. A rational man defies the laws of space and time in order to save his son? Gosh, that’s familiar. And now he wants to rush ahead to 2167 to stop a well-meaning villain from altering mankind’s destiny? That’s been the plot of about half of the Fringe cases-of-the-week, hasn’t it? I’m mildly concerned that the show is ultimately going to come down on the side of meddlesomeness, after spending so many years showing the dire consequences of such arrogance; but either way, I’m glad the theme is in play.
Thirdly, it’s hardly a radical departure for Fringe to consider technology in the context of humanity. If anything, it’s been the whole dang point of the show: what makes us human, and whether technology or turns of circumstance can change the essence of who we are. And while Fringe is celebrating human lovey-dovey-ness, “The Boy Must Live” also shows the downside of what it means to be human, as Captain Windmark prepares to defy orders so he can satisfy his boiling bloodlust. The Observers have been altering our atmosphere to make it more acceptable to their physiology, but it seems they’re also being poisoned in other ways.
Most of all I liked that even in the relatively sedate “The Boy Must Live,” there are moments and images of pure delight, whether it’s Peter sporting cool-looking goggles (like Starman!), or Captain Windmark walking out of a high-rise window and into 2609. Say this for Fringe: For all its changes in direction over five seasons, it’s always felt fundamentally like the same show. The themes, the weirdness, the humor—all have remained very much in force even in this grimmer, post-apocalyptic season. Case-in-point: When Olivia checks on Walter in his sensory deprivation tank, she’s dismayed to see that Walter has removed his swim trunks, so he can be “sufficiently free and open.” The shot of those trunks floating by Walter’s head is classic Fringe. So is the strange little scene where The Observers are examining the knick-knacks at Donald’s pad—a Bible, a photo of old radio shop, a snow globe—and find their toes tapping to the jazz music on the hi-fi.
As for what’s in store for next week, I’ll reiterate as I often have that I don’t consider endings to be of vital importance to a series as a whole. Whether the Fringe finale is weak or strong is, to me, only a reflection of that episode itself. I’ll count myself as a fan of the show regardless. My hope is that the finale will be more “Worlds Apart” then “Brave New World.” But I also recognize that when all is said and done, in this show about alternate realms and infinite possibilities, some hard choices will have to be made—and not just by the heroes.
- What was the first movie or TV show to use the flaming barrel as the symbol of dystopia? Escape From New York maybe?
- So September chose the name “Donald” as an homage to Donald O’Connor, from his favorite movie, Singin’ In The Rain. Is it too much to hope for a Michael Cerveris song-and-dance routine next week?
- The boy’s favorite music box plays “What Child Is This?” Too obvious?
- It’s not a huge deal, but as someone who’s become something of a zealot about statistical probabilities, I’ve come to dislike the whole “we had a 99.9999% chance of success, and yet…” premise. I respect the reasons why writers go to that well, especially on a show like Fringe: It’s a celebration of the human factor. But there’s also a “to hell with the numbers” undertone that I find kind of irresponsible. Numbers matter, man.
- Speaking of things that don’t add up, I’m going to try not to think too hard about the possible time-travel paradoxes if Donald is able to make it so that The Observers (and thus he and Michael) never existed (and thus were never able to execute the plan that would make it so that they never existed). While Donald is explaining this plan, Olivia looks confused, and I was hoping that maybe she’d bring up this rather obvious point. Instead, she was just thinking about Etta, whom she believes may come back into existence after Donald’s mission. But if The Observers don’t exist, then September/Donald doesn’t exist, which means September never saves Peter, which means there is no Etta, right? Again, it’s probably best not to dwell on this, any more that it’s a good idea to wonder how Captain Windmark can travel through time and yet still arrive a few minutes too late to catch our heroes in Donald’s apartment. I’m going to chalk it all up to “inexact science,” Looper-style.
- On the flip side, a sincere question: For those of you who disliked the alternate-timeline business because these “aren’t the same characters,” does Walter being magically restored as “our” Walter solve that problem for you? If not, why not? Show your work.