If you have not seen this episode yet and don't wish to be spoiled, don't continue reading.
In the lab, Walter de-ambers tape seven, which actually has Walter walking through the instructions rather than just telling it to the tape. It leads him to a bombed out apartment in the Q9 district, and after doing some complex motions, he is able to enter a pocket dimension.
Elsewhere, Peter is rewatching the last video voicemail they ever recieved from Etta when Olivia arrives, and she says they need to be more open to each other about what they're going through. Astrid discovers that Walter is missing, and after she finds the same tape and notifies Peter and Olivia, they all follow the instructions to find him. Meanwhile in the pocket universe, Walter meets Cecil, a man who claims to have been blasted into the dimension for five days. Walter doesn't really help Cecil, though, instead using him as an outlet and guidance as he searches for the piece of the plan in the dimension. Physics works differently in this dimension---and time does too, it seems, as Walter soon realizes that Cecil has been there for what in the outside world has been twenty years, not five days.
Olivia and Peter enter the universe, and discover that they can see more footage once they're in the dimension. The follow these new instructions and are led to Walter. They also continue watching, and realize that the enigmatic Donald was filming, and the empathic child from season 1's "Inner Child" was with Walter. The child was being stored in a room to be part of the plan, and since time moves differently, it would only be a few days for the child, not twenty years. When they go to the room, however, he isn't there. Walter is extremely angry over the failure, but Peter calms him down. Meanwhile, Olivia discovers a radio that wasn't on the tape, and thinks it might be a message from Donald, or whoever took the boy. They also notice an air degradation machine in the room, suspecting that the boy may have been a child observer all along.
They go to leave, but are intercepted when the Observers, who had spotted Walter earlier in the episode, show up in the dimension, having knocked out Astrid and followed them in. They kill Cecil and chase the team; Peter is able to find the portal out with his naked eye, to everyone's surprise, and they're able to get out alive. Peter stays behind while the others escape, secretly showing off his new tech-enhanced fighting skills...including teleportation.
Peter meets the rest of the team on the monorail. Olivia realizes that the radio is jammed on a specific frequency, and if they can find it that frequency, or wait for something to start playing on it, they can get the message. Meanwhile, Walter laments how he acted---going off alone, not caring about the half-starved Cecil and using him, etc. He realizes that after the pieces of his brain were reintegrated in "Letters of Transit," he's slowly becoming his old, terrifying self. Peter says he won't let that happen and will be there for him. However, he discovers that his sight has changed to match how Observers see the world.
Going into it, this episode seemed like it would be a strange, trippy experience, what with the lack of physics and blatant Alice in Wonderland reference. But really, the content of it is rather standard; what makes it all uncomfortable is how everything clicks (or rather, doesn't click) and the excruciatingly slow pace that results. Admittedly, it doesn't feel boring, but it doesn't really feel right either. It makes me suspect that all the long takes of people walking and lack of meaty dialogue or action was done on purpose. It would be a cool idea, a typical concept in filmmaking but seldom done well on weekly television: using film techniques to make the audience feel how the characters do. Lighting, camera angles and music are common ways to do this, which this episode does fine, but it's less common to see filmmakers try to edit or even script the episode in that fashion. Here, the episode drags at strange points, underplays most of its big reveals and doesn't know how to space out similar shots or sections. Director Jon Cassar has only directed one other episode of Fringe, but he has ample directing experience otherwise (24 in particular) so I have to wonder if these seemingly rookie mistakes were intentional.
But whether or not it was purposefully supposed to make us feel off-kilter, it doesn't really work. Granted, it does suck out any sense of wonder or enjoyment from an already bleak world, which is exactly what's happening to the characters, so I guess that works. But its off-kilterness doesn't portray the feel of the upside down pocket universe, or even Walter's and Peter's respective slipping away. It also slows down even the slightest bit of momentum as soon as it gets built up, and ultimately leaves it all feeling a bit disconnected and empty. Lots of stuff happens, and it's important, but it's hard to care. Again, that kind of reflects how Peter and Walter are feeling, I guess, but you still have to give the audience a reason to remain invested. If this is what they were trying to do, it's a slippery slope, and they didn't make it without falling.
