Fringe #5.2 “In Absentia” Recap & Review Fringe #5.2 “In Absentia” Recap & Review
Derek B. Gayle recaps and reviews the October 5 episode of Fringe. Fringe #5.2 “In Absentia” Recap & Review

The Fringe Team returns to the Harvard lab and faces some typical (but always interesting) moral dilemmas, in a very talky episode.

Recap:

Olivia dreams of the day the Observers arrived in 2015 from her perspective. In a flash of light, Olivia wakes up in a medical tent, and hears Peter searching for Etta, asking “Where have they taken the kids?”

Peter wakes up Olivia, distraught over that day, which for them were only a couple of months ago. She spots pictures of Etta, realizing she grew up with other friends and family. Meanwhile, Walter is trying to use the Thought Unifier, but all it’s doing is making him speak out of sequence and in other languages. Peter is worried that the device is hurting him, since there might not be any plans in his head to retrieve. Olivia suggests Walter may have documented the plan in the lab. However, Etta reveals that the Observers have taken over Harvard, making it impossible to get back to lab. Walter remembers that there are tunnels between places in Harvard and other areas, though, and the team locates them.

After racing through the steam tunnels, the team makes it to the lab, which is half covered in cobwebs and half encased in amber. Walter determines that he recorded the plans on video and subsequently ambered it in the lab. They spot a Loyalist walking past the lab, named Gael Manfretti, and capture him. They try to decide if they should leave or stay, or why a Loyalist would be walking through an abandoned lab. They also realize they need to build a laser to get the tape out of the amver, but they need power from the Science building in order to do it—though they don’t know what the Observers have done to it. Etta decides to interrogate Manfretti about the building, and uses a frightening device on him that destabilizes him at an atomic level and sucks out years of his life with each shock. Olivia walks in on Etta’s interrogation; Etta explains that it’s an Angel Device, and full charge steals about 25 years of life; he’d be disoriented to the point that he’d lose the will to lie. Etta tries to explain that Loyalists sell out their kind like rats, and this is a war that they’re losing.

Walter asks Etta for the silver chain of her necklace for solder, leaving the bullet she wears by itself. Olivia talks to Manfretti, and reveals she thinks he was there to feed the birds, not to patrol, citing that she noticed he carried breadcrumbs. Therefore, even if he’s missed, no one would look in there, meaning he should tell Etta what she wants to stop from getting worse. Manfretti knows he won’t survive and isn’t afraid to die, but he’ll only tell her what she needs to know if Olivia tells his son that he’s not coming home and loves him very much. Etta returns, but before she can continue the torture, Manfretti reveals how to get into the building using security codes, and rumors of the building being used for experiments. Part of his code is a number, but there’s ocular scanners at every point. Since they can’t bring Manfretti with him, they decide another way: to reconstruct it in a pig’s eye. Olivia also tells the others about the Angel device; Etta reveals its second-gen Observer tech that prepares Observers for time travel, and the Loyalists reconstructed it to use it against the Resistance.

Olivia talks with Manfretti again, and he tells her about how his other son was killed in the crossfire when the Resistance attacked the Observers. He believed fighting the Observers was hopeless, so being a Loyalist keeps him safe, and he doesn’t have to worry about his son. “The world would be a safer place if you just stopped trying to fight them,” he says.

Etta and Peter sneak into the Science building, and after a brief lie about changing a fuse, they make it in unscathed. They pass by the Observer experiments, and to her horror, Etta sees the head of Simon being used in an experiment, attached to wires but seemingly conscious. Peter stops her from attacking them in vengeance, and they move on and get the power started.

With the laser working, Astrid and Walter work to get the camera out of the amber. Peter tells Olivia about Simon, and she begins to notice even more how angry Etta is. Etta is taking Manfretti to the Resistance, where the Loyalists never come back from. Olivia tries to tell Etta about Manfretti’s son, but Etta knows the Loyalists are trained to lie, and he used Olivia after seeing the weakness in her eyes. Etta tries to convince Olivia that she doesn’t know her world, but Olivia hoped that she wasn’t hardened by what happened. Olivia isn’t concerned about what the Observes have brought, but was taken away.

Olivia tells Manfretti she’ll keep his word and find his son; Etta takes him away. She asks him again when they’re in a field if he has a so, but Manfretti reveals he was lying, and was hoped Olivia could convince Etta to release him. The reason he became a Loyalist was because he was simply a coward. Etta, however, decides not to kill him and tells him to leave. Manfretti now says he’ll fight with the Resistance; he saw a certainty in Olivia’s eyes that he’s never seen before, and felt for the first time that “we were supposed to win.” Etta reveals she saw something in her eyes, too—pity, for all of them.

The team retrieves the camera from the amber. They watch it, and discover that Walter documented the parts to the plan on separate videotapes and hid them in various places. Etta sends Olivia a message that she let Manfretti go.

Review:

The premiere started what looked to be relentless, non-stop barreling into the final episode, but with the second episode we’ve already slowed down substantially. It’s not bad to have a breather episode, and in fact it’d be expected if the first four or five were consistently intense. But then, this isn’t really a breather, since we do have a substantial amount of development and mythology expansion on both the character and plot ends. It just all happens kind of slowly.

