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Fringe: Observing the Detectives

They usually just lurk in the background, but last night, the hairless Observers took center stage. While the episode unveiled some juicy information about their origins, the writers continued to pursue a theme they’ve developed over the series’ run: the fear of losing those closest to us.

The Evil: In Boston, a college student named Christine is abducted by an Observer.

The Determination: The Fringe team thought there was only one Observer, but in fact there are several of these pale-skinned, gray-suited figures. The emotionless Observers have been alive for centuries, monitoring momentous periods in human history but never interfering. But this particular Observer, August, has captured Christine to stop her from boarding a flight that is destined to crash.

Wacky Factor: Walter at first seemed preoccupied with his quest to make the perfect milkshake, but once the rest of the team started investigating August, in particular, his notebook filled with mysterious symbols, we knew that the good doctor was hiding something. Sure enough, Walter realized that August’s series of symbols were coordinates for a secret location where the two could meet. At that rendezvous, we learned that the Observers helped (or at least allowed) Walter to snag Peter from the parallel dimension after the boy’s death. As with last week’s episode, Walter is acting less like a zany eccentric and more like a doting, loving father — one who seems to be increasingly concerned about losing his son again.

Paranoia Level: Medium-to-High. The revelation that the Observers are always peeking in on our species when something important is about to happen was a fun plot tidbit, but the episode was more valuable for the information conveyed than for its storytelling. Initially, August’s decision to intervene and save Christine’s life had the potential for an intriguing moral debate: Is it heroic to rescue one person from disaster when you let 200 other passengers on the same flight die? But the episode instead turned into a standard cat-and-mouse chase between August and his associates’s hired hitman. Also a bit disappointing, the explanation for August’s decision to save her was no more profound than an unexpected rush of feelings for the young woman. It’s a sweet sentiment but nothing new when you consider that everything from Superman: The Movie to Wings of Desire has already milked the concept of powerful otherworldly figures who can’t help but affect individual humans’ lives.

But even if the central story was a little flat, the peripheral elements were enticing. Walter’s growing anxiety about Peter’s safety seems to foreshadow some danger that will soon befall his son. Also, the return of Dunham’s young niece Ella helped humanize the perpetually frigid Dunham, while at the same time drawing a connection between her, Ella, and Christine, who are all the product of unhappy childhoods. Almost everyone on Fringe is either coping with loss or trying to keep from losing someone. That’s part of the reason why Dunham was so happy to solve this week’s case and get back to spending time with her niece. It’s also why, when the Observers at the end of the episode note that “It’s a shame things are about to get so hard for her,” it’s doubly scary — we don’t know if they mean Dunham or her beloved Ella.

More Recaps:
The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray uses the episode as a springboard for a discussion on the nature of observing and how emotion can influence what we see.
IGN’s Ramsey Isler glumly concludes that “although it is an interesting look into the lives of the Observers, for the most part this episode was just plain average.”
TV Fanatic’s M.L. House takes the show to task, rightfully so, for the Ford commercial it none-too-subtly threw in during the middle of an intense scene. (But, uh, House, isn’t the Observer’s name August and not Artist?)
And kudos to TV Squad’s Jane Boursaw, who seems to be the only person other than us who suspects that the Observers’ cryptic comment at episode’s end could be aimed at Ella and not Dunham. We’re supposed to assume they mean Dunham, but the writers may be trying to set us up for a surprise.

Photo: Michael Courtney/FOX