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TV Review: Fringe – “Amber 31422″

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Fringe is back from its hiatus! The story continues and the plot thickens with new layers of understanding as Walternate (John Noble) and Alt!Brandon (Ryan MacDonald) start experimenting on Olivia (Anna Torv) to figure out how she can cross over on her own. More ethical lines are crossed in this episode, which makes the alternate universe less black and white and more grey – what do you know, just like our universe. Even the show’s archvillain, Walternate, is showing some interesting signs of ‘greying’.

On this week’s episode, entitled “Amber 31422”, we head back to the alternate universe where Fringe Division is investigating a particularly unique sort of robbery; someone has broken into a quarantined area and has taken someone out of the amber he had been stuck in for four years.

It soon turns out that one of my previous hunches, shared with many Fringe fans and discussed a couple of times on The Fringe Report, was right: people stuck in amber are still alive, disturbingly enough. As Walternate explains it, they are stuck in a form of suspended animation and unfortunately, cutting them out would affect its structural integrity.

It’s information like this, sprinkled throughout the episode, that delighted me, what with the extra layers of sophistication added to both the alternate universe and, most importantly, to the character of Walternate. This season really seems to be about exploring shades of grey.

Another constant source of delight are the various cute little things sprinkled throughout the episode that made me smile, including Lee’s reference to the Nixon Parkway. The Glyphs are always intriguing, and this episodes’ spelled “EVENT”. Finding the Observer has become something of an automatic reflex; he was this time behind Lee and Scarlie when they notice Olivia’s car parked behind the bank, near the end of the episode.

While as always, there are those who complain that the storyline is advancing way too slowly, there is a growing number of Fringe fans who are starting to appreciate the storytelling technique used. The plot was an intricate mix of monster-of-the-week (even though there really wasn’t a monster involved this time) and mythology.

Four years ago, Joshua Rose’s twin brother got caught in amber while breaking into a bank vault. A professional bank robber, Joshua had developed a technique to get into these bank vaults that would create an instability in the fabric between the two universes; and so, any place he’d hit would get quarantined.

It’s now four years later, and Joshua removes his brother from the amber, setting off an alarm at Fringe Division. Investigating the case, Olivia figures out that Matthew and Joshua had swapped places; somehow, Matthew had been caught in the amber and Joshua had taken his place beside his wife, Danielle, and their sons.

The fact that the twins had been swapped was a little bit of an obvious plot twist but was really well delivered. It also underlined some very interesting concepts, as their story is, in essence, one of regret and redemption. Four years ago, Matthew had tried to stop Joshua from condemning another group of innocent souls from being caught in amber, and got caught in it instead. For the next four years, Joshua did everything he could to save his twin, the guilt at having stolen so many years of his life gnawing at him. But when Joshua got Matthew out, he also got Fringe Division on their tails. The only way Joshua could ensure that his twin, his sister-in-law and his nephews could lead a normal life was to either die, or be caught in amber, for if he were captured, Fringe Division would conduct numerous tests on Matthew. Knowing the nature of the military government that leads the United States in the alternate universe, one can only imagine what would happen to him.

It’s interesting to note the parallel between Matthew and Joshua’s story with that of Peter and Walter; who can forget Peter’s accusations, in Season 2’s “The Man from the Other Side”, that Walter had stolen him from the other universe, thus keeping him from his rightful place.

A recurring scientific concept in this episode is, of course, that of passing through solid objects by loosening their atomic structure through the use of high frequency vibrations. Of course, hard core Fringe fans immediately remembered Season 1’s Mitchell Loeb, who used a very similar technique in two episodes, “The Equation” and “Safe” (eight and tenth episode of the season, respectively).

I know it’s a bit of a huge stretch, but the similarities between the technique used by Loeb and that used by Joshua triggers two sets of questions. First off, did Joshua work with Loeb or his team at some point to figure out the equation, since he himself had already figured out a way of going through solid walls? And secondly, could the banks in which Walter hid the pieces of his device have anything in common with those Joshua hit?

The negative matter ring that Joshua used on the wall of the bank was akin to that Walter used in Season 2’s episode “Peter”. This could make sense in that Walter was also then manipulating the molecular structure of the fabric between the two universes while Joshua was manipulating the molecular structure of the wall. Mayhap we are going to find out more about this technique at a later date.

There is also the recurring scientific concept of the sensory deprivation tank. Walternate’s sensory deprivation tank is a lot more sophisticated than Walter; by the same token, Walternate’s working habits are also quite different from Walters’.  The former gives Brandon orders and watched, the latter is quite hands on. It’s almost as if Walternate is taking a step back from the very science he developed. Maybe he is doing so to be able to shut off his morality and be able to do what’s needed?

I found it very interesting that it is only through the use of such a tank, combined with injection of drugs, that enables Olivia to tap into her ability. Just like meditation and focusing techniques can help us rid ourselves of our veils, I’m certain that Olivia could learn to access her ability in a more natural way. She needs to put the time and effort to acquire the mental discipline to jump between universes. Let us not forget the fact that Olivia’s perception is very acute, which implies that she could probably learn to tap into any part of her brain; let us also not forget that she doesn’t seem to always embrace that side of her personality, what with the use of alcohol in our universe and the use of what is probably an anti-hallucinogenic drug in the alternate universe.

Which makes me wonder at the characteristic in Olivia’s personality that makes her prone to addictions.

And of course, there is the heart-stopping fact that Walternate and Alter-Brandon have found that there is an artificial compound that is bound to Olivia’s brain, and that it has been there since she was a child. I shudder to think of what would happen were Walternate to find out about Cortexiphan.

