Last week I wrote a little bit about how much I dislike the It’s A Wonderful Life approach to alternate realities, where characters take forever to understand that their worlds have profoundly changed. I love It’s A Wonderful Life as a movie, but when it comes to that specific way of engaging with the supernatural, I prefer Groundhog Day, where the hero quickly grasps his situation and looks for ways to take advantage of it.
I think it’s fair to say that “And Those We’ve Left Behind”—an at once tense and moving episode of Fringe—wouldn’t have worked at all if the characters spent a lot of time denying what’s happening all around them. Even the premise relies on a significant amount of shrugging and forging ahead. The not-so-freaky freak of the week is electrical engineer Raymond Green (played by Stephen Root), who’s spent the last few years using the incomplete research of his theoretical physicist wife Kate (played by Root’s real-life wife Romy Rosemont) to construct a device that will shift their home back in time, to just before Kate began to succumb to Alzheimer’s. He’d had little luck with this plan until recently, when his contraption has suddenly begun to work, if only for short periods of time. But Raymond hasn’t been freaked out by his sudden success; he’s been enjoying his wife’s company for as long as his time-bubble is active, and trying to get her to finish her work before she slips away again.
The problem with The Green Machine is that its effects have been rippling outward—in what appears to be an ever-expanding Fibonacci Golden Spiral, according to Walter—causing select sections of Boston and its environs to flash back in time for several sometimes-dangerous minutes. At the start of the episode, we see a mother puttering around her apartment with her preschool-aged daughter when suddenly the daughter becomes a baby and the apartment itself jumps back to the date four years ago when it caught fire. Later, a group of teenagers driving through the countryside are almost hit by a train running on a route that hasn’t been active in years. Throughout New England, people are experiencing time-loops and time-anomalies, and if the pattern progresses as Walter predicts, soon a recently built tunnel is going to flood with water and potentially kill a whole bunch of people.
The anomalies are also affecting Peter, whether he’s in the path of the Golden Spiral or not. One second he’s in the lab and getting ready to drive to the scene of a Fringe Event, and the next second he’s at the scene, before he can finish a sentence. One moment he’s noticing a strange effect that makes an automoile bumper crumble to dust, and the next moment he’s in a car with Olivia and Lincoln, having already driven away from the site of that bumper. But as with last week’s episode, Peter doesn’t get rattled or even confused by all this. (No IAWL Effect, in other words.) Instead he heaves a sigh and mutters, “This is gonna start getting annoying.”
Peter’s ability to constantly adjust to the weirdness is a huge part of what makes “And Those We’ve Left Behind” affecting. Since his return, Peter has been sensitive to the feelings of his former friends and family; he hasn’t spilled to Olivia what they used to mean to each other, and he hasn’t pressured Walter to accept him. Instead, he’s suffered through Walter referring to him as “the subject” and refusing to engage with him in any way, and Peter has also dealt with the heartbreak of seeing how Walter lives now, sequestered anxiously in his own lab. There’s a poignant point-of-view shot in this episode of Walter silently stewing (while listening to Styx’s “Too Much Time On My Hands”) while he watches Peter working on the case with Olivia and Lincoln. The moment neatly conveys how tough it’s been for Peter to step right back into his old life.
And that’s not the only way that “And Those We’ve Left Behind” establishes mood and meaning through visuals alone. The very image of time bubbles that affect some parts of area but not others—leading to an apartment that’s partially burned, or a tunnel that disappears by degrees—is a powerful method of expressing the idea of how a loss can devastate one person and leave someone else unmoved. There’s a neat contrast between Peter’s cautious approach to reclaiming his old life and Raymond Green’s aggressive attempts to get his own back. That plays out nicely when Peter straps on a Faraday Cage—or a “Walter Bishop Faraday Harness” as Walter insists it be called—and walks into the Greens’ time-bubble, like some kind of astronaut setting foot on a remote planet and marveling at the strange customs there.
Even though a previous, non-caged agent had walked into the bubble and disintegrated, and even though Walter’s attempts to mentally nullify Peter could well have led him to engineer a faulty harness, I was never worried that Peter was going to die at the Greens. (Though I suppose he could’ve winked out of existence and then come back again, which would’ve been a shocking twist.) Yet the scene of Peter’s entry into the house was still nerve-wracking. Similarly, while I knew that Kate Green was going to sabotage her own work once she learned what Raymond had been doing, it was still touching to see them share their last moments together as two cogent people, and to see Raymond later flip through Kate’s book of blacked-out notes. (There again we have a visual representation of absence.)
In the end, what makes “And Those We Left Behind” so potent is that it shows how the “I’ll bend reality for you” love of the Greens is dangerous, then shows Peter trying as hard as he can not to be that destructive. Or is he? At the end of the episode Peter gets the use of his house back, and possibly an allowance from the government; but he’s also realized that the Olivia and Walter he’s been dreaming about don’t exist in the world in he’s in right now, where he’s a stranger. So now he has a choice: he can try to get back to—or to recreate—his real “home,” or he can learn to live and love the life he’s been plopped into.
- This makes two weeks in a row in which Fringe featured a scientist whose research was cut short for some reason beyond his or her control. Coincidence or theme?
- Did anyone else get excited about seeing Peter and Olivia chatting in a car again, only to feel let down when it was obvious that the old rapport between them wasn’t automatically rekindled?
- Peter, on hearing that the Faraday Harness plugs into his neck: “Of course it does.”
- So… Faraday? Constants? Headlines about the Red Sox? Pretty Lost-y episode, no?
- “I think it’s in my Spider-Man fanny-pack.”
- Gang, I hate to tell you this, but next week will be our last Fringe until January 13th. I’d suggest we savor it.