In physics, “the observer effect” is the idea that the act of observing an experiment can affect the outcome of the experiment. Let me give you an example of this principle that I’m sure any decent egghead would find woefully flawed, but whatever. It’s not like we come to Fringe for credible and accurate extrapolations and applications of science, either. Prior to watching “The End Of All Things,” I had read that the episode was going to be a humdinger. Our own Ken Tucker had even raved about its merits via Twitter, calling it "a very moving, as well as exciting, episode. The series keeps avoiding the cold-sci-fi trap." This got me pumped, and that pumpage amped my expectations, and it was through the filter of those amped expectations that I watched the episode. But I’m thinking my act of watching the episode through that filter tainted and diminished the show that Ken and everyone else watched, because “The End Of All Things” failed to make my dinger hum. It was, to my eyes, 'just okay.' Certainly not the equal of the past two episodes. And not the strongest possible kicker to a strong second act for Fringe’s fourth season, which now takes a four-week snooze before rising anew on March 23 for the first of eight consecutive episodes – a sweep of story that might represent the very end of all things Fringe. Damn, I’m such a downer this week, aren’t I? Ah, but so was this episode.
My least favorite part of “The End Of All Things” was its central storyline, which saw Olivia trapped in a cell with her alt-timeline surrogate mommy and Massive Dynamic honchoette Nina Sharp. David Robert Jones, the shapeshifter-building snake with the hideously molting skin (his face resembled a dried-out glazed donut), had abducted both women for the purpose of activating Olivia’s latent, Cortexiphan-seeded super-powers. Since Olivia’s abilities required a strong emotional stimulus in order to manifest, Jones tortured the mutant’s substitute mama – first by drilling into Nina’s cybernetic arm (I liked learning that the limb was lined with nerves), then by strapping her to box springs and zapping her with a car battery. Nonetheless, Olivia couldn’t psychically ignite Jones’ box of light bulbs. Initially, she attributed her failure to the mysterious event transpiring within her – the recovery of her original timeline identity. In what I thought was a significant development, Olivia confessed to Nina that while she retained Rebootlandia Olivia’s memories, she could no longer emotionally connect with them -- suggesting that she now regards her original timeline identity as her authentic self. Consequently, Jones wasn’t going to successfully unleash Olivia’s inner Firestarter by abusing Nina. Then Olivia revealed to Nina during a torture respite that she had only ever been able to “Flame on!” when Peter was in the room. Suddenly, Nina doubled over from abdominal pains and was taken out of the cell, and when she was safely out of Olivia’s sight, she revealed her true colors: This Nina was not Olivia’s Rebootlandia surrogate mother, but either: 1. A shapeshifter; or 2. The Nina Sharp from Rebootlandia’s “over there” world. Regardless: She was the Nina that was revealed to be in league with Jones at the end of “Enemy Of My Enemy.” They resolved that the only way to activate Olivia was to nab Peter.
Now: Why was the Olivia/Nina stuff my least favorite part of the episode? A few reasons:
First: The storytelling made us privy to information that Olivia did not know: That while she was locked up with one Nina, another Nina was being held by Broyles and co. at Fringe HQ on suspicion of dosing and abducting Olivia. From the beginning, I found myself questioning which Nina was “good” and which Nina was “bad.” My suspicion came at a cost: I was unmoved by the dramatic set pieces between Olivia and (Fake) Nina – for example, the bit business about trying to recall the first time Olivia called Nina “Nina” instead of “Ms. Sharp” – because I was so fixated on the issue of Nina’s credibility. But the bigger issue is this: I was never fooled. Never. It seemed pretty obvious to me we were going to get the twist we got, that the Nina in Fringe custody was “good” and the Nina locked up with Olivia was “bad,” and my certainty influenced my experience of the show, subverting the effectiveness of the storytelling.
NEXT: Moriarty, Squandered.