Fringe Review: "The Recordist" (Episode 5.03)
“There’s a time for recording history, and there’s a time for making it.”-Edwin Massey
Two steps forward, two steps back. So far the fifth season of Fringe closely resembles a cha-cha. This wouldn’t have been a bad episode if it was in the middle of the second season, but at this late date it feels head-scratchingly inadequate.
Thanks to some old-school videotape recovery techniques by Astrid (has there ever been a bigger Deus Ex Machina character than Astrid Farnsworth?), our heroes take a camping trip to rural Pennsylvania armed only with a set of coordinates, some handguns and their wits. They are, of course, immediately captured by a mysterious group of forest dwellers who don’t take kindly to strangers. But the strangers aren’t what they seem, and in the end both sides must find a way to work together to overcome some unexpected obstacles.
It’s never a good sign when the plot synopsis of your episode could have been on the back of a VHS box in 1982.
Moving on, there was no flashback to begin the hour this week, but the aftermath of Etta’s disappearance during the Observer invasion hangs heavy over the proceedings and it continues to be a problem. Once again we are asked to react to an event that we have only briefly witnessed and that we, by design, don’t completely understand. A word to the writers: You can have your mystery or you can have your emotional impact, but you can’t have both. The unfortunate result is yet another long dramatic discussion between Peter and Olivia that carries no real weight and, even worse, feels like it is happening between alternate universe versions of the characters rather than the heroes that we’ve followed for four seasons.
The mother/daughter reunion storyline with Olivia and Etta continues to develop and continues to be bland and uninteresting. While I still think that Georgina Haig has a charisma problem, the larger issue is that I’m still not convinced that there’s a compelling chunk of story to be mined there anyway. Again, this iteration of Olivia rings false to me and I find myself wondering if the writing staff used a bad thesaurus this season when they were planning Olivia’s character growth. Note: Stoic does not mean mopey, and conflicted isn’t the same thing as “filled with self-doubt.” It’s particularly telling that the most involving parent-child moments of the episode take place between a father and son who are guest stars.
The father and son are Edwin and River Massey, part of a group of refugees who have set up camp in the Pennsylvania wilderness in order to hide from the Observers. I initially assumed that they would be freedom fighters and expected the usual “suspicious band of rebels who eventually not only embrace the outsiders but make them the new leaders of the group” plotline, but was pleasantly surprised that for all intents and purposes these people turned out to be librarians. Set on preserving the truth of human history, Massey and his clan meticulously archive every scrap of information they can find relating to the Observer invasion and, tangentially, the Fringe team. It’s a neat little twist and I had to wonder if it was a bit of a tip of the hat to the fanboys of the world who obsessively wiki every facet of shows like Fringe.
The scavenger hunt motif was resurrected and there was a fun bit of business with Walter’s out-of-order video tapes, but the bottom line is that this week offered almost no progress in the larger arc save for the eventual possession of some mysterious radioactive red rocks at episode’s end. It’s curious that the creative forces are wasting precious time that could be spent dealing directly with the fight against the Observers. Once again the issue of reduced budgets rears its head. After all, shooting an episode almost entirely in the woods has to cost less than effects-heavy scenes in the city.
Whether money problems are the cause or not, in the end this episode is a bit of a throwaway both in tone and execution, and laziness abounds. For instance, though we do see the Observers and Loyalists eventually tracking down the Fringe team, there are multiple references made to parts of the group returning to the city to retrieve items and supplies needed to venture into the radioactive mine safely. You would think that since our heroes are public enemies that the city would be completely locked down with checkpoints, yet no explanation is given for how easily they can move about without detection. Another note to the writers: It isn’t enough to simply tell us that they’re being hunted, particularly when what you are showing us obviously contradicts what we’re being told.
Perhaps most egregious in the laziness department is the completely toothless disease that the forest rebels suffer from. We get a token scene where the heroes begin to show signs of infection which is almost immediately negated and then never revisited. Thus there is never any real tension or danger created for the audience and it almost feels as if the only reason that the disease existed as a plot point is to explain how Dr. Massey could survive long enough in the mine to retrieve the red rocks at episode’s end.
After all was said and done, there was a whole lot of gnashing of teeth and overwrought emotion that didn’t really add up to anything. Except for the red rocks, almost nothing has changed from the beginning of the night. With only a dozen hours to go, that’s a enough to make you wonder.
Some closing thoughts:
-Love the nods to Lost involving the videotapes, particularly the fact that they are out of order. The only thing that would have made it more on the nose is if Walter introduced himself under a different pseudonym at the beginning of each tape. Love it.
-While I can’t point to one specific thing, there was a real John Carpenter vibe to tonight’s episode. Everything from the smoky backlighting in some shots to the closeups of the Loyalist’s boots had an ’80s (and specifically Carpenter) feeling to it. Or maybe I was getting bored and just started looking for things that weren’t there.