“Over There: Part 2”
May 20th, 2010
When Fringe began, its “pseudoscience” was a vague conspiracy – the “Pattern” was ill-defined and faceless, a series of circumstances with no causation and thus no real emotional stakes. Over time, the show worked to provide a face to the threat (the villainous Mr. Jones, the shapeshifter taking Charlie’s form, etc.), but even then it was largely putting lipstick on a pig. Even when the show introduced another universe, that universe felt so abstract that it seemed like the show becoming more complex without any real effect on my enjoyment of the series.
However, the back end of the show’s second season has gone a long way to personifying the show’s science fiction; while it may be cheating to make John Noble’s Walter (and Walternate) central within the storyline, and the introduction of “alternate” versions of existing characters enables some shortcuts, it can’t be denied that the other reality has finally come into its own with both parts of “Over There.” Willing to blur the lines between evil and empathetic, the show delivers the sort of story which is unquestionably complex but which feels like it stems from decades of conflict and challenging character dynamics rather than a conflict created to fit a season finale.
I just hope nobody thinks it’s going to last.
The problem with an episode like “Over There” is that it won’t be sustained: while the show is obviously going to be different for a while as we deal with Fauxlivia (credit to Ashley for first using that one in my Twitter feed) replacing Olivia in our own universe, the show is still going to settle into telling procedural stories, so the actual structure of the series isn’t going to change. The alternate universe may have become fully formed, and we now have a clear sense that Walternate is as evil a villain as the show has seen, but the show isn’t going to suddenly become entirely about the war between the two sides. This will still remain a serialized story that will occasionally be touched upon, so while we’ll obviously be returning to the alternate realities for a while in the third season I don’t think we’ll be staying there indefinitely or anything of that nature.
However, the important thing is that the people we’ve met are complex characters in their own right, as opposed to nameless shapeshifters who seem like a simple threat to the core dynamics. Yes, this is partially because Fauxlivia looks identical to and will start to play the role of Olivia, but it’s also because we got that great scene with the two Olivia Dunhams discussing their respective lives: Fauxlivia lost her sister to childbirth, while Olivia lost her Mother, so they have parts of their lives which were once the same but which have been played out longer in the other reality. While Fauxlivia is obviously there on orders (Walternate’s brief message to her right before the grenade went off clearly instructing them what their plan would be, although how she knew about the phosphorous grenades is a question to be answered), she is also going to want to meet her sister, and something tells me that she isn’t just a soldier. Like scarred, arachnid-filled Charlie told her, he wasn’t trained for this: Olivia is not a supersoldier sent across to murder someone or wreak havoc, she’s a basic Fringe operative who’s in over her head on a mission that she partially accepted because she was curious (as she showed when she was so inquisitive with Peter before Olivia took her hostage).
Last week’s first part was a successful action thrill ride, delivering the sort of caper feel and reveling in the differences between the two universes, but this week was about conversations which spoke to much more than difference. For Walter and William Bell, it’s their first reunion in over two decades, and so Walter’s frustration with Bell’s memory-zapping brain surgery boils to the surface. Walter has plenty of reason to feel betrayed by Bell, frustrated that Bell profited from the theft of technology from the other side while he sat in a mental institution: sure, we learn that it was Walter himself who requested the removal of his memories out of fear of what he would become (perhaps something similar to what Walternate became), but it’s still about two characters dealing with lost time (William because he had traveled between realities so much that he could no longer return “home” and Walter due to his institutionalization).
The differences in the episode can’t be erased by Peter returning to our universe: even if Olivia hadn’t been left behind in the other reality to be institutionalized herself, Peter still can’t entirely forgive Walter for what he did. He may understand that you can’t place the blame on Walter entirely, as Walternate tries to do, but Peter still understands the ways in which Walter’s actions created a great deal of death. And that sort of consequence is obvious: we realize that Peter’s mother has again lost her son, and we realize that Fauxlivia’s Frank is going to be pretty devastated, and it all adds up to a situation where it doesn’t just feel like a storyline. Yes, it plays out like one, as I immediately latched onto the potential for the Olivia-switch in that particular moment, but the consequences are personal enough that it feels earned. We were meant to be shocked when the Twin Towers showed up in last season’s finale, but now the alternate world has become a real world, and its villains and heroes (of sorts) have gained dimension that goes a long way to make the series’ conflict more dynamic.
Accordingly, the show is leaning on its cast more than it was in the past, here making great use of John Noble (as both versions of Walter) and Leonard Nimoy (who, if this is truly his final acting gig, is going out on a note which managed to straddle the line between wise and wily in the best possible way). I also want to say that Anna Torv impressed me: no, she isn’t really as capable as Noble of playing two separate characters who look identical, I thought she did a nice job with the emotions of the scene as the two women compare their lives and the emotions therein, which is one of the most important scenes for establishing just what Fauxlivia is like as a character. Similarly, Torv managed to sell me on the Olivia/Peter relationship in theory, even if I don’t necessarily think the show has done enough to expand on the somewhat minor chemistry the two actors have (and which more or less comes entirely from Jackson, who was great describing Olivia to Fauxlivia).
In the end, the finale works because it managed to have a number of large action beats (the bridge sacrifice by the other Cortexaphan children, the final shootout) which never felt too large: as big as the story has become, the expansion happens in small moments like the shot of Walter and William driving through the dead forest on their way to Harvard, or Peter’s helicopter ride over New York City learning about the Fringe events, and even the sudden twists in the story are grounded in human consequences. It’s a big finale, but it’s more subtle than you’d probably think at first glance, which is a quality the show has struggled to capture in the past. “Over There” works as a statement of confidence in the show’s direction, giving me some faith that they might be able to pull together this series after all – the question becomes how they navigate out of this situation and back into the show’s usual structures.
- I am going to presume that there aren’t two Opera Houses in Vancouver that look like that one, which means this was the same Opera House as the one featured in Battlestar Galactica. This would be fitting, as I believe they used the same bridge as Caprica a few weeks ago.
- I thought the episode’s one narrative sin was the speed at which Peter discovered that it was only he who could operate the power source, and in particular the fact that he was for some reason narrating his own actions. The lack of context over those events never really worked, and while I know they’re saving the big “Peter gets abducted and forced into the scary giant machine as prophecized” scene for another storyline it did seem like that story fizzled before we really got to learn that much about it. The manuscript page ended up a red herring, which happened sooner than it did on Alias but which is similarly unsatisfying.
- I didn’t get to comment on it last week, but the “West Wing” poster at the bus stop was a really neat little touch that I liked quite a bit.