Tuesday, May 3, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “The Last Sam Weiss”

I think I’ve been pretty good during the course of writing about this and other shows about focusing on the episode at hand and minimizing or avoiding the distractions of “next week on” type previews.  I’m going to break that unspoken rule tonight for just a moment in order to observe that it looks like Fringe is about to go crazy.  That’s partially an observation embedded in tonight’s final moments where we discover that the machine transports Peter’s consciousness into a future version of himself, who is possibly involved in the Machine Wars of the original “Terminator” film.  He certainly seems to have borrowed his hairstyle from the soldiers in those films.  It seems an apocalypse has occurred sometime between the moment he enters the machine and 2021 (where a beautiful new building has replaced the Twin Towers, along with a 20 year memorial plaque).  Whether this “is” our Peter or simply a future version of him which is now controlled by the consciousness of the one we know (probably a safer bet considering the machine doesn’t seem to physically send his body anywhere) is an important question which I’m sure we’ll have answered next week.  What seems pretty clear is that he is in full control of Future Peter (good luck with that nickname—Feter? Futer?  Fu-Pete?  I kind of like that last one) and he has no clue what’s happening, and he’s wounded.    

And the preview for next week’s episode, getting back to my original point, seems to suggest that this strange development represents part of the new normal—it strongly implies that the show is engaging in the end-game of the master plot with this move, which is a fascinating development even given the speculation that next season would be the show’s last.  It’s also somewhat unsettling for viewers to realize that the comforting familiarity of Walter’s lab and the togetherness of the team may have just disappeared like sheep in a vortex.  I’m not complaining, though the idea that perhaps we’ve seen the last of the team taking random calls about even more random Fringe events is a bit depressing.  On the contrary, I’m fascinated by the idea that Peter’s role in the show is to try and stave off whatever is tearing our world apart ten years from now while the rest of the team, presumably, tries to find a way to reverse those events.  What’s even more fun is to recognize that I have no idea what in the name of Cortexiphan I’m talking about right now—who knows what the machine’s intention is in sending Peter into Fu-Peter’s body.  Is he merely to be a witness to know what he has to stop?  Is he the warrior who will turn the tide and stop the apocalypse (which would beg the question of how stopping something in 2021 will stop the destructive events going on in present time)?  Is he there to bring something or someone back which can undo that which has been done (perhaps “The Last Sam Weiss” of the title)?  Next week will probably provide an answer, but what it’s really going to provide is a loooong off season of speculation for us to revel in while anticipating what could be one of the most free-wheeling and unpredictable final runs of a science fiction show ever (you owe us that, Abrams crew—no one has forgotten what you did to Lost).

Alright, with that digression out of my system, there’s plenty to talk about within the confines of tonight’s episode.  For me, the most enjoyable element of the episode was the return to form for Fringe’s motif of technology’s duality as a part of human life—tonight we see it save lives in odd ways (note the insert shot of back-up-camera technology on the vehicle the family is riding in which saves them from the lightning storm) and also fail them miserably (as when the system controlling the museum gates is unresponsive and Sam saves them by chucking a rock at a vase to keep the gate from entrapping them).  There were also a great many moments of trust and distrust in technology as the episode wore on.  Peter and Olivia obviously must come to an absolute trust in The Machine itself in order to risk themselves (again in Peter’s case) in interacting with it, but note that the source of their confidence comes from a book so ancient as to predate anything we would refer to as modern technology, the true source of which seems to be the lineage of Sam Weisses, the first of who was searching for mastodon bones.  I don’t think that remark is without its purpose; knowledge of the machine came to the right person through a man seeking something representing a time where the term “technology” itself would have no meaning—a time before man or his creations had any place in the world at all.  I know that brings up a whole pile of questions about where the information then originated, but it’s Fringe, so quit harshing my mellow.

I was also quite fond of the smaller moment when Walter, a man with no qualms about even the most dangerous and cutting edge technology, takes Peter’s pulse by hand with a distrustful look at the heart monitor machine just to drive the point home.  Walter in a sense personifies the show’s fascination with technology as a two-faced entity:  He spent most of his life developing it in various forms and towards ethically varied ends, but in his dealings with it, there is something intensely distrustful about what our dependence on it implies.  Thus, when he realizes something about the lightning storm it comes through the inspiration of Ben Franklin, a man with an interest in science, but not a figure who we associate with technology itself.  One scene later, Walter stands amidst a violent lightning storm wearing rubber gloves and flying a jerry-rigged kite in order to learn what he wants to about the storm.  It’s connected to some high tech equipment, but it’s an explicitly non-technological approach to his problem.  It reminds us that for all the fun we’ve had seeing Fringe’s mystifying gadgets in action, technology has never been the singular solution to the world’s (either world, I suppose) problems; that rather requires large doses of humanity and all that comes with that messy idea—which in retrospect might have provided us a pretty clear indication that The Machine would provide no simple solution to what is now occurring between the two Earths.  It’s only a piece of technology, capable of fulfilling its purpose, but no more a panacea than anything else technology has ever offered us. 

