The Matrix-ization of Fringe continues apace with the introduction this week of Jill Scott as Simone, a sort of “oracle,” who gets psychic flashes when she’s near Olivia. But Fringe uses Simone in its own Fringe-specific way, to contrast her way of seeing the future with the way that the Observer version of Peter predicts what’s going to happen. The title of this episode is “The Human Kind,” and that’s what Simone’s all about. She feels; she intuits. “The heart will make sense of what the mind cannot,” Simone tells Olivia. But Olivia’s not buying it. A half-decade of cracking Fringe Division cases has taught her that there’s an explanation for even the strangest phenomena, and that anyone who looks to “the heart” or “God” for that explanation is trying too hard to ascribe meaning that isn’t there. “It’s all just numbers,” Olivia tells Simone. And The Observers are “better at math.”
Science-fiction fans often get anxious when a story starts venturing too far into the realm of emotions and faith, and I can understand why. Writers love to play the “love” card, because it seems like an unbeatable trump—it can resolve dilemmas, and force deeper feelings into the plot. But audiences are more skeptical of it, for the same reasons. Imagine you’re playing poker and have a natural flush in your hand, only to get beat by an opponent who has a full house cobbled together from wild cards. That’s kind of what it’s like whenever you’re enjoying an intense, complicated narrative and suddenly all the complications are overcome because the hero just “believes” or “feels.”
There are ways to handle this kind of development adeptly though, and while the Fringe writers may ultimately end the series by going to this well once too often—and while certainly last season’s finale gives fans reasons to be wary in that regard—I have to say that the emotional payoff to “The Human Kind” works, and works splendidly. Maybe that’s because this whole last season has taken the “what it means to be human” theme that’s always been at the core of Fringe, and has elevated it to the surface, giving it some intellectual depth in the process. Our heroes are trying to save the future for mankind, which is only a meaningful goal if they have an understanding of what mankind is supposed to be. Is it to be like Walter, whose natural tendency is toward an all-consuming ambition? Or Peter, so driven to prove himself that he loses touch with why he’s doing it? Or Olivia, who’s trained her whole life to be hard, and is terrified that making too strong an emotional connection will weaken her? Let’s face it: This is a motley bunch, humanity-wise. So the fact that they’re trying so hard to get this right? It’s touching.
The other reason that “The Human Kind” is so successful is that each individual plot point and character beat that leads up to the big tearjerker finish is well-honed. Olivia meets Simone because one of Past Walter’s tapes sends her up to Fitchburg, to retrieve an electro-magnet that has been waiting for 21 years, since Simone was a girl, when an unnamed gray-haired man visited Simone’s mother. But Olivia is wary of Simone’s almost evangelical zeal about her arrival, and draws a gun on Simone, just in case she’s being set up by bounty hunters. So Simone frames Olivia’s situation well, telling her that she can leave and come back later with backup to get the truck, or she can show a little trust, like a human being.
As it happens, Olivia does encounter bounty hunters, but only after she leaves Simone’s junkyard—and only incidentally. A couple of highwaymen trap her, scan her, and discover what she’s worth to The Observers. And interestingly, the robbers end up losing their bounty because of their own lack of trust. While they’re busy arranging with The Observers to hand over Olivia at a “Truth Church”—a place where The Observer can’t read their minds—she’s MacGyvering her way out of her constraints, and setting a trap for her trappers, putting a couple of projectiles through their brains. (The nature of one of those projectiles is important; I’ll get back to that.)
Just like the contrast between Simone’s psychic abilities and Peteserver’s predictive acumen, “The Human Kind” contrasts Olivia’s scrappy adventure in Fitchburg and Peter’s more analytical action. (Relatively analytical; when Peter fights with Captain Windmark, and the two of them blink around each other while trading blows, it’s pretty damned exciting.) Peter is treating the movements of humans and Observers like one big physics problem, much the way that Milo Stanfield did in season three’s “The Plateau”—which probably not coincidentally was co-written by Alison Schapker, the scripter of tonight’s episode. The outcome of that problem, according to this new version of Peter, is that he will ultimately outguess and outmaneuver Captain Windmark, and get the baldy to a certain place at a certain time, so that Peter can snap the bastard’s neck, and thus complete the equation.
The problem, of course, is that Peter may soon be permanently Observered, based on what Walter has seen in his experiments with the Observer tech and a spare Porcupine Man brain. And since Walter needs Peter to keep him in touch with his humanity, and since Olivia needs Peter so that she’s not cold and ruthless all the time, they both try to convince him to abandon his plan of revenge, and see the larger picture of their mission. (It’s essentially what Peter once tried to explain to Etta, when she saw Simon’s head being experimented on in “In Absentia.”) The episode ends with Olivia coming up with the right combination of words—a mix of logic and emotion—to get Peter to cut the Observer tech out of his head. Yes, it’s a “love conquers all” hail mary. But “The Human Kind” has fought for it every minute, and ultimately earns it.
Besides, for those not so interested in the emotional content of the episode, there’s still a lot to contemplate in that other ever-present Fringe continuum, between the crazily scientific and the supernatural. Simone sees her abilities as a gift; Olivia sees them as an anomaly. But there’s a difference between Peteserver’s three-dimensional chess games, and the way that Past Walter continues to manipulate the events of the future through his videotapes, and the way that Etta provides Olivia with the bullet that she’s later going to need to kill one of her captors. Call it fate, call it luck, or call it good planning—really what’s going on here is that human beings are resourceful. We take our instincts, and what we have at hand, and all of our life experience and guesswork, and we improvise.
- I can’t see Jill Scott without remembering her debut album Who Is Jill Scott?, part of a neo-soul wave that was so strong and pervasive back in the early ‘00s that a music magazine once ran an article about the phenomenon headlined “Who’s Not Jill Scott?”
- 5:42 … “You Are Here.” Now, that was cool.