Awakened Olivia tries to make sense of a world (and daughter) gone scary-wrong during her amber-nap 'In Absentia'

By Jeff Jensen
October 06, 2012 at 02:45 PM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S5 E2
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“In Absentia” began by mirroring the opening sequence of last week’s premiere, with a dream-recollection of the day the world went cold, this time from Olivia’s point of view. Her daughter, Etta, was blowing dandelion seeds. The man she loved was basking in the sun. “I could stay here forever,” Peter said. Party pooper Olivia pulled away from her paperback and said no, they couldn’t. They had to go home.

Homecoming– the essential theme of “In Absentia,” expressed in various ways.

A skyscraper disintegrated, The Observers Invaders materialized, Etta disappeared. Observageddon 2015 – the apocalyptic 9/11 of the Fringe-verse. Olivia regained consciousness in the triage tent, ears ringing, straining to hear Peter. What the hell happened? Where were the children? Where was Etta –

Awake.

New York City, 2036. The morning after Olivia’s amber extraction. Former special agent Dunham was in Etta’s apartment, trembling from a memory of a moment that — from her perspective — had only happened months earlier, but historically occurred 21 years ago. Peter tried to soothe her: “She’s here. We’re here. We’re okay.” For those who live on the Fringe, just being alive to fight another day, for another day, was the very definition of “okay” being.

Oh, but everything wasn’t “okay.” S—t happened during Olivia’s epic amber nap. Things had changed, for the worse, and in response, people had changed, and not for the better. Case in point: Etta. Raised in dystopia; warped by the harshness Observer-ordered society; unshaped by her missing parents. Olivia would come to understand the woman her daughter had become. And what momma saw, momma did not like.

It was a bottle episode plot, a budget-season chamber drama – that chamber being the Fringe squad’s old HQ, Walter’s Harvard lab. They trekked there on a hunch that he had documented the Operation: Observer-Purge plan he cooked up with September back in 2015, the one that Windmark erased from his brain in the premiere. The Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11 was of no use, no matter how many times he crowned his noggin with the mechanical memory extractor. All that came out of him was expressive aphasia or Pentecostal xenoglossy – scrambled rambles about Macy’s sales and Christmas trees, strands of Swedish and Portuguese. Good thing Olivia was back in the fold, for she could remember what the brilliant but cracked scientist and no one else could – that Walter kept notes about everything. Maybe he left some in the lab. Maybe they were still there — provided the lab was still there, in the same condition as Walter left it 21 years earlier.

But getting into Harvard was going to be a challenge, and not in a 1600 SAT sort of way. Etta reported that about five years ago, for reasons unknown, The Invaders locked down the university, and were using it for… something. The bad baldies had set up a 4 mile “no-go zone” around the entire Longwood campus.

Bah! “That’s not a problem for someone who’s done acid!” Walter declared madly. He knew of “mysterious passageways”  – steam pipe tunnels. They found an entry point buried in an overgrown lot, just beyond the perimeter. Walter opened a Hatch. He beamed. “Yahtzee!”

The underground passages were unpatrolled, so they traversed them undetected. They followed graffiti markers – crimson fork-tongued dragons – that were most likely painted by Walter back in the day, when he and Belly roamed these tunnels in an altered state, their heads full of Moody Blues. “Acid” + “Dragon” = Acid Dragon, a French prog rock music mag. “Steam” + “Dragon” = Smoke Monster. Or Smaug. And then there is physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s “Great Smoky Dragon” — but more about him later.

Of course, a dragon marker is also a warning. HIC SVNT DRACONES. Here Be Dragons. Denoting dangerous, unexplored territories. Ominous. What awaited our heroes within the Terra Incognita of the Invader-occupied Science Building?  What secrets? What monsters?

They found Walter’s lab, unmolested, like a derelict Dharma Station waiting to be discovered. Half of it dirty with cobwebs and dust, the other half sealed in amber. Among the stuff trapped within: Sticks of alien licorice (“When did I switch to grape!?” Walter wondered) and a Betamax video recorder mounted on a tripod. Had Walter recorded the plan on tape? They needed to get it out to find out. (Was Gene frozen inside, too? I wondered…)

NEXT: Radzinsky in the house!

Would it be nitpicking to say that I thought it was all just a little too easy, a little too convenient? Why hadn’t The Invaders shut down the tunnels? Why weren’t The Loyalists policing them? Why was Walter’s lab not dismantled, the amber not thawed out, the tape not claimed and processed and destroyed? Why?

Or are these exactly the questions Fringe wants us be asking right now? Are Walter and his fellow Rip Van Winkles being put through the paces of a long con years in the making? Is it possible that the heroes are doing exactly what the bad guys want them to do?

