This fifth and final season of Fringe has been a real puzzle. With only thirteen episodes for the final act, the show has dispensed with its house style of alternating standalone adventures with ones that push the mythology forward. Except for perhaps one diversion, it’s been pretty much all mythology, all the time, a continuous trail of breadcrumbs that have led us here, to the puzzle’s center. With “The Boy Must Live,” a crucial piece is revealed, and while the episode is a bonanza of answers to long-held riddles, it also gives us a final sense of hope and direction, assuring us that this season’s steady grimness has been worth it.
The plot is straightforward: Walter, now knowing that “Donald” is actually September, uses the old deprivation tank to find the Observer’s location. They find him in an apartment, hiding from the Observers. His experiences in the human realm (and subsequent punishment by his superiors) have turned him practically human himself (“He has hair!” exclaims Walter). And then he tells us…
1. The Observers are the result of far-future genetic experimentation designed to stamp out emotion in favor of intelligence.
2. Michael, the anomaly, is a missing link between humanity and the Observers, and if sent into the future he could stop the Observers from being created, and reset the timeline.
3. September is Michael’s father. When September once told Walter “The Boy Must Live,” he was talking about Michael, not Peter.
4. The send-Michael-to-the-future plan was what the Fringe team was working on right before they were put in amber.
“The Boy Must Live” is the most necessary episode of the season in terms of explaining what’s what, and it ends with a thrilling chase sequence through the streets as the Observers close in on our gang. But some of its best moments are quiet, like the look on September’s face as he recounts his past and then, later, destroys his home. Or the poetry where Windmark searches September’s apartment, his gaze catching artifacts of a life he can’t possibly comprehend, while his underling robotically taps a foot to jazz music. We even go to the ugly Observer-land of 2603, where Windmark and his superior (James Kidnie) decide what to do about humanity, their suppressed emotions bubbling up from underneath their deliberately-chosen words. This episode also has a lot of callbacks to Fringe history: the sensory deprivation tank, Walter’s white tulip, bridges…everything is interconnected, we’re being reminded.
“The Boy Must Live” is proof that Fringe mixes character and mythology better than almost anyone. The character development, even as the series dances closer to what could be a huge, series-wide reset button, has been exceptional this year. For a plot that hinges on time travel, the stakes feel vivid. Rather than being a monotonous info dump, September’s monologue is heartfelt, informed by his imperfect grasp of human emotions. Olivia reacts with newfound grief and hope when she realizes this plan may return Henrietta. Walter’s arc is most crucial, as he embraces Peter with a father’s full love (Michael’s psychic link has shown him the scrubbed “Peter timeline” of seasons 1-3). This shock helps soften the blow when Walter confronts September with what he knows: their plot depends upon Walter’s death (Noble acts his socks off again—give this guy an Emmy already). The irony of Dr. Frankenstein sacrificing himself to kill someone else’s monster seems as good a direction as any to wrap the story of Fringe up nicely.
Fringe’s final season, a mirror for the show at large, is about balance. Ebb and flow. The Observers take Earth, and the Fringe team try to take it back. Humans and Observers are using time to annihilate each other, but for vastly different reasons. Olivia and Peter lose a daughter, while September and Walter regain their sons…but will that flip back? Walter is the man who started this chaos, and so he must be the one to finish it. Action and reaction; how very scientific. The episode ends with a small-but-crucial action: Michael exiting a getaway train, effectively turning himself into Captain Windmark, for reasons unknown. What will the reaction be? Time—and the end of all things Fringe—will tell.