As Fringe grew stronger and more confident through 2010 and increasingly began to draw in the details of the alternate universe, one issue would occasionally dig at me: just where does The Observer—or rather The Observers—fit into all of this? The bald-headed Zelig from the other side was one of our first glimpses of that world, but when we actually visited that other world with Olivia, there was conspicuously little evidence of his presence or role in that world. (Whereas we got to learn much more about Walternate, the shapeshifters and so forth.) I had begun to wonder if The Observer, and his history with Walter, was not a legacy of an earlier idea of the show, one that had been superseded by the present game plan.
Apparently I was not the only one who noticed. "The Observer," Olivia noted early in the episode: "It's been a while since we've seen him."
By the time the hour was over, we still didn't know the precise nature of these evidently-time-traveling G-men / guardian angels, but "The Firefly" made clear that the Observers are still decidedly important to, and invested in, the story. All this came by way of a story that established the show on a new night by returning to some running storylines and underscoring its distinctive blend of humor, strangeness and emotional resonance. The plot of the episode revolved around an aging rock keyboardist and idol of Walter's (played by Christopher Lloyd, who has his own experience with mad scientist roles), to whom our original Observer brought a message—via his son who died a quarter-century ago.
By interfering and saving Walter from death, The Observer tells Walter in this episode, he has set off consequences that have changed the possible future in unimaginable ways. He also changed the future in one distinct way: Peter's presence in our world set off a chain reaction—because, of all things, he caught a firefly—that led to the accident that killed the musician's son.
The story demonstrated the Observers' reach and power—as well as a time-travel element that shows that Fringe is not afraid to re-enter some of Lost's danger zones. But it also echoed the themes of love and loss that led to Walter's original sin, stealing the alt-verse semblable of his dead son Peter, an act of hubris from whence much of the ensuing trouble has issued. Per usual, John Noble made Walter's regret, and the toll it has taken, real—while also pulling off an amusing turn as an overawed, elderly rock fanboy.
Like many time-travel stories, the implications of the Observers' "course correcting" creates some potential pitfalls for the series. Beyond the usual paradoxes time travel creates (see again Lost), here we also have the element of a character who exists outside the normal bonds of time, who has the power to influence events. ("Give him the keys and save the girl.") The risk, of course, is that the principals end up becoming pawns and losing agency, which is why characters like the Observers generally have rules about such things—not just for their own sake and the universe's, but the story's.
Within the episode itself, though, the chain reaction looped in on itself elegantly, and "The Firefly" was an impressive outing for the series to welcome back its fans with. (And maybe even draw in new viewers on a new night?) And indeed, miracle of miracles, the show moved to the much-dreaded "Friday death slot" without losing viewers, pulling an audience it roughly the same range it did on Thursdays. If that continues, it should be enough to keep this ever-better sci-fi drama on the air. But as The Observer said: many futures are happening simultaneously. So it wouldn't hurt to get a friend to watch next week.