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Fringe returned from its two-month hiatus with an episode that did a lot of things right, but unfortunately not for everyone. From the very beginning of this fourth season, the minds behind the show have done everything in their power — and have largely succeeded — in designing storylines friendly to newcomers to the series while keeping longtime viewers interested. Like every episode set on The Other Side, “Back to Where You’ve Never Been” was captivating, but it was also an episode more likely to dazzle a newcomer than a series seasoned viewer, which is a pity because at this point in the season, the show needs to keep all its audience.
“Back to Where You’ve Never Been” is the story of Peter’s trip to The Other Side to seek the help of this timeline’s Walternate in his attempt to use the Machine to return to his own timeline. This happens after Walter gives him a compelling argument as to why he will not be receiving the help he needs from This Side, meaning from Walter himself. The episode did a good job laying all that out in what was also a clever way of exposing more backstory for the new timeline. In a scene that showed his guilt, Walter very emotionally explained to his son from another timeline why he would not risk to fail his universe one more time for yet another Peter’s sake.
Besides an insight into Walter’s past, what was remarkable in that scene was the excellent use of cross-timeline backstory and references. By revealing for the first time details on Elizabeth’s suicide, the producers were not only building a backstory for newcomers, but they were also providing some helpful information to longtime viewers — even though the original events are technically not necessarily similar. It was also clever to have Peter casually mention that Olivia didn’t need Walter’s device to cross over, something that caught her attention and that she is not likely to forget. This was done so well that any newcomer could see there was something more to it, which again makes it more thrilling to people unfamiliar with past events.
However, what was arguably the most effective use of the previous timeline happened with Fauxlivia, both in the way she immediately reacted to Secretary Bishop’s interference and in the way Peter pushed her with his statement, “deep down you are a good person.” Since the beginning of the season, I have liked how the show has often adjusted some of the characters’ traits we know, which has led to different choices themselves explaining the different history in this timeline. All this has resulted in storylines that feel like a retelling of past ones with a course correction. Fauxlivia’s attitude was such that in just one episode, a newcomer to the series went through what took several episodes last time around. She appeared much more quickly as a “friendly” character than she did in the last season, all the while driving alt-Lincoln through an intriguing investigation.
The issue with the episode is how, by going over some of the things we have already seen, the show displayed some elements that could appear as weaknesses or plot holes to longtime viewers. Details like Olivia on This Side having the “authority” to mount an operation to sneak Peter to The Other Side, or the show casually using Walter’s device that weakened the structure of the universes in the first place. Also, although alt-Lincoln was always more a matter of looks and attitude than substance, there was some level of relevance with his technical skills. Here, Fauxlivia, who has always been the one driving the plot on The Other Side, seemed to lead alt-Lincoln instead of nudging him, making him a bit irrelevant without a proper explanation as to why.
Furthermore, although the twists on Walternate and Broyles were welcome to introduce some originality, there is still the issue of the ultimate foe. Over the past three seasons, after wandering a bit to find its footing, the show delivered an impressive storyline with a larger than life villain (Walternate) and a very vivid threat to the universes. Mr Jones was arguably part of the wanderings in the previous timeline, when the show was gradually bringing about the concept of alternate universe. Given that we are well beyond such a stage with an existing bridge between the two worlds, from the outskirts, his reintroduction is far from impressive, especially with a story reusing shapeshiters without the backing of the powerful Department of Defense.
There is some hope though, in Olivia’s untapped potential and what seems to be the prediction of her death. It is not yet quite clear if the whole season will take place in the new timeline. But if it does, the show needs an overarching storyline going beyond shapeshifters and petty scientific mischiefs. Last season it involved a relationship at the heart of the universes survival, this time around, let’s hope whatever the Observer got injured for — involving all the different possibilities in which Olivia dies — has what it takes to keep longtime viewers coming back for more.