Fringe recap – 4×19: ‘Letters of Transit’

Courtesy of FOX

Fringe continues its annual trend of pushing limits in its 19th episode of the season. As we’ve seen in previous seasons, the 19th episode is usually the most ‘high-concept’ and mind-blowing episode of the season and ‘Letters of Transit’ does not disappoint. This week, we’re launched way into future in the year 2036 where the Observers have become rulers of the Earth.

Let’s take a closer look after the jump:

We drastically depart from the ‘case-of-the-week’ format in this episode, in what read to me as a homage to many other sci-fi texts. Right off the bat, I picked up on some Dollhouse, The Prisoner, Scanners, X-Men and, very clear LOST allusions- heck the episode opens with Star Wars-esque credits. But ultimately I think the similarities function as complementary nods rather than smarmy distractions.

Looks like in the year 2015, the Observers have stopped observing and go into full-on takeover mode as the regular folk (now named “The Natives”) must toil in secret rebellion to overthrow them. We’ve jumped to the future before in Fringe, but this time, it’s the beginning of entirely new narrative arc with new characters and everything. I’m talking here about members of the resistance, Simon (LOST’s wonderful Henry Ian Cusick) and Etta (Georgina Haig), a fresh face blonde, who, from opening silhouette, is very obviously Olivia (Anna Torv) and Peter’s (Joshua Jackson) future daughter. These two work for the now demoted Fringe division, reduced to policing any Natives who fall out of line with Observer law. Still in charge at Fringe? A much older Broyles (Lance Reddick), fully broken and apparently an alcoholic, serving as pawn to mid-management and power tripping Observer, Widmark (Michael Kopsa).

It’s unclear what “side” we’re on or, what versions of the characters we’re dealing with, but judging by Broyles’ broken spirit, the fact that he’s still wearing his wedding ring, and that his office looks very much like the “other side” Fringe division, I’m betting that this is Col. Broyles (aka TTS who was detained as David Robert Jones’ mole last week.) Likely selling his soul to the dark side full stop, this would explain why Broyles ultimately pursues Etta and Simon, as they get closer to reuniting the original Fringe team.

Courtesy of FOX

Speaking of the original gang, the episode opens with Etta finding our Walter (John Noble) encased in amber and working with Simon to release him. With the exception of TTS Broyles, there’s not an other-sider in sight, as our wide-eyed Walter couldn’t possibly be mistaken for Walternate. In fact, the episode takes pains to make sure we don’t get confused. Once Walter is released from the amber, it looks like his brain tissue has deteriorated even more, and he can barely function coherently, much less remember a lick about what happened to him pre-amberfication. Simon and Etta enlist the help of an older, and might I add, extremely good-looking Nina (Blair Brown) to help Walter regain his mental faculties. Looks like all that Massive Dynamic research has done Nina some favours in the anti-aging department. Since she’s so willing to help, again, it’s clear that this is good Nina and not evil bowl-cut Nina from the other side. What follows is an essentially straightforward quest to a) Redevelop Walter’s brain so he can help overthrow the Observers and b) Get the rest of the original Fringe team out of amber so they can help Walter. Eventually this does happen, sans Olivia and Lincoln (Seth Gabel), but the episode hardly gives us any kind of closure, leaving us with more questions than answers. This means we will likely be revisiting 2036 again, or I hear a potential spin-off opportunity calling if FOX decides to drop the ball and not renew the series.

Though the episode itself demands to be re-watched and meticulously dissected for clues pertaining to Fringe mythology, I enjoyed it more for its exceptional emotional beats and performances. John Noble again, gets my prize for best frigin’ actor as he manages to evoke a richly layered performance throughout the short hour. He begins as an exaggerated inquisitive Walter, looking at the new world with truly fresh eyes. Although it’s slightly frustrating that he’s even more infantilized than what we’re used to, Noble sells it as endearing. It also gets us on board with Etta and Simon, hoping that he’ll be restored to the Walter we know and love. Once Walter’s brain begins regenerating, he slowly morphs from the weird scientist we’re used to, to a man that has clearly been haunted and eventually ruled by dark events of the past.

Remember Walter opted for his lobotomy years ago because he ‘didn’t like the man he was becoming”. Restoring his brain has caused some of these less desirable characteristics to return in addition to the traditional Bishop-genius. It reads hilarious at first, as he chastises Etta and Simon for not disabling the alarm before breaking into the old Massive Dynamic facility, but subtly turns into to down right ominous. At episode’s end, Walter shows no remorse in taking William Bell’s (an uncredited Leonard Nemoy) hand encased in amber, leaving him there for all eternity. It’s alluded that Bell has (again) done something unforgivable to the unseen and presumed murdered Olivia, but Noble manages to show us just enough of the evolving Walter to keep us interested.

I also have to mention the stellar Cusick, whose performance is distinct enough from his time on LOST that hopefully he’ll be remembered for his ability to be an engaging and truly compelling actor in any role. Cusick aptly delivers the right amount of quiet passion to us as he shares a moment with Etta recounting how his devotion to the rebellion began. Furthermore, his quick sacrifice to the cause at the end of the episode is heart-breakingly poignant.

And although I could see it right from the get go, the final reveal of Etta being Peter and Olivia’s daughter was still immensely touching. Although Olivia is not there (again, presumed dead as Etta strokes a bullet shell on her necklace, and September’s (Michael Cerveris) ominous prediction looms over us), Etta merely needs to ask the recently un-ambered Peter if he knows her. It takes him some processing (let’s blame it on the amber) but Jackson totally sells the slow realization that this is his future daughter as they share a tearful embrace. As Ken Tucker very accurately notes, it’s a scene that one can’t help but be moved by. Also consider how Olivia is unseen in the entire episode, yet her presence is still very acutely felt through Etta’s plight.

I do love it when Fringe pushes those boundaries and gives us these out-of-the-box episodes, but the events of “Letters of Transit’ illustrate how the show’s real strength isn’t just these mind-bending plotlines and techniques, but how its rich characters and their profound relationships with one another, constitutes the series’ very core. And that’s why it truly is one of the best show on television.

So what did you think Fringe fans? Impressed with the infamous 19th episode? What do you think the fate of Olivia is? Is she really dead, or is she encased in amber elsewhere? Perhaps a prisoner? How does David Robert Jones (Jared Harris) fit into this new equation? Sound off in our comments section below!

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Angie is a TV addict currently pursuing a PhD in media studies. A freelance researcher and writer on the side – she really misses talking about her favourite shows because none of her friends watch them. Help her out.

2 thoughts on “Fringe recap – 4×19: ‘Letters of Transit’

  1. Mmm..I dunno. I’m not really convinced that the letters of transit in Casablanca were indeed a MacGuffin anyway. I’m not sure what the MacGuffin would be in this episode either? Care to expand on your theory?