And what was the deal with the odd moment with Etta in those sauna-steamy channels, when Walter beseeched his granddaughter to shed her leather jacket lest she get overheated? Everyone had loosed or lost some clothes to keep cool; why didn’t she? Was it a metaphor for Etta’s cold-bloodedness? Or might she be literally cold-blooded? Or maybe even… Observer-blooded? Later in the episode, we would see her lose her cool at the sight of a chalky conqueror making like Mengele and performing sick experiments on a man who was once her closest friend if not something more; I wonder if her fury was further enhanced because she could relate, because she had once been an Observer lab rat herself. Which would also mean that she has something in common with her Cortexiphan-juiced mom…

Questions, questions, so many questions…

As the team was cobbling together a makeshift laser to melt the amber to remove the recorder (“Criterion Collection, forgive me!” Walter begged the geek gods as he broke apart his Laserdisc player), a seemingly meek and mild-mannered Loyalist soldier named Gale Manfretti (Eric Lange, aka Lost’s Swan-building, suicidal Map maker Stuart Radzinsky) stumbled into the lab, the way “Henry Gale” accidentally “bumbled” into one of Rousseau’s nets long ago. He wasn’t on patrol – he was there to feed the roosting pigeons. His presence wasn’t all that remarkable at first, but thanks to Lange’s performance and some clever writing, the character became more interesting and intriguing and important the longer he lingered, and gave us much to ponder by the time he left. Was Manfretti truly as humble-pathetic as he seemed? Or was he a fork-tongued dragon in red-trimmed Loyalist sheep’s clothing? (BTW: Was “Gale Manfretti” an anagram for something? You can get the word FRINGE out of it. But the other stuff… dunno. And my Lost fixations aside, I’d like to think Gale was a nod to another certain sly and savvy sad-sack of recent cult pop lore: meth cook Gale Beotticher of Breaking Bad.)

He was also the means to fully expose Etta’s frigid-harsh interior and scary-ruthless ethos, to show how much dystopia had degraded her spiritually. The team needed to know how to restore power to the lab to get the laser to work. Etta wanted to know what exactly The Invaders were doing inside the Science Building. Manfretti had the answers, and Etta believed the only way to get one of these Others to spill the their secrets was to pull a Sayid and torture him until he lost the will to lie. She used a piece of second generation Observer tech – created by The Loyalists, actually — called an Angel Device. (Or was that “Aging Device”? Couldn’t tell.) Functionality: Like an atom-scrambling taser, it briefly destabilizes you into a blur, leaving you physically degraded, i.e. aged (gray hair and cataracts), when re-stabilized. Original purpose: To prepare the body for the bendy-stretchy rigors of time travel. When Olivia saw Etta executing her sci-fi waterboarding, she could barely suppress her appalling shock. My god, girl, that’s no way to treat another human being! I saw those pictures of that nice-looking foster family in your bathroom. Did they not raise you right? Also: Foster family? Who were those people? Observer-appointed guardians? Will we be meeting them this season? 

Etta: “He’s not worth a single tear. Loyalists sell out their own kind like rats. I know you just woke up, Mom, but look around you. Can’t you see what The Observers have brought? This is war. And we’re losing.”

It was clear Etta had already lost quite a bit.

NEXT: Gale’s security code, decoded.

Etta took a break and left Olivia alone with the prisoner. Olivia begged Gale to talk, so that he’d be spared more suffering. His exhausted eyes flashed with you-don’t-get-it-do-you? exasperation. He correctly surmised that she was new to The Resistance, and so he told her what she didn’t know: The rebels didn’t let those they deemed traitors walk away. It didn’t matter if he talked or not – Gale was certain he was a dead man. He proposed a deal: Intel for a favor. “Go and tell my son I am not coming home,” he said. “I don’t want him to keep looking for me. I’ve seen this too many times. People waiting for people to come home.” Olivia was moved. Had she also been played by a skilled manipulator? More on that in a minute.

Gale told them where they needed to go within the Science Building to activate the power. He gave them his security code: 010567. Decoded: January 1, 1967. The birthday of Fringe showrunner, J.H. Wyman, according to Wikipedia. (Interesting that the show’s chief storyteller – the man with the master plan; the creative mind charged with the task of crafting a satisfying conclusion for Fringe — would forge a link between himself and this character, a man who would leave us questioning his trustworthiness.) (Update at 9:53 PST: Thanks to Twitter follower @MattyWeaves, who pointed out to me that 1+5++6+7 = “Number 19,” aka Captain Windmark.) Gale also told them they would need “me” – or rather, one of his eyeballs, so they could beat the ocular scanner. “In Absentia” momentarily duped us into thinking that Walter had gouged Gale’s peepers. No: He performed optical plastic surgery on a pig’s eye to replicate Manfretti’s iris signature. (It was all knowingly wink-wink “in a pig’s eye” crazy.) Peter played Gale’s Loyalist part. Etta accompanied him for muscle/support, thanking mom for deferring to her experience and letting her play the role she’d usually play. “I know you like to be in control,” Etta said. “So do I.”

