“Wallflower” was the second episode in a row with Peter out and about, and it was the second strong episode in a row. Well…it was mostly strong. It was actually 50 minutes of solid character work and procedural storytelling, followed by 10 very frustrating minutes. I’ll elaborate after the jump.

This week saw Fringe Division coping with the stress of their jobs. They witness the most horrific things imaginable everyday, but they have no outlet for their feelings. They can’t talk about those horrors with their loved ones because their work is top secret. So, Astrid goes to see an FBI psychiatrist, Lincoln spends his nights at 24-hour diners, and Olivia takes pills to calm her nerves.

It makes sense that all these people would, in a sense, be broken. One of the purposes of introducing a new timeline, as far as I can tell, was to show how everyone’s lives would be different without Peter’s calming influence. As if to demonstrate how calming his influence could be, Peter retained a remarkably zen-like demeanour throughout the episode, focused on getting back to his own timeline and confident that he could succeed in doing so. (I look forward to his inevitable failure in that endeavour and coming to terms with the fact that he’s stuck here. It’s going to be heartbreaking.) At the same time, he grappled with the realization that he had no real friends in this timeline (aside from possibly Lincoln); the FBI still sees him as a Fringe event, not as a human being.

Meanwhile, the person at the centre of this week’s case, Eugene (U-Gene?), was struggling to be seen, period. Genetic experiments conducted by Massive Dynamic on him as a child left him unable to stop blending in with his surroundings, kind of like an octopus with permanently activated chromatophores. All Eugene wanted was for his existence to be acknowledged, so he went around killing others and stealing their pigment so that he could finally be seen. Unfortunately, this treatment was lethal, leading to his eventual demise.

There was a lot of cool stuff going on here. Invisible people are always freaky fun, and using ultraviolet light to search for Eugene was a pretty nifty idea. On a deeper level, this case gave Olivia the chance to reflect about her days as a Cortexiphan kid and whether she was in some ways damaged by her past, like Eugene. She knows all too well how children can be affected by scientific experimentation, which allowed her to empathize with Eugene on a level that the others couldn’t. I also appreciated that Eugene’s desire to be recognized as a human being was stronger than his desire for self-preservation; living life invisibly is indeed no way to live.

All of this played out wonderfully well and subtly until the last the minutes or so, when Fringe’s writers decided that the audience wasn’t smart enough to get it and had to be beaten over the head with a sledgehammer. One of Fringe’s problems is its tendency to degenerate into speechifying, even though it works better with regular dialogue. I had to roll my eyes at Eugene’s lengthy, overwrought speech to Olivia. Tobias Segal overacted the part to the point that I was cracking up. The content of his speech didn’t fare much better: Eugene was struggling to be seen, while Peter was struggling to be seen as a human being. We get it, Fringe. We don’t need the parallels shoved down our throats. And then, a few minutes later, we saw him die shortly after being acknowledged by the woman he had a crush on. I guess I was supposed to see this as poetic, but it came across as silly and melodramatic. What a frustrating end to an otherwise fascinating case.

However, the final twist that closed out the episode was infinitely more frustrating to me. I think I’m supposed to see irony here: in the old timeline, Nina appeared to be evil but was actually completely good; in this timeline, Nina appears to be completely good, but is actually evil. But that doesn’t track for me. Fringe has already used the alternate universe to show how people with the same genetic makeup can turn out as fundamentally different people under different circumstances. In the new timeline, up until now, none of the characters have been portrayed as fundamentally different people, but they’ve all undergone subtle personality shifts. It has been an interesting way of showing that even micro-level occurrences, such as the presence or absence of a single person, can cause noticeable changes in someone’s life.

Making Nina an actual villain is not a subtle personality shift; it’s a fundamental alteration of her morality. As we’ve seen in the previous timeline, Nina was clever and self-serving, but ultimately, she cared about other people, such as Walter and Peter, and the world in which she lived. Blair Brown’s portrayal of Nina in the past few episodes is problematic now, in retrospect. She has been awkwardly brusque with Olivia, which doesn’t jibe with the fact that she raised her, but which sort of makes sense if you believe that she was playing her all along. But on second thought, it doesn’t make sense at all. As we’ve seen in the previous timeline, Nina is supposed to be clever and manipulative. If she were playing Olivia, wouldn’t she want to act as sweetly as possible so as not arouse suspicion? I’m forced to interpret this as yet another fundamental change in personality.

In watching the final few seconds of “Wallflower,” I recalled bad memories of the season finale of The Killing, in which Detective Holder was seen talking to an unseen person as it was revealed that he had fabricated evidence. That one scene completely rewrote Holder’s personality, but not in a way that made me think, “Wow, that was cool and unexpected.” My reaction was closer to: “This makes no fucking sense at all.” And if Nina isn’t actually evil and that twist wasn’t what I thought it was? Well sorry, that’s just another ploy straight out of The Killing’s playbook: the episode-ending, irritating, sort-of-shocking red herring. That kind of ploy is annoying and manipulative.

So, while I enjoyed most of “Wallflower,” the twist about Nina made me apprehensive about where Fringe might be headed. It’s too bad that we’re going to have to wait until 2012 to see how this all shakes out.

Other random thoughts:

  • Slashers are going to have a field day with all the supposed Lincoln/Peter HoYay! in this episode. I weep for the Internet.
  • Loved Walter’s glee at playing with the octopus. Also, it was a nice touch that the octopus was kept in a sort of hamster ball contraption. Octopuses are notorious for climbing out of aquariums.
  • I can’t be the only person who was thinking about the invisibility cloak from Harry Potter while watching this.
  • Watching Peter interact with bodyguard/handler/”friend” was a lot of fun. I hope he becomes a recurring character.
  • Lincoln/Olivia romance: I’m not for or against it at this stage. I’ll see where it goes before passing judgment.

That was the last episode before the winter hiatus. Fringe will return in January, barring a shift to an alternate universe. I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to a midseason report card for Fringe, but if I do, I’ll post it within the next week or so.