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FRINGE Serves Up Moral Ambiguity


Episode 502 “In Absentia”


[Photos: Liane Hentscher/FOX]

Episode 2 begins again in the Boston park, living out that idyllic family scene just prior to the invasion, where I had personally hoped to spend more carefree time with the Bishop family. As soon as Olivia reaches the point in time in which she realizes her child is missing, she awakes, taking over last week’s dream sequence from Peter. She is sweating and trembling from the horror of having lost their child, and a concerned Peter in the present reassures her that while it feels like just a couple of months ago, all is okay.

Walter stubbornly attempts to reassemble the plan with the help of the thought unifier retrieved by Liv. Although it helps him recall lost language abilities in Portuguese and Swedish, progress with the plan itself is slow. Olivia points out that Walter was a prolific documenter of all his scientific endeavors, and wonders whether he might have left records of the plan in his old lab at Harvard. Etta is concerned with the inherent challenges, given that:  1) the entire lab was taken over by the Observers five years prior, 2) access is denied within a 4 mile radius, and 3) no one gets in without proper paperwork. Not to worry, insists the acid-loving, outside-the-box-thinking Dr. Bishop. Steam tunnels that heat the school buildings run beneath the campus, providing off-the-grid access to the old lab.

After gaining entrance into the lab with relative ease, the team sees that a portion of the lab has been ambered (which at this point, is pretty much a neon arrow). Looking more closely, Walter realizes that the point of origin of the amber blast is directly in front of a Betamax video camera, and he suggests that the hypothetical documentation is likely on the camera. Next step in the plan: a laser to extract the camera from the amber. Since no laser is handy, Walter will have to make one.

A further complication is that the ambering of the lab appears to have blown out power all the way back to the campus substation in the basement of the science building. What scary things might await them if they go there to re-establish power?

A Loyalist guard cluelessly waltzes into the lab, and the team quickly subdues him. Etta appears as menacing as a 90-pound, wide-eyed pretty blond can, as she initiates interrogation of the guard. She is intent on discovering what dangers might await them in the science building. She utilizes an Angel device, which apparently sucks years off your life; the guard is noticeably aged after the first few rounds of unanswered questions. Olivia walks in and is shaken by the interrogation that she witnesses. Her reaction instantly highlights the similarities between last week’s torturous interrogation by Captain Windmark and this week’s by Etta…sweet, blond, frail  Etta…et tu, Brute?  Etta explains that the device stirs up and destabilizes every atom in a body, and that a full charge will take away 25 to 30 years, but she assures her mother she’s not using a full charge. When Liv still appears shocked and awed, Etta bitterly positions, “It’s war, and we’re losing.”

Etta leaves Olivia briefly alone with the guard so she can check on the rest of the team. Olivia takes the opportunity to reach out to the guard, and he reveals that he knows he won’t survive the encounter. The two agree that he’ll provide the needed information if Olivia will tell the guard’s son not to hope for his father’s return. He provides a valid access code and additional warnings. First, the power grid is below the first floor of the building, an area he’s never personally visited. As far as what’s down there, all he knows are the rumors that it’s where they conduct experimentation, though of what sort is unclear. The final warning is that his access code is useless without a valid ocular scan. A clever scene follows, wherein both Etta and Walter appear intent upon extracting the guard’s eyeball. Although the guard has seen relatively little screen time, he has developed into a sympathetic character, and Walter’s request for a sharp scalpel and a long-handled stainless spoon are unsettling.

Fortunately, Walter replicates the guard’s iris pattern using some vague method involving a scalpel and pig eyeballs. Peter and Etta have been set up with Loyalist temporary facial tattoos thanks to Olivia, in another strong scene where both Anna Torv and the writers demonstrate that with dialogue, sometimes less is more. Etta thanks Olivia for respecting her experience and opinion, and Olivia simply smiles. I love that the show creators are comfortable letting their actors speak with their faces and strategic silence.

Olivia further sympathizes with the guard when he explains why he joined the Loyalists: his elder son had been killed in a Resistance explosion, and he simply wanted to keep his younger son safe. He wonders aloud why she is so intent on winning when it’s so hopeless, a continuation of the theme from last week. She states that it’s simply that they have to win, so that all people who’ve died, like the guard’s son, didn’t die for nothing.

Meanwhile, Etta and Peter work to gain entrance into the science building, and after several tense moments, they get below the first floor to the experimentation area. Etta sees an experimental monstrosity that has personal meaning to her, and she nearly derails. Peter manages to talk her down off the ledge, promising that there will be payback, reinforcing that he and Etta operate on emotion. The mission continues until the power to the lab is restored. Astrid and Walter get to work relieving the amber of its nasty case of video camera.

When Peter and Etta return to the lab, Etta is clearly shaken from what she saw in the medical science wing. Etta packs up the guard to take him to Resistance Headquarters. Olivia pleads for his release, using the strongest appeal she can: “I had hoped for you, that wherever you were, you weren’t hardened…”  Etta is firm: “This is the world, it is what it is.”  Resigned to his fate, the guard provides Olivia with his son’s address. Etta takes him to a field where he confesses he doesn’t actually have a son. So that begs the question: what the heck is going to happen to Olivia when she goes to 143 Dunstable St., #7?  Unless Etta can convince her otherwise, we know that Olivia will go there, simply because she operates on principles.

In any case, the guard admits he joined the Loyalists because he’s a coward, and Etta lets him go. He claims he’s going to go to work for the Resistance, because Olivia made him feel for the first time that we (i.e., non-Observers) are supposed to win. He asks why Etta’s letting him go: her mother’s pity, for them all. This brings to mind for me La Pieta, the famous Michelangelo statue of the Virgin Mary, mourning over the body of Christ. Is Olivia taking on Virgin Mary symbolism with her strong moral compass and compassion for her fellow man?

With the amber now cleared of its camera-itis, the team members at the lab watch a mildly damaged tape of Walter engaging in a rah-rah speech that seems to be filler. He admonishes the viewer to follow the tapes, but then provides no useful instruction on how one might engage in said adventure. That’s Walter, for you.

This week didn’t wrap up with any spoon-fed symbolic imagery of which I was aware, but if last week’s theme was hope, I believe that this week’s was the nature of humanity, specifically humaneness. How do you know what’s necessary in war, vs. what you do simply because you carry hatred and fear?  How do you keep yourself from becoming hard?  How do you live afterwards with the choices you make?  These are characters that humanity is leaning on for survival; is it okay if they take a few moral shortcuts for the greater good?  That there is moral ambiguity is the only part of it that’s clear, but I suspect that Fringe will serve up a few redemption chances for the characters by the time all is said and done.


[Official Show Site on FOX]

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