Boring headline, right? Just setting the tone for episode two, officially titled “In Absentia,” Latin for “in the absence.” Absent from this installment of the J.J. Abrams sci-fi thriller is excitement, which is a real shame considering last week’s episode. Maybe the double-dose in the season-opener was meant to hold us over until episode three.
Anyway, the episode essentially opens with Walter sitting in the kitchen (where else?) with the unifier strapped to his head, trying to piece together his disparate thoughts that contain the plan to rid future-earth from the shackles of their overlords, the Observers.
Discouraged by his lack of success, Walter removes the unifier just as Olivia enters the room and asks him if he had possibly written down the information back in the day. Eureka! All they have to do is get back to his lab at Harvard, which Etta tells them is impossible because the Observers have squatter’s rights in Cambridge.
In an attempt to make Walter relatable to old, dying hippies who’ve mistakenly tuned in, he assures Etta this is no problem for someone who’s dropped acid. He guides the gang to a trap door in a field overgrown with weeds. Gaining entrance into Harvard has never been easier!
Conveniently encased in amber in Walter’s old Harvard lab, now devoid of any electricity, is an old VHS video camera. Before they can get to it, for some unknown reason, they have to invent some way to remove it from the amber. I know, I know. We’re not supposed to ask any more obvious “Abrams” questions.
Amid the pigeons flying through the lab, they find an old laser disc player that Walter is reluctant to dismantle even though they desperately need to laser inside to cut through the amber. Why isn’t anyone asking Walter where his put the stupid de-amberizer?
Meanwhile, they’ve tripped an alarm and an Observer guard named Gale Manfredi (Eric Lange), also known as a Loyalist, comes into the lab but only manages to get caught and cuffed by an ever-alert Etta. This is actually a good capture for the gang as he has a radio as well as credentials for movement around the campus.
In one of the cooler moments of the episode, Etta takes Manfredi into a backroom and begins interrogating him with some sort of atom-reorganizer she refers to as an “angel” device. It causes him to age at a rapid rate. Props to the makeup artists tasked with aging him; it was very believable.
You know that old saying about being wary of meeting your heroes because you might not like what you discover? “Fringe” takes this to the next level by giving Olivia a tough, clear look at what her adult daughter has turned into over the past 20 years or so. She’s a hardened byproduct of her era and takes no pity on Manfredi, knowing full well he’s a traitor to humans and will say and do anything to save his own skin. To be fair, wouldn’t you?
Loyalist or not, it was easy to see something in Manfredi that suggests he might still have a scrap of humanity left inside. After all, he’s got a bag of bread crumbs with him. Olivia pleads with him to tell Etta what she wants to know because the angel device is rapidly taking its toll on him. Given the environment and moment in history, Etta rightly sees her as weak and cautions her against buying into his particular brand of BS, particularly what he’s said about his non-existent children becoming orphans of he’s allowed to die.
Walter and Astrid miraculously discover the laser from the old disc player is woefully underpowered for the job of blasting through several feet of amber, and announce they’ll require a tad more power for the job. This means using Manfredi—or at least his credentials—to get to a part of the campus that controls the Harvard power grid. Those credentials include the number tattooed on his face and the unique pattern of his retina.
They solve the issue of Manfredi’s retina without plucking it from his head, even though they button the scene with Walter asking for a spoon and a scalpel. By using a pig’s eye, which, for some reason, Walter has on-hand by the dozens, they’re able to transfer Manfredi’s retina pattern onto the surrogate.
Peter, decked-out in a Loyalist uniform, and Etta head through the campus, largely undetected, to get the power re-routed to the lab. The pig eye works, but there are several questions over the intercom from some security personnel. Namely, they want to know why Manfredi is in that particular section. Manfredi, back in the lab with sympathetic Olivia, offers up some cock-and-bull story over the radio, drops the name of someone very important, and the security guys buy it. Open sesame!
Now returned to the lab, Etta removes Mandredi’s cuffs and tells them they’re leaving. She plans to turn him over to her pals in the Resistance, but in the end discovers she is her mother’s daughter and lets him walk.
“Fringe” is at its best when it exposes its empathy, benevolence, and compassion. Sadly, what happens next is its convoluted worst.
In the final scene, Walter finally gets the old video camera out of the amber and electricity is successfully restored to the lab. He inserts the video tape into an ancient VCR. What’s on the tape is, well, exactly what we’ve come to expect from Abrams.
Walter, in his infinite insanity, recorded all the clues to stop the Observers on several video tapes—we don’t know the number and I’ll bet you a dollar neither does Abrams—which the gang must now find and put all the data together to destroy the observers.
Video-tape Walter implores whoever is watching the video, in one of the most overblown, melodramatic “should you accept this quest the whole of humankind will be counting on you” speeches, to go find that first video tape now. The game is afoot!
Let’s hope this all leads to somewhere awesome in episode three. The season opener was awesome and gives us optimism for a great final run from a series that has had its ups and downs but has mostly been entertaining.
Stephanie Caldwell is a writer for CableTV.com. She is TV and gaming geek who has been playing more video games lately than she should be working.