After ten episodes of set-up, last night's Fringe gave us the long-awaited backstory about the Observers. And Walter's plan to defeat them. And it was... kind of okay, I guess. The reveals didn't really sit that well with me, for a few reasons. Although the episode definitely had some nice moments, here and there.
This was the traditional "hour of exposition before things kick into high gear" episode, bookended by Walter finding September's lair at the start and everybody being hunted by Observers and Loyalists at the end. The meat of the episode was people explaining what the heck has been going on for the past season — and in some cases, for the past five years.
As we learned back in December, Walter's friend "Donald" is actually September, the former Observer. We already knew that Walter and September were in cahoots, so this wasn't much of a reveal. In any case, September now has hair because he was caught by his fellow Observers and given an experimental de-Observering procedure, which took away his superpowers and restored his follicles.
And September/Donald and Walter were all ready to implement their plan to defeat the Observers back in 2015, but Walter disappeared and September decided Walter was probably dead. And since then, September has... listened to a lot of LPs. And probably experimented with some different hairstyles. September hid his son, the Child Observer, with that old couple, and left a radio that would lead people to find his child if they stumbled on the receiver in the pocket universe. And then he just sat tight. For twenty years. His hair sure looks nice, though.
So yeah — the Child Observer is actually a child observer, after all. He was grown in a tube in the future, like all the other Observers, but had some abnormalities, namely the fact that he has empathy and emotions. And thus he was marked for destruction. But September stole his child from the future, and hid him in the 21st century, where nobody would find him.
And some time later, September hit on a plan to stop his fellow Observers, which does indeed involve time travel and a possible Reset Button.
Genesis of the Observers
September's plan has to do with the origins of the Observers, which lay in the 22nd century. In the year 2167, a Norwegian scientist, whom we'll call Dävrøs, experiments with increasing human intelligence, by repurposing some of the brain centers that we use for emotion. And slowly, over the decades, more and more cerebral real estate gets claimed by intellect, until you get the supersmart, emotionless Observers. Who are, as we said, grown in tubes. (Even though you get much the same result by plugging their tech into the head of a normal human, like Peter.)
So here's September and Walter's grand plan: they'll build a time machine (September can no longer time travel, because he has hair.) And they'll deliver September's son, the Child Observer, to the moment in 2167 when Dävrøs is starting to go off the rails. Dävrøs will see September's mute, spooky kid, and realize that you can have intelligence and emotions, after all. That's the plan that Walter and September were working on, that we've spent nine episodes watching Walter assembling the pieces of.
I can see a few flaws with this plan, right off the bat, even besides the Child Observer's aforementioned creepiness and general lack of persuasiveness. For one thing, the Observers have traveled back in time from 2609 to take over the world of 2015. So which version of 2167 will you visit, if you build a time machine in 2036? The one where the Observers have already been ruling the world for the past 152 years, or the original timeline? I know the Observers somehow have a stable link between their original version of 2609 and their new version of 2036, but I don't get why September would be guaranteed to visit the original 2167 and not the new version.
Actually that would be hilarious way for next week's series finale to end: September and Walter finally build the time machine and travel to 2167, only to step out and find themselves surrounded by Observers because by then the only people left on Earth are Observers. Fade to black. If that happens, I will love this show forever.
There's also the fact that if you stop one guy from experimenting with augmented human intelligence in 2167, you haven't necessarily stopped the march of progress in general. That's not how science works — other people will come up with similar results and try similar approaches, in other labs. (Of course, this whole show has been built on the idea that scientific advances come from one guy screwing around in a lab on his own.)
In any case, Fringe has already established that the timeline can be screwed around with — Peter did it at the end of season three — so it makes sense, sort of, that our heroes would be reaching for a magic reset button. Still hope they don't get it, though.
The Bishops should change their name to The Pawns.
Meanwhile, we also got the explanation of why September told Walter "the boy must live," after he rescued Walter and young Peter from drowning in Raiden Lake.
And here, some backstory is helpful. In the original original timeline, Walternate found a cure for Peter's disease, gave it to Peter, and Peter was fine. Walter never had a reason to cross over between universes — and maybe he did anyway, but he didn't have as good of a rationale.
But September borked everything up when he visited Walternate's lab to Observe the crucial moment in human history when Walternate cured his son. (Why was this a crucial moment in human history? Especially in a timeline when Peter was never kidnapped?) As a result, Walternate failed to find the cure, and Walter witnessed this through his dimensional window — spurring him to go through and cure the other Peter himself. When they returned to "our" universe, Walter and Peter almost drowned — but September saved them both, and told Walter: "the boy must live."
Again, it seemed like Peter's survival was important to history in some way, even though he was now growing up in the "wrong" universe. Much later, a September who'd been shot and was in a coma told Peter that he and Fauxlivia couldn't be allowed to have a child together, because Peter and "our" Olivia were destined to have a child who was important. That was Henrietta, who didn't seem to accomplish much, beyond busting her parents and grand-dad out of amber, before she snuffed it.
