Fringe – “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”

“Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”

April 15th, 2011

“I can see it in your eyes – it’s not you.”

Well, that was quite the experiment.

Part of what has made the third season of Fringe so compelling is the degree to which the other universe has been fully realized. It is a place we can journey to, a place with a heartbeat and which moves us beyond the imaginary. Olivia being trapped in that world wasn’t a problem that needed to be solved, it was a situation that begged to be explored. It was an instance of science fiction storytelling that had room to breathe, that could be revealed gradually rather than being defined immediately.

By comparison, the Inception-esque journey that Walter, Peter and William Bell’s consciousness take into Olivia’s mind is pure imaginary. While I do not want to discount the value of the imaginary, and would applaud the show for testing the boundaries of its visual storytelling with its use of animation, the fact remains that “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” just absolutely failed to resonate for me. As the episode came to its emotional conclusion, I felt one level removed from the action, and I don’t think it was simply because of the fact that the characters in question were cel-shaded.

Yes, the fairly rudimentary nature of the animation was somewhat problematic for me. While I was kind of excited to see them willing to push themselves into the animated space, the characters lacked any sense of weight to their movements and struggled to convey any sense of emotion. And since there were some considerable action sequences here, and because that final scene with Olivia and William was meant to say something fairly substantial about both characters, the animation’s inability to capture those qualities seemed at odds with the story being told.

Animation is, at its best, absolutely able to deliver in these areas. However, the cel-shaded work that was commissioned for this episode just was not up to that task, and very much read as a financial decision made in order to allow the show to travel to an imaginary dream world without having to actually CGI an imaginary dream world (and a creative decision that would allow Leonard Nimoy to remain “in retirement” and simply provide his voice to the character). However, if you start breaking down the shots that would have been prohibitively expensive if done in live action, you find a list of scenes that felt fairly unnecessary. Did there need to be a zombie attack? Did they need to travel by Zeppelin? Those two story elements in particular felt like an indulgence: once they decided to save money by animating the bulk of the dream sequence, they dreamed up some “fun” stuff to fill in the gaps. Yes, even the other elements of the dream world would have been expensive/time-consuming to shoot in live action, but they would have been possible, and infinitely more effective, which made the decision to shift to animation a limiting one.

However, I don’t want to make it seem as if the animation was the only problem I had with “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” because it wasn’t. The animation only exacerbated a feeling that all of this felt incredibly contrived, a situation devised to kill a bit of time before the actual conclusion of the season begins. It was exposition masked as exploration, with the only real takeaway being the discovery of the man that Olivia announces is going to kill her in the episode’s final moments.

One could argue that the episode was fun, and I’m not going to disagree: Lance Reddick had a great time showing Broyles taken over by his first experience with LSD, and I thought the experimentation of the animation was a bold move that I respect a great deal. However, when the episode started to tap into the more emotional material, everything felt hollow for reasons beyond the visual style. We already mourned William Bell once, and his return here never evolved beyond a gimmick for me, so his goodbye to Olivia and Walter’s reaction felt like a retread. Similarly, after the weight of Peter and Olivia’s complex reunion earlier in the season, watching Peter realize that the real Olivia was the little girl in the corner was just not that meaningful. There was no real peril in this situation, the drama a short term delay in the season’s narrative rather than a moment that feels like it will remain with these characters forever.

It also didn’t help that almost none of the episode took place from Olivia’s perspective. There’s something strange about focusing entirely on Peter’s efforts to “save” Olivia, and to see the character self-destructing on some level, given that the start of the season showed a much more nuanced view of her struggle. It felt like cheap psychoanalysis at the episode’s conclusion, as William diagnoses Olivia’s inability to feel safe – yes, we saw evidence of that in her mind, but why couldn’t we see that from Olivia’s point of view?

