Well, now the search for a series of Betamax tapes can begin in earnest.
Walter (John Noble) and September hashed out a plan to defeat the Observers. First it was scrambled inside of Walter’s brain, so no one could piece it together. In the last episode of Fringe we learned that the fragmented plan was recorded and stashed on videotapes, which were then secreted all over the place. Only when all of the tapes are found and watched will the plan to liberate humanity from their futuristic oppressors finally come together.
This is Fringe we’re talking about, so you know it can never be as simple as locating some home movies. There are problems with the tapes, and riddles, clues, and mysteries to unravel before the answers become clear. As soon as you find out about them, you know this device is going to run for a while, that each tape will function as a piece of the puzzle, and that episodes are going to play out like a board game, where the Fringe team has to roll the dice, pick a card, and accomplish whatever mission is assigns.
That’s precisely where we find ourselves at the beginning of “The Recordist.” After freeing the latest tape from amber and watching Walter take a few bong rips, the gang follows directions to a remote, undeveloped tract of land in northern Pennsylvania. What they’re looking for, they don’t know, but that’s where Walter told them to go from 21 years in the past, so that’s where they go.
Upon arrival they come across a group of refugees living off the grid all these years since the invasion. Afflicted by a strange condition, they look like they have bark on their skin, creating a feeling that they are more a part of the forest than civilization. Living outside of society, they also largely live outside of the conflict. These are nonparticipants, noncombatants. They themselves are observers who sit back and record events rather than taking part in them. In their underground hall of records, they take note of any incident of historical import, preserving the story of the human race to ensure the intruders can’t rewrite it.
When this removed stance comes into play, you know that at some point circumstances are going to compel one of these passive watchers into action. And that’s exactly what happens. With the Observers hot on the tail of Olivia, Peter, Etta, and Walter, and the disease beginning to cause problems for the outsiders, you know it won’t be long before the mousy Edwin (Paul McGillion) has to do something drastic. After all, they have a mythic lore about the Fringe team, one that Edwin’s son, River (Connor Beardmore), views as heroic legend. The kid writes his own comic books about them, some based on stories, others that he makes up.
The story of Edwin and River is really about a father stepping up to prove himself to his son, to teach him the true difference between cowardice and heroism. You’re supposed to draw parallels to what is going on within the Bishop clan, but the whole arc is melodramatic and heavy-handed, and for the first time this season, Fringe rings false. As soon as these new elements are introduced, the story can end one way, and one way only. After back-to-back strong episodes, “The Recordist,” though still solid, is the weakest link thus far.
There are a handful of small bits, quick glimpses throughout the episode that add some nice new angles on the world of 2036. You start to feel the true scope of the dissent and rebellion simmering. Not only is there this one group, but there are others, similar to Edwin’s, enclaves that exist outside the purview of the Observers. Maybe they’re not as all powerful as they portray themselves. After all, if you’re really that in control, do you need banners and signs everywhere proclaiming it as such?
The rebels have their fingers in a lot pies. Not only is Etta, ostensibly a government agent, a part of the uprising, but even in the most die-hard segments there are moles. Last episode Manfretti said he would be a spy for the resistance after his release. While you suspect he wasn’t the only one originally strong-armed into joining the loyalists who has become disillusioned, “The Recordist” confirms this when one of them tips off Etta.
This is the future, and what is going to happen in the future? Food is going to come in pill form, that’s what. When Peter complains about hunger, his daughter hands him a pill. Turns out that little tablet is actually an apple. Who knew? As he tosses the “fruit” in his mouth, you share the same bemused grin that he wears. Sci-fi fans will appreciate this small nod to a classic genre trope.
For all the talk of conflict and invasion, all we’ve seen so far this season are cities that are more or less intact. Sure, Central Park has been paved over, things are generally on the grim side of the coin, and there is some squatting going on, but the streets aren’t littered in rubble, and we’re not all living in the ashes.
However, the last thing you see in “The Recordist” shifts that perspective a few degrees. As Olivia, Peter, Etta, and Walter drive off in a dusty station wagon, they pass through the skeletal ruins of a city. It’s very post-apocalyptic in appearance. Much like the reach of the rebellion, and the small pockets of humanity living under the radar, this view changes the way you look at things. It’s another piece in the puzzle, but the picture is something different than the one painted by the Observers. Again, maybe they’re not as in control as they like to think.