A strong episode for Jasika Nicole, but she can't overcome the season's fundamental flaws
One of the fun parts about watching a long-running show on television is when a secondary, or even tertiary, character gets a chance to step into the foreground. As a “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” fan, I loved watching an episode centered around Xander or Willow. (Not Dawn though. Blergh.) So when I heard that tonight’s “Fringe
” episode, “Making Angels
,” would be Astrid-centric, I did a little Snoopy dance. Jasika Nicole has done a lot of great work in a rather thankless role, and I have been in a large chorus calling for her screen time for Astrid. As much as John Noble and Joshua Jackson get credit for their onscreen chemistry, the connection between Walter and Astrid has often been equally as wonderful.
But first things first: this was NOT an Astrid-centric episode. It featured a lot of Astrid, to be sure. And watching the two versions interact with each other and others inside of the laboratory was a delight. But Astrid didn’t particularly drive the episode in and of herself. Over There Astrid (OTA) came to visit Over Here Astrid (OHA) in order to deal with the grief over her father’s death. And honestly, had the episode been a bottle episode concerning that grief, it would have been a fairly spectacular hour of television. It would have had a built-in ceiling based around my misgivings around the season as a whole. But it would have been pretty great all the same. We’re three and a half seasons into “Fringe” at this point. That’s a ton of narrative time. We can devote forty or so minutes to delving into the mind(s) of OTA and OHA.
If only these meeting had occurred sooner. I don’t mean that simply because Nicole deserved to be front and center long before tonight. That’s certainly true. But like so many encounters this season, what unfolded lost power due to the conceit of this season’s re-imagined reality. Many of you are enjoying this season, and through reading your comments, I think I understand why. This season, you are watching different facets of characters we already knew. From those differences you have gleaned insight into these characters as a whole, which helps contextualize those with which we spent the first three seasons. If/when this reality ever resolves itself, either as a reboot, a perpetual continuation of this timeline, or some type of merge, then what we’ve learned will factor into whatever unfolds thereafter. That’s my understanding of the more positive viewpoint on this season, and if I’ve gotten that wrong, I apologize.
From that perspective, the final scene in which we realize OHA straight up lied to OTA would have had crushing power. I think it still was plenty strong, but it was strong in terms of the performances and the cumulative weight of a half season of a new world order. That’s not nothing, to be sure. But Lord almighty, how amazing it would be to get that first glimpse of OHA’s home life based on the single, continuous experience between we the audience and her as a character. Many of you feel that experience is continuous. I do not. And therein lies the crux of the difference in viewing experiences.
A lot of characters tonight look at life through the prism of math. Neil, our guardian angel serial killer, gets a piece of Observer tech at Reiden Lake that allows him to see all time as a single point. He’s Dr. Manhattan without that nice blue glow, unless you count the one inside his magic vial lost by September. He wants to save random people from their horrible fates through the more “genial” approach of applying a futuristic aerosol toxin that painlessly kills them. For her part, OTA also looks at the world through numbers and patterns, with which she related more much intimately than actual humans. For his, Peter Bishop sympathizes with those that see the world in this way, since he feels like he’s in one of an infinite number of universes at this point. I worry that in trying to attempt an emotional story this season, the “Fringe” showrunners instead got caught up in a type of narrative math as complex as that which intrigues Neil. When there are an infinite amount of character possibilities, how can you care about any one over another?
That conundrum lies at the heart of my emotional distance towards “Fringe” this season. To put this in terms related to the schism in the audience: do you want to experience this show, or do you want to solve it? I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer, but I certainly fall under the former category after spending far too long in the latter as a television viewer. To some, the characters onscreen this season contribute to the ones we spent time with over the first three years. But to me, they are simply variations on a theme, ones that no longer have intrinsic value since they are but a single iteration amongst billions upon billions of possibilities.
The smartest thing “Fringe” did in its early years was limit the scope of this brain-bending thought experiment. Instead of proposing there was a crisis on infinite earths (to invoke a certain comic book series), it gave us two universes that co-existed, one door between them, and then let slip the dogs of inter-dimensional war. Now? I can’t latch onto these people because they aren’t continuations so much as deviations. They bear resemblances to those we remember. But so would a thousand other versions of them as well. If I am thinking about all the others ways in which this could play out, I’m not watching the show in the present. I’m simply spooling it out along multiple paths in my head. There’s some fun to be had in that, but it’s not sustainable for me in the long run. If it were, I wouldn’t actually need television at all. Rather than watch what unfolds, I’d just look to a future that inevitably wouldn’t line up with what eventually unfolded onscreen. That dissonance might produce delight. But it more than likely would produce anger.
To really grasp the problem, one need only look at the “Previously On” segment for tonight’s episode. In some ways, it’s a minor quibble, as it’s not part of the episode per se. But the show cut together footage in a way that indicates they truly believe that events before Peter disappeared are concretely related to what happened after he did. And yes, on one level, that’s absolutely true, in that Peter’s disappearance caused the new timeline/reality. But it’s also completely disingenuous to show Olivia captured by Walternate in one timeline and insinuate that it’s related to what happened in this new timeline. They are two totally separate things. The show broke the connection between them with this season’s conceit. To link them together in this way is either really shoddy editing or betrays a core misunderstanding of what the hell has happened inside this show.
And this makes me extremely sad, because a Season 3 bottle episode consisting of Walter, OHA, OTA, and Fauxlivia messing around in the lab while others were off having adventures would have been A+ entertainment. Not only does the show have the right to take the foot off the narrative accelerator every once in a while, it’s probably in the best interest of “Fringe” to do so from time to time. Combining propulsive story with deep characterization should always be the goal, but it’s not always a mandate. Better to have characters we love hanging around for an hour than a bunch of things happening to people we don’t care about. I sort of love that Walter pricked up when OHA called him out for saying her name incorrectly. It’s an intriguing little character note (albeit for a character that’s vastly changed), one that suggests he is actually aware each time he says the wrong moniker. And sure, this Walter calling this Fauxlivia “Mata Hari” was plenty amusing. But he’s also calling her that based on events WE NEVER SAW. There’s no context for any of these character interactions. And therefore there’s almost no connection to any of them, either.
Thus lies the tragedy with that final Astrid scene. I love that OHA gave OTA peace of mind through the type of angelic action that Neil perceived himself to be performing. But since these two Astrids simply aren’t the ones that I fell in love with before Peter’s disappearance, tonight was tantamount to a short story in an anthology rather than a devastating chapter inside a novel. It’s part and parcel of the same self-inflicted wound this show gave itself at the end of Season 3. Even though there have certainly been strong aspects to this fourth season, it’s just not the same show anymore. And “Fringe” has no one to blame but itself for this.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did you enjoy A Tale of Two Astrids? Did Neil’s storyline compel or bore you? Do The Observers still intrigue or are they too vague to merit consideration? Sound off below!
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