I would normally think it unfair to compare a single episode of television to a film, but the degree to which this seems inspired by Inception (right down to Walter’s “fall” instigating his escape from Olivia’s mind) welcomes the comparison. I think such a comparison gets at my problem with this episode, in that it wants to be about Olivia but never actually lets us into her experience. Inception wasn’t about Cillian Murphy’s character, even though it took place inside his mind: his actions and reactions were pivotal elements of its trippy plot, and we did learn things about him based on how the various levels were impacted by his actions, but he was ultimately a pawn in a larger game.

Olivia shouldn’t feel like a pawn in her own dreams, given how important this character is to the series. If the show wanted to emphasize her inability to feel safe, show us Olivia’s arrival into this world and her struggles to escape her stepfather and the people who are turning against her. To do this story from the perspective of those trying to save her might make it more of a mystery, and might build basic plot tension, but it makes the emotional climax feel hollow. Sure, the animation didn’t help, but even if Anna Torv and Leonard Nimoy had been able to provide a real emotional hook to the sequence I don’t think it would have solved the larger problem. When we find Olivia in her apartment just hours after having been nearly pushed out of her own mind, she doesn’t seem introspective: instead, she seems dramatically off-kilter, and offers a nice little cliffhanger that serves as plot progression into the next set of episodes. The takeaway, in other words, is plot development instead of character development, which seems woefully inadequate given the standards the show has set this season in terms of building Olivia’s character and her relationship with Peter.

It’s just an unfortunate confluence of factors that make this a woefully unsatisfying experience. At first, I wondered if I was simply not devoted to the show enough to enjoy what early on felt somewhat self-indulgent: with copious amount of LSD, and the experimentation of animation, one could argue that this seems playful. However, by the end of the episode I became convinced that this was not just a question of my connection with the show, but rather the episode’s disconnect from the emotional and complex material that has made the show so strong this season.

That show was simply absent here, in terms of both form and content, unfortunately killing some momentum for the show as it heads towards the season finale.

Cultural Observations

  • Was I the only person who thought that Peter was going to take them to the flower patch from “Subject 13?” Peter suddenly relaying a story we had never heard before was super awkward, whereas the field would have tapped into some of the meaning from that episode (and could have potentially unearthed lost memories of his first meeting with Olivia). Yes, I know that’s rewriting the show, but that’s where my mind went.
  • I know cel-shaded animation of this type isn’t that uncommon, but it totally reminded me of the XIII video game released last generation.
  • One detail I did really enjoy was that Walter seemed to be falling towards the frozen lake not unlike the one he used to cross over into the other universe – sure, I don’t know how that would be between NYC and Jacksonville, but I’ll give ‘em that.
  • I am well aware this is likely a divisive episode, so I’d welcome a defense of it within the comments – curious to hear response to this one.
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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Fringe – “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”

  1. Donna

    The zombie attack was composed of Brandonates… the guy who tortured Olivia when she was Over There.

    Seems pretty complex to me. Maybe you just weren’t watching closely enough…

    • I’ve got to admit that the Zombie scene felt way too zeitgeisty for me to see it as having any meaning.

      And even if it was Brandon (which I noticed, but didn’t really dwell on thanks to my growing immunity to the charms of pointless zombification in unrelated media projects), I’m not suggesting that the dream didn’t have meaning. I’m just saying that we never got to see *Olivia* experiencing that meaning, which made it an empty signifier for the audience. It’s just exposition, reminders of Olivia’s experience without actually displaying any of the weight that represents.

  2. mck

    I definitely felt a bit disconnected from the show during the animated scenes and kept hoping Bell would get separated from the group, so that they could go back to live action. Maybe if didn’t think of the animation as a way to get around Nimoy’s retirement, it wouldn’t all feel like a cheap trick.

    Overall the second half the season starting with Concentrate and Ask Again has been somewhat of a disappointment for me. They have not had the same energy and subtlety of the first half. However, I’m confident the next three episodes will be great, that is as long as they are not animated.

