Fringe returned in its new time period on Friday night with “The Firefly,” an exemplary episode designed to bring joy, deep satisfaction, and uneasy fears to the hearts of its fans. I’ll deal with the joys and satisfactions first.
The hour began not with a previously-standard pre-credits, scare-case-of-the-week introduction, but rather a beautiful scene between Walter and Peter that had those elements of comedy and poignance that Fringe combines like no other current television. Peter came upon Walter in the lab, the latter preparing to inject himself in his leg with something concocted to “make myself smarter,” the better to replace the missing parts of his brain (I know I’ve just lost every non-regular-Fringe viewer reading this with that phrase; sorry) and to approximate the intelligence of Walternate. Peter gently warned his father to recall that Walter had asked William Bell to snip out those brain-parts “because you were afraid of what you were becoming.”
Then, cut to a nursing home in Boston, where a patient who would prove to be guest star Christopher Lloyd was seen on security cameras conversing with an unknown hospital visitor. The patient was Roscoe Joyce, the former keyboardist for Walter’s favorite rock band, Violet Sedan Chair, and the stranger was Joyce’s dead son, Bobby, come to deliver a message. Bobby, who’d died in 1985, joined up with our most familiar Observer (Michael Cerveris), who told Bobby that, with his brief mission accomplished, “I’ll take you home now.”
Once Fringe Division is called into this scenario because the cameras also picked up the presence of the Observer, it was bliss to see Walter’s reaction when he realized that the drawn, haggard ex-rocker before him was Roscoe Joyce. Lloyd’s hopeless demeanor was as perfect as his wardrobe — the no-shirt vest plus jewelry get-up of a man who indeed looked like a refugee from a decades-old, now-defunct (art-? prog-? psychedelic-?) rock band. Walter’s elation at meeting one of his heroes, even in this fallen, sedated state, was tempered by the Observer sighting: “Every time the Observer appears, it has something to do with you,” he said to Peter, worry creasing his face. “Something bad.”
But soon after, we saw two Observers discussing Walter, not Peter. Our Observer says to his colleague, “I think he has changed.” The other one disagrees. Most of the Observer scenes in “The Firefly” were mysterious, confusing, until the end of the hour. Shortly before this our Observer foiled a jewlry store robbery and saved a woman tied up during the burglary by locating her asthma inhaler, from which she desperately needed a dose. He pocketed the inhaler. It was very cool to see an Observer in an action scene — catching the robber’s bullets, disabling the thief with a series of sharp elbows and in-close punches. But… to what end?
With Roscoe brought to Walter’s lab, the scientist tried to draw out the musician’s memories, and in the process, Walter explained that he’s made a “liquid base to aid in the process of bran-mapping.” Roscoe Joyce observed wryly that Brain Mapping would make a great name for an album. Walter had mixed the liquid with milk “as a bonding agent,” and put it in his fridge in an ordinary milk bottle. Uh-oh…
The Observer appeared to Walter and asked to talk. What followed was the crux of the episode. The Observer and Walter discuss “various possible futures” and how “every action causes ripples.” He told Walter a story that gave the hour its title and was, we thought as we watched, a metaphor: It was about Peter as a boy catching a firefly, which caused another child to not catch one and go wandering off. Her father went looking for her in his car, skidded and hit and killed a boy. The Observer broke off from his story to ask Walter for his help: “When the time comes, give him the keys and save the girl.” Walter was baffled by this apparent non sequitur.
But then Walter went back to the lab and Roscoe had remembered something: Bobby called him years ago to tell him about a dream which involved a bald man and a nursing home; Roscoe said it was their last conversation, because shortly after, Bobby was fatally hit by a man driving a car. Walter realized that, in a roundabout way, he was responsible for this death (because of his Peter catching the firefly) and Roscoe comments that the grief over Bobby’s death is the real reason Violet Sedan Chair broke up. So Walter is also responsible for the break-up of his favorite band! I’d have cheered at this cleverness in the script by producers J. H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner had I not been so moved by the multiple unhappinesses that were caused in what the Observer called actions-causing-ripples. “That man lost a son because I was unwilling to lose mine,” is how Walter will boil it down a few minutes later to Astrid. Walter also realized that the Observer “wants me to help him un-do all the damage… But in doing that I would lose [Peter] all over again.”
The Observer’s non sequitur to Walter made sense when the Observer caused an auto accident and the woman with asthma was again placed in jeopardy. At the scene of this accident, Olivia chased after the Observer; Peter told Walter he wanted to go help Olivia but that Walter should stay with the young woman and that he needs their car.
“Give me the keys and save the girl,” Peter says to Walter. Thunderstruck, Walter realizes this had been the Observer’s plan all along. “They’re going to take you from me!” he cried out in anguish. Yet Walter cannot allow the asthmatic girl to die. He handed over the keys and improvised a cure for the woman. This delayed him from getting back to the lab, where Peter, thirsty, reached in for the milk and went into a seizure — a reaction to Walter’s brain-mapping elixer. A frantic Olivia called Walter, who guided her through an anti-coagulant injection.
Later the Observers spoke about all this. “You were right, he’s changed. He was willing to let his son die,” is what they conclude. “Yes, and now we know: When the time comes, he will be willing to do it again.” Fade to black.
But wait! There was the night’s other plot: Olivia received a book in the mail, If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him! (This is an actual book, published in 1972 by Sheldon B. Kopp, that carries the subtitle, “The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients.”) At first, Olivia was put off by this, handing it off to Peter as being intended for “her” — i.e., Altivia. But then Peter explained, with a lovely sincerity and earnestness, “The book wasn’t meant for her. It was meant for the Olivia Dunham that I’ve spent the past couple of years of my life with… You’re the person I wanted to share it with.” It was meant to help explain why he can be so distant and disengaged. If The Buddha is about finding one’s own path, altering the narrative of one’s past, and commences with a section that’s very apt for this music-minded episode of Fringe: “Take From No Man His Song.” With its chapters about “spoiled identity” and “a search for belonging,” this book is something I’m going to have to dip into further. I’ll keep you posted on what I find; let me know if you’ve read it yourself.
“The Firefly” stands among the finest Fringe episodes. The pull of family; the knotty complexity of romance; the way sci-fi can provide fresh metaphors for the most frequently explored ideas and emotions; the way we encounter humor and surprise even in the midst of anguish and regret — this is the stuff of which Fringe is made. Hallelujah.
Oh yes, those uneasy fears I mentioned at the top of this piece. I do fear — with great delight — for the future implications of the Observers’ ominous exchange and what it means for Walter later in the season. Walter undergoing another traumatic challenge about the possibility of losing a son seems almost too much for the man to bear. It will also make for great drama.
• The episode title was also, of course, a nod to Fringe‘s new Friday night Fox death-trap time period, once the quicksand-grave for Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
• It’s rumored that the Violet Sedan Chair’s album Seven Suns exists, and can be found in various independent record stories throughout the country. From what I’ve heard, Chair music is less psychedelic than I’d thought the band would be — more influenced by American British-invasion-influenced bands ranging from the Beau Brummels to The Three O’Clock. In other words: Fab.
• How many of you initially thought, as I did, that Bobby wasn’t a transported-from-1985 Bobby, but the alterna-Bobby, from the Other Side?
• The Observer shooting Peter with his “magic air gun” — wish I had one of those.