When Fringe is at its best, it can deliver cheesy B-movie thrills while providing a thought-provoking examination of issues of science, ethics, and identity. As the show’s mythology has become increasingly convoluted this season, it has had trouble being thought-provoking (beyond provoking the thought of “what the fuck is going on?”), but it’s still succeeding at delivering some good ol’ B-movie thrills, and last night’s zombie movie homage showed that Fringe can be damn entertaining while doing so.
Fringe often has trouble getting its audience invested in the cases of the week. It can be difficult to get people to empathize with a brand new set of characters who will never be seen again after a one-episode appearance. Wisely, “Welcome to Westfield” put our favourite trio of heroes – Walter, Peter, and Olivia – at the centre of the case. Unable to leave the town of Westfield, they had to collaborate with the townsfolk in order to survive. In turn, that got me invested in everyone’s survival. Nice job, Fringe.
All throughout, I was impressed by how much suspense the episode was able to convey through its tone and atmosphere. “Westfield” managed the estimable feat of making a zombie movie homage with barely a single zombie. All the tension and fear were conveyed through subtle cues: the cloudy skies; the shotguns; the burning, broken buildings. Fringe didn’t need to show hordes of “infected” people making their way through the wreckage of the town. In fact, by holding back for most of the episode, it was able to make an effective scare in the form of the two-headed merged man on the school bus. Overall, this was one of the most suspenseful cases that Fringe has done in a while, and it’s good to see that the show is still committed to working on a case-by-case basis. (Other long-running procedurals would do well to take note!)
Now, as much as I enjoyed this episode as a standalone, its serialized elements were a bit problematic. As I’ve no doubt stated before, we don’t have a damn clue what Jones is up to, and more importantly, we have no clue why he’s doing it. Right now, it seems as if Jones is running around committing random acts of universe-merging. We have no idea as to what his motivations for doing so are, which actually makes him a less compelling villain than he could be.
I also wasn’t a huge fan of the Olivia-thinks-she’s-with-Peter stuff that bookended the episode. It provided a nice red herring for the case, leading viewers to believe that it was the timelines, not the universes, that were merging. Unfortunately, that red herring would have probably been more interesting than what actually happened. The concept of the two universes colliding has been done to death on this show; “Westfield” should have taken the opportunity to explore something new.
However, seeing that Olivia was recalling her alternate-timeline doppelganger’s thoughts gave me pause for another reason: this is all getting too confusing. Universes are merging with universes, timelines are merging with timelines, and there’s no sense of what’s “real” on this show anymore. Even when the alternate universe was introduced to the show, the stories in Our universe always served as an anchor, mooring Fringe to some simulacrum of normalcy. But now that each character has been through umpteen iterations of him or herself, I have no idea what’s “normal” on this show anymore, and I have little desire to invest in storylines and characters that could be written out of existence without warning.
On some level, not having any idea what could happen next is thrilling. But on another level, it’s immensely frustrating, because there’s no sense getting invested in a show that can just pull whatever nonsense it wants out of its ass and explain it away with a wacky bit of pseudoscience. Fringe can still put out terrific standalones, as “Welcome to Westfield” proved, but I can’t shake one great fear about its overarching story: five weeks from now, will I even recognize the people in it?