After a strong second outing, this week’s “Fringe” faltered as it set out on the first of what promises to be several outings dedicated to the scavenger hunt established in “In Absentia”. Well, if all outings are as poorly executed as this one, I think we might be second-guessing the show’s decision to go down this route. It’s more likely that “The Recordist” will be an outlier rather than standard operating procedure over the final ten episodes of the series. But who knows? I didn’t expect last week to knock my socks off, and I didn’t expect this episode to bore me to near tears. Surprises are fun. Until they aren’t.
 
Tonight’s episode opens on Astrid lasering the wall of amber in Walter’s former laboratory. Inside they find the third of a still-unknown number of tapes, since Walter went so far as to leave the video evidence of his plan against The Observers out-of-sequence. The tape reveals coordinates in a wooded area of Northern Pennsylvania. What do our heroes have to do there? No one knows, but the Bishop Boys, Olivia, and Etta head out anyways and leave Astrid behind to slowly piece together the rest of the damaged message. Had the episode been stronger overall, I wouldn’t have constantly wondered, “Why didn’t they simply wait until they had the tape deciphered before leaving in the first place?” I understand that time is nominally of the essence, but it certainly seemed like the five of them had full run of the place without fear of Observer detection.
 
In any case, everyone arrives in Pennsylvania, where they meet a group of people, led by a man named Edwin Massey, who are off the grid and recording all of human history onto data cubes. Edwin and the rest of the group there have all developed a condition whereby parts of their flesh have transformed into hardened, bark-like material. A combination of The Observers’ corrosion of the atmosphere and a strange element emanating from a local mine have combined to poison the air they breathe. Our protagonists are infected upon arrival, but there’s little true danger, other than potentially having easily identifiable skin markings that would make them stand out in any crowd, unless they go down into the mine themselves. The closer one gets to the source, the more quickly that the toxin kills a human host. Unfortunately for our heroes, what they need is in that mine. Specifically, they need forty pounds of a particular type of quartz in order to power a machine that will defeat The Observers after they get tape six, I mean seven, and oh god I’m bored just typing this all out.
 
Fetch quests are a means to an end. Every show has something that arbitrarily pushes its characters from Point A to Point B, and how well that program disguises the marionette pulling the strings determines the strength of the show. It’s not like “Fringe”’s plots are any better or worse than they’ve always been. But the program isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be in tying those actions to strong characters and emotional beats that help drive those actions. In seasons past, the story between Edwin and his comic-book drawing, Fringe Division-worshipping son River would have formed a strong parallel to some relationship between our heroes while simultaneously serving as a nice, stand-alone arc within the hour. (Last season’s “And Those We Left Behind” was a master class in this type of structure.) But instead of honing in on that relationship, the show threw a whole slew of things at the wall to see what would stick. There’s evidence of solar panels and advanced technology, but little sense of how the society as a whole functions. Do they approve of Edwin’s “watch, don’t interfere” approach to cataloguing human history? Do they resent having to live in the woods, or are they anxious to conscript more into their fold? What is their relationship to a nearby village, which was suddenly introduced in the penultimate act in order to create a decision-making moment for Edwin? Most importantly, what is the history between Edwin and River?
 
The last question renders the other ones unimportant, if answered satisfactorily. But “Fringe” has been paying lip-service to the bonds between unusual parent/child relationships all season. The lack of scenes involving Edwin and River mirror the lack of strong scenes involving Etta and her parents in these first three weeks. Tonight features an exception that proves the rule: An excellent scene between Peter and Olivia alone together, one that answers nearly every question I had in the series premiere about their split. I didn’t question the generalities of a couple being split apart over the loss of a child when I watched “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11”. I did, however, question the specifics as it applied to this pair. And I questioned them not because I thought it was impossible, but because I didn’t have nearly enough information on which to judge the veracity of what was told onscreen. But tonight offered up information in spades, and it makes Olivia’s decision to abandon the search for Etta more understandable. With her own traumatic childhood, Olivia had feared the joy she found in her own daughter. She viewed Etta’s disappearance as karmic punishment for her indecisive approach to motherhood, and left out of self-preservation. That all makes perfect sense when explained in that way, and gives credence and clarity that the premiere simply didn’t.
 
So here’s what doesn’t make any sense at all, “Fringe” fans: Why don’t Peter and Olivia ask Etta what happened on Invasion Day?
 
I checked with a few “Fringe” fans before sitting down to this review, because I wanted to make sure I hadn’t seen this scene and simply forgotten. But the wall of “Missing Children” posters behind Peter’s shoulder in the diner not only evoked 9/11 imagery, but also hinted at some darker plan involving The Observers and abducted children. That’s probably a horribly incorrect theory, and to be honest, I’m out of the theory game when it comes to this show. But I went down that road in my mind because it seems really, really weird that neither parent has asks Etta what happened that day, or that Etta has not volunteered that information to them. It seems like a really crucial question, or, at the very least, a question one sane person would ask another. Why is no one bringing this up? I honestly don’t know.
 
What I do know is that it’s strange how little “Fringe” is willing to put its newly-reformed family into contact with one another. We get a lot of Olivia and Peter talking ABOUT their daughter, but precious few with them talking TO her. When Peter and Olivia wander off to what they think is a potentially dangerous village from which they might not return, they don’t even say goodbye to Etta, nevermind share an intimate moment. When the three of them ride off into the sunset with Walter at hour’s end, the camaraderie there doesn’t feel truly earned. If “Fringe” is trying to depict how awkward and unsure reunions such as Etta has just had with her parents might be, it’s not quite coming across onscreen at the present time. It’s quite possible that the question around Etta’s disappearance will get asked/answered at some point down the line. It’s also possible that said answer will alleviate my current complaints, much in the way that Olivia’s revelations tonight alleviated my concerns from the season premiere. But it’s one thing to say “answers will come”. It’s another to know when to deploy the propers answers at the proper time. This feels like a situation in which we’re past the point at which we could reasonable expect at least someone to raise the issue. (The only one this makes sense now is if September stepped in during that white flash and scrambled everyone’s mind to forget his involvement. Or something. Oops, there’s my nose bleeding again trying to figure this stuff out.)
 
A few more bullet points about tonight’s episode…
 
·      I’d love to see an episode based around the adventures depicted in River’s comic books. Animate them in the style of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” and you’ve got something special, I’d wager. Plus, River’s comic inspired my favorite line of the show, courtesy of Peter. After River calls them heroes, Peter replies, “Well, kid, you’re my hero. You’ve given me a nice, strong jawline.”
·      As much as no one talking about Etta’s invasion bugs me, it’s far better than a series of scenes in which characters vaguely allude to the event through a series of vague allusions and obtuse pronouns designed to disguise meaning. That’s the WORST. Show like “The Event” and “Flash Forward” specialized in such chicanery.
·      There are more rebel-sympathizing loyalists than we realize, as seen by the one who tipped off Etta’s rebel colleague tonight. How long until we learn Broyles is aiding those double agents?
·      As if you needed more reason to hate The Observers, I give you this data cube headline: “Thousands Of Libraries Burned To The Ground”. Boooooo!
·      In 2036, apples come in handy pill form.
·      “The Recordist” sounds like a TNT drama about a music producer who also solves crimes. Your job: Cast the lead in that show. Bonus points to those that can come up with a good case-of-the-week for that show.
 
What did you think of tonight’s episode? A strong follow-up to last week’s installment, or a disappointing foray into this season’s scavenger hunt? How are you feeling about the Peter/Olivia/Etta family triangle at this point? And will Astrid ever go on a mission this season? Sound off below!