Fringe, TV Review

TV Review: Fringe, Season 5, Episode 8: The Human Kind

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It is becoming harder and harder for me to review episodes of Fringe, knowing that the end is nigh. I realise that the writers are doing a good job with the time limit they have. But I worry that I will be so disappointed by the finale, scheduled to air on 18 January, that it will ruin the entire series. It seems that I am not the only one, as more and more Fringies are voicing their discontent on Twitter, one even posting an interesting commentary about sexism on the show as a comment to my last review.

But there are signs that perhaps my pessimism is not warranted, such as the glimpses of the Dunhaminator, in the shape of the pneumatic gun Olivia fashioned while being held prisoner. Although it’s still a far cry from what one would have expected from her after the experiences of the last four years, I can’t help but hope that it implies that Olivia will very soon be back full force to save the world.

Olivia’s speech to Peter at the end of the episode is another reason why I struggled for so long with this review. On the one hand, of course it would be his love for Olivia, for Etta, for Walter and even for Astrid that saved Peter. I also know and love the fact that Fringe is not only about the science; what it means to be a human has been a constant exploration, particularly through Walter’s struggle with the consequences of his decision in 1985 to cross universes. But, with this less than impressive finish, I find that the Peter as an Observer storyline fell a little short. How can Olivia convince Peter to take this drastic change after only one conversation? I realise that the limit of thirteen episode for this season set by the network is not working in the favour of the writers, who have to squeeze everything in, but the excuse is getting a little old. Fringe writers are known for some amazing writing; this scene was not one of their best attempts at surpassing themselves.

As it so often does, the science in this episode of Fringe both impressed me and made my skin crawl. To be able to enhance our brains by creating new ridges in it would be incredible – I personally would not have minded a couple of extra ridges during college finals. However, it also underlines the danger of science becoming an ends rather than a means. Humans – I am assuming here that Observers are humans – should not become machines, by erasing the very thing that makes them human – in this case, the part of the brain that deals with emotions. The fight to save humanity seems to have much higher stakes; the Fringe team is not only fighting to liberate earth of 2036 from the Observers, but is also fighting to save humanity from becoming Observers, i.e. a people that would willingly inject itself with technology that robs it from what makes it human in the first place.

This struggle between humans and machine-dependent humans is one of the many things in this episode that reflected The Matrix moments. Of particular note were both Windmark’s appearance in Etta’s apartment building, and his fight with Peter. This resemblances served to draw the parallels between Neo’s quest to find his true self with Peter’s quest to do the same, by ridding himself of the tech and to regain his humanity.

But before broaching the topic of Peter’s journey into Observerdom and back, I have to give yet another thumbs up to Joshua Jackson’s acting skill. As the tech changed Peter’s brain, shrinking the part that deals with emotions, Jackson delivered a rendition of his character that was very different from the ones we have seen up to now: a Peter removed, detached, with an almost disturbingly clinical point of view shared in a robotic kind of way. Jackson has been a consistently good actor in this show, and I feel that he really went beyond the level of excellence that he himself had set.

Peter’s manipulation of events through the smallest of adjustments at the beginning of the episode was the second time Fringe fans were made to think about the butterfly effect. Season 3’s third episode “The Plateau” had Milo Stanfield manipulating the timeline with similarly small adjustments. Remembering how Milo was treating the injustices he was subjected to like a giant puzzle made me reflect about how Peter, too, was treating the injustice he was subjected to like an intellectual problem, taking fewer and fewer emotional factors into consideration. In short, Peter was becoming an intellectual scientist solely focused on achieving his objective of killing Windmark, whatever the price might be: hurting Olivia, Walter and Astrid and settling permanently into the land of the Observers. And this just might be the sole weakness of the Observers that hopefully the Fringe team might be able to use to its benefit. Thankfully, Peter did not have to pay the ultimate price, i.e. his humanity, but he will probably have paid the steep price of his relationship with Olivia. Who knows if she will ever be able to trust him again after this!

But because he is of the human kind, and because of the depth of his feelings for her, for Etta, for Walter and even for Astrid, Olivia’s words reached Peter. And so, the bullet that saved the world because of last season’s high stake risk taken by Walter, the same bullet which gave Etta hope all these years that she would be reunited with her parents, the very bullet that got Olivia out of a very dangerous situation mere hours ago, snapped Peter out of it. Replacing the Observer tech he had just removed from his own brain with the bullet was symbolic of the choice Peter had made. Because of this, this bullet might yet again save the world by bringing Peter’s much needed wits, brains and emotional stability back to the Fringe team.

In sharp contrast to Peter’s withdrawal from his human side is Simone’s complete acceptance of who she is and her reliance on her emotions to enhance her understanding of life: “The heart will make sense of what the mind cannot,” she tells Olivia. The recurring theme of hope and faith in Fringe meets the concept of faith yet again, a connection made in previous episode such as season two’s “White Tulip”. Without faith, one can only cling to hope for a limited amount of time. Olivia seems to be at that point; having seen all the things she has seen in the last five years, she can’t have the same faith that Simone has. It’s to the point that Olivia believe the reason why the Observers are in power is that in a world where “it’s all just numbers”, they are “better at math.”

It has to be argued that there is definitely a line between having hope born out of faith and being just plain stupid. Perhaps this is what Olivia is keeping herself from. However, real faith is about intelligent devotion, because while, as Simone puts it, “you can’t know everything”, you can carefully investigate the truth, leaving a wisely chosen section chalked up to the mysterious. This intelligent devotion is also what keeps us from believing in false idols, as people do “make explanations, assign meaning to things without knowing, because it’s reassuring, it’s comforting.” It does make it difficult at times to see the difference between an extraordinary gift, such as Simone’s, and something fake. And I can’t help but wonder how much of Olivia’s gift is actually an inherent capacity that she had that was brought out full force by the Cortexiphan.

