When it was announced the Fringe was moving to Friday night, many had fretted that this was the first step toward eventual cancellation. Coupled with the fact that the show would be off the air for weeks due to the holidays, there was a good chance that many people would simply forget to tune in. So it was absolutely imperative that Fringe come out of the gate strong, both in terms of ratings and quality.
Well I'm happy to report that if the rest of the season is as strong as "The Firefly", there's a good chance the show will continue to retain both fans and critical acclaim. This week's episode features the return of our favorite bald albino non-human, The Observer, as well as a great guest spot from Christopher "Doc Brown" Lloyd, who takes over the mantle of "wackiest dude in the room" from John Noble for this week.
The "previously on" sequence reminds us that even before the Earth-2 myth arc really started taking form, the show had a rich backstory built up around the mysterious Observers, a race of pale bald possibly-aliens who have a knack for showing up just as Pattern events or other major catastrophes are about to occur. More importantly, the main Observer (first name apparently "The") has a history with the Bishops boys, saving Peter and Walter's life when they fell through the ice after returning from Earth-2. By doing so, The Observer played a part in altering the future and was warned by his fellow Observers that he would have to help correct the balance he threw off when he saved Walter and Peter.
The show opens at an old folks' home, where one Roscoe Joyce, former rock and roll star, is wandering the halls at night. The on-duty nurse watches on the monitors, and spots Roscoe chatting with a young man who has appeared out of nowhere. When the nurse catches up to Roscoe, he tells her that he was chatting with his son Bobby. Only one problem: Bobby died in 1985 (probably in a tragic accident involving Libyan terrorists). We quickly learn that Bobby was dispatched to speak to his father by The Observer.
Meanwhile, Walter is busy brewing up some kind of crazy potion in an attempt to restore the parts of his brain that William Bell removed. He tells Peter that he needs to be at the same mental capacity as Walternate, in order to truly determine what his counterpart is up to. Peter reminds Walter that he willingly underwent the partial lobotomy, precisely because he was afraid that he'd be more like Walternate - mad with power, willing to use his intellect for evil. Walter is too busy dancing around to "Ma-nah-ma-nah" and getting the drug-induced munchies to listen though.
While Peter and Walter's relationship is now good, things between Olivia and Peter remain awkward, particularly since Olivia has just received a gift in the mail that Peter intended for Alt-livia. There's no time to dwell on this punch to the gut though, since Olivia and the team have to deal with the Roscoe Joyce situation.
Walter and Roscoe have an instant connection. Not only is Walter a Roscoe Joyce superfan, but both men know the pain of losing a son prematurely, as well as the joy at getting an unexpected second chance to see that son again. They also love rock and roll and strawberry milkshakes, which is adorable. Their connection goes even deeper than that, but more on that later. Walter takes advantage of the situation to have some more one-on-one time with his musical idol by requesting that he be able to take Roscoe back to the lab to try to help jar his memory loose.
The scene changes and we see The Observer foiling a robbery in process, as he single-handedly wrecks the robbers. He then saves the poor saleswoman who is bound and gagged and suffering from an asthma attack. You know, for a guy who goes by the name "The Observer" he sure gets involved a lot. Maybe we should change his name to The Participant. Just sayin'....
Walter attempts to help Roscoe remember his conversation with Bobby through the tried and true method of deep hypnosis. While that's going on, Peter attempts to explain the gift (a book, "If You See The Buddha On The Side Of The Road" by Sheldon Kopp) to Olivia. While he was inspired to purchase it after Alt-livia asked him what his favorite book was, the sentiment behind the gift - wanting her to understand him better - was always directed at the true Olivia, the woman he had spent two years with. It's all very sweet, but Olivia's all, "Yeah, I get the intention there, but it doesn't change the fact that you slept with my doppleganger and this book just reminds me of that, so... yeah, not really feelin' this gift right now." This incredibly awkward moment is broken up by Astrid, delivering the news that Roscoe's therapy is yielding results.
