Wednesday, 10 November 2010

'FRINGE' 3.5 - "Amber 31422"

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

It's remarkable. Fringe has found a formula so robust that, even when the episode's central storyline flops, there's so much enjoyment to be had in the subplots and themes that it barely matters. "Amber 31422" was interesting and certainly had its moments, but to be honest I found Olivia's (Anna Torv) storyline more engaging and relevant, although it was definitely worth exploring the alt-Earth's freaky amber resin...

This week, the Fringe Division investigated the unlawful retrieval of a man trapped inside a Brooklyn bank that's been quarantined in amber -- the resin this dimension use to plug occasional rips in the fabric of reality. It's a practice that often results in bystanders becoming trapped inside the quick-setting amber, which is deemed a necessary evil considering the alternative is the end of reality itself. However, in this episode Broyles (Lance Reddick) was told the awful truth by Walternate (John Noble), kept secret from the public to prevent disorder: those trapped inside resin aren't dead, they're in a state of suspended animation, and it's possible to revive them. This is a fact known by Matthew Rose (Aaron Ashmore), twin brother of Joshua Rose (Shawn Ashmore), a bank robber who got sealed in amber during a robbery, who now been retrieved and resuscitated after four years in stasis.

Olivia felt a (slightly tenuous) kinship with the Rose's, as she's an inter-dimensional twin whose life has perhaps been put on hold like Joshua's, still plagued by visions of Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) insisting she's the other universe's Olivia. So far, most of Fringe Division's investigations in the other dimension have been solved because of Olivia's unique perspectives, which bubble up from her subconscious, and that continued in this episode. Olivia was the one who suspected the Rose brothers have swapped lives and have deceived the authorities for years, as it was the innocent brother Mathew who was actually trapped in amber, with his criminal twin deciding to assume his own brother's life and plot a rescue attempt.

It was a little unusual to have an episode where the "villains" were entirely sympathetic and Fringe Division could be seen as the bad guys, but is that a theme of season 3? Remember "The Plateau" with the savant who could crunch probabilities? Similarly to this episode, Fringe Division are doing their utmost to catch criminals whose motivations and problems are actually very understandable, whereas our universe's Fringe Division primarily deal with crazy people endangering lives and the environment in the name of scientific progress. It'll be interesting to see if this theory holds true, of if it's just a fluke that the two most recent alt-Earth investigations have revolved around antagonists you feel strong empathy for.

The downside to " Amber 31422" was that the situation with the Rose twins wasn't as emotive as it was intended to be, perhaps because the storyline was rather confusing at times. Any story involving identical twins who swap lives is going to encounter problems trying to make the plot comprehensible, while still side footing the audience in a way that doesn't become frustrating. I'm not convinced Josh Singer and Ethan Gross quite managed to pull it off, as there were more than a few times when I struggled to remember which Rose brother is which, which one got trapped in the amber, and which one chose to sacrifice themselves in the climax. It's solvable when you stop to think it through, but in the heat of the moment the story suffered because it became a headache to keep track of things. But maybe other people found it easier to follow.

Anyway, the subplot for Olivia was definitely more fascinating and revealing, with Walter asking her to participate in experiments to replicate her doppelganger's ability to traverse dimensions with the power of her mind. Olivia was placed in an isolation tank and pumped full of psychotropic drugs, which succeeded in prompting a brief trip to a souvenir shop on "the other side". However, beginning to trust her gut (given physical form in her hallucinations of Peter), Olivia decides to keep a second successful trip a secret. It also amused me that the proof of a successful dimensional jump was seeing a postcard of the fallen Twin Towers, given this episode's strong twin theme. But how long can Olivia keep Walternate in the dark about her trips? Will she manage to stay rooted on the other side for longer, with practice? And now that Walternate's detected traces of the cortexiphan in Olivia's brain, will he be able to reproduce that drug himself?

Overall, "Amber 31422" was another good episode in a season that's been full of them so far, ever since it made the creative decision to be less open to newcomers and concentrate on the sci-fi its fans enjoy. The alt-universe has been a particularly surprising success, as I actually prefer some of the characters in that realm (especially alt-Broyles, Charlie and Lincoln), and my fear that season 3's odd-numbered episodes would become tedious hasn't come to pass. And it needs repeating somewhere: Anna Torv is so good now I could be convinced her own twin sister has taken over the role.

  • Joshua's negative matter ring was a fun callback to season 1's excellent "Safe", which revealed that Walter had created technology to allow things to pass through solid matter. That old episode also involved bank robberies.
  • I'm surprised the nightmarish reality behind the amber stasis wasn't pushed more in the episode. The "ambered" are basically stuck in a living hell, feeling their last emotion (which is most likely going to be fear and panic) indefinitely, aware of time passing. That's pretty awful. In fact, that's horrific. I hope this gets returned to.
  • A nitpick: is it likely that the alt-Earth would have the technology to create sentient bio-mechanical shapeshifters and amber resin that can put people into suspended animation, but still use pagers? All inventions follow a logical progression (you can't invent the car without first inventing the wheel, etc), and there are times when the plausibility of alt-Earth suffers when the writers add outmoded gadgetry into a world that's otherwise decades more advanced than us.
  • If you didn't already know, Shawn and Aaron Ashmore are genuine twin brothers and actors, meaning there was no need for camera trickery in this episode. Shawn is best-known for starring as Iceman in the X-Men movies, while Aaron plays Jimmy Olsen in Smallville.
  • Can't Walternate see for himself when Olivia vanishes to the other dimension? He has a camera pointed on her inside the isolation tank, so I'm not sure why she can deceive him by claiming she never went anywhere.
WRITERS: Josh Singer & Ethan Gross
DIRECTOR: David Straiton
TRANSMISSION: 9 November 2010, Sky1/HD, 10PM