"It has arrived."
"He just observes."
While the title of the fourth entry could easily be a gentle homage to director David Twohy's sci-fi thriller The Arrival  there is much more going on with Fringe and aesthetically more likely a tribute to the 1950s. Writers J.J. Abrams and Jeff Pinkner offer an incredibly different twist to the concept of alien arrival though. The object of visitation would not be from without (as in outer space), but rather from within (the Earth's core). Things get even more fascinating with Fringe, Season One, Episode 4, The Arrival. The arrival of a curious mystery object from within is combined with the arrival of the Observer contributing generously to a series that is beginning to generate the kinds of thrilling questions that populated Abrams' compelling Lost.
The intrigue continues especially with the arrival of a captivating bald man, a creepy figure in a suit and hat with a strange binocular-like gadget speaking in foreign tongue. His mysterious aesthetic reminded me of the Strangers from Alex Proyas' wonderfully noir sci-fi classic Dark City . The watching entity dubbed the Observer marks the arrival of a cylinder, but he merely analyzes and takes notes, but for who and from where? We're not sure if he is an otherworldly figure, which he most certainly seems, or whether he is even alien or human or something else entirely. What is his purpose? Many exciting questions swirl about the arrival of the Observer giving The Arrival perhaps the edge at being the most intriguing entry for Fringe to date.
The Arrival was the first installment that I really noticed that the creators were painting a very deliberate and intelligent science fiction mythology. There were indeed significantly well-designed components being manufactured for Fringe.
First (1), upon further research and inspection there was the subsequent determination that the Observer was in fact making an appearance in nearly every episode of Season One beginning with the Pilot. This was clearly a demonstration of some significant forethought for the series. Admittedly, this was something of an exciting geek moment of revelation for me. We had fascinating myth elements introduced to date including The Pattern, Massive Dynamic and now the Where's Waldo? element of the Observer.
Second (2), each preceding episode offers an image of a word or glyph or symbol of something that references the upcoming episode. The cylinder image, for example, is spotted in a scene from The Ghost Network, tipping the viewer off to something relevant in the coming episode. There too small for me to get too crazy about, but not insignificant, and it suggests the level of intent and attention to detail that was developed for Fringe and being perpetrated on unsuspecting viewers.
Third (3), a series of glyph symbols are highlighted through each episode. Each glyph represents a specific alpha and when assembled create a word. They can be assembled to form a word in English or have meaning following a translation from Latin, but will create a word thematically linked to the story in question. ROGUE is the example here in The Arrival. It's an impressively detailed effort and the glyphs are emblematic of the kinds of thinking that went into the opening words to each episode of Millennium that tipped off viewers to something thematically pertinent within the story they were about to watch. It's clever stuff. The glyphs formed CHILD for The Same Old Story. AEGER, latin for SICK, was chosen for The Ghost Network. Believe it or not, it was OBSERVER for the Pilot.
The story begins with the bald, hairless man with no eyebrows dubbed the Observer entering a diner near a construction site. The man orders a roast beef sandwich with eleven jalapeno peppers and a glass of water at room temperature. He begins to cover his sandwich with ungodly amounts of black pepper and Tabasco sauce, but if you're not of this earthly place, what does it really matter what you eat? He eats with an almost inhuman hunger. The Observer writes profusely right to left in a book in a foreign language or code, checks his pocket watch [a watcher], and observes through highly technical binoculars. The ground shakes and explosions ensue as the construction site is rocked. The Observer reaches a hill and looks down at a gaping hole. He makes a phone call declaring, "It has arrived."
The Fringe team is summoned to Brooklyn, NY, the site of the now housed obelisk, but formerly bullet-shaped vibrating cylinder. SAIC Phillip Broyles indicates a comparable two-foot long object with the same spiral design was found at an explosion at Quantico in 1987. It was investigated by then Colonel Henry Jacobson. Despite Peter expressing dissatisfaction over what amounts to a baby-sitting job, he agrees to look after Walter for the time being but he grows restless and harbors some resentment towards his father. Walter manipulates his cards to ensure Peter remains or he refuses to cooperate with the FBI, but it's clearly out of a desire to unlock the potential to connect with his son. Meanwhile, Dunham visits Jacobson who tells her about the vibrating object and how it exploded and returned vibrating back into the earth.
A man with a stocking cap enters an FBI warehouse in search of the cylinder with a strange alien-like energy gun but is unsuccessful in locating it.
Walter is now in possession of the item in his Harvard lab. He once worked for the Department of Defense on Project Thor. They wanted a subterranean torpedo that could in theory be shot through the Earth's core and strike a target on the other side.