Although she might not believe in them, Olivia did rely on Simone’s words and faith heavily to plead with Peter (hence the glyphs spelling P-L-E-A-D), explaining to him that their daughter was still with them, thus inspiring him, through the power of the love he has for her, for Olivia, for Walter and for Astrid, to take out the Observer tech. She asks Peter to rely on what he is feeling only, to go beyond the physical reality Etta’s death: “[Etta] saved my life today, with the bullet she brought to us. She is alive, inside us, and there is nothing that Windmark can do about it, because the love that we can share with her now is invulnerable to space and time, even to them. And I know that our hearts are broken, and that is hurts, but that’s what makes us human.”

Although there was not as much character development as their usually is in a season of Fringe, I did like the premise of this plotline. And I do think that unchecked by the rational, emotions are humans’ weakness. But balanced out with wisdom, there is no doubt in my mind that emotions are our strength, because it opens us up to things the rational mind cannot comprehend. In this case, as Olivia explains, it is also the strength of the Fringe team because emotions are “the one thing that [the Observers] don’t have.” She might have told Simone that she doesn’t believe, but Olivia believes enough to use whatever she has left of her faith to convince Peter to remove the tech.

Olivia’s rather lifeless presence in the last couple of episodes becomes a little more understandable after her conversation with Simone. The fighter is in hiding; she is broken, having lost her faith. Perhaps more than anything, Etta’s death was the feather that broke the camel’s back. Whatever the case might be, I don’t think that Olivia and the Fringe team can win against the Observers without faith. What they are required to do as part of this war is to basically go places that no one else ever has, and that takes faith in much more than Walter’s math skills. As one of my favourite poems, “This is Faith” by Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhiyyih Khánum describes: “To walk where there is no path/To breathe where there is no air/To see where there is not light/This is Faith.” And while I loved the spark of the old Olivia, putting together a pneumatic gun of sorts to thwart her kidnappers, I still feel like it is too little too late. I am trying to be kind to the writers, who only have 13 episodes to wrap up a story that is complex at many levels, and I think that is the only reason that I am still accepting a lot of what is happening on screen as the logical conclusion of what probably happened off screen.

While we are on the subject of things that bug me, I am disappointed that we don’t have time to explore the Resistance more. I would have loved it to be more involved; why isn’t Anel more involved with the team, for example seeing how close he was to Etta and how much he must know about the Observers? You would think that of all people, Etta’s parents and grandfather would get all the support they could get from the Resistance that is plastering her face all over the city, and not have to go on errands on their own. It would have made for some interesting story telling, if only to find out more about what has been going on since the Fringe team was ambered.

But more than anything else, Walter makes it yet again about himself. I know that he is appealing to Peter’s emotions so as to convince him to return to the lab and run tests on him,  but Walter’s self-absorption in the midst of a situation that could be potentially fatal to Peter really bugged me. After all, he could have easily used a much more powerful argument by reminding his son that this was probably not what Etta would have wanted.

This self-absorption also robbed us, I feel, of a great conversation about the limits of science that one must not cross, and the role of the ego in cases where the limits of science are pushed to an unhealthy limit. To Walter’s credit, Peter’s siren call only appealed to him for a second: “If you could see what I see, Walter. If you could experience what it feels like to fully harness the untapped potential of the human brain. You of all people should know that there is no reason to be afraid.” This relates back to what Nina was saying previously regarding Bell not being able to choose her over science because his ego craved the omniscience it had tasted. Assuming again that they were at some point humans by nature, this could also explain the question as to how the Observers could have sacrificed their humanity.

This does touch upon another potential weakness of the Observers: the taste of omniscience that their technology is no doubt giving them. This certainly is reflected in Windmark’s narrow minded, focused hunt of Peter. Of course, of a hunter becomes obsessed by hunting a particular prey, it might itself eventually fall orey to another hunter. Could it perhaps be that Windmark’s demise will be of his own doing?

And now come the questions. I have a great many of them, which I hope Fringies will take it upon themselves to help me figure out:

  • Why did Peter want Windmark to cross the square at the set time? And did it work out?
  • Why don’t Observers just teleport everywhere?
  • What is a Truth Church, and why can’t Observers read people there?
  • Why did Peter not kill Windmark in the apartment, since he knew he was going to be there at 5h42?
  • Why didn’t Peter lose more of his hair before removing the tech?
  • Simone said she doesn’t remember the name of the person who dropped off the truck and the magnet. I first was sure it must be Walter, but what if it was Donald, or even Bell?
  • Why do the Observers love the 50s so much?
  • How did Olivia know where Peter was?
  • Now that Windmark has an origin point and a probable future for Peter, will be continue to calculate probable futures and trace the Fringe team? Why has he not done so in the first place?

While I am disappointed with the way the last episodes of Fringe have been shaping up, I have to admit that the writers are doing a good job with the little time they have to wrap up what is a complicated story, both because of the mythology and the complex relationships between its central characters. There are also still enough awesome moments as well, such as the “You are Here” left by Peter for Windmark to find. I feel like one has to suspend belief even more than usual because of the speed with which such things as Olivia convincing Peter to remove the Observer tech happen. But if Fringe ends well, then the ride will have been worth it. I await 18 January before rendering judgement on Season 5. If the finale is amazing, I will be able to overlook a lot of the little things that have been bothering me about the show in the last couple of months. If not, I will just have to indulge in some writing-therapy!

First published here on Blogcritis.

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