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The Firefly: An Advance Review of This Week's Episode of Fringe

Many viewers and critics--myself included--had a lot to say when FOX announced that it was moving its fantastic sci-fi drama Fringe to Fridays.

After all, the series had hit new creative highs both last season and in the current third season, amid a storyline involving human nature, doppelgangers, alternate universes, and the consequences of a father's love. The series had successfully transformed itself from a science fiction-laden monster-of-the-week procedural into something more enduring and heartfelt, a drama that at its center was about a collection of very damaged individuals who had carved out something resembling a family even when facing down some fiendish plot to destroy the universe or science run amok on a weekly basis.

At TCA's winter press tour last week, FOX entertainment president Kevin Reilly publicly declared his support for Fringe, amid increasing worry that the series was being put out to pasture on Friday evenings. Those concerned about the move should at least take comfort in this fact: When Fringe moves to Fridays this week, it does so with its core mission and its brilliance very much intact.

I had the chance to see this week's wondrous new episode of Fringe ("The Firefly"), written by Jeff Pinkner and J. H. Wyman, which managed to be brilliant and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Fringe soars when it explores not only the mysteries of science but also the mysteries of the soul. Here, it does so with expert precision, examining the consequences of our actions, both seen and unseen. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. When Walter Bishop (John Noble) cut through the curtain between dimensions in order to save the life of another world's Peter Bishop after losing his own son, he set in motion a chain of events that damned two universes in the process. A father's grief, his love, his devotion destroyed countless lives in the process. But what are two worlds when weighed against a child's life?

(Note: Very minor spoilers follow. As always, please do not post this review in full on any message boards, websites, or fan sites without written permission.)

Chaos theory at its most elementary posits that every action has an outward ripple effect. In essence, a butterfly beating its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. Imagine then what the consequences would be if one were to actually punch a hole through dimensions, to replace a dead child for a living one, to throw the natural order out of balance altogether. We've seen the result of Walter's actions Over There, the widespread destruction, the amber, the shocking devastation.

But Peter being alive Over Here must also have consequences then as well. Something as simple as a firefly, a little phosphorescent insect caught in the hand of a child, can itself have a ripple effect, setting in motion a chain of events that's breathtaking in its brutality. The firefly then becomes emblematic of the unseen, its light at odds with the veil of ignorance surrounding Walter Bishop. In saving this boy's life, he has altered the outcomes of several futures because Peter wasn't supposed to live. In stealing this child from his world, Walter's actions are both noble and foolhardy, the short-term benefits paling in comparison to the long-term damage.

But Walter hasn't seen just what consequences his good intentions have wrought. Until now.

I don't want to give too much away about this extraordinary episode, but I will say that "The Firefly" dramatizes the results of Walter's great experiment, showing the audience the web of consequence stemming from that fateful night. But the chain of events that he unleashed upon the world tautly circle back onto him. There's always a price to pay in any Faustian arrangement, and Walter sees here first-hand just how high that tariff is.

The great Christopher Lloyd guest stars in the episode as Roscoe Joyce, the keyboardist of Walter's favorite band, Violet Sedan Chair (previously mentioned on-air), now a lonely old soul living in a nursing facility, his memory at odds with his intelligence. If that reminds you of someone else, you're on the right track. These two strangers are intrinsically bound together by threads of fate. Thrown together, each has a part to play in the other's life, as that chain of events constricts ever tighter. There's a simpatico spirit to these two brilliant men, their minds both shattered, their lives eerily similar in a way. Both have endured great losses, and in coming together, each offers the other a way to make amends.

Lloyd's performance as Roscoe is staggering here and, in a more just world, he would nab an Emmy nomination for his depiction of the haunted keyboardist who reawakens to the possibilities of the world when he crosses paths with Walter Bishop. (Noble, as I've argued for years now, is supremely deserving of a nomination, yet is continually and criminally overlooked by the Academy voters.)

It's worth noting that "The Firefly" features a procedural element, as always, but the case that the Fringe Division faces ties into the overarching narrative this season and features The Observer. But just what is The Observer doing and what exactly is he trying to course-correct here? Interesting....

Likewise, the episode also continues the gut-wrenching plotline involving Olivia (Anna Torv) and Peter (Joshua Jackson) as they grapple with the fallout from the realization that Peter was romantically involved with Olivia's alternate dimension look-alike. Comparing herself to Rip Van Winkle, Olivia feels like a sleepwalker in her own life, waking up to discover that the world has moved on without her.

A package received in the mail--a copy of "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!"--becomes symbolic of what she's lost and what she's missed out on. But, if this episode proves anything, it's that you don't often get second chances at life. Sometimes, you have to seize the moment, put aside the baggage, and start over. And sometimes, that's not possible at all outside of our dreams.

(Quick aside: Twin Peaks fans, look for a throwaway shout-out to David Lynch and Mark Frost's seminal series within the episode--both a visual and dialogue cue, in fact--that seems to establish that Fringe and Twin Peaks are, in fact, taking place within a shared narrative universe. A both terrifying and tantalizing proposition, really.)

Ultimately, "The Firefly" asks thought-provoking questions about culpability. Can we be held accountable for the unseen consequences of our actions? Is guilt for such fallout misplaced or deserved? When faced with making the same decision again, do we alter our course? Can any of us truly change? And what will we do when faced with the possibility of sacrifice? The dominoes are beginning to fall into place for Olivia and the Bishops, and this viewer is waiting with baited breath to see which way the pieces fall.

Fringe moves to its new timeslot this Friday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX.


MC said…
" The dominoes are beginning to fall into place for Olivia and the Bishops, and this viewer is waiting with baited breath to see which way the pieces fall."

Jace, I am right freaking there with you buddy! Bring it!
45 said…
Oh great, another Walter centric episode. I can see it now. The last 13 episodes will focus on Walter and whatever drama he has with a little sprinkle of Olivia. The season finale will feature Peter and the machine but its going to be OLIVIA who gets the last scene or in fact, they will give the machine storyline to her.

I am so sick of these Walter/Olivia centric episodes. what about PETER! He exists too!
OldDarth said…
Love when a professional reviewer lets some fire or passion slip into their writing.

Is the sender of the book to Olivia of any significance?

Come on Friday!
Lauren Hansbury said…
This episode sounds wonderful and really enjoyed this eloquent review, nicely done!
Abrams has assured fans that the machine will feature very prominently throughout the rest of the season, and Peter is also presumably at the heart of this episode as well.
I am VERY excited for the Twin Peaks shout out!!! I'm waiting for Fringe to end with a "it was all just a dream." SO many dream/waking references and sequences in Fringe, they come up constantly! And we had "Northwest Passage" which was the original name for Twin Peaks. Love it!
Anonymous said…
The butterfly metaphor is misleading. It's supposed to illustrate how even the most minimal change can snowball into a massive change.

The metaphor ignores the system in which the initial change takes place. The power of a hurricane would extinguish the tiny effect of a butterfly's wings.

Only a system that's poised on a bifurcation can be moved by such a tiny cause. It's not true that anything can happen. Some things cannot happen under certain circumstances and at certain times. Contradictions can't be (e.g., a circle can't be square) and that is central to the reality that underlies science, which includes statistical mechanics and dynamical systems (the chaos theory Jace mentioned).
Bella Spruce said…
Can't wait for this episode, especially after your great review and knowing that Christopher Lloyd guest stars AND that they reference Twin Peaks. Fantastic!

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