Fans and critics alike were split over last season’s finale, “The Day We Died,” which flashed forward to the year 2026 before jumping back to the present, essentially erasing the episode’s events. Some were incensed, believing that the episode invalidated itself. Others, like me, believed that the episode took its emotional and plotting cues from the rest of the third season, resulting in an episode that made sense in context. I can’t apply that same defense to “Letters of Transit,” which apart from being a terrible episode of Fringe, came out of nowhere and had almost nothing to do with the show’s narrative. It was a confusing and frustrating hour of television that sparked a bunch of half-baked mysteries, none of which made any sense.
We were introduced to this episode via scrolling text on a black background. The text explained that it was the year 2036, and the Observers had come from the future to take over the world, severely curbing civil liberties. Fringe Division was repurposed for dealing with crime amongst regular folk, referred to as “Natives.” Basically, a load of unimaginative, bog-standard dystopian bullshit that everyone has seen about a thousand times. Not only was the setting totally clichéd, it was pulled out of the writers’ collective ass and had nothing to do with anything else that had happened on the show up until then.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘This was foreshadowed earlier in the season when Olivia saw that September had been shot!’ I’m not denying that this episode was planned in advance. But you’d think that the writers would have provided a little more context for it. It has never before been hinted that the Observers were studying us so that they could take us over. In fact, the show has gone out of its way to emphasize that Observers aren’t supposed to tamper with anything. Suddenly, we find out that the Observers ruined the earth in the year 2609 and as such must travel back in time to find a new home. (That’s pretty much the plot of Terra Nova, only shittier, which is somewhat of a feat.) We didn’t find out how the Observers had magically developed the ability to read minds. We didn’t find out why Broyles had stayed on at Fringe Division after the takeover. (Wouldn’t that go against his ethics?) We didn’t find out how or why Walter had ambered the Fringe team. We didn’t find out how the fuck William Bell was encased in amber alongside them. (How was he even alive?) We didn’t find out what the hell happened to Olivia. These aren’t interesting mysteries; they’re essential pieces of missing information. Their absence left the episode full of narrative holes.
It’s not as if the episode worked even as a nonsensical excursion into an alternate future. Without taking into account the narrative holes, this was still a bad episode of Fringe. It consisted mainly of the science-fiction equivalent of babysitting and running errands, as Etta (Georgina Haig) and Simon (Henry Ian Cusick) went from place to place, trying to get the old Fringe team back together. The running gag about Walter’s mental deficiency soon wore out its welcome, devolving into a tonally inconsistent mix of slapstick and seriousness (particularly in the confrontation with the Loyalist at the train station). It felt as if the episode was slowly inching towards something interesting, but never quite getting there. To be fair, the episode did well with Etta and Simon, giving them believable backstories and motivations, and both Haig and Cusick played the hell out of their respective roles. However, even though we learned why both of them were fighting in the Resistance, Simon encasing himself in amber to save Peter felt unearned and emotionally manipulative; he didn’t seem like the kind to sacrifice himself.
The episode ended with Peter realizing that Etta was his and Olivia’s daughter, a revelation that finally provided an explanation for why Etta was important to the show’s overall narrative. But it was too little, too late. Nothing in the preceding 59 minutes had anything to do with the show’s current narrative arc. Broyles and Nina, for instance, were present merely as signposts of familiarity, not as tangible links to the preceding 83 episodes. And even then, the link that Etta provided was tenuous at best. We have had hints that the Observers are descended from Peter and Olivia, but we have no clue if Etta had a hand in their creation of if she’s a mere genealogical linkage. (Since the Observers are from the 2600s, I’d wager it’s the latter, which would make this episode even more of a waste of time.) “Letters of Transit” really didn’t do anything to justify its existence.
More than that, though, the episode did little to justify its bleak, futuristic setting. Look, I understand the appeal of dystopian fiction. It comes with a built-in conflict: facing the various problems that are causing the world to be a dystopia. There are some truly magnificent works of dystopian fiction out there, from classics like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to more recent fare like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Both of those works succeeded because they used their dystopian settings as a means of delivering a message or exploring an idea. For Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was the insidiousness of propaganda and misinformation. For Oryx and Crake, it was the dangers of untrammelled scientific progress. On the other hand, there are works that use their dystopian settings merely as a method of creating artificial depth. Alfonso Cuarón’s vastly overrated Children of Men is one such work. The film revels in its bleakness without ever saying anything meaningful about the themes it skirts: population collapse; political oppression; etc. A similar thing could be said about “Letters of Transit”: it whizzed by the theme of political oppression, without giving it much thought or detail, creating the illusion of depth while failing to mask the shallowness of a simple story about reviving a couple of people from the past. At least I can say this: Fringe has delivered its Children of Men – a shitty, pointless, gloomy slog that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.