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Author's Note: Having grown tired of what's currently available on TV I've decided to rewatch some of my all time favorite shows. I'm limiting myself to one episode per week in order to experience the storytelling as it was originally intended, which hopefully will preserve the thrill of having to wait a week to see what happens next. This article covers the Fringe episode “The Road Not Taken", which originally aired on May 5th, 2009.
The first novel I finished was Stephen King’s “Firestarter”, which tells the story of a little girl’s struggles with the fact that she can light things on fire with her mind. “The Road Not Taken” borrows the concept of pyrokinesis for the penultimate episode of Fringe's first season, expertly weaving the terrifying ability into the overarching ZFT/Pattern narrative that has been the show’s heartbeat since the pilot episode. While Fringe has occasionally wandered a bit, particularly in the first half of the season, it’s really found a sense of cohesiveness down the stretch. Even story threads that didn’t initially feel connected have turned out to fit, exhibited by the episode’s mini-montage of bizarre events that we’ve witnessed over the past eighteen weeks.
Things get going when a clearly-distressed young woman boards a bus, anxious to get to the hospital. In an effectively-edited sequence we see that her presence is having a negative effect on her surroundings, and when the window next to her begins to fog up she panics and demands to be let off the bus. Her request is granted but things only get worse for her on the street, as she quickly dissolves into a full-blown panic that culminates in spontaneous combustion.
Fringe Division is called in to investigate the case, and while at the scene of the bizarre accident we begin to see that something is wrong with Olivia Dunham. As she inspects the crime scene she appears to be bouncing back and forth between a pair of realities, one moment there’s a single charred body on the ground and the next she sees a second one next to it. The writers make it clear that this isn’t a phenomenon happening inside Olivia’s mind as this fracturing of reality is affecting other characters as well, and it isn’t limited to the crime scene as it continues back at Fringe headquarters. Unfortunately for Olivia her confusing behavior doesn’t escape the ever-watchful eye of Sanford Harris, who continues to look for any excuse to derail her career.
Olivia and her partner Charlie investigate the apartment of the deceased woman, who is revealed to be named Susan Pratt, to see if they can unearth any leads. Inside they find indications that Pratt was a reclusive woman with few friends or romantic interests, along with a bathroom destroyed by fire. Clearly the incident on the street wasn’t the first time Pratt had exhibited the ability to generate fire with her mind. The two agents get their best lead when Olivia discovers a thirty thousand dollar check made out to Pratt from an Isaac Winters, but when they visit his office they find the place stripped clean except for an answering machine that just happens to have a pair of panicked messages from Pratt on it.
Harris continues to apply pressure to Olivia, going so far as to demand she have a psych evaluation which she knows would destroy the trust she’s built within Fringe Division. But we the audience can’t help but wonder if Harris is right in this case as she continues to experience multiple realties, a phenomenon that Walter hypothesizes is a result of the endless choices human beings face on a daily basis. Olivia’s ability to travel back and forth between them pays dividends though as she correctly interprets why one reality had two bodies while the one she exists in only has one: Pratt had a twin sister named Nancy Lewis.
Isaac Winters gets to Lewis first and kidnaps the woman, who possess the same abilities as her twin, but thanks to some strange science from Peter Bishop they’re able to capture audio of Winters dialing his phone while in Lewis' apartment. Olivia just happens to have an app on her phone that can decipher the number Winters dialed (there are some eye-rolling conveniences in this episode), and it turns out that Winters was calling none other than Agent Harris. Not only has he been a pain in the butt for Olivia, Harris is a prominent member of ZFT.
The team is able to track Harris to a warehouse, where Winters is doing everything he can to get Nancy Lewis to start another fire while eagerly Harris watches in anticipation. Olivia manages to shoot Winters, but Harris locks her in the room with Lewis who is finally unleashing her pyrokinetic powers. Harris smugly looks on with pleasure, thinking that he’s not only getting what he wants from Lewis, but that he’s about to eliminate the woman that can finger him as a terrorists. Olivia desperately tries to coax Lewis into focusing the fire to an external source, and unfortunately for Agent Harris that target is him and he finds himself burnt to death.
The death of the corrupt Harris brings an end to a character that never felt like they belonged on Fringe. Harris’ introduction to the show was odd and perhaps that set a negative tone for the character that he wasn’t able to shake, he just never felt like a true antagonist even after his connection to ZFT was revealed. He only appeared in a handful of episodes and I wouldn’t consider him a distraction, it’s more like the character was taken out of the creative oven before he was fully-baked. In a season that was tasked with not only introducing viewers to some unusual characters, but also some really weird happenings, I can’t help but wonder if Agent Harris needed to exist at all. Michael Gaston was fine in the role, but with his death (presumably) bringing an end to the character it’s hard to see how his presence on the show impacted the story in any significant way.
“The Road Not Taken” has a rather powerful coda, as a pair of events transpire that are certain to impact next week’s season finale. Walter sits alone in his lab, elated that he finally found the missing chapter of the ZFT bible. By this point he has determined that it was William Bell that composed the manuscript, and desperate to clear his old friends’ name he has been furiously looking for what he hoped with be positive content. And it is, as this last piece focuses on ethics, particularly the importance of children. But it doesn’t appear that Walter will be able to share his discovery with the rest of the team as The Observer arrives, telling Walter that it’s time to leave. What this means remains a mystery, but Walter makes no effort to resist. We also see a panicked Nina Sharp visit Broyles to talk about the recent uptick in Observer sightings, heavily suggesting that it’s a sign something bad is about to occur. The episode closes with her being shot by a masked gunman, her final fate unknown.
This write-up wouldn’t be complete without mentioning another strong performance by John Noble, who once again skillfully navigates the many sides of Walter Bishop’s personality. He’s equally at ease with showing Walter’s silly side as he is with conveying the guilt Walter carries, particularly over the Cortexiphan trials that have directly impacted Olivia. Anna Torv’s acting chops are up to the task as she expertly jousts with Noble, with both of their character’s putting all their cards on the table regarding the Jacksonville drug trials that forever changed both of their lives.
Observer Sighting: He gets more time than usual this week, showing up at Walter's lab for a chat.