After a week off from Fringe, I had planned to write a stirring defense of what the show has been up to this season, talking about how Fringe has always been about what makes us human and what makes us ourselves, and how this season’s exploration of a world with only marginal variations is really a more challenging way of exploring that theme than the starker Red/Blue splits we’ve previously seen. But then I saw that my worthy fill-in Zack Handlen covered that ground in his review last week, so I’ll let it go. Besides, no matter what I say, the fact remains that if you personally don’t see the characters this seasons as at least equivalent to the ones you know and care about, then a defense of their thematic significance is unlikely to persuade you. It’s like comedy: either you laugh or you don’t. If you find something funny, you’re more forgiving of its flaws; if you don’t laugh, no amount of formal brilliance is likely to impress you. For me, Fringe still has the same strengths and weaknesses that it’s always had: the nifty ideas, lovably odd behavior and strong strains of melancholy are all still present; as are the sometimes over-earnest and over-explanatory dialogue. And backstory tweaks aside, Olivia is still Olivia to me. I can understand why some of you have a hard time connecting to Amberlivia, but for me it’s been a non-issue.
Anyway, I’m kind of weary of the squabbling over the direction the show has taken. There have been some all-time great episodes this season, and some merely okay ones, but nothing that’s struck me as bad, or woefully misguided. And given that I have no idea home much longer I’m going to have Fringe in my life, I prefer to appreciate it while it’s still around. I remain of the opinion that it’s one of the best shows of its type in recent TV history.
Which isn’t to say that I’m going to rave uncritically about every episode from now on. Tonight’s “Forced Perspective,” for example, was merely fine: a solid case-of-the-week with ties to the main story primarily in the form of character development, not development of plot (or even theme). I didn’t think it was top-tier. The plot was a little too straightforward and the pace a little slow, with an unusual number of long silences. After the last two episodes, which barreled ahead recklessly and thrillingly—a lot like Lost at its most cliffhanger-y—this one was relatively quiet and measured.
But y’know, this is still the kind of show where a teenage girl draws a picture of a man getting impaled by an I-beam, minutes before that man actually dies, so… yeah, I’m good. Sick as it may be, I cackled with glee as that big hunk of metal came plummeting toward that poor dude’s chest. So very Fringe.
This week’s teenaged freak is named Emily Mallum (played by Alexis Raich). It turns out that Emily’s family knows about her “gift,” and have spent years moving from place to place, trying to keep her out of the hands of the authorities after a bad experience with Massive Dynamic when she was a girl. When Fringe Division comes calling, the Mallums initially deny they have a daughter, but Emily is so rattled by her latest vision—of a mass of corpses covered in rubble—that she seeks the Fringers out, and under Walter’s hypnotism Emily steps into her own mind, re-experiencing her apocalyptic vision as a frozen 3D model. The information she gathers is enough for the team to find and defuse a bomb before it goes off. For once, Emily’s vision doesn’t come true—which is something she gets to appreciate for just a couple of minutes before she begins bleeding from the eyes and nose, and dies.
The character development I referred to earlier has mainly to do with Olivia, and her reaction to the news she received from The Observer a few episodes back that she has to die, no matter how many different scenarios The Observer generates. Naturally, this dire prediction gives Olivia a vested interest in a case involving a precognitive—even if Emily ultimately doesn’t relate any Olivia-related visions to her. Still, Olivia listens carefully when Walter describes his and Bell’s theory that people who can sense the future are merely feeling the backward-traveling echoes of traumatic events. And later when Peter spots Observer in her case files, she listens carefully again when he describes how the Observers aren’t precogs or time-travelers, but instead exist in all time and thus have already experienced they events they foretell.
The question is, what does Olivia do with all this information? Accept her fate, or try to change it? It’s the same question that Emily has asked all her life, and that Peter asks about his situation, and that even the would-be bomber this week probably asked before he decided to load up his pick-up with explosives (which was meant to be his way of taking revenge on a justice system that denied him custody of his child). For Emily, her thought is that if the future victims she sketches knew what was coming, then “maybe they could say ‘I love you’ to someone, or do one good thing.” And after the case is over, Olivia follows Emily’s advice, and tells Nina Sharp that she’s been as good as a mother to her. Little does Olivia know that she’s saying this to the woman responsible for the splitting headaches she’s been having.
That’s also so very Fringe: a character like Olivia making a kind but misdirected gesture toward a villainess, while accepting that she may not be able to change her fate. Contrast that to Peter, always looking for the angle that will get him what he wants, and changing tactics on the fly—without panic—if he meets an obstacle. There’s something very sweet about Peter boosting Walter’s confidence by telling him that of course he can hypnotize Emily, because if one universe’s Walter can do it, they all should be able to. Not to go overboard in defending the recent direction of Fringe, but without the Amber Universe, we wouldn’t have had that touching moment between Peter and the Amber Walter, or that not-as-heartwarming-as-it-might-be moment between Amberlivia and her wicked mother-figure. These writers do love their ironies, thickened with a little heart.
- Thanks again to Zack for pitching in last week. For the record, I’d probably have given that episode a B+ too. Very enjoyable, I thought, with some good emotional beats, but a little too overstuffed to pay off fully. I would’ve loved a third episode “over there.” Anyway, it looks like next week we’ll be getting a visit from our Earth-2 friends, which should be fun. Seriously, if you’ve loved Fringe before, why wouldn’t you be excited about that? (Don’t answer that. I’ve promised not to squabble.)
- Walter gets so excited working on Peter’s case that he electrocutes himself three times, and can’t feel his urine response.
- Titles of the two books on Olivia’s coffee table: Rainforest. Horse. Put those two words together and you’ve got next year’s Oscar-winner.