After tonight’s episode, I suspect that many Fringe fans are relieved. Following weeks of speculation about where he was, Peter is finally back. I’m also relieved, and that’s partially because Peter is being reintroduced into the show. But it’s more because unlike the first three episodes of this season, “Subject 9” wasn’t riddled with weak plotting and bad dialogue. I was worried that over the summer hiatus, the writers had forgotten the basic mechanics of scripting episodic television. “Subject 9” put those fears to rest.

But it also frustrated me, and that’s because of the so-called “Peter problem.” Let’s get one thing straight: I’m well aware that the arc about Peter’s disappearance isn’t the sum total of what the show is doing. But even if I ignore the Peter problem, the first 3 episodes of this season weren’t great episodes of Fringe. Heck, I’m not even sure they were good episodes of Fringe. “Subject 9” was at least a good episode, let’s give it that. However, I can’t evaluate it in abstraction from the Peter arc because it is, in essence, the resolution to the first leg of that arc. Thus, any frustrations that I have with how the arc has played out thus far – and I have many of them – are frustrations that I have with this episode.

Before I get to the frustrations, though, I would like to discuss what I enjoyed about this episode, because saying that it wasn’t filled with plot holes and bad dialogue is damning it with faint praise, which isn’t my intention. The Walter/Peter and Olivia/Peter relationships have received a lot of attention over the course of the series, but the Olivia/Walter relationship has always seemed to receive short shrift. The middle section of “Subject 9” was a wonderful showcase for the two characters. It featured a number of tender, heartwarming moments, like Olivia bandaging Walter’s hands1 or their late night root beer float, but it was also bolstered by a strong dramatic undercurrent – whether or not Olivia would return Walter to St. Claire’s. It paid off nicely with Walter seeing that Olivia hadn’t recommended him for rehospitalization on the form he saw at the beginning of this episode.

As for this week’s case, it was way too obvious that Cameron James was a red herring, and I felt as if the show was repeating past debates about the ethics of experimenting on children, but the case was far more interesting than fungi that respond to feelings, that’s for sure. I tend to prefer Fringe when it’s wacky and supernatural than when it’s gross or icky anyway. That’s not because I dislike gross or icky things, but because the wacky stuff tends to tie into the show’s mythology better, and this case was no exception, as it led to Peter’s appearance in the new reality. Along the way, we got to see a lot of blue auras shimmering, rooms shaking, and metal objects flying. Cool stuff all around.

Like I said, “Subject 9” was a good episode. But it was also a frustrating one, and most of my frustrations came from how this show dealt with the Peter arc, and more broadly with the new reality. Look, I’m happy to have Peter back on the show, I really am. But I’m less than pleased with how it happened. A TV show has its own internal, implicit set of rules that dictate what can and can’t happen on the show. Fringe has made it very clear, for instance, that people can’t be brought back from the dead. The writers usually work within those confines, because working outside of them would amount to employing deus ex machina. Viewers are able to invest in what happens because there’s a certain expectation that the show will adhere to certain “rules of the game,” so to speak. When the writers leave those confines (or fail to establish those confines), however, they break their self-imposed rules, and it becomes a lot harder to invest in the show.

Now, it might seem silly to speak about “rules” in the context of Fringe. It’s a sci-fi show, and pretty much anything can happen as long as Walter or Brandon can spew some bullshit pseudo-scientific explanation for the phenomenon. But any leaps in logic (and anything that requires me to forget my admittedly limited knowledge of college-level science) are usually limited to things that occur within the case of the week. Overall, the mythology has been carefully structured so that the rules which govern how it operates are made clear. For example, for the first three seasons, we knew that crossing over was hard, even if there were multiple ways to do it. Crossing over is as simple as crossing a “bridge” now, but that change was explained by a clear, definable event, i.e. what Peter did in the Machine.

Unfortunately, Fringe hasn’t take such care when it comes to its time-bending aspects. I don’t really understand the rules that govern time travel on this show, nor have they ever been made clear. One would expect that because Peter’s erasure was caused by people messing around with time, his reintegration into the new timeline would also be caused by people messing around with time. But instead, Peter has found his way to the new reality through some sort of weird energy portal, explanations be damned. It was all too neat and tidy. It felt as if the writers were just pulling stuff out of their collective ass here. Fringe never bothered to establish rules governing time travel and alternate timelines, and as a result, any temporal complications that arise on the show can be dismissed in whatever way the writers deem convenient. I don’t have much reason to invest in a show that can instantly backpedal on whatever stakes it sets up because it hasn’t taken care to establish rules governing those stakes.

More broadly, my investment in the show’s overall narrative has been compromised by the establishment of a new reality. Sure, it’s an interesting thought experiment to see how the characters’ relationships are different in an alternate timeline. But it’s only worthy of a thought experiment, not a new direction in which to take the show. Up until this season, Fringe had spent 3 years building up the characters, their experiences, and their interpersonal relationships. To see them shifted after 3 years is jarring, to say the least. It feels as if some of the relationships on this show are being introduced for the first time. But the characters aren’t meeting for the first time, so in order to make it seem like we’re meeting these characters in the middle of the story, the nature of their relationships is introduced in a weird, shorthand manner. Sure, now I know that Walter and Nina don’t trust each other in this timeline and that Nina is sort of Olivia’s cool aunt. But I don’t know why, and that bugs me. In “Subject 9,” we also learned that the Cortexiphan trials were far less intense in the alternate timeline and that Olivia hasn’t experienced any side effects from the trials. However, it actually makes me understand Olivia less. The childhood trauma of being tested on was such a huge part of the old Olivia’s experience that without it, Olivia seems like a much less interesting character.

In a brand new timeline, the show just can’t have the kind of depth and richness in the characters’ experiences and relationships that it had before. So, if the show had really wanted to explore an alternate timeline, it should have focused more on the macro, on the cooperative effort of the two universes to save and repair themselves. We already know that the broad strokes of the situation between the universes haven’t been affected by Peter’s absence, so focusing on them would have kept the show interesting. Instead, Fringe has chosen to focus inward this season, looking more at the micro. Unfortunately, this kind of weird insularity is now a hindrance to the show. Most of the depth is gone from the characters’ experiences and relationships, so focusing on them doesn’t seem like a recipe for success.

It’s a shame, because I don’t think this arc was doomed to misfire. If the show had focused on the two universes during its Peter-less days instead of on how lonely Walter and Olivia are, then we might have seen in more subtle ways how Peter’s non-existence had affected everybody. Instead, the show chose to focus on that loss, which wasn’t really a loss because the characters weren’t aware of an adult version of Peter. You can’t know that you’ve lost something that you never knew you had, right? Peter’s absence never felt like a loss to me either. It just felt as if Peter wasn’t there, and I simply wanted him back.

Now that he’s back, I hope to see the ripple effects of his absence propagate through the season. But I also have to hope that the show takes the time to establish Peter’s relationships with everyone in the new timeline properly and not just in a convenient shorthand matter. “Subject 9” demonstrated that the writers still know how to craft a good episode. Let’s hope that they still know how to tie those episodes together into a coherent story.

1 Weird continuity error: there were no bandages on Walter’s hands the next day. The error was especially glaring because the makeup department had taken the pains to put an ugly wound next to Walter’s left eye. ^