It kind of goes without saying that a lot can happen in 21 years. Multiple wars with the Middle East can devastate entire nations, economies can collapse then recover then collapse again, boy band popularity can collapse then recover then collapse again, iPhones can be invented. If you were frozen in amber in 1991 and woke up in 2012, you'd be majorly confused by this crazypants, technology and reality television-fueled world we live in. "What is a Snooki?", you would probably ask. It would be a valid question.
All of this pales in comparison to the world that Peter, Olivia, Walter, and Astrid (Afro?) woke up to 24 years after last May's Fringe finale, and 21 years after they were all frozen in amber. As we saw during last year's flash-forward episode "Letters of Transit," in 2036 the Fringe world is a dystopian hell run by creepy bald-headed Observers — mysterious fellows with a passion for mind-control and dictatorial policies. They've pumped the air with so much carbon monoxide that the average human lifespan is just 45 years, and made food taste really crappy. They've also turned "loyal" and rebellious humans against each other, and their policies make the Patriot Act look anarchist in comparison.
Last night's season premiere — “Transilience Thought Unified Model-11" (say it five times fast!) essentially picked up right where "Letters" left off — Walter, Astrid, and Peter were unfrozen in amber by Peter and Olivia's long-lost daughter, Etta (newcomer Georgina Haig, who really does bear an uncanny resemblance to her on-screen mom Anna Torv. Plus, she's a very capable actress. Bravo, casting department!), and faced with the task of finding and un-freezing Olivia. It was a thrilling comeback, and it set the pace for what should be a dynamic, war-torn final season.
But for dedicated Fringies and TV-philes, the biggest takeaway from this episode was the complete change in format from the last four seasons — since Fox shortened the final run from 22 to 13 episodes, the "monster of the week," procedural element to the show is completely gone. Instead, we find ourselves with a serialized final season narrative arc that is far more reminiscent of an FX or AMC show than your typical network fare. Of course Fringe has always had an overarching mythology — you know, all that alternate universe stuff — but most episodes were stand-alone, open-and-shut-cases. This "Observageddon" season will be something completely different, something utterly unpredictable, that should make fans feel just as lost and (excitedly) confused as the Fringe team. This is war, and I, for one, can't wait to see what's next.
But I digress. For the sake of rapid plot development in a shortened season, the newly outlawed Fringe team found Olivia pretty quickly. Walter's memory was working pretty well for once, and he remembered that Olivia had been fetching an essential piece to the puzzle that would ultimately defeat the Observers at Grand Central Station when she was ambered. This puzzle was assembled then scrambled in Walter's brain with help from that one nice-guy Observer, September, so that the rest of the bald dudes couldn't extract it from his mind if they were to catch him.
Of course, catch him they did. Quickly. After the gang bought Olivia's location from "amber gypsies" — a fun group of black market criminals who steal ambered bodies and sell them (at a high price) to their loved ones — a gypsy remembered their faces from a "wanted" list and gave up their location to the bald guys. (Aside: The amber gypsy sequence was one of the most fun bits of the episode, because it was one of our few, Blade Runner-esque peeks into the new dystopian world. Hopefully, there will be more to come.) They captured Walter just as the still-ambered Olivia was retrieved from that creepy bookstore owner, Martin, who had been using her body as a coffee table.
The Observer torture sequence was deeply unsettling, despite the fact that no actual weapons were used. The Observer had VIP tickets to the inside of Walter's brain, and it took everything Walter had to keep the scrambled puzzle pieces away from him. "There is no hope for you," the Observer said. "Nothing grows from scorched Earth." John Noble is an Emmy-worthy actor, so you could see the unfathomable pain that Walter was experiencing just through his facial expressions. (Not to mention the blood pouring from his nose, and pooling in his eyes. His brain was bleeding!)
With help from Etta's new-school Fringe colleagues, the gang ultimately rescued him, with the puzzle pieces still out of Observer reach. The one thing they were able to retrieve was the importance of "the little blonde girl," Etta. So, that's bad. And unfortunately, even with the help of the Transilience Thought Unified Model-11 — the item that Olivia had ambered herself to protect, which would have de-scrambled the puzzle — the puzzle pieces were now out of Walter's reach, too. His brain was so far gone that he couldn't even remember them being there in the first place, and according to Etta, all traces of the thoughts' existence were likely destroyed by the torture — and they were never coming back. Walter as we'd known him had been essentially destroyed, leaving a sad, angry shell of man who couldn't put thoughts together and could barely recognize his own son.
So, by the end of the episode, the Fringe team was back at square one, living as outlaws in a Godless universe gone mad. They were smack in the middle of a war for mankind, and already rapidly losing. The Observers knew who they were, knew that Etta was a prime target, and knew that their main asset — Walter's brain — was destroyed. So, all in all, it was a heartening first episode. To twist the knife, the final scene showed a confused, pants-less Walter wandering alone through the streets, desperately searching for some music to soften the blow. He finally located a long-lost mix CD, and popped it into a somehow-working player. The song that played was Yazoo's "Only You," and as Walter mulled over his hopeless existence, he spotted a single dandelion growing from the rubble, and cried. Heartbreaking.
Of course, despite the Observers and the alternate universe and the threats to mankind and Fauxlivia, Fringe has always been, at its core, about a group of lost people struggling to get past their (major) issues and make it as a family. Season five will be no different, so we must discuss the current mess that is Peter and Olivia. Through a Peter Bishop dream sequence, we saw that in 2015 Peter and Olivia were playing with Etta in the park when the Observers made their first attack. Olivia looked away momentarily, and Etta was gone.
We didn't get to see what happened in the months that followed, but through Olivia and Peter's private conversations we learned that Peter stayed in Boston to wait for Etta, while Olivia eventually gave up on the search and joined Walter in the fight against the Observers. Much like his father, Peter was unable to cope with the loss of his child, while the already-hardened Olivia did, as always, what was necessary. "I found her," Peter said to Olivia when she first woke up. "More importantly, she found us."
So for Peter, his greatest wish has already been fulfilled — despite the horrific dystopian backdrop and the assault on his father's brain, he has everyone together in one place, fighting as a family. He hates that Etta had to grow up in a nightmare world without her family, but he's going to move past it and accept their current, ridiculous situation. For Olivia, the adjustment is going to be much more difficult. She was the one who looked away, the one who ultimately gave up on the search for her child, and the one who basically walked away from her marriage. Her reunion with Etta was loving and appropriately tearful, but she didn't seem to snap into a motherly role quite like Peter, who instantly became daddy. Decades may have gone by, but for Olivia, the emotional fallout from the decision to leave behind the grieving Peter and the search for her baby daughter is still very new. And now this daughter is standing right in front of her, as a fully grown adult. It's weird.
So viewers, what did you think of Fringe's final return? Are you excited by the concept of a serialized season, or will you miss the monster of the week? Are you devastated over the loss of Lincoln Lee? Sound off in the comments!
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: Fox]