“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.
- 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.