We’re getting frightfully near the end for Fox’s Fringe. In fact, with only two episodes left (though it will only feel like a single long one because they air back to back next Friday, January 18), the situation is getting dire in humanity’s battle against the Observers.
This week’s episode, “The Boy Must Live,” pushes things ever closer to the brink, as the team seeks to track down September (Michael Cervaris), who is now human, and took the name Donald O’Connor from Singing In The Rain. With a revelation from his lips, the hidden plan he worked out with Walter (John Noble), becomes clear, and one member of the team makes the first of what will likely be many significant, and heartbreaking, sacrifices.
You have to ask yourself, how long they can hang out in Walter’s old lab at Harvard without being discovered. They already were once, and you would think it’s an obvious place to look. As “The Boy Must Lives” begins you can see that this is weighing heavy on the Fringe team’s mind as well. An insomniac Peter (Joshua Jackson) is getting some late-night amber cutting done, when he pulls a gun on a shadowy form that turns out to be an equally sleepless Walter.
The elder Bishop has a plan. In last week’s episode, “Anomaly XB-6783746,” the small Observer, Michael, shows Walter memories secreted away in his subconscious. In order to fully reach these hidden recollections, Walter doses himself with a sedative (and you can’t help but think there’s some LSD in there as well, just for good measure), and hops into the sensory deprivation tank. It’s an iconic piece from the series, and a nice way to bring things back around full circle. This leads them to the small Brooklyn apartment where September/Donald has apparently lived for more than twenty years.
By this point you’ll have noticed a change in Walter. He is focused and driven, and as we’ve been watching him struggle with becoming his old, greedy, egotistical self over the past few weeks, these could be troubling signs. However, at the same time, he is also his usual, good-hearted, fun-loving self. Taking off his swim trunks in the tank is a prime example of that. Serious Walter would show his junk to the world. In addition to these two things, Walter is actually better than ever. He’s happy, optimistic, and seems at peace with himself and the world around him.
You’re not the only one to notice this, and Peter questions his father about why he’s in such a good mood. In that moment when Michael and Walter connect, when the boy touches the older man, he gives Walter back his memories of other timelines, of the things he and Peter have been through together in another universe. These memories stir up a strong surge of emotion in the mad scientist, and as he says, he didn’t think it was possible to love Peter any more.
As the Fringe team goes about their clandestine errand, Captain Windmark (Michael Kopsa) has duties of his own. He travels to the year 2609, where the Observers originate, to meet with the Commander. This is the first look you get at where the invaders are from, and it’s a bleak, desolate future indeed. The gloomy, grey, smog riddled dystopia is even more depressing than you imagined it.
Windmark wants to Back to the Future the Fringe team by returning to a point in history where they wouldn’t be expecting him, and “take care” of them so that they won’t exist. The big boss man puts the kibosh on his scheme. He doesn’t take them seriously as a threat since they only have a greater than 99% probability of failure. Even Windmark’s argument that Michael only had a less than one one-thousandth of a percent chance of survival, but he did, can’t sway his superior, who doesn’t want to risk altering history.
This is the moment when Windmark realizes something we’ve been watching over the last few episodes of Fringe. Obsessed with the fugitives, driven to stop them, he is experiencing something new and unfamiliar to him, emotions. Feelings of anger, hatred, and fury are things he has no idea how to interpret, and he doesn’t have the capacity to deal with them. You have to wonder how this will manifest, and you won’t be the only one waiting for him to explode.
Meanwhile, back with our intrepid heroes, two major developments are simmering over the fire. First, let’s talk about Michael’s origins then we’ll get to the plan.
It looks like those of us who made the leap that September/Donald, who looks really weird with hair and a normal skin tone, is Michael’s father, were right in our assumption, and, did not as it goes, make an ass out of you, me, or umption. In February of 2067, a scientist figured out a way to overwrite part of the brain to increase cognitive function, thus amplifying intelligence at the expense of emotion. This is the beginning of the Observers, who eventually became so efficient they lost all use for emotion. Romantic love was one casualty of their newfound lack of emotion, and as a result, the baldies developed new reproductive methods.
One thing Fringe has never touched on, and at this late in the game they probably won’t, is why there are no female Observers. We can guess that is has something to do with this new approach to baby making, but it’s never dealt with. Maybe they’ve become an asexual species, and there is no real male or female among them, even though they all look like dudes.
Then Michael came along. It has already been established that he has empathic abilities, allowing him to connect with others. Crafted from September’s genetic material, Michael’s brain developed differently than the others, he has the same capacity for intellect of the Observers, but also the human capacity for emotion and feeling. He is less of an anomaly or evolution than he is a moment of enlightenment. Because September spent so much time observing fathers and sons, including Walter and Peter, he developed parental instincts and didn’t want to see his progeny erased, and hid him in history.
This his how Michael figures into the plan developed by Walter and September. They intende to ship him to the future, to 2167, where, once the scientists study him, they will realize they don’t have to sacrifice emotion for intellect like they thought, the two can exist simultaneously. Thus the Observers will never come into being, and will never invade.
The first thing that springs to mind, not just yours, but Olivia (Anna Torv) and Peter’s, is that if the invasion never happens, they’ll never lose their daughter, Etta. While Liv is hopeful they can get their baby girl back, Peter is more pessimistic.
While collecting the necessary pieces for time travel, a hodgepodge of components from other times and dimensions that September/Donald has squirreled away, Walter shares part of what Michael showed him that he chose not to tell the others. He knows the monumental level of personal sacrifice it will take for the plan to succeed. This exchange, knowing exactly what is at stake, is one of the most heartfelt moments in the season. In fact, all of the exposition with Walter is endearing, emotional, and, though heavy, handled with a light enough touch that it draws you in like warm hug instead of weighing you down.
In the end, penned in by checkpoints, the Fringe team has to play a cat and mouse game to escape. As the Observer forces are about to surround Olivia, Peter, and Walter, Michael steps off of the train, and into enemy hands. He doesn’t talk, and his face is so expressionless that you’re left to wonder at his motivation. I like to think, and the revelation of his emotional gift seems to support this, that this is a gesture of self-sacrifice, throwing himself under the bus so the others can get away.
This move definitely complicates things as far as the plan goes. Now they have to find a way to free him from the clutches of the Observers. Will September’s promise to see Michael again come into play? Will he somehow trick the Observers into shipping him to 2167 of their own accord?
“The Boy Must Live” is almost all exposition, which can be forgiven in a truncated, 13-episode season where you need to get all of the information out into the world. Some of it feels like it could have come out earlier in the season, but now the stage is definitely set for the conclusion. There is more at stake for the characters personally than ever before. Peter and Walter’s relationship, Peter and Olivia, the possibility of getting Etta back, all of these and more hang in the balance. There is so much going on that the stakes have never been so high. As we begin the final leg of the Fringe journey, there are many questions still left to answer, and there’s a long way to go before the finish.