Just a friendly reminder, don’t read this until you watch this week’s episode. But you probably knew that already.
Episode two of Fringe‘s fifth season, “In Absentia,” is really more about Etta (Georgina Haig) than anything else. Last week’s episode centered around a sweet, warm, and fuzzy family reunion. Olivia (Anna Torv), Peter (Joshua Jackson), and Etta are just so gosh darn happy to see each other that all they want to do is catch up and hug. And, you know, rescue Walter and fight the Observers.
Moving forward, especially given the state of the world and the underground human resistance against those pasty, fedora-wearing Observers, you knew things weren’t going to stay so rosy forever. “In Absentia” takes some of the hints from last week, subtle bits that you weren’t sure meant what you thought they meant, and expands on them.
When the rebel Fringe team captures a loyalist with the awesome name of Gayle Manfretti, you see Etta’s business side for the first time. Turns out she’s a by-any-means-necessary kind of girl, one who isn’t afraid to use an Angel Device—a nasty little gizmo that destabilizes atoms, rapidly ages the victim, and sucks their will to lie—to get what she needs.
Peter largely turns a blind eye to how hardened his little girl has become, but not Liv. There’s too much compassion in her to simply ignore the ice-cold reserve that lurks inside her daughter. Try as she might, she can’t come to terms with the future; she just can’t seem to wrap her head around the state of the world. From every side, too, not only the Observers, the resistance, or Etta; the situation has spiraled so far out of control that nothing makes any sense to her anymore.
Etta’s tough exterior isn’t necessarily something innate in her, as it is a result of what the surrounding world has done to her, forced her to become. The Observers are brutal, ruthless, and operate without remorse, and as a necessity, so does the resistance, who can’t afford to be any less hard than their enemy. This raises the question, is the resistance actually that much better? After so many years, have they become exactly what they were originally fighting against?
There are cracks in Etta’s front. When she discovers the true nature of what goes on in the science building at Harvard—that they’re keeping the severed head of her friend and partner alive, performing experiments on it—all of her suppressed rage and emotions boil over, and she almost loses her shit. And in the end, just when you think Etta may prove herself to be a lost cause, to be beyond redemption, she surprises you, pleasantly, by freeing their loyalist captive.
But it isn’t, strictly speaking, Etta’s idea to let him go. Something she sees in her mother’s eyes—something Manfretti sees as well—softens her and causes a shift in her perspective. It feels like she has simply been going through the motions, but as Manfretti observes, looking into Olivia’s eyes makes him believe, for the first time, that we were supposed to win.
Of all the things that Etta may be, no matter how cruel she can be, she’s not a cold-blooded killer. That softening is the effect that Olivia has on the people around her. She’s always had this sort of impact, ever since she first met Peter and Walter (John Noble), and the future hasn’t changed that. It is this influence that has been missing since Etta was taken from her parents all those years ago. We’ll see how this plays out in the weeks to come.
There are still so many questions about Etta and her story. It’s messy in there, and we’ve just started to scratch the surface with that one. This question came up last week, but what happened to her after she was abducted? Early on in “In Absentia” you see photos of a young Etta, posed with what, if you didn’t know better, looks like her parents. The more we learn about her, though, the more it seems like we don’t know.
Episode number two focuses in, narrowing in on a smaller scale from the wider view of the premiere. It is more about the characters, specifically Etta, rather than big, sweeping themes and ideas. The result is an incredibly strong chapter. Even within the more limited slice of life, you pick up a ton of information, not only about the characters, but about the world at large. You see how both the Observers and the resistance operate, learn why so many people climb aboard the loyalist bandwagon, and even get a peek at some of the nefarious dealings the Observers keep hidden under lock and key.
There is only a little bit of Walter in this episode. He’s present, but he and Astrid (Jasika Nicole) hang out in the background, doing their thing, turning a laserdisc player into a high-powered, amber-melting laser. We do still get a couple of classic Walter moments, however. He suggests freeze-drying pigeons to feed to the poor, and when the lights come on in his lab, he checks to see if the Clapper he installed many years ago is still functional. It is. Fringe just wouldn’t be the same without moments like these.