Fringe – “The Firefly”

“The Firefly”

January 21st, 2011

There is a lot to like about “The Firefly.” Any episode which centers on John Noble is bound to be of high quality in the performance area, and pairing him with guest star Christopher Lloyd proves to be as effective as one might imagine. The episode also embodies many of Fringe’s most distinctive qualities, twisting time and playing with alternate timelines in ways which have defined its creative improvements over the course of the past two seasons.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that “The Firefly” is not quite as good as it might seem on the surface. This is not to say that the opinions of people like my A.V. Club colleague Zack Handlen (who gave the episode an A) are invalid – like I say, I completely see where they’re coming from. In the end, though, I felt that the episode never found a sense of harmony within the dissonance, providing moments which seemed transcendent but ultimately delivering an episode which very much wore the scars of a necessary stepping stone on which the rest of the season will be built.

Thus, while I admire that it delivers some truly heartfelt moments which nicely set the stage for what will follow, the topsy-turvy nature of the episode feels purposefully elusive rather than genuinely mysterious – perhaps a fitting pivot into the remainder of the season, but ultimately disruptive to the episode at hand.

In some ways, my response to the episode is not dissimilar from the scene where Walter is putting Roscoe into a hypnotic state: while certain parts of the experience had this beauty to them, a flow which spoke to those moments in “White Tulip” and the sense of pathos built around Walter as a character, I thought the Observer side of the episode was the equivalent to Olivia’s phone ringing. What I personally loved about “White Tulip” was how quiet it was, as an episode: despite its very science fiction-driven premise, the episode’s big climax as a quiet conversation between Walter and Peter Weller’s character, and the central dilemma was about knowledge and disclosure. While I understand how these episodes are similar, in that both feature Walter dealing with an existential crisis in the present while dealing with a case being driven by questions of time travel and the danger of altering past actions in order to change the course of time, I can’t help but feel that the subtlety of “White Tulip” is lost amidst the car chases, bank robberies, and other goings on which feature heavily in “The Firefly.”

Noble and Lloyd are great in the scenes they share, their chemistry as strong on camera as it seems on paper. In those scenes, the exposition of the episode’s key themes felt organic and natural – the eponymous story holds great weight thanks to Lloyd’s great performance, and John Noble is pretty tremendous throughout the entire hour as he understands the weight of his previous actions. However, while their conversation feels as though it earns its weight, everything that comes from The Observer seems cheap. I think there are some nice moments of subtlety, with the “It must be hard to be a father” line being effectively cryptic, but everything else felt as though it was mysterious for the sake of creating mystery instead of mysterious for the sake of creating meaning.

I understand that The Observer is a key part of the show’s mythology, but I don’t know if it’s really one of the better parts of the show’s mythology. In fact, I didn’t miss them at all during the “Over There” arc, and certainly didn’t miss the blandly cryptic brand of Observer who appears here. Yes, watching him waltz through our world knowing what consequences his actions will create has a certain esoteric thrill going for it, but the show has become much more rich and character-driven since The Observer’s first appearance. When the show was still sort of sleepwalking its way through procedural storylines with vague connections to a broader mythology, The Observer was an inspired glimpse into a weirder side that Fringe had never quite tapped into effectively – now, in the wake of the other universe, The Observer feels like shorthand. If you break it down, the Observer’s behavior isn’t all that mysterious: his conversations with other Observers is pure exposition, and the final scene in particular blatantly spells out his behavior rather than revealing it in a compelling fashion. There is pleasure in seeing The Observer work, but I thought its presence in this episode was almost lazy.

No, this didn’t kill the rest of the episode: just as Roscoe ended up being able to remember his conversation with Bobby even after Olivia’s phone call, I was still able to find the pathos the episode wanted me to find in Peter’s near-death experience and Walter’s moment of realization. I think Alan Sepinwall was on point when he labeled this episode as “confident”: while it may not be doing anything as sophisticated as the series’ finest moments, I think that it commits to this moment and delivers it quite effectively. I just think that the attempt to mash together the Observer’s cryptic glimpse into the future with Walter’s ongoing concern for Peter never quite coalesced into a great episode.

