“We’re gonna be okay.” -Nina Sharpe
Watching Fringe this season is like doing the cha-cha. For every step forward there’s a step back, you never know when things are going to go sideways, and you’re always struggling to keep things straight.
“A Better Human Being” is a microcosm of the season as a whole. What’s good is very good, but there are just enough missteps to keep it from making the jump from “very good” to “excellent.”
Let’s start with the good. Anna Torv. Two words are all I need. I can’t imagine what direction she was given as to how she should portray this timeline’s Olivia with original timeline Olivia’s memories, but somehow I never doubted her for a second. It would have been easy to simply portray her as Olivia Prime, but thankfully Torv decided to go deeper than that because despite their similarities, they really aren’t the same person. This Olivia was raised by Nina and actually had a maternal figure in her life. As a result, she’s warmer and more trusting. That said, I think Olivia Prime actually values her relationships more since more time and effort is involved to develop them. The two of them in one mind is a somewhat idealized version of Olivia who is not only capable of deep caring, but who is also possessed of a placid optimism that is completely un-Olivialike. As the sum of two Olivias, however, it makes not only logical sense, but emotional sense and Torv plays it so well that by the end it’s a little depressing to imagine going back to one of the old versions of Olivia and I suspect that’s the point.
Peter’s reaction to the mixed Olivia isn’t handled quite as well. He is reticent at first, followed by concerned. It takes until the end of the episode before he finally comes around to soul-celebrating joy which is a little late in my opinion. Is this case, it may make logical sense, but it doesn’t hold up emotionally. There has been a certain “zen” to Peter since his return. I’ve always read it as a combination of joy at being back in the world, happiness to see the people he loves (even if they aren’t quite as he remembers them), and a confidence (based on past events) that everything will be alright because almost anything is quite literally possible in the Fringe universe.
Peter is a smart guy. He may not be quite on Walter’s level, but very close. I don’t think it strains credulity to suggest that it has to have occurred to him that he could end up in this timeline forever. His scenes with Olivia play as if he hasn’t thought about all the possible ways this could all play out which is a disservice to the character. Additionally, delaying his acceptance of Olivia as ‘his Olivia’ until the end of the episode simply so that you could immediately have her kidnapped is a disservice to the audience. So Peter’s primary goal is to defy the known laws of physics in order to get back to his true love but when she miraculously appears right in front of him, there’s not even a second of awe? Not a moment of teary amazement? I don’t buy it and placing it just before her abduction wreaks of blatant manipulation. There’s a lesson here: never let your plot structure get in the way of character development. As it is, we get the character moments that we want, but the placement robs us of some of its impact.
The plot this week revolves around a schizophrenic patient in a mental hospital who shares a telepathic connection with three men who are on a murder spree. It turns out that all four men are related to each other, all having been delivered by the same fertility doctor who inseminated hundreds of his patients with his own sperm (plus some genetic toying) in an effort to produce a ‘better human’. It isn’t one of the better plots that the writers have come up with over the years. The obvious Nazi thematic reference aside, the same plot device has also been used on Law and Order: SVU. For a show that is supposed to be about cutting edge science, being compared to SVU is not a good sign.
The plot isn’t a huge problem, though. As Fringe has ably demonstrated over the years, virtually any setup will suffice so long as we get to see our favorite characters in action. From that perspective, this week’s outing is quite good with Lincoln and Walter getting an especially juicy plotline.
When Walter examines Olivia to try and determine where her new memories came from, he discovers that she has large amounts of cortexophan in her system. Walter and Lincoln confront Nina Sharpe who leads them to Massive Dynamic’s most secure vault in order to prove that their stock of the drug is still there. This whole sequence is very well conceived and executed. All three characters are being deceptive, but it isn’t always clear why and to what end which amps up the suspense. The highlight of the resolution is that Walter discovers that the cortexophan has been replaced via a taste test. I’m not sure what’s more amusing, that Walter simply drinks one of the vials without a second thought, or that he knows what potassium iodide and red dye no. 4 taste like.
But just as we are enjoying Walter’s epiphany and triumph over Nina, we get the episode’s biggest bombshell. Olivia wakes up tied to a chair and sitting across from her and also tied to a chair is…Nina Sharpe. The implication, of course, is that the Nina at Massive Dynamic (and the one who has been drugging Olivia) is a shapeshifter. By my count, that means that the bad guys had Nina, Walternate’s head scientist and alt-Broyles (either a shapeshifter or a collaborator) on their side. I’m not sure what their endgame is, but that sure is a lot of infiltration.
The only real problem this week is missed opportunities. Once again, as with “Forced Perspective” which dealt with a pre-cognitive teenage girl, the writers seem intent on having a plot which parallels the larger mythology symbolically, but with no direct overlap. Having a genetic cause for telepathy could have had major ramifications for Walter’s investigation into Olivia’s new memories, but in the end there was no correlation. All in all, it was a frustratingly uneven week. There were some excellent moments (Peter and Olivia kissing in the car, Walter and Lincoln vs. Nina) but they were we mixed in with mediocrity (the Peter/Olivia plot structure, the hackneyed story). The good news is that nothing happened to derail the larger story. If anything, we got some forward progression in the larger arc and a humdinger of a cliffhanger which in the grand scheme of things is an overall win.
Some closing thoughts:
-Another missed opportunity for me was Astrid’s interaction with the schizophrenic telepath, Sean. The scenes are fine, but after Jasika Nicole’s amazing work as both Astrids a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting and revealing those scenes could have been if it was alt-Astrid instead of Astrid Prime working with the boy.
-Along the same lines, I know that budgets are tight, but it seems strange to me at the this point when we go an entire episode without seeing anything that’s happening on the other side at all. Particularly with the new era of bipartisan cooperation and Olivia’s new memories, you’d think we would have at least gotten a scene of someone in the alt-universe getting involved. Maybe next week.
-Lincoln is growing on me. His read on Nina and refusing to let her make a phone call was a nice detail that spoke volumes. It’s one thing to tell us that these people are great investigators and agents. It’s much better to show us.