The trouble with sliding comfortably into an episodic pattern is that you set up a series of expectations that, if not met, will have an overtly negative impact on the viewer's reception. Fringe has been running for so long on the 'three stand alones, one big mythology hour before break' formula that it's somewhat redundant to even state the fact. Unsurprisingly, after three episodes with very little bearing on the arc plot, along comes a story, titled 'Jacksonville' no less, that promises to ramp up the progression, just before, shock of shocks, a hiatus! Well, I never. The problem here, however, is that it struggles to deliver against the expectations that we justifiably have for it. This certainly isn't a bad episode of Fringe by any means, but by focusing all of the arc plot movement into a single hour, the writers shoot themselves in their respective feet. If they'd maintained a steady momentum, tied the stand alones into the mythology to a greater extent, and steadily revealed certain elements, what we get here wouldn't feel quite so underwhelming.
To begin, how many times must we see Olivia strapped to a chair, forced to enter a 'dream like' state? This is a thorn in Fringe's side, the sort of half-baked deux et machina that allows the writers to get themselves out of sticky situations. It robs the episode of its dramatic momentum; for all the scenes are executed well, making good use of chiaroscuro and soundtrack to manufacture something truly eerie, the teleology feels weak. The drive to prevent another cross-dimensional incident is subsumed by the inner workings of Dunham's conscience and this sadly doesn't have the suspenseful pull to captivate. Unfortunately, it's somewhat contrived too. Once again, we're treated to some cod-psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo about Olivia's emotions affecting her abilities: she needs to get scared, to revert to a child-like state in order to see the glimmer. And unsurprisingly, before hour's end, she's miraculously able to do so, despite years of blocking out such feelings and maturing into adulthood. It's just so darn predictable: why do we need to resolve the enigma, to restore the equilibrium before the episode ends? Would it hurt to present a more human side to the character for once and have her fail? At least that way, there would be some genuine tension and, get this, significance to the threat. A quick fix isn't always the best solution.
The fix itself is rather questionable too. In order to find her scaredycatness again, Olivia needs the possibility of a smooch with a close male colleague... there's a shred of sexism in there, if you can find it. This whole strand feels unnecessarily fluffy and pointless and sadly, reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture further conflict. Lo and behold, Olivia and Peter begin to see each other in 'a new light' just as Dunham is able to see glimmers around those who don't belong, thereby revealing Walter's secret and setting the narrative on the inevitable trajectory of Olivia feels guilty, doesn't tell Peter, it weighs down on their potential relationship just as things start to get serious, Peter somehow finds out, feels betrayed, they 'split up' and the season ends with young Bishop waltzing off to the alternate universe to 'find himself' or some such contrite nonsense. Actually, that's not a bad guess for the cliffhanger: Peter scarpers, closes the 'gate' behind him, Walter and Olivia are left alone. If I was a betting man...
There is a great deal of potential in 'Jacksonville' and some of it is realised well. The basic crux of the story is inherently intriguing, with a stellar teaser sequence that is stunningly executed, creating some truly horrifying, but memorable, visuals. The methodical pacing of the Jacksonville scenes work wonders, with reflective piano music and slow shots that linger on the minutiae working in conjunction to create a potent sense of wonder and displacement, as well as a notably eerie undercurrent. It's just a shame that these strengths don't filter through to the other aspects of the narrative. The writers channel their energies into over-utilised plot tropes rather than unique, engaging drama. Olivia's dream trips are becoming tiresome, the overall story lacks oomph and the realisation of the connection between Peter and Dunham is just a convenient plot manoeuvre rather than a logical development. We've come to expect rather more of Fringe and justifiably so; let's hope the remainder of the season delivers.