Peter and Etta infiltrated the Invader-controlled secret sections of the Science Building. They got eyeballed, but got no grief. (Good thing that Observer at the elevator didn’t scan their thoughts — unless he couldn’t. If Etta is transhuman, either via Cortexiphan genes inherited from her mom or Invader experimentation, perhaps she has the ability to jam psychic surveillance? Update at 3:13 PM: Thank you, readers, for reminding me that “Letters of Transit” established that The Observers are incapable of scanning Etta’s mind.) Etta saw a lobotomized woman sprawled on a table in one room. In another, a bowl full of brains. And in another: The decapitated head of her old partner and friend, Simon Foster (ciao, Desmond), wired with electrodes. He blinked at her, and Etta went ballistic. She pulled her gun and was about to blast open the door and go Dirty Henrietta on the mad scientists when her father stopped her. There will be time for vengeance later, Peter promised. They needed to stay on point and turn on the power.

Back in the lab, Olivia hung with Gale and asked him to answer a question: Why do people become Loyalists? “Pain,” he replied plainly. His origin story: The Resistance blew up a busload of Invaders outside his home. His oldest boy was caught in the blast and died. From that point forward, all Gale wanted was to keep the rest of his family safe. He sold out and signed up. “The world would be a much safer place,” Gale argued, “if you just stopped tying to fight them.” Kudos to Fringe for casting Lange, because as much as I didn’t want to agree with Gale, I understood him, empathized with him. And so did Olivia…

NEXT: When I was a kid, “Nights In White Satin” scared me. You?

The lights came on. Walter’s record player crackled to life with classic prog rock – “Nights In White Satin” by The Moody Blues. Walter and Astrid got gleefully busy with the laser. Peter and Etta returned from their successful mission, and she beelined for Gale. She cuffed him, prepped him for transport to The Resistance. Olivia appealed for mercy. Etta mocked her compassion – and her gullibility. Gale was a trained liar, she argued. He didn’t have a son. He made up the whole story to push Olivia’s buttons – to bring about this very moment, in which she would plead on his behalf. “He saw in your eyes a weakness – that you could be manipulated,” Etta said. Let him go?! Pfff. “That ain’t going to happen, sweetheart!” she said sarcastically, sounding somewhat like her father.  Olivia screwed on her concerned-disappointed mom face. She said that after Etta disappeared, she hoped that whatever had happened to her, she wouldn’t become hardened by the experience. Oh, well.

“This is the world,” Etta said, her words oozing with ugly-chilling cynicism. “It is what it is.”

And in this way, the future darkens.

Etta once again left Olivia alone with Gale. Once again, Gale made a play his survival by offering proof of his sincerity. His address. “143 Dunstable Street, #7.” His son’s name. “Oscar.” He asked Olivia if she believed him. She said she did. Olivia didn’t have time in this episode to check out Gale’s story – but I suspect in an episode to come, she will.

Etta drove an unconscious Gale to a remote location. Not to Resistance HQ, as stated. A field. In the middle of nowhere. A Fringe-verse Miller’s Crossing or Pine Barrens. Gale woke up, saw Etta standing there, gun drawn. She called bulls—t on his story. “You don’t have a son, do you?” Gale said no, he didn’t. Gale said everything Etta suspected of him was true. He didn’t join the Loyalists because he wanted to protect his family. He joined because he was a coward. Or so he said.

Etta stared at him with those dead blue eyes….

And she let him go.

Gale was what-the-what? shocked. Mercy? From a hardened Elektra who had deemed his saggy Foggy Nelson ass unworthy of even a single tear? And I don’t even have to give you a blubbery “Look into your heart?” speech? (A Doc Jensen No-Prize if you grok my tortured reference. To everyone else: An apology.) It was too good to be true…

Why is why, when he began to walk away, I thought for sure that Etta was going to shoot him in the back. And you know what? I think Gale suddenly thought the same damn thing…

Which is why he hit the pause button on his hasty retreat, and turned back to Etta and declared – almost apropos of nothing; gilding a lily; possibly pushing his luck — that he was going to join The Resistance. Etta scowled. She told him that there was no reason to keep lying. He insisted he was being sincere. It was essential, he said, that she believe him. He was a Loyalist with active security clearance. He could be valuable to the rebellion, yes?  Etta couldn’t disagree.

