“A dog does not smile.”-Captured Observer
Episodes like this are the reason television producers hate weekly reviewers like yours truly. All of the episodes this season are part of a larger arc and therefore must, by necessity, rely on the shows that come before and after each weekly installment. To be fair, bridge episodes can serve useful purposes, whether it’s a bit of character exploration during a break in the action or simply a pause that lets the creative team dictate the rhythm of the season. Sometimes they can transcend their purpose. The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, is the very definition of a bridge episode, and it is undeniably the best film in the Star Wars saga (yes, Return of the Jedi lovers, I’m trolling at you).
Sadly, this week’s Fringe is no Empire Strikes Back.
After Etta’s death last week, there was no way this was going to be a fun episode, but just because our main characters are grieving, that doesn’t mean that the episode has to be dull and lifeless. Showrunner J.H. Wyman wrote tonight’s outing, and the results are mixed. There is some interesting stuff going on between Peter and a captive Observer, but everything else feels like a backward step after the propulsive energy of last week’s episode.
The creative team is at least having some fun with the whole scavenger hunt motif as we start this week with an outright announcement that we’re taking a break from the hunt as the next tape is going to take some alternate methods in order to free it from the amber. Right there the audience is being told that this is a bridge episode. While I appreciate the narrative need to give our heroes a moment to collect themselves, as a viewer I found it frustrating and confusing.
The longer the show goes on, the more I get the feeling that the creative team’s first priority is to subvert the audience’s expectations of where the story is heading, regardless of the larger effects of that subversion. I do love a good twist, but it has to make sense not only intellectually, but at a gut level as well. M. Night Shyamalan has spent the last 13 years trying to recapture the magic of The Sixth Sense. All the ways and reasons that he has failed are fodder for a different article, but the basic issue for me was that The Sixth Sense was a thoroughly involving drama that just happened to have a twist ending while everything that came after it felt like twist endings with a whole movie written simply to precede it. As such, movies like The Village failed the gut check and the audience could see the strings of manipulation.
I’m not saying that Fringe has quite gone around that corner, but when normally hyper-emotional, willing-to-do-anything-to-succeed Olivia Dunham suddenly becomes mopey and emotionally paralyzed, I start looking for the strings. When “talk them off the ledge” Peter Bishop suddenly dives over that edge, I start looking for the strings. The character behavior doesn’t even jive with what we’ve been told about them so far this season (and once again the specter of unseen events looms over everything). We’ve had Peter and Olivia’s reactions to losing Etta as a child pretty much beaten into our collective brains at this point. To summarize, Olivia was so emotional and angry that she ran off to New York to fight while Peter withdrew and shut down emotionally, and the discrepancy between their reactions was the rift that ended their relationship. Fine. Then why were their reactions completely reversed this time around?
I’m all for character growth, but it has to be earned and it has to be organically related to what I’m experiencing on the screen. Too much of what’s going on with the characters this season seems arbitrary and, even worse, simply there to be shocking to the audience. Case in point, at episode’s end Peter has gone full Ahab, cutting a metal worm out of the Observer’s spine and inserting it into his own. Is anyone else starting to get a “Peter is the first Observer” vibe? We’ve been loosely told that the Observers are a future evolution of humans, but what if the only real difference between us and them is tech? If the creative team really does head down that road, it would be the biggest use of the Heinlein Bootstrap Paradox ever (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, Google is your friend) or at least since Somewhere in Time.
I couldn’t help but think that some of the writing this week addressed this issue head-on. When the Observer is chiding Peter for his failure to stop the shipment from coming through the wormhole, he makes a very specific point about humans being betrayed by their emotions. He talks about how people see what they want to see and how that colors both their expectations and then their reactions when something either does or does not meet their expectations. As a human, I can easily read that as being targeted toward web reviewers, but given the tone and events of the season so far, I think just about anyone would read it as a message to the audience; this is going to happen the way we want, not the way you want.
The bottom line is that from week to week Fringe continues to lose track of its emotional narrative. We only have a short time left with these characters so it’s frustrating when we can’t ever seem to maintain any emotional momentum as an audience. It’s interesting to note that these problems seem to be cropping up even as the show is delivering what is almost certainly its most straightforward plot arc ever. Back when there were two universes, multiple timelines and two or more versions of each character, somehow there was never any confusion about who our heroes were and why they reacted to events the way they did. Even if there were moments when we couldn’t follow the plot, we could always follow the people and that’s why most of us have stuck with the show as long as we have. Hopefully the remaining half of the final season won’t undo that trust.
Some closing thoughts:
-The largest homage this week was to Blade Runner, and more specifically the Voight-Kamff apparatus that was used to measure capillary response to try and detect who was a replicant. While the exact workings of the machine are not identical, the look (closeup of an eye) and feel (either/or interrogation questions) are pretty spot on. A bright spot for the episode.
-I don’t think I’ve ever brought up the They Live similarities with all the posters scattered around the city. While you don’t need special glasses to be able to see them on Fringe the reference seems apt just the same. The rebels’ reversal of the posters with Etta’s photo is a nice touch, but without a deeper emotional connection to the rebels and their cause, it unfortunately came across to me pretty much as it was presented: just a piece of propaganda.