All that aside, there were some cool things going on here. The optical illusions of the pocket universe aren't especially new---if you saw Inception and anything it borrowed from, you've pretty much seen it all---but it was all still well-handled. Comparing the promotional photos with what was actually filmed also makes it evident how much effort was put into lighting the universe, too. I might have derided the pacing and editing, but the lighting certainly added to the good kind of strange, off-kilter feeling the world was going for. The cinematography as a whole was beautiful; my particular favorite shot is one early on when Walter enters the pocket universe, and the combination of the distorted lens and Walter's movement causes the window panes to look like they're moving closer to each other.
I'm a sucker for good continuity (and probably fight for tight continuity a little too much) so I was more giddy at the references to season one here than I should have been. I mean, they brought back a character from a forgettable, generic season one episode, revealed him to be an Observer (which, based on some Googling, is a theory reviewers posed back then), and made him a vital MacGuffin. Plus, we got our first (admittedly kind of pointless) reference to "The Pattern" since I think season one. It's a lot of oblique stuff that's hard to remember considering how much the show's focus changed after season one---did we ever even get a straight answer for what "The Pattern" truly was?---and that makes this sudden use of continuity kind of perplexing. But at the same time, it's the show's final season, so who cares who catches the references? They aren't looking for new viewers, so this whole run is purely for the fans who've stuck with it. So while my critic side thinks it's a flaw to bring back these somewhat random details and retroactively integrate them into the plot, the fan in me doesn't really mind at all.
On the character side, Walter has a big revelation---his humanity is fading away as his brain pieces itself back together. This is a smart development, considering it had seemed like he was back to friendly old Walter after having his brain scrambled, but apparently that was only a minor setback. The episode does very well to make Walter temporarily unlikable, as he brushes off obvious redshirt Cecil---who is absolutely sympathetic---until the poor guy gets killed before he can even leave. It became painfully clear for us just as it was for Walter at the end, and was an a good spin on and effective use of that tried-and-true redshirt trope. And of course, John Noble was marvelous shifting back-and-forth from docile to angry to determined to tantrum-throwing.
Coupling Walter's development with Peter's Observer tech, the show seems to be crafting a new "What is humanity?" theme for this season. It was also very cool (and unsettling) to see Peter use his Observer moves, and it was genuinely surprising that he's learned to teleport so early. He even subtly carried himself like an Observer on the monorail at the end; look at the way the way he mechanically tilts his head when he looks at Olivia.
It's seeming like the only people who won't be dead, insane or MIA by episode 13 at this point will be Olivia and Astrid. And since this season seems intent on having Astrid not really ever do anything, Olivia will probably be the one to bring everyone back together to save the world again, bringing it full circle to the days of season one when she was at the center of the story. There have been complaints about Olivia's lack of proactiveness this season, like in last week's comments section, but it seems like things are being set-up now so that she'll have to swoop in and be the hero at the end, which works fine for me.
There really isn't much to talk about character-wise, though. That stuff happened, and it will lead to something, but right now it's just a bunch of plot points. That's the major problem with this week; there's lots of really cool and important stuff here, but it all just...happened. That's it. It's as if there was a list of things the writers realized they hadn't done yet but needed too before the end, so they just threw them all into the melting pot and came out with this. The pocket universe idea was clever, but its possibility for a character-driven, artful bottle show was squandered because of all the plot points. And the ability to have fun with all the plot points was squandered because it was all so excruciatingly slow and not as artful as it wanted to be. There was plenty of good stuff here, but nothing really clicked. On the upside, though, we've got enough plot meat to carry us for another couple of episodes, hopefully meaning more room for character stuff and actual fun.
Odds & Ends
- Something tells me we'll have to suffer through Etta's brutal murder in every recap for the rest of the season.
- Not sure what was up with the woman with the Terminator/Deadshot reticule in the apartment building, but that was a cool detail.
- The symmetrical room in which to keep the pocket universe? Cute. The little dance Walter does to remember how to find the portal? Fantastic.
- It's weird to think that even being one of only four major cast members to remain through season 5, Jasika Nicole is still painfully underused. It's good that Astrid was out of the lab this week, but let her do something exciting other than wait around and get knocked out!
- I guess there had to be some action here, but Olivia's brief and simple tussle with the Observer just felt pointless.
- My tangent about the editing and pacing trying to make us feel off-kilter to reflect how the characters are feeling was partially inspired by this review in defense of the much-maligned Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "Doublemeat Palace," which is worth the read for Buffy fans. This episode of Fringe isn't quite on that same level of discussion, I think, but it's the same idea. I still don't feel like it worked here, though.