Sometimes, I think people overrate TV shows simply because they have a sense of ownership around those shows. If someone is a huge LOST viewer, and Lost is the one show that they turn into appointment TV each week, then it stands to reason that that person has a vested interest in Lost being good, even great. But sometimes, we tell ourselves that something is great when it just isn't. We become apologists, because even though on some level we know that something isn't as good as it should be, there's still something about it that appeals to us. Lost hasn't been great this season, not consistently, but people have so much invested in the show that they come up with all sorts of theories and convoluted explanations of how each episode is but one cog in the grand tapestry that is the series. And sometimes, I feel like people like Lost just because it isn't, say, Grey's Anatomy. People that don't watch a lot of genre TV or movies get so caught up in Lost's mysteries and grand themes that they give it high marks without bothering to even evaluate in on any deeper contextual level. And getting so caught up in a series that you make it beyond criticism can be fun. I once felt that way about Lost. About 24. But now, as those two giants of TV Drama wind down, I'm sad to say that with both shows, in their final seasons, I'm not into them in the same way I once was. I'm not in awe of them. I mean, my old reviews of 24 were not so much reviews as they were impassioned rants about the show's awesomeness. Lost has always been a show that invites close analysis, but it used to be that I, like so many others, was eagerly writing up my theories and waiting in breathless anticipation for new clues, new reveals. I'm sad to see both shows go, but I'm also looking forward to the next big thing, the next great show, that once again gives me the same feeling that 24 did back in the day, that Lost did with episodes like "Walkabout" and "The Constant."
That's why last night's episode of FRINGE was so satisfying - it was one of those truly landmark, truly special episodes that remind you what great TV really is. This was a great show operating at the peak of its powers. In one fell swoop, it put the entire Fringe universe in perspective, with an absolutely awesome origin story revealing Walter Bishop's quest to bring back his son from the brink of death. This episode told us a story that's already been alluded to throughout the course of the series, but it told the story in a manner so compelling, so dramatic, so well-acted, that it still felt like perhaps THE pivotal and defining episode of the series to date. Other shows take note: THIS is how you do it.
This episode was crucial not only to the series' mythology, but to its overall survival. Fringe has struggled this season - creatively and in the ratings. We've gotten some mind-blowing episodes this season, but also a lot of filler, a lot of eps that felt like warmed-over X-Files. Fringe has had a hard time doing freak-of-the-week style episodes - it just hasn't found the right formula yet. And part of that is that elements of its overarching mythology usually run through the more standalone episodes, taking time away from developing that week's villains into truly compelling antagonists. At the same time, Fringe's mytharc-heavy episodes tend to be awesome. The show realized something halfway through its first season - it didn't need to be a "mystery" show. Not every show needs to ape the storytelling techniques of Lost, you know? Yes, information should be revealed dramatically, slowly at times. But it's okay to have plot. It's okay to tell a real, serialized sci-fi narrative. It's okay to be sciency and smart. Fringe got that, and ran with it. It built up its world, its characters. And with last night's episode, all of the show's ongoing threads came together beautifully. Rarely do serialized shows successfully have that moment where it all comes together, closing the chapter on one book while opening up a whole new series of questions and story possibilities. Fringe had that moment last night.
John Noble has always been great on Fringe, but last night's ep was a true showcase for his amazing acting. His work as Walter Bishop is simply the best on TV. The mix of tragedy, comedy, and gravitas he infuses into the character is a sight to behold. Check out the subtle differences between his work as the younger Walter and his work as the older, slightly more insane Walter. Wow. Also, kudos to the makeup and f/x people who worked on this ep. There were some pretty awesome, subtle-yet-effective de-aging techniques used that really gave a legit feel to the 1985 flashback sequences. The work on Walter and Nina Sharp was really well-done, better than that in a lot of movies.
While I'm talking about 1985 ... HOLY LORD the opening title sequence this week ruled it. We got the Fringe titles redone in a retro 80's style, complete with 8-bit-era sound f/x and appropriate fonts. Even the examples of frings science that flashed across the screen were straight from the 80's - "virtual reality?" - awesome! Huge kudos to whoever put that sequence together - talk about attention to detail.
In fact, there were a number of cool details that gave this episode a little something extra. Eric Stoltz in Back to the Future in the alternaverse. "Walternate." The reveal of how Nina lost her hand, getting it trapped in the dimensional portal and having it turned into a swirling mass of chronal energy. The conversation between the Observers about the scientific merits of Back to the Future. The look into the art-deco alternaverse complete with zeppellins docking at the Empire State Building.
Meanwhile, the meat of this episode was just great TV. Like I said, we already knew some of the broad strokes of Peter Bishop's origins, but this episode brilliantly filled in the blanks. Walter's emotional turmoil as his son dies, even as a parallel version lived, was just incredibly well-done. This really was an amazing script. There were some truly memorable and chilling lines.
"Don’t you quote Oppenheimer at me!"
“You’re not my father, are you?”
“The boy is important. He has to live.”
"He was. By god he was."
The great thing about this episode too was that it set the stage for some really exciting plot points yet to come. We still have a lot to discover about Dr. Bell and his journeys to the other side. About the fate of Dr. Warren, and the ramifications of Walter's crossing-over and how that may have led to "the pattern." What about the other Walter? What's his role? And how about Peter - why is he so important to the Observers? There's so much great material here. And that's part of why this episode just clicked on so many levels. It delved into science and science fiction, it expanded the imagination and was filled with moments of awe and wonder. But it was also emotionally rich, sad, tragic, fascinating. This was just great storytelling, period.
FRINGE absolutely hit it out of the park with this episode. In one fell swoop, this show is back at the top of my must-see TV list. On the list of best TV episodes of the year, this will be at or near the top.
My Grade: A