As most of us bask in the afterglow of the Winter Solstice holidays, anticipate New Year's festivities, and either curse or bless the dearth of new television, I've decided to go ahead and post my thoughts on...
Not to be confused with "Jenny 867-5309".
I considered waiting until just before Fringe returned for its final fortnight, but then realized that some folks might be using this fallow period as an opportunity to catch up on their viewing and/or their blogreading. So here's my scattershot analysis of the series' antepenultimate night, with the next hour to come on Jan. 11th before the double-shot finale airs on Jan. 18th.
Even for a season that's built around their invasion of Earth in 2015 and the dystopic future they control in the series' fifth-season setting of 2036, this episode was particularly full of what were once called Observers. For the first time, I believe, we see Capt. Windmark, Michael the Observer Child, and September (at least after a fashion) all in the same episode — arguably the three most prominent Observers in the series.
When he first appeared as a figure in the crowd at the scene of various Fringe or Pattern events, September was dubbed by Fringe Division simply "The Observer" — a term that eventually extended to his entire kind. He approached Walter Bishop and later, separately, Olivia Dunham and Peter Bishop at pivotal moments either to maintain what he believed was the proper course of history or to help repair it. September's colleagues August and December were until Season Five perhaps the next most significant Observers in Fringe; August was revealed to have fallen in love with a human in the Season Two episode named after him, while December — who comes across as the most senior member of the initial group of Observers encountered (a position that may be the derivation of his codename) — convinced September at the end of Season Three that the adult Peter Bishop needed to be removed from a timeline that had been corrupted ever since the Walter Bishop of "Over There" was distracted by September himself at a pivotal moment, causing his cure for young Peter (the very thing September was present to observe) to fail and thus causing the Walter Bishop of "Over Here" to breach the barrier between universes and rescue that Peter from the fate that had befallen his own.
The Observer Child was revealed in this episode to not be a child at all (although we'd already learned in the previous episode that he hadn't aged appreciably in decades) but rather an anomaly born — or however Observers come into the world — in the Observers' native era circa the year 2600. He was only seen once prior to Season Five, in the first-season episode that introduced him, but since his appearance via flashbacks in "Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There" he's been considered increasingly pivotal to our heroes' mission to defeat the Observers in 2036. Michael, as he's now known, was played by Spencer List in Season One and has been played in Season Five by Rowan Longsworth; Longsworth is at once more baby-faced and possessed of an eerier beyond-his-years look as Michael, whereas when first discovered surviving isolated and underground in 2009 List's look was as much Nosferatu as Observer.
I surmised in my previous writeup that Michael's name might in a meta (rather than in-story) way be an homage to the actor who played September, Michael Cerveris, and if so whether that homage was a clue as to some relation between the Child and September. Now we have, via the mind-meld between Michael and Walter at the end of "Anomaly XB-6783746" that seemed to restore Walter's memories, the revelation that September himself, or some variation thereof, is the mysterious Donald referenced throughout this season to date. Raise your hand if you saw that coming — I sure didn't, partly I'm sure because the descriptions of Donald, as well as what we saw and heard of him, didn't recall September in any way.
What I'd neglected was the fact that Windmark is himself played by one Michael Kopsa. As it turns out, Observer Child is pretty clearly not the younger version of September/Donald or Windmark, but I'll use the invalidated red herring as a segue to admiring just how fantastic Kopsa has been portraying our heroes' foil this season. Cerveris was apparently given considerable leeway in creating September back when he was The Observer, and most Observers seen to date have done a nice job of working within the parameters he established while being remarkably individual, but Kopsa, like Cerveris, has given us a singular character. It's an even more remarkable thing when you consider that, like Michael Emerson's Ben Linus in Lost, he's playing a villain with a weirdly repulsive magnetism in a series full of standout starring and supporting turns, especially when the alternate-universe incarnations are taken into consideration — John Noble's Walter is a great creation made even more impressive when you see Walternate; Jasika Nicole has been undersung as both Astrid Farnsworth and her doppelganger (Altstrid/Aspergerstrid/whatever).
