Over the past week I’ve been thinking a lot about fictional dystopias—as depicted on TV in particular—and how hard it is to build one from scratch and make it compelling. I thought the recent V remake had its moments, and I’ve been enjoying some parts of Revolution, but there’s just so much groundwork that has to be laid with shows like these, from explaining the nature of the trouble that’s befallen the world to describing how the resistance has developed, that the characters and the story tend to get shortchanged. Fringe has the advantage of four seasons’ worth of character-development (or three, if you discount last year’s “reset”), and now has a task-based narrative structure to help shore up the story elements. Even still, I’ve been impressed with how easy it’s been to adjust to this future, and all its little quirks and nooks.
It wasn’t even that difficult in this week’s episode “The Recordist” to get used to a community of nebbishy treepeople with a weird bark-like growth all over their skin—perhaps because the treepeople have such an interesting purpose, and such a tragic dimension.
It’s one of Walter’s “how to beat The Observers” tapes that sends the Fringe Division (Resistance Subdivision) out to the wilds of Pennsylvania, where Past Walter may have left something vitally important to the cause, although the tape’s too garbled to confirm what may be there. So while Astrid works on ungarbling the old message, the Fringe team goes into the woods, where they meet these bark-faced technophiles, who’ve been busy for the past two decades documenting human history on little data cubes, so that someday when the story of the Observer Invasion is told, it won’t entirely be written by the winners. (Note the pessimistic inevitability embedded in these historians’ cause; like the Loyalist we met last week, they just assume defeat.)
Edwin Massey is the main “recordist,” who also explains to Walter that the reason for their skin condition is unknown, but that it affects everyone in their camp, and eventually spreads and kills the affected. But the recordists can’t leave, because they have a job to do. Walter, meanwhile, figures out that the source of the trouble is a kind of radiation, emanating from a mine that contains red rocks. Thanks to Astrid’s work on cleaning up the tape and Edwin’s extensive records, the team surmises that Past Walter was headed to that camp some 20-odd years ago to meet a man named Donald and to retrieve those rocks, which are a power source for whatever The Resistance needs to build to defeat The Observers. But before that could happen, Donald was taken by The Observers. (My guess is that we haven’t heard that name for the last time, especially since Walter says he doesn’t remember Donald. My other guess is that Donald may not have been waiting for Walter at all, but rather some other “scientist from Boston” … perhaps William Bell.)
Plotwise (and even thematically), “The Recordist” would’ve been a little livelier had Astrid discovered something on the tape that had seriously changed the mission: like if in one of the warped sections, Past Walter had said, “No matter what, stay away from the treepeople!” The biggest complication in this episode is that The Observers figure out roughly where the good guys are, though even then, a Resistance spy is able to tip off Etta that they’re running out time. So outside of cutting the Fringe-ers stay with the treepeople short and forcing them to mine those red rocks as quickly as possible, it’s not that big of an obstacle.
Well… not to the Fringe folks, anyway. It’s a problem for Edwin, who knows that he’s not going to be able to get the copper that Walter needs to make a safety suit for the mine excursion—and who also knows that his son River thinks he’s a coward for not being willing to risk anything to help Walter. So Edwin lies and sends Peter and Olivia on a wild goose chase, while he goes into the mine himself to get what Walter needs, and set a good example for his own son.
The conversation between Edwin and River about cowardice is corny, yet moving (especially in the way it all plays out, which I’ll get back to in a second). It was trumped though by the conversations between Peter and Olivia about their own history of “strength” and “weakness,” in regards to the time when Etta went missing. When Peter downs an apple pill and tries to reminisce about some awesome apple pie they ate together in Boston while on their Etta-hunt, Olivia changes the subject, because she finds the whole memory embarrassing. Etta and Peter admire Olivia for staying with Walter to fight The Observers, but Olivia admits to Peter that when Etta disappeared, she assumed it was a punishment for her feeling so conflicted for so long about becoming a mother; and adds that she found it much easier to to re-channel her energy to something else than to face finding the dead body of the little girl who changed her understanding of herself.
This is one of the reasons why this grimly futuristic version of Fringe is working so well: because it’s not just about the the big issues of what it means to be a hero, but also the small ones, like how best to document and remember that heroism. Edwin just compiles and cross-files all that he can, while his son River draws his own very cool-looking comics about the past adventures of Fringe Division, giving history a much more dynamic slant. Meanwhile, Peter and Etta remember Past Olivia as a brave woman fighting for a cause despite crippling grief; while Olivia remembers herself as cold and terrified.
I suspect parents may identify with what Edwin does (and what Olivia is saying) more than non-parents, and that may affect some opinions of this episode. Personally, I think “The Recordist” wasn’t as good as the last two weeks of Fringe episodes have been, because as I said, it’s straighter in its storytelling and pushes its emotional buttons too hard. But I’m not going to pretend I didn’t get choked up at the end, when River found the data-cube that his dead father left for him, full of family memories. I kept thinking back to what Edwin told his son about facing the fear of losing everything, and how River may think he understands it, but he can’t, really—not yet. “You don’t know,” Edwin says, speaking to how the meaning history changes as we change. “But you will one day.”
- Gotta love the look on Astrid’s face after she carefully removes one of Past Walter’s tapes from Amber and then Present Walter takes credit. (“I’ve only just liberated it!” he grins.)
- Also gotta love how Walter watches his past self eat licorice and smoke pot and then he wants to do likewise, digging into his old lab coat for where Past Walter left the candy and then lifting the cover off of Past Walter’s bong.
- The joke where Walter mishears Astrid saying “mine” as “mime” isn’t that funny, but there is a “Telephone Game” element to it that fits what this episode is partly about.
- Speaking of the usual roundabout way that Walter hears and understands things, we learn this week that he stashed Tape 3 of his master-plan at the lab, not Tape 1, and in Tape 3, he says that the explanation of how to use the power-source can be found in Tape 6. (Or maybe 7.) Peter, Olivia, Astrid and Etta are going to need some kind of Transilience Tape Unifier to keep all this straight.
- One thing I’ve always liked about the Fringe heroes: If they pull an ossified corpse out of a mine, they’re not alarmed. And if treepeople pull guns on them, Walter just shrugs and admits that his original theory about them was wrong. (“Definitely not dwarves.”)
- We’re off next week while Fox broadcasts baseball. See you again on the 26th for “The Bullet That Saved The World.”