Dunham with her hawk-like precision and gift for memory and connecting the dots continues to quickly assemble elusive information. She spots the Observer in old photos provided by Jacobson. Other images related to investigations like spotting him in a hospital image from The Same Old Story lead Dunham to Broyles. The inhuman-like bald man has been spotted for over a year near Pattern events and photographed by the division. He is unidentified and simply referred to as The Observer because he watches. Broyles is impressed with Dunham's tenacity and ability to put together a case on the man in a matter of weeks. And, despite a year of investigation by the FBI, the man was under their noses in The Same Old Story. Not exactly reassuring.
Elsewhere, the man in the winter cap is in pursuit of the cylinder and with his alien gun and mind equipment overtakes Jacobson in his home and commences an interrogation. He eventually kills Jacobson after torturing him until he thinks the information needed. It's a terrific play on the idea of forced interrogation required by the military against foreign combatants.
Walter is conducting sound and frequency experiments on the bizarre object. He tasks Peter with getting tin foil to obscure the object from those who seek it out. In Peter's absence, Walter protects Astrid by injecting her with a syringe and knocking her unconscious.
Later, Walter has absconded with the beacon, as the Observer calls it, and meets with him at a diner. They like their diners. Who doesn't like diners? When my father was a postman, I used to ride my bike up to the local diner every day to meet him for lunch. I always got the hamburger plate. It was nothing more than a hamburger patty with mashed potato and gravy. It was delicious. Anyway, Walter enjoys Root Beer at the diner and is thrilled to live the experience of a root beer float once again. The Observer sits with him and tells him, "17 years that's a long time to go without something you love." Walter offers the Observer root beer but he declines aware that he wouldn't be able to taste it anyway giving us some curious information about this being and how he could possibly eat a bottle of Tabasco sauce. He thanks Walter for hiding the beacon as he is unable to touch the device. The diner scene, actually both of them, are fascinating moments in The Arrival. The Observer promises Walter answers soon. Later, Walter reveals he took the cylinder but cannot tell them where he has hid it. Someone is coming for it and he is protecting it for his "friend" as Dunham realizes he is connected to the Observer in some fashion.
Peter is abducted by the stocking cap man, John Mosley, and interrogated. Mosley was played by actor Michael Kelly who, ironically enough, appeared in The Adjustment Bureau  which shares a similar Observer-styled aesthetic as far as bureau characters go. Walter admits to Olivia that though Peter doesn't know where the device is he still knows and can reveal that information to this man that has taken him. Peter reveals the site of the device to be the cemetery of his grandfather, Robert Bishop. Mosley tells Peter it's ashame he did not know his grandfather. Olivia arrives and a thrilling pursuit ensues. Dunham takes out Mosley. It's the first of many instances revealing Dunham to be a bit of a crack shot. The sequence is terrifically dark and exciting as the cylinder begins to glow, drill and burrow disappearing once again into the ground.
Peter breaks free and spots the Observer reporting via phone, the "departure is on schedule." Peter tackles the Observer. The Observer does not fight. Why? He is an observer but he's not any ordinary JAFO [a reference to the nicknamed character of Richard Lymangood played by Daniel Stern in John Badham's Blue Thunder (1983); JAFO stood for Just Another Fucking Observer]. He has a name but that's not revealed here. In another exceptionally executed sequence the Observer begins repeating every word Peter says. He then begins saying the words Peter will say before Peter even says them observing Peter's movements and posture like an animal. How? It is another terrific science fiction moment on Fringe. Peter is stunned by The Observer's weapon that works without a visual discharge or physical scarring. "Mr. No Brows," as Peter calls him disappears. But this is is second known intervention beyond simply observing.
In the epilogue, Walter apologizes to an unaccepting Astrid, though her body language suggests otherwise as he leaves. Suddenly, Peter has a change of heart about his exciting new position and is given keys to the kingdom as a civilian consultant to the Department Of Homeland Security. Do these folks background check anyone?
The final minutes of The Arrival feature an exchange between father and son, Walter and Peter, and are truly a harbinger of fine things to come between this dynamic. Peter asks Walter how he could have known the location of the beacon despite never being told. Walter explains information can be passed by proximity. "You must adjust the way you consider communications, ideas. Ideas can be absorbed through osmosis... through proximity." In the first of many moving moments in Fringe, Walter shares a story with Peter about their past, only it's not just a story. It may have been at one time, but between them a moment of truth is shared. Driving home one night from Thanksgiving when he was young they were in an accident and their car plunged into an icy lake. Walter could not save them. His limbs were useless in the cold water. The Observer saved them. Reading his mind one day Walter knew he would need to repay the man. That day had come. This is a significant moment because it reflects Walter's love for his son. He owed The Observer because he saved his son. He may not have been the greatest father but he his eternally grateful and here Walter sits with a kind of rebirth for them both. Consider this too. The Observer observes rather than be part of the event. Furthermore, the Observer is there to mark the moments of death and catastrophe based on the events of these four episodes alone. But once upon a time, when the Bishops were younger, the Observer saved their lives. Why? Could it be that these men were indeed valuable to humanity? They had to be significant in some way for the Observer to become more than that.
