When I review a show on a weekly basis, I always wonder, “What will be the episode that finally breaks me?” The episode that I just have no clue how to review. That’s not necessarily the episode that represents the nadir of the show’s quality, nor is it the episode that makes me want to stop reviewing the show for good. If anything, “Back To Where You’ve Never Been” has made me more eager to write down my thoughts about Fringe. If only those thoughts were coherent.

Look, this season of Fringe has been a mess, but it has been a mess in interesting ways. It has served as a lesson that a really, really bad idea – in this case, placing everyone in a new timeline – no matter how well executed, is still a bad idea. The season has varied wildly in quality across episodes and within each episode, jumping from beautifully written scenes to clunky pieces of exposition, interesting twists to cheap moments designed for shock value, tightly scripted mysteries to Swiss cheese plots. It’s an oddball cacophony of elements that work, elements that don’t work, and elements that just don’t make any fucking sense. And it’s fascinating.

But it’s fascinating only from a critical viewpoint. I watch TV primarily to be entertained; the analysis comes later. That’s where I run into problems. I’m still really enjoying what Fringe has been doing well – not that there’s any consistency in what Fringe does well from week to week anymore – but I’m frustrated by the things that Fringe hasn’t been doing well. They’re the sort of things that can lead to some rich discussion and debate, but that doesn’t make them any more fun to experience.

That brings us to “Back To Where You’ve Never Been,” an episode that was exciting and frustrating in equal measure. It was exciting for all the typical reasons: Car chases! Shapeshifters! The alternate universe! People getting shot! But it was frustrating in ways that are interesting to discuss, and since I have no clue what else to write about this episode, I’m going to zero in on those, bullet-point style.

First off, plot holes, contrivances, and other general wackiness:

  • What the hell happened to the previous episode’s twist? Did Olivia just wake up, think, ‘Oh, I must have collapsed on the floor,’ and then go on her merry way? Why did Lincoln not seem to care that he was stood up at the diner? And heck, Nina wasn’t even in this episode. What the hell is she doing??? (I want answers, damn it! I want answers noooooowwww!)
  • Peter was just walking around, going wherever the hell he wanted, without an FBI escort. He’s a Fringe event, damn it! A FRINGE EVENT!
  • Walter’s refusal to help Peter played almost entirely as a contrivance to get Peter into the alternate universe.
  • The machine that Walter used back in 1985 to Cross Over creates giant rifts in the fabric of the universes. It’s the root cause of many Fringe events. How could Olivia, Lincoln, and Peter be so casual about using it to get to the Other Side?
  • Our Lincoln claimed that he had lost his Show Me when he had jumped into the East River to apprehend Peter, but the guard at the Liberty Island ferry didn’t notice that both Lincoln and Peter were completely dry! (The dude should get fired. AND THEN OFF WITH HIS HEAD.)

Problems with the nuts and bolts of the episode:

  • The dream sequence at the beginning was weirdly emotionally manipulative.
  • So much speechifying and clunky dialogue. Here’s a real gem: “You’re not the man I thought you were.” “You’re exactly the man I thought you would be.” *groan*
  • Olivia’s migraines were repeatedly hinted at without giving any further explanation of what was going on with them. (Take ibuprofen, damn it!)

Problems demonstrating that Fringe has lost the ability to tell a long-term story that makes sense:

  • Alt-Broyles and Alt-Brandon were revealed to be evil and/or shapeshifters, even though no prior hint had been given to that effect. I’m beginning to think that the first part of this season avoided the alternate universe just so that these twists would have shock value. (The Alt-Brandon reveal did. The Alt-Broyles one didn’t.)
  • Season 1’s David Robert Jones was revealed to be behind the new shapeshifters. But why him? And why the hell is he doing this? Well-crafted mysteries don’t leave viewers constantly guessing; they dole out answers periodically. By now, we should have some clue as to what Jones’s motivations are. We have no such clues.
  • Walternate was very benevolent all of a sudden, which didn’t really jibe with the manipulative ruthlessness we saw from him in the previous timeline. I suppose this might be to set up a twist or betrayal, but that’s just a cheap way to build up shock value.
  • An Observer just popped up at the end of the episode to tell Olivia that she dies in every timeline, whatever the fuck that means. And he was bleeding from a gunshot wound. What the fuck is that all about? And why should I care?

The foregoing lists probably make it seem like I hated this episode. To be clear, I didn’t. Like I said above: Car chases! Shapeshifters! The alternate universe! People getting shot! But that doesn’t shake the fact that throwing twists on top of twists on top of twists isn’t necessarily the key to great entertainment. Moreover, those twists wouldn’t have worked at all if the show hadn’t spent most of this season noticeably avoiding the alternate universe in order to make everyone Over There in the new timeline a cipher.

At best, I can appreciate “Never Been” as pulp sci-fi – the exciting stuff worked; the less exciting stuff was problematic. But the stuff that worked was good enough to keep me interested in whatever overarching story Fringe is trying to tell, however nonsensical that story may be at this stage. So hopefully, the show will at least keep up the excitement next week, even if it’s not going to work on a deeper level. And hopefully, I’ll actually know what I want to write about next week.