Fringe continued its poetic enterprise this week by leaping into a future overrun by Observers, where Walter was ambered, and the most Byronic of Lost cast members became a Fringe division investigator. On its surface, this Fringe episode was a departure from the usual unusualness of the series, yet it in fact continued the series’ ongoing project, which is to explore the ideas of identity, self, and image.
“Letters of Transit” (and what follows merits, I suppose, a SPOILER ALERT as well as the assurance that you’ll have your usual thorough recap on this site soon) took us to the year 2036, two decades into the reign of the Observers, who no longer merit that name. They’re more like Rulers, wearing their black fedoras like evil crowns. Having seized control in 2015, the baldies are now not just grim but also merciless, having reduced the Fringe division to policing ordinary citizens, who’ve been dubbed “Natives.” Henry Ian Cusick and Georgina Haig were this era’s sort-of version of Lincoln Lee and Olivia, soulful agents doing their jobs and going the extra mile – in their case, to help stoke rebellion against the Observer overlords.
It made sense, therefore, to link this pair to Walter, a Walter who’d ambered himself decades before and was brought into the future by these two agents, to help them. His fragile mental state impaired by the shock of the Observer revolution and the suspended animation of amber, Walter was injected with the brain fragments he’d requested William Bell to remove lo those many years ago, when, as we’ve heard before, Walter “didn’t like what he was becoming.” Which would have been arrogant and and brusque – the cold carapace of an obsessed scientist. It was one of the night’s great pleasures to see John Noble make that transition from happy, babbling, “I love LSD!” licorice-licking Walter to a Walter who, being chased by Observers through the “Former Massive Dynamic” building, revealed a hidden getaway door while thundering, “Neither Belly nor I ever left ourselves only one way out of a room – come on!”
This was the purest expression this evening of the questions that have propelled Fringe this season: How do you present yourself to the world? How can you recreate yourself on your own terms, lest you be recreated by someone else into something you don’t want to be?
The most poignant recreation was, of course, the agent who’d been referred to throughout the hour as Etta, blonde and wide-eyed, energetic and earnest, eager to find “the missing team” – i.e., Olivia and Peter. It really didn’t matter at what point in the episode you tumbled to the fact that this was the daughter of Peter and Olivia – an Etta who was actually a Henrietta. There was no way not to be moved by the final moment, when this young woman, who’d said she hadn’t seen her parents since she was four, called a de-ambered Peter “Dad” and they hugged.
I’ve said it before: One reason Fringe has a tough time attracting a big audience is that the mass audience that’s dropped away doesn’t realize how much heart and soul, how much well-wrought romanticism, has been poured into this series, while its cult audience is regularly grumpy that Fringe declines to turn into the sci-fi epic some seem to want it to be. I know this season’s timeline switcheroo has alienated some viewers, but even when the show veers off into mythology complexities that start to give me the megrims, I keep faith that Fringe is going to bring it back to the heart of what matters. This night, a challenge to that faith self-imposed by the producers, it did.