Oddly, Weiss speaks of The Machine as if it were something other than a piece of technology.  He tells Olivia that it’s “frustrated” because it thinks Peter is inside of it already, causing it to reject everything else and act as a doomsday machine as if it were a spoiled preschooler throwing a tantrum until it gets what it wants.  Whether the revelation that The Machine is driven towards its purpose is reassuring or frightening depends not only on what its purpose is but on why it wishes to fulfill that purpose—does it serve our side or the other, or does it simply “do its thing” without concern for consequence (which is what we’d expect of an inert piece of technology)?  What we do know about The Machine is that it is linked not only to Peter but to Olivia as well, providing new meaning to the mid-season revelation that whoever he ended up with would be the deciding factor in which universe survived.  It seems now that this has always been because one or the other Olivias had a purpose to serve with The Machine as well—it also explains why Sam is confused at first by how the prophecies he’s understood about the machine seem to be proving false.

On top of a nice “countdown” plot where Olivia and Sam race against a doomsday countdown clock, the ticking of which takes the form of devastating lightning strikes outside and inside of buildings, (all of which is handled with some really, really cool effects, in my opinion—the broad shot of the town being bombarded with lightning strikes is one of the most memorable of the season) is an episode crammed with touching character moments, in some cases possibly representing the final moments in relationships before everything changes next week.  Walter’s bedside vigil of Peter is touching and expected, but an even more touching moment emerges from it when Astrid uses her knowledge of Walter’s weaknesses to coax him away for a bite to eat by appealing to his love for tapioca pudding.  She’s been so gentle with him the past few episodes, but the moments in the hospital, including her speech to light a fire under him to save the world, were the payoff of dozens of scenes of these two characters coming to trust and care about each other.  Olivia and Peter’s final moment is also touching, with Olivia telling Peter that she loves him (a sentiment he replies to only with a kiss and the remark “wish me luck”, if I recall correctly) before he climbs into the machine as flashes of his past with Walter and then Olivia play back for us (and I assume him—is this the work of The Machine as well, given it seems to jolt Peter through time?). 

Tonight’s only weakness was in the ease with which Peter slips unnoticed from a modern hospital.  He unplugs himself from various machines which, in the real world, sets off alarms and brings nurses fairly quickly.  Then he casually interacts with a nurse and walks casually from the hospital unnoticed until hours after he’s gone—a semi-coma, potential amnesia patient wandering off without anyone even noting his absence.  The show uses the influx of burn victims from the lightning as an excuse, but it still plays as a bit silly (take, for example, the utterly abandoned hallway he enters outside of his hospital room—at midday during a state of emergency).  It’s a minor complaint in an episode jammed with so much spectacle, and probably not even worth mentioning given that next week we’ll be joining Fu-Pete in Apocalypse 2021 while Walter and the rest of the team do who-knows-what to try and stave off the destruction of the present.  Here’s something to melt your brain until then:  Does the fact that Peter is able to arrive in a 2021 suggest that they succeed in stopping the world’s destruction, or does the apocalypse he is dropped into suggest that they fail to stop the event and the horror he discovers in 2021 is evidence of that failure?

Overall Rating:  9.0/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Other technology motif moments tonight: 
The typewriter/mirror apparatus makes an appearance tonight as a most non-technological way of communicating between worlds.
The kid in the car notices the lightning storm coming because the hairs on his arm stand up; otherwise he would have missed the warning signs entirely because he was wearing noise-canceling headphones (playing “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors, har har)

I love the backstory of Sam Weiss and the manuscript/books—the strangeness of the entire storyline and the weird mixture of technology and non-technology (they’re looking for a “crowbar”) are perfect for this show.

Walter sounds so bitterly angry that he asked God for help and got nothing for it.

“Sam Weiss, patron member since ‘82”

“I’ll get my coat and some Dramamine.”

Walter’s speech to Olivia about why she should believe in her abilities is beautiful:  “I’ve come to embrace those parts of my mind that are peculiar…broken.  Those are the parts that make my mind special.” 


  1. When you mentioned that Peter may have to find someone in the future I immediately remembered that kid from season 1 that could only communicate with Olivia. He was taken by child services by the end of the episode and it ended with the kid staring out of the window at The Observer. I knew that we were going to see that kid again. In fact, my initial thought was that since The Observers don't seem to be affected by time the way we are that that kid will grow up to be and Observer.

  2. Man, you have a great memory for those details. I wonder if he'll play a role. I rewatched the preview for next week and it actually looks as thought Peter doesn't stay in the future that long, so who knows what we're in for--maybe the wound leads to that Peter's death and so our Peter is kicked out and comes back with some knowledge.