“Each action causes ripples, causes both obvious and unforeseen.”
– September

The beauty of “The Firefly” is that it is open to several different interpretations, depending on how omniscient one believes the Observers are. In this commentary, I’m going to examine two of my favourites. The first relies on the assumption that the Observers are indeed all-knowing, while the second requires the Observers to be fallible.

The first interpretation is probably the more popular one. It takes the events of “The Firefly” at face value: the Observers orchestrated the entire plot of this episode in order to stop Walter from accidentally killing himself by drinking his brain serum. Maybe the Observers were trying to warn Walter not to dabble in things that could make him lose his humanity, or maybe Walter is important for future events, and as such, the Observers need him to be alive. The former explanation is possible if one believes that September has come to care about Walter. We know from “Inner Child” and “August” that Observers are capable of emotion. That explanation is also possible if the Observers predict that a hyper-intelligent Walter would explore the very areas of fringe science that sparked the destruction of the universes in the first place. As we learned in “The Plateau,” genius can be very destructive. The latter explanation gains some traction after having viewed the season 3 finale, but we’re not quite there yet. In any case, Walter believes that the plot of this episode was orchestrated to teach him a lesson, and he’s content with that.

The second interpretation is my preferred one, and it relies on the fallibility of the Observers. We know that the Observers can make mistakes. September made one in “Peter” when he distracted Walternate while he was trying to come up with a cure for his son’s illness. August made a series of them back in his titular episode. It’s reasonable to assume that the Observers orchestrated the episode’s events to teach Walter a lesson about letting Peter go – again, an explanation that will gain more traction towards the end of the season when Walter actually has to let Peter go into the Machine. But it’s also reasonable to assume that the Observers couldn’t have foreseen that Peter would mistake Walter’s brain serum for regular milk. After all, the decision to drink or not to drink a glass of milk is a trivial, almost inconsequential one, and I view the Observers as concerning themselves more with the broader picture (though capable of laser focus if need be). It’s from Peter’s near death that Walter reaches the decision not to dabble further in brain enhancement.

If this interpretation is true, then Walter is drawing a lesson from an event that nobody ever intended to happen. It is not a teaching, but a discovery. There’s a deeper message for the audience here: randomness and chaos exist in the universe. We draw wisdom from them, we see order in disorder, even if there is no grand plan or lesson behind it. That is what makes us human. Walter may be mistaken in thinking that the Observers were trying to prevent him from drinking his brain serum, but his belief in that idea shows more humanity than his decision not to enhance his brain.

For more information on the Fringe rewatch project, please click here. For my review of “The Firefly,” please click here.