This review contains spoilers.
5.2 In Absentia
I liked this episode much more than the season opener, if I’m honest. Partly because the story it told was a reasonably interesting one and also because it had the steel to confound viewer expectations.
Returning to Walter’s Harvard lab, the team discover the partly amber-encased remains of his work, and in the process develop a deeper understanding of how mankind has split into those who oppose the Observers and those who choose instead to comply with them. The inspiration for this, I’d suggest, was what happened in France after the German occupation in WWII, and some of that nation formed the resistance and others collaborated against their own countrymen. Given how they’d rolled up Europe, with the exception of a few countries, it wasn’t surprising that some felt going along with Hitler might be a good strategic plan, until five years later, when it became the worst choice possible.
In Fringe we’re given one of those abject lessons in how it’s easier to hate people you don’t actually know, and compassion, if occasionally misplaced, wins more hearts and minds than torture.
The unexpected star of In Absentia is therefore Eric Lange, who plays the lowly Loyalist Guard Gale Manfretti, captured when they reach the lab. He’s wonderful as the very small cog in a rather large machine that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Where the story really starts to bite is when we realise how far Etta is prepared to go for the resistance in respect of getting information out of Gael, something Olivia clearly isn’t prepared for. Odd that, because she’s crossed quite a few lines herself in the past(s).
In many respects, Olivia’s position in all this is rather like that taken by the captain of the Enterprise in numerous Trek stories across the various series. They turn up at a distant world to discover something barbaric going on, only to remind themselves that it’s not a cultural displacement program and the prime directive stops them interfering. Except, usually in Trek they either ignore that directive for some spurious reason, like they’re not so much prime directives as ‘guidelines’, or another subtle way of getting their message across to the aliens, like threatening to destroy their planet.
What’s critical in Fringe is that both sides present their position and what happens is a moment of very delayed mother/daughter teenage angst, if that makes any sense?
The mechanism for torturing Gael that Etta uses is a machine that ages him dramatically, and a very insidious means of persuasion it is. As a narrative string, the whole torture thing is a means to an end, i.e. getting the video camera that’s in amber to progress the story, but the various phases it goes through are another type of journey for the characters.
What I loved was how much of very obvious plot points were presented only to be complete red herrings. When Gael is first tortured, we’re told that him drinking water in the next three hours will be fatal, which most viewers would conclude is how he’ll ultimately die, but it wasn’t. And then we’re pretty much convinced that Walter is about to remove his eyeball, which is a slight on his character. And towards the end it looks implausible that Etta will let Gael go, but she does exactly that. So many shows these days introduce plot points like they’re in neon, and then follow them to a predictable conclusion, so it’s great to see a show that monkeys with that.
What was ultimately great about this was that it wasn’t the end of Gael’s story, but the beginning, and we’re most certainly going to see him again at some point.
In terms of them moving the bigger story arc on, there wasn’t that much development, unless you think that knowing they need to find a video tape with clues on it, like a giant Easter Egg hunt, is a breakthrough. Perhaps the greater message is the underlying one, that to win, what they really need to do is convince all the people left alive that they need to fight the Observers, and not go along with them? And, that the successful strategy isn’t actually a machine or temporal solution, but a change in thinking.
Next week Fringe finds a group of people trying desperately to hang on to what’s left of human culture. Until then.
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