The Fringe team finds new mysteries, strange rocks and bark-faced heroes in the Pennsylvania wilds in 'The Recordist'    

By Jeff Jensen
October 13, 2012 at 12:41 PM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox
S5 E3
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The Bark People of Northern Pennsylvania lived on the woodsy outskirts of Observer Nation, free and largely unknown to the world. They were guardians of a secret and sacred charge: The history of humanity, recorded on data cubes, stored in an electromagnetic vault. When Walter first saw one of these fringe folk – a child, who idolized the four fantastic Bishops as if they were rock star super-heroes – the scientist with the elastic intellect confused the boy for a “wicked tree dwarf.” Yet River’s kin were anything but small, in size or spirit. They stood for the little people who keep our cultural icons living large and producing inspiring lore, who will keep the memory of them and their work alive long past expiration or cancelation. “The Recordist” was a weird love letter to the true believers, the devout live watchers or the loyal next-day DVR viewers whose barky evangelism have kept the endangered fantasy of Fringe alive – the fans.

The journey to 41 degrees 20 minutes 2 seconds North and 79 degrees 12 minutes 32 seconds West began with an irony that only revealed itself in retrospect: With Walter crapping on the little person who so selflessly attended and tended to him.  Last week, the Fringe division squad learned that Walter had filmed himself on a series of videotapes explaining Operation: Observer Purge. Now, they had to find them. Scavenger Hunt! Fortunately, one of them was in the lab, encased in the amber mass. Astrid wielded the Laser(disc) Beam like a heavy metal guitarist strumming an axe. Walter watched and belittled her technique… then took all the credit for her success. So it goes with the little people.

Alas, the tape wasn’t the first in the sequence – it was the third. Still: It was a place to start. They watched Videotape Walter munch on grape licorice and fire up a bong …

WARP-STATIC-SCRAMBLE

Then stand in front of a marked-up chalkboard (the word “ENERGY SOURCE,” above a circular diagram) and explain that they had to travel to the aforementioned coordinates and find —

WARP-STATIC-SCRAMBLE

Eventually, they would learn that they were searching for mysterious red rocks, located in a mineshaft. When we got that revelation, my brain hyperlinked to the premiere, when Captain Windmark asked about “the stones” while interrogating Walter. “The Stones.” Walter getting stoned. Red rocks. This recurring motif can only mean that the last tape will be found… at a jam band concert in Colorado.

Or maybe… Eastern Canada? 

DID YOU NOTICE… That the latitude coordinates spoken by Videotape Walter were not the same latitude coordinates that Olivia repeated back to Etta. Walter said: “49 degrees, 20 minutes, 2 seconds North, 79 degrees, 12 minutes, 32 seconds West.” That’s a location in Western Quebec, i.e., Eastern Canada. (“I went beaver hunting in Eastern Canada in the ‘70s. Of course, in those days, ‘beaver hunting’ meant something else entirely.” Walter Bishop, “A Short Story About Love.”) But Olivia heard something different: “41 degrees, 20 minutes, 2 seconds.” (Etta: “Are you sure?” Peter: “She’s sure.”) The Bark People did indeed reside on the 41st parallel, which means Olivia got the right place, even though she heard Walter wrong. Weird. Intentional? And if so: What does this mean?

Crazy With The Research! 49th Parallel happens to be the Canadian title of a WWII-era propaganda movie that was released in the United States as… The Invaders. It stars Raymond Massey, and the name of “The Recordist” was… Edwin Massey.

QUIBBLE: Astrid – tasked with pulling more secrets from the tape — was left behind in the Harvard lab, i.e. in the bowels of the Observer-occupied Science Building. I dig the idea of our rebels heroes working right under The Invaders’ noses. It’s very Bane-in-The Dark Knight Rises. Still: Anyone else find this kinda hard to swallow?

To Pennsylvania, and The Bark People. Walter, Olivia, Peter and Etta met Edwin, the leader of this righteous colony. He inherited the responsibility of recording history from his grandfather, who started the mission long ago, when The Invaders made like fascist Fahrenheit 451 firemen and began burning libraries. Edwin also told the quartet that the Fringe team was regarded as heroes. He showed the team their press clippings — recaps of various episodes. “You have a healthy lore about you,” Edwin said. (I was disappointed by the lack of hyperlinks and pop culture references.)

