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The Bullet That Saved the World was one of those episodes that lull you into a false sense of normalcy bordering on boredom before unleashing what it has in store. When that moment came, the story was merciless, bearing its weight on characters and on the viewers with a ruthless but logical determination. The episode wasn't so much about the bullet in the title as it was about the people for whom it was more than a keepsake, the parents for whom the bullet was a promise for better days and the daughter for whom it was a connection to a lost paradise she would not see again.
Those who feared the lukewarm threat from the Observers in the previous episode ("The Recordist") might stay that way until a final showdown at the end of the season couldn't have been more wrong. Every time the show has led us through what we have perceived as shaky grounds in the past, it ultimately took an unexpected turn with a largely rewarding outcome. Right from the beginning, Peter's brush with an Observer in the shop brought the focus to the bullet and to Etta (its current owner) but also, for the first time since the season premiere, it brought a team member under direct threat from one of the invaders.
Instead of ratcheting up the action after the initial fears, we returned to what we have come to expect as business-as-usual with the retrieval of a tape from the amber and the unavoidable difficulties in reading it. This is where the first signs of the structural beauty of the episode appeared. Fringe is about fringe science at its core, so in each episode, we need some event or device that would allow the show to advance that agenda. In The Bullet That Saved the World, instead of meeting something new, our heroes revisited the past secretly kept under the lab by Walter, "There was a time when we solved fringe cases. Now it is time that we created a few of our own." Besides the humor that came with the moment, it was an open window into the series past seasons (with a delightful tease of the parallel universe), and a way for the story to allow our team to compete in a world where they are typically outmatched when it comes to weapons and technology.
As pivotal as the season one technology was, as it was used to retrieve the blueprints of the weapon or device needed to defeat the Observers, things really started to take shape only after the plans were collected. The story brought back Broyles, who in 2036 is the head of the Fringe Division, which is merely in charge of security among "Natives", and gradually showed that what was perceived at first as an ability only Etta possessed, could actually be acquired. The threat to Broyles was very palpable and by the time Etta organized the meeting, the connection between him and herself had been properly laid out. The encounter with Broyles 21 years later was a beautiful moment in which Olivia and her former boss were very well used to convey the emotions.
From that point on, the episode was an emotional roller-coaster. The chase became a more pressing threat because it was spearheaded by the lead Observer who has been closing in on the group, on their relationships, and on their motivations. As the gunfight was raging in the abandoned buildings and Observers and loyalists were falling, it became obvious that the team's luck was bound to run out or the story would become insulting to the audience. Etta's end came after four episodes (of this season and one of the previous) where we got to know and like the young woman who seemed to be a good mixture of her two parents. She had the determination of her mother and her father's ability to read people with those big eyes that seemed to take in a lot more than she let on.
She was directly and indirectly involved in most of the episode. The opening scene involving the necklace was about her, Broyles's conversation with the lead Observer was circling around her, and her interaction with Broyles became apparent before he met the group. But of all the screen-time she had, the sweetest and most revealing was her conversation with her mother about the bullet. It was the only time during the episode where Olivia truly smiled. While she saw through the bullet a new world and hope, her daughter saw a connection to her mother. The symbolic meaning of the relic was reinforced by her returning it to its rightful owner in her last breath. Her death in the episode came as a surprise even for those (like me) who were expecting it to happen well before the end of the season.
In one of my previous reviews, I warned the viewers of the tendency of Fringe to repeat some of its storylines with subtle variations until its characters get it right. I was referring to the fact that the loss of their daughter had broken up Peter and Olivia, warning that Fringe might want to have them go through it once again. Well, the showrunner has done it and the final scene already showed what is at stake: Olivia moved almost as soon as Walter said it was time to go, but Peter stayed a bit longer, staring at the empty space the anti-matter had left behind. About the antimatter, it was as if by killing Etta the story was correcting a mistake, removing all physical trace of her existence. The way she died might help Peter pull it together, given that there is no hope of her reappearing, but even if that happens, will Olivia contemplate being happy again? Will she consider having another child after her fears of not deserving family happiness were "proven" right?
In just four episodes, Fringe has brought the parents and their daughter from the future together, has showed them what they could have, what they could be, and has taken it all away relentlessly. What is remarkable is that it was done practically in passing, while they were trying to rid the world of the Observers. The show is firmly in the science fiction category, but it has shown again in The Bullet That Saved the World that it does character study like the very best.