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The Boy Must Live tried and ultimately failed to convince us that its title meant something else than what we know, but it brilliantly set the stage for the series finale. It brought us to a specific future — the Observers time period — which is a first for the series, and we finally got to learn how the "boy" fits in the plan to defeat the invaders.
The building blocks of a typical episode of Fringe are well known by now. Outside of special episodes or those focused on the recovery from a previous emotional trauma, there must always be something funny centered on Walter and possibly those other members of the cast whose personalities lend themselves to the joke. There must also be some sort of fringe science case or at least a fleeting fringe experiment involving a human being or a device. Finally, there must be some action sequence where Peter might do the heavy lifting, but that somehow would manage to feature Olivia prominently.
The Boy Must Live kept that pattern, but it got its joke and its experiment out of the way as soon as it could. That is because the episode wanted to look like Fringe as usual while it wasn't. Walter got what he wanted from his visit to the tank and gave us our comic relief before we moved on to more substantive matters. The team finally met Donald and that was quite an encounter. I like how the story didn't rush things and let them all settle in. I find that Fringe generally handles reunions very well as the show seems to care about continuity in the relationships between characters.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned how, in a way, the story came full circle with Donald being September. The Boy Must Live extended that metaphor by connecting Michael to the original Observer. Having Donald as September also allowed the show to finally tell the full story of how the Observers came to be, something that required insider knowledge. In just a few minutes, the story laid out September's "regression" to normal human as well as the Observers' and Michael's origin stories without a single inconsistency despite the complexity of it all and the need for continuity. We already had pieces of the puzzle, but the way Donald described how emotions were progressively "machined out" was gripping. One of the reasons why the narrative worked so well is because it relied on Windmark's trip back home, allowing us to see the future and the procreation process with Donald's explanations as voice-over.
We have seen earlier in the season that Observers interacted with those of them that stayed in their original time period, but the episode brought us for the first time in 2609, giving us a glimpse at the world the invaders left behind. We got to see an Observer outranking Windmark, and we saw in that commander and in Windmark himself things that echoed Donald's story. The commander only relied on math to determine what to do next, dismissing Windmark's rebuttal when he brought up the survival of the child. What is interesting is that although he could not put a name on it, Windmark essentially described hatred when he spoke of what he was experiencing because of the fugitives, which brings us back to Walter and Donald's plan.
The idea is to travel to the future (around Feb. 20, 2167) and change the mind of some Norwegian scientist, using Michael as evidence that emotions and intelligence can share the same brain. Defend the case that there is no need to turn us into cold and unfeeling human robots who tend to procreate only males (I still don't understand why there is no female Observer). I will not focus on the plan itself, but rather on its consequences and how they fit with the overall series. We now know that the previous timeline was reset, meaning that there is no timeline where an Olivia is missing her Peter.
If the plan works, by that same logic, this timeline will be reset and we will switch to a world where the Observers never existed, but how far will the erasing go? In the previous season, Olivia somehow got memories from a reset timeline, and Walter has now got them through the touch of the wonder boy, and we know that Peter is not even supposed to be here in the first place. Does this mean that these characters will retain memories of those wonderful years of adventure, love and tragedies or that they might be subjected like the rest of the population (including Astrid) to a reset? Olivia cut to the chase and went straight to Etta, seeing pass the plan and already contemplating the possible outcome that she would like, hoping for something good, which is unusual for her. Also, the story was well-inspired to replace the annoying subplot about Walter's regression with his sacrifice, which is a much better way to raise the emotional stakes for the Bishop family.
The episode reused some of the series recurrent subjects but without letting them become annoying. The tank came back it's true, but not only was it Walter this time, but the way we experienced his "trip" was different. After five years, Olivia is still the one who has the hardest time with Walter. She understands him, but she just can't shrug things off like Peter or Astrid. She must say something or have a bigger display of disapproval than a simple smile or a good-humored comment. The whole tank experiment brought back past memories while letting us realize how we have become familiar with these characters over the years.
The only minor quibble I have with the episode is its attempt to rebrand or change the meaning of its title, the sentence September used when he saved Peter several years ago. I mean at Reiden Lake there was Walter, September and Peter who was the only boy around, so how exactly could it have been about Michael? Also, although we know how Michael came to be, there is no fringe science explanation yet about why he can do some of the things he does.
The Boy Must Live finally told us the origin story of the Observers and at the same time revealed the plan to defeat them, two things that are inextricably linked. It was a major stepping stone toward the end but it kept a very Fringe-like structure, keeping things in the small family (Michael is September's son) and taking the boy away so that next week the finale has to contend with some action as well as with a trip to the future and the paradoxes of a timeline reset.