A funny thing happened on the way to the “Fringe” forum: the show turned in one of its strongest episodes in recent memory.
 
Last week, I worried about the way the show was exchanging its internal focus for an external one. “Fight The Future” just doesn’t have quite the same personal ring as “Fight For Loved Ones”, which was the show’s previous standard MO. But if last week’s premiere saw our heroes lost in the shuffle of a new world order and an avalanche of exposition, “In Absentia” brought things down to a far more human-scaled affair. When “Fringe” gets small, the rewards are often big.
 
By “going small”, I mean “Fringe” made an overt attempt this week to focus on its central characters rather than grand ideas. Certainly the two should work in concert with one another. But whereas Olivia, Astrid, Etta, and The Bishop Boys felt like cogs in a machine last week, here they stood firmly in the foreground. It helped that the episode had a solid structure in place for these characters to flourish. (It probably also helped that the show’s tiny budget forced them to make a semi-bottle episode this time around.) With Walter’s mind wiped at the hands of Windmark’s mental torture, he proposes returning to his old lab after Olivia mentions that Walter always kept meticulous notes on…well, everything. Unfortunately, Harvard University is now Observer-occupied territory. What ensues is an achingly simple yet very effective series of obstacles for our protagonists to overcome in the service of a clearly defined goal.
 
But we shouldn’t mistake “simplicity” for “artlessness”. Indeed, the uncomplicated structure of the episode provided a clarity to every action, and also allowed our gang to interact with loyalist guard Gayle Manfretti for an extended period of time. By removing the need to constantly explain overcomplicated plot mechanisms, the episode allowed space for us to finally let these characters reveal themselves through word and deed inside of 2036. Some have complained thus far about Georgina Haig’s performance as Etta, but that hasn’t bothered me to date. I seem to remember similar complaints leveled at Anna Torv at the show’s outset (including plenty from yours truly), and that seemed to work out OK for everyone involved. In both cases, the show made the conscious decision to present two women who, at the start of their journey on the show, wear poker faces out of self-preservation. Tonight, with the future world’s narrative pace finally slowed down, we got to see Etta’s mask come off for the first time.
 
Etta’s torture-prone side emerged while interrogating Gayle, and watching her use Observer-based tech to age him in order to get information was fairly harrowing. I’m not sure if it’s a “surprise” to see this side of Etta, in that we’ve only been around her for two episodes. But “In Absentia” did a good job of quickly sketching out how both the rebels and the loyalists each have had hands in contributing to their mutually assured destruction. The Observers’ divide-and-conquer strategy has worked more effectively than their brain-scrambling abilities, since it relied on humans doing most of the work for them. (Think of it as the wikification of world domination.) While the beats involved with Gayle trying to con Olivia felt familiar, the ultimate reason for his duplicity–straight up cowardice versus moustache-twirling, Ben Linus-esque* trickery–felt fresh, and also felt “right” within the world of 2036. Gayle isn’t a bad man. He’s not enamored of The Observers. He’s simply a coward that can reach into his deep pockets of self-preservation to tell people what they want to hear so he can live as long as possible. (He also wants to feed the few remaining birds in Boston, apparently.)
 
With all that said, the constraints of the 13-episode season were felt within Etta’s episode-long arc. I already bought her as a bad-ass. I could definitely buy her as someone with barely-contained rage that could be unleashed at any given moment. But I didn’t buy the speed with which both Peter and Olivia could temper that rage to the point where she ultimately let Gayle go after he helped them infiltrate Harvard’s science department. “Fringe” has demonstrated time and again over the course of its run that it’s capable of crafting carefully developed changes within its characters over the course of weeks, if not entire seasons. Do I buy that someone could look at Olivia and suddenly feel hope about the future of humanity? Absolutely. Olivia Dunham has been the key to humanity’s future from Day One in this show, and it’s fitting that her return to sentience signals a sea change in humanity’s favor. But do I buy that exposure to Olivia’s optimism over the course of a day (or two, in the case of Etta) could counteract 25 years of hell on earth? That’s a slightly tougher pill to swallow, especially when the show hasn’t has much time to really explore the implications of Peter and Olivia finding their formerly lost child.
 