And then there was the colorful fan fiction. Which is to say: Underground Comix! Hyperbolic wish-fulfillment extrapolations of their real-life adventures, entitled FRINGE DIVISION, written, penciled, inked and lettered by Edwin’s son, River. (A winky Firefly reference, perhaps?) (BTW: The “Loyalists” wear… brown coats. And Firefly loyalists are known as… Browncoats.) The cover of one comic featured an ominous gas mask. There was a page that featured Walter looking mad scientist glam, with rock star Flyshades and cybernetic gloves. River, trembling, asked his marvelous muses for their Hancocks. Peter ate it up, albeit humbly; he was touched. “You’re my hero,” said the younger Bishop. “You’ve given me a nice strong jaw line.”

Yet Olivia was troubled by River’s hero worship, just as she had been troubled earlier in the episode, when Etta told her that going on missions with her mom and dad and grandpa was something of a dream come true. Olivia was unnerved by her daughter’s adoration. “That’s a lot to live up to,” she said. Etta told her not to sweat it. After all: Mom had already surpassed expectations. Olivia gulped harder.

Later, in a quiet moment with Peter, Olivia articulated why she didn’t feel like a Hero Mom – or even much like a Mom. She recalled the early days of The Invasion, and how she slowly, surely gave up hope of ever finding abducted Etta alive. “I couldn’t put it into words then, but I felt responsible,” Olivia explained, adding that as much as she always wanted to be a mother, she was nagged by the constant doubt she wasn’t wired for it, that because she was a Cortexiphan-amped superwoman, she was “destined for something else.” Which only made her feel more guilty for feeling so conflicted about being a mom, especially to a girl as “incredible” as Etta. “So when we lost her,” Olivia said, “I felt like that was my punishment. My punishment for feeling too conflicted to appreciate her when we had her.” She refused to join Peter on a jaunt to a refugee camp in Maine to look for Etta — a flashpoint of tension in their marriage post-Observageddon — not because she believed she had an obligation to fight The Invaders or help Walter with his plan. It was because she didn’t want to behold the proof of the Karma she feared. “I just believed so strongly she was dead, and I didn’t want to see that,” said Olivia, spiraling into a self-loathing. “And you thought I went back because of my strength, and she said she admired me today…”

Peter listened to the woman he loved with eyes full of grace and absent of harsh judgment. He believed Olivia wasn’t giving herself enough credit, that she was better and braver than she knew. (Or at least, that was my interpretation of the complex emotions and psychology given to us in this tender, well-acted scene.) ”Olivia,” Peter said, “I saw how you were with our little girl. I know how much you loved her. I’m not telling you to forget it. But the past is the past. Don’t let it get in the way of this. I don’t know why it’s happening, but our family got a second chance. And I’m going to take it.”

QUIBBLE: I share the criticism others are now voicing about this season of Fringe: Why the heck aren’t Peter and Olivia asking Etta about what happened to her?

But enough with this ‘feelings’ crap. What the hell did Videotape Walter want them to find in Northern Pennsylvania? And how did Bark People get so… barky?

The answer to both questions were found in the same place…

NEXT: Red Rocks, Iron Men, and… Donald?!

According to Edwin, “the affliction” – unsightly bark-like growth on the flesh, like scabby acne — began to manifest shortly after this curious community of history keepers and Fringe fanboys was founded 21 years earlier. They had no theory for it. And in a way, it was useful. It kept them together – and it kept outsiders (and Invaders) away. Walter initially wondered if fungus was to blame. It would have been fitting: It was a year ago this week that Fringe aired the third episode of season 4 – “Alone In The World” – about the malevolent sentient psychic mold that tried to destroy Boston. (Another episode that – to my mad eyes – functioned as an allegory for Fringe’s relationship with its fans.) But Walter put forth a different, more elaborate hypothesis after examining the long-dead corpse of an unusually barked-up unfortunate found in an old gold mine. (More on that in a minute.) He speculated that the affliction was a severe immune reaction to all the carbon monoxide and corrosive chemicals that The Invaders were pumping into the air. I must admit, I found this all somewhat confusing. But what was quite clear was this: If you go down into the mineshaft, you turn into The Floronic Man. Oh, and you die, too.

