Fringe 5.02 "In Absentia" REVIEW

TV REVIEW It's torture in the Observers' future

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Fringe 5.02 "In Absentia" TV REVIEW

Episode 5.02
Writers: JH Wyman, David Fury
Director: Jeannot Szwarc

THE ONE WHERE Walter, Peter, Olivia, Astrid and Etta go back to Walter's old lab at Harvard – now encased in amber – to recover the video camera that may hold the key (aka a message from Walter) to saving the world from the Observers.

VERDICT New seasons of Fringe are traditionally slow-starters, generally taking three or four episodes to get properly into their stride. Season five has bucked the trend, however, kicking off with two stories to rank alongside the show's best – high praise.

And while last week's episode finished on a downer, with the world-saving information in Walter's head apparently tortured out of him, "In Absentia" reveals a new hope – he recorded himself on Betamax video giving clues for finding the info that'll bring our salvation. On the evidence of this, it's looking like the rest of the season will feature elements of a quest like Harry Potter's hunt for Horcruxes, with Walter's video messages the McGuffin – yet another new format for a show that can't help evolving.

Yet again, though, it's Fringe 's character beats as much as the plot that make it so memorable. As ever, nobody (with the possible exception of the Observers) is ever 100 per cent good or bad, and here your sympathies are constantly shifting – particularly with Manfretti, the loyalist guard who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gets himself prematurely aged and his atoms scrambled, by Etta's rather unpleasant "Angel Device". Is he victim or villain? It's a little bit of both – but mostly he's just a guy who doesn't want to live his life in fear. It's a neat twist at the end that his story about wanting to get a message to his son was a cunning ruse for self-preservation – and that Etta's cynicism was bang on the money, despite being driven by extreme prejudice. Fringe is not a show that deals in two-dimensional characters.

Ultimately this is an episode built around Etta – and Olivia and Peter don't always like what they see of their grown-up daughter. Hardened by living most of her life under the Observers' occupation, she's prepared to resort to torture to get what she needs, sees the lives of humans loyal to the Observers as worthless, and has an itchy trigger finger – as revealed when Peter has to restrain her from retaliating after they see her old partner Simon's disembodied (and blinking) head in the Observers' top secret science facility.

The interplay between the leads is magnificent, in what – were it not for futuristic torture devices and Walter's DIY laser cutter – could easily work as a stage drama. Anna Torv, who's already played a myriad versions of Olivia, wheels out yet another take on the character – Olivia the mother – and she delivers an impressive range of emotions, as Olivia's compassionate stance towards the captive guard and anger at her daughter's actions is tempered by a realisation that this future is so screwed up that decent people have been driven to do terrible things. Meanwhile, Georgina Haig (so believable as Peter and Olivia's daughter it's as if she was born for the role) completely holds her own as Etta, her initially cold demeanour gradually thawing as she starts to see her mum's point of view. It says a lot for Haig's performance and the quality of the writing that, after only three episodes, she already feels a key part of the ensemble.

TECH WARS Walter's obviously got a thing for obsolete audiovisual technology – he recorded his video on Betamax, and smashed up his beloved LaserDisc player to cannibalise a laser. Presumably the rest of his messages were recorded on similarly defunct formats like HD DVD, MiniDisc and DCC, in the assumption that the Observers won't have any compatible machines to play them on. Walter really is a genius!

WHAT'S IN A NAME? Even in the future, Walter's having trouble with his sidekick's name – this week Astrid is Astral.

GETTING A HEAD We'd been asking if Henry Ian Cusick's resistance agent Simon would be returning. We've now got our answer.

TRIVIA We wondered if security guard Gael's access code – 010567 – had any particular relevance; maybe a date. In the American format (ie 5 January 1967) we found nothing of note, aside from the date of birth of Stargate Atlantis 's Joe Flanigan; by UK convention, however, (1 May 1967), it's the day Elvis Presley married Priscilla. That's probably totally irrelevant.

SPECULATION What's the significance of Etta's necklace? It looks like a bullet. Could it be the one that Walter removed from Olivia's brain in the season four finale ?

SPECULATION 2 It's rather sad seeing Walter's lab gone derelict, and crucially we never learned what happened to Gene the Cow. Is she encased in amber along with the rest of Walter's things? Hopefully the team put her out to pasture before everything went wrong.

SPECULATION 3 When's Broyles coming back? We're missing him!

Walter: "Flying vermin. You'd think after 21 years the Observers would have found a way to get rid of them first. Or at least find a use for them. Maybe freeze dry them and hand them out to the poor as sustenance."
Richard Edwards

Fringe airs on Fox on the US on Friday nights. It returns to UK screens on Sky1 from Wednesday 24 October.

Read our review of the previous episode of Fringe

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.