That’s a complaint, but it’s a fairly minor one, since the arc of “Fringe” always bends towards optimism. We saw it at the end of last week, in which Walter noticed a dandelion growing from a crack in the street. The transformation of Etta and Gayle from de facto enemies into mutual citizens of the human race is another such example of hope taking root amidst scorched earth. Having Etta as a wild-card anti-hero would have been a temporary measure even if the show had decided to go down that route, to be sure. But what makes post-apocalyptic fiction so potent lies in the ease with which it demonstrates how people can revert to their basest instincts with shocking ease. Etta’s torture of Gayle is horrific, but we understand why she does it. Gayle’s decision to join The Observers comes from a place of weakness, but it’s all-too-relatable weakness. Genre fiction specializes in amping up moral quandaries through fantastical scenarios, and seeing such quandaries squashed within the course of an hour feels like a missed opportunity.
 
Instead of weeks of examining Etta’s moral compass, “Fringe” instead will present what appears to be a series of fetch quests for our protagonists in the form of a series of videotapes strewn throughout the city/county/country. Again, this is a simple construct around which to base a season, although the idea of a Season 5-long scavenger hunt feels less exciting than a self-contained mission over the course of an episode. But it’s all about the execution. To wit: the videogame “Shadow Of The Colossus” consists of nothing but a series of boss battles. It’s a simple premise, but unbelievably complex in execution. Each boss has its own rules, its own challenges, but also an increasingly complex emotional component to each stage. If “Fringe” can pull that off, then the “gotta collect ‘em all!” structure is just a framework by which to put our heroes through an ever-increasingly dire gauntlet. And if solidifying that structure in place allows each episode to have breathing room for its characters to grow, change, and ultimately heal, then it’s a fine way to finish out the show’s run.
 
Above all, it was the character work that sold this episode for me. For the first time in seemingly forever, “Fringe” didn’t worry about which version of which character from which timeline in which universe was in play. Every show has cracks in its narrative veneer, but the good shows plaster over those with strong character work to create stakes that make quibbling with inconsistencies a non-starter. Too often, later-season episodes of “Fringe” have gotten in their own way by having its characters serve the story rather than the other way around. “In Absentia” solved that problem by simply putting these people in a room, giving them a specific problem, and then seeing who would do what in order to solve it. Those choices in turn informed, complicated, and ultimately illuminated character. And those characters felt very much like the ones that made so many fans care about this show in the first place.
 
A few stray thoughts:
 
·      I’m curious what people think about the show slowly filling in the gaps concerning the day The Observes arrived on Earth in 2015. It’s clearly leading up to the question, “Who took Etta?”, but I wonder how many are trying to guess what happened and how many are annoyed by a perceived stalling tactic.
·      Stephen King fans probably squealed in delight at hearing Manfretti reference Observer “Number 19”. That number is paramount in King’s “The Dark Tower” series.
·      How long until someone notices Etta’s bullet?
·      Oh hi, Simon’s Head. You appear to animated in The Observer’s version of Massive Dynamic. That’s not creepy at all.
·      Speaking of Massive Dynamic: No Nina yet. And no Broyles. I’m getting a little antsy.
·      The color yellow seems to be a dominant visual theme this season, used sparingly in striking contrast with the cold, grey, ashen world. It seems to represent “hope”, but it could also represent “Coldplay is the resistance’s favorite band”.
·      Pre-mindwipe Walter would have just scooped Gayle’s eye out instead of using a pig instead, correct?
·      Speaking of Walter, I’d like a flashback to the time he drew that dragon in the steam tunnels. That must have been some awesome LSD he took that day.
·      Of COURSE Walter has the lights in his lab hooked up to a Clapper.
·      One last Walter note: As much fun as “Yahtzee!” was, “Criterion Collection, forgive me!” had to be the line of the episode.
·       “Angel” fans might have gotten some Season Four déjà vu from Gayle’s “no resistance would lead to a happier world” ethos.
 
What did you think of tonight’s episode? A step up from the premiere, or a step down? Does the prospect of season of videotape-collecting feel exciting or labored? And how did tonight’s episode affect your opinion of Etta? Sound off below!