Following last week's action-jammed Season 5 premiere episode, Fringe toned things down in "In Absentia." But the lack of kinetic excitement gave way to mental exercise in this thought-provoking episode that asked about the effects of war. "In Absentia" went back to the characters of Fringe and gave us a personal look inside the emotional aftermath of The Observer invasion, but, as we're used to with Fringe, did it in the most perfect of ways.
With the busy work of getting the team assembled again out of the way, the focus shifted back to finding the plan to rid the planet of bald freaks, and that meant seeing one more old friend: Walter's lab. Over the two decades that The Bishops had been in stasis, Harvard University had been turned into an Observer base while Yale giggled. But the team got in anyway through some steam tunnels with little difficulty, because apparently this big Observer lockdown isn't as dictatorial as we thought it would be.
And it's once they're in the lab that the episode really took off into something great. Walter realized that his plan to de-Observer the planet was on an old Betamax video that he ambered for preservation, and the new chore involved excavating it from the giant orange Jell-O mold. But that required getting enough power back to the lab to juice up a laser that could cut the camera out. Usually I'm not a fan of these types of chores just to fill out an hour (see: Revolution), but the events surrounding this particular task did a fantastic job of giving us insight into the characters and the state of the world. And that was all made possible by the addition of Manfretti (played by Eric Lange, Lost's Radzinski), a loyalist guard who just wanted to feed some pigeons.
Like Olivia, Peter, Walter, and Aspirin, we the audience have not been around to see what transpired between 2015 and 2036, when The Observers nosed in on us and turned the place into a parking lot, but Resistance member Etta and loyalist Manfretti have. The situation that was set up wasn't just the expected differences of opinion between two people on opposite sides of the war, because that would be too easy. Instead, we're given a third perspective through Olivia, who serves as our eyes and ears to figure out exactly how crummy things are right now. And they're so crummy, that it turned Etta into a bloodthirsty maniac.
There's a delightful cat-and-mouse game between Manfretti and Olivia (and later Manfretti and Etta) that could only be sold by Lange's ridiculously good performance. Manfretti became the key to everything; he has some knowledge of the operations at Harvard, and Etta gleefully volunteered to extract the information from him through the very scary Angel device, a Taser that ages its recipient into a landscape of grey and wrinkles. After a few decades sucked away, Manfretti relented after making a deal with Olivia to let his son know that he wasn't coming back. In that time, he convinced Olivia (and more importantly us) that the Resistance was responsible for killing one of his other children, and he joined the loyalists out of fear and to protect his family. It's a moment that makes us rethink this whole good guy / bad guy set up that played out in the last episode.
But there was no reconsidering for Etta, who we saw a different side of in "In Absentia." If there's any character that needed to get more complicated, it was her, and hooo boy did she. Her merciless torture of Manfretti was just the beginning of the end of this sweet young thing we thought we knew. Later in the episode, she's ready to blow her cover and ruin the stealth mission she was on with Peter for the self-satisfaction of killing a few Chrome Domes after seeing her old pal Simon about 175 pounds lighter (the animatronic severed head of Henry Ian Cusick), and after that, despite Olivia's protests, she couldn't wait to turn Manfretti over to the Resistance where horrible things would be forced upon him.
On one side, we had Manfretti, giving a convincing sympathetic performance as a man who joined the loyalists to protect his family, and on the other side was an angry young woman calling Manfretti a liar and itching for violent eye-for-an-eye payback. We questioned who we were supposed to believe, and Olivia was right there to question things with us. The good guys got badder, and the bad guys got gooder. And we were in the middle of a playing field not knowing who to root for anymore. It became the old freedom fighter or terrorist question all over again. I love this kind of stuff.
But Olivia and we knew that the enemy wasn't Manfretti, it was The Observers, and there's a middle ground to be reached. Olivia unknowingly played mediator, bringing the two sides together to battle the real enemy. It turned out that Manfretti was lying about his son just as Etta thought, but Olivia's determination made Manfretti realize that fighting the Observers wasn't the lost cause he thought. And Etta ended up letting him go because she saw the pity in her mom's eyes.
See? You can learn a lot from your elders. Olivia woke up from a 21-year nap to find her grown-up daughter stripped of her humanity as the pain of war chiseled away at it. But her ignorance of what happened since then had a resounding effect on both Etta and Manfretti. Here are two sides (the human Resistance and the human loyalists) so far apart that they might not even remember why they started fighting two decades ago in the first place, the hatred passed on by the person that trained them. But here comes Olivia, Walter, and Peter, fresh from the good old days to show them what's up.
Perhaps it's not the scientific wizardry of Walter, the super-intelligence of Peter, or the Cortexiphan boost of Olivia that's going to turn the tide of this war. Maybe it's their lack of the pain and suffering endured by two decades of war and suppression that is their greatest asset. In order to defeat The Observers, the natives will have to rise up together, and tonight, they made their first convert.
– I had originally thought this season would be a little more straightforward, but there are already theories bouncing around that this Etta was grabbed from another universe. Unless the writers bring the idea of multiple universes into the narrative of this season, I think we should discount that possibility!
– How did you like that trickery with the eyeball? They totally got me... I thought Walter scooped poor Manfretti's eyeball out of his head!
– Peter looks good in loyalist gear. (I know what you're saying, ladies, Peter looks good in everything but especially good in nothing.)
– Are we going to get flashbacks at the start of every episode and let the holes regarding what happened in 2015 fill in from there? I would be okay with that.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom