Saturday, 6 October 2012

FRINGE, 5.2 – 'In Absentia'

Saturday, 6 October 2012

written by J.H Wyman & David Fury / directed by Jeannot Szwarc

A far stronger episode than last week's busy premiere, "In Absentia" had a much clearer focus and better characterisation. This season already feels like one big story split into hour-long chunks, which probably won't please fans that enjoyed the freak-of-the-week aspect of Fringe, but delight those who always enjoyed the show's on-going mythology. Unless the parts of the mythology you enjoyed had nothing to do with The Observers and a deep yearning to see them as Earth overlords in yet another sci-fi dystopia.

The story this week was very simple, but that wasn't too disappointing. The team had to gain access to Walter's (John Noble) lab at Harvard and retrieve a camcorder he's used to outline his plan to defeat The Observers before "ambering" the area, while restoring power to the lab by sending Peter (Joshua Jackson) undercover as a Loyalist—using information obtained from a captured guard called Manfraetti (Eric Lange), with a little help from a pig's eyeball.

While there was nothing very special about the plot this week, "In Absentia" became a notable instalment because it crystallized certain things about this future-world and how decades of oppression have changed people. In particular, Etta's cover girl looks hide a pragmatic and relatively heartless personality, as Olivia (Anna Torv) was shocked to discover her daughter's grown-up to become a ruthless torturer who doesn't easily trust people. The scene where Etta tortured Manfraetti for information using an "Angel device" that ages people to a certain death was a genuinely shocking exposure of that character's shaky morals. This being Fringe, a largely hopeful show, it was perhaps inevitable that Etta would eventually come around to Olivia's way of thinking—letting the captive Manfraeti go free once he became useless, and being rewarded with knowledge his talks with Olivia have inspired a desire to join the Resistance movement. It was also clever of the story to have Etta not look entirely stupid, as Manfraetti also admitted he was lying to Olivia about only joining the Loyalists to keep a non-existent family safe from harm.

Ultimately, "In Absentia" worked very well as a character study of Etta and the Loyalist mind-set. The rest was enjoyable but largely predictable (did anyone not think they'd succeed in every part of their mission?), although the moment when Etta saw her friend Simon's decapitated head attached to a machine by The Observers (still blinking) was one of Fringe's most unnerving scenes in quite some time. I think we need some more shocks like that to really sell how awful the world has become in Observer hands, but also some clarity about why The Observers are suddenly so evil. Their name itself denotes inaction and they're always been a benevolent if creepy presence on the show, so I hope we get some answers about why they chose to enslave humanity rather than co-exist with them. Are we only seeing the history-changing effects of a troublesome splinter faction?

This episode also set up what's likely to be a season-long concern, of the Fringe team having to find down more of Walter's videos explaining his forgotten plan about how to defeat The Observers. It's feels a little laborious to have everyone follow Walter's bread crumbs (coincidentally what Manfraetti brought with him to feed the pigeons?) around the city, so hopefully the plan will form by mid-season at the latest. Overall, I really enjoyed this episode—mainly for the excellent performance from Lange (who played Radzinsky on Lost), and it setup the general direction of the final season very well. I'm still not completely sold on this bizarre future being the best way to end Fringe (promoting The Observers from Where's Wally?-style easter eggs to all-powerful overlords), but we'll see how things develop.


  • The Angel device and its effects reminded me of similar contraptions in both The Princess Bride and the third series finale of Doctor Who.
  • Co-writer David Fury used to write for 24, and I'm guessing Jack Bauer would have just taken Manfraetti's eyeball out without bothering to duplicate it with a pig's.
5 October 2012 / Fox