‘Fringe’: Remembering the Bold “Episode 19” Experiments

Mike Delaney
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Fringe was a series with a unique vision. Within all of the episodes that already deal with bizarre phenomena and theoretical science, the producers of Fringe left little Easter Eggs for fans to find and decipher. For example, did you know that there is an Observer in every single episode, sometimes hidden in the background? Or that the glyphs that appear on-screen before and after the advertising breaks are a complex cipher that, when decoded, reveal a word linked to the theme of the episode? And in every episode, there is a clue to the plot of the following episode hidden somewhere. Fringe truly upped the game, in terms of how many secret clues can be packed into a single episode.

You would think that all of those bits of fan service would be enough. But no. Fringe also established an annual tradition, in which the 19th episode of each season would become known for delivering series-altering information, as well as breaking from the normal episode format.

Let’s look back at those episodes that make up one of Fringe’s most beloved traditions.

The Road Not Taken

You could argue that “The Road Not Taken” does not fit Fringe’s experimental 19th episode format. And on the face of it, that statement appears accurate. The episode is from Season 1 and the series was still finding its feet. Dig deeper, however, and you will find that “The Road Not Taken” is definitely the first installment in the tradition. What appears to be a standard Fringe Division case – investigating spontaneous human combustion – sets the scene for the first look into the Alternate Universe, as Agent Olivia Dunham flashes back and forth between our Earth and its parallel twin.

“The Road Not Taken” also has several “wham” moments that make it worthy of inclusion among the list of experimental 19th episodes. First, Olivia’s longtime nemesis, Sanford Harris, is revealed to be an agent of the terrorist group ZFT, before being killed. Second, Nina Sharp is shot by agents of ZFT, who are seeking the power cell in her advanced robotic prosthetic arm. Finally, we learn from Walter Bishop that the ZFT manual (a manifesto that guides the actions of the group) was written by none other than Walter’s lab partner, William Bell.

One juicy bit of information to note: the conspiracy theorist (who believes he is Spock from Star Trek) that Olivia and Peter Bishop meet  references that supersoldiers are needed for the coming war with time-travelling Romulans, intent on changing the timeline. While an obvious reference to J.J. Abrams’ other big project of 2009, it is incredible foreshadowing. By the end of the series, the time travelling Observers do indeed return to the past in an attempt to change the future. (Watch the episode on Go90.)

Brown Betty

What do bubble gum, flannel pajamas, rainbows, and singing corpses have in common? If you guessed they were all (apparently) invented by Walter Bishop, then you are correct! “Brown Betty” is Season 2’s 19th episode, and it’s the one that set the standard for the experimental episodes to follow.

In this episode, Walter smokes a marijuana-hybrid (of his own creation) and begins to tell a story to Olivia’s niece, Ella. What follows is a wonderfully bizarre fairy tale about a stolen artificial heart. Much of the episode is told in the style of the story that Walter tells Ella — and because he is more than a little stoned, the result is a 1940s film noir detective story that includes wooden computers, modern cell phones, and quantum lasers. Also, there is singing!

While the delightfully eclectic mash-up of styles is seemingly lighthearted, there is a more serious narrative at work. In the previous episode, Peter finally learned that he is from the alternate universe and that “our” Walter had taken him from his home, in order to save his life from the illness that killed the Peter in our universe as a child. The story that Walter tells Ella can be seen as his own fervent belief that Peter will never forgive him for keeping the truth from him. (Watch the episode on Go90.)

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide

The 19th episode of Fringe’s Season 3 takes a deep dive into the mind of Olivia Dunham. Once again, someone is on drugs. But this time, it’s not just Walter — it’s Olivia and Peter, as well. Olivia has become a “soul jar” and host for William Bell’s consciousness. Although Bell sacrificed his own life to help Olivia in the alternate universe, he did not intend to stay dead for very long. He arranged for his soul to be transferred to Olivia, with the intention of it then being passed on to a suitable host. But, as with anything in Fringe, things do not go exactly as planned.

With Olivia’s consciousness being subsumed by Bell’s, Walter comes up with the idea to use LSD as a bridge to allow him and Peter to journey into Olivia’s subconscious mind and rescue her. After successfully entering Olivia’s mind, they meet William Bell — who is rendered as an animated character. Bell then points out that Walter and Peter are animated as well, and the rest of the episode inside Olivia’s mind proceeds in this style.

Shifting into a cell-shaded animation style gives this episode a totally different and more vivid feel, which provides viewers with the sense that they are journeying through Olivia’s mind. On a more practical note, the animated style allows Leonard Nimoy to reprise his role as William Bell, without actually being needed on-set. Not to be outdone, the episode’s B-plot focuses on the Fringe team’s boss, Philip Broyles, accidentally taking some of the LSD and finally loosening up from his usual stoic and uptight nature. (Watch the episode on Go90.)

Letters of Transit

Letters of Transit” is the 19th episode of Season 4, and it thrusts the Fringe universe forward in time to the year 2036. The Observers have time-travelled from the future and taken control of the world, turning it into a totalitarian regime. Walter, Peter, Astrid, and William Bell are all trapped in Amber. Olivia is nowhere to be seen. To top it all, there is a resistance to the Observers, and one of the leading members is Henrietta “Etta” Bishop — the long-lost daughter of Olivia and Peter. Whaaaaaaaaaat?!?!?

With Season 4 following the plot line of David Robert Jones attempting to destroy both universes, the shift in focus was both jarring and refreshing. With viewers still searching for clues and meanings in the regular season episodes, a fresh wave of information and questions were suddenly dropped on them. Why did the Observers invade? Why is the team in Amber? Where is Olivia? William Bell is back? Instead of answering any earlier questions, “Letters of Transit” only created new ones.

Unlike the previous episode that looked at a future version of the Fringe universe (Season 3’s “The Day We Died”), the world-shattering events of “Letters in Transit” would soon form the basis for Season 5’s upcoming storyline. (Watch the episode on Go90.)

Black Blotter

Fringe’s 5th season only had 13 episodes, so it seemed that it would be the first season to break the tradition of the 19th episode being something special and different. But Fringe would not be deterred by this trivial matter. All the episodes of Season 5 were designed to tell one continuous story, and there was no room for deviation. While Fringe did not devote an entire episode to honoring the tradition, they did insert a small homage into the 9th episode of the season.

Walter, as we have noted before, has a fondness for taking drugs − usually of his own design. In this episode, he takes a dose of the hallucinogen called “Black Blotter.” It’s to prepare him for having parts of his brain removed (long story short, it’s to hide his plan to defeat the Observers). To convey some of Walter’s drug trip, a 75-second long animation was produced that mimicked the style of animation created by Terry Gilliam for Monty Python. Among the visuals that directly reference Monty Python are a giant foot, crushing the characters, as well as a giant hand, throwing them around. (Watch the episode on Go90.)

All episodes of Fringe now air on Verizon’s Go90 website and app.

Mike Delaney
Star Wars fan and general pop culture addict. Only two beverages worth drinking are tea and whisky.
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