‘Fringe’: ‘In Absentia’ review

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After this week’s Fringe, it is clear that saving the world is not only going to be far from straightforward, but that it is going to come with a whole load of moral complications too. Olivia must be wondering what sort of world she’s trying to save when the resistance so nonchalantly embraces the repurposing of dangerous Observer technology for torture. It’s amazing how much world building ‘In Absentia’ does with so few locations and a clearly limited budget; through the eyes of both a captured loyalist (played by Eric Lange) and a bitter Etta, the cold harshness and cruelty of 2036 is made even more real.

The episode sees the team return to Harvard to check if there is anything of use in their old lab. Walter’s scrambled mind is struggling with the device discovered in the premiere, and it’s unclear whether it may be doing more harm than good. Harvard, though, is now a base for the Observers and one that is hard to get into. While the characters do manage to enter the lab through the tunnels below, accessing other parts of the building proves more of a challenge. A loyalist to the Observers is also discovered, and Etta questions him to gain the necessary information.

One of the central problems that Olivia and Peter now face is the difficulty of relating to a daughter that they barely know. This is particularly the case for Olivia this week as she stands on the sidelines disapprovingly watching Etta torture their captive. This dilemma is particularly interesting, and the lack of familiarity to this world makes it tough to tell who is right or wrong. In the end, Olivia convinces Etta to be merciful but it is also revealed that the man managed to lie very convincingly to her, making Etta’s cautiousness appropriate.

As strong as the season premiere was, ‘In Absentia’ allows a great chance for Fringe to take a breath and refocus its characterisation before the final season really gets going. Lange is excellent as the Fringe team’s captive and even considering his lies, there’s far more to him than being just an evil loyalist. By the end of the episode, the show has also found a way to plausibly bring back a case-of-the-week structure, with the team needing to hunt down the remaining Betamax tapes to uncover Walter’s plan.

For much of Fringe’s third and fourth seasons, it was very concerned with identity and what makes a person who they really are. This is a theme that has been present in previous seasons too, and it now looks like the question is being asked of society as a whole, forcing the characters to ponder what makes humanity worth saving. ‘In Absentia’ is a quieter episode than the premiere, but its assured approach to character development and world building make it an interesting and effective instalment that is essential for the season-long conflict.

Aired at 10pm on Wednesday 31 October 2012 on Sky1.

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