Power to the People

I’m afraid that I don’t have much nice to say about...

Fringe 5.03 The Recordist / Dark photo of John Noble as Walter standing in front of dangling chains

The episode was a letdown, overall — just sort-of meh, really, as opposed to spectacularly bad in ways that prompt their own kind of commentary. I can’t recall when (if ever) Fringe left me feeling that way before. Has it frustrated me? Yes. Has
it grossed me out? For sure. Has it turned in a lackluster installment that felt like the script needed, minimum, one more pass? Dunno ’bout that.

Which is a particular shame given how, per my choice of Beatles title for this post, “The Recordist” kicks off what appears to be the impetus for at least a good early-to-middle chunk of this final, 13-episode season.

Our furtive, fugitive, future-transplanted Fringe team of Walter Bishop, Peter
Bishop, and Olivia Dunham — all recently recovered from amber storage in the year 2036 but still looking like they did in 2015 — plus Peter & Olivia’s daughter Etta, now grown and herself a member of Fringe Division officially loyal to the world-conquering Observers-turned-Invaders, have traveled to northern Pennsylvania to search for a component that Walter needs to build a device that will save the planet from enslavement. (Whew.) Their partner Astrid Farnsworth has remained in Walter’s old Harvard lab to keep decoding the videotape that Walter made in 2015 yet of which he currently has no recollection.

The quartet stumbles upon a cloistered clan of historians, people who’ve grown bark
on their skins as a severe reaction to what turns out to be a substance present in a nearby mine, long hermitted away from the Invader-run society at large and dedicated to documenting what the world was/is like no matter how the Invaders might try, as the victors, to rewrite the books. I was struck early on by a couple of things: One is that if I were not using Beatles songs to subtitle these Fringe tracts and instead merely relying on general references as usual, I’d surely have chosen “Into the Woods”. Another is that this was totally a Star Trek episode, with the road-tripping, once-and-future Fringe Division four swapped in for the Enterprise away team — and reclusive, disfigured inhabitants of upstate-PA forestry swapped in for sheltered citizens of an outlying Federation colony — and noble sacrifice on the part of a widowed parent required to help our heroes save the planet swapped in for... well, that’s just flat-out Trek.

In an exchange more Lost than Star Trek or Fringe, but the kind that science fiction and indeed all drama is prone to clumsily display on occasion, Walter says to Edwin Massey — a, if not the, strangely preppy leader of the dryad people with insane underground technology — “You seem to know me, Edwin. Have we met here before?” and Edwin replies, “No. At least not in the way that you think.” The sole reason for such a cryptic response is to keep us at home guessing, simultaneously hinting strongly that there is indeed something to guess, but instead of time travel or a visit from
Walternate the answer is merely that Edwin, et al. have read about the Fringe Division team. So the more normal thing for Edwin to say would have been “No. I’ve read about you, though. Come with me.” Import and intrigue must be suggested, however, even if they will be dispelled in minutes. (Time travel can’t be ruled out entirely, of course. Maybe Walter hasn’t been there, but we never did uncover the identity of the mystery man who died in the shaft decades ago in any meaningful way, and the fact that we didn’t see his face, while only getting his first name, Donald, could well signify that
he’ll figure into things again in a manner that isn’t ready to be revealed yet.)

Some of the voiceover dialogue spoken during scene transitions felt a bit square and overly expository, as if it were added in postproduction to help things better cohere. The conflict between Peter and Olivia continued to feel forced to me, despite the end of their conversation back at the SUV working to perfection — Anna Torv continues to amaze with the nuance of her deadpan-surface line readings; moreover, if the wedge that we’re told Etta’s disappearance drove between them is allowed to be wrapped up by that scene then I’ll happily call it a draw and move on.

I will not excuse the show’s failure to have a single one of the revived characters, most especially her parents, quiz Etta on what happened to her in 2015, how she was raised, what led to her joining Fringe Division, how she can get away with being in Fringe Division as the child/grandchild of infamous anti-Observer freedom fighters, and what information she might have about the Invaders that could yet help them win out (even details that she wouldn’t think important). Olivia and Peter can’t not be burning to find out. Walter must have blurted out something inappropriately probing by now. Astrid has to be naturally curious as both an empathetic person and an FBI agent.

There were still things that I liked about the episode, so I’ll wrap up with those.

We had it made fairly clear that the Observers, as we viewers came to know them in seasons past through the interaction of the one called September with our heroes, are generally referred to as the Invaders now. That makes sense given how invasion and world domination are the contexts in which the general populace places them.

I loved Walter taking a bong hit in 2015 with his back to the screen as we watched the video being watched in the lab. While his delight at urination and passing gas aren’t as cute to me as the showrunners seem to think they should be, I’ve usually enjoyed his childlike glee at the thought of dropping acid, getting high, and/or drinking a strawberry milkshake although not sharing any of those habits myself. John Noble has such a way with delivering Walter’s lines that something like this episode’s testy “Why the hell would I want rocks?” is much funnier than it has a right to be.

The little grace note of Edwin’s son making his own Fringe Division comic books was also a fun touch, as was Peter’s remark, “Well, kid” — Joshua Jackson always sounds
as if he’s speaking dialogue from a 70-year-old movie — “You’re my hero. You drew me a nice, strong jaw line.”

Unlike the first two episodes of the season, 5.03 didn’t open with a dream flashback
to the day Etta went missing. I didn’t like or dislike this fact, actually, but found it interesting since that seemed to be potential theme or motif. I did enjoy the brief, hazily presented recall of the dinner at Donovan’s — as well as, for the bittersweet memories of talking Lost it brought, Peter’s line “Do you remember when we couldn’t find her that day you drew a plan on a napkin?” (You have to have been a participant in the analyses of that show over at Nikki Stafford’s blog or recall a particular Lost essay of my own to get why.)

Fringe is preempted next Friday night by Fox’s coverage of postseason baseball if an NLCS Game 5 is necessary and by The X Factor if not. I hope to see you back here in a fortnight to discuss what I hope even more is a better episode.

This episode’s glyphs spell out the word “anger”.

Previously: Mother / Next: You’re Gonna Lose That Girl

1 comment:

  1. Well, I kinda liked this episode because it was a Star Trek episode, but you're right that it felt a little off. I just look at this season as lagniappe, a little more time to spend with these great characters as a reward to the fans, that doesn't necessarily have to affect or even quite live up to the series as we knew it. Obviously, I don't want it to suck, either, and I would love to have previous motifs, characters, and plot points come roaring back in some kind of grand finale; we shall see.