Fringe: “The Plateau”
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Fringe: “The Plateau”

What is a Fringe Event? On Earth-2, the Fringe Division is a lot more sophisticated—working as they do in an open, glass-walled office with touch-screen desk computers, for example, rather than in a dark old lab with a cow—so unlike on Earth-1 where our Fringers visit freaky crime scenes and then send their findings up to Broyles to be filed under “P” for “Pattern” in some squeaky-drawered cabinet, the E2 Fringe team has isolated the properties that make a case one for their books. Properties like air quality. If the air quality’s good… must not be a Fringe Event.

So what is Fringe Division supposed to do with Milo Stanfield, a mentally handicapped man who’s been administered four doses of a smart-drug that’s enhanced his intellect to such a degree that he can predict human behavior down to its minutest movements? What do they do when Milo uses a ballpoint pen—an item that’s as much of a relic on Earth-2 as a manual typewriter would be here—to distract people, create disruptions, and ultimately cause the death of people who are trying to restore him to his original non-brilliant state? The air’s fine around Milo, so is this a proper Fringe case or not? Well, to quote the Ghost Peter who haunts Ourlivia’s subconscious throughout this episode: It’s “a matter of perception.”

I’m a cautious person when it comes to handing out top grades for the shows I like, but once “The Plateau” was over, my wife said, “That was awesome,” and the more I thought about it, the harder I found it to disagree. So I scrolled down to the bottom of my document and erased the “-” I’d reflexively appended to my “A.”  I can’t really find anything to complain about here. The direction was effectively moody and snappy, the performances were sharp, and the case was cool. Moreover, even though the plight of Milo Stanfield has naught to do with the clash of universes or the dual Olivias—at least in terms of advancing either of those plots—it has everything to do with the moral issues at play this season, and the idea that the lines dividing how two different items are classified can be awfully permeable.

Last week, for example, I suggested that the Earth-2 leaders might be baiting us—putting us in circumstances where we breach their world and give them an excuse to attack. And now this week we have Milo telling his sister Madeline that he’s calculated her every word and gesture and that “most of your actions are inaction.” And we have Milo creating circumstances in which people he wants dead get killed, even though he himself doesn’t do the killing. So is that murder? (And can a person be so smart that he’s practically magic?)

As always, I also enjoyed the little touches that reminded us that we’re not in our familiar world anymore. Like Olivia’s Earth-2 boyfriend being called away to help fight a smallpox outbreak in Texas, or the way Agent Lee’s charred skin begins to bubble and decay if he doesn’t get back in his special chamber within eight hours, or the way citizens have to “follow protocol” and carry special injections and handheld oxygen tanks just in case they stumble into a dangerously Fringe-y area. 

And I thought that director Brad Anderson did his usual exceptional job of giving the episode’s action sequences a real jolt. I love the scene where Milo escapes Olivia by jumping off a bridge right when a truck rolls by. I loved the way Anderson and the Fringe technical team visualized Milo’s predictive powers, by using split-screens to show all the branching possibilities. Specifically, there’s a very exciting scene late in “The Plateau” when Milo figures out the various ways that he can lure Agent Dunham into getting crushed by cinderblocks. I have to say, the shot of Olivia sliding on the ground as a stack of cinderblocks fall on her… very realistic.

And how does Olivia escape her fate? Inadvertently. When Olivia and Charlie find out where Milo is hiding out from his sister, they have a moment of philosophical debate. Given that Milo surely knows they’re coming, and has surely laid a trap for them, how can they avoid getting killed? If they zag instead of zigging, surely he’s predicted that zag already. So they consult with Astrid, their own high priestess of probability, but she can’t help them, because that kind of thing is incalculable. They decide to go after Milo anyway and see what happens, but when they run past an area in which oxygen is required, and rather than pulling out her tank, Olivia keeps running—something Milo couldn’t have predicted, because he had no way of knowing that she’d be from another Earth, and unfamiliar with the protocols. She avoids the blocks and nicks Milo. A nifty way out of an impossible trap.

While I was left with some questions at the end of “The Plateau,” they weren’t about how Olivia could have so many of Fauxlivia’s memories but not know the oxygen protocol. (I just assume that the process is going to be glitchy.) No, the reason I know “The Plateau” was a good episode was because it had me asking questions like, “If you destroy Milo’s intellect, is that tantamount to murder? If he tries to stop you, is it self-defense?”

As it happens, the whole Flowers For Algernon process proves irreversible with Milo. Instead of dumbing back down, his genius keeps accelerating, to the point where he can only converse with computers, and even the toy horse that his sister usually uses to snap him back to humanity fails to stir him. (I don’t know about you, but that just about broke my heart.) It’s almost as though Milo has traveled so far that he’s back where he started. He’s so smart that he’s effectively handicapped again. So tough to draw, these lines.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

-Two minutes into “The Plateau,” I thought to myself, “I bet Brad Anderson directed this.” I’m like the Milo Stanfield of predicting Fringe directors.

-Please give generously to Earth-2’s Aruba War vets.

-Another mildly geeky reference in the dialogue, as Charlie kids Lee about rediscovering “your Vulcan mind-meld” with Olivia. As with last week’s Star Wars ref, the Star Trek mention is mainstream enough that it’s not so extraordinary, but still… combined with the framed comic-book art in last season’s finale and a few other touches here and there, I really think we’re supposed to get the idea that geek culture in general is more mainstream over there.

-Charlie suspects that Olivia may be who she previously said she was: a doppelgänger from another universe. He tests her with an anecdote from their shared past, but when he gets the details wrong on purpose, she corrects him. Man those memory drugs are awfully potent.

-I like that Walternate suggests a sensory deprivation tank as a way for Brandon to ease people into the crossover process. “Sometimes simpler is better,” he says. Not only does that demonstrate a winning similarity between Walter and Walternate, it ties in with the theme of the episode. Simplicity, when carried out to its logical extreme, can be kind of complex.

Filed Under: TV, Fringe

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