Much has been made of the massive time jump between Fringe's fourth and fifth seasons. The final thirteen episodes of FOX's critically lauded science fiction series are set in the Observer-occupied future of 2036, with our heroes fresh out of amber and learning about this new world at the same rate we, the audience, are. Much of the exposition for this new setting came in last year's out-of-left-field episode "Letters of Transit," which established the Observer regime, introduced us to Peter and Olivia's daughter Etta, and gave us hints as to how the Observers could be defeated. With all of that out of the way, "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11" hit the ground running.
Of course, despite its radically different premise, season 5 still sticks with one major trope from previous seasons: it starts with the search for a missing main character. This time (as it was with seasons 2 and 3), it's Olivia who is missing, frozen in amber at an unknown location. As it turns out, she's been stolen by amber gypsies (a great example of the future's great worldbuilding) and sold to former weird bookseller Edward Markham, who crosses the bridge from eccentric to deranged when he babbles, essentially, that Olivia is his sleeping beauty and that he loves her. Ultimately, though, rescuing Olivia from the unintimidating Markham is the least of the Fringe team's worries -- the Observers, tipped off by a black market worker, attack the house and take Walter hostage, though Olivia, Peter, Astrid, and Etta are able to escape.
Walter is interrogated by the guy who looks like he'll be the face of the evil Observers, Windmark. It's a surprisingly affecting scene that's necessarily traumatic. The telepathic probing (and his resistance to it) affects him physically as well as mentally, leaving him bloodied and broken, with Windmark's strange psychological tactics ("I am your ally") eventually failing him. Windmark knows that September (whatever happened to him, anyway?) implanted plans in Walter's head, but scrambled them in case such an interrogation ever happened. Walter is able to keep the plans from being stolen, but the memories are apparently destroyed in the process. It's here that we get the goal for the season: those memories must -- and likely eventually will -- be regained. But with Walter mentally and emotionally broken at the end of the episode, it looks like it might take quite a few of the show's remaining thirteen episodes to make that happen.
Speaking of Walter, John Noble's performance in this episode is great. Though he occasionally slips into his natural Australian accent (we'll blame it on the sleep depravity from which he was suffering while filming this episode), his acting in this episode was otherwise some of his best. Seeing Walter robbed of his two favorite things -- good food and good music -- was heartbreaking, but also allowed us to see that excellent final season, which saw Walter listening to some music in an abandoned car, watching a dandelion growing out of the pavement from far away. The message here is clear: there are still bits of beauty in this otherwise ugly world. The dandelion is also a clear symbol for Etta, who we saw playing with a dandelion in the future. She's what all three of the show's protagonists are fighting for here. With the revelation that the Observers are ruining the earth's atmosphere to make it more inhabitable to them (apparently they breathe carbon monoxide), her future looks incredibly bleak. She's an interesting addition to the dynamic of the series as a whole, and it will be interesting to see her relationships with her parents and her grandfather continue to develop.
Fringe is still, at its heart, a family drama. There are hints of tension between Peter and Olivia (as well as between Peter and Walter) that will obviously form some of the season's big emotional push. Of course, these walls exist between the characters to be torn down, but seeing just how they do that is going to be a real treat.
Ultimately, "Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11" is a fantastic start to what could very easily be Fringe's best season. With the procedural element entirely gone from the series, Fringe is well-posed to deliver us a cohesive, emotional, and satisfying conclusion. It's very easily the show to watch this season, and if you're not watching, you're missing out on not only television's best sci-fi gem, but one of the best shows currently on air, period.
The next episode of Fringe, "In Absentia," airs Friday, October 5, at 9/8c on FOX.
What did you think of tonight's season premiere? Let us know in the comments section below.