Being a serialized show, Fringe has to pull double-duty: it must ensure that each of its installments is entertaining, while still serving its larger narrative. Most of season 4 has succeeded wonderfully at that first objective (with a few exceptions), but Fringe has had trouble with the second objective this season. Season 4’s long-term story arc hasn’t worked, and “Brave New World: Part 1” demonstrated why.

The first half of “Brave New World: Part 1” was like a typical episode of Fringe, showcasing the crazy supernatural phenomenon of the week. This time around, it was spontaneous human combustion. David Robert Jones managed to infect an entire train station full of people with nanites that caused them burn up from the inside out if they moved around too much. It was pretty standard Fringe material, but it was well-executed. The inclusion of Jessica (guest star Rebecca Mader) was nice reminder that Jones’s actions affect not just Fringe division, but regular civilians as well, and also gave the scenes in the lab some stakes. Plus, watching people spontaneously combust is really fucking cool.

But then, things took a turn for the weird. Walter discovered that the nanites were designed in such a way that they bore signs of being made by William Bell. Seeing this, he began doing everything in his power to try to prove that William Bell was still alive, even heading back to St. Claire’s to seize a copy of the visitors’ log book to prove that Bell visited him after supposedly dying in a car crash. On a page of the log book, Walter discovered traces of almond oil. Walter remembered that Bell liked a certain brand of almond, which led him to believe that Bell was hiding out in that company’s old warehouse. (This bit was really, really contrived.) Upon arriving at the warehouse, Walter and Astrid found out that yes indeed, William Bell was still alive, and he was the one who had been ordering Jones around.

Look, all of this was exciting. It was exciting to see Astrid kicking ass to protect Walter at the warehouse. It was exciting to see Olivia and Peter stop a directed sunbeam from blowing up Boston in the meantime. But at the end of the day, this all seemed rather pulpy and lacking in substance. So what if Olivia can control Peter’s body using her Cortexiphan powers? It’s not that interesting; we’ve been down the Cortexiphan well a billion times, and we already know that Olivia’s Cortexiphan powers are linked to Peter. So what if Bell is behind all the mayhem that Jones has caused? This is not the same Bell we knew in the old timeline. Heck, this could even be Alt-Bell. We don’t know for certain.

While last season’s Machine storyline was utterly ridiculous, it at least played off Walter’s fear of losing his son. When Peter stepped into the Machine in last season’s penultimate episode, it was the culmination of emotional beats that had played out throughout the entire season. However, this season’s revelation that Bell was Jones’s boss all along came completely out of left field, not only plot-wise, but also emotionally. Walter hasn’t been spending this season moping about the loss of his former partner. Nina hasn’t been mourning the death of her former paramour. Olivia hasn’t really been agonizing much about the experiments to which Bell and Walter subjected her. So, the revelation of Bell’s culpability feels neither like a betrayal, nor a confirmation of evil. It’s just a thing that happened. Heck, this version of Bell might as well be an entirely different character who just happens to also be played by Leonard Nimoy.

And that’s what gets me the most: the fact that the new timeline has served mainly to rewrite what happened in the old one, both in terms of plot and character. What promised to be a subtle examination of the effects that the presence or absence of a single person could have on others’ lives turned out to be first a cliché-ridden speech-fest about “loneliness,” then an excuse to bring back old characters in completely different forms. To illustrate, let’s look at this season’s main villains:

  • A shapeshifter played by Michelle Krusiec
  • Alt-Nina
  • Alt-Broyles (being blackmailed by Jones)
  • David Robert Jones
  • William Bell (or possibly Alt-Bell)

Four of those characters were variations of pre-existing characters. (Although, to be fair, we hadn’t met Alt-Nina before.) It’s strange that in choosing its villains, Fringe decided to look inward, almost as if new villains in a new timeline would have been too much “newness” for viewers. Unfortunately, this backfired, because it illustrated that in a version of Fringe where the timeline can shift without warning, consequences don’t really matter. Alt-Broyles was brought back from the dead this season, this time being blackmailed by Jones. Bell was apparently brought back from the dead this season too, now apparently evil. Who’s to say that if Astrid dies from her gunshot wound, she won’t come back next season as a cybernetic huntress with a penchant for baking cookies? There’s no sense of finality on this show if anything that happens can be arbitrarily erased.

And who’s to say that this version of Bell won’t be erased either? We have no emotional context for this version of Bell anyway. We’ve never seen him interact with anybody before. He could easily be gone by next week. That’s why I’m having trouble caring about this development. Sure, Fringe is still exciting and entertaining, but if anything that happens on the show can be reversed, does any of it really matter?

Other random thoughts:

  • Did the episode seem weirdly-paced to anyone else? It felt kind of like two half-length Fringe episodes stuck together.
  • Olivia’s Cortexiphan stories are exhibiting diminishing returns. Either give her the power to lift pickup trucks with her mind and hurl them at enemies, or inject somebody else full of magical drugs, I say.
  • Apparently, there’s a massive gas deposit buried beneath Boston. Okay then…
  • That conversation between Jones and Bell about chess was ridiculously ham-fisted. Did anyone not pick up on the fact that Jones was the “bishop?”
  • As disappointing as this episode was in terms of the larger narrative, it was very entertaining on an episodic level. This was probably the funniest episode of the season. Walter’s “peace out” got a huge laugh out of me.

We’ll see where Fringe picks up next week in Part 2. Until then, try not to break your brain by thinking about what timeline you’re in.