Some recurring philosophical concepts include that of manipulating the truth; I am becoming more and more convince that Walternate’s true power lies in his ability to manipulate people to see things in a specific light – i.e. the light that suits Walternate best. The way he manipulated Olivia at the beginning of the episode to agree to subject herself to the tests was a reminder of how often this power is used.

Nowhere is this as obvious as when Walternate tells Al!Philip: “Nature doesn’t recognise evil, Philip; nature only recognizes balance. I intend to restore balance in our world, whatever it takes”. These are the words of a man so intent on achieving a goal that he has set for himself that he doesn’t care about collateral damage, be it his own son, or all the people trapped in the amber that he himself developed, the fate of whom he is able to yet again count as necessary collateral damage. It is shocking when one realises that, although Walternate has known for a long while that people caught in amber are not dead, and that research and development poured into figuring out how to get them out would have perhaps benefited not only the lives of those affected, but also the government’s reputation.

Another recurring philosophical concept is that of how far one can and should go in the name of science. In Season 3’s “The Box”, we find out that William Bell left a letter to Walter in his will and testament which reads, in part: “Don’t be afraid to cross the line”. Walter further elucidates by sharing with Astrid one of Bell’s much used quotes: “Only those that risk going too far can possibly know how far they can go” – which happens to be almost exactly what Walternate tells Alt!Broyles: “Only those who risk going too far find out how far they can go.” I have already discussed the concepts behind this statement in my review of “The Box”, so I will only point out here that it’s interesting that both Bell and Walternate, who have a past working relationship, live by the same motto. It’s also intriguing to think that Bell might have used those words in his will and testament to somehow jostle Walter into doing what is needed to win the war against the alternate universe because he knew this was Walternate’s motto.

I noticed that although she carries Altivia’s memories, Olivia seems, in a weird way, to remain true to herself. One sign was the fact that Olivia’s clothes seem sharper than Altivia’s outfits we saw her wearing in the alternate universe. Another was the way she asked Alt!Bradon to get back in the tank was very reminiscent of the way she asked Walter the same thing back in Season 1. And the fact that it seems to be the memory of Ella’s birthday that seems to have been the drop of water that made the glass of Olivia’s memories overflow and take their rightful place.

It seems, at the end of the episode, that perhaps the sight of the fallen twin towers was what triggered something in Olivia’s memory. Could it be that Olivia’s memories are finally back? Does it mean that she now have three sets of memories in her brain – the remnants of John Scott’s memories, her own memories, and Altivia’s imposed memories? If Olivia really is ‘back’, what is going to happen to Altivia’s memories? And what are the implications of this on Olivia’s safety, since Walternate wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of a liability? The fact that Walternate seems to have seen straight through Olivia’s lie makes me even more uncomfortable with the entire situation and fear for Olivia’s life.

If Olivia remembers who she is, it’s going to be interesting not only to see what happens to her, but also and especially how those around her are going to react. It felt like, by the end of this episode, that Alt!Broyles seems to have started liking Olivia. And yet again, Lee and Scarlie’s loyalty to Altivia was demonstrated by their begging Alt!Broyles for time to go look for a possibly endangered Olivia; how are they going to react when they find out about the swap?

Of course, the ultimate question remains, as always: how is Peter going to react when he finds out about the swap? Hopefully we are not going to be tortured for much longer before he does find out… Until then, Fringe fans are just going to have to continue chewing their nails to the quick.

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  • Karen

    Once again thank you for a fantastic review.
    I am, like you, somewhat disturbed by the fact that Walternate is fully aware of the fact that those stuck in amber are alive, yet he is doing nothing about it. The fact that he considers it “collateral damage” is also somewhat alarming. What is even more disturbing is that his powers of manipulation and lack of “getting his hands dirty” are somewhat reminiscent of “dictatorship”. Once under your thumb most people will believe anything if it is told with conviction. His stepping back and allowing Alt!Brandon to do the work, also allows him, in his mind, to keep a somewhat clear conscience. IF he personally had no hand in it then the blame does not fall on him, and he can plead innocence.
    I do believe that Walter, on the other hand, is starting to see the consequences of his actions. Although he tries to explain it away as best as he can, like Walternate he is not always willing to acknowledge his hand in the results. But unlike Walternate, he is willing to use that knowledge to aid in the correction of some of his past mistakes by helping out the FBI.
    What is also worrisome is that now the Walter has full ownership of MD, to what extent will he go to get the results that he needs. He has better toys in a larger sandbox. Having had William Bell remove parts of his brain “because of what he was becoming” kept him from becoming Walternate-ish. Will that change now? Will he become as dangerous as Walternate?
    As for Olivia, I do believe that she is carrying around three sets of memories. I do not believe that John Scott’s memories are completely gone. The interesting part of this is that when/if she finally returns home, how will that affect how she deals with “home”. She is a changed person now. She has lived on the other side. She has worked with the Alt’s and has seen first hand how they live and work, and their relationships with each other. How will all of this play into future episodes?
    I love how this show is progressing. There is a great deal of information thrown at you in the 45 minutes or so of actual viewing. I believe that if they were to move the storytelling any quicker we would miss the tiny details that make the show what it is. It is complex, detail oriented, and missing even the tiniest of details feels that we have missed a large chunk of what had happened.
    I enjoyed this episode. The differences between the two universes are beginning to play out in a very interesting way.
    Let the nail biting, furniture pounding, and theorizing continue.