In the twelfth episode of the fourth season of Fringe, Walter, Olivia, and Peter get stuck in a town that seems to exist as an endless loop. Then shit gets so real and everything is painful and oh my god. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Fringe.
I think what I came to like most about “Welcome to Westfield,” outside of the obvious mind-melting implications for Olivia, is that it felt like a loving mash-up of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone. I think I’ll always be impressed by the way the writers are able to combine monster-of-the-week style episodes with huge chunks of the serial mythology in the process, and this is no exception. This story, though, was fun because it was so thrilling and weird. I LIKE WEIRD. In this case, that weirdness seems to be centered around Olivia.
But before we get to her, let’s talk about the set-up for “Welcome to Westfield.” That cold open just has so many things in it. We get Olivia’s dream of Peter. We get Walter’s attempt to make another lovely cocktail. We get A GIANT PLANE CRASH. I think I was blown away by how destructive this episode was, especially since it was in a way that isn’t erasable. The writers commit to the damage that is caused by the devices planted by David Robert Jones, and they don’t try to write these realities out of existence. When the Fringe team arrives to investigate (with Walter in tow!!!), I couldn’t help but notice how much this felt like those alien abduction plots during The X-Files, and I think that visual reference was deliberate. It’s also a way of giving us a red herring. Even though the high electromagnetic fields really do have something in common with what happens to Westfield, I was so focused on trying to figure that out that I was caught off guard when Peter and Walter visit the diner.
God, what an amazing scene. A lot of Fringe episodes have a long set-up, but this one starts off early. I mean, first we get to witness the joy of Walter eating pie. THERE’S SO MUCH JOY ON HIS FACE! (PS: Oh my god, I love rhubarb pie so much.) For a brief second, I thought the episode skipped or something. Yes, I realize now how irrational this thought is, but I was so confused when the waiter asked Walter about his pie again. This moment turns so rapidly to chaos, and it’s what I found intriguing about “Welcome to Westfield.” This episode is not a slow build. This is a story about how Peter, Olivia, and Walter have walked into a disaster, and how the three of them cope with it. It only gets worse, of course, when they find out they physically cannot leave town.
I personally love small-scale settings. While the town of Westfield isn’t exactly the tiniest city in the world, I’m obsessed with stories that take place in places like this. It was a joy to see the people behind Fringe give us a glimpse of a town that’s both deserted and slowly disappearing, too. But it’s the personal stories that this show tells that I love the most, and this is also a chance for the writers to delve further into Peter/Olivia. I think the show generally treats concepts of mental illness well. We’ve seen some fantastic episodes on depression, sanity, self-worth, identity, and the stigmas that might come with them. Is the show perfect? No. I think “Welcome to Westfield” used the concept of insanity in a way that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at first. However, once the writers got away from the use of delusion to tell the story, this was so much more fascinating to me. This wasn’t an issue of the characters in Westfield losing their minds as much as it was of them gaining another one.
It made me think of what we’d seen in Olivia in this episode. “Welcome to Westfield” opened with a dream of Peter and Olivia together. Was this just her imagination, or did the other version of herself start bleeding through? At the heart of this is the idea that parallel and prime universes were sitting on top of one another literally. (PS: Draw more venn diagrams, Walter.) It explained why some people were affected by the in-pouring of their doppleganger’s life, and why some weren’t. I picked up pretty early on that it made no sense why Olivia would experience this sensation because her double clearly wasn’t in Westfield. So why would she feel like another Olivia was inside her head? Was this just a way for the writers to torture us some more?
No, for real, let’s be honest here: I miss Peter and his Olivia so much. That doesn’t mean I dislike the direction of season four. On the contrary, I adore it, and I love the way we get to explore these characters in such an exciting and rigorous way. But Olivia and Peter were just beginning to be happy with one another, and then they were torn apart because THAT TIMELINE NO LONGER EXISTS. Well, actually, that’s not true, is it? It has to exist somewhere, though, in order for that Olivia’s thoughts to show up. Truthfully, I was starting to wonder how the show was going to deal with the fact that we’d still not seen anything from the original timeline at all. I’m beginning to think that they weren’t replaced outright anymore, that perhaps these might actually be the same versions of the characters. What if this is all the work of the Observers? What if they tampered with memories to make it appear that Peter never existed?
I don’t know that that makes much sense, but the truth is that I can’t figure out where this is going. This is so exciting! I can tell that the next episode probably has to address the fact that the old Olivia is returning, right? Does that mean all the old timelines can return, too?
I wanted to end this with a compliment that I think was largely ignored by most people I’ve seen talk about this episode: I was just so happy that the writers did not take the issue of the colliding worlds and find a way to joyously save everything. The fact that Westfield was razed to the ground and that this is an immutable fact is so fucking fantastic to me. It is so rare to see a commitment like that, and the image of that barren wasteland is one of the more haunting things this show has provided us. In including this, the writers have upped the stakes of David Robert Jones, and if he’s willing to kill people in hospital for a flash drive, or destroy an entire town just as a test, then that means the writers are desperately trying to tell us that shit is going to get so fucked up.
Oh god, forever unprepared.