And by God, Agent John Scott is alive and well or so it seems in Dunham's kitchen as the episode closes with his words, "Hello Liv." This is the first suggestion that her memories of Scott are speaking directly to her following her connection to him in the tank in the Pilot.
Actor Michael Cerveris embodies the would be iconic Observer from Fringe. He notes the character to be "the linchpin in an overarching story of the series," but was never aware of his significance when creating the character. He added, "I don't think they knew at the time, whether I was a good guy, a bad guy, human, alien, other-dimensional...so we kind of worked things out together and just found something we all thought was interesting and iconic."
The criticism of The Arrival was potentially much less the mixed bag received to date. Writer John Kenneth Muir appreciated this entry the most of the four installments to date noting it broke from the mold or "template" that Fringe seemed to establish including: a "shocking prologue," Walter Bishop's "cutsie poo insane moment," Peter Bishop background hints, Dunham's case investigation with ties to the Pattern and mention of the Agent John Scott relationship, deus ex machina resolutions, Massive Dynamic links, Blair Brown links, Pattern/conspiracy questions and a John Scott epilogue. The Arrival drops several of these for the latest entry and Muir was pleased. Granted, I confess to becoming a big fan of the opening prologue event. Walter's mannerisms and re-awakening within society following years in an institution are not only growing on me, but are also becoming more naturally performed by John Noble in the role. Like most of us, Muir appreciated the open aspects of the mystery surrounding The Arrival. There aren't any easy deus ex machina, quick and dirty, tidy resolutions for Fringe here. Muir indeed enjoyed the mystery surrounding the Observer, wondering "Hero? Villain? Impartial Witness?," noting that Fringe was "proving interesting"and taking "a step in the right direction."
Critic Maureen Ryan of The Chicago Tribune wrote that the episode had "the right mixture of creepiness and character development (plus, the Observer was awesome. If only they'd called him The Watcher, but let's not quibble)."
Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger noted the episode saved him from "That's It For Me!" status. He declared, "I can groove on all the atmospherics along the way. And, if nothing else, Abrams is great at atmosphere."
Noel Murray of The Onion's A.V. Club was particularly harsh. He called it the weirdest yet and "a deep-down sci-fi spookfest that minimized the show's procedural side and instead raised far more questions than it answered." He called the "shock and awe factor... hardly the satisfying standalone experience that the creators promised."
Travis Fickett of IGN still felt the ghost of The X-Files. "The show often elicits a distinct sense of déjà vu." Still, he gave Fringe its props. "The production values are exceptional, the acting is top notch, and it certainly seems to be going somewhere."
Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly ranked The Arrival the number twelve best entry of Fringe and highlighted the "mirroring his movements; parroting his speech in real time" Peter/Observer sequence as "one of the show's earliest water-cooler-weird moments." io9 correctly dubbed The Arrival a "crucial" episode in understanding the series. So, while generally mixed again, there was plenty here to spark some excitement for Fringe as a maturing series.
With the series left to simmer after a few years I've found the time to return to Fringe and The Arrival reveals I gave up just a touch too soon on it. The Arrival is certainly filled with many questions like the obvious ones. Who is this bald Observer? What is his purpose? Where does he come from? Who does he communicate with and serve? What was the importance of the Cylinder? Why did the Observer act and save the Bishops moving beyond his impartial observation? There are many terrific sci-fi questions for an entry that doesn't wrap things up neatly.
Further, the nod to 1950s science fiction is beautifully embodied in The Observer. We do know one thing about him. Despite the chaos and the madness of events surrounding the diner prologue he still pays his bills. He also understands or connects with Walter Bishop and seems to understand the concept of love. He has manners and says "Thank you." I've watched The Arrival a few times now. It is packed with information. You pick up on new things and small nuances with each viewing regarding the science fiction, the myth-based facts and the interpersonal relationships. It's incredible really and it resonates far more deeply the further down the Fringe road you go. The extremely complex father/son relationship is a case in point. The performances feel a little uneven at this point but the combative nature combined with this effort to reacquaint to one another is truly fascinating. Peter and Walter are in an unusual place in the early going and there's no reason to expect they should click right away. They are virtual strangers and Joshua Jackson and John Noble are walking the performance tightrope while modulating their swings in behavior. You'll marvel at these dynamics with repeat viewings.
Perhaps Fringe was indeed arriving. For me, this Abrams-penned fourth wonder narrative and the fringe-scienced theme of mind control devices, the curious arrival of the Observer, high tech weaponry and intriguing relationship dynamics mark a series arriving on schedule, a puzzle piece within what is proving to be a rather masterful plan.
The Arrival: B+/A-.
Writer: J.J. Abrams/ Jeff Pinkner. Director: Paul A. Edwards.
Glyph Code: ROGUE.