TV Review: FRINGE S5E2, IN ABSENTIA (Or, How Are The Observers So Shit At Finding Things?)
First: Why have the Observers taken over? What has convinced a race that lives outside of time and had devoted themselves for God only knows how long to passive observation to abandon that position and instead become militaristic oppressors? Why lock themselves into one timeline? Why this timeline in particular? And why take up arms at all? These are big, big issues, and ones that are not only not being answered but not even being ASKED by anyone at all, which is pretty shocking.
Second: How the hell can a race of people with the ability to step outside of time and view all possible timelines, a race with the ability to read minds, be so damn shit at finding people? I mean, come on ... they know Henrietta was involved in saving Walter in episode one. They know she's a Fringe agent. Therefore they also know where she lives. And the entire gang is clearly staying at her house, as evidenced by the family photos and general layer of knicknacks scattered about. Seriously ... you're called OBSERVERS. Observe something and go get her, already.
And, oh, what the hell ... there are more. Why do Observers need to interrogate anybody at all in the first place? Why not just step into the future and see what happens? No need to put brains in jars, just *cough* do some of that observing you're so well known for. And, for the love of God, don't you think that after taking over the Harvard science labs years before the events in this episode and knowing full well that this is where Walter Bishop conducted his research and also knowing full well that Walter was hard at work to kick your asses out of this dimension, at some point some Observer or another may have actually taken a moment to look in Walter's lab? Take a peek at his work? File stuff away securely? Pick up the video camera that Walter clearly left behind that took the Bishop clan all of half an hour to retrieve despite not having tools and needing to work clandestinely? That would make sense, wouldn't it?
Clearly this is not a season that is going to be big on logic of any form. If you can put that aside, however, there is entertainment to be had.
Occupying the center of the episode is Henrietta - or simply Etta, as she's mostly referred to - and that's a good move. Rather than dwell on Olivia and Peter the emotional crux of this episode falls on Olivia and Etta, Olivia having to come to terms with what the war against the Observers has done to the daughter she barely knows. It helps that the two women are enough alike to actually be related, it helps more that their arcs are being written and performed with surprising subtlety and restraint - assuming, of course, that a torture sequence can be referred to as subtle and restrained.
Oh, yes ... Season Five is now two for two when it comes to episodes containing explicit torture, with characters being worked over for information. Whether it be in reference to Iraq or some other conflict, Fringe has taken on a definite subtext commenting on the nature of armed occupation and resistance. It's early yet to say whether the show is taking a stance pro or anti American foreign policy or recent military action but it's definitely not trying to make anything appear pretty.
While the Peter / Olivia / Etta triangle clearly drives the episode, Walter also rebounds to somewhat more typical form - dropping references to Timothy Leary, among others - but it's still a complete and utter mystery as to why Astrid has carried forward into this season. She has no discernible function whatsoever thus far.
In Absentia represents a significant step forward this season, with the flow of things becoming more clear and the massive reset in scope and style of story feeling more natural. It also lays out what will clearly be the shape of the season to come, with past-Walter delivering a videotaped message charging them all with finding a series of other videotaped messages laying out his plan to get rid of the Observers. He seems to forget to give any clue where the first such message is, but hey, he was probably high. But while things are improved there are clearly major problems to overcome yet, particularly when it comes to fleshing out the villains of the piece. Right now they're both wildly ineffective - so much so as to appear to pose no real threat or danger, Team Bishop overcoming every obstacle easily - and also seemingly incredibly illogical. And while Fringe has always bent what you might consider logic it has also held strongly to an internal set of rules that appear to be flapping in the wind right now. Somebody needs to do some fixing.