Part of what fascinates me about the characters on Fringe and the actors behind them, something that's pushed to an almost ludicrous extreme where the Observers are concerned, is how closed-off emotionally most of them are. Walter is the pendulum swung the other way, of course, but Exhibit A is Anna Torv as Olivia, whom I praised in my first substantive post on Fringe and again in the next (the first "Fringe Thinking" post titled as such). Torv was called out as being too deadpan by critics early on — and later on, too, frankly — but as I wrote in that first review I was much more concerned about Joshua Jackson as Peter, who (like, and yet not exactly like, Vincent Kartheiser or, more recently, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems as though he belongs in an Edward G. Robinson movie where every line he utters is a variation on "Say, I tell ya, get a load of the gams on that dame!" Of course, Peter is a grifter when we meet him, the product of a damaged father and a lifestyle that depended on him only pretending to get close to people, whereas Olivia is a Type-A FBI agent who at least in Fringe's original timeline went from an abusive home to the Cortexiphan trials to the foster-care system, so there's reason for them to be guarded by nature, as there was/is situationally as an authority figure for Lance Reddick as Olivia's boss, Phillip Broyles; Blair Brown as Nina Sharp is another subject altogether, and a tricky one.
Nina was introduced as a former associate of Walter and his partner William Bell, someone previously romantically involved with both Bell and Broyles but also inscrutable. Her loyalties as head of Bell's Massive Dynamic were never entirely clear; she worked with the Fringe Division team at times, but seemed to have her own agenda and was far from completely forthcoming. Once the timeline was rejiggered due to Peter's removal from it at the end of Season Three, Nina was revealed to have raised Olivia and her sister Rachel, and it's the older version of this more benign Nina that we see in Season Five — but it's been difficult for me to invest in her entirely as a white hat since the Nina Sharp freshest in our minds from Season Four is the one who turned out to be the "Over There" edition drugging Olivia in cahoots with David Robert Jones.
She did make the ultimate sacrifice in "Anomaly XB-6783746" after a great speech to Windmark about the Observers' reptilian nature. Without knocking the writers of that sequence or Blair's own performance, however, I'm still not convinced that the Observers would keep Nina and Broyles, known associates of Walter et al., in such prominent positions at Fringe Division and the Ministry of Science as more than figureheads, with access to such sensitive information. I've heard of keeping your enemies close, and I get that Etta had taught members of the resistance how to shutter (or perhaps more accurately, reroute) their thoughts from the Observers' prying minds even as, most importantly, Windmark didn't believe that such methods of circumvention were possible. Hubris and lack of emotion just don't close the logical gap for me, not when Etta also said that learning the techniques took considerable time and when the Observers are nothing if not methodical, persistent, patient, and as predictive as they may be predictible.
Once again I've ended up having too much to say about an episode that I was afraid would spark little commentary. Herewith are just a few more brief remarks.
Why the hell would Olivia, Peter, and Walter go back to Nina's black lab, especially after learning that Windmark was onto it? And how lucky are they that the Observers had gone by the time they got there without leaving anyone or anything behind to surveil it? I'm convinced that our heroes have some kind of cloaking device that we just haven't seen, letting them hang out in Etta's apartment after her death and work at their old Harvard headquarters.
How did Windmark not sense Michael's presence, hidden from sight though he might have been? This I can chalk up to Michael having serious Observer mind-cloud mojo, perhaps because he's an anomaly, but I feel like we deserved lip service to that effect.
The Observers have always had cool tech, and the device that read the sound waves from Nina's office is no exception.
When Nina said there was a "black lab" that could help, I thought maybe we were going to meet a Fringe-science genetically altered dog.
I loved the shot of Olivia reflected in Nina's blood on the floor — in a compositional, not macabre, way.
This episode's glyphs spell out the word "sense".
Related Post: Women on the Verge, Part I
Previously in 'Fringe Thinking': Glass Onion (Episode 5.09)
Next in 'Fringe Thinking': You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (Episode 5.11)