Walter and The Observer take a stroll around Harvard Yard. The Observer again reminds Walter how they altered the future when he stole Peter and then The Observer chose to save their lives. He then gives Walter a mini-lecture about the Butterfly Effect type of consequences - those that you cannot possibly predict, because they're based on such small, seemingly random things. In this case, the Butterfly Effect scenario he lays out for Walter begins with a firefly (titular reference!) that Peter captured, thus denying another child the chance to capture that same firefly, which then leads to a convulted series of events that culminates with the girl's father losing control of his truck and killing a pedestrian in Harvard Yard. Viewers even half awake at this time can guess exactly where this one is going. In any case, The Observer leaves Walter with a final cryptic instruction to "Give him the keys and save the girl." Walter is hysterical at this point, as he suspects that following that instruction will somehow lead to him losing Peter.
Meanwhile, if you guessed that the pedestrian killed in the scenario just described was Bobby Joyce, son of Roscoe, then give yourself a gold star. Walter is devastated as he listens to Roscoe describe how the death of his son destroyed him and lead directly to the breakup of the band that Walter so loved. And so we see that the help Roscoe is intended to provide is not one of action, but rather illustration: a concrete example of the unforeseen consequences of Walter's actions in 1985.
The Observer sets the final part of his plan in motion, as he chats with a fellow Observer about whether Walter has changed. The entire series of events that occurs during this episode is all an elaborate test to see if Walter is still the same man who carelessly changed the fate of two universes. It's unclear who is betting on which outcome here.
It's a little complicated, so I'll cut to the chase here: The Observer intentionally crashes into the police car carrying the woman from the robbery in Act 1, leading all the major players to converge on the scene, where Walter is forced to decide whether he will obey The Observer and turn over his car keys to Peter so he can chase after The Observer while Walter works to save the girl's life. Walter is near tears as he realizes that somehow he's being forced to choose whether or not to fight fate with regards to Peter's life. He finally gives in, and hands over the keys.
Peter and Olivia chase The Observer down, and while it seems for a moment that The Observer may have shot Peter to death, it turns out that Peter is only bruised from the magical airgun blast. Walter is relieved, but confused, at what exactly the purpose of the whole encounter was. And he's right - the test isn't over quite yet. It turns out that the whole point of the exercise was to set up the scenario where Peter, feeling the pain from his injury, takes an aspirin and washes it down with the most handy liquid available to him - in this case, a bottle of milk laced with one of Walter's latest concoctions that he carelessly left in the lab fridge because he was distracted by dealing with Roscoe. Peter nearly dies, though Olivia is on hand to help save him.
Later, as Walter tends to Peter, he realizes that if he had drank the milk as planned he would have died. So, in a way, The Observer saved his life AND illustrated yet again the moral of the story: that you can't predict every single future consequence of your actions, no matter how hard you try. As the episode ends, we see The Observer and the other Observer from before, discussing how Walter HAS changed, because he was willing to take a chance at sacrificing Peter's life. It's all very ominous, for it seems that the endgame the Observers have in mind involves Peter's death somehow.
This was just a great episode that really expanded on themes laid out in other episodes this season. The idea that the universe has a balance echoes in the way that Walter selfishly saved his son, causing another to lose his son - one way or the other, the universe was taking a son away from a brilliant man. It was like Walter simply transferred his pain to another. This episode also echoes back to Episode 3.3 "The Plateau" which also touched on the way that unrelated events can come together in unexpected ways to change people's lives. There's also the notion of sacrifice - whether Walter would be willing to let Peter go in the interest of what we can only hope is the greater good.
It also bears note that The Observer was literally willing to kill Walter if he didn't follow through on his instructions, since he set up a situation where Walter would have ended up drinking the poisoned milk himself if he failed The Observer's test.
Finally, the Peter and Olivia exchange has another purpose, other than slowly moving them back into each other's romantic orbits. The book Peter loves stresses finding the answers within versus from other people, and it also stresses ideas such as accepting that sometimes the only way to have things is to let them go, that you can't control anything, that the universe is random and only has meaning based on what you bring to it. These are obviously major themes the show has explored, given poignant form in the stories of both the Joyce and Bishop families.
The moral imparted here is that you can't fight fate, that on some level you need to accept what the universe has in store for you, because you can't see all the things that come out of your current moment of unhappiness. If you were religious, you might say this has a lot in common with the oft-repeated notion that God has a plan for everyone, even if it isn't obvious. But even if you're not religious, there's a certain zen to the message the show puts forth here. Good meaty stuff to chew on, complimented perfectly by the writing and performance this week. Bravo and welcome back, show.
Summary: When bald time-traveling aliens come dispensing advice, it's best to listen.