As part of my drive to get the most out of my Masters in Screenwriting, I’ve been trying to attend lectures outside my course (ostensibly for educational purposes, but really to make it feel like my money is well spent). Some have been interesting, many haven’t, and most have reminded me that the skills of knowledge and research have little to no overlap with the skills required to engage and educate an audience.
One of the few bright sparks, however, has been a broad introduction to psychology course where the lecturer is neither afraid of offending his students nor of throwing a bit of video to keep us all awake throughout. On this background, and after a lecture on the components of nature and nurture in humanity, “In Absentia” provided much psychological fodder on the subject of Henrietta Bishop (Dunham? Observersson?).
Much of Fringe’s past four seasons dealt heavily with the concept of identity. Is the me from a parallel universe a different version of the same person, or an entirely unique individual? If you change the details of my past how does it affect my present? And now, if you rob a child of its family and its world, will it even be recognizable to its own parents twenty years down the line?
Plot-wise, “In Absentia” dealt with the aftermath of last week’s invasion into the mind of Walter Bishop. He doesn’t remember the details of his master plan to defeat the Observers, but as a fastidious documentarian of his work it’s likely Walter may have left some clues in their old lab back at Harvard University. What transpires over the hour is a heist-like breach of the Observer’s defences, complete with undercover disguises and last-minute alterations to plans. So far, so MacGuyver.
What raises the episode beyond these arguably cliched developments is the capture of a human guard who accidentally stumbled upon the team in the lab. He was just feeding the pigeons in an area he doesn’t normally visit, so his absence will not be tracked to them any time soon, but it does present the team with a difficult dilemma. What to do with a turncoat human who you can’t trust to set free?
As far as Etta is concerned, you do what they would have done to us. You torture them for information (by ageing them rapidly, because this is future tech, folks) then kill them before they can leak any details to the enemy.
Watching her go down this route was by far the most intriguing part of this sometimes by-the-numbers hour, and also helped to ground the character more while giving Georgina Haig a chance to stretch her muscles. It wasn’t shock for the sake of shock, and Etta’s actions weren’t entirely wrong – as evidenced by Olivia’s reluctance to intervene.
As a psychological analysis, it’s also interesting to see how Etta has turned out so much and so little like her parents. Yes, she’s tortuous and single-minded about her violence, traits we don’t often see in our heroes. But in some ways she resembles them exactly: a woman who exists as a combination of Olivia’s cold detachment and Peter’s rush to emotion – in this case anger. She is the worst of both of them, or the best considering the world she’s had to survive in.
The episode eventually progresses to a point where Etta, tasked with returning the prisoner to her comrades, instead sets him free. But the journey along the way is interestingly nuanced. The prisoner pleads with Olivia to assure his son that he has died (so he won’t be left waiting and hoping), a tragic request that is reversed when he later reveals he has no son. And it’s nice to see how Olivia carefully navigates a conversation with Etta about the worth of this man’s life. She knows that she has no right to call her daughter morally corrupt, for this is not Olivia’s world and she has not had to live in it. In fact, were it not for Olivia and Peter letting their daughter run free twenty odd years ago, she would not have been raised in such a cold world.
I hope that Etta’s actions at the end of the episode don’t entirely cleanse her, though, as this aspect gives the character some much-needed depth and offers opportunity for justified conflict down the line.
From a plotting point of view, this episode’s end also helped to add shape to just what exactly this last season will entail. Walter may not have left notes, but he did leave six video tapes containing details of his master plan, and the team must track them down and piece them together.
It adds a nice quest-like quality to this season, and also assuages fears that the case-of-the-week structure would entirely disappear in this new world.
It also adds to the this week’s theme of missing things. We would all like to think that in our absence the world will not change, that those around us will remain loyal and recognisable, or that at the very least our return will cause circumstances to snap back into place.
But like the amber that fills Walter’s lab in Harvard, Henrietta and the year 2036 are proving this theory wrong – for when there is a gap where something used to be, there will always be people and objects willing to take its place.
– I love when writers work well within a theme, and J.H. Wyman and Buffy’s David Fury do a strong job of solidifying the concept of absence, from the aforementioned amber to the guard, the pigeons, even Henry Ian Cusick’s still functioning but vacant head in the lab.
– On that note, sorry to see that Desmond won’t be back in Fringe. I LOVE YA PENNAY.
– I really thought Walter was going to take that guard’s eye out.
– The heist was a little easy, wasn’t it?
– That ageing technology was harsh, no?
– I’ve handily compiled all the Fringe opening credits (to date) on this page. Freaky deeky.