“A Better Human Being” S4 / E13
- B Community Grade
Let’s begin with the ending, because I’m certain that’s the part of “A Better Human Being” that you’re all going to want to talk about (and the part that, years from now, we’ll remember most about this episode). Not that the ending was a surprise, necessarily. As soon as Peter decided to accept that Amberlivia is now Ourlivia, and leaned in to give her a kiss, it was only a matter of time before something horrible happened, yes? Because despite all the warm flashbacks to Peter and Olivia as a couple, and despite all their talk in this episode about how deeply they know each other, and how they have their little rituals, the truth is that something always separates these two. Their moments together over the past few years have mostly been stolen ones.
So yes, when Olivia slipped into the gas station to go to the bathroom, I figured that she and Peter weren’t going to be sharing the romantic evening of “welcome back” whoopee that they’d been contemplating just minutes earlier. Now I did not specifically expect that she’d wake up shackled in a dank room—on Earth 2, I’m guessing—opposite a similarly bound and bruised Nina Sharp. But I knew we weren’t headed for a happy ending.
On the whole, “A Better Human Being” was a gripping episode, though I wish there’d been more follow-through on the case-of-the-week, which starts out strong then just… ends. We open on an institutionalized young man named Sean, who is hearing voices as always. We also see that these voices are attached to actual people, who miles away are in the process of breaking into the home of investigative journalist Daniel Greene, and throwing a bag over Greene’s head before stabbing him. Digging deeper into Sean’s past, the Fringe team learns that he was conceived via in-vitro fertilization, overseen by the man Green was investigating: Dr. Owen Frank, the latest in the parade of well-meaning-but-damaged mad scientists who have dominated this season of Fringe (and also an America’s Test Kitchen fan, judging by what’s on the TV at the rest home). Frank admits that in his IVF lab he engaged actively in genetic manipulation, looking to create a superior breed of humans. It doesn’t take too long then for Peter to figure out that Dr. Frank also provided the sperm for these experiments.
Why does this matter? Because after a good long look at his honey-bear, Walter devises the theory that Sean is communicating with the murderers much in the ways that bees do, and that Sean must share some kind of genetic connection with the killers. Which indeed Sean does, in that they’re all “brothers.” But unless I missed something—and I watched the relevant scenes of this episode twice to make sure—once these brothers kill Dr. Frank, Sean loses his connection to them, and his part of “A Better Human Being” wraps, rather anti-climactically. We get a scene of Astrid explaining to a worried Sean that he’s “normal” now, but nothing about what’s become of the other freaks. There’s an emotional beat there at the end—and a thematic foreshadowing, given what’s about to happen with Olivia—but none of this is all that satisfying as a piece of storytelling. We just get Astrid shrugging and saying, essentially, “We may never know what that was all about.”
That said, Sean is an interesting character in and of himself, especially as an analogue to some of our other Fringers. Sean’s been diagnosed as a schizophrenic since he was a youngster, and has been on a steady diet of medication, which is something Walter can identify with—both in terms of the way that drugs can change a person’s perception of himself, and in the idea that what medical science sees as a disorder may actually be a gift. And of course, the changes Sean goes through once he’s off his meds—getting back his appetite and his libido—mirrors what happens with Olivia once she begins remembering her life with Peter. She too gets back some of her verve.
As a fervent Fringe fan, I couldn’t help but be moved by Olivia’s gradual return, as she has flashes of memory and begins talking about how comfortable it feels just to be with Peter. I’m still a little confused as to whether this is Amberlivia adding Ourlivia’s memories to her own, or just Ourlivia fully re-emergent, but whatever the case, it does feel right when she’s talking with Peter about how she’s waiting to see “that look in your eye” and is urging him just to do what comes naturally. The chemistry between these two characters (and actors) is so strong that it overpowered a lot of my plot nitpicks.
I also liked how on-point Walter is in this episode, whether he’s chastising Peter for what he assumes to be Peter’s conscious (and thus unconscionable) reshaping of Olivia, or whether he’s investigating the levels of Cortexiphan he finds in Olivia’s body. Though Sean’s storyline trails off, “A Better Human Being” still ends powerfully, jumping between the Olivia/Peter love connection and Walter’s confrontation with Nina, in which he discovers that her locked-away Cortexiphan supply has been replaced by some phony red-colored solution. There’s real tension in that cross-cutting, which makes the Olivia and Peter scenes come off as more nerve-wracking than they’d otherwise be. Even if those two didn’t already have a history of obstacles being thrown between them, it’d still be fairly obvious that their night wasn’t going to end well.
And I’m afraid it’s about to get even worse. After next week’s episode, there’s a short three-week break before Fringe comes back on March 23rd for the final eight episodes of the season (and perhaps the series). Given how the Fringe team often likes to gut-punch their audience before a hiatus, I have sense of deep foreboding, friends. I’m worried that Ourlivia isn’t going to survive to see March.
- So did anyone ever eat that Damiano’s take-out?