But, that really wasn’t what it was trying to be. This was a complete setup episode: we’re meant to wonder why Walter needs to be willing to place Peter in harm’s way, and we need to know that Walter’s concerns over Peter and Walternate’s machine are well founded. So, considering how workmanlike the episode could have felt, perhaps I should be satisfied that it ended up solid with a few moments of brilliance.

While I might be a bit of a wet blanket with the episode as a whole, it’s easier to get excited about the show’s ratings “success” in its return – its 1.9 demo number is even with its Thursday average, and helped FOX win the night with the help of Kitchen Nightmares, so the news was pretty great on that front. And, to some degree, I think the hype surrounding the episode (less in reviews, and more in Twitter responses and in pre-air coverage) had to do with ensuring the show got a sizable media blitz in the wake of its much-criticized move to Fridays. At this ratings level, the show would likely earn a fourth season, a fourth season that it probably wouldn’t have earned if it had remained on Thursdays.

It’s an exciting turn for the show, and I think to some degree the excitement has turned “The Firefly” into a bigger deal than it perhaps was. However, as someone who wants the show to succeed and thought this was a solid outing, I don’t think that’s just the end of the world – it’s just also not my take on the episode.

Cultural Observations

  • Like Zack, I went an entire review without really talking about Olivia and Peter’s story arc here. I really dug it – while Anna Torv was not as central as in “Marionette,” she continues to nail “Olivia Van Winkle” in a way that I’m very much looking forward to seeing develop as the season goes on.
  • I’ll admit that the Twin Peaks reference would have completely gone over my head, but in the internet age I had at least fifteen people on my Twitter feed who remarked on it while the episode aired. So, hey, how about that there Twin Peaks reference?
  • Speaking of that scene, I wonder if it would have featured some sort of brief 3D gimmick had it aired at a point with 3D TVs and broadcasts become more common.
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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Fringe – “The Firefly”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fringe – “The Firefly” | Cultural Learnings -- Topsy.com

  2. I think I’m with you on your assessment of this episode – while I certainly enjoyed, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it wasn’t quite as good as it should have been, and the Observer part of the storyline may have been the culprit. Maybe Fringe has outgrown the Observers?

    But I love it when they do stuff like casually catching bullets.

  3. I agree with most of your assessment from the episode. Although, I think the move to Friday hyped up this episode immensely and it took away from some of the key dynamics of the hour. Yes, it’s more of a set up episode for what is to come, but it had great character moments and key plot developments that I think will pay off in the coming episodes.

    I truly believe The Observer is a critical component to the mythology even though he’s taken a bit of back seat lately. A lot of questions are still to be answered about him: What is he? What are his plans for Walter and Peter? What sort of futures does he see?

    That’s all I got. Love your analysis.

  4. Tausif Khan

    I want to see how the ratings hold up for next week to see if the show can stick around. I felt this episode was fairly accessible to a person who isn’t a avid Fringe fan. This is the first time I saw a new episode on the air when it premiered.

  5. Re: The Observer

    I agree with James Poniewozik’s insight that The Observer is a piece of mythology that feels like it is from Fringe’s early stages, when it was concerned with The Pattern. I don’t recall the last time that particular phrase was mentioned and the show has been better for it because it has focused its events and mythology toward the alternate universe rather than a vague term to place the events together.

    The Observer may be the link that is being kept alive to piece together the earliest mythology and the newest mythology for those who might be tuning in and have missed the shows since its first season. He may be their entry point, regardless of how forced the character(s) may feel in the current state of the show. I can’t say I want them written out of the show, instead I would rather have them be “easter eggs” to important scenes/moments or to have small bits, rather than Observer-focused episodes where they are used as exposition.

    At any rate, I thought the episode was strong for those characters with whom we are familiar and anticipate seeing how this arc continues. Any thoughts on the amount of viewers who watched on Friday that will be watching the new episode of Supernatural this Friday? I would expect some overlap in viewership, but really have no pulse for what that overlap might be.

    I really enjoy your insight and look forward to continuing to read/interact with your writing in the future.

  6. And, one final question, when The Observer says to Peter, “It must be hard being a father,” do you think he is saying that he might be a father to a now-impregnated Fauxlivia or simply referring to the hard choices Walter has made and must make?

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