So now it turns out that when September said "The boy must live," he was actually referring to his own son, the Child Observer. September doesn't actually care all that much about whether Peter lives or dies, except that Peter is somehow helpful in keeping September's own kid alive. September hadn't yet hit on the plan of taking his son to 2167 when he said that to Walter (or he would have just done it, since he was still bald back then) but he already had a notion that his kid was important.
So flash forward a few seasons — Peter's main contribution has been helping to fix the damage to the Other Side that was caused when Walter saved his life. (Which wouldn't have been necessary, arguably, if September had stayed out of Walternate's lab.) And now it turns out that Peter has no grand destiny, he's just a small player in the Child Observer's grand destiny. Meanwhile, Walter is destined to die as part of the plan to have September take his kid to (the Norwegians') work.
All of which leaves me feeling as though the Bishops should really change their name to the Pawns. (And I'm still confused as to why Walternate curing his son was a major moment in human history, in a timeline where Walter never kidnapped him. Maybe we'll find out next week, although I doubt it.) And I'm not entirely sure why September even needs the Bishops to carry out his plan, except that Walter hid the page of equations in a place that only Walter knew about.
It's all about fathers and sons after all
Olivia gets one memorable moment in this episode, when she realizes that if they can press the reset button, she and Peter might get their daughter Etta back. (And Peter basically warns her not to get her hopes up, because reset buttons aren't always a sure thing, and you might press the reset button and just get Blue Screen of Death instead.)
Apart from that, this episode is all about the fathers and sons. There are lots of scenes of September bonding with the Child Observer, with a music box and other stuff. And the most powerful moments in the episode have to do with Walter and Peter.
At the start of the episode, Walter walks in on Peter in the middle of the night, when Peter's busy trying to free more of the endless tapes from the amber. (And then Walter goes skinny dipping in the isolation tank, where he's finally able to remember where September was living 20 years ago.)
Later, when our heroes are closing in on September's swinging bachelor pad, Walter seems weirdly upbeat and no longer troubled by the fear that he'll turn into the hubristic, callous mad scientist who broke the multiverse before. And it turns out that when the Observer Child touched Walter, Walter saw a vision of just how huge and insane the universe is, and how tiny and insignificant Walter's knowledge and intellect actually are. (And maybe this is what September is hoping will happen with the Observer Child and Dävrøs, too, but it's not clear.)
Not only that, but now Walter can see the timeline from before Peter was erased — the one where Walter raised Peter, and Peter came to get him from the institution. And Walter remembers everything they went through in the first few seasons, including the time Peter slipped up and called Walter "Dad," and Walter reluctantly letting go of Peter so he could sacrifice himself. It's a super touching moment that calls back to all the development of the Walter-Peter relationship that we've witnessed over the years.
Walter says to Peter that he's never loved his son more than he does at this moment, and it's all worthwhile.
And when Walter embraces the idea of sacrificing his own life to stop the Observers, he's in large part choosing to sacrifice himself so his son can have a good life. (Although, if Walter sacrifices his life to press the reset button, won't Walter be alive again, immediately afterwards? That's generally what happens in these situations.) September even retrieved the white tulip that Walter got in the mail back in the episode "The White Tulip" — which is Walter's symbol of hope and forgiveness, although September already gave it to Walter and he no longer has it.
"The Boy Must Live" makes a strong case that Fringe has always been a show about fathers and sons, and any stuff about Olivia (and her daughter) have been less vital to the show's central theme as it's taken shape over five years. Fathers protect their sons, and make unimaginable sacrifices so their sons can survive into the future — and in turn, the sons make the future worthwhile.
Windmark is a toe-tappin' vengeance machine
Meanwhile, Windmark makes a trip to 2609, giving us a few precious glimpses of the Observers' gleaming future world. (And it's here that we see the fresh Observers being grown, super rapidly, in tubes.) Windmark's there to find out the 411 about the Child Observer and September, but also to confess to his superior that he's become unhealthily, atavistically obsessed with squashing the Bishop clan like bugs.
Later, when Windmark finds September's apartment and listens to some sweet jazz, his toe starts tapping, as if he's been around ordinary humans too long and he's picked up some of our crude emotions. Of course, the very first time we saw Windmark in "Letters of Transit," he seemed really emotional and warped by his time around humans, so this is really just a continuation of that trend. In any case, I have a feeling that Windmark's descent into emotionalism is going to be a factor in the resolution of this storyline, next week.
In any case, Windmark once again fails to catch those wascally wabbits, and September blows up his apartment. Walter, Peter and Olivia are left fleeing through the streets of New York with the Child Observer, as the perimeter around them tightens. At last, our heroes make it to the monorail, which is their ticket out of town, but the Observers arrive to search the train — so the Child Observer gets off the train alone, letting the Bishops and Olivia escape. And thus, the plan to send the kid to meet Dävrøs and avert the Observer conquest is foiled, once and for all. (Although things could still turn around.)
Oh, and what do you think that flash of light behind Peter in the lab, at the start of the episode, was? That's got to be some kind of timey-wimey thing. Right?
So next week, the saga ends — and apparently, Olivia's going to be taking another dose of Cortexiphan and paying one last visit to the Other Side to hang out with her henna-loving doppelganger. Huzzah!