This was a problem, because the stuff that Videotape Walter wanted to be found was located in that shaft. (Kudos for underappreciated Astrid’s A/V R/X for cracking that riddle.) The “stuff” was 14 KG/40 lbs. of crimson rock, a crystalized quartz. (In an episode with superhero allusions, I thought: Red Kryptonite?) Said stuff was needed to provide energy for … something. (See: Other still-to-be-found videotapes, exact number TBD.) Shades of: Amphilicite, the mineral that David Robert Jones used last season to fuel a machine that could open portals into the parallel universe. Theory! Does Walter’s master plan involve building a similar reality hole puncher? Does the solution to the problem of The Observers lie in the “over there” world?

Now, here’s where it got really cryptic-interesting: According to Edwin, a mystery man visited the mine back in 2015, shortly after The Bark People put down roots. He called himself Donald. He had come to claim some rocks – and to meet with a scientist friend from Boston, presumably Walter. We saw a fleeting glimpse of the report that Edwin’s grandfather wrote: “His appearance was very simple. He seemed to be in his late 30s with medium height and dark hair. He introduced himself as Donald and said he meant no harm.” We saw two pictures of Donald from behind, so we didn’t see his face. Alas, Donald’s Boston pal never showed – but The Observers did, and they took him away, never to be seen again.

Walter was utterly baffled by this story. “Why would you record this?” he asked. I found it oddly conspicuous that Walter found it conspcicously odd that this bit of recorded history was even recorded at all. Edwin’s answer struck me as equally strange. He said the moment was recorded “because of what happened to him” (i.e., because Donald was abducted by Observers). The logic sounded like a paradox — effect before cause. (See: My ramblings about “The Great Smoky Dragon” in last week’s recap.) A theory formed in my head: This “Donald” guy wanted the moment to be recorded… so it could be viewed 21 years later by Walter, here in the present. This is all to say: Is it possible that Donald might be a time traveler? Who is this guy?! We know it wasn’t September. My suspects? 1. Lincoln Lee. 2. Time traveling Peter. 3. Charlie Francis. 4. Mal Reynolds.

To safely extract the red rocks from the toxic mineshaft, Walter decided to screw on his Tony Stark and build an Iron Man haz-mat suit, with shielding 30 times thicker than Rhino skin. He needed copper. The Bark People didn’t have copper, so it was suggested that they go ask the untrustworthy folks who lived in another village for some. Yet Edwin wasn’t eager to do business with scary Ivan and his dangerous clan. He fearfully vetoed the idea, and hero-hungry River was disappointed by his dad’s cowardice. Edwin clarified his feelings during a heart-to-heart with Peter: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t know how to say goodbye to my son.” Peter had heard this same angst just hours earlier, from the woman he loved. He put a comforting hand on Edwin’s shoulder. A blessing of understanding. Edwin responded. He rallied and rose to the challenge of the moment. He explained his decision to River by saying, “There’s a lot more to the word ‘coward’ and ‘hero’ than you think. You’re not a coward if you’re afraid. You’re a coward if you know what you need to do and you don’t do it.” River – finally wrapping his mind around the prospect of losing his father – had a change of heart. Don’t do it, pop. Edwin: “There’s a time for recording history and a time to make it. We don’t have a lot of opportunities here to make it. … Protecting you means making sure there’s a world out there to thrive in.” River claimed to understand. Edwin said he was wrong. When you have kids of your own, son, then you’ll understand.

A fake-out ensued. Edwin pretended to turn chicken again. He said he set up a meeting with Scary Ivan to trade solar tech for copper, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to do the bartering. He gave Peter and Olivia directions… but the directions led to nowhere. Peter figured it out. There was no meeting with Scary Ivan. Either because Edwin had learned that Scary Ivan had no copper (or just didn’t want to trade), or because there was no time. The Loyalists were coming, and the Fringe team, exposed to the affliction, was starting to get barky. They needed their world-saving stones, and they needed them ASAP. Edwin knew what needed to be done, and he didn’t want anyone to try to talk him out of it.

Edwin ventured into the mine, descended into the shaft, and brought out the quartz that Walter needed, and then died. He sacrificed his life so that River and the world had a shot at a better future. He left behind a data cube of good memories for his son – not to mention a true story of real heroism, one worthy of a comic book.

Score one for the little people.

Rocks in hand, the Fantastic Four of Peter and Olivia and Etta and Walter hotwired a beater station wagon. “Now this is more like it!” Walter said, triumphantly donning a pair of Bono-esque Flyshades, looking like the rock star Reed Richards from River’s comic as he roared into the dystopian sunset. Excelsior, indeed.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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