There’s a great passage in the recent Chuck Klosterman book “Eating the Dinosaur” about the movie “Vertigo.” In arguing why the movie is so compelling to viewers, he states, "Some might argue that Novak becomes interesting because the watcher can project whatever he desires onto her form, but that's not really what happens; what happens is that she becomes interesting simply because it's interesting not to know things." The emphasis is his, and I think it applies to my reaction to tonight’s episode of “Fringe.” To think about “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” is to think about the ways in which the show can move forward, both in this season and beyond.

[Full recap of Friday's (April 15) "Fringe" after the break...]

FOX has teased tonight’s episode throughout the past week quite heavily, but I managed to stay away from all of the hype. Part of that was simply life being incredibly busy for me, but part of it also stemmed from consciously staying away from links, tweets, embedded clips, and the other assortment of promotional material that the network probably would have loved me to indulge in. But had I observed (as it were) any of those things, I probably wouldn’t have had the jaw-dropping moment tonight of seeing what I thought was going to be a mash-up of “The Matrix” and “Inception” suddenly turn into a land of Richard Linklater-esque rotoscoped animation.

It’s a moment, and creative choice, that I imagine will divide viewers of the show. Was it a clever way of telling story through a specific POV, or simply a stunt that detracted more than added to the search for Olivia’s consciousness? Here’s where the downside of Kloserman’s assumptions come into practical play: while not knowing a damn thing about this episode made me curious about what I wasn’t seeing, it now leaves me to come up with coherent thoughts in the immediate aftermath. In trying to decide on whether or not it worked as an artistic choice, it’s probably helpful to take a step back and look at what “Fringe” tries to accomplish as a whole and what certain shows in the medium are currently trying to attempt within its all-too-recently stringent parameters.

“Fringe” started off the way many shows on network television are “supposed to work”: there was talk of a Pattern, and something involving a bald dude who dug spicy foods, but by and large it was a procedural with crazy scientific experiments layered atop of it. And it was fine, but mundane. Some of the cases of the week ultimately weren’t any more outlandish or supernatural than a typical episode of “CSI.” But the show eventually got bolder with its storytelling choices, getting more expansive with the introduction of its parallel world storyline. While expanding, it also managed to sharpen its emotional focus around its core characters, tying them to the central mysteries in satisfying ways that made big ideas instictively relatable.

All good stuff, yes? But like some other like-minded television compatriots, “Fringe” decided not only to test the limits of how much continuity an audience could handle, but also test of the limits of what an episode of television can do. I am not as big a fan of “Community” as some of my HitFix brethren, but that doesn’t stop me from admiring the way they refuse to adhere to the supposedly rigid ways in which half-hour comedies are supposed to work. “Community” isn’t a half-hour comedy, it’s a half-hour program that is often quite funny but can also be serious while still be successful at producing a quality program. I could list a dozen other shows currently and consciously pushing the envelop of what a network wants or an audience expects within previously well-defined genres of television, but this a review of tonight’s “Fringe,” so let’s get back to its relation to those seeking to break ground.

The ways in which “Fringe” has sought to break ground lies more in its attitude than its execution, which could be why the animated sequences were interesting if not always dramatically compelling. The show works best when it treats the science as window dressing to some simple, emotional, often optimistic/romantic way in which people related to one another. Aside from the floating letters indicating locations (wholly absent this week, if I’m not mistaken), the show doesn’t often present its actions in a way that call attention to the artifice of producing an hour of fictional entertainment. That’s not to say that it isn’t shot and performed wonderfully, but it usually seeks to let the viewer get lost in its world rather than call attention to it.

That latter technique has a lot of benefits, but I’m not sure it suits the types of tales that “Fringe” wants to tell. As such, it was hard to figure how much I was enjoying the story within Olivia’s animated consciousness, and how much I was enjoying the visual bravado onscreen. They were compellingly drawn and often incredibly cinematic, and yet often took me out of the world I wanted to lose myself within. As unironically emotional as “Fringe” strives to be, I did enjoy the way in which Peter finally learned to recognize the “real” Olivia, as well as the way the device allowed Walter to make his peace with his absent-but-still-lingering partner, William. I just wonder how much the animation helped or hurt those particular moments.*

* And here’s the part where I state that my Klosterman-esque love of surprise means that I don’t know if there were practical reasons that Leonard Nimoy couldn’t perform for the cameras for any variety of reasons. And HERE’S where I say that things off-camera don’t ultimately matter, and all I can do is judge what was onscreen this week.