  3. LockemeLostme

    Considering all the crap peter gets on this show about the “switch”, this was PETER’S redemption episode. BTW, how many episodes do we see PETER in trouble and its usually through Walter and Olivia’s perspective? Watch the season finale, the whole episode spent more time having OLIVIA save Peter and Peter wasn’t in the episode all that much but its a BAD THING to see Peter FINALLY attempt to save Peter? Puh-lease.

    • If this was Peter’s redemption episode, that point wasn’t clear, and wasn’t that effective.

      For the record, I have no issues with Peter as a character. However, I’d argue that we got a lot of material in last season’s finale about Peter’s experience over there – his reunion with his mother, for example. We saw that story from his point of view for a not unsubstantial period of time, and we never got that with Olivia’s experience during the Bellivia transformation, and I think that was a mistake given what this episode was focused on.

  4. LockemeLostme

    I swear, Peter can never win with any of you people.

  5. It wasn’t precisely what I wanted from a Fringe episode, and some of the sequences seemed designed more to take advantage of the animated format than anything else. Brandonate zombies? Sure, whatever. But Fringe is willing to take risks and go places that most network shows don’t even consider, and for that I’m very grateful.

    You’re dead right that the exploration of Olivia’s psyche rings a bit hollow, but I felt that the real character development in this episode belongs to Walter. Bell returns to give Walter a single piece of vital information – that his decisions will be just. That scene in the zeppelin made me flash back to an earlier episode in which Walter despairs of finding a better solution to the disintegrating universe than Walternate. As far as he’s concerned, Walternate is his superior. But now perhaps Walter truly knows, as we have known all along, that the damage to his intellect has taught him wisdom (and since he managed to fabricate the amber and intuited a better solution to what appeared to be a dimensional weak spot, it would seem that he is definitely Walternate’s equal). Walter thought that he had shackled himself by removing parts of his brain, but it was in fact an act of liberation.

    Bell’s brief return taught Walter that he no longer needs his partner as a check on his actions. We’ve been tricked with a uniquely Fringey bait and switch: all this time we’ve watched everyone’s efforts to expel Bell from Olivia, but he was actually expelled from Walter.

    I have only one quibble with your take on this episode, actually: Olivia eating toast at the end of the episode and talking about a man inside her mind who’s going to kill her is badass.

  6. Oh, and I completely agree that he should have gone to the field of white tulips. That would have solidified the earlier episode and made it feel like less of a retcon (a retmeetcute?). Plus it seems like a lost memory for both characters; it would have been kind of neat if they’d rediscovered the memory together.

    Maybe they’re saving that for a later episode.

  7. Digifreak642

    Best episode of any show ever.

  8. DEM

    I think such a comparison gets at my problem with this episode, in that it wants to be about Olivia but never actually lets us into her experience.

    Well-stated. I think this is a problem Fringe has been struggling with for a good part of this season, since around Marionette. They’ve gotten into the habit of putting Olivia “through the wringer” for its own sake, rather than for Olivia’s. The writers also seem to have gotten it into their head at some point that Olivia is fundamentally broken. At the same time, they’ve been trying to make Peter more relevant. Together these elements have produced an acted-upon Olivia and quite a muddle when it comes to storytelling POV.

    I enjoyed your very thoughtful review. I enjoyed the ep more than you did, I think, but probably because I was in just the right mindset at the moment and was caught completely by surprise by the animation. We’ll see how well it holds up on re-watch.

  9. Lockemelostme

    I don’t understand this “nobody else’s perspective” matters but Olivia’s mentality. We have seen COUNTLESS times OLIVIA’S perspective on things but when they switch it to Peter’s, everyone has a problem. One of the biggest criticisms of Peter is that he doesn’t love Olivia, he doesn’t know who Olivia is,
    he should have known the differences, he was such a jerk to Olivia, etc, etc but when we FINALLY get how PETER feels about Olivia and we see him SAVE HER for once, you people have a big issue as if he doesn’t matter.