“You said I saw something in her eyes, and you were right, “ Gale explained further. “It was a certainty – I don’t know how to explain it – except that I felt, for the first time, that we were supposed to win.”

Etta absorbed his words – and then Gale closed the deal.

“Why are you letting me go?’ he asked.

Etta replied that she had seen something in Olivia’s eyes, as well. Something healing. Something with light and heat; something that could make her complete. “Pity,” Etta said. “For all of us.”

In the scene that followed, we saw Olivia take a video call from her daughter. Etta wanted to show her mom that she had let Gale go. She wanted to tell her mom, “I’m on my way back” – and in more ways than one. The process of her rehumanization had begun. The lines were a little too on the nose, but the way the moment was staged saved it from being a groaner, because it preserved Gale Manfretti’s mystery of character. Did he truly come clean to Etta? Or did he work her, too – the final move in an expertly played manipulation of mother and daughter? If so, will this mercy come back to bite her in the butt — or worse? Methinks the answers will present themselves in an upcoming episode, when our heroes find reason to pay a visit to 143 Dunstable Street #7…

It’s like what the Moody Blues sang:

Cold hearted orb that rules the night/Removes the colours from our sight/Red is grey and yellow white/But we decide which is right/And which is an illusion…

Anyhoo…

We rang out with Walter, Peter, Olivia and Astrid watching the tape liberated from amber. It was an orientation film, starring Walter in a lab coat, circa 2015. (Or so we were made to think.) The message was meant for no one in particular, although my gut tells me it was meant for someone on the Fringe team. He explained that he was making this proverbial message in a bottle in case Operation: Observer-Purge – the salvation scheme cooked up with September – had gone bust. He said the plan could be salvaged – that it was the viewer’s “destiny” to salvage the plan. How? By finding more tapes! Apparently, Walter 2015 had recorded a series of videos, detailing his gambit. Collect, watch and win! Here, I groaned. Not at the premise. Believe me: I loooove mysterious orientation videos narrated by cryptic fringe-thinking physicists. But after a whole hour of smartly-mounted build-up, I wanted the video — this video — to be a little cooler than it was. I think I might have stopped the story right at the point where the team pressed PLAY, and opened next week’s episode with Walter’s message.

Regardless, a path was revealed: A scavenger hunt for Betamax tapes that will reveal the master plan that Walter forgot. I think this premise has much promise, as long as Wyman and company can keep the search compelling, as long as the tapes are cool rewards for both the characters and the audience. I continue to suspect our heroes are being pupeteered by a master manipulator, maybe benevolent, maybe malevolent. Captain Windmark. The as-yet-unseen leader of The Resistance. Even Walter himself. Which brings us back to John Archibald Wheeler’s ‘Great Smoky Dragon.’

“Great Smoky Dragon” was Wheeler’s phrase for a trippy concept in quantum physics that postulates that we live in a “participatory universe,” where consciousness creates reality, where we not only forge the future by our actions in the present, but we retroactively create the past, as well. (I think.) Wheeler had other terms for this nutty notion, too, including one with stronger Fringe resonance:

“Genesis by Observership.”

And remember: Genesis under Peter Gabriel started as a prog rock band, too. Or at least they became one with their second album, entitled… Trespass. Coincidence? In an episode all about trespassing and “In Your Eyes” romanticism and oblique prog rock references? I THINK NOT!

Okay, I’m not sure what I’m getting at, either. But a theory is forming in my mind. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I think it contains two elements: 1. Videotape Walter isn’t 2015 Walter, but a future Walter. 2. The fulfillment of Operation: Observer-Purge via the watching of these videotapes will save humanity’s future… and produce another reboot of the past, as well.

One last thought before I yield. About all the alleged Lost allusions in the episode: I doubt they were intentional. I want to be clear about that. That’s just me having fun. Blame the crazy way my (pig) eyes work. Last night on Twitter, I suggested that “In Absentia” was a subversive pitch for #AnotherWay to do the final season of Lost. The premise: After getting flung into the future from the Dharma days of the past, the castaways must scour The Island for more Dharma orientation videos in order to figure out what they need to do to banish The Smoke Monster, i.e. The Man In Black. In the process, these videos reveal all the answers to the all mysteries… albeit probably in a way that leaves us questioning the truth. Like I said: Just me having fun. And for the record: I liked the way Lost ended just fine.

Yielding now. Kinda long this week! Thanks for indulging the pop references and theories. Consider them proof that this episode did what it was supposed to do — engage my mind, stimulate my imagination. Looking forward to reading if it did the same for you.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and John Noble star in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama
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