TV

Recap: ‘FRINGE’ Delves Into What Makes Us Human ‘In Absentia’

©2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Liane Hentscher/FOX

After a blockbuster beginning suffused with emotion, action, and big ideas, “FRINGE” settled down a bit in week two, presenting a slower paced, more intimate look at the future of Earth. Oh, and in case it isn’t clear, that future is very bad indeed, as post-apocalyptic futures tend to be.

We kick off in 2015, when the Observers first invaded. Or do we? No, we don’t actually, as it turns out to be a dream Olivia is having, remembering the day when Etta was taken from her, and then moving beyond the scenes we’ve seen before, in last week’s episode. I’m curious here to see whether we’ll keep flashing back to the Observer invasion, seeing it happen from other perspectives. It’s a powerful scene, of course, that may lose impact with re-viewings. But right now, it gives emotional weight and stakes to everything happening in the “future” timeline right off.

Beyond that, though, there’s really one main track for the episode. With Walter’s brain fried again, the gang heads to Harvard to see if they can figure out what his plan was without the help of Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11. Turns out, they can, but there are a couple more steps to the process: Walter may have videotaped his plan in the abandoned basement of Harvard, but he ambered it first. That means the gang has to build a laser, and power it. All in the middle of The Observers’ science research hub.

Along the way, they capture a guard, and Etta tortures him by stealing years of his life, while Olivia appeals to his basic human decency. By the end of the episode, the video tape is retrieved, and Etta has released the prisoner as a sign that she hasn’t been ruined by the apocalyptic future. And though both of these threads were slow going, they were also excellently acted and solidly written in a series of scenes illuminating just how lost humanity has felt in the wake of The Observer invasion.

It’s funny to think about, actually, as there are plenty of movies and TV shows about alien invasions, but this is the first one I’ve seen that effectively deals with the ongoing human emotional cost of the fight. There’s “Falling Skies,” of course, but this plotline on “FRINGE” has nailed that feeling far more effectively: The Observers aren’t fighting, they’ve already won, and humanity has lost. There’s a resistance, but it’s pretty much hopeless, there’s no chance they’ll win.

This is a problem, actually, and it may continue to be a problem going forward: the behind-the-scenes FRINGE team has done such a bang-up job of making The Observers a credible threat, they now have to go to extraordinary lengths to make the in-the-show FRINGE team a credible threat right back. In this episode, that means the time traveling, all seeing Observers miss our heroes traipsing all over the place and rerouting power stations so they can use lasers right under their noses. Plus it’s been two decades, but they haven’t excavated and cleared out the lab of their number one enemy? Really?

This may, in fact, become an ongoing problem throughout the season, as we now know we’re on a video game style treasure hunt: Walter broke his Observer-destroying plan into several different videotapes, and scattered them around. This is pretty silly, of course, but also essentially Walter, and the precedent has been set by previous episodes: Walter likes setting up games like this. Just this one is a little more blatant than usual.

So as our FRINGE team travels around, how are they going to stay out of the Observers’ sight? It’s actually a new challenge for J.H. Wyman and company to handle, and I’m curious to see whether they nail it in the long run (I’ll give them an episode or two to figure it out, even though we’re in the end-game here). Because previously, FRINGE Division has very much been the people in power. They’ve been one step behind their enemies, sure, but they’ve always had the resources and man-power. They were the ones in charge.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and it’s taking a while for how that works to break in properly. Here’s hoping they turn from loafers to sandals soon, because we only have eleven episodes left. Also, here’s hoping I never make that metaphor again.

RANDOM NOTES:

– Just to expand a bit from what I said before, it wasn’t particularly subtle, but it was a really nice touch to show how the simple act of having her mother around again is changing Etta.

– It’s also really, really weird to have what amounts to Anna Torv’s stunt double hanging out on screen with her.

– Poor Desmond… I guess he’s not coming back any other times this season, unless The Observers can reattach human heads.

– What do you think, did the guard have a son, or not? Did it matter? Probably not, right?