TV Review: FRINGE 5.02 “In Absentia”

 Fringe Division learns how cold the world has become in a solid, emotional episode.

Freedom, due process and free will. These aren’t the only things humanity lost when The Observers invaded the planet. We can add compassion, community and hope to the list (plus an ample supply of walnuts, of course). The people who inhabit this grey future Earth are to be pitied, not only because they’re not free, but also because they’ve become hardened. Even Henrietta, Peter and Olivia’s daughter, has taken on an icy resolve in the face of such hostile oppression. That’s why it’s up to Fringe Division, perhaps the only people left with a glint of hope and heart, to save the world.

The second episode of Fringe’s final season, “In Absentia,” opened with another flashback Observer Doomsday, which was also the day Peter and Olivia lost Henrietta. But this time, we saw the chaos through Olivia’s eyes instead of Peter’s. Olivia awoke from the nightmare to see Peter standing in front of her and reminding her that the family was back together again. They had found Henrietta, and they were “OK.” But we know everything is pretty damn far from OK. Fringe Division is a team out of time – they’re stuck in a dystopia they couldn’t prevent from happening. And, as we learned in this emotional and delicate episode, the world has shaped their daughter into a cold and hardened soldier.

There’s an urgency to this season that we haven’t seen in season’s past. Season 5 is one long story, and the characters have one single goal - kick The Observers off the planet. But that doesn’t mean this season won’t offer the depths and layers we’ve come to expect from Fringe. Season 5 isn’t only about pumping our fists as our heroes act like badass insurgents, even though we’re getting plenty of that stuff. There’s also a huge emotional core to the story that was brought to light in this episode.

The show began to examine the emotional impact of the Observer invasion. The focus here was on Olivia and Etta. Olivia misses the pure and innocent little girl she feels she lost only months ago. The version of Etta she’s interacting with now is a stranger who was robbed of the chance to grow up with love, attention and affection. She tortures Loyalist soldiers for information and has no problem sending them to their deaths.

This is what’s become of the world – people don’t trust each other, and they’re willing to kill each other for pieces of information and to ensure their own safety. Peter and Olivia can’t relate to the world anymore, and they have no choice but to defer to Etta, who knows the rules of the world and who can keep them from getting killed. Still, it’s especially hard for Olivia to see what Etta has become, and she’s displeased that her daughter would torture a man in the next room without any hint of regret.

But while Walter and Fringe Division may be the only people on Earth who can stop The Observers, they also have the power to change the world in a more fundamental way – by injecting humanity and hope back into the populace.

We saw the huge impact Olivia had on Etta and the Loyalist guard at the end of the episode. Etta saw pity in her mother’s eyes, and she decided to let the guard live. The guard saw certainty in Olivia’s eyes, and for the first time he felt like humanity was supposed to beat The Observers. He was a coward and a liar, and it took the hope and certainty of someone from another time to make him believe in himself and in humanity again. That’s powerful stuff.

“You are humanity’s only hope.” That was Walter’s message to the people he hoped would one day discover his plan to defeat The Observers – the chosen few destined to save the world. In this episode, we learned that Fringe Division, not some group from the future, were the chosen few destined to save the world. I love that, with the time jump, these characters now have the power to save and to inspire the world. It feels earned and rewarding after four seasons of watching Fringe Division grow closer and stronger.

So what’s next? Apparently Walter hid the plan to defeat the baldies in a series of videotapes. Now the team has to locate each tape to patch the plan together. They’ll have to rely on Walter’s scrambled brain to lead them to the tapes, since the first tape they found in the lab didn’t seem to indicate where the next one would be. It looks like we’re in for several case-of-the-week type episodes this season, except this time the team will be hunting for Betamax tapes instead of solving the FBI’s weirder cases. I like the tact the show is taking this season, telling an urgent season-long story while also deepening the characters and delivering qualities of both episodic and serialized TV. Fringe is still Fringe, even if things seem wildly different this year.

Other Thoughts:

- Simon Foster was decapitated, brotha! But he still looked conscious, which was probably the creepiest thing we’ve seen on Fringe this season. It won’t be long until Etta tries to rescue him, or what’s left of him.

- Walter’s references to his college days made me hope we get to see Walter drop acid with Belly before the series ends.

- There was a lot of talk about eyes this week. And we even saw Walter play with a pig’s eye that helped Etta and Peter sneak into the science lab. But it was the emotion and resolve in Olivia’s eyes that made a huge impact here and changed the course of Etta and the guard’s lives.

- It was nice to see the gang back in the lab again. Maybe they'll de-amber the place and move back in when the fighting stops.