Back before I started writing about television, I wrote about music. I didn’t do this in a professional capacity, but did it all the same. Chalk it up to a combination of artistic expression and complete lack of girlfriend. I won’t say that thiswriting was particularly good, but it was about something that mattered to me, and allowed me to get a lot of things off my chest that may have stayed dormant otherwise. Figuring out why “Blood on the Tracks” seemed to be an autobiography I happened not to personally write just seemed like a good way to spend a Wednesday night back then.
High in my CD rotation at the time, and still in high rotation in my iTunes collection, were the albums of Radiohead. I bring this up not because I’m not-so-subtly auditioning for a music column here on HitFix, but because Radiohead was on my mind a lot during tonight’s episode. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between one of my favorite bands and one of my favorite shows. Both started off fairly prosaically: I think “Creep” fairs far better in hindsight than The Pattern, but neither exactly set the world on fire. By their third album “OK Computer”, Radiohead was operating at peak creative efficiency, as was “Fringe” at the outside of the third season. As of tonight, I wonder if “Fringe” is in its “In Rainbows” phase.
Let me explain.
“OK Computer” was a concept album, an impossibly beautiful but at times impossibly dense record about the fears of the impending 21st century and what the world would be like in a post Y2K-age. It’s very easy to intuit how the album FEELS, but incredibly difficult to explain its MEANING in a simplified way. Radiohead went even deeper into the murky musical/lyrical waters with follow-up albums such as “Kid A” and “Amnesiac.” After that, “Hail to the Thief” marked a semi-return to somewhat earlier recordings until the band landed on “In Rainbows,” an album that has both sonic intimacy (far from the space-operatic grandeur of “Computer”) and, perhaps more startlingly, simple, direct lyrics. Not only does the listener have to intuit what Thom Yorke is singing about: he simply tells you. In a song like “Climbing Up the Walls,” Yorke wails through the muffled walls of an elevator sitting in the bottom of a dormant volcano. Flashforwa to “Faust Arp” and he’s right next to you, whispering in your ear. Same singer, totally different approach, totally different audience experience.
“Concentrate and Ask Again” feels like the “Fringe” equivalent of a “In Rainbows” B-side: it has the trademarks of what a “Fringe” episode should have, and has always had, but reduces them to terms so prosaic that analysis in some ways is impossible. It’s hard to review this episode so much as report on it. Everything you need to know about the plot, character motivations, and even overarching mythology was spelled out in simple, declarative sentences posing as dialogue. What I can’t decide in the immediate aftermath of the episode is the same thing I can’t decide about “In Rainbows”: I don’t know whether to applaud its direct approach or long for the obfuscated approach of times perhaps past.
It’s not like “Fringe” has been an impossible impenetrable conundrum in the way that a show like “Lost” or even to some extent “Battlestar: Galactica” was. When friends use to ask me about what those shows were about, they would leave horrifically confused while I was still in mid-explanation five minutes later. But “Fringe” only took seven words to explain: “Two worlds. One door. WHO YA GOT?” Simple. Direct. I loved it. Those seven words hint at tons of possibility while also giving a specific, easily understood hook to the show to draw in new viewers. That formation got complicated as we spent time Over There, mostly because the answer to the question in my formulation suddenly wasn’t so easy. But the question itself didn’t change: it simply shifted, with no mouthpiece necessary to manipulate mercury to do so.
After tonight, I have to reconfigure the equation, based on the information that part-time bowling alley employee, part-time author Sam Weiss gave to Nina Sharp at the end of the episode. The new configuration? “Two Olivias. One Peter. WHO’S HE GOT?” Still simple as a concept, although insanely more reductive through that change. The standard line about this season of the show (pushed by people including yours truly) is that “Fringe” has succeeded creatively because it let its freak flag fly. And any episode in which a chemical agent delivered by a Tim Burton Raggedy Ann doll melts the bones of its victims is pretty freaky, no doubt. But in making the show so clearly, literally, and unambiguously about a choice between which version of Olivia Dunham that Peter prefers, it risks losing the universe-expanding ideas in favor of a prism that might be more relatable to some viewers, but far less interesting to others as well.
That being said, I don’t want to simply slam the show for laying all of its cards on the table.* Given that Season 4 is anything but a definite thing at this point, the show could be laying elements on the table in anticipation of a run of episodes that will conclude not simply the season, but the series as well. And after countless hours spent wringing my hands over what felt like intentional stalling or misdirection over at “Lost,” it seems a bit hypocritical to deride a show for giving answers to central mysteries in a fairly timely manner. But there is “giving answers” and there is “holding the audience’s hand,” and “Fringe” has never been a show to truly do the latter. Yet, tonight, I felt like the show treated me like Olivia treated an increasingly ill Simon Phillips inside the art museum.
* There is of course the chance that Sam is lying to Nina, which renders all of this moot, but I won’t judge either the validity of that theory nor call such a blatant misdirection as “cheap” until we see how this all plays out.
It’s all about the way in which the show tows that line between “showing” and “telling” that will determine if this new revelation is successful or not. The nature/nurture element inherent in the two Olivias leads to some potentially interesting comparisons, to be sure. But the differences between the two become less interesting when Olivia CONSTANTLY and OVERTLY explains what they are. Not only is she imparting information that’s already been established on a textual and subtextual level, it simply weakens her character to go from the ass-kicking woman seen in Season 2 and the early part of Season 3 to be completely crippled by the fact that Peter might prefer a “better” version of herself. The old Olivia would have heeded Simon’s warning that, “No one should know what someone else is thinking.” But this version reads his short note detailing Peter’s feelings anyways.
This could of course be a simple detour on the road for Olivia, a necessary crisis of faith that most major characters need over the course of a show in order to stave off staleness. It’s not like her emotional responses are completely off-base: they are just leaving both Olivia and Anna Torv herself a little adrift here in the early goings of the Friday night installments of the show. It’s one thing for the show to have an emotional core: that’s always been one of my favorite aspects of the show, and one I would prefer to have accentuated over something like The Doomsday Device. But once you introduce a Doomsday Device into the equation, the answer to the mystery should probably be more than the title of a Beatles song. (“All You Need Is Love,” “She Loves You,” “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” could all apply.)
Or we could come full circle and take it back to Radiohead. Upon finding out he wasn’t from our world, back in the “OK Computer” days Peter turned into a bit of a “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” one “Let Down” by Walter and Olivia upon finding out he was just “The Tourist” in what he thought was his home. Fast forward to the “In Rainbows” time, in which Olivia, still reeling from her encounters with the “Bodysnatchers,” finds a “House of Cards” tumbling around her, while the show itself has striven to show a “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.” A sample lyric from that song: “Jigsaw falling into place/There is nothing to explain.” That’s somewhat my feeling on tonight’s episode, in which there’s little to explain or rather requires explanation. It’s not that the episode was necessarily executed poorly, just that everything executed was on a surface level. That which was introduced tonight was done so without any mystery left by hour’s end, and many things once in the shadows have now been brought conclusively to light.
The question in the end is this: does filling in the jigsaw puzzle this much take away from the mystery and excitement of not truly understanding the big picture? Does going from a semi-certain but still vague sense of overall momentum to fully explained statements of purpose enable the viewer to fully engage with future proceedings, or cause them to take a less active approach towards the show going forth? I am not comfortably answering these questions either way at this point, but these were questions that ran through my mind throughout this episode.
But enough about my mind: what about yours? Is it reeling after the revelations tonight, or left cold by the series of explanations laid out? Does Sam’s explanation of the Doomsday Device ring true, or sound false? What do you make of “Fringe” turning into “A Tale of Two Olivias”? Sound off below!
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