  10. Nicole

    I wasn’t totally thrilled with Olivia’s realization needing to be explained by Bell or anything – but I get where people are coming from with Peter. Olivia was massively hurt that Peter couldn’t tell one Olivia from another, and it’s a huge fear for her that he still doesn’t really know her. He could tell the projection wasn’t her this time (even if it’s arguably different with Fauxlivia) – so even if it wasn’t well-executed, this was meant to be his redemption. Every step of the episode was meant to show how well he knew ‘our’ Olivia.

    However, I totally agree that all of this would have resonated much more strongly if she’d been in the field of flowers in ‘Subject 13′. Both my SO and I thought that immediately when watching the episode. I also don’t get why they didn’t get the same kid actress. That would have been way cooler too.

    • DEM

      They went back to the original “Young Olivia” — the Youngest Olivia, if you will — the one who played her at the beginning of the Cortexiphan trials (see “Jacksonville”). The actor’s name is Ada Breker.

  11. Ash

    I thought it was a lot of fun!! Especially Broyles.

  12. I had all the same issues with the episode, from the strange “new” developments of deep-seeded issues, to the awkward animation. As a visual person, the latter undermined the entire episode for me, though I appreciated the emotional and psychological concepts they were developing (sometimes re-developing?) with the characters.

    I really do like Peter, and am behind the need and choice of a redemption episode, but I think that you can do this while still sharing in the perspective of the character you are INSIDE during the entire episode.

    And I mean, the zombie fight? Really?

    As with the entire season, I will always watch, but this episode was a little… unfulfilling. I hope they keep true to themselves and reduce the gratuitous special effects and use the subtlety they are better at to help develop into the season finale.

  13. Jo

    Hi – I’m recent new reader and have gone back and read all your reviews since discovering this blog.

    I’ve been noticing recently (not here necessarily just as a general trend) that because Fringe is so ambitious and sets the bar so high, whenever they do something new that isn’t an unequivocal triumph, the show seems subject to increasingly intense critical scrutiny. I appreciated this episode for the risks it took, even though it did leave me a little cold in some ways at first. I’ve watched it twice now, and liked the animated section more on repeated viewing. It helped that the second time I was thinking of the style as not just an homage to A Scanner Darkly but also a call-back to the storytelling and style of A-ha’s “Take on Me” video from the early 80s – exactly around the time Olivia would have been in Jacksonville before starting the Cortexiphan trials. Maybe that particular reference was deliberate, maybe not, but it’s a testament to the writing that people can make such rich and personal connections when watching.

    I was happy to get an episode from Peter’s perspective. I didn’t think of the tulip field – in narrative terms it’s too soon to come back to that moment for me. I also don’t think it would have worked as well as the initial overview of the military housing and the resonance of the green-green-red doors as Peter and Bell searched for Olivia’s house. I loved that section, I found it eerie and very ‘Fringe’, maybe because I’ve recently watched the animated graphic novel episodes. It gave me a real sense of the topography and atmosphere of Jacksonville as an important location in the psychological lives of the main characters.

    To me, it came across as deliberate that Olivia was completely absent throughout the episode, including at the end when she is apparently ‘back’. Fringe does this all the time (most obviously with Peter), refusing to make character’s emotional lives transparent and only rarely giving us satisfyingly uncomplicated moments of intimacy. At the end of this episode I didn’t feel closely identified with Olivia in the way I did when she was escaping after being imprisoned, tricked, and manipulated in the alt-universe but I liked that she’d lost some of her vulnerability. As exposited by Bell, her fears were threatening to overwhelm her completely and it was time for her to move past that phase of her life. I liked impassive, kick-ass Olivia of season 1 and it’s good to return to that stronger side of her, now that we know her more deeply.

    It was also great to see Peter’s loss of physical control in the moment he comes back and the way he’s completely undone afterwards when he’s gazing at Olivia with the blanket round his shoulders. He’s more like a very young child in that moment than he’s ever seemed in the flashback episodes. An nice bit of continuity with the way he was able to recognize young Olive and useful character development.

    Anyway, hope this is a constructive addition to the debate on the episode…

  14. One word…this show rock…sorry another word….this episode rocks!!

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