Fringe 2.8: "August"

“Fringe” has been delivering an interesting second season. While the show has definitely evolved since its stumbling start, I’m not sure that the best lessons of the first season have been learned. The second half of the first season was remarkable for its deft treatment of both episodic and serialized story elements. This season, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be gelling as well as one might hope.

I’m not going to suggest that this is some sort of sophomore slump; the season has not fallen into any self-destructive patterns. Nor have there been critical casting misfires, like the one that crippled some of the original plans for the second season of “Lost”. It’s just a feeling that the writers are still trying to satisfy the original intent: a mostly episodic structure with a few important serialized arcs.

Finding the perfect balance has always been the challenge. Networks prefer episodic formats, because it makes the show more accessible in syndication packages. (The nature of that market has changed dramatically over the past decade, but some essential rules still apply.) Shows like “The X-Files” suffered from the desire to tell a bigger story while sticking to a discrete anthology-style format. Characters would deal with momentous events in one episode, seemingly changing everything, only to shift back into a routine status quo with the very next episode. While it helps to make the show an easier sell for new viewers, it frustrates the fans that enjoy the big picture.

The flipside is a heavily-serialized show that manages to break up the story into bite-sized chunks in each episode. “Lost” and “Flashforward” are two current examples. While this allows the writing staff to tackle multi-layered concepts and complex storytelling, it also makes it hard for new viewers to jump into the series. I’m fairly sure it would be impossible for anyone to start watching “Lost” at the beginning of the sixth season this spring and make sense of it.

The balance is a constant work in progress. Even shows like “Supernatural”, where that balance has been nearly perfect since the series began, can suddenly lose the delicate equilibrium (as seen this season). The trick is making that balance a part of the DNA of every season. Shows like “Alias”, “Buffy”, “Angel” and “Supernatural” have excelled at putting together season arcs with a satisfying build and payoff, while keeping the format loose enough to allow for the episodic stories to be told.

While the season is still relatively young, I’m not feeling that sense of clear direction. For better or worse, the end of the first season made some compelling promises. It felt like the game was about to move to the next level. In many respects, it hasn’t. Even this episode, one of the best of the season, seems oddly disconnected from the whole. Only the connections to the unfolding story of Peter’s true origin keep it from being rather self-contained.

This episode was meant to expose startling information about the Observers, but I was left a bit underwhelmed. It certainly raised a number of intriguing questions, particularly about the nature of the Observers and why they are suddenly all over the place, but it was mostly speculation from the usual suspects.

I’m not at all certain that it was a good idea to pull back the curtain on the Observers in such a fashion. I think they were more interesting as something unknown and vaguely threatening, an outward sign of something worthy of wonder and dread. I really didn’t need to know about the Observers in more depth, other than their role within the story, and even that could have been saved for a moment when the revelation would be crushing. The unknown has an ominous strength that the known cannot possess.

That’s not to say this was a bad episode. I’ve always liked Peter Woodward, going back to his performances as Galen in the “Babylon 5” universe, and he made a capable Observer. He did a good job of selling the notion that a seemingly untouchable being might be compromised by emotional attachment.

That seemed to tie into the story behind Alt-Peter’s abduction by Walter, which is still unclear. I had forgotten the detail about the car accident, and how an Observer apparently saved their lives. The question is: how does this connect to Walter’s ongoing insistence that Peter was very sick as a child? I suspect that the real story is that Peter’s illness was a ruse, a way to explain the side effects of whatever process Walter used to scrub away Alt-Peter’s memories of his former life. Peter Prime may not have survived the car crash at all.

The unusual nature of the Observer’s relationship with time might also imply a unique relationship with alternate realities. Moving between realities has been shown to alter sensory perception; perhaps this is why the Observers need to spice up their food. Whatever the case, the involvement of an Observer in Walter’s abduction of Alt-Peter has been heavily implied. Is it possible that this impending collision of realities is, in fact, the result of catastrophic Observer interference?

The pieces don’t necessarily fit, and clearly that is intentional. The mystery of Peter’s abduction and its relationship to the conflict to come is a major element of the season arc. I’m just concerned that the writers are parsing the information a bit too much. The revelations at the end of the first season demanded a bit of plot acceleration, and I’m worried that we haven’t seen it yet.


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