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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Fringe: “In Absentia”

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You want to know what happened “in absentia”—during the two decades that Etta Bishop wasn’t being raised by her mother and father? She became a real hard-case: the kind of soldier willing to zap a Loyalist and steal years of his life, just to get information that she needs. So what does that mean to Peter and Olivia? They’re not idiots. They understand that the world has changed, and that they’re fighting on the losing side of a war. And it’s not like they’ve had any qualms in the past about using desperate, even violent measures to complete a mission. But still… This is their little girl. And it’s natural parental instinct to say, “No, honey. We don’t hit people. That’s a time out.”

After a fairly action-packed season premiere, “In Absentia” comes across much softer—even though it does give a stronger indication of what the shape of this final season will be, as well as what it’s going to be about (beyond “saving the future”) But I still liked “In Absentia” quite a bit, because as with last week’s episode, it takes the time to consider how these characters that we’ve come to know are adapting to their new circumstances. For Peter and Olivia, it’s only been a couple of months since they watched their little girl play with dandelions in the park. But they do realize that they’re strangers in this strange land, so when they capture a security guard (played by Eric Lange) in their old Harvard lab, and Etta tortures the poor schlub to find out how they can get access to other parts of the facility, Olivia doesn’t scold her daughter—at least not openly. Etta can tell her mom disapproves though, and she gets defensive about it, schooling Olivia on how The Loyalists are traitors, liars and torturers themselves, and thus deserve whatever pain they get dealt by The Resistance.

And so the major tension in “In Absentia” is rooted in the contrast between Etta’s worldview—the perspective of a woman who’s been a frog in gradually warming water for most of her life—and Olivia’s tentative, “Are you sure, sweetie?” Because Olivia intuits that there might be more to this prisoner than just “Loyalist scum.” She figures that he might’ve come to Walter’s abandoned, ambered-up, partitioned-off lab just to feed the birds that fly in through the broken windows. And so she listens sympathetically as he tells the story of how he became a Loyalist, to keep his family safe after his son was killed by The Resistance. “The world would be a much safer place if you just stopped trying to fight them,” he says, in a moment that’s genuinely touching, and convincing—in keeping with the Fringe tradition of having bad guys who aren’t so bad, really. (Bonus points to Lange, who is just terrific here.)

Except that Etta’s right: This guy’s a liar. He has no family, and he’s just saying whatever he has to, to stay alive long enough to escape. But Olivia’s right too: The guard is a scared nobody, not a threat. When Etta heads off to deliver him to The Resistance, she changes her mind and lets him go, then sends a video-message to her mom that, “I’m on my way back”—a phrase with more than one meaning in this case. This appears to be what this last season is going to deal with: not just saving the world from The Observers, but what “saving” really means in this context. And if so, that’s apt. Fringe has always been a show that considers what makes us human, so it makes sense for its last arc to deal with humanity reasserting its proper self.

“In Absentia” comes up with a fine metaphor for this in Walter’s plan for sneaking Peter into a part of the building that controls the power to his lab: He uses fermented pig eyeballs to recreate the unique retinal pattern of the guard’s eyes, to fool the scanners. There’s a lot in this episode about looking people in the eye. Etta says that the guard looked Olivia in the eye and saw weakness, but the guard says that he actually saw certainty. And Etta looked in her mother’s eyes and saw pity. Walter and Peter, meanwhile, use eyes as a key, to get through doors to where they’re not supposed to be. If the good guys are going to prevail, their ability to see through someone else’s eyes may turn out to be crucial.

As for what may be the shape of this season, that becomes clear at the end of “In Absentia.” At the start of the episode, the team decides to see if Walter left any documentation of September’s plan back at the lab, which requires them to sneak into the now heavily fortified Harvard compound through the tunnels where the steam-pipes run. Then Fringe’s love of outmoded technology takes hold (lest anyone was worried that this show would lose its personality in this new dystopian story arc). It turns out that Walter did record himself, on a Betamax camera, which is now trapped in amber, and can only be cut out with the laser from Walter’s old laserdisc player. (“Criterion Collection, forgive me,” he mutters before smashing the box.) When they finally get the tape free and watch it, the team learns that Walter has hidden a series of horcrux… er, I mean, videotapes, and that they can figure out how to beat The Observers if they watch all the tapes. Sure, season five has one long story; but it looks like it will still have somewhat of a case-of-the-week structure, inasmuch as each episode might deal with tracking down and watching another of Walter’s tapes.


I’m very much on-board with this idea, not just because I like my serialized television to respect the episodic strengths of the television medium, but because the “scattered videotapes” is really just another version of the scrambled thoughts that Walter couldn’t retain for unification purposes last week. If the brain can’t hold onto what’s necessary, we have electronic media to store (and separate) our consciousness. The Observers have created a world defined by their propaganda poster “The Future In Order.” The Resistance, however, is going to have to take its cues from Walter, who understands that the way to beat the baldies is to embrace disorder.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • I noticed some of you in the comments last week rolling your eyes at the “Resistance is futile” line in the premiere, but to me that seemed like a conscious (and funny) homage to classic sci-fi. In fact, I’ve noticed a lot of that in these first two weeks. I thought I saw the robot dog from the original Battlestar Galactica in the very Blade Runner-ish black market in the last episode, and then this week’s “hatch” and “old videotapes” had a very Lost-y quality. But it’s all still very Fringe, too, what with Walter exclaiming “Yahtzee!” and talking about how he and Belly would wear Speedo swimtrunks in the steam tunnels when they got too hot. This show can definitely be derivative, but it’s usually consciously so, and rarely obscures its own personality.
  • Bad news, kids: Agent Simon Foster has been decapitated, as part of The Observers’ ongoing “experiments.” I know we were all hoping that Henry Ian Cusick would return to the show, but freedom has its costs. (Also, this is Fringe: Just because Agent Foster got his cut cut off doesn’t mean we’ll never see him again.)
  • Welcome to 2036! Where The Observers control everything except the pigeons.
  • When did Walter switch to grape?
  • This week on the Fringe jukebox: “Nights In White Satin,” from the aptly named Moody Blues album Days Of Future Passed.