With a 13-episode final season, Fringe doesn't have much time to waste, and I am starting to believe it might be a very good thing for the overarching story. "In Absentia," the second episode of the fifth and final season, was all about showing us how the Observers-run world has shaped Peter and Olivia's daughter Etta "in the absence" of her parents. The flawlessly-written episode mercilessly brought out sides of the young woman still unknown to us, within a larger story that laid out a new quest for our heroes.
Fringe has never shied away from its science fiction roots, and (over the past few years) has toyed with all sorts of "fringe" theories, stretching the limits of science as we know it. Almost every episode has brought forth a concept and/or a device firmly establishing the series sci-fi credentials. In this episode, there was the angel device used to destabilize the molecular structure of the human body, leading to such things as rapid aging, and oddly enough, the loss of the will to lie among other things. The sci-fi elements have almost always had some level of consistency, which is testament to the showrunners consideration for their audience, and like in all good science fiction, they have mostly been tools used to develop a human drama. Without Peter between Walter and Walternate and later between Olivia and Fauxlivia, the parallel universes would not have had the same gravitas.
"In Absentia" used the angel device to trigger our descent into a rabbit hole, the until now unknown side of Henrietta. When she closed the door behind the loyalist guard and herself, her words and body language hinted there was something afoot. When Olivia eagerly volunteered to go and fetch whatever it is that Astrid was on her way to get, it wasn't only to be helpful: she wanted to check on her daughter.
The episode was smart enough to address the absence of Peter and Olivia during Etta's upbringing from the right angle. It is not easy to educate a child, but parents who want their child to later become someone they will admire generally want to be around while she/he grows up to provide the right influence. After the kumbayah last week, Peter and Olivia abruptly came to the realization of the fact that their daughter has had 20 years of experience in the world without them. Separately, they tried to help their Etta see right from wrong without jeopardizing their brand new relationships. Peter got the easy part, which was to stop Etta from compromising their mission to restore power into Walter's lab.
Olivia, as often, had the more heart-crushing role, which involved watching their daughter torture a man and attempting to justify her right to do so. The best lines of the episode were from this storyline. One of my favorites was when Olivia said, "And it's not that I don't see what the Observers have brought, I do, but what concerns me more is what they've taken away." The story did well to allow Olivia to influence both the loyalist and her daughter without offending any of them, relying only on her empathy, her capacity to feel for others we are so familiar with. She reached out to the guard while Etta shielded herself behind the war, growing more defensive with every remark from her mother.
It was good that Etta's hardened side was not only kept within that room but was also visible in the lab. I don't think that she was thinking of a pig's eye when she agreed with Walter on what needed to be done to reach the power grid control room! I liked that by the end of the episode, her mother's pity had touched her enough for her to try and force herself to change. Georgina Haig's portrayal of Etta was excellent and Anna Torv played Olivia Dunham in such a way that even the audience could see her pity, her fears, her conviction (about the need to fight and win), and her muted disapproval. Here, we once again had the Olivia Dunham who with a few words and her peculiar attitude brings people to change. Which is why the scene with Etta and the loyalist in the field flew naturally from previous events.
Besides bringing a smile on Olivia's face at the view of the man running away free, the episode delivered the first of many (betamax!) video tapes. The recording set off the team on a mission that suits them, instead of having them join a resistance with questionable values and methods.
The hour was also filled with those moments that make the series unique. Whenever there is a new character in Fringe, Walterisms are fresh anew because we have a newcomer who will marvel at them while older characters will barely acknowledge whatever it is that Walter has said. Also, seeing Etta and Olivia working together brings back memories of Fauxlivia because Olivia's daughter appears to be her mother with a more practical approach to things. The difference here is that Etta seems to want to emulate her mother even if she says Olivia doesn't understand her world. "In Absentia" was better than the season premiere because it flawlessly explored one consequence of the new and very unique family situation in the series, and also because it did it while moving ahead with the story in a more consistent way.