Fringe won’t be back until April, so expectations were high for last night’s winter finale — perhaps too high. After weeks of standalone plots, we were finally rewarded with an episode that hooked into the show’s central mythology, but despite nifty effects and loads of alternate-universe suspense, the hour boiled down to one huge problem: Dunham just isn’t that compelling of a central character.
The Evil: In a place called “Manhatan,” a worker in an office building barely survives an earthquake, but he realizes he suddenly has extra arms and legs protruding from his body — plus, he’s got a beam seemingly welded into his shoulder.
The Determination: The worker is from the alternate-universe New York — his building and the one in our universe have essentially collided into one another on our side. Walter determines that the universe will counterbalance the twin buildings in our world by pulling a building of equal mass from our side and transporting it into the parallel world. And Walter believes the only person who can figure out which building it will be is Dunham, whom he experimented on as a child, training her to see between worlds, a happening she refers to as a “glimmer.”
Wacky Factor: Perhaps it was the urgency of the episode’s story line, but Walter stayed relatively sedate. However, he did have a priceless moment during a high-stress scene while putting Dunham into a hypnotic state. As her vitals started spiking, he quickly demanded Peter grab his briefcase — and hand him some pretzels to munch on.
Paranoia Level: Medium-to-Low. There has been much complaining among the Fringe faithful lately that too many recent episodes have been concerned with freak-of-the-week plots that don’t tie into the show’s central mythology, but last night’s program highlighted one advantage those episodes had: They focused on Walter, who’s easily Fringe’s best character.
It’s not that Anna Torv is a terrible actress, but except in those rare moments when Dunham has been paired with her adoring niece, the character tends to be a glassy cipher. When she’s on the periphery, that’s not so much of a problem, but “Jacksonville” tried to generate much of its emotion from her confrontation with Walter over the experiments he conducted on her as a little girl, which resulted in nothing but a big, empty hole in the middle of a seemingly important episode. Basically, Dunham resents Walter for what he did to her, but the writers didn’t find any really interesting way to play out that conflict; in the end, if he hadn’t put her through it, she wouldn’t have been able to be the episode’s big hero.
But there were other glaring character inconsistencies. When Dunham proves unable to reproduce her ability to have the “glimmer,” the explanation is that she needs to be afraid again like she was when she was a child. But it’s hardly as if she’s someone who’s incapable of feeling afraid as an adult — she’s freaked out a decent amount over the show’s run. Plus, when Peter tells her that he doesn’t know anyone who can do the things she’s done (in a fairly awkward attempt at a romantic scene), there’s been little evidence to back up his claim.
In a season that has been built around Peter and Walter’s warming relationship, “Jacksonville” felt like a bit of a leftover from a time when Dunham was really the show’s star. But Fringe has moved on, and for the better — which explains why the best moment from last night was the ending, when Dunham (with her “glimmer” now restored) realizes that Peter is actually from the parallel universe. Peter’s inevitable discovery of this terrible truth has been the central tension of this season — and it looks like we’ll have to wait until April to see it resolved.
The AV Club’s Noel Murray completely disagrees with us: He loved the episode.
MTV’s Josh Wigler brings up an excellent point: Why didn’t Walter realize that Dunham was going to learn the truth about Peter once she regained her “glimmer”?
Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker praises the episode, but shares our fear that Peter and Dunham are going to have their first kiss soon.
Meanwhile, TV Fanatic’s Agent SAHM wonders what sort of romantic future Peter and Dunham have together now that she knows he’s from the alternate universe.