Fringe 4.19 “Letters Of Transit” Review

Co-written by Sam McPherson

As I’m writing this, my vision is a little blurry from the left-field suckerpunch that Fringe delivered with Friday night’s ‘Letters of Transit.’If you aren’t reeling from a bit of future shock, you probably didn’t watch the same episode. There’s so much packed into this episode that it’s impossible to tease out all the nuances after just one viewing: it’s remarkably telling that Leonard Nimoy’s surprising return to the show somehow wasn’t what people were most fixated on. Fringe constantly makes us consider cause and effect, the ripple effects of actions that we could never foresee. This has been demonstrated on countless occasions, from Walter’s crossing over in 1985, to Peter’s initialization of the machine, to September’s choices to interfere with the timelines. The bald enigma lurking in the background has, from the pilot, been a source of mystery and debate. This mystery only deepened when it was revealed that there were in fact multiple Observers, and Friday night’s episode once again turns everything we know about them on its head.

Aside from September’s meddling, and the subsequent actions of the others to ‘preserve’the timeline, the Observers have always had a strict non-interference policy. We learned in ‘A Short Story About Love’that the Observers are from a possible future and that the ones with whom we were familiar were part of a scientific corps that traveled back in time to observe significant events in their own history. The totalitarian regime in 2036 to which we are introduced in ‘Letters of Transit’is a striking contrast to the Observers’previous attitude, and calls into question the motives behind their actions. Were the Observers simply acting all along to preserve the future we see in Friday’s episode? Or did the Observers’future change at some point after the scientists went back in time?

In true Fringe fashion, this episode raises plenty of questions. What happened to Olivia? I would guess I’m not alone in thinking that she’s dead; and what did William Bell do to Olivia that was so horrible that Walter had no compunctions about cutting off his hand and leaving him encased in Amber? Who raised ‘Etta? Why is she resistant to the Observers?

As far as why ‘Etta can fool the Observers into thinking that she is exactly what she seems, I think it has something to do with both her genetics and the fact that her mother was treated with Cortexiphan. Given that Walter and Bell created Cortexiphan and ran the first trials in the ‘80s – and that Olivia has been dosed again recently – ‘Etta would be a second generation Cortexiphan kid, and my hypothesis is that this makes Olivia’s daughter just as ‘strong’as her mother.

It’s certainly a testament to both Georgina Haig and Henry Ian Cusick that they could make us not only connect with but root for their entirely new characters. There was a lot of weight on their shoulders given that we don’t get ‘our’Walter back until roughly two-thirds of the way through the episode.

In ‘A Short Story About Love’, when September and Peter are sharing a consciousness, Peter finally learns that he had a son, Henry, with AltLivia. According to September, Henry was never supposed to exist: he was a Bishop child born to the wrong Olivia Dunham. The implication I took away from the conversation was that Peter and Olivia were indeed ‘supposed’to have a child, and that that child would somehow pave the way for the Observers to evolve from homo sapiens. That being said, it makes me question yet again why the Observers felt that erasing Peter completely from the timeline ‘preserved’events: how could they have a child together if Peter died as a boy?

I found the juxtaposition of Broyles’actions in 2036 with those of the alternate Colonel Broyles in last week’s Fringe highly intriguing. In this future, Broyles answers to an Observer, Winmark, who apparently views humans, the ‘Natives’, as animals. I like to think that, much like the Colonel, this Broyles has a reason driving his actions: given the circumstances of this world, I’m guessing he’s simply trying to protect as many Natives as possible, and if that means he has to answer to Winmark, so be it. I’m highly curious as to what he’ll do with his discovery of Walter’s licorice, since he obviously knew whose it was and what its presence at the Amber site meant.

This is definitely going to be an episode that fans are talking about for weeks, and even though I did find myself missing our Fringe Division team, I desperately want to learn more about 2036 and the events that led to Walter making the drastic decision to encase himself, Peter, Astrid, and William Bell in Amber – especially given that it meant abandoning his granddaughter. I also wonder how it is that William Bell is still alive: in the episode ‘Novation’the scientist Malcolm Truss stated that Bell was dead. Even though this William Bell never had to sacrifice himself to let Walter, Peter, and AltLivia cross universes, David Robert Jones wasn’t prevented from crossing over (as happened at the end of season 1 in the original timeline), so I assumed that Jones had dealt with Bell himself.

Even in the midst of this frighteningly plausible future, there were countless moments that reminded us that this is still very much the show we love. Walter’s first thought, after being in suspended animation for 20 years, was for food, and his appetite for licorice remained well intact; the banter between Simon and Etta strongly reminded me of Olivia and Peter, just as Etta’s interactions with Nina called to mind the relationship between Nina and Olivia. In terms of reiterated themes, Fringe has always put an emphasis on perception and reality, and the idea that reality is both subjective and malleable: to quote Peter in ‘Bad Dreams’, if you can dream a better world, you can make a better world. Simon says as much in his speech to Walter, and, in a curious change, neither Olivia nor Peter is the savior.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the final scene of the episode: from the revelation that Walter cut off William Bell’s hand – and I thought Jasika Nicole played Astrid’s reaction perfectly – to Peter’s realization that Etta is his daughter. Even though I saw that particular reveal coming, the scene still packs one hell of a wallop: I put that down to a lovely job by Josh Jackson and Georgina Haig, accompanied by Chris Tilton’s haunting score. I love that it mirrored the scene in ‘Back To Where You’ve Never Been’where Peter meets Elizabeth Bishop in the other universe and she realizes that this stranger is her son.

Before the episode aired, we were promised that it would be another zany nineteenth episode like the musical outing ‘Brown Betty’and the partially animated ‘Lysergic Acid Diethylamide’before it. ‘Letters of Transit’certainly managed to mix things up, though it certainly didn’t do so on the standalone level of its predecessors. It wasn’t the fun ‘break’we were promised, but rather a mystery laden outing that, strangely enough, seems to serve as a standalone.

I can’t say that I wasn’t left a little unsatisfied with the sudden, unexpected shift to the future. After all, it came so suddenly out of left field that it seemed almost intentionally disorienting. What’s even more disorienting, though, is the fact that next week’s episode is a return to normalcy, with a continuation of the storyline that the rest of the season has been setting up.

It goes without saying that the episode was very cool, and brought up a lot of interesting story threads, most of which were left open. But its placement in the context of the season raises the question, ‘Why now?’There was no dramatic motivation for the sudden flashforward to take place at this point in the season, just as it appears that the episode, despite its massive revelations, won’t have a big impact going forward. The prevailing theory is that this is a setup for a fifth season storyline — but in that case, why not make it the fifth season premiere, or at least the fourth season finale? I appreciate the tradition of a nontraditional nineteenth episode, but this episode seems too much a part of a serial storyline to be dropped suddenly into the mix here. It’s too jarring, and every subsequent episode that doesn’t address what occurred in this episode will be a little bit disappointing.

Having said that, the writers of Fringe have made precious few missteps in the past, and leaving this unaddressed for the rest of the season seems like too much of a blunder for them to make. For now, we’ll suspend our skepticism and place our confidence in the competence of the show’s stellar writing staff. After all, ‘Letters of Transit’was a fun — if disorienting — episode, and managed to deepen the complexities of Fringe’s mythology tenfold. All this episode needs to be one of the best is a little more context. A-

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