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Besides having a title that is a mouthful, Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There was distinctly the least gripping episode of the season so far, and it’s not for the lack of trying. It featured Walter wandering off unattended, a pocket universe, Peter using his new tech-induced abilities to great effect, continuity from an earlier season filler-episode (or “mythalone” to make it sound more important), and even a not-too-awkward moment of shared grief. Despite so much happening, the whole failed to work together as expected. A distinctive unsettling feeling seemed to spread throughout the episode, and not in a good way.
After a break from the story pattern starting with a tape extraction, the betamax recording system (including the portable camera) was back in full swing this week with “Tape 7”. If you are having issues keeping up with the tape sequence, so are we, but it’s irrelevant at this point. I suppose to make things more interesting, Walter set out to retrieve the piece of the plan by himself and was caught by the Observers’ general surveillance system in the process. The quasi-choreographed dance leading to the entrance to the parallel pocket universe deserved some fringe science explanation I think, but the episode was too busy dealing with the closest thing to the case of the week (the pocket universe itself) to care.
Before Peter and Olivia joined Walter, everything that happened in the pocket universe was as irrelevant as the “collateral” Walter stumbled on upon his own entry (though one might argue that the man’s purpose was to help Walter realize he was on the wrong track). Things picked up in interest with the appearance of the boy from the first season episode “Inner Child” and in intensity when the Observers arrived. “Inner Child” was the quintessential mythalone episode because it featured a story that stood on its own until towards the end a subtle and unsubstantiated connection was made between the bald child and the bald Observer (there was only one Observer in those days). Dwelling on the boy would have saved the episode, but there were other things to attend to, things like showing Peter’s newly acquired abilities in action. The arrival of the Observers led to excellent action sequences (in which the show always excels). A personal favorite was Olivia pulling the Observer out of the pocket universe to be able to use her gun she couldn’t operate over there.
Although the above scene stood out to me, I am perfectly aware the most significant were those involving Peter. We had a glimpse of Peter from before, the Peter who cheated his way into Havard and had shady business deals in the middle east, only that here, he was enhanced with Observers abilities. I liked how the story made him naturally assume leadership and pitted him against the Observer who understood what he had done. Even before the invader’s warning and Captain Windmark’s wry smile, we already knew there would be a day of reckoning for Peter. The command that he led them out didn’t get past Olivia, who has been worried for their relationship ever since their daughter Etta died, and this allows me to segue to the reason why I think the episode wasn’t as successful as it could have been.
The world of regular Fringe viewers includes, among others, those who think the story is first about Olivia, and those who think the mythology is much larger and comes before any character. I belong to the former because, to me, Olivia Dunham is the character through which the mythology and everything else happening in Fringe is grounded. That is why the series doesn’t do well when it pushes her aside. Even the second season episode “Peter”, which was about events not including Olivia unfolded as a narration (to her) to help her cope with what she’d just discovered: that Peter was alien to her world. In season four “Letters of Transit”, Olivia was nowhere to be seen but she was channeled by her daughter who had many of the same physical and personality traits, down to the hairdo.
Towards the end of season three, when the mythology seemed to put Peter center-stage, the show felt the need to bring back Olivia in focus with an unexpected role in the Machine’s operation. My point is that Fringe has been built at its core around Olivia (no matter the iteration or her age), so things like this episode happen and she’s pushed aside by her husband who grieves alone or by the story that has him going on a lone vendetta, it affects our overall perception of the episode. Note that the issue here is not that Olivia is unhappy (she has spent most of the past four years being more or less unhappy), the issue is that the episode didn’t really welcome the viewer in her plight. Olivia was oddly depicted as a secondary character, and that is not Fringe.
The tracking of Walter by the rest of the team provided the only fun and refreshing moment of the episode. It involved Walter interrupting the tape recording to do something that only Walter would do after stating how important what he was about to say was: buy some random pastry which seemingly became the most important thing in the world, ahead of plans to save the whole of humanity. You would think that after four years of “Walterisms”, we would be indifferent, but somehow John Noble manages to make them still work. It should be said the fact that other characters react to them in a way that is a reflection of their very different personalities also helps. All that is why Walter wiping his mouth when resuming the recording was a highlight of an otherwise tepid episode.
Through the Looking Glass and What Walter Found There was an introduction to a major part of the plan (to defeat the Observers) that involved an old acquaintance. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough of that part of the plan to make things really interesting, and the ongoing dramas in the Bishop family were handled so poorly that they affected the overall emotional balance of the episode.