That isn’t to say this is bad, though. Most of the lack of momentum is due to the long conversations with and about Manfretti. This setup—exploring the choices of what makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad—isn’t uncommon in science fiction, especially. Why would someone choose to side with the “bad guys”? The answer Fringe poses, of course, is that it’s not anything simple. The officer’s trying-too-hard-to-be-sympathetic story is untrue, we come to find, but it could be true for someone else. And even his own cowardice, while certainly not heroic, is understandable. He took the easy way out, but how many of us take an easy way out for things in our everyday lives all the time? Despite the generalizations Etta makes about “Loyalists” and the idea that they’re basically disposable, our potential Red-shirt-of-the-week is still a human himself. It’s still ambiguous whether or not he’ll truly join the resistance like he said, but the hope that he might is still enough to bring the world a step closer to winning the war.

And that’s really the core of the episode, just like in the premiere. Hope for things to turn out okay is exactly what the 2015 Fringe Team has that the 2036 world is missing. And it’s hope that gives them humanity, which in turn allows them to have faith in people, which in turn keeps that hope alive. Olivia isn’t just lamenting the apparent loss of humanity in this future because of her daughter, she’s lamenting it because it’s important.

It’s another step in tying the final season’s near-standalone plot to the rest of the show, thematically. The team might have had it rough throughout the show’s four years, but they came out on top because they didn’t fight dirty and looked for the best in people. Walter went from causing a war to saving the multiverse because he sacrificed his sanity for his humanity. The two alternate Fringe teams overcame their prejudices and saw the humanity in one another to save each other’s worlds. Even back in season one, Olivia, Peter, Nina and Broyles didn’t really accomplish much on any end until they grew to trust each other and work together. I doubt this means they’ll just give the Observers a hug and everything will be fine, but it does support the notion that the last step to defeating the Observers will be more character-based and emotional than just blowing them up or something. It’s a human story more than an invasion story.

All this also ties into what I wanted last week—fleshing out Etta. It only makes sense that her upbringing in the world would harden her up beyond her bright exterior. And, while it’s sad that we probably won’t see anymore Henry Ian Cusak thanks to his freakish bodylessness, this point was effective in pushing Etta even more over the edge. Haig almost seemed like a different person during her darker moments.

Eric Lange deserves some props for a very heavy guest role as Manfretti this week. Lange managed to carry a certain “average guy” quality without necessarily being boring. He does what he’s told (“I’ve never been anywhere I wasn’t supposed to be”) and follows orders, not because he’s evil or has any kind of tragic backstory, but because that’s just the safest thing to do. It was surprisingly easy to feel for the guy whose life has been shot past his prime and into old age (the makeup for which was very well-done, by the way.) But it also yielded a revelation in the character that could very well help the Resistance substantially, and played into the overall humanity theme of the episode.

Also worth noting is that Walter got lots of funny moments this week, thanks to his re-scrambled brain. It seems that it wasn’t just the plans that disappeared; he’s now back at the state he was between season 4 and “Letters of Transit.” He’s not terribly bad off, but he’s not as cunning as the repaired Walter was, and his memory loss stretches far beyond just the one plan. On the upside, this brings him back to the Walter we’ve grown to love throughout the show. But at the same time, it does feel like a bit of backtracking; “Letters of Transit” seemed to tease a potentially more sinister Walter that could have been interesting to see, and having Walter retracing on his own memories is something the show has toyed with a lot. But, coupled with the whole “find each tape” video game-type plot, it does provide a easy map for the season’s plot that leaves plenty of room for universe-expanding and character development. So while it’s not really the most original concept, it’s a smart move to simplify things to keep the show from being too overloaded by plot in its already mythology-heavy final arc.

This probably won’t be a very well-remembered episode of the show, ultimately. But its thematic relevance and development for Etta work well, and its ending jumpstarts the same-but-slightly-different goal for the season. It’s a solid outing with very few weaknesses, aside from perhaps being a bit too slow—but only a bit.

Some stray tidbits:

  • Dual-meaning episode titles like this are always favorites of mine. In this case, “In Absentia” refers to the humanity of Etta and her world being absent, which in turn happened in the absence of her parents.
  • It’s very Walter-like to place the key to saving the world on VHS tapes. VHS tapes in 2015.
  • I’m really surprised we didn’t see Gene the cow encased in that amber.
  • The fake-out over cutting out Manfretti’s eye was really well-done.
  • I’m also surprised that the Observers would let Loyalists have beards. Choosing your hairstyle on your head or face seems a little too “free-thinking.”
  • Fun Walter moments: His affection for laser disks, his clapper, noting that the Observers should be able to get rid of pigeons, and wondering when he switched to grape. Favorite quotes are below.
  • “Well that’s not a problem for someone who’s done acid.”
  • “Sometimes Belly and I would wear swimtrunks…speedos.”

Derek B. Gayle

Derek B. Gayle is a Virginia native with a BS in English, Journalism and Film from Randolph-Macon College. In addition to being an avid Power Rangers and genre TV fanatic, he also currently co-produces, writes and performs in local theatre, and critically reviews old kids' cartoons. You can check out his portfolio here.