In terms of scope, it certainly offered the show a much wider palette than it ever could have afforded doing live-action. Watching Walter fall to his “death” from a zeppelin thanks to a murderous Mr. X might have been a budget buster in real life, and the way in which the camera itself seemed livelier, emboldened by the sense of play the world offered, certainly was a wonder to behold. But did it NEED to be there? Could a non-animated trip inside the world of Olivia’s mind have achieved the same emotional goals? I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer and criticize a show for taking such a storytelling risk, but I do think there’s a definite chance they could have kept everything live-action and managed to make it even more special by reducing the distance between the medium in which the story was being told and the story itself. I can easily see that the animation got in the way for some people, separating them from the “Fringe” that they love.

That’s not to say I really have a definitive opinion here at this moment in time one way or the other. (I have extremely strong opinions, just on both sides concurrently right now. Come to me in a week, and maybe I’ll have figured it out.) What I won’t need that much time to figure out is that while I liked the payoff of Peter’s earlier inability to realize Fauxlivia’s true identity, I’m not sure I bought the psychological reasoning behind Olivia’s dangerous mindworld. According to William, Olivia has never felt safe in her entire life, and therefore let her worst fears take over her the moment she slipped out of her own mind into the ether. That…doesn’t sound like the Olivia of the past three years in “Fringe.” She’s not perfect by any stretch, and has had her share of doubts. But insinuating that “fear” is her baseline response seems like a way to undercut the heroine of the show, and ended this mini-soul magnet arc on a slightly sour tone.

If this arc sought to put Olivia on the proper path forward, it also sought to assuage Walter’s season-long fears that without William he wouldn’t be able to avoid the seemingly inevitably apocalypse for one of the universes. While Walter’s constant crises of confidence have been annoying at worst, overly repetitive at best, at least the show aimed him towards a proper headspace just before the final crisis truly escalates. The same goes for Broyles, who finally confronted the site of his doppelganger’s dead body thanks to the mishandling of some LSD. “Fringe” has done slight better by Lance Reddick this year when compared with the first two seasons, but his performance tonight proves just how underused this actor truly is. Props as well to Jasika Nicole as well, who rarely gets that much one-on-one time with Reddick and took advantage of it tonight.

So we’re left with our three main characters in clearer headspaces than before we ever heard the fateful words “soul magnets.” Peter has a clarity through making up for the misrecognition earlier in the season with Fauxlivia. Walter has a clarity through realizing that his moral compass will guide him going forward, even in William’s absence. Olivia has a clarity that not only does she not fear what is to come, but also that she somehow knows the identity of the man who may kill her. I’m honestly not sure what to make of Mr. X at this point, since I think we have our freaking hands full with doomsday devices, The First People, Observers, and so forth. Maybe Mr. X is a way for the show to set up its fourth season arc a little early, laying in groundwork so it feels organic once the show pushes forward into next year. We’ll just have to way and see. Luckily, with three more episodes to go, and no more hiatuses in sight, we won’t have to wait much longer.

 

Random thoughts:

*** For an episode with serious, heady ideas, it also managed to be one of the funniest episodes of the show I can remember. Astrid calling Walter “Wally,” a tripping Peter confiding that he thinks Broyles is an Observer…just a lot of really good laughs that felt organic and helped to lighten what could have been a ponderous, slow episode.   

*** I damn near fell off my chair when Walter openly referred to Agent Scott. Just feels like one of those plots “Fringe” would rather forget about.

*** Anyone else waiting for William Bell to say the word “constant” at any point in referring to Olivia’s consciousness?

*** I honestly thought Peter was going to visit Rotoscoped Olivia in the tulip field. I still think that would have been a better choice, even if I understand the reasoning for what the show did choose.

*** Two words: ZOMBIE DOCTORS! I’m sure “The Walking Dead” fans that watch “Fringe” enjoyed that rooftop scene, complete with over-the-top kill via ventilation fan.

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did the animation help or hinder your enjoyment of it? Was Bell’s return a joy to watch, or just a distraction from the impending war between universes? What do you think of Mr. X’s introduction to the mythology? Sound off below!