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Recap: 'Fringe' - 'A Better Human Being'
A strong episode for Anna Torv, but one that also missed some big opportunities
Know what? I like me some Anna Torv. I don’t say it enough, so I’m probably overdue in saying it. But watching her play a cool, calm, suddenly whole Olivia Dunham reminded me just how much I’ve missed that character on my television screen this season. So, do you reward a show for giving you what you want, or curse it for making you wait so long for it? That’s the choice before me with “Fringe.”
In reading theories about what’s been going on this season on the show, I came across a variety of pretty out-there takes on what has transpired. I’ve only ever thought about it in a single way. That’s not to say that my take is remotely right, nor that all others are instantly wrong. But I’ve also not especially cared about my theory, since the root cause of my issues wouldn’t go away even if I was incorrect. Some theories have given me nosebleeds upon reading, because they possess a level of sophistication and creative imagination that is staggering yet completely impractical for a television show. Being “right” about a show is such a tiresome way to look at things that I try to do it as little as possible.
In my mind, we never left the two universes on display in the first two seasons. Rather than “Fringe” exponentially expanding the possible worlds at play, I simply assumed that Over Here (OH) and Over There (OT) had their histories rewritten with Peter Bishop removed from the equation. As such, no one physically went anywhere: they just had different ideas of how they got to the place they were when Peter disappeared. Peter eventually came back to the same two worlds that now had different post-1985 histories. “Fringe” spent a lot of time and energy convincing the character that he had to physically return to where he came from, but I never thought the audience was supposed to think anything other than what I just postulated.
But even if I’m wrong, little would retroactively change in my general dislike of this season. No matter what has transpired, I’ve watched a show that displayed theoretical versions of beloved characters. Having this Peter be THE Peter was a breath of fresh air, and a step in the right direction. And getting OH Olivia back into the fold is a great relief as well. But rather than look at “A Better Human Being” as a triumph of long-form storytelling, I look at it as a prime example of how planning for the long-term often impacts the short-term in a negative manner.
I praised “Welcome to Westfield” last week for being an effective hour of television unto itself. “A Better Human Being” functioned not as an episode but a placeholder until we get to what looks like some seriously awesome stuff next week. (Yes, I can dislike what’s going on and still be tantalized by what’s to come. Put the pitchforks down.) The best episodes of “Fringe” push the show’s story along via a case of the week that thematically links to a personal issue amongst the core characters. “A Better Human Being” paid lip service to this structure, but really failed to connect the hivemind-like nature of a set of artificially inseminated children and the newly whole Olivia Dunham. (In fact, as I’ll get into a little later, this episode would have been much stronger had the show just forgone a case altogether.)
Not having the two aspects of the show link up isn’t a crime. But it did make for a disjointed episode. Getting the OH Olivia back felt like such a huge moment in this season that any casework felt unnecessary at best, and distracting at worst. Far be it for me to tell the writers of the show how to organize an hour of their program, but Olivia’s “return,” if you will, felt like the perfect opportunity to take a character-based plot breather before getting to the juicy stuff next time around. There are multiple ways of advancing story, and some of them don’t require a “plot” per se in order to do so. With Olivia’s return, everything needed to stop and address this particular revelation and how it might affect everyone around them. Long-term televised narratives offer the chance to simply have characters interact without the need to actually do anything substantial. Then again, I’d call “finding out what the hell is going on with Olivia” fairly substantial.
“A Better Human Being” did this character work on a partial scale with Peter and Walter. This Walter still has a history to which I cannot relate, but his anger towards Peter for potentially activating Olivia’s empathy in order to absorb Peter’s memories of her still felt like something OH Walter would have done. The shame from trying to keep a version of Peter that didn’t belong to him works for both versions in an equal manner, so this was strong. For his part, Peter got to call upon memories that are shared with the audience: namely, his inability to recognize OT Fauxlivia during the ol’ switcheroo at the outset of Season 3. And every moment in which Olivia didn’t engage in histrionics over her newfound memories was refreshing and surprising. It’s a choice I didn’t expect from either show or actor, but still felt like the right decision when played out on screen.
What did not feel right was her continuing to work on the same case even after fully placing OH Olivia’s memories in the forefront of her cortexiphan-laced noggin. You could argue that her professional demeanor kept her working, but that’s the type of “realism” that I can do without in “Fringe.” In this, and all shows, I expect emotional clarity first and practical realism second. It never felt right that it was business as usual for everyone, as it would seem more likely that everything would have ground to a freakin’ halt. So, having Lincoln pursue leads with Walter while poor Astrid hung out with telepathically-troubled Sean all episode divided the team up at the precise moment they should have been closer than ever.
The split-up served story, not character, as “Fringe” needed to get certain characters into the deep bowels of Massive Dynamic in order to finally make progress on a plot that’s been in development all season. In testing Olivia’s brainwaves after the return of her OH self, Walter discovered recently administered doses of cortexiphan into her system. (Thus, Olivia being gassed and injected with needles that led to migraines.) Walter and Lincoln confronted Nina, who took them to the biometrically secured vault to show no samples have been missing. Walter drinks a sample (because let’s face it, in every possible reality, he drinks everything) and realizes the samples are fakes. Cut to a newly kidnapped Olivia, who sits in a cell with…the real Nina. Thus, the Nina all season has been a shapeshifter under the orders of David Robert Jones. So, Season 4 of “Fringe” takes its cues from Book 4 in J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series. It’s “Harry Potter And The Doomsday Machine of Fire”!
In other words, we’ve paid off a storyline in a reality that might eventually be erased. Olivia’s combination of the two memories suggests that the world perhaps won’t rewrite itself, although how that would work for people who died in the OH/OT worlds but are now alive is unclear. Even if people remember how things were, that’s still not how they are. People remember both sets of things that happened, but only one reality remains? Huh? Honestly, it does my head in to even think about, and it’s the type of issue that’s fun to talk about in your dorm room after a bagful of illegal substances, but simply clouds over what should be key in a television series. Talking about how things might be is interesting. Talking about how things actually are is perhaps less interesting but more vital.
“A Better Human Being” without any trace of the hive-mind narrative probably wouldn’t have been perfect, but it almost definitely would have been an improvement. Having a rip-roaring adventure in a town that’s threatening to disappear from existence can be a blast. But it can be equally thrilling to spend time with characters as they work through important moments in their lives. They don’t always need a wormhole in time to affect that. Sometimes, just being around each other at critical junctures in their lives can do the same thing. Tonight was just such a juncture. And yet “Fringe” ran through the intersection without so much as a pause, because it had story points that took precedent over character moments. This almost never happened before Peter stepped into the machine, but now it happens on an alarmingly regular basis.
What did you think of “A Better Human Being”? Coming around on this season of “Fringe,” much like Olivia is coming around to her old self? Did this simply augment your already positive take on the proceedings? Did the Nina reveal surprise you or just make your eyes roll? Sound off below!