I was talking to a friend the other day about how I've been missing the case-of-the-week portion of Fringe in Season 5. The "mythalone" structures of Season 3 and Season 4 were fantastic television, but with only 13 episodes in Season 5 and a series to wrap up, there doesn't appear to be much room for anything but going on a hidden-tape scavenger hunt to rebuild Walter's master plan to rid the Earth of Observers (you know, it sounds a bit goofy when you actually say it).
Friday's episode of Fringe, "The Recordist," was the closest we've seen to a case-of-the-week episode in Season 5, and even though I asked for more case-of-the-week stuff, I wish the writers hadn't listened. Dull, predictable, and bloated with unnecessary details, "The Recordist" was everything we're not used to from Fringe. It hurts my heart to say it, but this was one of the worst episodes of Fringe ever and a scary omen that Season 5 might be in danger of ending things on a sour note. Please don't, Fringe. Please!
There's a lot of purposefully withheld information written into the backbone of Season 5 via Walter's fragmented system of Betamax tapes that each contain a step of his plan to blast the Observers back to their own future crusty rock. That doesn't make for the most interesting television; we're essentially watching a team whose plan is to rebuild a plan as they discover knowledge that one of them (pre-amnesia* Walter) already knew. It feels kind of like accompanying the team on a trip to the grocery store to get the things they need for a recipe they downloaded form the internet rather than actual freedom-fighter work. It's passive rather than proactive, and heroic journeys are always more interesting when they're not retracing someone else's steps, but rather blazing their own trails.
(*Yes, it's not actually amnesia, but the scrambling of brain parts may as well be. And amnesia is television's go-to plot device when things get dragging.)
This week the tape, out of order due to a constantly baked Walter dispersing the plan while also battling munchies and the urge to watch Tom & Jerry, led the group to a camp of scabby refugees in rural Pennsylvania. Edwin Massey was the leader of the group and kept records of human history on glass data cubes in a complex underground digital diary because his father told him the Observers would eventually get around to wiping out any reference to the old days when humans roamed the Earth. Massey was the future Human Preservation Society who just so happened to live right where Walter needed to be. Walter and company didn't know why they were where they were because the tape made by 2015 Walter was scrambled in just the right places so as to reveal the coordinates of where they needed to be but not what they were looking for. It wasn't until Astrid, held back at ex-Harvard, blew on the tape to unscramble it that they discovered their mission: Go into a mine. And it wasn't until they figured out they were supposed to go into the mine that Edwin pulled up an old record of someone getting taken away by Observers because he was going after rocks. So Walter deduced they were supposed to get those rocks. Why those rocks? We still don't know. All we know is Step A led them to Step B and further down the alphabet until rocks.
It was that sort of plodding plot progression that made "The Recordist" such a grind to get through, but it was the threats that made it disappointing. The super-acne affecting the camp was bound to spread onto our heroes, too, and it eventually did before simply being plucked off. The problem was that the closer one got to the mine, the more dangerous the super-acne was, and of course that's where the mysterious rocks were. So Walter set forth with making a suit that would be resistant to the super-acne, but that required copper, and only a nearby camp populated with dangerous people had access to copper and yeah the situation was full-on silly at that point. But it got sillier. There was an effort to tell a story of sacrifice and heroism through Edwin and his comic-obsessed son, but it fell flat because—and this will sound bad—Edwin tried too hard to impress his son by giving his life to get the rocks. There were other ways to get the rocks, but Edwin decided it was more important to prove himself (I don't think that was the writers' intention, but that's how it came off). Edwin deked us by refusing to go to the other camp to get copper because his plan all along was to go into the mine himself and pulley up the rocks for Walter while his backne became bodyne and he suffocated in a hard casing of crusty skin. All this could have been avoided with a bathtub full of Proactiv. And I'm still trying to figure out the point of the other camp.
And if that wasn't enough, "The Recordist" added a second ticking clock (the spreading of super-acne being the first) by sending a group of loyalists after our Fringe team. Except the loyalists had to drive all the way from Boston, so it was going to take a while. Instead of feeling like imminent danger, it felt more like, "Oh no! They're coming! They'll be here in... about 14 hours." With that threat almost a time zone away and the glacial spread of the super-acne, the episode had all the tension of waiting for an elevator.
In the end, Walter got his rocks, the super-acne was just forgotten about (apparently it's not a problem if you aren't near the mine) and no cure was offered to the campers, and the Fringe team avoided the loyalist threat by switching cars. Everything wrapped up not because the story arrived at an end, everything wrapped up because it had to: The episode's 44 minutes were up and it was time for the credits.
Bogged down with empty threats and unexplained goals, "The Recordist" was not what I would call a shining moment for Fringe. The idea of using tapes to kickstart a case-of-the-week structure works, but the execution just wasn't there this week. If the rest of this season's episodes involve the team watching a tape to get pieces of information and then going off-site, Astrid filling in the blanks, and seeing lots of things out of context, we're in trouble.
– The only interesting thing to come out of the episode was Olivia's chat with Peter, where she revealed that she didn't think she was "programmed" to be a mother when Etta was born, and that Etta's disappearance was punishment for having those feelings. Olivia won't be winning any "#1 Mother" mugs anytime soon. I guess Edwin's talk with his son somewhat mirrors Olivia's situation with Etta, and there was a nice moment at the end when Olivia made sure Etta was doing okay.
– So the scabby people all stay there and threaten their health so that they can jot notes down on data cubes? Reallllly? Are they the 2036 equivalent of the AD 79 residents of Pompeii? Pick up and move, guys, or none of your kids will get dates to the prom.
– Walter's "mine" and "mime" mix-up... funny or not funny? I'm voting not funny. However, Walter taking bong rips on camera is always good with me.
– I did like the look of the camp, especially the underground digital diary with the floating touchscreens and Siri functions.
– Do you think that Donald, the mysterious man who went into the mines five weeks after the invasion but was taken away by Observers, will make a reappearance?