TV Review: FRINGE 5.03 “The Recordist”

Fringe Division embarks on a hunt to change history.

This week’s solemn episode of Fringe, “The Recordist,” delivered on last week’s promise of a sci-fi scavenger hunt. After laser cutting through more amber in the Harvard lab, Walter and Astrid uncovered the first tape that would help lead the team to the plan to defeat The Observers.

Well, they didn’t exactly find the first tape; they found tape number three. Walter being Walter - the prescription pot-addled mad scientist we’ve come to know and love/fear – he hid the tapes out of sequence, which is going to make putting the plan together all the more difficult, strange and dangerous. So it sounds like we’re in for more classic Fringe this season. Who’s ready for some brain-rattling, post-apocalyptic adventure?

“The Recordist” wasn’t quite as suspenseful as the first two episodes of season five, but the hour was full of tense moments and a solid third act twist. This episode also reminded us that the members the original Fringe Division – Walter, Olivia, Peter and Astrid – have become heroes to some during their twenty plus-year absence.

Fringe Division’s cases and dealings with The Observers have become legend in the minds of those who have read or heard about them. The team has even inspired a hyper-indie comic book series, penned by a pre-teen fan, that’s good enough to please Peter, the show’s resident comic book nerd.

Being a huge fan of the show, it’s hard not to love the idea that these characters have finally become heroes in their own world. Fringe Division saved lives and did weird heroic things in secret for so long that it feels like they’ve earned a little recognition, gratitude and a few chapters in the history books (or “history cubes”). And Fringe is smart enough to give us this kind of stuff in small, satisfying doses while telling engrossing one-off stories that underscore the season’s major themes – loss, rebellion, inspiration, unity – and feed into the larger season arc.

One of the most exciting things about this final season is watching Fringe Division’s impact on the people they meet in the grey, Observer-scorched future. Last week’s episode, “In Absentia,” demonstrated how these characters are injecting humanity and hope back into an oppressed and divided populace. This week, the team inspired a timid historian to make history and become a hero.

Stargate Atlantis vet Paul McGillion guest starred as Edwin Massey, a man physically scarred by The Observer’s efforts to pollute the atmosphere. Edwin and his people, who all had bark-like bumps growing from their skin, hid in the Pennsylvania mountains recording humanity’s history in a neat future library where information is stored on cubes and can be viewed with a holographic program. It wasn’t exactly the holodeck, but it was still pretty cool.

Walter’s tape led Fringe Division to Massey’s village, which was near a dangerous mine that housed red-colored rocks that will help them defeat The Observers. Maybe. Walter’s recording indicated the rocks would be an important energy source for … something.

As Walter and crew worked on a plan to dig up the rocks, which were buried in the most dangerous part of the mine, a place that would kill anyone who entered, The Observers were closing in on their location. (Luckily, the baldies kinda took their time getting there.) Massey was uncomfortable with the idea of putting himself, his son and the rest of his friends in danger for a plan that wasn’t guaranteed to work. Peter was able to convince him that helping Fringe Division was important – like, saving the world important.

Massey’s arc proved powerful in this episode. McGillion, always one of the best players on Stargate Atlantis, was great here in selling Massey’s conflict and courage as he said goodbye to his son and sacrificed his life for the greater good. The scene in which he explained the complexities of bravery and cowardice to his son resonates much deeper upon second watch, when you know where the character is headed. Little River’s journal entry was a nice coda to Massey’s story and the rest of the episode: “The recorder of history made history.”

River wrote about his father, “He gave his life selflessly in pursuit of freedom and a better future.” We heard these words over the scene where Fringe Division was hotwiring a beat up old car and heading out onto the open road seconds before the episode ended. Olivia reached out to Etta, Walter put on his shades, and Peter sat in the driver’s seat looking pleased to have his family back together, even if they were together as fugitives.

Watching them fleeing past the rubble together, it was hard to shake the feeling that one of these heroes, maybe most of them, would have to give their life for freedom and a better future before the series comes to a close.

It’s uncertain if our Fringe Division team will come out of the other end of this adventure whole, but at least they’re promising to take us on one final thrilling and emotional ride this season.

Other thoughts:

- We got some flashback visuals to go with this week’s Peter-Olivia back-story session, which was nice. I’m of two minds on this development this season. I love the idea that there are new layers to Peter and Olivia’s relationship to discover and explore, but it also feels like we were cheated out of seeing all of this stuff actually happen because of the time jump.

- Speaking of Peter and Olivia, their scenes together in this ep felt more natural and honest than in the previous two episodes. The dialogue about their breakup wasn't as clunky here.

- Astrid remained back in the lab on Betamax duty. Here’s hoping she’ll join her friends in the field next week.

- Who was the man Walter was supposed to meet at the mine? The Observers dragged him away. Is he still out there?

- This episode inspired me to start reading those Fringe comic books I’ve been hearing good things about.